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.


3 thoughts on “Bede’s Book of Hymns II

  1. This is a very interesting question to me, especially because it raises the related question of what personal devotion looked like in the early medieval period. Most of the private prayers in Cerne are not in verse, but some are, and then there are texts which are proclaimed to be hymns (as opposed to prayers?) in the headings. When I was working with Cerne, I always wondered if the division between prayer and hymn would have been very meaningful in the ninth century. If not, when did that division really start to solidify?

    Good stuff.

  2. Looks like I generalized Bestul too much. He says “This preface [Paris MS lat 133880], together with the metrical pieces by Bede, suggests that th early tradition emphasized verse rather than prose.”

    I think we are on rather boggy ground in distinguishing hymns from prayer/prose. I come from a tradition where the prose liturgy could be sung every Sunday. You can sing anything. The division may be somewhat artificial. Calling it one or the other may be more of an indicator of performance than composition. To call it a hymn is a suggestion or direction to sing it and to my mind a higher form of devotion. The hymn to Aethelthryth doesn’t look much like a modern hymn but Bede’s calling it a hymn suggests that he intended it to be sung, and therefore more devotional.

    I wonder if the division between hymn and prayer seems greater to us now because we are accustomed to ‘folk’ hymns or ‘gospel’ music that is more expressive, less solemn (although, of course, it is still prayer). I sometimes wonder when people turn up their noses at modern praise music if they realize or think about some of the psalms being the modern praise music of their day – 3000 years ago or so.

Comments are closed.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