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.

Bead and Book

As Eamon Duffy wrote in his recent book Marking the Hours, the late middle ages were an age of bead and book. It was not a choice of either/or. On the eve of the Reformation both Books of Hours and Paternoster beads were found at all levels of society. In wills prayer beads and books of hours usually passed together, often to a daughter. I think this has more to do with the types of things inherited by sons and daughters than being an inherent gender issue. Women inherited portable wealth (textiles, jewels, books, furniture), while men inherited land and such (buildings, ‘the business’, titles, most livestock etc).

Finding information about early prayer beads is not easy. This gap has been partially filled by Chris Laning’s Bedes Byddyng: Medieval Rosaries & Paternoster Beads published as issue 135 (2007, 81 pgs) of The Compleat Anachronist. It is available for $4.50 (free postage and handling in US) from here. You can read Chris Laning’s blog Paternosters here.

Laning covers a wide variety of topics: the evolution and spread of paternoster beads and the rosary, commerce and gift giving, origins and meaning of terminology of prayer beads, finding and evaluating the evidence of prayer beads, materials culture, and how to make paternosters and wear them. She also gives brief descriptions of variations of prayer beads used up to 1600, an appendix listing the Latin prayers, and another appendix giving step-by-step instructions to make a set of prayer beads.

Today we think of the Roman Catholic rosary as a pretty rigid set of prayers with a standardized rosary. This is the current product of a long evolutionary process. As Laning describes, everything about the rosary is a product of a several evolutionary steps. Prayer beads began as Pater Noster beads based on the Lord’s Prayer. The number of beads has varied considerably but eventually settled on 150 pater nosters reflecting the 150 psalms prayed on 50 beads, three times around. The ‘Marian psalter’ began as one of many variations that obviously eventually won.

One of the things I find fascinating that is the way prayer beads influenced the English language. The word “bead” comes from Old English ‘to bid’/’to pray’. This is fairly well known but what may be new is that English is the only language to name beads after praying. In German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, French or Swedish, the word for bead is derived from their words for pearl or grain. In other words, in the rest of Europe, their word for bead is derived from some similar size pre-existing object. Only in English is the word for all round objects strung on string named after prayer beads. It also seems odd that prayer beads are always referred to in the plural as sets or pairs of beads or rosaries (perhaps because one rosary is a the sum of many prayers?-big guess on my part perhaps some English major will fill me in). Paternoster has also become a by-word for objects strung in a string that lasts to this day from a string of lakes in a valley to a bucket-brigade type of elevator.

Prayer beads only began taking on the name rosary from 1386 as a metaphorical comparison between the practice and a wreath of roses or a rose garden. Early leaders in the development opposed the name as being too sensual. Initially the word rosary was also applied to other devotions as well.

Laning identified the three main objections to the rosary during the Reformation: 1) the rosary was deemed to be promising salvation by works rather than faith alone, 2) excessive devotion to the Virgin Mary and 3) not in the bible. [Sometime soon I’ll come back and address these for our times and the modern Anglican rosary.] Laning notes that rosaries continued to be used into at least the 1600s “when one seventeenth-century Puritan clergyman in south-west Wales…was reduced to imploring his congregation, if they insisted on using their rosaries, at least to use them ‘prayerfully and with thought’” (p. 16). Its a shame that Laning didn’t look at the legends of the Irish penal rosaries. The legend seems to be alive and well today but I don’t recall ever seeing much evidence.

Most of this work is dedicated to material culture of prayer beads and how to wear them. She discusses the materials beads and their accessories were made from, the guilds that produced them and the significant commerce in beads and components. The guilds specialized to the degree that by 1260 in Paris there were three specialized guilds: one for bone/horn workers, another for shell and coral workers and lastly for amber and jet workers. Jewelers or goldsmiths made paternosters of gold, silver and gems. Archaeologists could find this as a handy summary to identify prayer beads, particularly when components were shipped unassembled.

You should find everything you need to know to make an accurate replica of a medieval paternoster or rosary here. This would be a great project for the Jedi cum knights (or the ladies they fight for/over) at Kent U’s medieval days. Paternoster beads would also be a great teaching tool for medieval history or literature from the Age of Chaucer right through Shakespeare. I’ll leave you with the quote from The Vision of Piers Plowman (19:375-383) (c. 1375) that Chris Laning takes her title from:

“There was no Christian creature that any wits had… that didn’t help to increase the quantity of holiness; some by bedes bidding and some by pilgrimage, and others by private penance, and some by pennies dealing [almsgiving] …Cleanness of common [people] and clerks’ clean living made unity, holy church, in holiness stand.” (p. 74)