“Where is Bede? Why is he not here?” – A saying of Bede recorded by Alcuin

May 25 is the feast day of the Venerable Bede, the Anglosaxon scholar monk of the early 8th century, who lived and died at the double monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in Northumberland.  I happened to see a quotation in a tweet by Fr. Luke Childs here, taken from the new St. Bernard Breviary, although the original source was not given:

I know that angels visit the canonical hours and the congregations of the brethren.  What if they do not find me among the brethren?  May they not say, Where is Bede?

It’s obviously an attractive volume.  But where do these words come from?

It’s not hard to discover that the speaker is Alcuin, say from this page at the CCEL.  But this also gives no reference.  A somewhat longer quotation appears in the Liverpool University Press Bede: A Biblical Miscellany (1999), p.xix.

It is said that our master and your patron, the blessed Bede, said, “I know that angels visit the canonical hours and the meetings of the brethren. What if they should not find me there among them? Will they not say, “Where is Bede? Why does he not come to the devotions prescribed for the brethren?”

The source is listed as an Epistola sanctissimis in Sancti Petri ecclesia fratribus, which tells the novice nothing. Curiously this is referenced, not to an edition of the works of Alcuin, but instead to A.W. Haddan and W. Stubbs, Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents relating to Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 3, Oxford (1871), p.470-1 (online here).  This in turn gives the Latin text, and references it as:

[Alcuin, Epistt., ed. Froben, no. 219; MS. Harl. 208, fo. 30]

Which is a frankly terrifying reference, suggesting a 16th century edition and a manuscript.  The footnotes are more useful, suggesting that the letter was addressed to the church of St Peter at Wearmouth.  It also notes that the letter contains a reference to the sack of Lindisfarne in 793.  This probably dates the letter to that year, since Wearmouth was itself destroyed by the Vikings the following year.

I have given this useless and frustrating paper-chase in full, because it seems clear that neither editor knew how to locate the letters of Alcuin and give a proper reference.  Possibly a future researcher, googling, may find these useless “references” here, and find relief.

Abandoning this approach, instead I took these few words of the Latin, “Scio angelos visitare canonicas horas,” from the Latin text given by Haddan and Stubbs, and started google searching, and at  once found useful material.

It seems that the letters of Alcuin were actually given a critical edition long ago.  There is no need to locate whatever 16th century Froben edition is referred to. Indeed I was quite unable to do so myself.

The letters may be found in Migne, in the Patrologia Latina 100, “epistolae”, beginning on column 133.  Migne reprints Froben’s preface, in fact.  In Migne our letter is epistola 16, to be found in cols. 167-8.  A transcription of the text is online at Wikisource here.

Fertur enim magistrum nostrum et vestrum patronum beatum dixisse Bedam: «Scio angelos visitare canonicas horas et congregationes fraternas; quid si ibi me non inveniunt inter fratres? Nonne dicere habent, ubi est Beda? Quare non venit ad adorationes statutas cum fratribus?»

But the critical edition is that of E. L. Dümmler, Epistolae Karolini Aevi vol. ii, in: MGH Epp. 4, Berlin (1895). This may be found online here.  In this edition the letter is Epistola 284, which may be found on p.442-3.  The section we want is p.443 lines 7-10.

The varied numbers seem to be a feature of the editions.  Dümmler indeed gives a look-up table in his preface, indicating that his “284” was “274” in Jaffé’s edition (Monumenta Alcuiniana, 1873), and “219” in Froben’s.  I was unable to locate, in Dümmler’s less-than-organised preface, any date for the edition of Froben, without translating the lot!


15 thoughts on ““Where is Bede? Why is he not here?” – A saying of Bede recorded by Alcuin

  1. Maybe it is! That certainly references Froben, and page 282 does give the letter as no. 219! But this is 1707, so it could not be the old Swiss printer, as I had assumed. Fascinating – thank you!!!

  2. Not 1707, but 1777. This must be a certain chap named “Froben Forster” (not “Foster”), about whom I found this:

    Forster, Froben a German philosopher and ecclesiastic, was born August 30, 1709, at Konigsberg. He studied at Regensburg, where he also joined the Benedictines, and took holy orders in 1733. In 1744 he was called to Salzburg, but in 1747 was recalled to his monastery, and became its prior in 1750. In 1762 he was made abbot, and died October 11, 1791. He wrote, besides philosophical treatises, De Scripturae Sacrae Vulgata Editione (Salzburg, 1748), and edited Alcuini Opera (ibid. 1777, 4 volumes, fol.). (B.P.)

    So his first name was Froben, then? And it would explain why Dümmler was referencing him so much, carelessly, as an 18th century editor, not a 16th century editor, and referring to the manuscripts that he used.

    A little more: it seems his name was Frobenius Forster, and he was abbot of St Emmeram at the end of the 18th century. “Frobenius” was the name he adopted when he became a monk. There is a wiki article about him here.

