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Alchuine's Bible In The British Museum

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

The recent acquisition by the trustees of the British Museum of the Bible supposed to have been written by Alchuine for Charlemagne, from its late possessor, M. de Speyr-Passavant, of Basle, and the celebrity it had previously acquired on the Continent and in England, having conspired to render it an object of considerable attraction and curiosity, perhaps some description of the volume itself, with remarks on the external and internal evidence of its genuineness, as well as on the claims of other MSS. preserved in foreign libraries, may not be unacceptable to a numerous class of your readers, particularly to the theologian and archaeologist. The only account worth notice of this Bible hitherto published (exclusive of an article in the Nouveau Journal de Fribourg, by Professor Hug, which I have been unable to get a sight of, and the puffs in the French newspapers) is contained in a pamphlet compiled by the late proprietor, and entitled, " Description de la Bible écrite par Alchuin, de l'an 778 à 800, et offerte par lui à Charlemagne le jour de son couronnement à Rome, l'an 80 I. Par son Propriétaire, M. J. H. de Speyr-Passavant, de Bâle en Suisse," 8vo., Paris, Jul. Fontaine, libraire, October, 1829, pp. 105 (150 copies printed); to which was subsequently annexed an addition of sixteen pages, numbered I07-I22.

But this compilation contains so many false statements, and displays such a mixture of ignorance and charlatanerie, concealed under an assumed veil of criticism and learning, as to render some more impartial account absolutely necessary—more especially since many individuals in France, distinguished for their bibliographical attainments, have been induced by the hardihood of M. de Speyr-Passavant's assertions to sacrifice their opinions to his, or to add weight to such assertions by yielding credence to, and repeating them. As a dispassionate critic, and only anxious to seek for the truth, some pains have been taken to consult all the printed authorities accessible on the subject of Alchuine's recension of the Scriptures by order of Charlemagne ; and the result will be stated in the following order : first, by adducing the evidence of such a work having been under-taken and completed; secondly, by reviewing the history of the manuscript, as given by the late proprietor; thirdly, by a description of the manuscript itself from a careful ocular examination, in the course of which I shall have an opportunity of pointing out the errors and misstatements of M. de Speyr-Passavant ; and lastly, by some observations on the Caroline Bibles preserved in the libraries of Rome, Paris, Vienna, and elsewhere.

The general facts connected with the history of Alchuine's life are sufficiently well known ; it will only be, therefore, necessary here to draw a brief outline of the biographical and chronological data on which the circumstances of his being employed by Charlemagne to undertake a recension of the Scriptures rest.

Alchuine or Alcbinus (for so he writes himself indifferently), was born in the province of York, by the consent of the best writers, about the year 735. It is consequently only by an obstinacy in error that many authors, and among them Bale, Reyner, Cave, and their followers, should have confounded him with another Albinus, mentioned by Bede in the preface to his ' Ecclesiastical History,' and lib. 5, c. 21, who succeeded Adrian as abbot of St. Augustine's, Canterbury, in the year 710, and who, so far from being "the favourite disciple of Bede," was, as we are assured by Bede himself, the disciple of Adrian at Canterbury (where Bede never taught), and coeval with the venerable historian, whose own death took place the year of Alchuine's birth, or not long afterwards.

