The Medieval Review 15.01.36

Grocock, Christopher, and I.N. Wood, eds. and trans. Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2013. Pp. 214. ISBN: 9780198207610 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Scott DeGregorio
University of Michigan-Dearborn

This long-awaited volume in the acclaimed Oxford Medieval Text series contains fresh editions and translations of four documents from the Age of Bede whose status as eyewitnesses to the events and places they describe give them, so claim the editors, "unique relevance to the study of the Anglo-Saxon world, and of Anglo-Saxon monasticism" (xiii). Three of these were authored by Bede himself: the Historia abbatum records the history of the founding of the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow; the Homelia in natal s. Benedicti, part of Bede's series of 50 gospel homilies, commemorates the life of the twin-monastery's founder Benedict Biscop; and the Epistola ad Ecgbertum Episcopum assesses the dire state of the Northumbrian church, including several issues relating to monasticism, and is unique in being Bede's last extant piece of writing, authored just months before his death in May 735. The fourth text, the Vita Ceolfridi, also renders an account of the founding of Wearmouth-Jarrow, though presented through the life of just one abbot; some have argued that this text too is by Bede, but the consensus view, upheld by this volume on stylistic as well as other grounds, is that the text is non-Bedan though surely authored by a close, unfortunately anonymous contemporary. As the title Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow suggests, the Historia abbatum (hereafter HA) and the Vita Ceolfridi (hereafter VC) comprise the bulk of the volume and form its centerpiece, the other text providing ancillary though no less informative reading. While all minor compositions when stood alongside the towering Ecclesiastical History of the English People, or Bede's voluminous run of exegetical commentaries, these four texts undoubtedly do open a wide window onto key issues in the study of Bede's life and writings and Northumbrian culture at large. And so it is a boon to have them in a single scholarly volume that highlights their relevance and urges comparative study.

Like other works in this well-respected series, the volume contains a substantial introduction designed to make both the language and the cultural-historical import of the texts accessible to readers. Much of the cultural-historical portion of the introduction --ten of the twelve sections, by my count--engages the political back-story associated with these texts, for there is indeed a back-story and it is, we learn, vexed with problems Bede was keen to cloak if not dispel. They come into view when the two accounts of Wearmouth-Jarrow storied past are laid side-by-side and vetted, and this task the introduction performs admirably. We learn the following. VC was written by an anonymous contemporary not long after Bede composed HA in late 716. While distinct in their focus--VC presents the life of one abbot while HA covers five--and marked by various idiosyncrasies that distinguish them enough, thematically the two works are of a piece: both are hagiographic in design, both extol the same eclectic form of monasticism, both endorse the ecclesial traditions of Rome, both emphasize the community's prerogative to choose its abbot, and--most importantly--both present the same idyllic picture of two monasteries joined happily under one abbot for the sake of peace, unity, and harmony. Readers familiar with the rhetoric of the Ecclesiastical History will immediately sense the parallel. The idealized portraits of past figures to be found there function in part to mask a troubled contemporary local climate, and so is the case here. Thus the myth of a combined house that was united from the moment of Jarrow's foundation in 685 is debunked as just that, a fiction designed to conceal the discrepant histories of the two monasteries and the inner divisions that had wracked the community. Indeed, the period covered by both authors, stretching from the founding of Wearmouth in 673 to the death of Ceolfrith in 716, was tumultuous for the community as well as the kingdom at large. The involvement of Benedict Biscop's family in Wearmouth, his blood ties to Ceolfrith and Eosterwine, the royal status of the land on which Jarrow was founded, Ceolfrith's connections to the polemical figure of Wilfrid and his eventual appointment as abbot of both houses-- these head the list of thorny issues we learn were afoot and, it appears, putting our writers on the defensive. Meanwhile, that Ceolfrith's decision to vacate his abbacy and head for Rome in 716 came on the heels of the death--or better murder--of the young king Osred suggests well enough that instability in the Northumbrian political climate weighed not a little on the community, and this right at the time Bede is thought to have begun HA. Here, the decision to include Bede's Epistola ad Ecgbertum Episcopum in the volume should be applauded. For this, his last extent work decrying the breakdown in church and court, brings home better than anything else the recognition that the texts edited here were borne from an atmosphere of crisis.

