From the sources V: Bede’s letter to Egbert

Apropos of putting together a lecture on medieval monasticism I was reminded of something that has before struck me as surprising, that there is not very obviously a translation online of Bede’s letter to Bishop Egbert of York. If you only know Bede by the fairly serene and edificatory Ecclesiastical History (though that is, you should be aware, only a fraction of his work) you might be surprised by the realist and angry moraliser that seems to have written this text, and it’s a really useful source for things that can get deformed in a convert Church, and, therefore, for what those who later wished to reform might be upset about. It’s quite odd that it’s not on dozens of sites already. Now, it’s in the Collins & McClure translation of the Ecclesiastical History as an appendix, and when you search the web for the text that’s what you get, lots of places trying to sell you the book. Many people have probably met it there, but it’s not online, at least not wholly, and the fact that that translation is very much in copyright (and also the fact that Professor Collins lives on his publishing revenue so I’ve no wish to diminish it) means I don’t want to snag that. Instead, after a bit of digging around for older editions, I discovered that the translation, and indeed the edition should you want it, of J. A. Giles is in the Internet Archive (which is, let’s remember, your open-access Google Books alternative, which many people think we need). But, it’s a quality old book with explanatory notes in the margins and repeated headwords and so on, and these things have badly confused the Internet Archive’s OCR (though the PDF versions are fine). In any case, it’s not coming up very high in the searches, so I’ve grabbed the translation of the letter and cleaned it up for HTML, and I post it below the cut.1 It’s not exactly modern English (words like ‘Israelitish’ and ‘laics’ may delight me more than you) but it’s there and gives you the idea.

Pen portrait of Bede from a manuscript of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Pen portrait of Bede from a manuscript of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People

I use a cut because it goes on for a bit and maybe some of you don’t immediately feel an interest. For those who want more reason to read it, I offer you one of those coincidences that blogging seems to make more frequent, I mean obvious. Having just loaded the bit in Bede’s letter about how these darn false monasteries are sapping the kingdom’s military strength into the week’s handout, I turned to a book I was reading for something else entirely, but by coincidence the relevant paper was also about early monasticism, this time in Bética in Spain under the ægis of Fructuosus of Braga. And the author I was reading, José Orlandis, notes that Fructuosus’s hagiographer claims that Fructuosus converted some many people in Bética to the monastic life, “that the duces of the army were given over to fear that the crowds of monks forming were so formidable, that there was a consequent danger to military recruitment —non esset qui in expeditione publica profisceretur.”4

For Orlandis, this was an example of the hagiographer’s style, “tal vez hiperbólico”, but if you’ve looked under the cut you’ll see that Bede thought it was a genuine concern. I know Bede used Isidore but I don’t know of any sign that he knew of the Vita Sancti Fructuosi—others reading may know better of course— and in any case it seems an odd thing for him to have done, to invoke a literary allusion in a letter which purports to be about an immediate political problem. If Egbert knew this wasn’t really some kind of issue the rest of the advice would be weakened by it. So I tend to think that Bede might confirm this issue in Bética, rather than derive from it. It’s interesting either way, though, isn’t it? Well, I think so anyway. It seems to suggest a very small military group in these kingdoms, and that they might be as tempted by a monastic lifestyle as a military one. I’m reminded of the bit in Gesta Tancredi where Ralph of Caen depicts Tancred, before hearing about the First Crusade, as being faced with only these two alternatives. How old is that choice, do you reckon? Perhaps, as with many things, not just new after the year 1000… ? (Here: that doesn’t seem to be online, either. I’m sure I’ve seen that online. Well, maybe that’s next then… )

I should also say that, because this series is in danger of being lost in the wash of the blog, I’ve started another index page for these posts where I transcribe source material, and you can see it listed at the top I hope. Anyway, here is the actual source for this one:

Bede, the Servant of Christ, to his most Beloved the Right Reverend Bishop Egbert*, Health!

