18.02.04, Brown and Biggs, Bede, Part 1, Fascicles 1-4

Main Article Content

Conor O’Brien

The Medieval Review 18.02.04

Brown, George Hardin and Frederick M. Biggs. Bede, Part 1, Fascicles 1-4. Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture . Amsterdam:Amsterdam University Press, 2017. pp. 302. ISBN: 978-9089-6471-46 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Conor O’Brien
Churchill College, Cambridge

The Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture (SASLC) project was from the start an ambitious one: a grand attempt to understand in detail how Anglo-Saxon authors read and re-used their sources. It is hardly surprising that the project's results have only been published slowly since the initial volume appeared in 1986. The volume here under review aims to mark the resumption of SASLC publication (both online and in print via Amsterdam University Press) after a hiatus of some years; the choice of such a giant as Bede to inaugurate SASLC redivivus shows that the project has lost none of its ambition with the passing of the years.

This volume forms just the first half of what is intended to be a thorough study of the venerable Northumbrian's influence on subsequent Anglo-Saxon literature. And the emphasis must be on thoroughness. Brown and Biggs devote an entry to each individual work of Bede (including extracts from his work which circulated independently); the monk's 'educational', historical, hagiographical and metrical works are the subject of this volume, with his exegesis and letters to provide the bulk of the subsequent one. Every entry includes a brief discussion of the nature of the work, the circumstances of its writing, its literary significance and the existing scholarship, before moving on to the meat of the matter: a list and discussion of surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, "versions," quotations from and citations/references to the work. This has obviously involved bringing together a vast quantity of existing scholarship and the authors are clear about their debts to previous research. In particular, the name of Michael Lapidge appears very frequently throughout the volume, which draws heavily on his studies both of the manuscript transmission of various of Bede's works and of later Anglo-Latin literature written by authors steeped in the Bedan corpus.

What makes this book impressive, however, and what the authors deserve to have clearly acknowledged, is that Brown and Biggs have gone far beyond simply listing all the already discovered uses of Bede in Anglo-Saxon literature. Possible quotations are reassessed with care and good sense, with unconvincing attributions queried and new examples pointed out (e.g. 55, 99, 102, 292). In other words, Brown and Biggs have not simply taken textual editions' claims for Bede's influence on trust but conscientiously re-examined and discussed them. This must have been back-breaking academic labour; that they undertook it at all shows the seriousness with which the authors approached creating what is likely to become a frequently referred-to research aid for those working on the sources of later Anglo-Saxon writers.

As a research aid, this volume's utility can only really be assessed by individual scholars who approach it with specific questions in mind. This is obviously not a book which one is really meant to sit down with and read from cover to cover. But, since I have done so, what struck me the most about the Anglo-Saxon after-life of Bede? The general picture of Bede's influence is clear: he was seen as an important author very swiftly, exerting a real influence on eighth-century Anglo-Latin literature through Alcuin in particular, but it was essentially the late tenth century that saw an explosion in the use of Bede. Clearly the Benedictine reform movement created an educational environment where familiarity with Bede became a key mark of good learning; Ælfric and Byrthferth seem by far the authors best represented in the lists of quotations from Bede. None of this is very surprising and in general the fortunes of Bede reflect the changing fortunes of Anglo-Saxon literature: a burst of impressive Latin works in the eight-century is followed by a cluster of vernacular writings at the end of the ninth-century, with a boom in literary production coming on either side of the year 1000, in the wake of the monastic reform.

The other major lesson is the very different fates of the majority of Bede's works and of those with a particularly "English" interest (especially the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum). For most of Bede's writings their presence in later Anglo-Saxon England seems to have been entirely dependent on their preservation on the continent (e.g. 44, 50-51, 71); the Carolingian context for Bede's later influence is clearly vital and probably deserves further exploration, in more detail than it has yet received. Things were very different for the Ecclesiastical History and the few of Bede's historical and hagiographical works with a specifically Anglo-Saxon focus; these have unbroken traditions of manuscript preservation in England itself (e.g. 128, 147-152). Anglo-Saxon audiences seem to have had a strong sense of ownership over what we now think of as the Ecclesiastical History. While Bede himself was rather less clear about the work's "official" title than is often asserted, for the majority of later English readers it was straightforwardly the Historia Anglorum or "the books about the English" (e.g. 160, 161, 164, 181, 188).

