Sacred Words, Anglo-Saxon Piety, and the Origins of the Epistola salvatoris in London, British Library, Royal 2.A.xx Christopher M. Cain Towson University

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Sacred Words, Anglo-Saxon Piety, and the Origins of the Epistola salvatoris in London, British Library, Royal 2.A.xx

Christopher M. Cain

Towson University

London, British Library (BL), Royal 2.A.xx (Mercia) is a late eighth- or early ninth-century florilegium of Biblical passages, liturgical extracts, apocrypha, and prayers from Anglo-Saxon England. Among the contents of this eclectic book are texts as fundamental as the Pater Noster, the Nicene Creed, and the Magnificat, along with more obscure materials such as an “Oratio Sancti Hygbaldi” and various hymns.1 The manuscript also preserves a version of a text of immense popularity in the Middle Ages, the apocryphal letter of Jesus to Abgar, King of Edessa. The letter purports to be the authentic written words of Jesus, as the incipit of the Royal manuscript version states (fol. 12a): “Incipit epistola salvatoris domini nostri iesu xpisti ad abgarum regem quam dominus manu scripsit et dixit.” BL Royal 2.A.xx belongs to a well-studied complex of manuscripts scholarship generally refers to as the “Tiberius” group-all late eighth- or early ninth-century manuscripts of Mercian provenance or manuscripts that exhibit Mercian influence,2 but only the Royal manuscript contains [End Page 168] the apocryphal letter of Jesus to Abgar. Including the Royal manuscript, three other closely related manuscripts of the group-BL Harley 7653, BL Harley 2965 (Book of Nunnaminster), and Cambridge, University Library, Ll.1. 10 (Book of Cerne)-are believed to have been private prayerbooks.3 This study examines the positioning of this well-known apocryphal text within the context of private devotional practices in early medieval Europe (by virtue of its inclusion in a book designed for private rather than public [i.e., liturgical] use) and theorizes the possible origins of the Royal version in Anglo-Saxon England. The first part of this paper briefly sketches the early Christian backgrounds of the Abgar legend, its perpetuation in late antiquity, and its transmission to early medieval Europe. The second, accordingly, turns to knowledge of the legend in Anglo-Saxon England and the earliest extant version of the letter in England, that which is preserved in the Royal manuscript.

I. Backgrounds and Early History

The story of Abgar comes from the Middle East. It is the source of what might be considered something of a quasi-relic cult in the Middle Ages, inasmuch as the collection and veneration of a material object are associated with the legend. But unlike the veneration of corporeal relics of the saints, for example, objects associated with Jesus’ ministry on Earth were mostly non-corporeal, of course, since belief in his physical resurrection precluded the existence of such objects.4 Thus, Jesus’ letter to Abgar properly belongs to the cultic veneration of fragments of the True Cross, of the vera icon, of the Mandylion, and later, of the Shroud of Turin.5 The core of the legend’s [End Page 169] tradition concerns the epistolary exchange between Jesus and King Abgar V (reigned 4 BCE-7 CE and 13-50 CE) of the ancient city of Edessa, some 450 kilometers north of Damascus.6 The narrative also includes the material texts of two letters: the letter of Abgar to Jesus, in which the king urges Jesus to visit him in Edessa so that he may be healed of a debilitating illness, and Jesus’ response to Abgar, in which he declines the king’s entreaty-citing the constraints imposed by his mission-but assures him that one of his disciples will make the journey in his place. The origin of the legend is obscure, although Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea and the “father of Church history” (ca. 260-340), describes in his Historia ecclesiastica that “written evidence” (pastedGraphic.png μαρτυρίαν, 1.13) from the archives in Edessa preserves the correspondence in Syriac, which he then translates in full into Greek.7 The letters were first copied throughout the Afro-Asiatic region, with reproductions surviving not just on parchment but also inscribed on stone and on metal, and the text seems to have had amuletic uses, a fact that is critical to the Royal version of the letter under discussion here.8 The legend [End Page 170] found the widest audience in the west through Rufinus’ Latin translation of Eusebius’ Historia (ca. 420). Although Rufinus’ work is a relatively free translation of Eusebius, rendering ten books in nine, the Latin versions of both letters are entirely faithful to Eusebius’ record of them. As found in Rufinus, Abgar’s letter to Jesus follows:

EXEMPLAR EPISTULAE SCRIPTAE A REGE ABGARO VEL TOPARCHA AD IESUM ET MISSAE HIERUSOLYMA PER ANANIAM CURSOREM. Abgarus Uchamae filius toparcha iesu salvatori bono, qui apparuit in locis Hierusolymorum salutem. Auditum mihi est de te et de sanitatibus, quas facis, quod sine medicamentis aut herbis fiant ista per te, et quod verbo tantum facis caecos videre, claudos ambulare et leprosos mundas et inmundos spiritus ac daemonas eicis et eos qui longis aegritudinibus afflicantur, curas et sanas, mortuos quoque suscitas. Quibus omnibus auditis de te statui in animo meo unum esse e duobus, aut quia tu sis deus et descenderis de caelo, ut haec facias, aut quod filius dei sis, qui haec facis. Propterea ergo scribens rogaverim te, ut digneris usque ad me fatigari et aegritudinem meam, qua iam diu laboro, curare. Nam et illud conperi, quod Iudaei murmurant adversum te et volunt tibi insidiari. Est autem civitas mihi parva quidem, sed honesta, quae sufficiat utrisque.