§ 1. I REMEMBER hearing you say last year, when I spent a few days in your monastery for purposes of study, that you would wish, this year also, when you should arrive at the same place, to have me near you to converse with, for the same purposes of study, common to us both. If this wish could, by God’s favour, be accomplished, there would be no need of my communicating with you at present by letter, since I could then more freely in private conversation say to you, face to face, whatever I wished or deemed expedient. But since the state of my health has, as you know, become such as to prevent this from coming to pass, I have yet, with brotherly devotion, in return for your affection, sent you by letter what I was not able to communicate in person. And I pray you by the Lord, not to consider the point of this letter to be fraught with arrogance and vanity, but as the true submission of humility and pious affection.

§ 2. I therefore exhort your Holiness, my beloved Bishop in Christ, to confirm both by holy life and by holy teaching, the sacred dignity which God, the Author of dignities and Giver of spiritual gifts, hath bestowed upon you. For neither of these is complete without the other: if the bishop whose life is pure, omits the duty of teaching, or the good teacher neglects to practise what is right. But he who faithfully does both, is that servant who shall with joy await the coming of the Lord, hoping soon to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” [Matt. xxv. 23.] But if any one, which God forbid, shall receive the rank of bishop, and shall take no pains, either by a righteous life, to save himself from evil, or his people by punishing and admonishing them; what shall happen to him when the Lord comes at an hour that he knew not of, is declared plainly in that Gospel sentence, addressed to the unprofitable servant, “Cast him into outer darkness: where shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

§ 3. In particular, I advise your fatherly sanctity to abstain in your pontifical dignity from idle confabulations, and revellings, and other pollutions of the unrestrained tongue; and to occupy your tongue and mind in divine preachings and meditations on Scripture, and particularly in reading the epistles of the Apostle St. Paul to Timothy and Titus, and in the words of the blessed Pope Gregory, wherein he hath spoken much and curiously on the life and the faults of rulers, in his recommended book of the Pastoral Rule, and in his homilies on the Gospel, that your language should always be seasoned with the salt of wisdom, elevated above the common diction, and more worthy of the Divine ear. For, as it is unbecoming that the holy vessels of the altar should ever be profaned by vulgar use and vile services, so is it in every respect untoward and lamentable, that he who is ordained to consecrate the Lord’s sacraments upon the altar, should at one moment stand ministering to the Lord at such ceremonies, and then, leaving the church, with the same mouth and the same hands, with which he had before been handling sacred things, should suddenly talk of trifles or do what will give the Lord offence.

§ 4. Purity of tongue, as well as of conduct, is best preserved, not only by sacred reading, but also by intercourse with those who are devout servants of our Lord; so that if my tongue begins to run wild, or evil deeds suggest themselves to me, I may be sustained by the hands of my faithful brethren and preserved from falling. If this be expedient to all God’s children, how much more so to men of that rank, who have not only the care of their own salvation, but also that of the church committed to their charge, as we find it written, “besides those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is made weak, and I am not made weak ? Who is scandalized, and I burn not?” [2 Cor. xi. 28] I do not say this from any suspicion that you act otherwise; but because it is noised abroad concerning some bishops, that they have no men of religion or continence near them; but rather such as indulge in laughter and jests, revellings, and drunkenness and other temptations of an idle life, and who rather feed their bodies with carnal food than their minds on the heavenly sacrifice. Such, if you should meet with any, I would wish you to correct by your holy authority, and advise them to have such witnesses of their conversation, both by night and day, as may suffice to benefit the people, by actions worthy of the Lord, and by suitable exhortations, and so further the spiritual labours of the bishops themselves. For read the Acts of the Apostles, and you will see by the narrative of Saint Luke, what companions Paul and Barnabas had with them, and what works they themselves wrought, wherever they went. For as soon as they entered a city or a synagogue, they sought to preach the word of God, and to disseminate it on every side. This, I would wish you also, beloved friend, to make your aim; for to this duty you were elected, to this you were consecrated, that with great virtues you should preach the Gospel, by the aid of him who is the Prince of all virtue, Jesus Christ our Lord. You will accomplish this, if, wherever you arrive, you gather together the inhabitants, lay before them the words of exhortation, and in the character of leader of the celestial warfare, set an example of life together with all who may have come with you.

