Diss Selection on Paul the Deacon

I figured I might as well throw this into the mix—it’s a selection from the diss on Paul the Deacon. The context is a discussion of “critical conversations”; that is, formalized, stylized and (most importantly) bounded discourses common to both modern biblical scholarship and the early medieval monastic situation:

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Paul the Deacon (†799)

The next point in the tradition is the great homiliary of Paul the Deacon. Appointed by Charlemagne to pluck flowers from amongst the Catholic Fathers,[1] Paul collected 244 items representing 125 liturgical occasions for the Night Office. Following the needs of the Night Office, Paul supplied most Sunday and festal occasions with two texts: a “sermo” for the second nocturn and an “omelia” for the third.[2] For his texts, Paul used homilies of the Fathers whenever possible, preferring works from Bede, Gregory the Great, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine, and using passages from commentaries or other works when an appropriate homily was not available. For instance, of the fifty-six works attributed to Bede in the original collection, thirty-six are homilies and twenty are sections drawn from Bede’s commentaries on the two less popular gospels, Luke and Mark.

In each case, the source was identified so that those hearing would know from whom the teaching came and that it stood within the tradition. Inevitably, though, some of these attributions were incorrect. In fact, of the fifty texts attributed to Maximus, modern scholarship believes that only fourteen of them are actually his;[3] of the nineteen attributed to John Chrysostom, only one is certifiably the work of Chrysostom.[4] In addition, other material was added as the centuries passed[5]—and included more dubious material: many of the so-called Augustinian sermons added later were not written by Augustine.[6]

In one sense, Paul only transmits materials previously written by others and introduces no changes. In another, he exercises important editorial power by shaping the transmission of the tradition. Paul provided all of these texts with a new and uniform context—the Night Office. Each homily or commentary pericope selected by Paul was newly contextualized by the sermon paired with it and the responsories that would interrupt it two or three times in the course of its reading. Furthermore, he was, for all practical purposes, drawing the bounds of the critical conversation by what he included and excluded. For many monasteries with limited libraries, Paul’s homiliary served as the primary repository of patristic wisdom. While more texts were added as the centuries passed, Paul the Deacon’s homiliary passed into the heart of the tradition and became the source for the readings in the Roman Breviary.[7] Like Bede, Paul the Deacon’s work was intended to remain within the critical conversation as well as establishing its foundation. It is directed specifically to the clergy and monastics participating in the Night Office.

Neither the works of Gregory nor Bede were in any way “official.” They were widely read and eagerly sought out,[8] but had no official standing. Paul the Deacon’s work was different. The prefatory letter originally accompanying it documents Charlemagne’s commission to Paul and authorizes the homiliary as the official text for the Frankish kingdom. Charlemagne demanded the establishment of a purified core tradition, and Paul’s homiliary was an important aspect of that program of reform. The texts were to be strictly orthodox, coming from the recognized Fathers, and compiled by one whose orthodoxy and commitment to the tradition was known to the authorizing powers.


[1] Idque opus Paulo diacono, familiari clientulo nostro, eliminandum iniuximus, scilicet ut, studiose catholicorum patrum dicta percurrens, veluti e latissimis corum pratis certos quosque flosculos legeret, et in unum quaeque essent utilia quasi serum aptaret. (Wiegand, Homilarium, 16).

[2] Smetana notes that there are 151 texts identified with the title sermo, 93 identified as omelia and that the distinction in the texts closest to Paul’s original work seems to have accurately reflected the difference between the two. (Cyril Smetana, “Paul the Deacon’s Patristic Anthology” in The Old English Homily & its Backgrounds, Ed. Paul E. Szarmach and Bernard F. Huppé.  (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1978), 75-97, 78. See the discussion of the difference between the two in the discussion of the Night Office in Ch. 3.

[3] Smetana, “Patristic Anthology,” 80.

[4] Smetana, “Patristic Anthology,” 83.

[5] Migne’s edition in PL 95 is representative of the expansion of the collection—it contains 298 texts, up 54 from the original scope.

[6] Smetana, “Patristic Anthology,” 82.

[7] Smetana, “Patristic Anthology,” 75.

[8] The letters of Boniface constantly request copies of Bede’s works from his English patrons and relatives.

2 Replies to “Diss Selection on Paul the Deacon”

  1. This is a grand excuse to read more Bede. Is there a good edition of Paul the Deacon’s homiliary?

    And one final more irrelevant question: I read some of Alcuin’s poetry in high school and found it atrocious, do you know if Paul the Deacon’s Carmina are any good?

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