A Garden of Memory and Contemplation in a Distinctio by Peter the Chanter

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodl. 820, fol. 3 (detail)
Reproduced with permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

by Martha Rust

The featured image for this blog post shows a distinctio from the Distinctiones Abel by Parisian theologian Peter the Chanter (d. 1197). What is a distinctio? The word had many senses during the Middle Ages, but in the Chanter’s Distinctiones Abel, a distinctio consisted of a diagrammatic arrangement of the symbolic meanings or attributes of a word or concept. The entire work consists of diagrams for some six hundred words taken from the Bible, arranged in alphabetical order. The distinctio featured here (see transcription and translation below) is one of many devoted to the word “church” [ecclesia]. It provides two lists of eight to describe the church: one of flowers and herbs–roses, lilies, violets, crocuses, ivies, frankincense, myrrh, and aloe–and the other of the categories of the faithful associated with these plants: martyrs, virgins, confessors, the continent, the married, prayers (an activity rather than a group of people), those who mortify their flesh, and the contrite.[1]


For a priest, this diagram would work as a ready-made outline for a sermon on the well-known topic of the church as a garden, a diverse habitat that sustains many species of faith in the form of as many categories of people.[2] This sermon would be easy to memorize as well since it would be grounded in a list of concrete, easily visualized items: a list of flowers and plants. Moreover, the image of a church garden could serve as a mnemonic locus, where the flowers’ arrangement would provide the priest with additional reminders of the categories they represent: for instance, he could group the roses, lilies, and violets together to remind himself of the three categories of saints (virgins, martyrs, and confessors); he could visualize the ivy clinging to the garden’s wall to remind himself of the married, who cling to each other; and to remind himself of their opposite–the continent (or chaste)–he could visualize a row of crocuses growing right in front of the ivy-covered wall.[3]

Setting forth the details of the church-as-garden motif in a discrete array, which even looks plant-like itself, this diagram has a clear mnemonic utility. At the same time, we may note that its linked lists, which appear to grow from a single word–or, we might say, a seed–in the margin, invites readers to do something more expansive than focusing on the single topic of the church as a garden. It also invites them to think, in the manner of a proliferating garden, of more lists. In this way, the group of saints at the top of the list brings to mind many lists of saints’ names, along with mental images of how they are arranged in books. For instance, books of hours arrange saints’ names in two types of lists: in the calendar and in the litany. In the litany, the names appear hierarchically, beginning with such heavenly saints as the Virgin Mary and the archangel Michael and ending with the lowly category of lay saints. On the page, this company of saints appears as a collection of embroidered ribbons linked together by the curling Ss–interspersed with a few Os–that begin each line (the Ss that begin the words Sancta and Sancto [Saint], and the Os that begin Omnes for various groups of saints).[4] In calendars, the saints appear in chronological order according to their feast days on pages that bring still more lists to mind: the months of the year, the labors assigned to each month, the signs of the zodiac, and the liturgical seasons of the year.[5] A reader’s knowledge of this last list brings another division in the Chanter’s list into view, for the five liturgical colors that distinguish those seasons are represented by the colors of the Chanter’s flowers: violet violets for advent and lent, white lilies for Christmas, green ivy for ordinary time (the “counted weeks”), white lilies and yellow crocuses for Easter, red roses for Pentecost.

What appears to be a simple list of plants linked to a list of categories of the faithful thus becomes a very lush garden for contemplation, encouraging readers to envision the church community in all of its multitudes, both of seasons and categories of the faithful.

[1] For a digest of the history of collections of distinctiones, see Nicholas Perkins, “Reading the Bible in Sawles Warde and Ancrene Wisse,” Medium Aevum 72 (2003), 207-37. On the Chanter’s work and its diagrammatic format in particular, see Stephen A. Barney, “Visible Allegory: The Distinctiones Abel of Peter the Chanter,” in Allegory, Myth, and Symbol, ed. by Morton W. Bloomfield (Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1981), pp. 87-107. (pp. 94-95). Barney notes that the work is extant in seventy-some manuscripts (p. 88). For much more on this distinctio in particular, see my “A Florilegium from Peter the Chanter’s Summa Abel,” Nottingham Medieval Studies 55 (2012). 305-25.

[2] The locus scripturae for this motif is Song of Songs, 4.12, Hortus conclusus soror mea [My sister, my spouse, is a garden enclosed]. Early Christian commentaries understood the beloved of the Song of Songs–here “my sister, my spouse”–as an allegorical representation of the church. For a history of this reading, see E. Ann Matter, The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1992), pp. 86-122.

[3] Isidore of Seville sees in ivy (hederas) a clear likeness to married couples: ‘Hedera dicta quod arboribus reptando adhaereat’ [Ivy is so called because with its creeping it clings to trees]. Isidore de Séville, Etymologies, Livre XVII, ed. and trans. by Jacques André (Paris: Société d’Édition “Les Belles Lettres,” 1981), p. 171. English trans. from Stephen Barney, Jennifer A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof, Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 351.

[4] For an especially elegant example of this pattern, see the digitized version of New York, Pierpont Morgan MS M. 917 and M.945 (The Hours of Catherine of Cleves), ff. 161-163.

[5] For an example of a calendar in a Book of Hours, see the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, pp. 4-25.

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