An Old Irish Treatise on the Psalter

Author: Kuno Meyer

An electronic edition

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p. 21.

1. This is the title there is in front of this book which shineth to the minds
of the readers. This is its name in the Hebrew, Sepher Tehillim, that is
volumen hymnorum, as is said Liber Psalmorum, because ψαλμός is, being
interpreted, ‘laus’ or ‘hymnus.’

6. Question. What is this book’s name, its Hebrew, its Greek, its Latin?
Not difficult. Nebel in Hebrew, ψαλτήριον in the Greek, Laudatorium or Organum
in the Latin.

9. Question. Whence was that name given to it? Not difficult. From the
harp to which David sang the psalms, to wit, nebel is its name in the Hebrew,
ψαλτήριον in graeco, laudatorium or organum in the Latin, for organum is a general
name for any musical instrument on account of its excellence. Nebel, however, is
not a general name for any harp, but κιθάρα is a general name of any harp.
Κιθάρα, i.e. ‘pectoralis,’ because it is played upon the breast.

19. Nebel, however, is a tenfold harp, to wit, it consists of ten strings, it is
played with ten fingers, the ten commandments unite on it. Its belly is downward,
and it is played from above. Its music is denoted in that. Hence it is transferred,
so that it is the name of this book, which consists of the ten strings of the Old
Testament, which is inspired de supernis mysteriis Spiritus Sancti, that is by the
sublime mysteries of the Holy Spirit.

29. Ψαλτήριον, a Greek word, is the name that has remained on this book.
The five cognate words are found, to wit, ψαλμός, ψαλτήριον, ψαλμίςτης, ψαλμωδία,

33. Question. Whence came this name? Not difficult. This is what Isidore
says, ψάλτιγξ is the name of a musical instrument. A Greek ψ in its beginning.
From it [is derived] ψαλμός, ‘playing,’ ψαλτήριον, that which is played on it,
ψαλμίςτης, the name of the man that plays on it, ψαλμωδία, the name of the music
that is played on it, ψάλλω, a verb of the man who plays it.

p. 23.

41. Question. What is the number [of books] there are in the Psalter, one or
many? This is what some commentators reckon, that there are five books in the
Psalter. Ut dicit Hilarius: ‘Psalterium David in quinque libros dividitur, ubi fiat
fiat finis sit.’
The Psalter of David is divided into five books so that there is an
end of a book wherever fiat fiat occurs. However, what Jerome says is, that
as there is no end of a book everywhere where αμήν αμήν occurs in the Gospel, so
there is no end of a book wherever fiat fiat occurs in the Psalms.

53. Moreover, the following in the Acts of the Apostles and of the Disciples
and in their examples supports [this], to wit, whenever they brought an example
from the Canon, the Psalter was counted as one book by them, ut dicit Petrus:
‘Scriptum est in Libro Psalmorum.’
And further, not this only. Wherever the
twenty-four books of the Old Testament are enumerated, the Psalms are reckoned
as one book by them.

61. Question. To which division of the divisions of the Canon do the Psalms
belong? For there are three divisions in the Canon of the Old Testament, to wit,
Torah, and Prophetia and Hagiographa. Torah, that is, the five books of Moses, to
wit, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numeri, Deuteronomium. Eight books of Prophecy,
to wit, the books of Joshua Ben Nun, Shophetim, Samuel, Dibre Hayyamim, Isaias,
Jeremias, Ezechiel, Thare Asra, ‘prophetia,’ as there are the four chief prophets
and the twelve minor prophets. Hagiographa, ‘the sacred writings,’ ut est: the
book of Job, and the three books of Solomon, to wit, Proverbia, Ecclesiastes and
Shir Hashirim, i.e. Canticum Canticorum. And thus I reckon the Psalms with the
sacred writings.

76. Question. To which kind of the kinds of the Canon do the Psalms belong?
For there are four kinds in the Canon of the Old Testament, to wit, historia,
prophetia, proverbialis species, simplex doctrina. Prophetia
, then, that is the kind
to which the Psalms belong. And how is this, when just now I reckoned them
with the sacred writings? It is not inconsistent though it be called prophetia,
in so much as it prophesied of Christ and of the New Testament. Nor is it
inconsistent though it be reckoned with the sacred writings, for of the Canon of
the Old Testament there is nothing more sacred.