The education of Alchuine was superintended by Egbert, Arch-bishop of York (who succeeded Wilfred in 731, or, according to others, 743), and by !Ælbert, Egbert's successor in the see; and his proficiency was such, that before the death of the former (766), he had the joint charge of the school founded by that prelate, and many ecclesiastics came to avail themselves of the advantages of his tuition. On the decease of Ælbert in 780, Alchuine was selected by Arch-bishop Eanbald to proceed to Rome to receive his pall, and on his return home the following year, he met with the Emperor Charlemagne at Parma ; and here it was, in all probability, he received an invitation from that monarch to enter his service, and take the lead in that glorious restoration of literature which under the auspices and example of Charlemagne was then commencing throughout the provinces of the empire. Having procured the consent of his sovereign and the archbishop, Alchuine selected some of his pupils as followers (among whom was Fridugis, alias Nathanael, whose name we shall meet with again), and returned to France in 782, as proved by the annals of the time. The Emperor received him with open arms, and a school was established in the palace, in which the family of Charlemagne were themselves foremost in setting an example of studious attention to Alchuine's precepts : and from that period the Emperor honoured him as his preceptor and friend, and consulted him on every occasion. After a lapse of eight years Alchuine desired to revisit his native country, which was permitted, and the interval between the years 790 and 792, or beginning of the next, was passed in England. On his return, he was actively engaged in confuting the heresy of Elipand, Bishop of Toledo, and Felix of Urgel, his disciple, and assisted for that purpose at the Council held at Frankfort in 794. In the year 796, on the death of Ithier, Abbot of St. Martin of Tours, Alchuine was nominated by the Emperor in his place, and employed himself assiduously in restoring the strict observance of the monastic duties, and in founding a school in the abbey,§§ where the liberal arts were taught with such success as to produce in the succeeding century the most celebrated scholars in Europe. Here it was that Alchuine devoted himself most zealously to the composition of the works he has left us, but after the lapse of a few years he began to suffer from the infirmities of age and constitution, of which he often complains in his letters.* On this account he excused himself from accompanying Charlemagne to Rome in 799, on the occasion of the Emperor's coronation, and the following year he solicited and finally obtained leave to resign his pastoral charge, and to lead the short remainder of his life in pious and undisturbed seclusion. t He continued at St. Martin's until his death, which took place on Pentecost-day, 19th May, 804, at the age of nearly seventy years. He was buried in the abbey-church, where an epitaph, composed by himself, was placed on his grave-stone.

From the above succinct view of Alchuine's life and occupations, it is evident that he could not have commenced his recension of the Latin Bible so early as 778, as M. de Speyr-Passavant would have us believe. That the Emperor Charlemagne had turned his attention to the subject before the arrival of Alchuine, has been inferred from his charge in the Capitulary of 789, "ut canonici libri tantum legantur in ecclesia," and his express command in the same code, that none but men of perfect age should transcribe the Gospels, the Psalter, or a Missal, and that the scholars should especially be kept from corrupting the text, in reading or writing. Yet the first of these regulations is only an enforcement of a canon in the council of Laodicea, c. 59, and in reality implies nothing more than the rejection of the apocryphal books of the Old and New Testament. A more precise testimony occurs in the letter addressed by Charlemagne to the religious readers subject to his government, prefixed to the Homiliarium collected by Paul Warnefrid (and subsequently, as it is generally believed, corrected by Alchuine), in which the Emperor declares : "Therefore because it is our care that the state of our churches should ever progress in improvement, we have laboured by vigilant study to renovate the sources of literature, almost obliterated through the negligence of our forefathers, and by our example to invite to the study of the Sacred Scriptures. Among which things we have already, by the assistance of God, thoroughly corrected the whole of the books of the Old and New Testament, which had been corrupted by the ignorance of transcribers." The date of this letter is not known with certainty, but the Benedictines ascribed it to the year 788, adding, however, the qualifying clause, "comme on croit."** But this date would seem inadmissible from the evidence of Alchuine himself, who in the year 799, in a letter addressed to Gisla, sister of the Emperor, and Richtrudis, otherwise called Columba, describes himself as still deeply occupied in the emendation of the Old and New Testament, undertaken by order of Charlemagne.* A copy of the Bible thus corrected was completed under the eye of Alchuine before the close of the following year, and was destined as a present to Charlemagne on the day of his coronation as Emperor at Rome, the 25th Dec., A.D. 800, which was then accounted the first day of the year 801. The letter which accompanied the gift has been fortunately preserved, and is in the following terms : " After deliberating a long time what the devotion of my mind might find worthy of a present equal to the splendour of your Imperial Dignity and increase of your wealth, that the ingenuity of my mind might not become torpid in idleness, whilst others were offering various gifts of riches, and the messenger of my littleness come empty-handed before the face of your Sanctity, at length, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I found what it would be competent for me to offer, and fitting for your prudence to accept. For to me inquiring and considering, nothing appeared more worthy of your peaceful honour than the gifts of the sacred Scriptures, which, by the dictation of the Holy Spirit and mediation of Christ-God, are written with the pen of celestial grace for the salvation of man-kind, and which knit together in the sanctity of one glorious body, and diligently emended, I have sent to your royal authority by this your son and faithful servant, so that with full hands we may assist in the delightful service of your dignity." t From another letter we learn that the messenger was Nathanael, whose real name was Fridugis, a native of the same province as Alchuine, and his favourite pupil, whom he selected to succeed him as Abbat of Tours, and who afterwards became Abbat of St. Bertin, and Chancellor to Louis le Débonaire.

