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The Renunciation of Wealth as a Rite of ‘the poor' and ‘perfect’: Bede and his Successors

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 June 2023

Zachary Guiliano*
St Edmund Hall, Oxford
*St Edmund Hall, Queens Lane, Oxford OX1 4AR. E-mail:


The renunciation and abandonment of wealth are rarely described as Christian rites of passage. Yet, for many medieval commentators on Scripture, such as the Venerable Bede and his successors, they were necessary rites, preliminaries to entry into the kingdom of heaven and into the class of ‘the perfect’. This article explores Arnold van Gennep's description of rites of passage in conjunction with the discussion of poverty in the Western exegetical tradition, centred in particular on Jesus's statements about poverty in Luke. It focuses on Bede's models of renunciation and abandonment of wealth which influenced Latin theology at least until the Reformation. The renunciation and abandonment of wealth provide an excellent test case for exploring van Gennep's ritual framework and its utility within the discipline of ecclesiastical history.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Ecclesiastical History Society.

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1 For the range of practice, see Brown, Peter, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD (Princeton, NJ, 2012), 7290Google Scholar, 135–47, 224–58, 273–88, 528–30; more briefly, Clark, Elizabeth A., Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity (Princeton, NJ, 1999), 33–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Brown, Eye of a Needle, 216–17, citing Sulpicius Severus, Vita Sancti Martini 22.

3 Trout, Dennis E., Paulinus of Nola: Life, Letters, and Poems (Berkeley, CA, 1999), 133–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Ibid. 216–18, 226–7, 295–300.

5 See Bede, Homily 1.13 (CChr.SL 122); idem, History of the Abbots 1.1 (C. W. Grocock and Ian Wood, eds, Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow [Oxford, 2019], 21–5).

6 Milbank, John, Theology and Social Theory: Against Secular Reason (Malden, MA, 1990), 123Google Scholar.

8 Clark, Reading Renunciation, 5, but see ibid. 3–13; and compare David C. Fink, ‘Unreading Renunciation: Luther, Calvin, and the “Rich Young Ruler”’, Modern Theology 32 (2016), 569–93.

9 Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, transl. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle I. Caffee (Abingdon and New York, 2004; first publ. 1960), 2, emphasis added.

10 Ibid. 3.

11 Ibid. 106. References to baptism are relatively more frequent in Rites of Passage (e.g. 93–7, 107–8). This is for a specific reason: van Gennep analyzes the extensive preliminaries to baptism in the Latin West because he was confident they were ‘borrowed so extensively from the Egyptian, Syrian, Asian, and Greek mysteries’: ibid. 88. See also, in this volume, Thomas O'Loughlin, ‘“Rites of Passage” and the Writing of Church History: Reflections upon our Craft in the Aftermath of van Gennep’, 8–26, at 17–19, 20, 22–3.

12 van Gennep, Arnold, De Quelques Rites de passage en Savoie (Paris, 1910)Google Scholar.

13 Ibid. 2–4.

14 Dominique Poiret, ‘Sacraments’, in Hugh Feiss and Juliet Mousseau, eds, A Companion to the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris, Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition 70 (Leiden, 2017), 277–97, at 277; Hugh Feiss, On the Sacraments: A Selection of Works of Hugh and Richard of St Victor, and of Peter of Poitiers, Victorine Texts in Translation 10 (Turnhout, 2020), 61–2.

15 Buc, Philippe, The Dangers of Ritual: Between Early Medieval Texts and Social Scientific Theory (Princeton, NJ, 2001), 194CrossRefGoogle Scholar, referencing Émile Durkheim, Robert Nisbet and John Milbank, among others.

16 Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 9.

17 Buc, Dangers of Ritual, 1, 5.

18 ‘[T]he baptism of rulers, coronations and crown-wearings; princely funerals; entries in cities (or churches) and other processions or parades; civic games; banquets; the hunt; relic translations and elevations; oath-takings; acclamations or laudes; knightings; ordeals; public penances; and acts of submission or commendation’: ibid. 5.