Bede's importance in Anglo-Saxon England clearly rested on his status as the one essential source for its early Christian history; his history could even be cited in the midst of a liturgical ritual as the authority on which appeals to tradition were grounded (188). With the monastic reform of Edgar's reign and the subsequent literary renaissance which it inspired, Bede as the purveyor of scientific information and good Latin style also seems to have come to the fore. We must await Part II of this study to determine whether the Anglo-Latin tradition depended quite as much on Bede as a source of patristic wisdom as the writers of the Carolingian period did.

While this volume is not primarily intended to be a study of Bede himself, it nevertheless does make a number of interventions into the scholarship on the author and his works. It opines on the issue of the dating of Bede's works and the possibility of tracing (as has been done so influentially for Augustine) changes over time in his thought, concluding on the whole that dividing up Bede's career into different stages is almost impossible since he spoke with "a remarkably consistent voice" (22). That consistency of voice is well noted, although it probably came from Bede's deep immersion in patristic tradition more than anything else; the search for change in Bede's thought will, I suspect, be one of the most important tasks facing the next generation of scholarship on the monk. [1] The implication (123-124) that Bede's Historia abbatum was written as a kind of personal reflection on the trauma of Abbot Ceolfrith of Wearmouth-Jarrow's resignation in 716 strikes me as highly unlikely, indeed anachronistic: writing therapy is unlikely to have existed in early Anglo-Saxon monasteries, and if it did parchment was certainly not devoted to copying the results. Most scholars would agree that the Historia abbatum responded to confusion within Bede's monastery at an important moment of transition, but that it did so by pushing a fully-formed agenda. It was a text intended to shape the community at Wearmouth-Jarrow, which was its likely primary audience.

Most readers, however, will not approach this volume seeking to learn about Bede; it is a research aid to help them understand how his writings were later used in Anglo-Saxon literature. With that in mind there are some frustrating aspects to the organisation of the volume which Amsterdam University Press would be well-advised to try to correct. The volume's title declares it to be Part 1, Fascicles 1-4 of the SASLC study of Bede, but the introduction seems to describe the entire volume as Fascicle 1 of a two-fascicle work (23). The table of contents divides the volume into six (un-numbered) chapters, three of which are devoted to different genres of Bede's poetic writings. A consistent use of terminology would be helpful, although the confusion does not make the text unnavigable. More serious is the complete lack of a bibliography in this volume--a major problem when references are given in an extremely abbreviated "author-date" style. Unless one already knows all the necessary literature, this volume does not help one find the source for most scholarly citations; Google usually comes to the rescue, but readers should not have to balance book and laptop simultaneously in order to get the most out a volume for which they have paid over $100. The bibliography will appear in the forthcoming Part 2, but in the meantime the utility of this book as a reference volume is severely undermined by what one assumes is publisher cost-cutting.

Furthermore, somewhat more rigorous copy-editing might have caught a number of mistakes and ambiguities. Brown and Biggs imply that Benedict Biscop was accompanied to Rome on his second journey there by "Alchfrith son of Oswiu" (131), but the Historia abbatum is clear that Alchfrith never made it to Rome as he had hoped. Many readers will not be aware that the "brother John" of a quotation from Paul Meyvaert (227) is in fact a completely fictional name for a member of the Wearmouth-Jarrow community posited by Meyvaert to explain certain peculiarities of the Codex Amiatinus. A few typos appear (the length of Mercury's circuit is given as both "369" and "329" days at 62, "Gregory" is printed for "Augustine" at 178, "metrical" for "prose" at 298), but I have seen worse copy-editing in more expensive volumes from better-known presses.

Over thirty years after it began publication, Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture remains an ambitious project which aims to provide students of Anglo-Saxon England, its writers and their work with an impressive array of research aids. Alongside its forthcoming companion volume, this book is likely to take its place as a well-thumbed resource in any institution where Old English and Anglo-Latin are seriously studied. Brown and Biggs have not transformed our understanding of Bede himself as an author, and Amsterdam University Press would be well advised to make a few improving tweaks to subsequent printings, but without a doubt this book succeeds in its core purpose.

-------- Notes:

1. I confess to being biased, having in the past sought to map such changes: Conor O'Brien, Bede's Temple: An Image and its Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), chs. 3 and 8.

Article Details