“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!