Bede and Sigeweard

Or “No, Owlfish, I really am a medievalist and do write about my dissertation here, not just the endless internecine feuds of the Anglican Communion…” but that seems a little verbose for a post title

As many of you know, I’m a dbase guy(and fund-raiser) in my day job. I’m a big fan of using technology in academic work, especially using dbases and web resources for sourcing etc. However, I’m also well positioned to know the limitations of such approaches. When doing source studies, anybody can do word searches on phrases. But even a big, well-structured dbase is no excuse for actually mastering your body of texts. I’m most often reminded of this by pure serendipity.

I’m currently reading through Bede’s Gospel Homilies looking at how he organizes and composes them. I’m seeing how and when he cites authorities and what terminology he uses in discussing the exegetical craft. Great stuff. I ran across something yesterday that brought me up short, though.

Æ’s Letter to Sigeweard is, essentially, the very first English language introduction to the Scriptures. It’s a quite a long treatise for him, running 1274 lines in the most recent modern edition. He works through the various books of the canon, noting who wrote them, offering brief synopses on occasion, and generally orienting a reader to the Scriptures. It’s very different from a modern intro in important ways. One of which is that he uses a common feature of apocalyptic—periodization of history—as an organizational feature. It’s part of an emphasis on people rather than books—he’s is as interested in the authors as the texts.

The periodization scheme that he uses is unusual. He begins by inserting “age” references as notices in the body of the work as in these representative examples:

208-11: Here was the first age of this world (from Adam to the Flood), and the next age was until the time of Abraham the ancient patriarch.

270-4: The third age was until the time of David, the greatest king of Abraham’s kin…

The full scheme is this:
1st age—Adam to the Flood
2nd age—The Flood to Abraham
3rd age—Abraham to David
4th age—David to Daniel
5th age—Daniel to Jesus
6th age—Jesus to the Eschaton
This set-up comes as no surprise whatsoever. This is all laid out clearly in Augustine’s writings, particularly in De Cat. Rud. 28 but also in Tract. In Ioh. 9.6:

Thence down to the time in which we are now living are six ages, this being the sixth, as you have often heard and know. The first age is reckoned from Adam to Noah; the second, from Noah to Abraham; and, as Matthew the evangelist duly follows and distinguishes, the third, from Abraham to David; the fourth, from David to the carrying away into Babylon; the fifth, from the carrying away into Babylon to John the Baptist; the sixth, from John the Baptist to the end of the world. Moreover, God made man after His own image on the sixth day, because in this sixth age is manifested the renewing of our mind through the gospel, after the image of Him who created us; and the water is turned into wine, that we may taste of Christ, now manifested in the law and the prophets. Hence “there were there six water-pots,” which He bade be filled with water. Now the six water-pots signify the six ages, which were not without prophecy. And those six periods, divided and separated as it were by joints, would be as empty vessels unless they were filled by Christ. Why did I say, the periods which would run fruitlessly on, unless the Lord Jesus were preached in them? Prophecies are fulfilled, the water-pots are full; but that the water may be turned into wine, Christ must be understood in that whole prophecy.

Bede also picks this same scheme up in his homily on John 2 appointed for early Epiphany (I only have vol. 2 in my bag or I’d cite it). So—no mystery here.

Where things get weird is when Æ adds to the scheme at the end of the letter:

1185-94: The sixth age of this world stands from Christ’s ascension until the Day of Judgment of which no man knows but the Savior. The seventh age is the one which spans these six from Abel the Righteous until this world’s end, not for living men, but for souls who have gone forth to the other life where they rejoice, waiting yet for when they will arise to everlasting life (just as we all shall) whole from the dead before our Lord. The eighth age is the single eternal day after our resurrection when we will reign with God in soul and in body, in eternal blessing; that single day will not end. Then the saints will shine just as the sun does now.

The six-age scheme we know, but how about these last two? These aren’t familiar additions to me. Furthermore, they have a different feel to them—less chronology based. Well…in reading through Bede I found this passage:

[Christ] was crucified on Friday, rested in the sepulcher on Saturday, and rose from the dead on Sunday, indicating to his elect that they must toil by good works throughout the six ages of this world amid the dangers of persecutions, and that they should hope for a [period of] rest for their souls in the next life, [enjoying] a kind of perpetual Sabbath. Besides, this, on judgment day, the Lord’s day as it were, they are to celebrate the recovery of their immortal bodies, in which their souls may thenceforth enjoy heavenly happiness without end. (Bede, Homilies on the Gospels, vol 2., trans. Martin and Hurst, CS111, p. 59)

This, in turn, led me to look closer in Augustine which turned up this from De Cat. Rud. 17.28:

Now, on the subject of this rest Scripture is significant, and refrains not to speak, when it tells us how at the beginning of the world, and at the time when God made heaven and earth and all things which are in them, He worked during six days, and rested on the seventh day. For it was in the power of the Almighty to make all things even in one moment of time. For He had not labored in the view that He might enjoy (a needful) rest, since indeed “He spake, and they were made; He commanded, and they were created;” but that He might signify how, after six ages of this world, in a seventh age, as on the seventh day, He will rest in His saints; inasmuch as these same saints shall rest also in Him after all the good works in which they have served Him,–which He Himself, indeed, works in them, who calls them, and instructs them, and puts away the offenses that are past, and justifies the man who previously was ungodly.

(Rather different from De Cat. Rud. 22.39 where he talks about the six ages…)

So, barring some source I don’t know about (which is possible) Æ seems to be expanding on Bede’s take on Augustine for this particular periodization of history. And I wouldn’t have come across this without reading.

In other news concerning Sigeweard—a section from Jerome’s Chronicon beginning Audi fabulam non fabulam is appointed as a reading in the original form of Paul the Deacon—not as printed in PL, though—incorrectly attributed to John Chrysostom. (I don’t have the occasion handy—I left my PDA at home by accident.)

3 thoughts on “Bede and Sigeweard

  1. theswain

    Yes. But more likely that Aelfric is using Bede’s De Temporibus, of which Aelfric writes a summary. In fact this was one of the issues that got Bede into a little trouble and on which he felt he had to defend himself in the Letter to Plegemund.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Ah! I didn’t know that Bede wrote about it in De Temporibus. Also, I haven’t been able to get my hands on Aelfric’s own Six Ages… Does he stop at six there or go on to the full 8?

  3. theswain

    I’ve only just received it myself, so not sure yet there. But in Sigeweard and other texts he goes for the full 8.

Comments are closed.