  3. Is that “dicere habent” a recdgnized medieval Latinf usage for the future like “avrò detto” in Italian? I don’t believe it’s classical syntax.

  4. That’s right, already in Late and Vulgar Latin the synthetic future ‘amabo’ tended to be replaced with periphrastic constructions like ‘amare habeo’ (also with ‘volo’ and ‘debeo’) that lost their connotation of obligation or volition. See for example Augustine in loh. 4.1.2 ‘tempestas illa tollere habet totam paleam’ = “that storm will take away all the hay”, which wouldn’t probably be taken as a simple future in Classical Latin.
    This ultimately evolved into the Romance future tenses: Fr. ‘aimer-ai’, Sp. ‘amar-é’, It. ‘amer-ò’ are all derived directly from ‘amare habeo’. In fact, ‘avrò’ is a worn down form of ‘habere habeo’ = “I have to have” > “I will have”. (Hence the future perfect ‘avrò detto’ “I will have said”.)

  5. This is an interesting devotional remark. One of the symbolic meanings of a choir is to represent the “attendance” at church (and in the hours of the Divine Office/Divine Liturgy) of the angels and saints, the “choir invisible.”

    Bede as a kid spent an entire year as the sole survivor of his little itty-bitty monastery’s choir, along with the monastery’s official hermit, St. Ceolfrid/Ceolfrith, who came back to live in the monastery and be the choir leader, and thus Bede’s mentor in both singing/liturgy and in studying the Bible. For the year until they were relieved of duty by the guys from the other monastery, they were the only singers for their few surviving brother monks.

    So I wonder… did Ceolfrid play up the symbolism of one’s invisible choirmates, the angels and the blessed dead? That they were really not just two people alone with God, making a tiny noise, but part of a vast choir unheard by living ears, and a friendly, concerned group keeping them company?

    It would be a natural thing to do, I think. And it would come to mind throughout life, as he continued to sing in the monastery choirs, singing for the Masses and the hours.

  6. Yeah, it’s not certain but it’s traditionally known that the “certain monk” who was the only guy in the choir with Ceolfrith, in the Life of Ceolfrith, is Bede himself.

    And then there’s the estimates of how old he was. The older books are all like, “That happened when he’d been at the monastery as an oblate for a year or two, so Bede was eight or nine!” And now the new theory is, “He’d already been there a long time, so he was seventeen!” Shrug. Either way, he was a minor, and in a bad sad situation. But it worked out.

    All that Yellow Plague stuff was no fun whatsoever. Super virulent and scary.

  7. I forgot that it actually says something like “one little boy,” but maybe today’s scholars translate that bit differently? It’s been since before the Coof that I looked into it.

    There’s an Oxford Press recent translation of Bede’s Historia Abbatum and the anonymous Historia Abbatum that includes the Life of Ceolfrith. It costs 230 dollars.

    And there’s a 1947 Fordham University dissertation, by Sister M. Paulinus Sullivan, IHM, that also translates both works. And nominally, it’s free.

    (But you can’t read the whole dissertation except through ProQuest. Fordham only shows the first few bits in their “Research Commons.”)

    Sister cites a translation of the Life of Ceolfrid by D.S. Boutflower, from 1912. She also cites a Loeb edition’s translation by King of Bede’s Historia Abbatum from 1930, as part of their Opera Historica volume of Bede’s works.

    She also cites some other interesting English bios written back in Saxon days, and I guess some comparison occurs in the dissertation.

  8. There’s a nice article on Ceolfrith/Ceolfrid and the Codex Amiatinus.


    Abbot Ceolfrid resigning his post and leaving for Rome with only two days’ notice to the monks is apparently the kind of thing he did do during his life, since he had once left his job as prior at Jarrow and gone all the way back to Ripon, where he had been a monk previously.

    Apparently the vita also brings up some stuff about how, in the dire circumstances, he had attempted to do the “emergency” method, permitted by the Benedictine Rule, of singing the Office psalms just with the verses, without an antiphon (and possibly in unison instead of antiphonally, back and forth).

    But he had only managed to endure this musical poverty for a week, before he reinstituted singing the antiphons with his one-pupil choir. The kid would just have to learn all the antiphons, instead of just chanting the verses in the generic way.

    Which is interesting, because it suggests that there was a fair amount of difference among all the antiphon melodies, and thus learning them all, without just singing along for years with a big group of other monks who already knew the melodies well, was a challenge.

  9. I mean, obviously today’s Gregorian chant for the Office Psalms is like that, but we don’t know a lot about the earliest forms of Gregorian chant or other European chant. You’d expect it to already be a big repertoire to learn; but this is somebody saying that it really was.

  10. Gosh this is really interesting stuff. Thank you for the sources. (I bet there is a copy of the Sullivan thesis out there somewhere – but how awful about that price!)

    I appreciate the input on the singing – it’s something I know nothing about, and must always have been critical to the abbeys and their function.

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