Ward’s “Bede and the Psalter”

Sr Benedicta Ward’s booklet Bede and the Psalter is reprint of her 1991 Jarrow Lecture of the same name. It was reprinted by her order, the Sisters of the Love of God, in 2002. Although she does discuss general uses and attitudes toward the psalter, Bede’s Abbreviated Psalter is her main focus.

The Psalter and the Liturgy

She begins with a discussion of the centrality of the psalter in seventh century liturgy, when the daily office was the primary type form of all liturgy. The centrality of the psalms to daily life and how the liturgical year brought new contexts to the psalms is discussed. She briefly mentions the psalter collects used in Bede’s time to direct the psalter toward Christ. She notes that the prayer Bede sang in his last days was one of these collects.

“O King of Glory, Lord of Might, who didst this day ascend in triumph above all the heavens, leave us not comfortless, but send to us the Spirit of the Father, even the Spirit of Truth. Amen.” (p. 4)

Ward asserts that this prayer “combines the liturgical use of psalm 24 with both antiphons and prayers”. A more complete discussion of this prayer and the collects in general would have been helpful to me. I don’t believe the collects have ever been translated into English (a worthwhile project for any liturgically minded folks in search of a project!).

Ward then turns her attention to the use of the psalter at Wearmouth-Jarrow and, in particular, to Abbot Coelfrith’s devotion to the psalms (and antiphons). Here the Anonymous Life of Coelfrith and Bede’s History of the Abbots are critical. Ward notes that Coelfrith’s devotion to the psalms was above and beyond the call of the Benedictine Rule. She also discusses the influence of Rome on Bede’s Wearmouth and Jarrow. Bede was quite proud that they were directed in their manner of singing and praying by John, the Precentor of St. Peter’s in Rome and abbot of St. Martin’s monastery. Abbot John of St. Martin’s was with Wearmouth-Jarrow through Bede’s childhood, a formative period for his use of the psalter.

Bede as a Scholar and the Psalms

This section is one that I have some problems with. First, she makes a common assumption that Bede took part in the creation of the Codex Amiatinus, for which there really is no proof. Surely, Bede was not the only person at Wearmouth-Jarrow with a ‘scholarly eye’; Abbot Coelfrith himself is likely to have overseen the creation of the pandects. Indeed it is hard to imagine that it wasn’t Abbot Coelfrith who decided such vital matters as which translations would be used in the pandects.

As discussed on ANSAX-L, her assignment of various versions of the psalter to the use of Bishop Wilfrid and Bede is not well supported. She believes that Bede used the Gallican psalter in his works and in church, but the Versio Romana is more likely. She also believes that Wilfrid learned the iuxta hebracos in Kent before going to Rome. This is the version that Bede used for his Abbreviated Psalter and is used in the Codex Amiatinus, but was not used in his other works including On Ezra and is not believed to have ever been widely used in the liturgy. We know that Abbot John of St. Martin’s in Rome taught the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow to sing in the Roman manner, so they would have been using what was in use in Rome. This is unlikely to be either the Gallican or the iuxta Hebracos. This leaves the Versio Romanum as the most likely choice for Bede’s working psalter.

Ward does helpfully point the reader toward Cassiodorus Exposition on the Psalms as a major influence on Bede and to Bede’s own De Metris et Tropis as a work where he quotes the psalms frequently.

Bede and the Tradition of compunctio cordis in the Psalms

Compunctio cordis is a heartfelt sorrow. It was a practice of early monks to meditate on psalms that they memorized and recited daily. For the earliest monks, particularly living in isolation, they recited all of the psalms daily; they didn’t follow a office scheme. The desert fathers believed a true monk would always have the psalms in their heart, not just at set times of the day.

Ward notes that Bede believed that the entire bible was authored by God, the entire psalter is conveyed by David, and through the psalter, God spoke to people. This is hard viewpoint for me to grapple with because it seem so opposite to me.

Ward notes that Cassian and Cassiodorus saw the perfect monk as a spiritual hedgehog, in the words of Cassian:

“This hedgehog of prayer will take into himself all the thoughts of the psalms and will begin to sing them in such a way that he will utter them with the deepest emotion of his heart…as if they were his own prayer…and will take them as aimed at himself and will recognize that their words were not only fulfilled by or in the person of the prophet but they were fulfilled and carried out daily in his own case.” (Ward, p. 13)

Ward believes that Bede saw himself as such a spiritual hedgehog. (Note hedgehogs are on the cover of her book.) Previous theologians had seen all types of allegory in the psalms, but for Bede when writing of his contemporaries (V. Cuthbert and History of the Abbots), the psalms were always compunctio cordis, a cry of the heart. Ward finds and quotes a very useful commentary by Bede on the epistle of James where he discusses the great value of the psalms particularly in times of great sorrow.

Finally, we get to the Abbreviated Psalter. Here she notes that: “The verses were selected so that a sense of the meaning of the psalm as a whole was retained; it would be possible to recall the whole psalm from these clues.” Actually, I don’t agree. Most of the time it does reflect the meaning of the whole psalm, but not always. How does “help me, O Lord” only specifically call to mind psalm 11/12? Context with previous abbreviations also, I believe, matter. Further, they often can not be a memory device to recall the whole psalm. For example, two of the abbreviated psalms are identical (Ps 13/14 and 52/53). Others are simply not memorable enough to call to mind a specific psalm.

Ward asserts that the Abbreviated Psalter began a new form of prayer that continued for the next four centuries. She notes that Alcuin was one of the most active promotors of the Abbreviated Psalter. Ward asserts that Alcuin had more of an “interior interest in the person praying and his needs” than Bede. How does she know that Bede didn’t focus on the interior meaning of the prayers? He left no instructions or commentary on its use. How do we know that Bede didn’t mean this only for his own personal use? It is not part of his publications list in the Ecclesiastical History. She also notes that Alcuin saw them as a perfect revelation of Christ, foretelling his coming, his incarnation, passion, resurrection and ascension. I don’t see this in Bede’s Abbreviated Psalter; indeed, Bede specifically avoids verses in the psalms that are usually interpreted as referring to the Messiah. From her quote of Alcuin’s letter to Bishop Arno it is clear that Alcuin recognized what it is and that it included verses from all 150 psalms. Ward then usefully reviews the use and evolution of the abbreviated psalter after the time of Alcuin. Eventually, the Durham copy contained a note advocating its use not only by monks and hermits but also by those who “have worldy business, who lie in sickness, who undertake long journeys, sail in ships or go to war; they sing this psalter assiduously and they gain thereby the heavenly kingdom” (Ward, p. 22).

Ward’s Edition of the Abbreviated Psalter

Ward provides a edition of the Abbreviated Psalter as an appendix to her Jarrow lecture. This really isn’t a translation but a selection of the corresponding verses from the current Church of England psalter. Verses where Jerome’s Hebrew Psalter differs from modern psalters are not reflected in this edition. The purpose of her edition is only to be used with her talk and for that purpose it is adequate (and a lot of work for an appendix!).

In summary then, although I disagree with Sr. Ward on a few points discussed here, she was a trailblazer in writing on the Abbreviated Psalter. Had she not chosen it as the topic of her Jarrow lecture most of us would not know of the existence of the Abbreviated Psalter. Overall, her lecture will serve as the basis for all scholarship on the Bede’s psalter and his use of the psalms for at least the next generation.


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