§ 5. And because your diocese is too extensive, for you alone to go through it, and preach the word of God in every village and hamlet, even if you give a whole year to it; it is necessary that you appoint others to assist you in the holy work, by ordaining priests and nominating teachers who may be zealous in preaching the word of God in every village, and celebrating the holy mysteries, and especially by performing the sacred rites of baptism wherever opportunity may offer. And in setting forth such preaching to the people, I consider it above every other thing important, that you should endeavour to implant deeply in the memory of all men the Catholic faith which is contained in the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer as it is taught us in the Holy Gospel. And, indeed, there is no doubt that those who have studied the Latin language will be found to know these well; but the vulgar, that is, those who know only their own language, must be made to say them and repeat them over and over again in their own tongue. This must be done not only in the case of laymen, who are still in the life of the world, but with the clergy or monks, who are without a knowledge of the Latin tongue. For thus every congregation of the faithful will learn in what manner they ought to show their faith, and with what steadfastness of belief they should arm and fortify themselves against the assaults of unclean spirits: and thus every choir of those who pray to God will learn what they ought especially to ask for from the Divine Mercy. Wherefore, also, I have myself often given English translations of both these, namely, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, to uneducated priests. For the holy prelate, Ambrose, also, speaking of faith, gives this admonition, that all the faithful should repeat the words of the Creed every morning early, and so fortify themselves as by a spiritual antidote against the poison, which the malignant cunning of the Devil may either by night or by day cast out against them. But that the Lord’s Prayer should be very frequently repeated, as even we have learnt by the habit of earnest deprecation and bending of knees.

§ 6. If your pastoral authority can accomplish these our suggestions in ruling and feeding Christ’s sheep, who shall declare what a heavenly reward you will prepare for yourself before Him who is the Shepherd of shepherds? The fewer examples you find of this holy work among the bishops of our nation, the higher will be your reward for your individual merit, inasmuch as you will by this paternal care and affection stir up and excite God’s people through the frequent repetition of the Creed, or holy prayer, to seek after intelligence, love, hope, and all those same heavenly gifts which are enumerated in their prayers. As, too, on the contrary, if you negligently discharge the duty committed to you by the Lord, you will take part hereafter with the wicked and idle servant for thus withholding your talent; especially if you have presumed to ask and receive from such temporal gifts, on whom you have not thought fit to bestow heavenly gifts in recompense. For when the Lord sent his disciples to preach the Gospel, and said to them, “And as ye go, preach, saying: The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he added, a little further on, “Freely ye have received, freely give; provide neither gold nor silver.”” [Matthew, x. 7, 8, 9] If, therefore, he ordered them to preach the Gospel freely, and did not permit them to receive gold or silver, or any temporal payment of money from those to whom they preached, what hazard, I would ask, must hang over those who do the contrary?

§ 7. Consider what a heavy crime is committed by those who diligently seek earthly lucre from their hearers, and take no pains for their everlasting salvation, by preaching, exhorting, or rebuking them. Weigh this most anxiously and with the most careful attention, most beloved Prelate. For we have heard it reported, that there are many country-houses and hamlets of our nation situated on inaccessible mountains and thick forests, where, for many years, no bishop comes to perform any of the duties of holy ministry or Divine grace, yet none of these is free from paying tribute to the bishop; and yet not only is there no bishop among them to confirm by the laying on of hands those who have been baptized, but they have not even any teacher to instruct them in the truth of the faith, and in the difference between good and evil. Thus some of our bishops not only do not freely preach the Gospel and confirm those who have been baptized, but do what is worse; for they receive money from their hearers contrary to God’s commands, and neglect the ministry of the word, which God ordained them to preach : whereas God’s beloved high priest, Samuel, is recorded to have acted very differently, in the judgment of all the people.** “Therefore,” says he, “I have dwelt before you from my youth even to this day; behold, here I am; say of me before God, and before his Christ, whether I have taken any one’s ox or ass; whether I have falsely accused any one, or oppressed any one, or taken a gift from the hand of any one; and I will hold it for nought this day, and will restore it to you. And they said, Thou hast not accused us falsely; neither hast thou oppressed us, nor taken any thing from the hand of any man.” In reward for his innocence and justice he was numbered among the leaders and priests of God’s people, and in his prayers was heard by God and admitted to converse with him; as the Psalmist says, “Moses and Aaron among his priests and Samuel among them that call upon his name; they called upon the Lord and he answered them. He spake unto them in the cloudy pillar.” [Psalm xcix]