(A COPY OF A WRITTEN LETTER BY ABGAR, THE TOPARCH, TO JESUS AND SENT TO JERUSALEM BY ANANIAS THE COURIER. Abgar, son of Uchama, the Toparch, sends greetings to Jesus the good savior who has appeared in the area of Jerusalem. I have been told about you and about the cures which you perform, that they are done by you without medicines or herbs, and that by word alone you make the blind see, the crippled walk, lepers clean, and you cast out impure spirits and demons, and that you attend to and heal those afflicted with protracted illnesses, and that you also raise the dead. Having heard all of that about you, I have decided one of two things to be true: either you do these things because you are God descended from heaven, or you are the Son of God who does these things. Therefore, I have written to ask that you take the trouble to come to me to heal my sickness, from which I’ve suffered for a long time now. For I have also learned that the Jews whisper against you and wish to plot against you. However, my city is indeed small, but virtuous, and sufficient for us both.)

And Jesus’ reply accompanies Abgar’s letter:

EXEMPLUM RESCRIPTI AB IESU PER ANANIAM CURSOREM AD ABGARUM TOPARCHAM. Beatus es, qui credidisti in me, cum me ipse non videris. Scriptum est enim de me, quia ii qui me vident, non credent in me, et qui non vident ipsi, credent et vivent. De eo autem, quod scripsisti mihi, ut veniam ad te, oportet me omnia, propter quae missus sum, hic explere et posteaquam complevero, recipi me ad eum, a quo missus sum. Cum ergo fuero adsumptus, mittam tibi aliquem ex discipulis meis, ut curet aegritudinem tuam et vitam tibi atque his qui tecum sunt praestet. [End Page 171]

(A COPY OF THE REPLY FROM JESUS TO ABGAR THE TOPARCH SENT BY THE COURIER ANANIAS. Blessed are you who have believed in me when you have not seen me. For it is written about me that they who see me will not believe in me, and they who do not themselves see me will believe and live. However, concerning that which you have written to me-that I come to you-it is necessary for me to fulfill here all those things for which I was sent, and after I am finished I will return to him who sent me. Therefore, when I have been taken up, I will send one of my disciples to you, so that he may heal your illness and give life to you and also to those who are with you.)9

Later, the so-called Decretum Pseudo-Gelasianum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis identifies the Abgar and Jesus letters as inauthentic: “Epistula Iesu ad Abgarum apocrypha.”10 The actual authorship of this long catalogue of prescribed and proscribed texts is unknown, but it seems to be no earlier than the sixth century. Nevertheless, the Decretum Pseudo-Gelasianum was regarded as genuine in the Middle Ages, and it survives in abundant copies.11

However, the occurrence of the legend in the west may actually be older than Rufinus’ translation from Eusebius. As is well known, an Iberian nun, probably named Egeria, traveled throughout the Holy Land, and the Itinerarium (ca. 380) is the journal of her visits to various sacred sites.12 One of those sites is the city of Edessa, where she tours its religious monuments and where the bishop tells Egeria and her party about the city’s most famous Christian artifacts, the correspondence of Jesus and Abgar, and leads them to the city’s gate through which the courier Ananias was believed to have delivered Jesus’ letter. The bishop offers copies of the letters as gifts to Egeria and her party, and she accepts these even though she states that she already possessed copies at home (“in patria exemplaria ipsarum haberem”).13 She also reports that the copies provided by the bishop were more detailed than those she had come by earlier (“nam uere amplius est, quod hic accepi”).14 Egeria’s statements confirm that copies of the letter had already been widely disseminated by the second half of the fourth century, and her description of the copy provided by the bishop as amplius indicates that variant versions were available. This is a critical point to bear [End Page 172] in mind since it means that Rufinus’ translation of Eusebius was not the only model for the correspondence as it existed in the Latin west.

Most scholars fix the date of the origin of the legend to the middle of the third century, and Egeria’s narrative suggests that the letters were circulating throughout the Christian east and west from a very early date.15 We should also note that the legend was expanded in the local tradition through the so-called Doctrine of Addai (Thaddeus), an early fifth-century Syraic document that purports to be a history of the conversion of Edessa.16 In it, Jesus’ reply to Abgar is not a letter but a verbal reply relayed by the king’s messenger Annanias (or Annan), who also bears to the king a portrait of Jesus, which the Doctrine of Addai tells us that Annanias painted but which in later tradition becomes the famous Mandylion, the “Holy Face of Edessa,” a miraculous image that was αχείροπόιητος, “not made by hands.”17

