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The Historical Works Of Venerable Bede

THE peaceful tenor of Bede’s monastic life was apparently uninterrupted by absence or travel, and his own words might be thought to afford sufficient authority for the supposition. A controversy, however, on this subject has arisen from a letter first published by William of Malmesbury, which to this hour has not been satisfactorily decided. This historian says that Bede’s learning and attainments were so highly esteemed, that Pope Sergius wished to see him at Rome and consult him on questions of importance and difficulty relating to the Church. He accordingly quotes a letter, addressed by Sergius to Abbot Ceolfrid, in which he is requested to send Bede without delay to Rome. Now it is argued, and apparently with truth, that Bede would not have dared to decline an invitation coming from so high a quarter; and yet it is all but certain that Bede never was out of England. He tells us distinctly that his whole life was spent in the neighbourhood of Jarrow; and that the letters, which he has inserted in his Ecclesiastical History, had been procured for him at Rome by Nothelm, which would certainly lead us to infer that Bede was not there himself. Moreover, he tells us in his treatise, De Natura Rerum [46], that he was not with the monks of Yarrow, who went to Rome in the year 701.

The last editor of the Ecclesiastical History thinks that he has succeeded in clearing up this difficulty, by the discovery of an earlier copy of the letter in question, [Tib. A. xv. fol. 6, b, in the British Museum,] than that given by William of Malmesbury.

The following is a copy of the letter from the manuscript in question, with the variations of Malmesbury, Stevenson and Gaehle inserted in brackets in their proper places:—

“Sergius episcopus, servus servorum Dei, Ceolfrido religioso abbati presbyteroque, [presbyteroque om. M.] salutem.”

“Quibus verbis et modis clementiam Dei nostri atque inenarrabilem providentiam possumus effari, et dignis gratiarum actionibus [-nas g. -nes St. qui lectionem MSti in nota addit] pro immensis circa nos ejus beneficiis persolvere, qui in tenebris et umbra mortis positos ad lumen suæ scientiæ producit. [Quibus … producit om. G.] … Benedictionis interea gratiam, quam nobis per præsentem portitorem tua misit devota religio, libenti et hilari animo, sicuti ab ea directa est, nos suscepisse cognosce, et pro ejus nimirum conscientiæ puritate Dominum ejusque Apostolos deprecamur, ut per cujus prædicationem ad lumen veritatis accessimus, tribuat pro parvis magna, et cœlestis regni perpetua beneficia condonari concedat.” [et pro ejus … concedat om. M. et G.]

“Opportunis ergo ac dignis amplectendæ tuæ sollicitudinis petitionibus arctissima devotione faventes, hortamur Deo dilectam bonitatis tuæ religiositatem, ut quia, exortis quibusdam ecclesiasticarum causarum capitulis non sine examinatione longius innotescendis, opus nobis sunt ad conferendum arte literaturæ [ium—ra St. qui-e-æ in nota subjicit. -is -ra G.] imbuti, sicut decet Deo [Deo om. G.] devotum auxiliatorem sanctæ matris universalis ecclesiæ obedientem devotionem [devotioni M.] huic nostræ hortationi [exhort. G.] non desistas accommodare, sed absque aliqua remoratione [immorat. G.] religiosum Dei nostri famulum [relig. fam. Dei Bedam G., rel. fam. Bedam M.] venerabilis tui monasterii [monasterii presbyterum M. monasterii (presbyterum) G. qui notat hanc vocem in Cod. MS. Cotton. abesse] ad veneranda limina Apostolorum principum dominorum meorum Petri et Pauli, amatorum tuorum ac protectorum, ad nostræ mediocritatis conspectum non moraris [Ita St. moreris G.] dirigere. Quem favente Domino, tuisque sanctis precibus, non diffidas prospere ad te redire, peracta præmissorum capitulorum cum auxilio Dei desiderata solennitate. Erit [Erit enim G.] ut confidimus, etiam [et G.] cunctis tibi creditis profuturum, quidquid ecclesiæ generali devoto sancto collegio [d. s. c. om. M.] claruerit præstantissime [per ejus præstantiam M.] impertitum.”

