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Bède le Vénérable

Stéphane Lebecq
Michel Perrin
Olivier Szerwiniak

Les traductions

Aspects of Irish treatment of some Works of Bede

Próinséas Ní Chatháin


Les Irlandais du Moyen Âge connaissaient plusieurs des œuvres de Bède. Ils en glosèrent certaines et les citèrent dans leurs gloses et leurs Annales. On peut mentionner le De arte metrica, le De temporum ratione, la Chronique de Bède et le De locis sanctis. Les Irlandais appelaient l’Histoire ecclésiastique Stair Bhéit: le traducteur commença à donner une version abrégée en excluant tout ce qui concernait spécifiquement l’Église anglaise, les usages locaux et la liturgie entre autres, comme la juridiction sur les évêques bretons. La traduction irlandaise est incomplète, fragmentaire et n’est pas d’un très haut niveau d’érudition. Son principal intérêt réside dans son existence même et le témoignage qu’elle nous donne de la connexion anglo-irlandaise aux IXe et Xe siècles. L’épigone le plus remarquable de l’Histoire est la Vie vernaculaire de Fursy, qui date du bas Moyen Âge et suit fidèlement le récit de Bède. Toutefois, l’extrait est considéré comme une entité en soi et cité comme une Vita écrite par Bède. Inversement, la traduction en moyen irlandais du De locis sanctis reprend le texte entier de Bède qui avait abrégé l’œuvre originale d’Adomnàn.

Texte intégral

  • 1 K.Meyer, ‘Eine irische Version von Beda’s Historia’, ZCP, 2, 1899, p.321-322.
  • 2 F.J.Byrne, ‘Saltair of Edmund mac Richard’, A Thousand Years of Irish script, Oxford, 1979p.15-27.

1Kuno Meyer was the first scholar to publish part of the Irish version of the first two books of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum from the fifteenth-century Bodleian Ms. Laud Misc.6101. It occurs in the portion of this Butler manuscript (f° 87b 1-92 a 1) which contains a great deal of material deriving from the lost Saltair of Cashel (c. 900)2. Meyer printed only the introduction ‘zum Vergleich mit der Praefatio Beda’s an Ceolwulf’ and a few lines from the beginning and end of the text. He placed the language in the ninth century.

  • 3 O.J.Bergin, Anecdota from Irish Manuscripts III, Halle, 1910, p.63-76. All quotations cite page and (...)

2Two editions of the full text, which comprises Books I and II only, came out in 1910: a diplomatic edition by Osborn Bergin and one with translation, notes, and glossary by E.G. Cox3. Both editions had identical titles: ‘A Middle-Irish fragment of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Bergin offers no date but Cox who thanks Bergin ‘for the explanation of many obscure passages’ may have consulted him also about the dating of the text which he suggests was near the beginning of the tenth century.

  • 4 A.G.Van Hamel, Lebor Bretnach, Dublin, 1932. See P. Ní Chatháin, ‘Bede’s Ecclesiastical History in (...)

3The portions of Bede’s History attached to two manuscripts of the Lebor Bretnach, a Middle Irish version of the Historia Brittonum of Nennius, are of no independent value. They contain an inferior text of the first thirteen chapters of Book I, identical to the Laud610 version. In addition, they have suppressed Bede’s authorship and discarded his preface4. From now on we shall deal only with the Laud manuscript version, the full text of which, as we have seen, has been printed by Bergin and later by Cox.

  • 5 C.Plummer, Venerabilis Baedae Opera Historica, Oxford, 1896, Book I, ch.27.

4The Irish scribe evidently wished to give an edited version; a single sentence ni chumaic in chumri conorragba 70.9 (23), ‘brevity does not allow of their inclusion’ corresponds to nearly thirteen pages of Plummer’s printed text5. Thus the Irish version dismisses the entire subject-matter of the Libellus Responsionum which contains matters specifically relevant to the English church, native custom, and liturgy, and jurisdiction over the British bishops, but none of it of especial interest for the Irish of the ninth or tenth century.

5The dedication and words of praise to Ceolwulf and Bede’s references to Cuthbert and the brethren at Lindisfarne are omitted from the preface along with his address to the reader and his request for prayers. This pattern of omissions is in keeping with the transfer from the first to the third person in the narrative and with a time when those formerly immediate matters were no longer so.