At the same time, the introduction does a fine job distinguishing Bede from the anonymous author. Because the two texts blend into each other thematically, the job of differentiating them and--more so--their authors is not easily essayed, especially in the case of the anonymous writer of whom we know only that he was a contemporary of Bede and, like him, learned enough to compose well in Latin. One therefore has to be on the lookout for what even the smallest discrepancies might reveal. A brave instance of such detective work ably performed by Grocock and Wood is their take on an anecdote told near the end of VC to the effect that Ceolfrid's father had inherited his aristocratic values from his parents. The father, the story goes, being in the employ of the king, had once prepared him a great feast, but when it turned out that the king could not attend the father quickly distributed the sumptuous food to the poor and needy. The story is told in part to make the point that Ceolfrith's father was prone to such acts of generosity because he had inherited them from his parents (a parente quasi hereditario iure susceptum). The editors find it of significance that this tale has no corollary in HA, arguing that Bede was "apparently less interested in the aristocratic virtue of generosity" and "more deeply imbued with the ideals of St Benedict", than the anonymous author. This prompts some additional speculation: "It might just be an indication that Bede did not belong to the aristocracy, and that his parents were not high-status" (lxiv). Elaborating further, they assert more confidently that "the differing attitudes implied by Bede and the Anonymous do indicate that they were not one and the same person, despite the similarities of their Latin style. We are not dealing simply with an author rewriting his own text to suit new circumstances, but with two authors who had different attitudes towards basic issues such as the virtue of generosity. In turn this indicates that Bede was not the only competent author to emerge at Wearmouth and Jarrow in the first half-century of the community, which in itself is an indication of the remarkable legacy of Ecgfrith, Biscop and Ceolfrith" (lxiv).

From this comment the introduction turns to an analysis of the Latin of these works and here offers further confirmation that we are dealing with two different authors. The discussion proceeds on two fronts, stylistic and statical, whence it draws mutually supporting conclusions. Stylistically the two works are not dissimilar and may even reflect a certain "house style" (lxv) typical of Wearmouth-Jarrow. And yet VC is shown to be characterized by several features--sloppiness of syntax, abrupt changes of subject, meandering present-particles clauses, verbosity and long sentences chief among them--that are not generally characteristic of the balance, clarity and economy typical of Bede's Latin. Some of this, it is argued, should be seen as attributable to differences in structure and purpose between the two works, the VC being essentially homiletic whereas HA "reads much more like an extended piece which would have fitted well into the framework of the Historia Ecclesiastica (where it may have been intended to go at some point) and which in a modern work of history could have formed either a separate chapter or an appendix" (lxvi)--itself a fascinating speculation. The statistical data assembled meanwhile treats three types of evidence--words per sentence, words per clause, and clauses per sentence--and concludes that HA, while being the longest of the texts yet at the same time the text with the shortest average sentence length, and the Homily on Benedict and the Epistle ad Ecgbertum being nearly identical across the three categories, VC stands apart--it has the longest average sentence length and also tops the list in terms of words per clause and clauses per sentence. "While these statistics", the editors conclude, "only give a crude indication by themselves of the varying practice in each text, they do provide an overall picture of the practice which is found in the four separate works; they indicate divergences within the genuinely Bedan works, showing that there is no such thing as a single Bedan style, and moreover that attempts to identify sources from which Bede drew or used as models is by no means a straightforward task. Taken as a whole, they also demonstrate the overall divergence between those three and the Vita Ceolfridi which has been indicated above, reinforcing the overall position taken here that this last work is not by Bede" (lxxxvii). These are shrewd remarks, especially the warning about a "single Bedan style". While it may appear evident enough that different styles would distinguish Bede's exegetical commentaries from his narrative histories, the comparisons offered here teach us that, even in cases of more closely aligned genres, like homilies and hagiographies, his practice was varied and nuanced.

The editions themselves, in Latin and English facing pages, with footnotes for editorial comment correction and historical commentary, are in the main competently done. At times the level of annotation perhaps runs a bit thin, but in general there is good balance of text and commentary per page and much that is insightful. At points the translations of HA and VC are freer, at others closer, to Bede's Latin when compared to the translations to be found in Farmer's The Age of Bede (Penguin, rev. ed. 1988), while the same may be said for the Epistle ad Ecgbertum if compared to the oft-cited English translation in Collin's and McClure's Oxford World's Classics volume (Oxford, 1994). The cumulative bibliography (189-204) and indices of biblical, classical and medieval allusions (205-7) reflect the heft of the volume and the high level of the scholarship it contains. Together with the lengthy introduction which sets the primary material in crucible of ecclesiastical and political decline that was Northumbrian in the early eighth century, these texts can now be studied closer than ever before and more tightly connected to other Bedan works and scholarly work on them, particularly Bede's biblical exegesis. The excellence of Charles Plummer's late nineteenth-century Latin editions notwithstanding, upon which the field has heretofore long had to rely, the texts and translations in this new volume will now be the standards for generations present and to come.

Copyright (c) 2015 Scott DeGregorio

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