Bede and the Delphic Oracle

From David Ganz

During their quest for the Golden Fleece, the fleece of the winged ram which is now the constellation Ares, the Argonauts visited the oracle of Pythian Apollo at Delphi. There the heroes put questions to the oracle, asking ‘Prophesy to us, prophet, Titan, Phoebus Apollo, whose shrine will this be, or what will it be?’  The oracle replied ‘I proclaim only a triune, high ruling God, whose imperishable word will be conceived in an innocent girl. He, like a fiery arrow coursing through the midst of the whole world will make it captive and bring it as a gift to his father. This will be her house and her name will be Mary. ‘ The heroes inscribed this oracle in bronze letters on stone, and placed it over the door of the temple. The tale is preserved in the Chronography of the sixth century Syrian scholar John Malalas, a history of the world from the Creation to 565.  The sole manuscript of his work to survive is now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, MS. Barocci 182

Malalas also tells how the emperor Augustus, when he asked the oracle who would rule after him, was told that a Hebrew boy, a god who rules among the blessed, bids me leave this house and go back to Hades. The manuscript of Malalas can now be viewed by anyone with access to the Internet, thanks to the generosity of the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project.

Further along the shelves in that library, or online with another click of the mouse, is a more remarkable manuscript, MS. Laud Gr. 35, a bilingual copy of the Acts of the Apostles written in Italy around the year 600.

It came twice to England, for in 1937 Professor Max Laistner of Cornell showed that when Bede wrote his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles he was able to compare the text of  Acts in the Codex Amiatinus with  other Latin manuscripts, and even to refer to the Greek text of Acts, and that the Laudian manuscript in Oxford  is the only place where many of his readings of the Old Latin text of Acts may be found. From Bede’s monastery it went to Hornbach, east of Metz and south of Mainz, a monastery founded by the hermit Pirmin  around 742 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Pirmin wrote a catechetical handbook which briefly describes the incarnation, when the son of God deigned to come down from the father, the word in the womb of the ever virgin Mary. From Hornbach it came to the cathedral of Würzburg, where it was found by the agents of Archbishop Laud, the chancellor of the University of Oxford. Laud gave it and many other manuscripts to the university in 1639. The story of those manuscripts is being told by Daniela Mairhofer of the University of Vienna, and her superb catalogue of the Medieval manuscripts from Würzburg in the Bodleian Library has just been published. Her work provides the most detailed account of what else lies within the archbishop’s brown leather binding.

The first 226 leaves contain the bilingual copy of the Acts of the Apostles, set out in two parallel columns which generally just contain one or two words either in Greek or in Latin. But on the verso of the final page of text there is a Latin version of the Apostle’s Creed, which is thought to have been added either in England or on the continent. (Pirmin’s handbook included a creed which is very similar.) Below that there are two brief notes on pagan oracles, written in Greek in a seventh century cursive minuscule, and including our tale of the Argonauts at Delphi. The notes are thought to have been copied in the late seventh century perhaps in a chancery. So, when the volume reached Northumbria, it contained a record of one of the very last pronouncements of the Delphic oracle.  The manuscript  was repeatedly consulted by Bede between 709 and 731. But did he read this text?

The short and dismissive answer is that we cannot know. Bede might have been unable to decipher the unfamiliar Greek cursive script. At no time did he mention the story, and only once does he refer to the oracle, without locating it at Delphi. His fellow historian, Orosius, the simpler student of Augustine, deleted any reference to the Delphic oracle from his Seven books of History against the pagans. Bede might have followed his example, understanding the silences of our sources is perhaps the toughest task.

Bede certainly knew of Delphi as a place, for he mentions it in his great work on the reckoning of time. In his treatise on metre he repeats the doctrine that the hexameter was called heroic verse after the time of Homer, but was formerly called the Pythian, since it was used by the oracle of Apollo. He knew that among the constellations was the ship, which the Greeks called Argo, with four stars on the poop

Other Christian historians whose works were known to Bede, Jerome, Prosper of Aquitaine and Isidore of Seville had all recorded the founding of the temple of Apollo at Delphi at the same time as the death of Moses. Augustine knew that the Delphic oracle had commanded ‘Know thyself’ had mentioned the Delphic oracle in his City of God and Cassiodorus in his commentary on Psalm 64 knows that Apollo at Delphi has fallen silent and that Diana has left Delphi silenced by the power of the martyrs. ‘What, I ask could the Gentiles do when they saw their deities tremble?’ All of these texts were familiar to Bede: he regularly used the word ‘oracle’ for divine prophecies, and for the Holy of Holies in the temple at Jerusalem. So his silence may be deliberate: the oracles of the pagans were a challenge to the word of the Lord. But if he had been able to puzzle out the short theophany at the end of his text of Acts, he might have thought the oracles profession of Trinitarian faith and its praise of the Virgin, in whose honour Bede composed a fine hymn, were a vindication of his own beliefs. Bede’s hymn tells of how the Egyptian idols were overturned during the flight into Egypt.

