As someone interested in source criticism, one can only be pleased at the renewed interest in Bede. Sourcing those texts is an ongoing process. But while much has been done in detailing and rebuilding Bede’s sources and library for his various texts, as well as noting where he was going beyond his sources, it occurred to me as a matter of curiosity to ask who in Anglo-Saxon England read Bede. Or to put this another way, who in Anglo-Saxon England is using Bede as a source.
We are accustomed to think of Bede as a seminal figure not only in Anglo-Saxon England, but as a primary author for the whole of the medieval period with mentions in Biblical commentaries, in the Glossa Ordinaria, in Dante’s Paradiso, and other references and citations. His influence on the continent beginning with Boniface and then the Carolingians and beyond is well established, but Bede among his contemporaries and own people is less so well established. These questions three I wanted to explore and answer: who is reading Bede measured and charted chronologically, what are they reading, and where are they reading, that is, the what and who both charted geographically to see what if anything that tells us about reading Bede in Anglo-Saxon England.
Of course, a careful listener will have already caught out the problems in addressing these questions, one medieval problem and one modern one. The medieval problem is the question of survival: both in terms of Bede’s own works as well the survival of potential readers’ works; too often we simply don’t know what we have lost, and in some cases what we might yet find, and this fact impairs any conclusions we might wish to draw. Thus, manuscripts may have disappeared through just natural decay, lack of care, during raids, wars, or even the Dissolution of Monasteries or other events that threaten manuscript survival. So manuscripts of Bede, copies of Bede’s readers’ works, all may have disappeared without a trace in the historical record. Or they may never have existed. We don’t know. We can only see through the glass darkly, and sometimes not at all.
The modern problem relates to the nature of source criticism: identifying usage of Bede as a source is only as good as the source critic, and should that critic not be up to snuff, that too certainly skews the results, or if a work has not yet been sourced or studied from a source critical perspective, or even has been done well but something missed. So any project of this source depends to a great deal on an ever changing source critical state of the field in Bedan studies. Thus, even when this project is complete, and it is still in process, the results can ever only be preliminary: the next critic may find additional citations, or a new manuscript and text found, or worst case scenario, that which is lost to us now is lost forever. But, in spite of the “futility” of ever coming to firm conclusions, I press heroically, or perhaps fatalistically, onward.
The method is fairly simple and straightforward. For citations and references to Bede, I consult and use a combination of my own reading, poring over editions of Bede’s works, articles on Bede from source critics, and the Fontes Anglo-Saxonici web site and Sources Of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture, particularly the work of George Brown on Bede for the latter. Beyond these tools, I consult manuscript catalogs, chart origin and provenance where those can be known, so Gneuss’ Handlist, Ker’s catalogue of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, and every other manuscript catalog looking not only where the manuscripts are, but also examine the manuscripts themselves for signs of reader’s use such as glossing and other tracks past readers left behind for me to follow.
One of the surprises for me was what Bedean work in ASE is the most read. I have been telling my students for years a little truism that I learned: while for us moderns the first Bede text we encounter and the most important is the Historia, that isn’t true for the medieval period. I tell them that Bede was better known then as a biblical commentator and it is for his commentaries that he is best known. This truism I can no longer maintain. The plain fact of the matter is that the most quoted and cited and even influential work of Bede’s in the period is the Historia. Now, some in my audience might be thinking, Swain, of course, if you’re just counting citations, the Old English Bede is obviously going to skew the total. Silly Swain. And of course those thinking that would be absolutely correct. But even treating the OE Bede as a unit rather than a large collection of Bede citations, by a clear margin the Historia Ecclesiastica is the most referred to work from Bede’s desk by Anglo-Saxon writers.
The uses to which the Historia is put are also interesting. Some are unexpected: the Historia is used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, particularly version E as an immediate source, and to a lesser extent as an immediate historical source in Asser’s Vita Alfredi, and a few other places beyond the Old English Bede. But the interesting, at least to me, uses are the number of texts that use sections of the Historia to construct a “saint’s life” or combine material from the Historia with other material in the construction of the same. Examples of this procedure include Aelfric’s Lives of Saints, the Old English homily on the life of St. Chad, the Old English Martyrology, and similar texts. Often Bede is the chief if not the only source in England about these figures and so his text becomes the basis for a sermon or vita with little change. Our two other readers today will examine two such texts, so I won’t go any further down this path.
Turning to manuscript survivals, the Historia survives in almost twice as many manuscripts as any of Bede’s other works: 21 manuscripts contain all or some portion of the HE, surviving from dates as early as the mid 8th century all the way through to the end of the 11th, though the majority are from the 10th and 11th centuries. The texts whose survival comes closest to this record are De temporum ratione and the verse Vita Sancti Cuthberti. Both the latter survive in 11 manuscript copies ranging in date from the end of the 9th century to the beginning of the 12th. The Old English translation of the Historia survives in six Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, so if we add those to the Latin, 27 copies of that one text. The unmistakable conclusion which rather surprised me given that I’ve taught that Bede is more important as a biblical commentator is that Bede’s history is in fact if not in perception a far more important text in Anglo-Saxon England that it has been given credit for.