§ 8. But, if we believe, and confess, that any good is wrought on the faithful by the laying on of hands, whereby they receive the Holy Spirit; it follows, on the contrary, that those who have not the laying on of hands, must be deprived of this benefit. On whom, then, does this privation reflect, if not on the bishops who promise they will be their guardians, but either from neglect or inability perform none of the spiritual duties of a guardian? Covetousuess and nothing else, is the cause of this conduct. Against which the apostle (in whom Christ spake) argues, when he says, “The love of money is the root of all evil;” [1 Tim vi. 10] and again, “Neither shall the covetous inherit the kingdom of God.” [1 Cor. vi. 10] For when a bishop, for the love of money, has nominally taken under his guardianship a larger portion of the people than he can by any means visit and preach to the whole year round, it is plain that he is only gathering danger and destruction for himself, as well as those whose false guardian he is.

§ 9. Thus far, most beloved Bishop, have I briefly alluded to the calamity under which our country is suffering most severely, and I earnestly beseech you to strive to rectify what you see done amiss. For I believe you have a ready assistant in so good a labour in King Ceolwulph [729-737], who, by his own zeal for religion, will endeavour firmly to lend his aid in whatever relates to the rule of piety, and most especially will exert himself to promote and bring to completion the good works which you, his dearest relation, shall undertake; wherefore I would prudently advise him, that he should in your time make the ecclesiastical establishment of our nation more complete than it has hitherto been. This cannot be better done, in my opinion, than by consecrating more bishops, and following the example of the lawgiver, who, when he found himself unable alone to bear the strife and burden of the whole Israelitish people, moved by Divine inspiration, appointed and consecrated seventy Elders, whose aid and counsel might aid him in discharging his heavy duties. Who is there that does not see how much better it would be to divide the weighty load of ecclesiastical rule among several, who can the more easily bear each his portion, than for the whole weight to be laid on one,–a burden greater than he can bear ? For the holy Pope Gregory, in his letters to the blessed Archbishop Augustine concerning the faith of our nation, which was still future and required their exertions to sustain it, ordered him to ordain twelve bishops therein, as soon as they should have embraced the faith, and that the Bishop of York should receive the pallium from the Apostolic See, and become their metropolitan. Wherefore, holy Father, I would wish that you should, under the holy guidance of the above-named king, whom God loveth, endeavour, to the best of your judgment, to make this number of bishops complete, in order that the number of ministers may abound, and the church of Christ be the more fully instructed in those things which pertain to the duties of our holy religion. And, indeed, we know that, by the negligence and foolish donations of preceding kings, it is not easy to find a vacant place where a new episcopal see may be erected.

§ 10. I should therefore consider it expedient, that a general council should be held, and the consent both of kings and bishops be obtained, that, by a proclamation, a place may be provided among the monasteries, where an episcopal see may be created. And, lest any abbot or monks may endeavour to contravene or oppose this decree, licence should be given them to choose some one from among themselves to be ordained bishop, and to rule with episcopal authority, over the adjoining country belonging to the same diocese, as well as the monastery itself: or, if no one can be found in that monastery fit to be ordained bishop, yet that it shall depend upon their examination, according to the canonical statutes, who shall be ordained bishop of that diocese. By following this suggestion, and with God’s assistance, you will find no difficulty, I think, in fulfilling the appointment of the Apostolic See, and the Bishop of the church of York will become the metropolitan. And, if it appear necessary that any addition of land or property should be made to such a monastery, that it may be the better able to undertake the episcopal duties, there are, as we know well, many places calling themselves monasteries, but exhibiting no sign whatever of a monastic system; some of which I should much like to see transferred by synodical authority, that their present luxury, vanity, and intemperance in meat and drink might be exchanged for chastity, temperance, and piety, and that they may so help to sustain the episcopal see, which is to be created.