6Bede is given high praise: Béid huasalsacart ecnaid fer ratha De i n-ecna 7 i crabud, ‘Bede the great priest, the sage, a man of God’s grace in wisdom and in holiness’ 63.25 (1) and later he is Béid noibh 64.10 (1), a saint and no longer in need of prayers. His name occurs five times in the Irish preface.

7Again at the very beginning of the second book and possibly because of this, where Pope Gregory’s death is announced, we are told: Anno dominicae incarnationis dc. (sic) Grigoir do hepiltin. Roscrib Beid dia bethaid 7 dia gnimradaib 7 dia deithidin in Saxanaib, ‘Gregory died. Bede wrote of his life and his activities, and of his care for the English’ 71.7 (24). Thus the long excursus on Gregory is omitted from the Irish and again it seems clear that this is being done by design.

  • 6 J.N.Radner, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, Dublin, 1978, p.54-58; 192. See also NíChatháin, op.cit.(...)
  • 7 Van Hamel, op.cit., p.xii.

8The Irish called it Stair Béid, ‘Bede’s History’. It is so styled and cited as an authority in the Fragmentary Irish Annals s.a. 704 in a long passage discussing Adomnán and the celebration of Easter6. Although Bede is quoted and it is asserted that he was along with Adomnán in England, the texts are not at all identical. Such discrepancy caused the scribe to insert a marginal comment ‘non legis (sic) Stair Béid et si legerit non intellexit’. Van Hamel has discussed at length the complex relationship between Bede’s Chronicle and the History and the Fragmentary Annals and concluded that the History underlies this long narrative passage7.

  • 8 W.Stokes, ed. and transl., ‘The Life of Fursa’, Revue Celtique 25, 1904, p.285-304. (Betha Fursa, B (...)

9The most notable offshoot from the History is the late mediaeval Irish Betha Fursa which was edited from a Brussels manuscript by Whitley Stokes8. Fursa was renowned and revered for his ecstatic visions and Bede devotes all of the nineteenth chapter of BookIII of the History to him. The source cited by Bede is a Life of Fursa, a ‘libellus de vita eius conscriptus’ which he exhorts people to read for great spiritual benefit. This would appear to be the seventh-century Vita Prima Sancti Fursei which Ludwig Bieler considered to be ‘probably identical’ with Bede’s source. Fursa is remarkable in several aspects. Along with Patrick, Brigid and Columba he appears to be the only other Irish saint venerated, both on the continent and at home, to whom a seventh-century Latin Life may be assigned.

10Seventh-century sources describe Fursa as a young man of noble birth, a monastic founder who was granted mystical visions; he served for many years in Ireland and went by way of the Britons into the province of the Angles. He was received by King Sigebert (630/1-634) and founded a monastery in Norfolk. Having gone to the continent some time after 640, he was received by Clovis II, King of Neustria (638-656) and by Eorcenwald, Mayor of the Palace (640-657). He died circa 649, some time after he had founded a monastery at Lagny-sur-Marne. Four years later, his remains were translated into a specially constructed shrine at Péronne, an event which was the probable occasion for the writing of the Vita Prima.

11The above version of Bede’s chapter on Fursa in the perhaps twelfth-century medieval Betha Fursa which was edited by Stokes from the Brussels manuscript was copied by Micheál Ó Cléirigh in Cork in 1629. A second copy which was not known to Stokes is in Dublin in Royal Irish Academy Ms. A iv 1, p.175ff. It has a long colophon dated 1627 written also in Cork by Domnall Ó Duinnín.

12The Irish Life having described his earlier travels and visions includes an admonition to read the book of Fursa’s life and to emulate him while quoting Bede: ‘Intí immorro’ ar Beda, ‘dia mba hail an fhís... légadh fein leabhar bethad Fursa’: ‘He however’ said Bede ‘who would wish the vision let him read the book of Fursa’s life for himself’.

