Each of the few surviving pieces of Northumbrian vernacular poetry is luckily associated with a name: Caedmon is the alleged author of the Hymn quoted by Bede, Aldhelm is the author of the riddle translated into the Northumbrian dialect in Leiden, MS Voss 106, and the numerous copies of the Epistola Cuthberti de obitu Bedae attribute the five lines of the so-called ‘Death Song’ to Bede. This situation is amazing and utterly atypical, if one considers the anonymous nature of the poetry of later ages, with the notable exception of Cynewulf’s signed poems. However, only Bede and Aldhelm are identifiable historical characters, which did not prevent critics from ascribing attributed texts like Bede’s ‘Death Song’ to possible ghost-writers like Caedmon, who is until further evidence only a character in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica. The circle is thus narrowed to include only Bede and Aldhelm, and the latter may well have translated his own riddle from Latin into his native tongue. In any case, if we believe the testimony of King Alfred’s lost Handboc, reported by William of Malmesbury, Aldhelm was a consummate poet in his mother tongue, and indeed, as Michael Lapidge pertinently argues, some of his Latin poetry discloses the influence of homespun formulas and alliterative patterns.
Is it not surprising then to find as the only named fathers of Old English verse the undisputed masters of Latin learning in Northumbria? What is the actual relationship between the Latin and the Old English poetic traditions in those times? Are Latin riddles popular in the Merovingian age (Aldhelm, Tatwine, Boniface) because they appeal to the Germanic taste, or do they find their way into Old English because of the Anglo-Saxons’ sudden passion for Symphosius? Are Aldhelm and Bede the true inventors of the literary tradition of Old English verse, or do they rely on forerunners like Caedmon and other less divinely inspired wo›boran? Was Bede a poet with ‘a distinctive voice’ in vernacular poetry, and ‘one which
deserves to be better heard’, or are his two poems rather awkward probationes pennae in an as yet undeveloped poetical language? The learning of Aldhelm and Bede is immense, and still full of surprises; but does it include Old English verse craft more than accidentally? Are they just two known names in the Northumbrian vernacular poetic tradition? Why then does no other contemporary poetry survive outside the learned circle of Aldhelm and Bede? Why was Bede’s comparatively insignificant ‘Death Song’ copied forty-five times in three different versions, whereas practically every other poem in Old English survives in only one version?
The present paper offers to address these and other vexed questions that tantalise the readers of the earliest Old English poetry, in an attempt to better assess the relationship between the Latin literary tradition and the Anglo-Saxon vernacular one. As so often, Bede is the main key to the understanding of his age.
Bede was a key figure in the development of Anglo-Saxon Ascension theology, placing the Blessed Virgin in his Ascension hymn as mater ecclesia, the church founded at the Ascension by Christ. Bede also emphasized the regal nature of Christ and his role as head of the church, a body whose members all Christians are. One of the major Christological developments in Ascension theology of the early medieval period is the idea of Christ as king, which was intimately related to the doctrine of Christ’s two natures and his role as priestly mediator between two realms. This thinking gains importance within and outside Anglo-Saxon Ascension material from the time of Bede on.
In his two books of homilies for Sundays and major festivals, Bede frequently quotes from the Psalter, the book he knew by heart from daily office. I would like to explore different uses of those quotations according to the medieval theory of four senses of the Scripture.