19 Van Gennep, Rites of Passage, 9.

20 Ibid.

21 I have used the following editions: Bede, On Genesis (CChr.SL 118); On Samuel (CChr.SL 119); On the Tabernacle (CChr.SL 119A); On the Temple (CChr.SL 119A); On Ezra (CChr.SL 119A); On the Song of Songs (CChr.SL 119B); On Proverbs (CChr.SL 119B); On Mark (CChr.SL 120); On Luke (CChr.SL 120); Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (CChr.SL 121); Retraction on Acts (CChr.SL 121). All translations are mine unless indicated otherwise.

22 See Zachary Guiliano, ‘Holy Gluttons: Bede and the Carolingians on the Pleasures of Reading’, in Naama Cohen-Hanegbi and Piroska Nagy, eds, Pleasure in the Middle Ages, International Medieval Research 24 (Turnhout, 2018), 281–308; idem, The Homiliary of Paul the Deacon: Religious and Cultural Reform in Carolingian Europe, Studies on Patristic, Medieval and Reformation Sermons 16 (Turnhout, 2021). I am currently preparing a monograph, provisionally entitled Bede's Economy: The Commentary on Luke in the Temple Society of the Latin West.

23 Bede, On Luke 4.2113–16 (CChr.SL 120: 283).

24 ‘Distat sane inter renuntiare omnibus et relinquere omnia’: Bede, On Luke 4.2122–3 (CChr.SL 120: 283–4). Bede responded to the difference in terminology in Augustine, Questions on the Gospels 2.31; and Gregory the Great, Homilies on the Gospels 36.

25 Bede, On Luke 4.2125–39 (CChr.SL 120: 284). Words in italics are Bede's combination of phrases from Gregory, Homilies on the Gospels 36.292–3, 297, 309–10 (CChr.SL 141: 342–3).

26 Bede, On Luke 5.1288–94 (CChr.SL 120: 328).

27 Bede, On the Song of Songs 1.1.245–6 (CChr.SL 119B: 196); cf. ‘we teach those new peoples of the Church to renounce the devil and to believe in and confess the true God’: On Ezra 2.1400–2 (CChr.SL 119A: 322).

28 Bede, On Genesis 3.1232–44 (CChr.SL 118: 176–7).

29 For example Bede, On Luke 1.2340–57, 2369–74 (CChr.SL 120: 78–9, 79).

30 Ibid. 1.2556–9 (CChr.SL 120: 84).

31 Maxwell Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation, rev. edn (Collegeville, MN, 2009), 111, 132, 148, 240, 260, 322, 327, 331, 340, 343, 403, 405, 418.

32 Bede, On Genesis 3.1008–22 (CChr.SL 118: 170–1; transl. Calvin Kendall, Bede: On Genesis, TTH 48 [Liverpool, 2008], 247).

33 Ibid. 3.1026–32 (CChr.SL 118: 171).

34 Bede, Homily 2.6.86 (CChr.SL 122: 222). In the Latin West, the ‘Effeta’ or ‘Ephphatha’ took place before baptism, inspired by Mark 7: 31–7. The rite has undergone numerous transformations during the Middle Ages, the early modern period and since the Second Vatican Council: Johnson, Rites, 170, 222–3, 240–3, 259–60, 312–13, 366–9, 393–405; David Andrew Pitt, ‘Revising the Rite of Adult Initiation: The Structural Reform of the Ordo Initiationis Christianae Adultorum, Ordo Catechumenatus Per Gradus Dispositus, 1964–1972’ (PhD thesis, University of Notre Dame, 2007).

35 Bede, On Luke 5.1268–70 (CChr.SL 120: 327).

36 Bede, Homily 1.4.271–4 (CChr.SL 122: 28).

37 Mary T. A. Carroll, The Venerable Bede: His Spiritual Teaching, Catholic University of America Studies in Medieval History n.s. 9 (Washington DC, 1946), 104–5. See, for the apertio and traditio, Bede, On the Tabernacle 2.1844–94 (CChr.SL 119A: 89–90); for the Effeta, Bede, Homily 2.6.80–96 (CChr.SL 122: 222); On Mark 1433–1502, especially 1461–3 (CChr.SL 120: 525–26); for baptizing at Easter and Pentecost, Homily 2.6.93–7, 2.17.254–69 (CChr.SL 122: 222, 307–8).