The facts, therefore, of Alchuine's having received Charlemagne's commands to undertake a recension of Jerome's vulgar Latin text of the Bible, and having caused a copy to be written for the Emperor's own use, stand undisputed on the authority of Alchuine himself.

But the same facts are corroborated by the testimonies of other writers. Angelom, monk of Luxeu in Burgundy, who wrote a commentary on Genesis before the year 830, and who therefore must have been a contemporary of Alchuine, declares he saw and diligently examined the Bible which Alchuine had corrected for Charlemagne ; and Sigebert of Gemblou, an historian who flourished at the close of the eleventh century (ob. 1113), expressly states that Alchuine "jussu Imperatoris correxit divinam Bibliothecam." It would appear also that copies of the text so emended were caused to be made by various ecclesiastics and persons of rank under the superintendence of Alchuine himself, who wrote verses to be prefixed or annexed to each copy. Thus we have a poem, " In Codicem [Bibliorum] jussu Gerfridi Episcopi scriptum ;"t another, "In sacrum Codicem jussu Ave Scriptum ;".*r and a third, " In sacrum Codicem cura Radonis Abbatis Monasterii S. Vedasti scriptum ;"§ not to mention at present the poems in two Bibles of St. Paul and the Vallicella library at Rome, as well as the MS. purchased for the British Museum.

It only remains under this head to notice the errors of those writers who have represented Alchuine as retiring to the abbey of St. Martin at Tours in the year'801, when in fact that was the year in which he relinquished the abbacy. M. Peignot takes occasion from the above date to infer that it was impossible for Alchuine to have copied with his own hand the entire Bible in the short space of time intervening between his arrival at the abbey in 801, and his death in 804.1 But this objection is founded upon wrong premises ; for it is very evident, and capable of demonstration from Alchuine's own Epistles, that he was almost constantly resident at Tours from the year of his appointment in 796.

Let us now turn to the history of the Bible in the museum, as stated by M. de Speyr-Passavant. He asserts that it is expressly mentioned by Charlemagne in his Testament ;** that it was subsequently given to the Benedictine Abbey of Pruem, in the diocese of Treves, by the Emperor Lothaire, grandson of Charlemagne, who assumed the monastic habit and died there in 856 [855] ; and that on the dissolution of this convent in 1576, and the appropriation of its revenues to the Elector of Treves, the Benedictines conveyed it to Switzerland, and deposited it in the monastery of Moutier-Grand-Val, near Basle, the Chapter of which was then transferred to Delémont. It remained in their possession until the year 1793, when, on the occupation of the episcopal territory of Basle by the French troops, the possessions of the monks were sold, and the Bible became the property of M. Bennot, vice-president of the Tribunal at Delémont, from whom, on the 19th March, 1822, it was purchased by M. de Speyr-Passavant.

