Aethelwald’s 96

The latest challenge to my distilled prayer project is figuring out what role Aethelwald’s psalter in the Book of Cerne should take in the project. This has a lot to do with identifying Aethelwald and coming up with a rough date for the psalter.

The Book of Cerne is dated roughly contemporary with a Bishop Aethelwald of Lichfield (818-830). There is a good possibility that it was compiled either for him or in honor of him. However, like just about everything else in the Book of Cerne, the breviate psalter of Aethelwald the bishop shows clear signs of transmission. I picked up Kuyper’s edition of the Book of Cerne last week and I’m beginning to compare this psalter with Bede. One very obvious thing has jumped out… Aethelwald’s psalter is a patchy beast – only 96 psalms are represented.

The following vulgate psalms are missing from the breviate psalter in Cerne (based on Kuyper’s assignment of the psalms):

11, 13, 14, 19, 20, 23, 41, 42, 49, 52, 57, 61, 66, 73, 74, 75, 77, 79, 80, 81, 82, 86, 90, 91, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 104, 107, 109, 116, 118, 119, 120, 121, 122, 123, 124, 125, 126, 127, 128, 129, 130, 131, 132, 133, 134, 135, 136, 143, 147, 150

Michelle Brown and others have noted the longest gap before and have noted that his is a sign of transmission. The gap between inclusion of Ps 117 and Ps 137 flows smoothly in the middle of a page. However when we look at gaps of more than two sequential pslams, other significant holes show up as well. It gets even more curious when David Dumville and Michelle Brown notes that the psalter has been divided into three 50s, Irish style, and this is marked by ornate capitals for psalms 1, 51, and 101. This three-fold division is widely spread in period English psalters. Well, that is all well and good, except for the fact that with the gaps noted above the text is not divided into three 50s at all. In fact not one of the three divisions contains abbreviations of 50 psalms. These may be traditional divisions for the time period, but they have lost their meaning. Michelle Brown takes pains in her book to point out that the tri-fold division is not exclusively Irish but they do seem to have popularized it. Michelle Brown notes that Cerne falls short of the Irish Liber Hymnorum‘ s instruction that breviate psalters should have 365 verses. Cerne has 272 verses. This means that I don’t have to count the distribution of the verses because it is obvious that they can’t be evenly divided into three groups either.

Michelle Brown noted the possibility that Bishop Aethelwald simply didn’t find anything of interest in the missing psalms, but she notes that is unlikely. I agree; he can’t have intentionally skipped this many and still considered it to be a psalter. I think that it is worth noting that based on a skimming of his edition, it looks like Kuyper is getting 5-6 psalms per page. This means that the 20 psalm gap could be accounted for my missing two folios (front and back). The other gaps can’t be accounted for as easily by missing folios but they could still represent damaged folios or folios where one side had an illustration. This many gaps just says to me that we have transmission – at some point- of a badly damaged book, perhaps recopied to try to salvage it. In the century between Aethelwald of Lichfield and Aethelwald of Lindisfarne there could have been several generations of copies made, so that the artist-scribe of Cerne need not have been using such a damaged copy.

Although Michelle Brown has argued persuasively that the psalter of Aethelwald need not have been by Aethelwald of Lindisfarne on the grounds of linguistics or decoration, the text itself says that it is older than Aethelwald of Lichfield. I find it too hard to believe that the copying of a text by Aethelwald of Lichfield could have become so damaged so quickly, especially if the book was made for the same bishop.

In her Jarrow lecture, Michelle Brown argued that Lindisfarne Gospels was part of Lindisfarne’s effort to prove that they were now fully in the stream of Western/Roman Christianity. Might the same Bishop Aethelwald who had the Lindisfarne Gospels bound and commissioned its cover have also produced a breviate psalter with the Romanrum translation as a further sign of their inclusion into the universal church?


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