Bede’s Song of Songs

Oh look what showed up in my mailbox yesterday! I’ve been asking after this translation for years and now it’s here. I wish I had the time now to dive in; I’m sure I won’t be able to resist dipping in a little.

Along with the first modern translation of Bede’s Commentary on the Song of Songs, Arthur Holder has also given us new translations of sections of three of Bede’s homilies and selections from the Ecclesiastical History including selections on  Edwin, Oswald, Hild, Cuthbert and others. He has also re-translated for the Heavenfield episode. :-)

“This place is called in the English tongue Heavenfield, which in Latin can be translated as Caelestis Campus, a name that it certainly received in former time as a portent of things to come, doubtless signifying that a heavenly trophy would be set up there, a heavenly victory begun, and heavenly miracles celebrated there until this day.” (Bede, HE III.2; Holder, p. 289).

Note one significant difference in the translation is “a heavenly victory begun” rather than “a heavenly victory won” in Colgrave’s translation. This shifts the emphasis from the forthcoming battle to Oswald’s Christian mission, even beyond Oswald’s Christian kingdom but to the church that out lasts his reign. This fits with Bede’s emphasis on miracles there up to his day. For Bede, the cross at Heavenfield was still working for that victory.  Holder (p. 32) says that a new translation is justified by “this translation’s more literal approach to Bede’s theological vocabulary and imagery.”

In flipping through the introduction, one surprise is Holder’s dating of Bede’s On the Song of Songs to before 716, suggesting that it could be his first Old Testament work. If On Revelations was his first New Testament work, what an odd pair for his earliest scriptural works. It certainly says something about Bede’s bravery.

O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology

Thomas O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology: Humanity, World, and God in Early Irish Writings, Continuum, 2000.

Going through my backlog of drafts and I just realized that I never came back and finished this book review. Better late than never!

This really is quite a valuable book that dispels some common myths and gives you a real sense for what we know of the Irish church. I know my book will be used until it is dog-eared. This book should be a must read for anyone interested in early medieval theology.

This book covers such a wide range of topics that the only way I can think to review is fully is chapter by chapter.


  1. Celtic Theology?: Discusses the concept of Celtic theology and more importantly what it is not. O’Loughlin’s attitude is that celtic theology is a type of local theology.
  2. Patrick the Missionary: Analyzes Patrick’s work through the two documents that are genuinely accepted as being written by Patrick, notably his Confessio and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. His discussion of Patrick’s world view and personal theology is very interesting.
  3. The Penitentials: The Human Dilemma: He discusses the development and rationale behind the penitentials, and pays special attention to the Penitential of Finnian (Uinniau) and the penitential of Cummean,
  4. Adomnan: A Theologian at Work: O’Loughlin is best known for his work on Adomnan and this chapter does not disappoint. Adomnan was very much on par with Bede as an influential churchman and this chapter highlights all of Adomnan’s other accomplishments other than writing the Life of Columba. I think you would be hard pressed to find a more influential churchman anywhere in the British Isles in the 7-8th century than Adomnan, Abbot of Iona. His three main works, the Cain Adomnan / Law of the Innocents, On the Holy Places, and the Life of Columba are just now really becoming appreciated for the skill and depth of knowledge they reflect.
  5. Muirchu: Dramatist or Theologian? Muirchu is the author of the First Life of Patrick. He notes that Muirchu was skilled at narrative theology, and this is what the Life of Patrick really is. Narrative theology, teaching theology through a story, is fairly rare today but this is the form taken by Scripture itself. The different narrative theologies of the four evangelists acccounts for much of the differences between the four gospels. O’Loughlin also discusses Muirchu’s biblical models for Patrick, such as Daniel.
  6. The Collectio canonum hibernensis: Marriage and Sexuality Ireland had a well developed legal system that was independent of Roman law and this legal system influenced the Irish canons. He shows that contrary to popular opinion that Ireland was a female friendly, Augustine-free zone, the canons were quite the opposite and influenced by the theology of Augustine. (Just to back this up, read the 9th century treatise on Cain Adomnan and you’ll see how anti-female it could be!)
  7. The Stowe Missal: The Eucharist as Refreshment: The Stowe Missal is one of the only liturgical sources we have for the rites of the Celtic church dating to c. 800, probably at Tallaght. While the Eucharistic rite was Roman, other aspects of the celebration differed more modern practices. Attitudes toward community and communion of the saints was more intense that any we experience today. They really felt strongly in communion with the saints how have already departed this life, especially those of their community, and this is reflected in their liturgy. For example, they stressed that all present must share one loaf of bread at the Eucharist and in the prayers chanted by the congregation while the priest breaks the loaf into as many as 65 pieces arranging them in special patterns on the patten.
  8. The Litanies: Petition, Procession, Protection: This is a specialized section on the differences between early medieval litanies and modern litanies in text, form and function. He particularly focuses on how medieval litanies were processions, such as the litany Augustine of Canterbury led as he approached Æthelberht, King of Kent, for the first time. I would add that we also see these processional litanies occurring in times of pestilence when processions would snake through large communities in an effort to end the plague. Gregory the Great led such a procession in Rome to end the Plague of Justinian. Although not often mentioned in insular sources, we must imagine that frequent processional litanies must have occurred during the plague of 664 and other plagues.
  9. The Cycles of Prayer: This chapter focuses the calendar and daily office among the Irish. He spends some time talking about alternative perceptions of time and how ordinary and festal time was viewed. There is a short discussion of how the daily office is reflected in Adomnan’s Life of Columba and in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, and on the Teachings of Mael Ruain.
  10. Jerusalem: Our Mother and Home Above This last chapter is a part of a departure from the rest of the book because this chapter focuses on eschatology. O’Loughlin takes Jerusalem as his theme as a “taster” of Irish eschatology. What did Jerusalem mean to the Irish and what symbolism did they invest in it? O’Loughlin focuses on the presentation of Jerusalem in three different works: Jerusalem in Adomnan’s De Locus Sanctus (On the Holy Places), Barrand’s Island in the Navigiatio Sancti Brendani, and the plan of New Jerusalem in the Book of Armagh.
  11. Conclusions