§ 11. And, seeing that there are many such large establishments, which, as is commonly said, are of use neither to God nor man, because they neither observe regular monastic life, nor yet supply soldiers or attendants of the secular authorities to defend our shores from barbarians; if any one were, according to the necessities of the times, to erect an episcopal see in such places, he may be shown to incur no blame of prevarication, but rather to be doing an act of virtue. For how can it be accounted a misdeed, that the unjust decrees of former kings should be set right by the correct judgment of princes better than they? or that the lying pen of unrighteous scribes should be destroyed and nullified by the discreet sentence of wiser priests, according to the example of ancient history, which, in describing the times of the kings of Judah, from David and Solomon to Hezekiah, the last of them, shows that some of them were religious, but the greater number reprobate; and that at one time the wicked censured the deeds of the good who went before them, but at another time the good, with the aid of God’s holy spirit, zealously corrected the hurtful deeds of their wicked predecessors, as was their bounden duty, by means of the holy priests and prophets ; according to that saying of the holy Prophet Esaias, “To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free.” [Isaiah, lviii. 6] By which example it behoves your Holiness also, in conjunction with our religious king, to cancel the irreligious and unrighteous deeds and writings of those who lived formerly, and to fix your eye on such things as may benefit this province, either according to God, or according to the flesh; lest, in these our times, either religion cease altogether, (together with the love and fear of Him who seeth into the heart,) or the number of our secular soldiers become lessened, and our borders be no longer defended from the inroads of the barbarians. For, disgraceful though it be to say it, so many estates have been received under the name of monasteries by those who know nothing whatever of the monastic life, as you yourselves know better than I, that the sons of the nobles, or of discharged soldiers, can find no place wherein to receive their possessions; and thus, having nothing to do, and not marrying, though past the age of puberty, they are held by no tie of continence; and therefore either go beyond the sea and abandon their country, which they ought to fight for; or, with still greater wickedness and impudence, not being bound to chastity, become addicted to luxury and fornication, and do not abstain even from the very virgins who are dedicated to God.

§ 12. But others, who are laymen, and have no experience of the regular monastic life, nor any love for the same, commit a still greater scandal:–for they give money to the kings, and under pretence of erecting monasteries they acquire possessions, wherein the more freely to indulge their licentiousness; and procuring these by a royal edict to be assigned over to them in inheritance, they get the deed by which these privileges are confirmed, as if it were a matter worthy of God’s notice, authenticated by the signatures of the bishops, abbots, and secular authorities. And thus, having gained possession of farms and villages, they free themselves from every bond, both human and Divine, and in the character of superiors over monks, though they are but laymen, they do nothing therein but gratify their desires. Nay, it is not monks that are there assembled, but all such as they can pick up, outcasts from other monasteries for disobedience, or men whom they can allure away from other monasteries, or, in short, such of their own followers as they can persuade to receive the tonsure, and promise monastic obedience to themselves. With such ill-sorted societies do they fill the cells which they have built, whilst they present a disgraceful spectacle, never before heard of: for at one time they are occupied with their wives and the care of raising children, and at another time they rise from their beds to occupy themselves with the internal concerns of the monastery. Furthermore they display the same folly in procuring land for their wives, as they say, to erect convents, and these, equally foolish, though also laics, suffer themselves to become the superiors over Christ’s handmaidens. Well suited to them is the proverb that wasps, though they can make combs, yet store them with poison instead of honey.