88. And the three well-known things that are found for every composition, are
found for this composition, to wit, place and time and author. The place, then,
is found for it, Judea in the land of the Sons of Israel, and it is not assigned to any
special town, because it is a general teaching to all men of the world that is in it;
and it was not meet that the divine spiritual word should be confined and written
in one place, ut est: ‘verbum spiritale comprehendi et scribi in uno loco non

p. 25.

99. Its time is that of David, and it is he who wrote it. For these are the three
times that are found for the Canon of the Old Testament, to wit, the time of
Kings, the time of Judges, and the time of [High] Priests. In the time of Kings
then it was written, viz. the time of David.

103. The author, however, is plural, as Isidore says: ‘psalmos David quanquam
in uno volumine concludantur, decem viros cecinisse audivimus
.’ ‘The
psalms of David, though they are comprehended in one book, we have heard
that ten persons have sung them,’ viz. Moses, David, Solomon, Asaph, Jeduthun,
Heman, Asar, Abisar, filii Core, Aggaeus, Zechariah.

110. Question. How many did each man of these sing? Not difficult. Moses
two psalms, to wit, Exurgat [Ps. 67] and Domine refugium [Ps. 89], David one
hundred and thirteen, Solomon two psalms, to wit, Deus indicium [Ps. 71] and
Nisi Dominus [Ps. 126], Asaph twelve, from Quam bonus Israel [Ps. 72], but Voce
[Ps. 76] in unison with Jeduthun, and Deus deorum [Ps. 49] in the first fifty.
Jeduthun two psalms, to wit, Dixi custodiam [Ps. 38] and Nonne Deo [Ps. 61] in
unison with Asaph. Heman Domine deus salutis [Ps. 87] in unison with the sons
of Korah, et Voce [Ps. 76]. Ethan one psalm, to wit, Misericordias [Ps. 88]. Filii
Core, to wit, the two sons of Korah, Asar and Abisar, twelve psalms from
Quemadmodum [Ps. 41] unto Deus deorum [Ps. 49]; four psalms from the middle
fifty in unison with Heman, to wit, Quam dilecta [Ps. 83] and Benedixisti [Ps. 84]
and Fundamenta [Ps. 86] and Domine Deus salutis [Ps. 87]. Aggaeus and Zacharias
the eight psalms before the Beati [Ps. 118] and Lauda [Ps. 145].

126. Now, since it is ten persons that sang the psalms, why is their authorship
referred to David alone? For when the scripture in confirming some law uses
examples from the psalms, it refers their authorship to David alone. That is
not wonderful, through the general figure which is [called] συνεκδοχή, that is, totum
pro parte et pars pro toto

134. It is clear, however, that it is David alone who sang the psalms, but some
of them are ascribed to the aforesaid persons, because of the agreement of their
sense and meaning with them. Ut dicit Hilarius: ‘Non est obscurum in nostra
fide solum David totos psalmos cecinisse. Sed propter convenientiam operum
illorum alii psalmi putantur aliis personis.’ Sebastian (?): ‘Certum est David
auctorem esse omnium psalmorum, licet per convenientiam operum alii psalmi
aliis personis deputantur.’ Gregory: ‘Personam unam in psalmis affirmare non
possumus propter tractatorum discrepantiam.’ Nam alii David tantum

148. There is something which supports this point, and not from without, but in
the Psalter itself, to wit, the title which says: ‘defecerunt laudes David [Ps. 71, 20]
incipit psalmus Asaph
.’ This is what he says therein, this psalm and other psalms
besides are by Asaph. That is no wonder. In Asaph the Holy Spirit awakened

p. 27.

the meditation and prayer of the psalms, and David added melody and harmony to
them, for he was a prophet, for he was a poet full of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

158. These are the four things on account of which the psalms are assigned
aliis personis: invention of meaning, and practice of singing, congruity of action
and mystery of naming. It is clear it is certain that David alone sang the psalms,
and this is what the history of the Old Testament relates. David appointed four
chief persons for the singing of the psalms, to lead the choirs, to wit, Asaph,
Heman, Jeduthun, Ethan, and others with them besides. What each one was used
to do in each choir, fell to him specially, and they were named from them. Therefore,
truly, are the psalms assigned to the aforesaid persons, although David alone
sang them. It is clear that it is true both ways, that the psalm is by Asaph, and
that David sang it, to wit, the Holy Spirit inspired in Asaph’s mind the music and
the sense that are in the psalm, and David added harmony to them.

