Pope Gregory I and the Dove

During the Middle Ages, music in the churches and monasteries consisted primarily of the singing of songs whose words were taken from the Scriptures that dealt with religious feasts or celebrations throughout the year. These feasts and celebrations constituted what is known as the liturgical year. The songs that were sung were known as Gregorian chants. The melodies of these songs were derived from the Greek, Hebrew, and Syrian music that formed the basis of the music for the new Christian or Roman Catholic church. For about 590 years, the melodies and their words were passed down from generation to generation Pope Gregory 1 orally.

In the year A.D. 590, a new pope was selected whose name was Pope Gregory the Great. He reigned from 590 to 604. During Pope Gregory’s 14-year reign, he was instrumental in organizing and having these chants written down. In written form they could be taken to churches throughout Europe, and all of the same chants could be sung in every church.

The traditional myth is that Pope Gregory dictated or sang all of these melodies to a scribe after they had been sung to him by a dove that was sitting on his shoulder. In paintings from the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory is depicted sitting on his throne with a dove perched on his shoulder and whispering into his ear while a scribe takes down the words from the pope’s mouth. The dove is a representation of the Spirit of God.

While this is a lovely story, in reality Pope Gregory had nothing to do with the actual writing down or transcription of the chants; however, he did have a great deal to do with their organization. These same chants have continued to be passed down in written and oral form since that time and are part of the Catholic liturgy today.

Activities:

  1. If you had been a priest in the Catholic church in another part of the world, how do you think you would have responded to Pope Gregory’s messenger when he brought the new chants to you?
  2. Divide the class into two groups. Group One must argue in favor of accepting the new chants as outlined by Pope Gregory. Group Two must argue against the new chants.
  3. Seat the class in a large circle. One student begins by whispering to the student next to him or her a predetermined message or story. Continue this process around the circle until the last student has heard the message. That student should repeat it aloud to the class. This will give the class an example of the oral tradition.

Question Countdown

  1. The words for the songs sung in monasteries during the Middle Ages were taken from what book(s)? *
  2. What types of events constituted what is known as the liturgical year? *
  3. From what type of music were the melodies of these songs derived? *
  4. What was the name of the new Christian church? *
  5. How long was Pope Gregory l’s reign? *
  6. According to the traditional myth, Pope Gregory I received the chants from whom? *
  7. Why did Pope Gregory I have the chants written down? *
  8. What does the dove in the myth represent? *
  9. For how many years were the melodies and words passed from generation to generation in an oral tradition? *
  10. The new chants were to be taken to churches of what continent? *

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