In the notices of this Bible, inserted by the late proprietor in the French journals, 1829, there are many discrepancies from the above account, which show how M. de Speyr-Passavant progressively made up his story concerning it. With regard to its being mentioned by Charlemagne in his Testament, it is an impudent fiction (which I am sorry to observe is admitted also into Mr. Evans's sale catalogue, and thence copied into the Gentleman's Magazine, vol. v., p. 531, N. S.) ; for the only passage in which Charlemagne speaks of his library is as follows : "Similiter et de libris, quorum magnam in bibliotheca sua copiam congregavit, statuit, ut ab his qui eos habere vellent, justo pretio fuissent redempti, pretiumque in pauperes erogatum."—Baluzii Capit. 490. This will easily and naturally account for the dispersion of Charlemagne's library after his decease. It is certainly true that the Emperor Lothaire, previous to his death, granted by charter to the superior of Pruem various reliques and costly articles, and, among other things, he specifies a copy of the Gospels, ornamented with ivory, crystal, gold and gems, and a Bible, with figures and large capital letters of gold at the beginning of each book.* But there is not the slightest authority, as far as I know, to identify the volume of M. de Speyr-Passavant with the one given by Lothaire to the monks of Pruem ; and I am equally at a loss (although I have consulted very many volumes to ascertain the fact) to learn on what grounds the late proprietor asserts this Bible to have been conveyed from Pruem to Grand-Val. M. de. Speyr-Passavant's Album has been consulted in vain for corroboration of these positive assertions, and I much fear that they form a portion of the many passages in his pamphlet emanating solely from the inventive brain of the author himself. The truth is, that the only document upon which this superstructure rests, is an Act of Proprietorship drawn up by the Chapter of Grand-Val, and inserted on the verso of the last leaf of the Bible itself, as follows : " Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis. Sanctus Germanus et Randoabdus veri hujus libri posessores, (sic) et ab eorum Collegio et Ecclesia pnedictum librum nunquam alienandum, neque alio transportandum statuere unanimi consensu R.dus admodum et Venerabilis Dnns Jo. Henricus Mollifer, Prepositus, Paulus des Boys, Archidiaconus, etc., omnes capitulates."

Now it appears, from a manuscript history of Grand-Val, quoted by M. de Speyr-Passavant in his Album, that Mollifer was chosen Prepositus in 1589, and died in 1607 ; which fixes the date of the document in question t0 the interval between those years.*

The subsequent history of the Bible may be briefly traced. After its purchase by_ M. de Speyr-Passavant, and its restoration by his care to a more perfect state of conservation,t it was shown to several persons at Geneva, Lausanne, Berne, Fribourg, etc. ; and the proprietor, by the encouragement of the Chevalier d.'Horrer, Chargé d'Affaires of France in Switzerland, was induced to take it to Paris, in December, 1828, with the intention of disposing of it t0 the French Government. Here he remained till about May, 1830, and during that period used every effort in his power to induce the King, his Ministers, the Administrateurs of the Bibliothèque du Roi, etc., etc., to purchase the MS.—first at the price of 60,000 francs, then at 48,000 fr., then at 42,000 fr.; but the price seemed to the French Government so excessive, that in spite of the proprietor's petitions, letters, addresses, and applications, repeated one after the other with unwearied perseverance, it was finally resolved not to buy the Bible, which was taken back to Basle. During the above period also M. Peignot published his Letters to M. Amanton, wherein he (very justly) questioned the extravagant terms in which the Paris journals had noticed M. de Speyr-Passavant's MS., but was subsequently induced by the false statements of the proprietor to change his sentiments, and the "Description de la Bible" appeared, in October, 1829, dedicated to this very M. Peignot, of whose recantation the owner of the volume gladly availed himself, as a powerful argument in favour of his own views. But with all the professions of M. de Speyr-Passavant, that the Bible was reserved more particularly for the acquisition of "la Belle France," he had very early turned his eyes towards England also, and before April 30th, 1829, had offered it for sale to Lord Stuart de Rothesay, English Ambassador at Paris. In December, 1829, the same offer was made to H.R.H. the Duke of Sussex. Thus the affair rested, and the Bible, unsold, remained in the proprietor's hands. At length, in October, 1834, he again awoke from his lethargy, and at the same time despatched letters to the Archbishop 0f Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, H.R.H. the Duke 0f Sussex, and the "right laudable Lord Vicount Althorp," in England; to Baron Reiffenberg, in Belgium, and to the Bishop of Beauvais in France, offering his MS. to each, and protesting he had given him or his country the preference ! On the change of Ministry in France, application was once more made, but without success, in January, 1835 ; and again, through the medium of the Marquis de Chateaugiron, in May the same year. Having totally failed in France, in January, 1836, he set out for England, for the purpose of submitting his Bible to the Trustees of the British Museum. Much correspondence took place ; at first he asked £12,000 for it, then £8,000, then £6,500, which he declared was an immense sacrifice! At length, finding he could not part with his MS. on terms so absurd, he resolved to sell it if possible by auction, and accordingly, on the 27th April, 1836, the Bible was knocked down by Mr. Evans for the sum of £1,500-but for the proprietor himself, as there was not one real bidding for it. This result having brought M. de Speyr-Passavant in some measure to his senses, overtures were made to him on the part of the Trustees of the Museum, and the manuscript finally became the property of the nation for the (comparatively) moderate sum of L750.