In English, thus:

“Sergius Bishop, Servant of the Servants of God, to the holy Abbot and Priest Ceolfrid. Health!

“In what words or ways can we describe the mercy and unspeakable Providence of our God, and give due thanks to Him for his numberless benefits towards us, who brings us, when we are lying in darkness and the shadow of death, to the light of his knowledge!

“The favour of your blessing, which your devoted piety sent to us by the present bearer, has been received by us with pleasure and delight, according to your directions: and we pray the Lord and his apostles for your conscientious purity, that he, by whose preaching we came to the light of truth, may give us great things for small, and grant us the everlasting blessings of his heavenly kingdom.

“Wherefore favouring with our utmost devotion the seasonable and worthy petition of your honoured solicitude, we exhort your holy and religious goodness, that, inasmuch as certain Ecclesiastical particulars have arisen, which cannot be more perfectly understood without examination, we wish to have some men well skilled in literature to confer with; and that, as becomes a devout champion of Holy Mother Church, you do not fail to show your obedient devotion to this our exhortation, but without delay send God’s religious servant [Bede, priest] of your venerable monastery, to the hallowed threshold of the chief of the Apostles, our Lords Peter and Paul, our friends and protectors, that he may come and visit my nothingness. Whom, if God and the Holy Saints so please, you need not fear of receiving safe home again, when he shall, with the help of God and in all due solemnity, have finished the aforesaid matters. For it will, I trust, also be profitable to all who are under your care, if any thing shall through his excellency become known to the church in general.”

Such is the letter of Pope Sergius, which has been preserved by William of Malmesbury; and some modern critics have not hesitated, from the difficulties before mentioned which it involves, to pronounce it altogether spurious. It is argued that Bede did not take priest’s orders till the year 672, whereas this letter was written in 670, and Pope Sergius died in 671.

Gaehle, who does not examine the subject at much length, explains the favour which Sergius names as having granted to Abbot Ceolfrid, to be the privilege or charter of which Bede makes mention in his Lives of the Abbots of Weremouth and Jarrow,—“Missis Romam monachis tempore beatæ recordationis Sergii Papæ, privilegium ab eo pro tuitione sui monasterii instar illius, quod Agatho Papa Benedicto dederat, accepit Ceolfridus. Quod Britanniæ perlatum, et coram Synodo patefactum, præsentium Episcoporum simul et magnifici Regis Alfridi subscriptione confirmatum est, quomodo etiam prius illud sui temporis Regem et Episcopos in Synodo publice confirmasse non latet.”

“Some monks were sent to Rome in the time of Pope Sergius, of blessed memory, and through them Ceolfrid received from him a privilege for the protection of his monastery, as Benedict had before received from Pope Agatho. Which, being brought back to Britain, and laid before a Synod, was confirmed by the subscription of the bishops who were present, and his highness King Alfrid, in the same way as we know the former was subscribed in a Synod by the king and bishops of that time.”

This fact seems to throw some light on the letter of Sergius. If, as is probable, he therein alludes to this charter, he does so in terms not so clear as would have been made to appear by Malmesbury, if the letter were a forgery, and yet sufficiently clear when the allusion is explained. This is indirect testimony to the genuineness of the document. As to the word “presbyterum,” priest, being interpolated by Malmesbury, he might have done so very innocently, knowing that Bede was afterwards a priest, and at the moment not reflecting that he was not one at the time.

It is a most obvious error for an historian to describe a man in his youth by the titles which he received at a later period of his life.

But let us now examine the solution of this difficulty, which has been proposed from the Cottonian MS. The text of that document, which, having suffered from fire, is now under process of restoration and cannot be inspected, is said to be as follows:—

Ut—absque ulla remoratione religiosum Dei nostri famulum venerabilis tui monasterii ad veneranda limina Apostolorum, &c. non moreris dirigere.