13Fursa’s vision of the four fires is the first part of his visionary experience as recounted in Bede. This fiery vision which ends with the scorching of Fursa’s shoulder by the burning sinner from the flames is singled out by Bede who considered ‘it might be helpful to many’ to include it, ‘in hac historia ponere multis commodum duximus’. The Irish introduces the episode as follows: ‘Ata immorro’ ar Beda, ‘enni is ail duinne dfhaisneis’, ‘There is moreover’ said Bede ‘one thing we wish to relate’. A third example again cites Bede’s authority for the Irish narrative in a passage which echoes the Historia text closely: ‘Superest adhuc frater quidam senior monasterii nostri illasque visiones ex ipsius ore audierit in provincia orientalium Anglorum’. In Irish this reads: ‘ocus maraidh fos’ or Beda ‘araile senoir do lucht ar mainistrech-ni ocus is he sin ro innis co ffacaidh fein Fursa ocus gur aigill in- airthiur Shaxan ocus co ccualaidh fein ag an ccleireach an fís sin’: ‘There lives yet,’ said Bede ‘a certain elder of our monastic community and it is he who told that he had himself seen Fursa and conversed with him in East Anglia and that he, himself, had heard [of] that vision from the cleric’. The cold weather notwithstanding the monk would perspire as though in midsummer as he recalled the episode.

14The two Irish Mss. of the Betha Fursa have virtually identical versions of this four fires vision apart from some errors and slight variations in vocabulary and syntax. In contrast to these there is a brief anecdote in Dublin King’s Inns Ms 10 which is short and succinct and ends abruptly with the et reliqua compendium. There are no descriptive or elaborate passages; the references to baptismal vows in all other versions referring to the first fire of deception are omitted; the second fire of cupidity is dealt with in summary fashion and the elaborate treatment of the fire of dissension in the Ó Cléirigh-Ó Duinnín Betha Fursa texts is missing; the fire itself is merely styled in tres teine ‘the third fire’. The fourth fire of impiety or teine in eccrabaidh (wrongly an crabaidh in Ms. A IV1), is called teine na nembuidhe 7 na mithrocaire where mithrocaire corresponds to a full subordinate clause in the Latin and a long explanatory sentence in Betha Fursa: is iatt loiscciter annsin, an lucht leis nach grain na fainn 7 na truaigh do fodhbadh ocus do chrech’: ‘Those who are burned therein are people who do not hate to despoil and plunder the weak and pitiful’.

  • 9 V.Hull, ‘The Middle Irish version of Bede’s De Locis Sanctis’, ZCP, 17, 1927, p.225-240. Tuaruscbái (...)

15The Middle Irish version of Bede’s de Locis Sanctis has been edited by Vernam Hull from the Lebor Brecc Ms9. This follows the full text of Bede’s abridgement of Adomnán’s original work rather than the extracts from it in Historia Ecclesiastica V chapters 16 and 17.

16The opening phrase reads: Tindscanad in-so tuaruscbala na locc noem filet isin domun airtherach im Ierusalem 7 im na luccu noemu archena amal indises Beit in prímugtar amru. ‘Here is the beginning of the description of the holy places in the East about Jerusalem and the other holy places as the eminent author Bede relates’.

17The six gates of Jerusalem are named. The holy places are the Constantinian basilica, in eclas.i. Constantiana, where the emperor is styled in the Irish way as High-King or Ard-rig, Golgothana... altoir anorach, the venerated altar at Golgotha, and the Anastasis, the church of the Lord’s resurrection, Anathis.i. eclais na hesergi Coimdeta.

18The altars and relics are listed, the soldier’s lance which pierced the Lord’s side, the chalice containing the sponge with the vinegar, the two-coloured rock ‘albo et rubicundo permixtus’, dath gel ocus corccra ar na cumusc.

19The church on Mount Sion is cited as the place of the scourging. Here is the stone where Stephen was martyred. The Irish cites Saul, later Paul as the executioner.

20The Irish translation tends to drop descriptions of places not within or near Jerusalem and also it ignores extra information, for example the paucity of trees on Mount Olivet apart from vines and olives and very fine corn and barley and grassy flowery soil, all retained from Adomnán by Bede. It does of course describe the basilica and call it eclais na fresgabala ‘the church of the Ascension’.

