365 Verses or 365 Prayers?

In the introductory matter of the 11th century Irish Liber Hymnorum‘s abbreviated psalter, there is an instruction that “the number of prayers given from the Psalter is 365” (McNamara, p. 77). Exactly what this means is unclear to me.

Scholars have taken this to mean that abbreviated psalters are to have 365 verses. However, neither of the two surviving copies of the abbreviated psalter included in the Liber Hymnorum has 365 verses, but rather 240 verses. Both surviving copies are incomplete. Likewise the abbreviated psalter in the Book of Cerne (Bishop Æthelwald’s psalter, 8-9th century) only has 272 verses. It also has an obvious lacuna. The only early abbreviated psalter that I know of to be reconstructed completely is Bede’s because it can be reconstructed from three surviving copies of the same age, about 100 years after his death. The editor Browne notes that no individual copy of Bede’s psalter is complete. Interestingly, Bede’s reconstructed breviate psalter has 383 verse abbreviations by my count of Browne’s text.

Bede’s text provides an interesting question on the how to interpret 365 verses/prayers. As I have discussed before, Bede often took only partial verses and then spliced them together with partial verses from other psalms. So how do we count 365 verses? Are they abbreviations of psalm verses or are they constructed verses in the new psalter? The 383 verses represented in Browne’s text refer to abbreviations of psalm verses. I haven’t counted the spliced verses (assuming I know where he intended verses to begin and end, which I do not presume to know). For that matter in Bede’s time — he died in 735 — biblical verses had not yet been numbered. So how he counted verses may have been different that how we would count verses. Given all these caveats it may be that Bede’s 383 verses is close enough to 365 to say that is what he was aiming for. This may also explain why his abbreviations get shorter as he goes along. With a few exceptions, the abbreviations of psalms are much shorter in the last half to third of the psalter than in the first half, although by then he would have been reaching many more repeated themes.

However one of Bede’s surviving copies, apparently coming through the influence of Alcuin, does possibly give us another clue. The Cologne copy of Bede’s psalter says that the abbreviations are handy verses to be used in the creation of new prayers. In other words, they were handy phrases that could be mined while trying to compose a new prayer for a particular need or occasion. If this is the meaning of 365 prayers, it may mean that one could write 365 prayers using phrases from the abbreviated psalter — in effect write a prayer for every day of the year.

This also brings us to the overall purpose of the abbreviated psalter. Was it intended to be a shorter version of the psalter used for prayer or was it used as a reference for writing prayers (and maybe sermons)? There seems to be some evidence that it was used for both.

References:

Browne, Gerald M. trans. (2002) The Abbreviated Psalter of the Venerable Bede. Wm B Eerdmans.

Brown, Michelle P. (1996) The Book of Cerne: Prayer, Patronage, and Power in the Ninth-Century England. British Library and University of Toronto Press.

McNamara, Martin. (2000) The Psalms in the Early Irish Church. Journal of the Study of the Old Testament.

Leslie Webber Jones. (1929) “Cologne MS.106: A Book of Hildebald” Speculum 4(1): 27-61.

Bede’s Book of Hymns II

Advertisements

One thought on “365 Verses or 365 Prayers?

Comments are closed.