§ 13. Thus for about thirty years, ever since King Aldfrid was removed from this life, our province has been involved in such folly and error, that there has not been a single præfect since that time, who has not furnished himself during his præfecture with a monastery of this kind, and involved his wife also in the guilt of such wicked traffic; and thus this wicked custom has prevailed, and the king’s ministers and servants have bestirred themselves to do the like. So that numbers of men have been found, who call themselves abbots and præfects, or ministers or servants of the king, who, although as laymen, they may have learnt a little of the monastic life, not by experience, but by hearsay, yet are utterly without share of that character and profession which is required to teach it; and, indeed, such men, as you know, on a sudden submit to the tonsure, and of their own judgment, from laymen, become not monks but abbots. But, inasmuch as they have no knowledge nor love of the above-named excellence, what can be more applicable to them than that malediction of the Gospel, “If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch”? Such blindness might, in truth, some time or other, be put an end to and restrained by regular discipline, and expelled by pontifical and synodical authority beyond the limits of the Holy Church, if the pontiffs themselves were not found to aid and abet such crimes; for they not only do not take care to annul such unrighteous decrees by righteous ones, but rather do all in their power to confirm them by their own subscriptions, as we have said before, prompted by the same love of money to confirm those wicked writings, as the purchasers themselves were to buy such monasteries. I could tell you much more about these and such like traitors to their own cause, by whom our province is grievously vexed, if I did not know that you are yourself well acquainted therewith. For in what I have written to you already, I have not supposed that I was informing you of a thing which you were before ignorant of, but I wished to advise you in a friendly manner, to correct with all diligence faults, of the existence of which you were already well informed.

§ 14. And now I pray and beseech you in the Lord, to protect the flock committed to you from the fury of assailing wolves; and remember that you are appointed to be their shepherd, not a hireling; to show forth your love of the Chief Shepherd, by the skilful feeding of his sheep; and to be ready with the blessed Prince of the Apostles, if occasion require, to lay down your life for the same. Beware, I entreat you, lest on the day of judgment that same Prince of the Apostles, and the other leaders of faithful flocks, present to the Lord the fruits of their pastoral care, whilst among yours may be found a portion, that deserves to be placed on his left hand among the goats, and to depart with curses unto everlasting punishment; nay, even yourself may on that day deserve to be classed among those of whom Esaias said: “He shall be the least among a thousand, and a little one among a strong nation.” For it is your duty most diligently to inquire into whatever right and wrong is done in all the monasteries of your district, that no abbot, who is ignorant of the rules or despises them, and also that no unworthy abbess, be placed over any society of Christ’s servants or handmaidens. And on the other hand, that no contemptuous and undisciplined society of contumacious hearers spurn against the supervision of their spiritual masters; and this the more especially, since you say, that all inquiry into what is done within the walls of a monastery belongs to you, and not to the king, or any of the secular princes, save when any one in the monasteries is found to have offended against the princes themselves. It is your duty, I say, to provide, lest the Devil usurp the sovereignty in places dedicated to the Lord; lest discord take the place of peace, strife of piety, drunkenness of sobriety, and fornication and murder reign instead of charity and chastity; lest there be found among you some, of whom it may truly be said, “I saw the wicked buried, who, when they were alive, were in the holy place, and were praised in the city, as if of righteous deeds.”

§ 15 But those also, who still live abroad in the world, demand a portion of your most anxious care, as we forewarned you in the beginning of this epistle; you should furnish them with competent teachers of the word of everlasting life, and among other things instruct them by what works they may render themselves most pleasing to God; from what sins those, who wish to please God, ought to abstain; with what sincerity of heart they ought to believe in God; with what devotion to supplicate the Divine mercy; with what frequent diligence to use the sign of the Lord’s cross, and so to fortify themselves and all they have against the continual snares of unclean spirits; and how salutary it is for all classes of Christians to participate daily in the body and blood of our Lord, as you well know is done by Christ’s Church throughout Italy, Gaul, Africa, Greece, and all the countries of the East. Now, this kind of religion and heavenly devotion, through the neglect of our teachers, has been so long discontinued among almost all the laity of our province, that those who seem to be the most religious among them, communicate in the holy mysteries only on the day of our Lord’s birth, the Epiphany and Easter, whilst there are innumerable boys and girls, of innocent and chaste life, as well as young men and women, old men and old women, who without any scruple or debate are able to communicate in the holy mysteries on every Lord’s day, nay, on all the birth-days of the holy Apostles or Martyrs, as you yourself have seen done in the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church. Moreover, if married, let any one point out to them the measure of continence, and hint to them the virtue of chastity; and that in this both may have power to act, and be ready to submit.