According to the proposed solution it will be necessary to translate this passage:—

That you do not delay to send some religious servant of God of your venerable monastery to the hallowed threshold of the Apostles, &c.

To this interpretation there is one insuperable objection; in a passage where no individual has been previously mentioned, “devotum Dei nostri famulum” cannot mean some or a devout servant of God: the insertion of quendam is absolutely necessary. It must mean “the or that devout servant of God,” and to make this intelligible some proper name is required. The inference would rather be, that in the MS. in question the word Bedam had been inadvertently omitted.

I had already noticed this difficulty, when I accidentally referred to Mr. Hardy’s edition of William of Malmesbury, where he gives a different reading of the same MS., which clears up the whole question. “From what is here stated, the tradition that Bede visited Rome met probably with supporters in Malmesbury’s time, though he does not seem to attach great weight to it. The letter of Pope Sergius, however, affords the strongest presumption that Bede was invited over: and the argument of the learned Wilkins assigns a probable reason why the journey was not undertaken: he thinks that the letter was written in the last year of the pontificate of Sergius (A.D. 701), and conjectures that the subsequent arrival of messengers in England with tidings of the pontiff’s decease occasioned Beda to relinquish his purposed journey. An opinion, however, has been lately expressed, that ‘the story of Beda’s summons to Rome is founded upon an error committed by Malmesbury, who, having met with a letter in which Pope Sergius requested Ceolfrid, Abbot of Jarrow, to send one of his monks to Rome, concluded that Beda was that individual, and most unjustifiably inserted his name therein.’ In support of this charge it has been alleged, that there is still extant (of an earlier date than Malmesbury’s work) a copy of this letter, (Tiberius, A. xv.) in which the passage relating to Beda does not occur. In answer to this it may be urged, that Usher, who had seen and copied the letter from the MS. above alluded to, arrives at no such conclusion. He had, moreover, in his possession an ancient MS. containing the letter entire, from which Malmesbury gives but extracts; and therein Beda’s name does occur, though he is not described as presbyter. The only inference drawn by Usher is, that the omission of Beda’s description is not without reason, inasmuch as he had not at that time been ordained priest. Before it can be admitted as a just inference that Malmesbury interpolated the passage in question, it must be shewn that Tiberius A. xv. was the identical copy of the letter he used; a conclusion which cannot fairly be drawn, as it is incredible but that other copies of the letter must have been extant when he wrote: and it ought rather to be contended that the one he saw must have contained the passage in dispute; for Malmesbury (whose great integrity is admitted by all writers) several times expressly declares that he declined inserting anything in his history for which he had not the best authority. Moreover, had he been guilty of the interpolation attributed to him, it is improbable that he would have used language so candid as that he has employed.” “In the Cotton MS. (Tiberius, A. xv. fol. 6) the passage occurs thus: ‘Dei famulum N. venerabilis tui monasterii.’ These words have been read incorrectly, as it seems ‘Dei nostri famulum.’ From the fact of the letter N. being found in the Cotton MS. for the name of the person summoned to Rome, it might be inferred that, in the transcript from which the writer copied, the name had been accidentally omitted, and that the passage was not clear:—some word appears wanting to complete the construction of the sentence, as it stands in Tib. A. xv.”

It is quite as likely that Bede should have been specified as any other person, for he was then about twenty-eight years old, and was already beginning to be well known for his extraordinary erudition, particularly in the Scriptures. It appears, therefore, on the whole, the wisest plan to adopt the explanation of Wilkins and Gaehle, who suggest that the death of Sergius, which took place shortly after the writing of the above letter, was the reason why Bede did not take the required journey. The Cottonian MS. above referred to, has not, as we have just seen, been appealed to for the first time. Usher quotes it (apud Wilkins) and says that the word “presbyterum,” priest, is wanting. He does not allude to the absence of the word Bedam, as thinking, probably, that it was an omission of the copyist.








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