The manuscript of Acts was in Sardinia in the first half of the seventh century, for it includes on the final leaf the opening of an edict of the Byzantine dux Flavios Pankratios, who is attested there between 638 and 668. That leaf also contains three invocations to the Virgin in Greek, by a  deacon named Gregorius, the deaconess Eupraxia and one Johannes Karamallos.

The last Delphic oracle told the emperor Julian the Apostate that the hall of Daedalus has fallen. No longer does Phoebus have his chamber, nor laurel nor prophetic spring, and the speaking water has been silenced. As the oracles fell silent, vast numbers of books came to distant Northumbria, and among them was a last whisper from the Delphic oracle. Bede held it in his hands: whether he could decipher it, or approved the tale it told, we shall not know.

In 1905 A. E. Housman reminded would-be editors how a lost fragment of Juvenal’s sixth satire had recently been discovered in an Oxford manuscript (MS. Canon. Class. Lat. 41). In his fierce words, Nemesis brought it ‘from the arsenals of divine vengeance, if I may so describe the Bodleian library.’ We must hope that, however silent or Christian our oracles have become, Nemesis will continue to enrich us. And that we may hear the running of the horse and bear, the stroke of the leopard, the bleating of the ram, the fifty beating oars of Argo.

David Ganz

The Canonici collection from Italy to Oxford: towards the bicentenary

From Irene Ceccherini:

Amongst the Bodleian’s rich holdings of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, the number from Italy is second only to those from the British Isles. This is due chiefly to the collection of one man, the Venetian Matteo Luigi Canonici (1727-1805). Canonici was a Jesuit, but had devoted himself to collecting after the suppression of the order in parts of Italy in 1773. After his death the collection passed eventually to Giovanni Perisinotti, who sold over 2,000 manuscripts to the Bodleian in 1817. This was the largest single purchase of manuscripts ever made by the Library, which up to that time had mostly acquired manuscripts by donation and bequest. Much of the residue was bought by Walter Sneyd (1809-88) and sold in his sale at Sotheby’s in 1903.

Bodleian MS. Canon. Class. Lat. 257, fol. 2r
Bodleian MS. Canon. Class. Lat. 257, fol. 2r; Cicero, Somnium Scipionis, with Macrobius’ Commentary

Such an extraordinary collection is a strong starting point for several paths of research, from textual criticism to the history of the book, palaeography, codicology, manuscript illumination and history of libraries. Irene Ceccherini’s project The Shaping of the Latin Classics in fourteenth-century Italy is centred on the Canonici manuscripts. Other activities will be planned to celebrate the bicentenary of the arrival of the Canonici manuscripts in Oxford in 2017.

Most of the Canonici manuscripts are described in various volumes of the Quarto series of catalogues, except for the liturgical ones, which are described in the Summary Catalogue (vol. IV, 331-99). The Quarto catalogues are fine achievements of their time (19th century): they offer a general idea of the texts transmitted by the Canonici manuscripts, of their dates and places of origin, of their owners and readers.

The divisions of the collection are as follows:

– MSS. Canon. Bibl. Lat. (Canonici Latin Biblical): 94 mss.
– MSS. Canon. Class. Lat. (Canonici Latin Classical): 311 mss.
– MSS. Canon. Gr. (Canonici Greek): 128 mss.
– MSS. Canon. Ital. (Canonici Italian): 297 mss. in Italian and 5 in Spanish
– MSS. Canon. Liturg. (Canonici Liturgical): 258 mss.
– MSS. Canon. Misc. (Canonici Miscellaneous): 576 mss.
– MSS. Canon. Pat. Lat. (Canonici Latin Patristic): 232 mss.

Canonici’s books date from the eleventh to the seventeenth century and range from Latin and Greek classical literature to biblical, liturgical and patristical texts, from Medieval vernacular literature (mainly Italian, but also French and Spanish), to philosophical and medical treatises. Most of the books are of Italian origin and provenance, but a considerable number come from France, England, Germany, Austria, Spain or the Flanders. A large proportion of Canonici’s collection had formerly belonged to the library of another Venetian, Jacopo Soranzo (1686-1761), who had in turn absorbed manuscripts from the library formed by the Venetian nobleman, statesman and scholar Bernardo Trevisan (1652-1720).

Short descriptions of some manuscripts (Canon. Class. Lat.) are available online; other will be published in the next months.