Altus prosator

Altus prosator. This is the first line of an abecedary Hiberno-Latin hymn found in 9th-century manuscripts on the continent, and in two 11th-century copies of the Irish Liber Hymnorum, where it is attributed to St Columba*. The ‘prosator’ is the first sower, a metaphor for the creator, so that the first line means ‘High creator’ ('prosator' is an unusual Latin word, typical of Irish Latin literature). The hymn proceeds through 23 stanzas, from the Creation to the Apocalypse; it has been described by Jane Stevenson as ‘outstandingly ambitious in its content... no other Hiberno-Latin poem has anything like its range and originality’ (1999, p. 327). The text may be found in Analecta Hymnica 51. 217-83.

Stevenson questions the attribution to Columba. On stylistic, metrical, and circumstantial evidence she dates the hymn to the 7th century, and suggests that it may have originated on Iona. It was known to Hrabanus Maurus*, who quotes thirteen stanzas in his poem De fide catholica. ‘Altus prosator’ describes the Holy Trinity, the creation, the human condition, and the end of the world, using the Bible from beginning to end. In Stevenson's words, 'it compresses into its twenty-three stanzas all the most essential information about the world, as an early medieval Christian saw it' (1999, p. 327).

JRW

Further Reading

  1. Jane Stevenson, ‘Altus Prosator: a seventh-century Hiberno-Latin poem’ (PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, 1985).
  2. ———, ‘Altus Prosator’, Celtica 23 (1999), pp. 326-68 (available on-line).
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