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Peter the Chanter's 'symbol dictionary'

S. A. Barney translates the first edition of Peter the Chanter's innovative 'symbol dictionary' from the late twelfth century into English (Corpus Christianorum in Translation, vol. 37).

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From 1183 until 1197 Peter the Chanter (Petrus Cantor) was Master in the cathedral school of Notre-Dame in Paris, and as cantor or precentor (head of the choir) there he was second only to the dean in rank. He was a prolific author, much of his work being biblical commentary.


The work translated here, Distinctiones Abel, is among the frst and is perhaps the very first full and independent example, of the genre 'distinctiones'. It is an alphabetized collection that treats key words by ‘distinguishing’ their various symbolic meanings in accordance with the traditions of biblical exegesis. The work was innovative in form and deeply conservative in content. Of special use to preachers who would shape a sermon around such sets of distinctions, it also appealed in general to clerics and laity interested in biblical meaning and allegory. The Abel Distinctions spawned dozens of imitators through the next two centuries and more. Its immense popularity and influence is indicated by its nearly ninety extant manuscripts.


The source text of this volume appeared in Corpus Christianorum. Continuatio Mediaeualis as Petrus Cantor, Distinctiones Abel (CCCM, 288 and CCCM, 288A). References to the corresponding pages of the Corpus Christianorum edition are provided in the margins of this translation.


Stephen A. Barney has been Associate Professor of English at Yale University, and is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. Graduated with Highest Honors from the University of Virginia, he received his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University. Among his many publications are notable studies of Chaucer's 'Troilus and Criseyde' and Langland's 'Piers Plowman'. He has received fellowships from Yale and UC, and from the Guggenheim Foundation, APS, ACLS, and NEH.

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