The description of this remarkable volume [marked MS. Add. 10,546] will next claim our attention. It is of the largest folio size, measuring 20 inches in height by 14 inches in width, and consists of 449 leaves of extremely fine vellum, written in a beautiful and distinct minuscule letter, in double columns consisting of 50 lines each (excepting the book of Psalms, which has 52 lines), the height of which is 15 inches, and the breadth 4 inches. At the commencement (fol. 1b) is the title to Jerome's Epistle to Paulinus, written in capital letters of gold, nearly an inch in height, on bands of purple, which are inclosed in a border surrounding the entire page, composed of gold interlaced ornaments in the style usual in the 8th and 9th centuries, within an edge of green or gold, with eight larger and eight smaller interlaced ornaments in silver, in the corners and intermediate spaces.


M. de Speyr-Passavant has the matchless assurance to state, that in one of the above ornaments, the name of CARVLVS is to be read, and that the rest are signatures and monograms only to be deciphered by a profound study ! The Epistle follows, if. 2-4b, headed by a very large capital of [Frater Ambrosias], 12 inches in height by s; in breadth, the framework of which is of silver, and the ornaments of gold. From the upper limb of the letter hangs what seems to be intended for a lantern ; and below, suspended from a cross, a species of lamp, or vessel to contain holy oil, probably similar to what was then used in churches before the altar. Both these are of gold, as are the first 19 lines of the Epistle itself, written in uncials. After the Epistle is a blank page, and on the verso of the leaf, f. 5b, a large illumination the size of the volume, divided by purple bands into four compartments, representing, I, the creation of Adam and of Eve; 2, the presentation of Eve to Adam, and the charge not to eat of the forbidden fruit ; 3, the temptation of the serpent, breach of the commandment, and shame on being taxed with it; 4, expulsion from Paradise, and labours in tilling the earth and suckling of children. The figures are short, and exhibit a want of due pro-portion, and an unpleasant brickdust colour predominates throughout. On the bands are written in gold uncial letters :



On f. 6, commences the Preface of Jerome, addressed to Desiderius, of which the title and first lines are in capital and uncial letters, alternately of gold on a purple ground, and red. The large capital D is of silver and gold, in the same style as the preceding F, and within it are drawn the figures of two cocks, with a vase of flowers between; and beneath, two lions. A table of chapters (in number 82) of the book of Genesis follows, and on f. 7 Genesis begins with a large capital in gold and silver, in the same style as before, and above it the monogram of " Jhesus " in gold.

Each of the books of the Old and New Testament has a table of chapters similarly prefixed, and an ornamental capital letter, more or less elaborately executed, with small figures of birds, animals, etc., in the centre, of gold and silver.

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