38 The Bobbio Missal: A Gallican Mass-Book (MS Paris. Lat. 13246), ed. Elias A. Lowe, HBS 53 (Woodbridge and Rochester, NY, 1991), 55, 71.

39 Ibid. 74–5.

40 Whitaker, E. C., Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy, ed. Johnson, M. E., 3rd edn (Bristol, 2003), 207, 217, 219Google Scholar.

41 Ibid. 229–31.

42 Chavasse, Antoine, Le Sacramentaire gélasien, Vaticanus Reginensis 316. Sacramentaire presbyteral en usage dans les titres romains au VIIe siècle (Paris, 1958), 115–23Google Scholar.

43 ‘[M]unera pueri tui iusti Abel, et sacrificium Patriarchae nostri Abrahae, et quod tibi obtulit summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedech’: Missale Romanum, Editio typica (Vatican City, 1970), 453.

44 For example, Bede, On Genesis 4.1521–1761 (CChr.SL 118: 236–42).

45 Such as Ordo Romanus 12 or the numerous baptismal tracts from the Carolingian period: see Whittaker, Documents, 244–51; Susan Keefe, Water and the Word: Baptism and the Education of the Clergy in the Carolingian Empire, 2 vols (Notre Dame, IN, 2002), 2: 211, 235. These suggest avenues for future research.

46 Bede, On Luke 4.2123–5 (CChr.SL 120: 283–4), with Gregory's words italicized: see Gregory, Homilies on the Gospels 36.289–90 (CChr.SL 141: 342).

47 Bede, On the Song of Songs 2.4.113–16 (CChr.SL 119B: 246). We should not be confused by Bede's choice of words; by ‘renounce’ he clearly means ‘relinquish’, as the preceding lines make clear: ibid. 2.4.110–13.

48 Bede, Homily 1.13.42 (CChr.SL 122: 89).

49 See Zachary Guiliano, ‘Hierarchies of Knowledge in the Writings of the Venerable Bede’, in Michael Champion, ed., The Intellectual World of Late Antique Christianity (Cambridge, forthcoming).

50 For the history of interpretation of this passage, see Clark, Reading Renunciation, 94–9; Fink, ‘Unreading Renunciation’.

51 For example, Bede, On Genesis 2.1151–64, 4.284–307 (CChr.SL 118: 105, 202); On Samuel 1.521–51, 2.701–10 (CChr.SL 119: 25, 85); On the Tabernacle 1.748–70 (CChr.SL 119A: 24); On the Temple 2.1330–45 (CChr.SL 119A: 225–6); On Ezra 1.703–39 (CChr.SL 119A: 258–9); On Proverbs 1.3.175–81 (CChr.SL 119B: 43); On the Song of Songs 3.4.379–404, 5.7.465–87 (CChr.SL 119B: 254, 329); Retraction on Acts 4.130–41 (CChr.SL 121: 127); Homily 1.13, 2.2.56–79 (CChr.SL 122: 88–94, 194–5). References in On Samuel, On Luke and On Mark are too abundant to cite here.

52 For example, Bede, Ecclesiastical History 3.5, 19, 26, 27, 4.3, 5.12, 5.19; History of the Abbots 1.1.

53 Bede, On Luke 5.1251–63, quoting Jerome, Commentary on Matthew 3.868–77 (CChr.SL 72: 170–1).

54 Bede, On Mark 3.740–50 (CChr.SL 120: 562–3).

55 Bede, On Luke 5.1274 (CChr.SL 120: 327).

56 Ibid. 1501–4 (CChr.SL 120: 333).

57 Ibid. 1585 (CChr.SL 120: 335).

58 Ibid. 1592–6 (CChr.SL 120: 335).

59 Cf. Bede, Exposition of Acts 20.103–5 (CChr.SL 121: 84). Bede enjoins constant manual labour in implicit appeal to the lifestyle of St Paul (2 Thess. 3), explicitly citing his instruction to thieves (Eph. 4: 28).

