Books from Lérins?

In the introduction to On the Nature of Things, Kendall and Wallis attempt to trace the origins of Bede’s copy of Isidore’s On the Nature of Things. They conclude that Bede’s copy came from a group of texts labeled H for Hispania and that it arrived in c. 670. They seem to be at a loss for how Bede got a copy from such an early and regionally restricted manuscript group.

Kendall and Wallis discuss two major routes: diffusing northward from Theodore and Hadrian’s school at Canturbury or from direct contact between Wearmouth and Jarrow and Spain. They overlook that both of these routes would have been trodden by Benedict Biscop. As Theodore’s first abbot in Canturbury, he could have obtained books for his new monastery there. Kendall goes so far as to suggest that Bede had a Visigothic teacher at Jarrow in his chapter in the Cambridge Companion to Bede. There is no evidence that I know of placing any Spanish/Visigothic visitors in England. I think that it is very unlikely that Bede would have omitted Visigothic visitors or teachers at Wearmouth-Jarrow from his History of the Abbots. Obtaining foreign teachers for his young monks would have been the kind of ideal support that Bede is eager to show Benedict Biscop providing. It is possible that Biscop traveled through Spain on one if his many trips to Rome, perhaps even for the purpose of sampling their libraries. Could Biscop have been such a connoisseur of books that he went through Spain to get manuscripts as close to Isidore’s as possible? Maybe?

Another more likely scenario exists. Biscop could have picked up a library of Isidore’s works at Lérins. The islands strategic location near Cannes would have made it a convenient stopping place for Biscop to rest and regroup on most of his trips to Rome. If Biscop had a home monastery anywhere, it was at Lérins where he stayed two years as a novice and took the tonsure. Being so critical in Biscop’s formation they may have taken special interest in his career and his drive to create a great library at the end of the Earth. Now Lérins was located very close to Visigothic territory and Isidore’s King Sisebut ruled Septimania (Narbonne and vicinity) and was on good terms with the Lombards. It seems likely to me that they would have early versions of Isidore’s works. Like Wearmouth-Jarrow a century or so later, Lérins was destroyed by non-christian conquers, Saracens in their case in about 732, so tracking texts back there is likely to be difficult if not impossible.


10 thoughts on “Books from Lérins?

  1. Fascinating post, Michelle. If you’re right about the Lérins connection, it makes me wonder about other links between Wearmouth-Jarrow and the Continent, not only in Biscop’s time but later too. I suppose a good starting-point might be the 1982 Jarrow Lecture (‘The Scriptorium of Wearmouth-Jarrow’ by Malcolm Parkes) but I don’t have a copy of it handy.

    1. I tend to think of Wearmouth-Jarrow fading from national and international circles after the death of Coelfrith (and Bede). A generation after Bede, York (and Alcuin) seems to be the primary spreader of Bede’s works. Then again, I don’t focus much on the time after Bede. 🙂

      I do think Lerins has been an underestimated influence on Britain in general though. Of all places, this is also where Vortigern’s son is said to go in the Historia Brittonum. Perhaps Lerin’s should also be linked to the influence of John Cassian in Britain and Ireland.

  2. One curious connection between Lérins and Britain is the ‘dictum’ attributed to St Patrick which refers to ‘the islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea’. This is usually taken to mean that Patrick went to Gaul and spent time at Lérins. I’m not familiar with current opinion on the source so I don’t know if it has any merit as authentic history. Without checking further, I suspect it isn’t held in high regard by today’s Patrician scholars.

    1. I once read a very long article by Hartmut Atsma which basically set out to trash most of what people had claimed for Lérins’s early influences, and especially those bits via SS Patrick (for whom, as you rightly guess, this link is no longer thought viable) and Germanus. Without wanting to say for sure whether Atsma is right (and he went to a lot of effort to make his points) it is probably the case that rather too much has been rested on late sources to make these kind of connections for Lérins, especially by Friedrich Prinz. (I wrote about this here very briefly here, and there is a reference to the article there.) On the other hand, at the sort of time Michelle is contemplating here, those texts were then being compiled, so I don’t think there’s any problem with suggesting that Lérins was a lively cultural centre at this time. I think this is more likely than a trip to Spain for Biscop, anyway; could Bede have resisted mentioning this if it was known, and could it not have been?

      There’s also the problem that I wouldn’t expect Insular readers to get on with books in Visigothic script. There’s enough examples of Carolingian scribes misreading it that it ought even to be something one could look for in Insular work that one suspected of using Visigothic exemplars. If you came up with a lot of b-v confusion and `g’ read as `a’, for example, that would be a good proof of what you’re suggesting, but if there’s no sign of these features it would have to be considered less likely.

      1. According to Bede, Lerins was important to Biscop whether he got this particular book there or not. He spent two years there. If I recall correctly he was going back and forth to Lerins when he was recruited to accompany Theodore to Britain.

        As for Patrick and the mention of Lerins in the HB, they may be down to the praise given Lerins by John Cassian. I think Cassian’s works were the primary templates of monastic life before Benedictinism spread in the late 7th to early 8th century.

  3. I don’t know if you’ll see this reply two years after your post, but thanks for this. I’m interested in Lerins and its influence, particularly in formation of bishops and the degree to which it formed missionaries — including the question of Patrick. Can you direct me to a starting point in recent literature on these questions?

    1. I really don’t know much about the literature on Lerins. I think Jonathan Jarrett who commented above would probably be a better source. He studies Catalonia so he knows that whole region better than anyone else I know.

      1. Thanks very much to both of you! Peter Browns new book has a chapter dealing in part with Lerins, and the notes were helpful too. I’m on my way, but will be happy for other thoughts should they arise.

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