One of the areas that O’Loughlin left out was a discussion of the literature on St Bridget and is generally light on female topics. Likewise he did not really treat Irish Marian theology which is surely present. It has been suggested that Adomnan’s attitudes toward the the Virgin Mary influenced Cain Adomnan, the first law for the protection of women from violence in Ireland. Marian theology has also influenced the literature and traditions about St Bridget. While Bridget is a fairly common topic in Irish scholarship, we still await a systematic survey and Marian scholarship for this period, is even further behind. Given the breadth of topics he did cover, this is not a major detraction.

Do not look to this book for a history of monastic families or even of monastic movements. O’Loughlin’s purpose here is the study of theology more than history. He chooses examples that fit his topic, but makes no attempt to be systematic surveying all possible examples. Hagiography is also not a major topic outside of chapter 5. Here, as in the chapter on Adomnan, he is more concerned with examining the author than his work. His basic question is how was theology done in early medieval Ireland? What was the personal theology of Patrick, Adomnan and Muirchu? How was theology put into practice? I believe that you will find his answers fascinating.

Bede’s Book of Hymns II

In my continuing quest to learn more about 8-9th century breviate psalters I’ve came across a couple interesting papers:

Thomas H Bestul (1986) “Continental Sources of Anglo-Saxon Devotional Writing” p. 103-126 in Sources of Anglo-Saxon Culture. P Szarmach with V. Oggins, eds. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.

Leslie Webber Jones. (1929) “Cologne MS.106: A Book of Hildebald” Speculum 4(1): 27-61.

They are interesting papers. Finally a description of one of the three manuscripts that contain the oldest surviving edition of Bede’s Abbreviated Psalter (Cologne MS 106)! AlcuinBede’s three surviving psalters all come from c. 825 and apparently all passed through Alcuin (pictured).

There was apparently once quite a bit of discussion over this manuscript because it was thought that it might be the set of works sent by Alcuin to Bishop Arno of Salzburg before 805. Webber Jones has proven that this is not Alcuin’s manuscript. However, it does seem to contain the vast majority of the works that Alcuin sent to Arno, along with other materials.

So, it was apparently written in Cologne during the tenure of Bishop Hildebald of Cologne from 794-819 (who helpfully had all books produced during his tenure labeled as such). It includes Alcuin’s letter to Arno as a preface, as if to explain where most of the original text came from.

Cologne MS 106 contains a formidable list of Bede’s devotional materials: 12 hymns or metrical prayers including the hymn on Aethelthryth and his abbreviated psalter. Bede’s note that his hymns are in “various meters and rhythms” could be an explanation for the variety of metrical prayers and hymns included in his prayer book. In other words, it more a book of verse/poetry than a hymnal in today’s sense. His title seems to reflect the medieval norm that poetry was to be sung rather than recited. Given that I know of no cult of Aethelthryth on the continent and the manuscript isn’t reported to contain any excerpts from the Ecclesiastical History, Aethelthryth’ s hymn appears to be transmitted as one of a set of Bede’s hymns. This gives me some more confidence that we may have a portion of Bede’s ‘Book of Hymns’.

Bestul suggests that devotional books prior to the Book of Cerne were all or primarily verse (as the Cerne is, excepting the Passion narratives). All of Bede’s devotional works done for himself or friends were verse including his verse Life of Cuthbert and the hymn on Aethelthryth. For his personal uses, these verse versions were sufficient. He only writes the prose Life of Cuthbert to fulfill a specific commission from Lindisfarne. This answers the nagging question of why he didn’t write a prose life of Aethelthryth when he was clearly devoted to her memory. The answer may be that he simply didn’t get a commission to do so, and the hymn was sufficient for his use. Of course, the vast bulk of Bede’s works were not devotional materials; they were teaching texts. While these teaching texts may reveal windows into his theology and devotional practices, that was not their purpose.

This all begs the question: does Bede’s ‘Book of Hymns’ – currently best represented by Cologne MS106- represent Bede’s personal prayer book? If so, then it is the best window into his personal devotional practices.