60 Bede, Retraction on Acts 4.130–41 (CChr.SL 121: 127); compare On Luke 3.1114–69, 1921–44 (CChr.SL 120: 194–6, 215).

61 See the extensive discussions in Julia Barrow, The Clergy in the Medieval World: Secular Clerics, their Families, and Careers in North-Western Europe, c.800–c.1200 (Cambridge, 2015); Ian Wood, The Christian Economy in the Early Medieval West: Towards a Temple Society (Binghamton, NY, 2022), 79–105.

62 Foot, Sarah, Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England, c.600–900 (Cambridge, 2006), 80–7Google Scholar.

63 Bede, Letter to Ecgbert 1.6, 10–12 (Grocock and Wood, eds, Abbots, 134–5, 144–9).

64 Ibid. 1.16 (Grocock and Wood, eds, Abbots, 156–7), referring to Luke 12: 33, 14: 33.

65 See, for example, Ian Wood, ‘Creating a “Temple Society” in the Early Medieval West’, Early Medieval Europe 29 (2021), 462–86; idem, ‘Entrusting Western Europe to the Church, 400–750’, TRHS 6th series 23 (2013), 37–73.

66 See Wood, Sarah, The Proprietary Church in the Medieval West (Oxford, 2006), especially 92108CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Ian Wood, ‘The Gifts of Wearmouth and Jarrow’, in Wendy Davies and Paul J. Fouracre, eds, The Languages of Gift in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2010), 89–115, at 96.

68 Lapidge, Michael, The Anglo-Saxon Library (Oxford, 2006), Appendix E, 191228Google Scholar.

69 See Bede, On the Song of Songs 4.6.103–10 (CChr.SL 119B: 302).

70 Bede, On Luke 5.1280–2 (CChr.SL 120: 327).

71 See, in this volume, Benjamin Hansen, ‘Making Christians in the Umayyad Levant: Anastasius of Sinai and Christian Rites of Maintenance’, 98–118.

72 Rosamond McKitterick, ‘Kulturelle Verbindungen zwischen England und den fränkischen Reichen in der Zeit der Karolinger. Kontext und Implikationen’, in Joachim Ehlers, ed., Deutschland und der Westen Europas im Mittelalter (Stuttgart, 2002), 121–48; Joshua Westgard, ‘Bede and the Continent in the Carolingian Age and Beyond’, in Scott DeGregorio, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bede (Cambridge, 2010), 201–15; Hannah Matis, The Song of Songs in the Early Middle Ages, Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 191 (Leiden, 2019), 22–3, 219–21. This conclusion draws on material from my forthcoming Bede's Economy.

73 Guiliano, Homiliary, 107–13, 163–97.

74 It is among the texts assigned in Charlemagne's homiliary On the Dedication of a Church: see Réginald Grégoire, Homéliaires liturgiques médiévaux (Spoleto, 1980), 477 (entry for Paul the Deacon, 2: 129; renumbered to 2: 128 in Guiliano, Homiliary, 65).

75 Rabanus included material from Bede's works on Mark and Luke and Homily 1.13: Exposition of Matthew 5 (on 19: 16–30; CChr.CM 174A: 513–22).

76 Sedulius Scottus, On the Gospel of Matthew 2.3 (Sedulius Scottus. Kommentar zum Evangelium nach Matthäus, ed. Bengt Löfstedt, 2 vols [Freiburg, 1989–91], 2: 445–6); ‘Index auctorum’, in Paschasius Radbertus, Expositio in Matheo, vol. 3 (CChr.CM 56B), 1543–4.