175. Question. Were the psalms sung in prose or in metre? They were
sung in metre, to wit, the dactylic metre. But Jerome says, there are five psalms
that run in a special metre, to wit, Noli [Ps. 36] and Confitebor [Ps. 110] and
Beatus vir [Ps. 111] before the Beati [Ps. 118], the Beati itself, and Exaltabo
[Ps. 144]. The Hebrew alphabet was put on every one of them, to shew that
they were sung in metre in the Hebrew. And not in one metre were they sung.
Omnes psalmos apud Hebraeos metrico carmine constat esse compositos.
Psalmi alii iambico carmine currunt, alii hexametro pede

186. Question. Were the psalms sung in prose or in metre? There is no
doubt with Jerome that it was in metre, to wit, the dactylic metre, as it is in metre
were sung the Canticle of Solomon and the Lamentation of the book of Jeremiah.
There are, however, five special psalms in the Psalter on which the Hebrew
alphabet has been put, to wit, Noli [Ps. 36] and Confitebor [Ps. 110] and Beatus
[Ps. 111] before the Beati [Ps. 118], and the Beati and Exaltabo te Deus
[Ps. 144], to show to us that they were sung in metre. And they say that
it is elegiacum metrum, to wit, elegiac or dactylic metre.

196. Question. What order is on the psalms, the order of returning, or the
order of ascending, or the order of singing? None of them. But it is the order
of mystery and fitness. For the fiftieth psalm, to wit, Miserere mihi deus, was
sung before the third psalm, to wit, Domine quid. It is fit that the psalm which
tells of the resurrection after three days should be in the third place. It is fit
again that the psalm of repentance should be in the fiftieth place, because it was
on the fiftieth day that sins were remitted by the men of law.

207. Question. In what state were the psalms in the beginning? Not hard to
tell. In fragments and scattered until the Babylonian captivity, when the slaves

p. 29.

came into the temple with the canon, when the fourth famous leader came from
captivity, to wit, Ezra. It is he to whom the Holy Spirit granted to renew them
through his mouth, and he it is who gathered them in one book and wrote and
arranged its title before every psalm.

216. This book is one and is manifold, to wit, the form of one book without,
and many psalms within, like some city which one wall surrounds without, and
many buildings within it. In such wise is the Psalter, to wit, the form of one
book without, and many psalms within, like some glorious building with many
shrines, with various treasure-houses, with special keys to open each one of them.
There is however a special key before each psalm, to wit, its title.

229. Question. Do the titles belong to the psalms? If they do, why are they
not sung with them? If they do not, why are they written with them? Some say
that the titles belong to the psalms, and that it is for this they are not sung with
them, because there is no prayer in them. Therefore it does not seem good to
Jerome to say them, for the titles do not belong to the psalms. For it is David
alone that sang the psalms, and his psalmists around him. The titles however,
Ezra sang them, or there may have been other commentators besides.

240. There are two things for which the titles are written in red, for in the
beginning before the invention of ink the whole psalms used to be written in red.
After the invention of ink, however, the psalms are written in ink, and the titles
in red, lest they be sung with the psalms.

245. There are five things which the knowledge and disposition of the psalms
require. Two of them without, which are not written, to wit, arguments and
division. Three of them within, which are written, to wit, titulus and diapsalma
(διάψαλμα) and sympsalma (σύμψαλμα).

250. Question. What is argumentum? Not difficult. Acute mentis inventum,
‘a sharp invention of the mind,’ or acutum inventum, or ‘a sharp invention.’
There is a word arguo, that is, ‘ostendo.’ Argumentum, then, ‘ostentio,’

255. Question. For what use were arguments invented? Not difficult. To
set forth through short words the sense which follows, ut dicit Isidorus: ‘Argumenta
sunt quae caussas rerum ostendunt. Ex brevitate sermonum longum
sensum habent’

261. Question. For what use were divisions invented? Not difficult. To
distinguish the sense which follows.

264. Question. What then is the difference between the argument and the
title? Not difficult. The arguments were invented to set forth the sense that follows,
ut diximus. Titulus to illustrate the cause and occasion at which the psalm was

p. 31.

269. Question. Whence is the word titulus? Not difficult. Titio is a ‘firebrand,’
and titulus from it, and titan is ‘the sun,’ and titulus from it.

272. There are, however, four general titles before the psalms, besides the
special ones, to wit, psalmus, canticum, psalmus cantici, canticum psalmi.

