Category Archives: breviate psalters

Psalm 137 in Bede’s Psalter

Derek’s post on the importance of psalm 137 yesterday (here) brought to mind that psalm 136/137 is odd in Bede’s abbreviated psalter. It is the only verse in his abbreviated psalter that he changes to allegory. This is just so peculiar. Why change only one line of scripture? In Ward’s edition she seems not even sure that it is supposed to represent a line from 136/137, putting her translation in brackets with “136?” [Vulgate 136/modern 137]

The only line that Bede apparently chose to include from psalm 136/137 and then alter is verse 9: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” which is changed to “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord!” (Browne’s translation).

Gerald Browne and Benedicta Ward both address this unique alteration. Ward reported that she searched all of scripture, commentaries, psalters etc and couldn’t find it anywhere. She is at a loss for its source. Browne (p. 12-13) believes that Bede “may have drawn his inspiration from St Hilary, whose exposition of the verse in question reads: ‘Blessed…is he who…will drive out and destroy each desire of his every passion … in accordance with the fear of God'”. If this is true then Hilary of Poiters commentary on the psalms is important for Bede’s understanding of the psalms. Does anyone know of an English translation of Hilary? I’m not sure what I think of Hilary’s commentary either. The text is surely a cry for retribution.

The context of the line may be relevant in why Bede would make such a change.

[125] Change, Lord, our captivity, like a stream in the south. [126] Unless the Lord guards the city, he who guards it watches in vain. [127] Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways. [128] The blessing of the Lord be upon us. [129] Lord, hear my voice; let your ears become attentive to the voice of my entreaty. [130] Lord, my heart is not exalted, nor are my eyes lifted up. [131] This is my rest forever, [132] for there the Lord has commanded blessing and life forever. [133] You who stand in the house of the Lord, [134] glorify the Lord, for the Lord is good. [135] Praise the God of heaven, for his mercy is forever. [136] Blessed is the man who fears the Lord. [137] I will praise you, Lord, with my whole heart. Lord, your mercy is forever; do not forsake the works of your hands. [138] If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I lie in hell, you are present. [139] Rescue me, Lord, from the evil man; from unjust men save me. (Browne, p. 80-86)

This section is obviously a string of very short abbreviations. One line or a part of a line from each psalm is it. I’ve included most of this section of one-liners. It actually goes back to psalm 119 but I’m not sure how much more I can quote for copyright reasons. I think its helpful to look at it in this continuous fashion because that is how it appears in medieval texts.

It is true that not much from psalm 136/137 fits the context to Bede’s abbreviations but perhaps ps. 137: 5-6 would have fit –“If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”. This would have fit the context above just fine and verse 5 would have fit a writer like Bede so well. Yet Bede choose to substitute an allegory for perhaps one of the most disturbing verses in the psalter. Suggestions on an explanation are welcome!

Unfortunately the (near) contemporary abbreviated psalter in the Book of Cerne lacks Psalm 136. It is the last psalm missing in a large gap probably due to a missing folio or two in its exemplar.


Gerald M. Browne, trans. The Abbreviated Psalter of the Venerable Bede. Eerdmans, 2002.


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.


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

‘Irish’ Psalter Divisions

From the time of the earliest surviving Irish psalters, they have an equal three-fold division using the Vulgate translation and numbering system.

  • Book I: psalms 1-50
  • Book II: psalms 51-100
  • Book III: psalms 101-150

These books would be marked in psalters with an ornate capital letter for psalm 1, 51, and 101. There are references to early medieval people saying their ’50s’ or requesting someone to say a ’50’ on their behalf (sometimes in wills where it would be for the repose of their soul).

The origins of the three-fold division are unresolved. McNamara has suggested that the three-fold division may have been known to Hilary and Augustine of Hippo. He believes that Hilary only knew of three-fold divided psalters based on his Prologue to the Psalms. He also asserts there is evidence that it was known to Augustine and Cassiodorus. If these church fathers knew of the three-fold divisions of the psalter then it appears to have died out after them. The Irish appear to have been its greatest proponents. Given the impact that is found in Anglo-Saxon England, it appears that these divisions appeared very early. The Vespasian Psalter, probably compiled at Canterbury in c. 730 CE, uses the three-fold divisions as does the Salaberga Psalter (Northumbrian, early 8th century) and other southumbrian psalters from the late 9th to early 10th century. However, I think some caution is warranted as the oldest Irish psalter, the ‘Cathach of St Columba’ and the Old Irish Treatise on the psalms, do not have or mention the three fold division. Yet, the Irish Teaching Bible, used for seminary training in c. 800, uses the trifold division and McNamara believes it is assumed in the Old Irish Treatise. Still yet, a psalter from Canterbury seems to be among the earliest opening up other questions.

The three-fold division is also found in the breviate psalter of Æthelwald in the Book of Cerne, produced about c. 825 CE. In this breviate psalter, the purpose of dividing the psalter into three equal divisions is lost because the abbreviated psalter omits some psalms completely, meaning that none of the three ‘books’ of psalms in Cerne actually has 50 psalms. So by c. 825, the divisions had become so standard their original meaning — whatever was behind that meaning — had been lost.

Some of you might be thinking that the Celts (Irish and Welsh) had a fondness for three-fold divisions, particularly shown in the Welsh Triads and later Irish Triads. These triads were mnemonic devices used by bards (poets) to remember stories on similar topics, such as three most generous kings or three greatest pack horses, etc. Each of these snippets of legend in the triad was intended to remind the poet of an entire story. Groupings in three do abound all over the place in early medieval writings. There are also triads within Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people, such as Aidan of Lindisfarne’s three miracles worthy of memory. Sometimes Bede’s triads are grouped together, such as Aidan’s miracles, or other times spread out across the History, such as three stilling of the stormy sea miracles (Germanus of Auxerre, Aidan by proxy through Utta, and Œthelwald of Farne). So it is true that early medieval peoples, Celts in particular, but also perhaps the English (as shown by Bede), had a fondness for traids, but recall that all these sources survive in Christian texts by Christian writers, even if they record pre-Christian traditions. It is quite possible that the trinity, preached fervently as early as St Patrick in Ireland was the inspiration.


Martin McNamara (2000) The Psalms in the Early Irish Church. (Collected studies). Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement series 165.

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

What is a Psalter?

Let’s start off with some basic terminology. This blog will study psalters. A psalter is a book of Psalms outside of the bible. It could be freestanding, as many medieval psalters were. Over on the right you will see links to a few examples of medieval psalters. This Wikipedia page has a listing of other psalters. Psalters can have additional prayers and other material added. They are the precursors to the late medieval Book of Hours. Some modern liturgical books like the Book of Common Prayer and books derived from it have complete psalters.

Breviate psalters are an abbreviated version of the book of psalms. The earliest examples survive from the 9th century and are credited to the Venerable Bede. They continued to be popular up into the period of the Books of Hours. Breviate psalters are the topic of my distilled prayer project.