Bede and the Codex Amiatinus

I was reading over Ward’s Bede and the Psalter at lunch today and came across one of those scholarly exaggerations that really gets under my skin. It follows the general principle that anything of any worth that came out of Wearmouth-Jarrow must be associated somehow with Bede. She goes beyond implication that Bede worked on the Codex Amiatinus and implies that he was one of its designers.

“The three great scholarly pandects made at Jarrow under Ceolfrith may well have owed their text to Bede’s scholarly eye; certainly his care for Jerome’s text iuxta Hebraicos was in line with the text of the psalter produced for that book. …Perhaps it was Bede the scholar, who most of all delighted in this new text ‘according to the Hebrew’ especially for the psalter, who suggested this change. “(p. 9)

Note that not only is Bede now directing the choice of text for Coelfirth’s great project, but it is being produced at the smaller monastery of Jarrow rather than the larger and older house of Wearmouth. I see no reason why Abbot Coelfrith would not have been the person who made such critical decisions as which text to use and what style the book would be produced in. Given Benedict Biscop and Coelfrith’s desire to collect the latest, greatest books and to imitate Rome, it doesn’t surprise me at all that Coelfrith would use the most up-to-date translation of Jerome that he had available. Second, as she notes in her paper, Bede used the Gallican psalter for all of his other psalter quotes in his commentaries and exegesis.

Just to back up a bit, the Codex Amiatinus is one of the three great Pandects of the entire bible made at Wearmouth-Jarrow during the tenure (and apparently under the patronage) of Abbot Ceolfrith. Bede’s association with this text is repeated over and over in many places even though no medieval text actually associates him with it and the dates make it unlikely that he was involved. Both Bede’s writings and the Anonymous Life of Coelfrith only name Coelfrith with the production of the bibles.

We know that at least one copy of the bible was completed in 716 and that it would have taken decades to complete three copies. We actually don’t know that all three were completed by 716, or that they were of identical design, but it seems likely. The Codex Amiatinus is based on Cassiodorus’ Codex Grandior but with the newest Latin translation by Jerome. The only surviving codex, the Codex Amiatinus, was taken by Ceolfrith as a gift for the pope in 716. His death en route no doubt helped it’s placement in a safe continental library soon after 716 and its survival to this day. The massive size of these books, weighing over 75 pounds, would have made the survival of the two copies left at Wearmouth and Jarrow difficult once the monastery was abandoned.

So anyway, if the Lindisfarne Gospels took a decade to make then these took far longer even if they were made by a team of scribes. (I actually don’t know how many scribes worked on the Codex Amiatinus.) So we are looking at this project beginning in the 690s at the latest and perhaps even earlier. We also don’t know that the books had been only recently completed in 716. Based on the completion of his biography in the Ecclesiastical History in 731 at the age of 59, Bede was born about 672. He would have been ordained a deacon in 691 at the tender age of 19 and a priest in 702 at the age of 30. These dates are roughly confirmed by his remark that St John of Beverly ordained him both times. John of Beverly was Bishop of Hexham from 687 to 706. So it is very likely that the the triple pandect project was started by 690-695, if not earlier, when Bede was a tender young deacon. Brilliant as his teachers no doubt thought that he was, he was still very much a junior in the monastery.

Too often we think of Bede as this brilliant star in a patch of country bumpkins. He was the product of the school that made him. No doubt as an elder he was considered extraordinary, but as a youth he would have had many teachers who were his equal or better. He certainly had a high regard for the intellect and learning of Abbot Coelfrith. His inclusion of Abbot Coelfrith’s letter to King Nechtan in the Ecclesiastical History certainly shows Bede’s regard for him (and yes, I think Coelfrith wrote it).


3 thoughts on “Bede and the Codex Amiatinus

  1. In a way, this is reminiscent of that old legend that Shakespeare translated part of the King James Bible. “He was in London,” they say, “he could have done. And anyway, what about that verse about the shaking spears?” It seems that proximity equals collusion in the minds of some. Associating Bede with every text to come out of that scriptorium is kind of like saying that Elvis was the only decent artist for Sun Records.

  2. It’s a human thing. People in the US–when they hear my English accent–ask me things like, ‘Do you know my nephew Tom, he lives near a place called Big Ben…?’ I am not kidding. The world is a big place. People like to make it smaller.

  3. I sympathize with your basic point, but Marsden has made some pretty decent arguments that Bede was involved with the text of the Jarrow pandects. Paul Meyvaert has argued that Bede was involved in a disagreement that resulted in the rearrangement of the first quire of the Codex Amiatinus. Bede would have been a mature scholar during part of the writing of the pandects and almost certainly would have had something to say about the text, but the mover of the whole project would almost certainly have been Ceolfrith, who as you say must have been a scholar beyond simply gathering books.

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