21Adnocul Lazarais, the ‘monumentum’ or tomb of Lazarus and Arculf’s great grove of olive trees have been retained in Bede and in Irish along with the church and the great monastery at Bethany, Bethain. Here the Irish has a gloss Is e-side ro-dusaig Crist a bás in tres laa n-a écaib ‘It is he whom Christ raised from the dead three days after his death. ’

22Six miles from Jerusalem is Bethil Iuda and the lethuaim, translating ‘semiantrum’ the cave where Christ was born. Then we have the tombs of David north of Bethlehem and of Jerome to the south. In Hebron the patriarchs are cited and the hill and oak of Mamre: Mámbra dair Abrahaim, 7 ata i n-a tamun beos, ‘Mamre the oak of Abraham and it is a tree-stump yet. ’

23Jericho and Lake Galilee chapters are left out but the Dead Sea and the monastery of John the Baptist, close to the site of the Lord’s Baptism are included. Sichem, Capharnaum and Nazareth are passed over, also Alexandria and the Nile. For ‘Mount Tabor’, the site of the ‘Transfiguration’, the Irish has elaborated on Sliab Taboir and three churches. There is a glancing reference to Damascus.

24Finally Constantinople, Constantín poil, is introduced along with the tale of the tools disappearing overnight to the European shore. Scofia is obviously a scribal mangling of Sc. Sofia beginning with the Ms. abbreviation ‘Sc’ for Sancta. With a description of the veneration of the shrine of the Cross we also reach the end of Bede’s abridgement of Adomnán.


Diplomatic Text of Fursa Vision from King’s Inns Ms. 10, 32C.1

(reproduced by permission of the Council of King’s Inns)

Beda de sancto Forseo refert qui scripsit vitam eius.i. is e Beda ro scriph beatha Fursa craibthig 7 idir gac ni do scrip atbert co ndebairt in taingel re Fursa 7 he arna breigh/breth leis an airdi os cind in domain ‘Fech fud’ ar an t-aingel 7 ar fechain do do connaic glend dorca fai 7 do connaic ceithre teinti a fad o cele isin aer. Do fiafraigh Fursa don aingel ‘cred na teinte ud docim? ’ Adubairt in taingil ‘Is iad sud na ceithre teintisi le loiscthir in doman. Tene na breige in cet teine mar is follus isna dainib do ghell betha riagalta do comall do Dia 7 na comall hi. Teine na sainte in dara tene amail is follus a lucht na sainte ac togra in t[s]aegail tar dia mar nach dligfidis. An tres tene mar taid lucht na haingidhechta 7 na heacora ac slad na pobal 7 na nanmand gan fechain do dia.

Teine na neambuidhe 7 na mithrocaire in cethramadh teine. Do connaic Fursa na ceithri teinte-si ac dul in aenteinidh 7 dar leis do badar ac rith cum a digbala fein 7 do gab egla mor he 7 do indis don aingel a beith air. Adubairt in taingel ris ‘na bith egla ort oir in teine nar lassais ni lasfa si thu. Bith a fhis agad gurab do reir a luagaidhechta glanas in teine-si neach 7 gurab do reir na caindigechta do pecaig neach do reir a thoile corpardha do geib se caindigecht lasarrdha na pian 7rl.’


1 K.Meyer, ‘Eine irische Version von Beda’s Historia’, ZCP, 2, 1899, p.321-322.

2 F.J.Byrne, ‘Saltair of Edmund mac Richard’, A Thousand Years of Irish script, Oxford, 1979p.15-27.

3 O.J.Bergin, Anecdota from Irish Manuscripts III, Halle, 1910, p.63-76. All quotations cite page and line numbers of this edition. E.G. Cox, in Studies in Language and Literature in honor of James Morgan Hart, New York, 1910, p.122-178. All quotations give the paragraph number in brackets from this edition.

4 A.G.Van Hamel, Lebor Bretnach, Dublin, 1932. See P. Ní Chatháin, ‘Bede’s Ecclesiastical History in Irish’, Peritia 3, 1984, p.115-130.

5 C.Plummer, Venerabilis Baedae Opera Historica, Oxford, 1896, Book I, ch.27.

6 J.N.Radner, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, Dublin, 1978, p.54-58; 192. See also NíChatháin, op.cit. for a more detailed analysis.

7 Van Hamel, op.cit., p.xii.

8 W.Stokes, ed. and transl., ‘The Life of Fursa’, Revue Celtique 25, 1904, p.285-304. (Betha Fursa, Brussels Bibl. Royale MS 2324-40, fol. 50).

9 V.Hull, ‘The Middle Irish version of Bede’s De Locis Sanctis’, ZCP, 17, 1927, p.225-240. Tuaruscbáil na Locc Noem: Mss. Lebor Brecc 159a65ff. Laud 610 27c37ff.


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