II. Knowledge of the Legend in Early Anglo-Saxon England

The correspondence of Jesus and Abgar is one of the most ubiquitous texts of the apocryphal cycle in the Middle Ages. As Dobschütz notes, “[d]ie Verbreitung weist auf den regen Austausch zwischen den verschiedenen [End Page 173] Teilen der christlichen Kirche, Orient, Griechenland, und Abendland, hin.”18 The text was copied throughout medieval Europe and persisted in Christian lore for centuries through its inclusion in important collections of exempla and hagiography like Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea. The life of the legend found purchase in the fertile ground of Anglo-Saxon England’s rich culture of ecclesiastical reading, writing, and book-making. The earliest surviving reference to Abgar comes from Bede, who recalls the historical figure of the king of Edessa on four occasions in his Latin works, although he does not reproduce, nor does he even mention, the legendary correspondence of Jesus and Abgar.19 Bede, of course, knew very well Rufinus’ translation of Eusebius’ history,20 but we need not interpret Bede’s omission of any mention of the letters as evidence of his rejection of their authenticity or even of his scrupulous adherence to presumed doctrinal canonicity, as per the Decretum Pseudo-Gelasianum.21 We need only [End Page 174] recognize that the legend was known in early Anglo-Saxon England and, perhaps, well enough that Bede’s readership required no explanation of his description of Abgar as “vir sanctus.” Whatever reservations about the legend that Bede may have had, Ælfric, whose eminence rests, in part, on his fastidious concern with sanctioned ways of thinking, appended the legend to the end of the story of the martyrdom of the Christian kings Abdon and Sennes in his collection of the lives of saints.22 He records Abgar’s letter to Jesus in Old English, includes Jesus’ reply in Latin with an accompanying Old English translation, and then proceeds to narrate the healing of Abgar and the conversion of Edessa by Thaddeus. We also find a copy of Jesus’ letter to Abgar in BL Cotton Galba A.xiv, an eleventh-century book of private prayers and devotions from Winchester.23

But it is difficult to dismiss the possibility that Bede’s silence suggests something of the tensions that might have surrounded the legend and the veneration of Jesus’ letter to Abgar. Bede’s lack of engagement with the substance of the legend could suggest that wide knowledge of the legend and the copying of Jesus’ letter occasioned some friction. So while the surviving evidence of the legend in Anglo-Saxon England indicates that it was widely known, Bede gives us some indication that, perhaps, uneasiness about the legend obtained as well. It is possible that tensions surrounding the legend stem from periodic Church efforts to restrict the use and proliferation of textual amulets, a purpose for which copies of Jesus’ reply to Abgar served throughout the Middle Ages. In Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages, Don C. Skemer states that the “Latin fathers viewed some types of textual amulets as survivals of pagan superstition, and church councils and law conflated amulet use with other deadly sins of idolatry. Ecclesiastical disapproval of textual amulets also found expression in cautionary sermons and moralistic tales aimed at discouraging forbidden textual elements and commerce in sacred power.”24 [End Page 175] To many, belief in the efficacy of the sacred words of textual amulets must have seemed to be of a piece with belief in the efficacy of sacred words in the public sphere, such as the formulaic repetition of the words of the Mass and of specific prayers-to say nothing of the paradigmatic status accorded to the Bible as the verbum Domini-and so the collection of amuletic texts and the use of them in forms of private devotion is unsurprising. Ecclesiastical proscriptions against amuletic texts generally identified the use of amulets as a form of divination representative of pagan practices and, therefore, heterodox.25 If Bede’s silence on the legend and on Jesus’ letter is a deliberate omission, then it may be due more to the Church’s position on written texts used by individuals to effect temporal results, long a use of the letter, than to misgivings about the letter’s authenticity, for the manuscript version of the letter to which we turn our attention now makes clear that the text was used as a form of protection.

III. The Letter in BL Royal 2.A.XX

The oldest direct textual witness to knowledge of the legend in Anglo-Saxon England occurs in BL Royal 2.A.xx, fols. 12a-13a. The compiler or copyists of the manuscript have omitted Abgar’s letter to Jesus but included a longer version of Jesus’ reply, which includes a significant addition that describes the apotropaic powers conferred on bearers of the letter:

Beatus es qui me non uidisti et credisti in me. Scriptum est enim de me quia hi qui uident me non credent in me, et qui me non vident ipsi in me credent et uiuent. De eo autem quod scripsisti mihi ut uenirem ad te oportet me omnia propter quae missus sum hic explere; et postea quam conpleuero recipe me ad eum a quo missus sum. Cum ergo fuero adsumtus mittam tibi aliquem ex discipulis meis ut curet egritudinem tuam et uitam tibi at his qui tecum sunt praestet et saluus eris sicut scriptum qui credit in me saluus erit. Siue in domu tua siue in ciuitate tua siue in omni loco nemo inimicorum tuorum dominabitur et insidias diabuli ne timeas et carmina inimicorum [End Page 176] tuorum distruuntur. Et omnes inimici tui expellentur a te siue a grandine siue tonitrua non noceberis et ab omni periculo liberaueris, siue in mare siue in terra siue in die siue in nocte siue in locis obscures. Si quis hanc epistolam secum habuerit secures ambulet in pace. Amen.

Despite some minor syntactic differences, the text in BL Royal 2.A.xx closely follows the text of the letter from Rufinus.26 However, the source of the addition (from “et saluus eris sicut”) in the manuscript is obscure:

. . . and you will be saved; as it is written, whoever believes in me will be saved, whether in your home or in your city or in any place, none of your enemies will have dominion, and you need not fear the treacheries of the devil and the curses of your enemies will be broken, and all your enemies will be driven away from you. Whether in hail or thunder, you will not be injured, and you will be free from all dangers, whether on sea or on land, whether in day or in night, or in strange places, whoever has this letter with him will go about safely in peace. Amen.

