Review of The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity

We are grateful to Johannes J Knecht for this excellent review of Karl Shuve’s recent work. Johannes is a PhD candidate in St Mary’s College. Warm wishes to him and Stefania on their upcoming wedding. 😉


Shuve, Karl. The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity. The Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press, 2016. xx + 236 pp. Hardback: £55.-.

Karl Shuve’s monograph concerns the development of the use and exegesis of the Song of Songs in Latin traditions up until Jerome. Shuve observes that the Song grew to become “one of the most popular and influential books of the Bible in Europe during the Middle Ages.” (p. 1) The seeming oddity of this popularity has been extensively discussed by modern scholarship: why would male, monastic and ecclesiastical communities draw from an erotic love poem—which supposedly is the plain sense of the text—to defend and argue for ascetic principles? (pp. 4-5) It is with aiming to resolve this paradox that much of recent scholarship has been concerned. Shuve, by contrast, challenges this assumed plain reading of the text: “Rather than presuming that early Christians shared our presuppositions about the ‘plain’ meaning of the Song and then asking how they reconciled it with an ascetic agenda, I examine how patterns of citation and allusion can help us to understand what were the ‘automatically recognised’ meanings of the Song in the Christian communities of the Western Roman Empire and how these meanings were subsequently contested, changed, and subverted in response to cultural and theological conflict.” (p. 13) In other words, Shuve aims to describe a gradual exegetical development within the Latin tradition that would account for the very natural ascetic associations with the Song in subsequent centuries.

Shuve’s work is divided into two main parts, each containing three chapters. Part I looks at the use of the Song of Songs in North Africa and Spain (pp. 23-106), whilst the second focusses on Italy (pp. 109-208). The first chapter describes how in the work of Cyprian of Carthage and the theology of the Donatists (as found in the work of Augustine and Optatus of Milevis), the Song is used to argue for the impregnability of the church’s boundaries. The ‘enclosed garden and sealed font’ (Song 4:2) signify that only those who are actually inside the garden and close to the water have access to the vivifying power of the church’s sacraments. Any sacrament—and baptism most pertinently—administered outside the strict boundaries of the church cannot be regarded as efficacious. (p. 31) Shuve explicates that Cyprian does not aim to make the ‘erotic imagery’ acceptable, but “Cyprian quotes the Song because he presumes that it has independent probative value regarding the nature of the church’s boundaries and the efficacy of its sacraments.” (p.36) Although the underlying baptismal theology changes with the Donatists, the hermeneutical approach to the Song remains the same: The Song describes the boundaries of a separated, pure community. (p. 48)

Chapter 2, turning to the works of Pacian of Barcelona, Tyconius, and Augustine, explains how in the work of Pacian and Tyconius the Song is again used in an ecclesiastical manner, be it to argue for the plurality of the church. Pacian uses the image of the garden to further his argument that, just like a garden is made up of a myriad of plants, so too is the church made up of a variety of people. (pp. 58-60) Tyconius, in turn, uses the Song (i.e., 1:5 and 1:7) to argue for the ‘bi-partite’ nature of the church—a current offspring of Abraham both containing boni and mali, two ‘peoples.’ As Shuve summarises Tyconius’ approach: “Maintaining the boundaries of the church is a futile exercise. There will be evil and impurity within.” (p. 65) Lastly, Augustine, realising the truth residing in Tyconius’ appreciation of the pure church’s hiddenness, reallocates Song 4:12 and 6:8 in the eschaton. Again, even though the content of the ecclesiastical theology changes significantly, the Song remains a source for reflection on the nature of the church. It is in the third chapter that Shuve describes a significant development in the exegesis of the Song, found in the work of Gregory of Elvira. Whilst maintaining the tradition of using the Song to explain ecclesiology, Gregory introduces two crucial aspects: I) the separated identity of the church also implies moral purity and chastity, and II) Gregory starts using the image of a virgin and an adulterous women to describe the church in relation to the profane, outside world.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters—the second part of the book—focus on Ambrose of Milan and Jerome. Ambrose, on Shuve’s telling, “fundamentally altered the trajectory of the Song’s interpretation in the West.” (p. 109) Ambrose utilises the multivalence inherent to the image of the bride in the Song to apply the meaning of the Song to the integrity of the virgin’s body (cf. De Virginibus), her soul (cf. De Virginitate), and the church. (pp. 17, 115)  “This turn to identifying the bride with the individual Chrisian—and, more specifically, the individual virgin—is in marked contrast with the well-established Latin tradition of understanding the bride to be the corporate church.” (p. 109) For Ambrose in De Virginibus, the individual virgin stands as a physical, tangible image of the purity, holiness, and hope of God’s salvation and the church. (p. 123) Just as the virgin’s body is protected against intrusion, so too must the church be protected. (p. 125) De Virginitate, written after the De Virginibus, aims to couple more strongly the physical integritas with the integritas of the soul. (p. 132) “Ambrose, in effect, transforms the soul into a virgin.” (p. 136) This interpretation of the Song’s bride is further worked out in the fifth chapter in relation to the ‘Virgin Soul’ (pp. 139-50), the ‘Virgin Church’ (pp. 150-8), and the ‘Virgin Mary’ (pp. 158-72). Shuve ends with a chapter on the work of Jerome. Although Jerome has a distinctly different approach to the place he gives to virgins in society—critique rather than support the ecclesiastical authority in the city, as Ambrose had argued—Jerome as well has a thoroughly ascetic reading of the Song.

Shuve described how the ascetic readings of the Late Antique and Early Medieval church were thoroughly based on and grounded in the Song’s ecclesiastical interpretations of the earlier Latin traditions, exemplified by Cyprian, the Donatists, Pacian, Tyconius, and Augustine. Simply put: The Song’s garden or dove typifies the enclosed church (Cyprian and the Donatists), the enclosed and protected church, in turn, becomes the pure and chaste church, of which a virgin is the image (Tyconius). This image subsequently opens the door to connect the Song’s bride with the physical integritas of the consecrated virgin, and by extension the integritas of her soul (Ambrose and Jerome). Seen from this overarching narrative, Shuve’s suggestion that ascetic, monastic readings of the Song in the later Middle Ages follow quite naturally from the manner in which earlier traditions had read the Song, seems quite convincing indeed.

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