275. Question. How were they multiplied, and what is the difference between
them? Not difficult. This is what David did during his last days. He selected
four thousand chosen men of the sons of Israel to sing and practise the psalms
always without any cessation. One third of them for the choir, one third for the
harp, one third both for the choir and the harp. The word psalmus applies to
what was invented for the harp and is practised on it. Canticum applies to what
is practised by the choir and is sung with the harp. Psalmus cantici applies to
what is taken from the harp to the choir. Canticum psalmi applies to what is
taken from the choir to the harp.

288. As to the special titles, they will be mentioned further on in their special

290. Diapsalma and sympsalma, what is the difference between them? If after
the opinion of Jerome, diapsalma first, ‘semper’ interpretatur, significans alterna
esse vicina
, sympsalma to teach morality. This is however what Augustine says:
diapsalma intervallum in psallendo, sympsalma vocum coniunctio,’ that is, ‘a
combination of voices.’

297. Question. How is their meaning arrived at? Not difficult. There is
found a Greek neuter noun, ψάλμα ψάλματος. ‘Iunctio’ is its interpretation. It
receives the Greek preposition διά, with a sense of separating, so that it makes
διάψαλμα, and ‘disiunctio’ is its interpretation, to wit, separation of the sense and
the purport and the author and the form that are in the psalms. Diapsalma is
put to separate anything that has been joined together by misreading. The same
noun also receives the Greek preposition σύν, which, interpreted, is ‘con,’ so that
it makes σύμψαλμα, which, interpreted, is ‘coniunctio.’ Sympsalma is put to join
together anything that has been separated by misreading.

312. There are four things that are necessary in the psalms, to wit, the first
story, and the second story, the sense and the morality. The first story refers
to David and to Solomon and to the above-mentioned persons, to Saul, to Absalom,
to the persecutors besides. The second story to Hezekiah, to the people, to the
Maccabees. The meaning [refers] to Christ, to the earthly and heavenly church.
The morality [refers] to every saint.

320. Question. Of what did the prophecy of the psalms foretell? Not difficult.
Of the birth of Christ and of His baptism, and of His passion, and of His resurrection,
and of His ascension, and of His sitting on the right hand of God the Father
in Heaven, of the invitation of the heathen to faith, of the thrusting of Judah into

p. 33.

unbelief, of the increase of every justice, of the spurning of every injustice, of the
malediction of sinners, of the coming of Christ to judge the quick and the dead.

329. Question. What is the translation that is on the psalms? For there are
five translations on them, to wit, the translation of the Septuagint, the translation
of Symmachus, the translation of Theodotion, the translation of Aquila, the translation
of Jerome. The translation of the Septuagint, truly, that is the one which is
on the psalms, and this is the one which was altered by him. It is a translation
from the Hebrew into the Greek, into the Latin. Jerome corrected it under
dagger and asterisk. To wit, anything that the Septuagint added, which was not
in the ‘Hebrew Verity,’ Jerome put a dagger on it. Obelus, however, to wit, ‘virga
,’ that is, a rod that wounds. Anything, however, which the Septuagint
forgot, which, according to Jerome, was in the ‘Hebrew Verity,’ Jerome put an
asterisk on it. Asteriscus, however, means ‘Stella radians,’ ut Orion poetes.

343. The first psalm this.
Which of the psalms was sung first? This is what numbers of the commentators
say that it was Te decet [Ps. 64]. Others say that it was Benedictus
[Ps. 143]. There is that which is truer than either of these, to wit, Pusillus eram
&c. was sung first.

349. Question. What is it that makes this psalm precede all the other psalms?
Not difficult. Because virtue and morality abound therein. For it is through
mercifulness that righteousness and belief are attained. That is conspicuous
to us from Cornelius the centurion. For it was the deeds of his mercifulness
that brought him to righteousness and belief. Because, however, it is through
mercifulness and righteousness that belief is arrived at, it is fit that the psalm
in which action and virtue and morality abound should be in front of the psalms.

360. Question. What is the argument of this psalm? Not difficult. ‘In hoc
psalmo omnes gentes generaliter hortatur, ad studia virtutum incitat simul eas,
docet quae merces bona, quae poena mala consequatur

365. Question. Why has this psalm no title? Not difficult. ‘Ideo primus
psalmus non habet titulum, quia titulus omnium psalmorum est
.’ ‘Primus psalmus,’
says Bede, ‘titulum non habet, quia capiti nostro Domino Salvatori de quo absolute
loquitur non debuit proponi
.’ For though the [other] psalms speak of Him, they
do not speak of His life as this psalm speaks. ‘Nam licet alii psalmi de ipso
multa dicunt, nemo tamen de eius conversatione quae fuit in terris sic loquitur.
Hic psalmus caput totius operis ponitur, et ad eum quae dicenda sunt cuncta

379. Some of the numbers of the commentators say that the three things which
are found in the psalms are found in this psalm alone, to wit, vox definitionis,

p. 35.

