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Paul the Deacon

Gregory DiPippo

Today marks the anniversary of the death of one of the most important literary figures of the Carolinigan era, a monk who is generally known as Paul the Deacon; the exact year of his death is uncertain, from 796 to 799. Born ca. 720, and originally called Winfrid, he was descended from a noble family of the Lombards, who had migrated into the north of Italy in the late 560s and early 570s, and extended their domain much further south in the following decades. In 774, the northern territories of their kingdom were conquered by Charlemagne, at which point Winfrid is believed to have entered first a monstery in the north, and then to have moved down to Monte Cassino, the burial place of St Benedict, in southern Latium. There he would later meet Charlemagne in person, a great patron of arts and letters, and become an important contributor to the great cultural flourishing known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Paul became his name in religious life, and he is called “the deacon” as an epithet since in those days, it was the custom that fairly few monks were ever ordained.

Among his more significant works are a History of the Lombards, which give the chronicle of his people from their migration down through Europe from Scandinavia to the death of their king Liutprand in 744. He also wrote a continuation of the Breviarium of Eutropius, a widely used 4th century compendium of Roman history, bringing it down to the middle of the Byzantine reconquest of Italy, and adding many details about the Church which were left out by the original author, a pagan. A biography of Pope St Gregory is attributed to him, and the translation from Greek of the life of a Saint widely venerated in the East, Mary of Egypt.

Two of his works retain a notable place in the Church’s liturgy to this very day, one of which also occupies a very notable place in the history of music. He wrote the hymn “Ut queant laxis”, which is sung in the Divine Office on the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist. Guido di Arezzo, a monk who born about 200 years after Paul’s death, created the diatonic scale by identifying the rise of one note in each part of the stanzas of this hymn. He therefore named the notes in succssion from the first syllable of each of these parts: “Ut quaeant laxis resonare fibris / Mira gestorum famuli tuorum”, etc. The Italians later changed “ut” to the more musical sounding “do”, and “si”, from “Sancte Ioannes” to “ti.”

Paul the Deacon also composed a collection of sermons and homilies from the early Church Fathers for use in the Divine Office; this collection forms the basis of the corpus of such texts used in the traditional form of that prayer to this day.

(Paul the Deacon represented in a manuscript of the 10th century, Laurentian Plut. 65.35, fol. 34r. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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