If we treat them as a collection, Bede’s Homilies come in the next place as the most cited and read of Bede’s texts. Interestingly though, citation of these texts is limited to a few authors. The chief author is Aelfric who often throughout Lives, Catholic Homilies, and the so-called Supplemental homilies will “reckon” into English one of Bede’s homilies or a part of one and then add some additional material from elsewhere. Some homilies appear cited elsewhere: Bede’s homily on the Nativity in Book 1, #3 shows up in the first Blickling homily on the Nativity as well as in the gospel of Ps. Matthew. Without question though, in spite of the smattering of citations such as the one just sampled, Aelfric is the author who seems to have read and used the homilies in ASE.
The homilies on the gospels also only survive in two manuscripts from the period. Both come from the Benedictine Reform, the late tenth possibly early 11th centuries and from Glastonbury and Abingdon. So if we put together the fact that it is largely Aelfric who uses the homilies in his own collection, and that the two surviving manuscripts come from Reform centers where Aethelwold’s name would be important, it suggests that Bede’s homilies were part of the Reform’s rediscovery of Bede and little read otherwise. From here they spread to be cited by the contemporaneous Blickling and Vercelli homilists (once each so far as I can find), the Ev. Ps. Matthew (late 10th), and a few other 11th century homilies. The only fly in that ointment is Cynewulf Christ II about whom so little is known in terms of debated date and provenance: he cites Bede twice, the first being homiliy 2.15, the second I hope to come back to. But if we say he is ninth century, he at least knows this homily and another of Bede’s works, whatever his provenance may have been.
Surprisingly, given again the above mentioned truism about Bede’s importance to the middle ages as a Biblical commentator, there is only one author who actually quotes from or refers to several of Bede’s commentaries: Aelfric of Eynsham. This author refers to the commentaries on Canticles, Luke, Mark, and if we include the Bede’s works on time and the temple as Biblical explication, to both of these works as well. Aelfric is in fact the only author to refer to the commentary on Mark, though several others also refer to the Lucan commentary, particularly the Vercelli homilist who cites that work more than three times. Quotations from Luke also show up in the Old English Exodus poem, the old English Gospel of PS. Matthew, so whomever that translator may have been, he was not shy about including references to other material. One surprising place that seemingly cites the commentary on Luke is a Charter, Sawyer 742, a gift of land from King Edgar to his wife Aelfthryth in 966. However, this quote illustrates one of the problems of source criticism that I mentioned above. The phrase in question is ideo debemus excutere mentis nostre desidiam ut etiam exteriora nostra dampna per similitudinem non deducantur—therefore ought we to shake our minds of idleness, so that our exterior stuff does not lead astray through similarity. It is true this line does occur in Bede’s commentary on Luke, but it also occurs in Bede’s source, Gregory the Great’s Homilies on the Gospel on Luke; between Bede and the charter it is cited by at least one important Carolingian whose works were present and read in 10th century England, Smaragdus. Thus, the question is, when the charter cites the line, is it cited from Gregory, Smaragdus, or Bede and do we have any mechanism to tell? Since the charter writer did not leave any clues, attributing this citation to Bede is problematic: nor is this the only such citation often attributed to Bede that Bede is actually deriving from his own reading.
A related difficulty with determining readers of Bede’s homilies and commentaries is that they were anthologized, particulary in the homiletic collection of Peter the Deacon. That Carolingian collection proved to be extremely popular and long lived. So, for example, in one of Aelfric’s sermons that depends on Bede, it has been shown by Smetana that Aelfric there is using the homiletic collection rather than a copy of Bede’s homilies. But to make matters even more complex, Joyce Hill has convincingly argued that not all of Aelfric’s sermons from Bede are solely dependent on the Carolingian collection, but that Aelfric also knows a copy of the homilies. So in any particular case of citation of the homilies or the commentaries of Mark and Luke, somehow, if possible, a methodology should be developed to differentiate between use of the homiletic anthology and actual knowledge of Bede’s own writings. The problem is akin to someone who quotes a lot of Shakespeare, but all the quotations come from what is included in the Oxford Book of Poetry. So does our Shakespeare quoter know Shakespeare or should we say instead that he knows the Oxford Book of Poetry? The same issue pertains to Peter the Deacon’s collection: when an author is seemingly citing Bede is that author citing Bede or citing Bede’s work as included in the collection, and if the latter, is that then a “reader of Bede”? Good question, and I have no definite answer.
A related issue occurs especially with the homilies but also with other works. Bede, as is well known, often cites previous authorities, like Gregory the Great for example. So in the example related a few moments ago with the charter writer citing a line of homily that is transmitted from Gregory to Bede to Smaragdus, how do we determine if reading Bede was involved. This issue is further complicated by the fact that Smaragdus often is reading Bede, but when he cites Bede citing someone else, he cuts out the middle man: that is to say, if he is quoting a line that Bede says comes from Gregory, then Smaragdus says it comes from Gregory even if he is reading Bede to do so. We know this for example because the form of Smaragdus’ quote matches how it appears in Bede contrasted to the slightly different forms the quotation will have in Gregory’s actual work. So when Smaragdus or another author makes Bede a silent intermediary, we must be triply careful in uncovering that fact and giving correct attribution.