The addition adjoins the traditional transcription from Rufinus with a conjunction, and a full stop is not indicated, whereas elsewhere in the text, points clearly coincide with syntactic full stops, which possibly indicates that the intent is an interpolation of the content of Jesus’ letter.27 The source of this addition is unknown, although it bears repeating here that belief in the protective efficacy (especially for travelers) of Christ’s written words in the letter dates from quite early in the legend’s history.28

Royal 2.A.xx makes immediately clear two points about the Abgar legend in early medieval Europe. First, Christ’s letter, as a text unto itself, had become textually divorced from Rufinus by the time of the exemplar of the Royal manuscript but probably much earlier, as Egeria’s narrative indicates. This self-evident fact is important to bear in mind in regard to sources: in other words, there is no reason to assume that the compiler of the Royal manuscript knew the version in Rufinus, since individual copies of the letter were in circulation, certainly in the east but probably, too, in [End Page 177] the west, before Rufinus’ Latin translation.29 There is also the probability that knowledge of the legend and of the letter circulated orally, through preaching, teaching, and other means. Second, the addition in the Royal version of the letter represents a redaction in which the tradition of the protective powers of Christ’s written words is confirmed in the letter itself. Declaring that Rufinus is the source of knowledge of the letter throughout the Latin West30 ignores not only the manuscript context of the Royal version but also the long tradition of the text’s amuletic use throughout the early medieval period in which it was copied separately as a text independent of Rufinus. Although Rufinus’ translation was undoubtedly one source of knowledge of the Abgar legend and of the letters in Anglo-Saxon England,31 it is probable that it was not the only source available to the Anglo-Saxons.

Since the Royal manuscript belongs to a group of manuscripts closely related to one another in similarities of codicology, paleography, and content, a logical starting place to theorize the origins of the Royal version is with the history of the “Tiberius” group. The Irish influence on the manuscripts of the Tiberius group is pronounced, and Brown (“Mercian Manuscripts?,” p. 118) states that “the texts of the Tiberius-group prayerbooks . . . may . . . represent more contemporary links rather than merely fossilized remains of earlier contact experienced in Northumbria, as has often been suggested.” The apocryphal tradition of the Abgar correspondence was well known in [End Page 178] Ireland. The early fifteenth-century Leabhar Breac (Dublin, Royal Irish Academy 23.P.16), for example, translates the narrative from Rufinus into Middle Irish, but, at an earlier date, elements of the legend may have formed part of an Irish liturgy.32 The Irish Liber Hymnorum (Trinity College, Dublin E.4.2) is a collection of canticles, hymns, and collects used in the Irish church. The manuscript dates to the eleventh century, although it preserves texts of varying date, and it contains a copy of Jesus’ letter to Abgar (with a brief preface in Irish explaining its origins and Eusebius’ record of it) followed by two collects:

Domine domine defende nos a malis et custodi nos in bonis ut simus filii tui hic et in futuro. amen.

Saluator omnium Christe respice in nos Ieus, et miserere nobis.

Euangelium domini nostri Iesu Christi liberet nos protegat nos custodiat nos defendat nos ab omni malo ab omni periculo ab omni langore ab omni dolore ab omni plaga ab omni inuidia ab omnibus insidiis diabuli et malorum hominum hic et in futuro. amen.33

(Lord, Lord, defend us from evils, and hold us in goodness, that we may be your sons, here and in the future. Amen.

Savior of all, Christ, look down upon us, Jesus, and have pity on us.

Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver us, protect us, guard us, defend us, against every evil, against every danger, against every weakness, against every pain, against every wound, and against all ill-will, from all the treacheries of the devil and the evils of men here and in the future. Amen.)

Collects are always petitionary in nature, and the similarities between the Royal addition and the collects following Jesus’ letter to Abgar in the Liber Hymnorum are striking, and as far as I have been able to discover no one has pointed them out. Both texts are concerned with protection from the treacheries of the devil (Royal: “insidias diabuli,” LH: “ab omnibus insidiis diabuli”), from the danger of enemies (Royal: “inimicorum tuorum,” LH: “ab omnibus . . . malorum hominum”), and from bodily harm (no doubt in connection to the miraculous healing of Abgar’s affliction), whether it is fatigue and wounds (LH: “langore” and “plaga”) or injuries inflicted by hail and thunder (Royal: “siue a grandine siue tonitrua non noceberis”). Combined with the Irish influence on the Tiberius manuscripts, there is the suggestion of a plausible conduit for transmission of the Royal version of the letter-namely, an Insular tradition of Jesus’ letter as an invocation of the form of loricae, themselves familiar prayers of private devotion. [End Page 179] Another Tiberius manuscript, BL Harley 7653, may represent a slightly earlier development of the Tiberius group and, therefore, points to the kind of source from which the manuscripts of the group drew their contents. Brown (“Merican Manuscripts?,” p. 153) states that “Harley 7653 contains an act of invocation of the lorican form and displays a ‘medical’ emphasis,” and she further points out that the manuscript “implies that the written prayer, or prayerbook, form could itself act as an aid, stating that Si quis hanc scripturam secum habuerit non timebit a timore nocturno siue meridiano (fol. 2v),” although she does not connect this statement in the Harley manuscript to the very similar statement in the text of the addition to Jesus’ letter to Abgar in the Royal manuscript, “Si quis hanc epistolam secum habuerit secures ambulet in pace” and the addition’s promise of safe-keeping “siue in die siue in nocte siue in locis obscuris.” Even though this unambiguous parallel does not provide us with a direct source, the Royal manuscript’s relationship to the other manuscripts of the Tiberius group clarifies the addition to Jesus’ letter in Royal, placing it within a context of a particular form of prayer within the larger designs of a devotional handbook.