‘the speech of definition,’ vox consolationis, ‘the speech of consolation,’ vox increpationis,
‘the speech of rebuke.’ ‘Primus psalmus titulus est omnium psalmorum,
quod in eo continentur tres voces omnium psalmorum, i.e. vox definitionis, vox
consolationis, vox increpationis
.’ This is vox definitionis in it, from ‘Beatus vir’
usque ‘die ac nocte.’
This is vox consolationis in it, from ‘die ac nocte’ usque
This is vox increpationis in it, from ‘prosperabuntur’ usque
in finem
. Twelve verses in it.

394. Question. Why has this psalm no verb? Not difficult. Like other
portions of the sacred Canon, ut non habet liber Isaiae, i.e. Isaiae filii Amos,
ut non habet liber Matthaei, i.e. liber generationis, ut non habet liber Marci,
i.e. initium evangelii, et Apocalypsis lohannis et liber Apostolorum, i.e. Paulus
apostolus, et reliqua
. In the same way this psalm has no verb, viz. Beatus vir,
as Isidore says: ‘Moris est scripturae sanctae instrumenta verborum devitare &c.’

403. Gregory, however, gives another sense, O brethren. Jerome also gives
another sense. ‘Verbum spiritale humana,’ [&c.] says Gregory. It does not
behove us to add to the Holy Scripture from without, for whenever the author lets
out a word on his mouth, there is a word in his mind that answers to it, ut dicitur:
‘Illud verbum quod foris protulit illi verbo quod intus latebat coniungit.’

415. Question. What is the name of this book? Not difficult. Dicunt alii
that its name is Psalmi David or five Libri Psalmorum, viz. that there is an end
of a book wherever ‘fiat fiat’ occurs. This is found four times in the psalms.
That is not right, however, but its true name is Liber Psalmorum.

420. Question. What is the etymology of beatus? This is the etymology
which Isidore says is in it: ‘beatus quasi bene auctus, scilicet habendo quod
velit et non patiendo quod nolit
.’ Beatus is as it were ‘well increased,’ because
he possesses that which he desires. ‘Ille enim vere beatus, qui habet omnia
quae vult bona et non vult male. De his enim duobus beatus homo efficitur
He is truly blessed or righteous who desires all the various blessings, and
does not desire them in an evil way. Of these two things each blessed man is
made up.

434. Sergius, however, gives another sense, to wit, ‘beatus quasi vivatus.’
Beatus is as if it were ‘vivified,’ ‘eo quod scilicet vita aeterna fruitur,’ because the
lawful people enjoy life everlasting. There is found a rare noun in the fourth
kind of Roman rhetoric, to wit, bes, and ‘vita’ translates it. There is a verb from
it, to wit, beo, an exception of the second conjugation by the first conjugation.
Beatus [is] its past participle. There is an adjective noun on the same participle,
and it is compared through the three degrees.

446. Cassiodorus, however, gives another sense, to wit, ‘beatus quasi bene
,’ that is, ‘well adapted’ as it were are the two etymologies.

p. 37.

449. Ambrose, however, says, ‘beatus quasi bene felix,’ and both of them
agree (?), to wit, beatus, the blessed man in this passage is well-increased, is

453. Why did he not say ‘homo’? Not difficult. Wherever ‘homo’ occurs
in the Scriptures, it is written to mark human frailty, for it was named ab humo,
Vir,’ however, ‘a virtute animae in tribulationibus.’ He was called so, however,
from a fourfold reason.

459. The primary story of the psalms refers to the time of David, the second
to Jesus the son of Sirach. He it was that did not abandon him in the time
of the persecution, though every one [else] abandoned him.

463. Blessed, however, is the man ‘qui non abiit,’ so that he is ‘in consilio.’
For ‘abeo’ is a verb of going towards a place, and the commentators give another
meaning to it, to wit, ‘qui non abiit’ is he who has not gone away; for even the
righteous go into the council of the sinners and of the impious, but do not stay

470.Abeo,’ however, is a word properly used of a man that goes to a king
and comes from him, and remembers something to say to him, and goes to him
again. ‘Ab eo,’ however, ‘from him’ go.....

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