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Was Bede the Author of a Penitential?

  • M. L. W. Laistner (a1)


The recent publication of the more important medieval handbooks of penance in an English version raises afresh the often disputed question, whether the Venerable Bede was the author or compiler of a penitential. What may be called the positive evidence that he did so is slight. In, or soon after, 906 Regino of Prüm composed his treatise, De synodalibus causis et disciplinis ecclesiasticis, in which he refers by name to the penitentials of Bishop Theodore and of the Venerable Bede. In the second place, there still survive several nearly related penitentials which are ascribed to Bede in the extant manuscripts. However, this ascription to Bede carries little weight, if unsupported by other evidence. For several centuries after his death his authority as a theologian ranked next to that of the four Latin doctors and the list of works going under his name, but not by him, is long. Nor is Regino's testimony unimpeachable, for his acquaintance with Bede's writings was not extensive. He does not seem to have used the theological works when composing the De synodalibus causis; and, though he did, when compiling his Chronica, make use of the chronicle inserted by Bede in the De temporum ratione, he did not consult the Ecclesiastical History. Had he been familiar with that basic work on British history, he would assuredly have drawn on it, as so many others did. He would also have found in 5, 24 Bede's own list of his writings. Thus we may suspect that Regino attributed a penitential to Bede merely on the strength of a rubric in a manuscript, and we shall do well to query the accuracy of his statement, unless corroborated by other proofs.



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1 McNeill, John T. and Gamer, Helena M., Medieval Handbooks of Penance (Records of Civilization, No. xxix; Columbia University Press, 1938). The penitential here discussed will be found on pp. 217–233.

2 Miss Gamer, who is responsible for an excellent discussion of the MSS in the Introduction, gives a complete list of them in Appendix V. For the MSS containing various penitentials going under Bede's name see pp. 435–436.

3 Archiv für katholisches Kirchenrecht 81 (1901), pp. 393–420.

4 McNeill, op. cit., pp. 217–221.

5 Migne, Patr. Lat. 90, 494B; Mon. Germ. Hist.: Chron. Min. III, para. 530.

6 Chron. Min. III, pp. 309–310.

7 McNeill, op. cit., p. 219.

8 I must also confess to feeling great scepticism that Bede would have used creatura (McNeill, op. cit., sec. XV, 1), caritas (ib. VI, 15), and causa (ib. X, 4) in the senses that they bear in the penitential.

9 Mr. McNeill's translation reads smoothly but it is not entirely free from omissions or errors. On p. 221, line 6, personam after ‘status,’ and on p. 227, last line but one in para. 15, et sancti Martini after ‘Apostles,’ have been left untranslated. On p. 221, line 12, ‘many’ should be ‘most’ (plurimis) and in line 22, ‘even as they judge’ must be ‘in order that they may judge’ (quomodo iudicent). On p. 222, four lines from the bottom, ‘his’ should surely be ‘His.’ In the singularly ill-constructed Latin sentence, qui volueritis sacerdotalem auctoritatem accipere, inprimitus propter deum cogitet et preparet arma eius, I take eius to refer to God. The arms of God, when dealing with mankind through His ministers, are the psalter, lectionary, and so on. If my interpretation is correct, then Mr. McNeill's suggestion that there might be a reference to works compiled by Bede himself falls to the ground. Nor should any argument be based on the occurrence of the penitential in a tenth century MS which also contains Bede's De natura rerum and De temporibus. For, as Mr. Charles W. Jones kindly informs me, the text of De temporibus in the Barberinianus is very inferior and removed by many stages from the archetype. If, however, Mr. McNeill prefers to adhere to his rendering of arma eius, well and good. But in that case I would remark that he cannot ‘have it both ways.’ The compiler of the penitential was doubtless perfectly capable of confusing the correct uses of suus and eius, but Bede most certainly was not. On page 227, last line but one of para. 15, ‘of a saint’ should be ‘of the saint’ (illius sancti); the patron saint of a given geographical area appears to be meant. Even so in the deprecatio or oratio super diptycha of the Gallican Mass, whose influence extended also to the Irish, after an invocation of the Virgin, apostles, and martyrs, local saints were remembered. See L. Duchesne, Origines du culte chrétien (ed. 5), pp. 220 ff. and Reeves on III, 12 of Adamnan's Life of Columba. On p. 231, fourth line from the bottom, ‘powerful men’ quite fails to convey to an English reader the meaning in this particular context of potentes. It should be rendered ‘men of substance.’ At the foot of the same page ‘he shall set free [some] of his slaves and redeem freemen and captives’ is a bad mistranslation for ‘he shall let some of his slaves go free and redeem captives.’ You cannot (save in a spiritual sense) redeem free men and the Latin is clear enough: et de mancipiis dimittas (-at) liberos et captivos redimat. Liberos is used predicatively after dimittat. On page 218 of the Introductory remarks De natura temporum should of course read De natura rerum.