§ 16. Thus much, most Holy Prelate, have I attempted briefly to express, both for the love of you, and for the sake of general utility, with many wishes and exhortations that you endeavour to rescue our nation from its old errors, and bring it back to a more certain and direct path; and that, mindful of a heavenly reward, you persist in bringing to perfection this holy and excellent work, whatever be the rank or condition of those who attempt to impede or hinder your good exertions. For I know that there will be some who will oppose these my exhortations, and especially those who feel that they are themselves involved in those crimes against which I warn you: but you must remember the apostolic answer, “We must obey God rather than man.” For it is a command of God, “Sell what ye have and give to the poor; and, unless a man shall renounce all things which he possesses, he cannot be my disciple.” But there is in these days a tradition among some men, who profess themselves to be servants of God, not only not to sell what they possess, but also to procure what they have not. How, then, can a man dare, if he would enter God’s service, either to retain those things, which he possessed whilst he was in the secular life, or under the cloak of a more holy life, heap together riches which before he had not? Since, also, the rebuke of the Apostle is well known, whereby Ananias and Sapphira, attempting so to act, were not corrected by any measure of penance or retribution, but were punished by sentence of death ? and yet they sought not to gain what belonged to others, but unmeetly to retain their own. Wherefore it is manifest, how far the thoughts of the Apostles were from making acquisition of money, whose rule in God’s service was this, “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” And, on the other hand, they were alike instructed by a warning of the opposite tendency; “Woe to you rich, for you have your consolation.” Or, must we suppose that the Apostle erred, and wrote a falsehood, when he admonished us, saying, “Brethren, be not deceived,” and immediately after added, “Neither the covetous, drunkards, nor the rapacious shall possess the kingdom of God.” And, again, “But know ye this, that every one who is a fornicator, or unclean, or covetous, or rapacious, which is the service of idols, has no inheritance in the kingdom of God or Christ.” Since, therefore, the Apostle expressly names covetousness and rapacity to be idolatry, how can those be wrong, who either have kept back their hands from signing a deed of wicked trafficking, even in defiance of the king’s command, or who have also offered their hands to cancel former unjust writings and subscriptions?

§ 17. And, indeed, we must wonder at the rashness of those foolish men, (or rather we should call them blind, and pity their wretchedness,) who, without any regard to the fear of God, are proved to cancel and set at nought what they, the apostles and prophets, have written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but nevertheless are afraid to erase or annul what themselves, or men like themselves, have written from the dictates of covetousness or luxury, as if, forsooth, it were sacred and sanctioned by Heaven itself. In this, unless I am deceived, they imitate the Gentiles, who despise the worship of God, but bow down before the deities which they have conceived in their own minds, and which their own hands have made. These they fear, worship, adore, and pray to, being indeed worthy of that rebuke of our Lord’s whereby he reproved the Pharisees, when they preferred their own secondary precepts to the Law of God : “Why do ye also transgress the word of God through your traditions?” But if they shall even produce writings got up in defence of their covetousness, and sanctioned by the subscription of noblemen, I beseech you never to forget the sentence of our Lord, wherein he says, “Every plantation that my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted out.” And I would fain moreover ask you this question, most Holy Prelate? Our Lord protests that “wide is the gate and broad the way which leadeth to destruction, and multitudes there be that enter in thereat; whilst straight is the gate and narrow the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” What, then, do you believe concerning the life or eternal safety of those, who throughout all their lives are known to be walking through the wide gate and broad way, and do not, even in the trifling things, restrain or resist their passions, whether of the mind or body, for the sake of a heavenly reward? Unless, perhaps, their alms, which amid their daily covetousness and enjoyments they give to the poor, are to be considered as able to exempt them from blame; whereas the hand itself, as well as the conscience which offers a gift to God, ought to be pure and free from offence. Or unless, also, they may be thought to be redeemed, now they are dead, by others, through the mystery of the holy oblation, of which, whilst they were alive, they appeared unworthy? Does the fault of covetousness appear to be trifling in them? I will speak a little more fully on this point. This it was, which rendered Balaam, a man full of the spirit of prophecy, an outcast from the lot of the saints. It was this which polluted Achan with sharing in the cursed thing, and thereby destroyed him. It stripped Saul of the diadem of the kingdom; it deprived Gehazi of the merits of prophecy, and defiled him and his seed with a perpetual leprosy. It cast down Judas Iscariot from the glory of his apostleship: Ananias and Sapphira, of whom we have before made mention, thereby became unworthy of the society of the monks, and were punished by the death of the body: and, to turn to heavenly examples, the angels were thereby cast down from heaven, the first created beings expelled from a paradise of endless enjoyment. And if you must know, this is that three-headed dog of Hell, called Cerberus in the fables, from whose ravening teeth the Apostle John would save us, when he says, “Beloved, love not the world nor those things that be therein: if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For every thing which is in the world, is the desire of the flesh, and the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life, which is not of the Father, but is of the world.” Thus much briefly have I said against the poison of covetousness. But if I were to treat in like manner of drunkenness, feasting, luxury, and other contagions of the same kind, my letter would be indefinitely lengthened. May the grace of the Chief Shepherd ever keep you safe for the wholesome feeding of his flock, Prelate, most beloved in our Lord: Amen!