However, there are two obstacles to persuasion-at least in my mind-that the Royal version of the letter derives from some now-lost Irish tradition of devotional use of Jesus’ letter to Abgar. First, while it is true that the Irish Liber Hymnorum preserves texts of varying dates, some no doubt early, there is no particular reason to believe that the Irish Abgar materials are older than the late-eighth, early-ninth century date of the Royal manuscript. A reflexive assumption of Irish influence on the Anglo-Latin book in question is-at least in terms of the relative dates of the Abgar texts-anachronistic. Second, the Irish Abgar materials point to their public use, not the private devotion that is the clear purpose of Royal and the other manuscripts of the Tiberius group. The context of Jesus’ letter to Abgar and the following collects in the Liber Hymnorum is self-evidently liturgical. Furthermore, the ninth-century Basel Psalter prescribes the letter as a lection in the monastic office found there, although the letter is not reproduced in the manuscript.34 In short, the chronology and uses of the Abgar legend in surviving Irish versions leave room for further speculation about how (and in what forms) the Abgar legend reached Anglo-Saxon England.

Looking to the east rather than to the west, we can discern another plausible route of transmission of the legend to Anglo-Saxon England: [End Page 180] the person of Archbishop Theodore. Almost all of what we know about Theodore (602-90) is derived from Bede’s account of his consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury (668) and his teaching there and from his students’ collection of his commentaries on the Bible and the patrology.35 Theodore’s early career certainly placed him within the immediate sphere of the origin of the Abgar legend. As a native of Tarsus in Greek-speaking Cilicia (in southeast Turkey) and later a student in Antioch, Theodore certainly would have known the account of Abgar in its earliest form in Eusebius and in local oral traditions. In Antioch, Theodore would have been exposed to Syriac Christian traditions since the city was bilingual. And it seems likely that Theodore visited Edessa, perhaps even to study there, since one of his Biblical commentaries mentions the size of melons in Edessa.36 Theodore’s presence in Edessa would have been quite fitting, for the city would have drawn anyone who wished to learn about Syriac Christianity. Theodore’s extensive knowledge of St. Ephraim, who lived and wrote in Edessa, revealed by the commentaries, indicates his interest and learning in Syrian Christianity, although it is true that St. Ephraim was the only Syriac-speaking exegete whose works were translated into Greek and later into Latin. Jane Stevenson claims that “[i]t is probable, though not certain, that Theodore knew Syriac,” and there is even some evidence that Theodore brought a knowledge of Syriac to England.37 Although none of the redactions of Theodoran works mentions the Abgar story, it is inconceivable that Theodore was not familiar with the legend either as it existed in Eusebius and Rufinus or in the form of the local traditions [End Page 181] to which he must have been exposed.38 If, as Eusebius and Egeria state, Syriac documents that purported to preserve the original letters were indeed kept in Edessa, it is possible that Theodore saw them there. It is also possible that Theodore’s teaching and archiepiscopacy provided an oral context to the legend in England.39

These are intriguing connections, but what about more direct kinds of links between Theodore and the Royal version of the letter? As it happens, a clear link between Theodore and the Royal manuscript does exist, but it ties Theodore to a litany contained in the Royal manuscript. Folio 26a-b of the Royal manuscript is a Latin translation of a Greek litany found in BL Cotton Galba A.xviii. In his edition of Anglo-Saxon Litanies of the Saints, Michael Lapidge points out that the Greek litany in the Cotton manuscript derives not from Roman sacramentaries but from Antiochene usages in the Apostolic Constitutions and the Liturgy of St. James.40 Lapidge (p. 20) states that the litany in the Cotton manuscript “is in Greek and was ipso facto composed in the Greek East; . . . its closest analogues are Greek litanies of the [End Page 182] saints dating from the seventh century and originating in . . . Antioch; . . . various formulas in the litany (and in its companion, the Greek Sanctus) have their sources in Antiochene liturgy; and . . . it had reached England no later than the eighth century, when it was translated into Latin” in the Royal manuscript that also contains Jesus’ letter to Abgar. He states further that the question of how this Antiochene Greek text came to be known in England before the eighth century “admits of only one plausible answer, namely Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury (668-90).” Lapidge’s hypothesis is that Theodore brought to England a booklet of Greek prayers which contained the distinctively Antiochene litany preserved in the Cotton manuscript. We know that some Greek writings were translated into Latin at Theodore and Hadrian’s Canterbury school, such as the Greek acrostic poem translated by Aldhelm,41 and it is possible that Oftfor, whom Bede names as one of Theodore and Hadrian’s students and who later became bishop of Worcester, may be responsible for transmitting a Canterbury Latin translation of the Greek litany to Worcester where it was copied into Royal 2.A.xx in the eighth century.

If Theodore is responsible for bringing a Greek litany originating in the patriarchate of Antioch to England, as seems the only plausible explanation for it, then it is possible that the Royal manuscript that contains the Latin translation of it also contains other Theodoran texts, since the compiler of the manuscript would have had at his disposal a library in Worcester that must have been augmented by the learning of a bishop, Oftfor, who was schooled by Theodore in Canterbury. A convergence of facts, as follows, suggests that the source of the version of Jesus’ letter to Abgar found in the Royal manuscript could be a version of the letter brought to England by Archbishop Theodore: (1) the Royal version substantially differs from the version found in Rufinus; (2) copies of the letter circulated independently; (3) the addition to the Royal version enumerates the letter’s magical efficacy to protect its bearer, which (4) is a tradition that, according to the testimony of Egeria’s narrative and of local traditions like those in the Doctrine of Addai, apparently began in the east (whether in Syriac- or Greek-speaking churches) where (5) England’s Greek-speaking late-seventh century Archbishop Theodore studied, who (6) brought to England a wealth of eastern learning, such as (7) the Greek litany in Cotton Galba A.xviii, which (8) finds a literal Latin translation in a manuscript from Worcester (where, mind you, one of Theodore’s students served as bishop) that preserves the very text under discussion here. The plausibility of Theodore’s transmission of an exemplar for the Royal version of the letter also self-evidently solves the chronological problem that bedevils the assumption of an Irish origin, as I [End Page 183] mentioned earlier. Theodore’s possible role in bringing the Abgar legend to England also solves the problem of the differences in use between the Irish Abgar materials, which are clearly liturgical in nature, and the Royal version of the letter, which belongs to the sphere of private devotion. The type of book that Royal 2.A.xx is, by itself, tells us that Jesus’ letter to Abgar was apparently used by the Anglo-Saxons in private devotional contexts.