77 For example, Haimo, Homilia 2.18 (PL 118: 589D, 592C–D, 596B–C, 597A–D), drawing on Bede, On Luke 5.242–460 (CChr.SL 120: 302–7); ibid. 2.51 (PL 118: 776C–777C, 778D, 779B–D), drawing on Bede, On Luke 2.1415–31, 1478–9, 5.1218–63, 1542–8 (CChr.SL 120: 136, 138, 326–7, 334). There are 227 Bedan quotations in ‘Index auctorum’, Heirici Autissiodorensis Homiliae, vol. 3 (CChr.CM 116B), 529–33. For Abbo, compare Bede, On Luke 2.1865–70, 4.448–51 (CChr.SL 120: 157, 242) with Estote misericordes, in Abbo von Saint-Germain-des-Prés. 22 Predigten, kritische Ausgabe und Kommentar, ed. Ute Önnerfors (Frankfurt am Main and New York, 1985), 194, 196–7. Compare also Sermonary of Beaune 2 with Bede, On Luke 2.2087–8, 2091–3, 2060–3, 2098–2104, 2126–38 respectively, and On Luke 2.25–161 (CChr.SL 120: 71–3, 100–4). See also Michael T. Martin, ‘The Italian Homiliary: Texts and Contexts’ (PhD thesis, Western Michigan University, 2005), especially Homilies 53, 56, 62, 65, 70, 78, 99, 113; Raymond Étaix, ‘Le Sermonnaire carolingien de Beaune’, Revue des études augustiniennes 25 (1979), 105–49; Henri Barré, ‘L'Homeliaire carolingien de Mondsee’, Revue bénédictine 71 (1961), 71–107, at 83–90. Also compare Paul Mercier, Quatorze homélies du IXe siècle d'un auteur inconnu de l'Italie du Nord, Sources Chrétiennes 161 (Paris, 1970), 155 (Homily 2.1), with Bede, On Luke 1.1026–36, 1049–55, 1166–9 (CChr.SL 120: 45, 48). Another unedited Bavarian homiliary used Bede: for example, compare Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Patr. 156 (s. ix), fols 9r, 10r with Bede, On Luke 1.1064–1120, 1240–1, 1281–4, 1296–1328 (CChr.SL 120: 46, 50, 51, 52).

78 On the latter, see Andrew Kraebel, Biblical Commentary and Translation in Later Medieval England: Experiments in Interpretation (Cambridge, 2020), especially 133–75.

79 See Bonaventure, Commentary on the Gospel of St Luke 14.33; idem, Questiones disputatae de perfectione euangelica 2.1.6; Henry of Ghent, Quodlibet VII, Q.29; Thomas Aquinas, Golden Chain on Luke 14.33; idem, Contra impugnantes Dei cultum et religionem 5.1; Zacharias Chrysopolitanus, In unum ex quattuor 2.67. Condensed version: Ordinary Gloss on Luke 14.33; Denys the Carthusian, Enarratio in euangelium secundum Lucam 14.33; Petrus Iohannis Olivi, Lecture on Luke 2.14.33. Paraphrased: John Wycliff, Tractatus de ciuili domino 3.14.

80 Quoted in full by Rabanus Maurus, Exposition of Matthew 6 (on 19: 23); Sedulius Scottus, On the Gospel of Matthew 2.3.20 (on 19: 23); Claudius of Turin, Exposition of Matthew 19.23; Aquinas, Contra impugnantes Dei cultum et religionem 6.207–8. Quoted in part: Ordinary Gloss on Matthew 19.23; Zacharias Chrysopolitanus, In unum ex quattuor 3.106; Aquinas, Golden Chain 19.23; Bonaventure, Luke 18.24. Also Iohannes Pecham, Quaestio de perfectione euangelica; Petrus Cantor, Summa quae dicitur Verbum adbreuiatum, Franciscus de Marchia siue Franciscus de Esculo, Improbatio contra libellum domni Iohannis qui incipit ‘Quia uir reprobus’; Marsilius de Padua, Defensor Pacis 2.13.20. Condensed: Ordinary Gloss on Luke 18.24. Paraphrased: Christian of Stavelot, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 19.23; perhaps also Alcuin, Letter 182: ‘It is one thing to hold the world, and another to be held by it’.

81 Buc, Dangers of Ritual, 175–6.