Songs of the Idiots

Posted by: Richenda at Monday March 5, 2007 in

I admit to feeling amused! My latest reading is Robert Taft’s The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, and I came across a term I hadn’t heard before: Psalmoi Idiotikoi. Or, in English, ‘songs of the idiots,’ with the word ‘idiots’ being the Greek word for ‘common man.’

Apparently, by the fourth century CE, the song-singing enthusiasm of the “common” Christian layperson had reached such a cringeworthy state at evensong and morning praises that it had fully outstripped the collective patience of the better educated clerics. As a result, in 360 CE the Council of Laodicea banned the Psalmoi Idiotikoi all together.


(Ahem! Note to self: Point that finger right back at yourself and quit giggling at human folly.)

I wonder…What is it about “the people” that causes so much derisive snorting? It’s as if regular folks were all dolts. Think of how the word for “regular people” has morphed into insult: the Latin plebian, the French pedestrian, the Greek idiot, and the British common. None of these words was intended to imply stupidity, slowness, or inferiority, but all imply it just the same.

The same with the American word folksy. I prefer to use the word ‘folk’ myself, because I think of the word as unpretentious and egalitarian. Yet there is no escaping the negative and/or stereotypical ‘yokel’ connotations with the word. ‘Folk’ are cute, quaint, backward, naïve, slow to stand up, slow to sit down, slow
to grasp, and, to put it nicely, down to earth (does that mean stooped, perhaps?).


But….I guess I can identify with those cringing clerics, too. I’ve had a few of my own teeth set on edge by particularly awful phrases. And song lyrics as the culprit do spring to mind…such as a recent choir selection where the words tell us that a stream plants a tree. (How does that work, exactly?) Or another song where a pun on ‘host’ suggested the worst sort of cannibalism.

(Note to composers: Let the writers write the lyrics!)

But, while I might have the right to mention or suggest, I’m not sure I have the right to be derisive or poke fun. Or worse, to silence. Especially not when such expression stems from the enthusiasm of the spirit. Besides, think of it. If we were to judge by the standards set by the Council of Laodicea, then the Liturgy sung in Churches today must be considered almost exclusively idiotic!

(Question: I wonder what the council would have thought of Godspell)

I will close with a statement of sympathy for the ‘commons’ of our world. I quote from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a word from Mrs. Bennet to the haughty Mr. Darcy: “…and those of us who think themselves so high above their company, quite mistake the matter.”

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