And this fact may provide us with yet another link between Theodore and the Royal version of the letter. The Greek litany in the Cotton manuscript and its Latin translation in the Royal manuscript form an important textual connection between Theodore and the sources which the compiler of Royal drew upon, which, in turn, gives us further reason to believe that Theodore is also responsible for the Royal version of Jesus’ letter to Abgar. But the sphere of private devotional practices also provides us with a thematic link between the Royal version of the letter and some of Theodore’s known contributions to the western church. Since, as Lapidge states, “[a]ll liturgists agree that the earliest surviving litany of the saints in the Latin west is that found in London, British Library, Cotton Galba A.xviii,” there is reason to believe that Theodore introduced the litany of the saints as a prayer of private devotion.42 The litany of the saints is simply a form of supplicatory prayer that has public liturgical uses as well as private devotional uses. Litanic prayers of various forms eventually converged to become uniform, and their earliest attested forms are from the eastern, Greek-speaking churches, where prayers of supplication formed part of the early Mass. Although the litany of the saints has its origins in eastern liturgical practices, and eventually forms a part of the Divine Office, supplicatory prayers of their kind translate easily to private devotional contexts in which the pious seek supernatural protections against spiritual and corporeal afflictions through the intercession of the saints. Evidence for private worship demands a more nuanced interpretation of medieval piety than the system of medieval liturgies, as the epitome of public worship, since the texts used to construct worship in the public sphere were strictly prescribed and amplified by a huge supporting apparatus of, among others, commentaries, computistical and calendrical texts, and antiphonaries, all of which place an emphasis on the relative uniformity of public practice. By contrast, private devotional works, of all the varieties of medieval Latinity, display the greatest diversity of forms, so only the centrality of Christian didacticism unites types of devotional literature, not generic conventions, and the Anglo-Saxons, in particular, produced an extensive body of writings of a devotional nature, texts that, in one way or another, provide for the moral instruction and spiritual edification of the pious. In monasteries and abbeys, private prayer and devotional exercises were encouraged beyond [End Page 184] the formal requirements of the liturgy, and the manuscript evidence suggests that books played some role in such private activities. Although it is true that the practice of reading in medieval culture was most often a public exercise, limited to the ecclesiastical community, in which a single lector guided a communal effort, private reading was by no means exceptional. Especially in the monastic orders, private reading was not only common but also required.43

A typical litany includes a series of petitions for protection against spiritual and temporal afflictions, punctuated in each case with “libera nos Domine.” Some examples of the petitions from litanies from Anglo-Saxon England follow:

(Cambridge, University Library, Ff.1. 23 , fol. 275r):
Propitius esto parce nobis Domine.
Ab omni malo libera nos Domine.
Ab insidiis diaboli libera nos Domine.
A peste superbie libera nos Domine.
A carnalibus desideriis libera nos Domine
Ab omnibus inmunditiis mentis et corporis libera nos.
A persecutione paganorum et omnium inimicorum nostrum libera nos.
A uentura ira libera nos Domine.
A subita et eterna morte libera nos Domine.44

(Cambridge, CCC 44, p. 14):
Propitius esto libera nos.
Ab omni malo libera nos.
A uentura ira libera nos.
A peccatis nostris libera nos.
Ab insidiis diaboli libera nos.45

(Cambridge, CCC 44, p. 23):
Christe audi nos.
Christe audi nos.
Ab inimicis nostris defende nos Criste.
Afflictionem nostram benignus uide.
Dolorem cordis nostri respice clemens.46

(Cambridge, CCC 163, p. 203):
Propitius esto parce nobis Domine.
Ab omni malo libera nos Domine.
Ab insidiis diaboli libera nos Domine.
Ab omni temptatione diabolica libera. [End Page 185]
Ab ira tua libera nos Domine.
A subitanea et inprouisa morte.
A peste et fame libera nos Domine.47

The similarities of the addition to Jesus’ letter to Abgar in the Royal manuscript to the petitions in litanies are suggestive. In essence, the addition to the Royal version of the letter forms a kind of responsory that complements the usual petitions in litanies of the saints, insomuch as a text that many medieval Christians “regarded as the ipsissima verba48 of Jesus promises protection from many of the same kinds of spiritual and temporal evils that litanic prayers enumerate. And there is a kind of chiasmic relationship between the order of petitions in a typical litany and the protections granted in the addition to the Royal version of the letter. Where litanies usually begin with the invocation of protection from every evil (“ab omni malo”)49 and then ask for protection from specific hazards, such as, for example, the treacheries of the devil (“ab insidias diaboli”), the hazards of worldly enemies (“a persecutione paganorum et . . . inimicorum”), or the bane of sickness and hunger (“a peste et fame”), the Royal addition guarantees, first, specific protections from worldly enemies (“nemo inimicorum tuorum dominabitur”), the treacheries of the devil (“insidias diabuli”), curses (“camina inimicorum tuorum distruuntur”), and finally, protection from every danger (“ab omni periculo liberaueris”). In other words, there are thematic as well as some striking textual agreements between the Royal version of the letter and litanic prayer of the sort introduced by Theodore. Both the petitions in litanies and the addition to the Royal version of the letter belong to forms of devotion that derive from the arma Dei metaphor crafted by St. Paul in Ephesians 6.11 (“induite vos arma Dei ut possitis stare adversus insidias diaboli”), but possession of the letter itself, as the addition states, substitutes a material object as a literal shield against harm for the ephemeral words of prayers like the litany of the saints.