* He became Archbishop of York, A. D. 732.
** “I have walked before you from my childhood unto this day. Behold, here I am: witness against me before the Lord, and before his anointed: whose ox have I taken? or whom have I defrauded?” &c. &c.—1 Sam. xii. 2, 3.


1. J. A. Giles (ed./transl.), The Historical Works of the Venerable Bede, Vol. II: biographical writings, letters and chronology (London 1845), online at the Internet Archive, last modified 30th September 2008 as of 14the February 2010, pp. 138-155.

2. José Orlandis, “El movimiento ascetico de San Fructuoso y la congregación monástica dumiense” in idem, Estudios sobre instituciones monásticas medievales (Pamplona 1971), pp. 69-82, orig. printed in Bracara Augusta Vol. 22 (Braga 1968), pp. 81-91, here pp. 79-80 of the reprint, quote below at p. 80.

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9 responses to “From the sources V: Bede’s letter to Egbert

  1. Pingback: Bede to a Bishop « haligweorc

  2. Just a small point of clarificaion: the translation in the Collins and McClure edition of Bede for the Oxford World Classics series is in fact that of Bertram Colgrave, taken directly from the OMT edition and translation by Colgrave and Mynors.

  3. I note that Bede thinks that property rights and charters recording them can just be ignored or cancelled if they’ve been given to the ‘wrong’ people. Damn socialist!

    I want to turn your point round and ask why, if people in Spain and Northumbria are worrying about monastic recruitment, this isn’t a concern in Merovingian Francia, which also has a wave of family monastic foundations in the sixth and seventh century. I can’t help wondering whether it’s connected in any way to Chris Wickham’s argument that Merovingian nobles are richer than contemporary aristocracies elsewhere (or at least that there’s a stratum of exceptionally rich landed aristocrats). If the aristocrats are the main support of the army and they’re better-off overall, it may matter less if some of them opt out of warfare.

    • Well, I wonder about that. Perhaps I just read too much Müller-Mertens when at an impressionable age, but I would be inclined to think that richer aristocrats, who consequently need the king less, would be harder to bring to service. That Marxist school would probably also adduce a greater use of peasant soldiery in the Frankish host, arguing back from Carolingian legislation to make the peasants come out and to stop lords using the obligation as a means of subjection, but of course how new that is is another question. One alternative might be to see the supposed expropriations of Church land by Charles Martel as the other solution to the problem of militarily-liable land being taken over by the Church, and the one that Bede may fear in arguing for the expropriation of laymen instead. If there has to be expropriation anyway, it needs to be the ‘wrong’ people who lose out, right?

  4. Pingback: Seminar CVII: money has been power for quite a while « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  5. Pingback: Seminars CXLII & CXLIII : tracing text transmission by means old and new | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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