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Enabling the hills of the north to rejoice

19 January 2018

Adrian Leak celebrates the life of Benedict Biscop, commemorated in the Common Worship calendar this month

Art Collection 2/Alamy

Benedict Biscop

Benedict Biscop

BENEDICT BISCOP c.628-690 Abbot and Scholar

Benedict Biscop was born into the Northumbrian nobility in about 628 and was destined for royal service, entering as a thane the household of King Oswy. At the age of 25, however, he travelled to Rome, and, in due course, was ordained. He journeyed extensively on the Continent, staying in monasteries and studying their way of life. On his return to England, he founded the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow, making them one of the leading centres of learning in Northern Europe. Bede was among his pupils. Benedict Biscop died in 689. The Church remembers him on the anniversary of his death, 12 January.


AS BENEDICT BISCOP lay dying in his monastery at Wearmouth, a rota of monks kept up a continuous recitation of the psalms through the night. It was the middle of the Northumbrian winter, and, in Bede’s words, “Icy night rushed by in wintry gales.”

Biscop had once known a gentler climate. For some years he had been a monk of Lérins, the island abbey off the Mediterranean coast of Gaul. He had visited and studied 16 other communities on the Continent, including Rome. He had then been appointed by Pope Vitalian as interpreter and companion to the Greek-speaking Theodore, recently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. And so he found himself back in his native land, first as abbot of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul (later St Augustine), in Canterbury; then in Wearmouth, where he founded the monastery of St Peter (674), and in Jarrow, where he founded the twin monastery of St Paul (682).

Bede’s sermon, preached on the anniversary of Biscop’s death, reminded his brethren “‘That [our father Benedict of blessed memory] used to lend every effort to work for the glory of the holy Church of God and especially for the peace, the honour, and the tranquillity of this monastery [Wearmouth-Jarrow]. Having crossed the sea so many times he never returned empty-handed or profitless, but brought back a goodly store of holy books, . . . blessed relics of martyrs for Christ, masons to build the church, glaziers to decorate and also to secure the windows, then again he brought teachers for singing and for ordering the service in the church of the whole year.”

The manner of singing the liturgy — a basic element of the monastic life — was taught at Wearmouth by John, the arch-cantor of St Peter’s in Rome. In Bede’s words, it was Biscop’s wish that John should instruct the monks in “the chant for the liturgical year as it was sung at St Peter’s”. He taught them the “theory and practice of singing and reading aloud”. These instructions were later recorded in writing, and copies circulated to other religious houses in England.

An indication of the content of these instructions is shown in Bede’s use of two distinct words for “singing” in the Latin text of his Life of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow. He tells us that the monks were trained in the skill of cantandi and psallendi, the former term referring to the complex musical setting of responsories and antiphons, usually sung by the cantor or a select choir, and the latter term referring to the simpler repetitive chants of the psalm, usually sung by the entire body of monks.

Evidence that Biscop’s foundation enjoyed a leading reputation in the English Church can be seen in the fact that cantors from monasteries throughout the land came north to Wearmouth to learn from the arch-cantor John.


NEXT in importance to singing the Office was the study and inscribing of sacred texts. We know from Bede’s account of his own reading, and from other contemporary witnesses, the extensive range of Biscop’s library. Sadly, nearly all was lost in the Viking raids during the following centuries. There is, however, one remarkable survival from the scriptorium of Biscop’s Northumbrian monastery.

The Codex Amiatinus is a massive work, weighing 75 lbs and containing in a single volume almost the entire contents of St Jerome’s Latin version of the Bible (the Vulgate). It is the earliest still in existence, and is the only survivor of three copies commissioned by Biscop’s successor, Ceolfrith, in 692. It is a magnificent example of the scribes’ skill.

Ceolfrith had intended it as a gift for the Pope, and, in 715, he set out from Northumbria, accompanied by a party of 80 others. He was taken ill on the journey, however, and died before reaching Rome. The gift was duly presented to the Pope. Its history then became obscure, but the great tome later turned up at the abbey of Monte Amiata, in Tuscany, where it remained until the 18th century, when it was moved to Florence. It is now kept there, in the Laurentian Library.

The Codex Amiatinus is testimony to the outstanding skill of the Northumbrian monks, and to those acquisitive instincts that drove their founder, Biscop, first to track down and then to acquire such important texts. It is believed that one of the many texts that he added to his library was the Codex Grandior, commissioned in the sixth century by Cassiodorus for his monastery at Vivarium, in southern Italy. It is upon that version that the Codex Amiatinus is based.

Biscop’s dying instructions were that his library of books and parchments — bibliotheca nobilissima copiossimaque — which he had brought back from his numerous journeys to the Continent, should not be dispersed or lost. It was one of the largest and most valuable collections of classical and patristic texts outside Rome, and on it was founded the remarkable burgeoning of seventh-century Northumbrian scholarship.

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