Thus, there is a practical agreement as well. The amuletic uses of Jesus’ letter to Abgar throughout the Middle Ages are highly compatible, in terms of modes of medieval piety, with belief in the intercession of saints and in the efficacy of saints’ relics, and the litany of the saints easily accommodated itself to private prayer,50 a fact which must have reinforced a belief in the magical efficacy of the repetition of sacred words. The writing and copying [End Page 186] of sacred words, unlike the impermanence of spoken words, made it possible to retain their protections and benefits by possessing their material forms. As Skemer notes, “[t]extual amulets provided a tangible physical bond between words, symbols, and images that were sources of supernatural power and the persons or objects that were the intended beneficiaries of that power . . . [W]riting gave physical permanence to words.”51 The importance of the materiality of Jesus’ words in the Royal version of the letter is certified in the addition itself (“Si quis hanc scripturam habuerit . . .”), and the Royal manuscript records many prayers, hymns, and other paradigmatically spoken religious texts, including the translation of the litany from Cotton Galba A.xviii. The apparent reason for a book of this kind was to facilitate a private devotional experience and to recreate, time and again, certain aspects of the public ceremony of worship. That is, the codex itself takes on the function of a kind of amulet, since the material possession of sacred words intended for the individual rather than for the communal experience of worship (words that were normally strictly controlled and severely limited through their momentary oral performance in public usage) conferred not only practical benefits but probably, too, in the minds of many in the Middle Ages, supernatural benefits. If Theodore is responsible for both the Greek litany translated in Royal and the Royal version of Jesus’ letter, then it is possible that he regarded them as entirely complementary texts of personal devotion with little to separate the practical uses of one text from the other for the pious individual.

The text of the addition also admits another connection to Worcester that may ultimately derive from Theodore’s teaching at Canterbury. The assurance in the addition that “nemo inimicorum tuorum dominabitur” is nearly identical to that of Psalm 9:26, “omnium inimicorum suorum dominabitur,” which is found in probationes pennae in a number of manuscripts.52 One of these manuscripts, Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek,, preserving a fifth-century Italian copy of Jerome’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes, was most likely in the Worcester diocese until ca. 730, since an ex libris inscription on fol. 1b declares the book’s owner to be one Abbess Cuthswith, who is identified with the person of the same name in two charters preserved at Worcester.53 Sims-Williams (“Cuthswith,” p. 15 and [End Page 187] Religion and Literature, p. 193) suggests that Oftfor, who had travelled to Rome, could be the person who brought the book to England and that he very possibly donated the book to Cuthswith’s religious community at Inkberrow, near Worcester.54

The pen-trial with the line in question in the Würzburg manuscript is in eighth-century Anglo-Saxon half-uncials above the Cuthswith inscription (which dates to ca. 700) and may be a common pen-trial of Hiberno-Saxon scribes since it appears in a number of manuscripts.55 The adoption of this Biblical passage as a common pen-trial may relate to an apparent belief in its theurgic use, which, in turn, might explain its nearly identical reproduction in the addition to the Royal version of Christ’s letter. BL Cotton Vitellius E.xviii, fol. 16a (the Vitellius Psalter) records the line in a form of secret writing as “pmnkxm knkmkcprxam sxprxm dpmknbktxr” in which consonants substitute for vowels in a simple cipher.56 The logic of concealment presupposes the value of the words that have been encrypted, so this cipher suggests to us that the Anglo-Saxons believed that the expression bore special significance. The sum of the cipher in the Cotton manuscript, the echo of the line in the Royal addition, and the pen-trial in the Würzburg manuscript (among others) is the strong suggestion that the scriptural quotation was associated with a belief in its apotropaic properties.

The pen-trial in the Würzburg manuscript may reflect some of the learning promulgated at Worcester under Bishop Oftfor that, as I have suggested above, produced the Royal version of the letter under discussion here and may therefore represent the teaching of Theodore. But there is an interesting contradiction in the interpretation of the “omnium inimicorum” of the Psalm-verse in its scriptural context: the subject of the verb “dominabitur” is not God but the “peccator” of 9:25 (“exacerbavit Dominum peccator”) in an extended passage on the theme of the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous. If part of the appeal of this popular pen-trial was a belief in the efficacy of its words, as seems to be the case from the evidence of the Cotton cipher, then we are invited to believe that the scribes [End Page 188] who adopted it for use as a pen-trial formed a reading in which the subject of the verb “dominabitur” was understood to be God or Christ-otherwise, the passage would make little sense as a frequently invoked apotropaic text. It is possible that the similar passage recorded in the text of the addition in the Royal version of Jesus’ letter-where the context flips the meaning of the expression through the use of the indefinite pronoun “nemo” (“none of your enemies will have dominion”)-exerted some influence on the popularization of the Psalm-verse as a pen-trial that invoked God’s protection against all enemies instead of recreating the precise meaning of the expression in the Psalms, since both the version of the letter in the Royal manuscript and the pen-trial may well have derived from Worcester at the time of Oftfor’s episcopacy and, therefore, represent something of the teachings that he brought there. Theodore’s teaching may have included a tradition in which the Psalm-verse had come to be used as an apotropaic text by analogy with the very similar line in the addition to the Royal version of the letter. Even excluding this possibility, it seems beyond question that the Würzburg pen-trial leads back to Worcester and to Oftfor, where the Royal version of the letter was copied.