10 The best text of the Epistle to Egbert is in Plummer's edition of the Ecclesiastical History, I, pp. 405–423. If the last sentence in the letter is genuine, it is dated Nov. 5, 734.

11 Migne, Patr. Lat. 91, 751 B–C.

12 Ibid., 92, 148 D–149 A.

13 The flagella supernae districtionis that punished Eadbald (E. H. 2, 5) were madness and an unclean spirit.

14 The various pieces of evidence showing that the second book of a commentary on Acts and the Retractatio are one and the same work will be set out in full in my forthcoming edition, to be published by the Mediaeval Academy of America.

15 Dom G. Morin, Sancti Caesarii episcopi Arelatensis opera I: Sermones seu ad-monitiones (Maredsous, 1937). The reader will find reviews of this work by Alexander Souter in Journ. Theol. Stud. 38 (1937), 432–434 and by the present writer in Speculum 13 (1938), 355–356.

16 Cf. McNeill, op. cit., p. 277, note 10, referring to a passage in the so-called Burgundian Penitential and quoting from Caesarius, Serm. CXCII (pp. 738–741, ed. Morin). A closer parallel to the passage in the penitential will be found in Serm. CXCIII (p. 743, 11–13) with its mention of cervulum sive anniculam and in Serm. XIII (p. 66, 11), de annicula vel cervulo (variant readings: annecula, anicula, agniculis). One wonders whether vecola in the penitential and veculas (with variants vegulas and veiculas) in Pirmin's Scarapsus could possibly be corruptions of Caesarius’ annicula, anniculas. The supposed reminiscence of Caesarius in the Penitential of Cummean given by McNeill on p. 99, note 5 comes from a homily which Morin rejects as not Caesarian (Morin, op. cit., p. 930).

17 The parallel passages between Caesarius, Eligius, and Pirmin have been set out and discussed by G. Jecker in his monograph, Die Heimat des Hl. Pirmin (Beiträge zur Geschichte des alten Mönchtums und des Benediktinerordens, Heft 13 [Münster i. W., 1927]), pp. 131–154.

18 That Caesarius' ausu has been corrupted to the easier, but far less graphic, usu is not surprising. For cocriocos McNeill adopts Ducange's emendation curiosos, but Ducange had cararios coriocos in his MS. One wonders whether the compiler of the penitential also knew the twelfth sermon of Caesarius, where we read (ed. Morin, p. 59, 31–4), nam et auguria observare, et praecantatoribus adhibere et caragios, sortilegos, divinos inquirere, and whether cocriocos is a corruption, not of a rather pointless curiosos, but of sortilegos or sortilogos, as the word is sometimes spelled (cf. Pirmin's Scarapsus [ed. Jecker], p. 68, 10: precantatores, sortilogus, karagius). Palaeographically such a corruption is conceivable and would suggest a misreading, at some stage in the transmission, of an exemplar written in Visigothic minuscule.

19 Cf. Morin, op. cit., p. 683: ‘inter omnes Caesarii homilias nulla fere ita frequens in codd. mss. occurrit, nulla fortasse tanta auctoritate apud medii aevi theologos fuit, sive quod ad dogma purgatorii, sive quod ad distinctionem peccatorum in minuta et capitalia pertinet.’

20 For Sermo XII he used the ninth century Laudunensis and early printed editions; Sermo XIX survives only in an eighth century homiliary copied in France.

21 S. Hellmann (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, ser. III, vol. 4 [Leipzig, 1909], p. 11) has drawn attention to five pseudo-Augustinian sermons which were used by the compiler or compilers of the collection canonum Hibemensis. Four of these are genuine sermons of Caesarius, viz., Nos. XLIII, XLIV, LIV, and CXCIX in Morin's numeration.

22 Monum. Germ. Hist.: Epist. III, 301, 21–25. Boniface calls the author of the citation Augustine.

23 J. D. A. Ogilvy, Books known to Anglo-Latin Writers from Aldhelm to Alcuin (Cambridge, Mass., 1936).

24 Some of the genuine sermons of Augustine had reached England early and were used, for example, by Bede.

25 E.g. Morin's L1, L2, V1, M1, M2, M3, M4, M10, M11, A1, A2, W1, W2 (fragments only), Q6 and Q7.

26 Morin, op. cit., p. lx, … ‘collectio, quam Germanicam ideo appellavi, quod libris in Germania exaratis fere unice servata sit.’ There is no MS from an English scriptorium in this family, G7, now at Oxford, being ‘liber domus clericorum in Doesborch.’

27 The St. Gall attribution is not certain, though probable (cf. Morin, op. cit., p. lxxii). But even if D were from an English scriptorium, our argument would not, in view of its relatively late date (s. ix/x), be invalidated.

Was Bede the Author of a Penitential?

  • M. L. W. Laistner (a1)


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