Historical Works of Venerable Bede/Volume 2/Life of Bede/Chapter 4

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The office of priest, or Mæꞅꞅ ꝼꞃeoꞅꞇ, mass-priest, as he is called in King Alfred's Anglo-Saxon translation, brought with it a considerable portion of duties which would not allow him to devote the whole of his time to his favourite occupations. His employment was to say mass in the church, by which we are to understand that he officiated at the different masses which were performed at different hours in the day, besides perhaps assisting in the morning and evening prayers of the monastery. The following extracts from Anglo-Saxon writers, quoted by Sharon Turner, will well describe the responsible functions which were supposed to belong to the priest's office.

"Priests! you ought to be well provided with books and apparel as suits your condition. The mass-priest should at least have his missal, his singing-book, his reading-book, his psalter, his hand-book, his penitential, and his numeral one. He ought to have his officiating garments, and to sing from sun-rise, with the nine intervals and nine readings. His sacramental cup should be of gold or silver, glass or tin, and not of earth, at least not of wood. The altar should be always clean, well clothed, and not defiled with dirt. There should be no mass without wine.

"Take care that you be better and wiser in your spiritual craft than worldly men are in theirs, that you may be fit teachers of true wisdom. The priest should preach rightly the true belief; read fit discourses; visit the sick; and baptize infants, and give the unction when desired. No one should be a covetous trader, nor a plunderer, nor drunk often in wine-houses, nor be proud or boastful, nor wear ostentatious girdles, nor be adorned with gold, but to do honour to himself by his good morals.

"They should not be litigious nor quarrelsome, nor seditious, but should pacify the contending; nor carry arms, nor go to any fight, though some say that priests should carry weapons when necessity requires; yet the servant of God ought not to go to any war or military exercise. Neither a wife nor a battle becomes them, if they will rightly obey God and keep his laws as becomes their state."[1]

Their duties are also described in the Canons of Edgar in the following terms:—

"They were forbidden to carry any controversy among themselves to a lay-tribunal. Their own companions were to settle it, or the bishop was to determine it.

"No priest was to forsake the church to which he was consecrated, nor to intermeddle with the rights of others, nor to take the scholar of another. He was to learn sedulously his own handicraft, and not put another to shame for his ignorance, but to teach him better. The high-born were not to despise the less-born, nor any to be unrighteous or covetous dealers. He was to baptize whenever required, and to abolish all heathenism and witchcraft. They were to take care of their churches, and apply exclusively to their sacred duties; and not to indulge in idle speech, or idle deeds, or excessive drinking; nor to let dogs come within their church-inclosure, nor more swine than a man might govern.

"They were to celebrate mass only in churches, and on the altar, unless in cases of extreme sickness. They were to have at mass their corporalis garment, and the subucula under their alba; and all their officiating garments were to be woven. Each was to have a good and right book. No one was to celebrate mass, unless fasting, and unless he had one to make responses; nor more than three times a day; nor unless he had, for the Eucharist, pure bread, wine and water. The cup was to be of something molten, not of wood. No woman was to come near the altar during mass. The bell was to be rung at the proper time.

"They were to preach every Sunday to the people; and always to give good examples. They were ordered to teach youth with care, and to draw them to some craft. They were to distribute alms, and urge the people to give them, and to sing the psalms during the distribution, and to exhort the poor to intercede for the donors. They were forbidden to swear, and were to avoid ordeals. They were to recommend confession, penitence and compensation; to administer the sacrament to the sick, and to anoint him if he desired it; and the priest was always to keep oil ready for this purpose and for baptism. He was neither to hunt, or hawk, or dice; but to play with his book as became his condition."[2]

But the duties pointed out in these extracts do not seem to have satisfied the Venerable Bede; he applied himself to every branch of literature and science then known, and besides study, and writing comments on the Scriptures, he treated on several subjects, on history, astrology, orthography, rhetoric, and poetry; in the latter of which he was not inferior to other poets of that age, as appears by what he has left us on the Life of St. Cuthbert, and some places in his Ecclesiastical History; he wrote likewise two books of the Art of Poetry, which are not now extant; a book of Hymns, and another of Epigrams. Thus this studious and venerable man employed all that little time he could save from the call of his duty, in improving the souls and understandings of men; which he did not only to mankind in general, but more particularly to those pupils immediately under his care, which were no less than six hundred, the number of the brothers of that convent. Of these, several by the influence of his teaching came to make considerable figures in the world, as Eusebius or Huetbert, to whom he inscribed his book, De Ratione Temporum, and his Interpretation on the Apocalypse, and who was afterwards Abbot of Weremouth: Cuthbert, called likewise Antonius, to whom he inscribed his book, De Arte Metrica, and who succeeded Huetbert, and was afterwards Abbot of Jarrow; he wrote of his master's death, but of this hereafter: also Constantine, to whom he inscribed his book, De Divisione Numerorum; and Nothelmus, then priest at London, and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury, to whom he wrote, Lib. Questionum XXX in Libros Regum; to which we may add several in other monasteries; whilst others have improperly classed amongst them Alcuinus, afterwards preceptor to Charles the Great.

Thus was the time of that excellent man employed in doing good to mankind, seldom or never moving beyond the limits of his own monastery, and yet in the dark cloister of it surveying the whole world, and dispensing to it the gifts entrusted to him: it seems not a little surprising, that one who had scarcely moved away from the place of his nativity, should so accurately describe those at a distance; and this quality in his writings, when considered with reference to the age in which he lived, is the more remarkable, as there is but one other recorded in history who possessed it in equal perfection,—the immortal Homer.

  1. Elfric, in Wilkins's Leges Anglo-Saxon. 169–171.
  2. Wilkins's Leges Anglo-Saxonicæ, 85–87.