We have seen that there is a chain of textual, thematic, and practical evidence that links Theodore to the Royal version of the letter. The reductionist tendency of modern scholarship that values the clear and unambiguous division and classification of strains of medieval literary culture is rather more a reflection of itself than it is a representation of the dense and complicated layering of medieval textual transmission. It is not difficult to imagine that Theodore’s Canterbury school provided an oral context for conveying the legend of Abgar and a scribal context for copying the letter for its amuletic uses, free of the letter’s transmission in Rufinus. If Oftfor was responsible for bringing the Greek litany in the Cotton manuscript from Canterbury to Worcester, which then finds its way into the Royal manuscript in the late eighth or early ninth century, it is not difficult to imagine that the Royal compiler drew on other Worcester materials that preserved a redaction of Jesus’ letter to Abgar brought to Worcester by Oftfor, who acquired it, too, in Theodore’s Canterbury school. Given the chain of evidence established here, I think that a very plausible inductive conclusion is that Theodore’s archepiscopacy and Canterbury school are the most likely conduits for transmission of the “Epistola salvatoris” in the form found in the Royal manuscript-that is, with the unique addition that describes the originally eastern tradition of the letter’s protective powers.57 [End Page 189]


1. See E. A. Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores, 11 vols. and Supplement, with 2d ed. of vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935-1972), II, no. 215. N. R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957), pp. 317-18, describes the Old English contents of the manuscript. The manuscript is edited in The Prayer Book of Aedeluald the Bishop, Commonly Called the Book of Cerne, ed. A. B. Kuypers (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1902), pp. 201-25.

2. The best short overview of this group of manuscripts is Michelle P. Brown, “Mercian Manuscripts? The ‘Tiberius’ Group and its Historical Context,” in Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe, ed. Michelle P. Brown and Carol A. Farr, Studies in the Early History of Europe (London: Leicester Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 279-91. For details on the Book of Cerne (Cambridge, University Library, MS Ll.1. 10 ) and its relationship to the Tiberius group, see Michelle P. Brown, The Book of Cerne: Prayer, Patronage and Power in Ninth-Century England (London: The British Library, 1996). The provenance of these clearly related manuscripts has been a matter of debate; they have been variously identified with Canterbury: see J. O. Westwood, Facsimiles of the Miniatures and Ornaments of Anglo-Saxon and Irish Manuscripts (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1868) pp. 43-46; Kenneth Sisam, “Canterbury, Lichfield and the Vespasian Psalter,” Review of English Studies, 7 (1956), 1-10, and “Canterbury, Lichfield and the Vespasian Psalter,” Review of English Studies, 7 (1956), 113-31; D. H. Wright, review of Peter Hunter Blair, Anglia, 82 (1964), 110-17; J. J. G. Alexander, Insular Manuscripts, 6th to the 9th Century (London: Harvey Miller, 1978), pp. 55-60; with Lindisfarne: Françoise Henry, L’Art irlandais, 2 vols. (t. Léger-Vauban: Zodiaque, 1964), II, 60-64; and with Lichfield: Sherman Kuhn, “From Canterbury to Lichfield,” Speculum, 23 (1948), 591-629. Brown, “Merican Manuscripts?,” p. 281, suggests that “Tiberius” is an apt designation for these manuscripts in order “to avoid regional specification, . . . extending [the manuscripts’] regional diffusion across a broader area of Mercian cultural activity (including Kent) to form what [Brown has] termed the ‘Mercian Schriftprovinz‘, capable of encompassing the political components of greater Mercia, Kent and Wessex during the eighth and ninth centuries, rather as the ‘Irische Schriftprovinz‘ has been extended to embrace seventh- to eighth-century Northumbria.” Within the larger Tiberius group, then, Brown, The Book of Cerne, p. 172 (and Brown, “Mercian Manuscripts?,” p. 282) identifies manuscripts belonging to a Mercian school (of which BL Royal 2.A.xx is one), a Canterbury school (to which the Tiberius Bede [BL Cotton Tiberius C.ii] belongs, lending its Cottonian shelfmark to the name of the entire group of manuscripts), and a possible West Saxon school.

3. See Brown, The Book of Cerne, pp. 15, 157-60.

4. This is excepting, naturally, corporeal relics of Jesus not precluded by his physical resurrection, such as blood, tears, milk teeth, and the Holy Prepuce. See, for example, Wilfrid Bonser, “The Cult of Relics in the Middle Ages,” Folklore, 73 (1962), 234-56.

5. Completely unrelated in origin and rather different in character by virtue of its contents, a kind of sermon on the strict observance of Sundays, is the so-called “Sunday Letter,” another epistle purported to have been written by Jesus, although in some versions supernaturally delivered directly from Heaven. The “Sunday Letter” seems to have originated in the east in the sixth century and spread throughout Christendom: see Robert Priebsch, Letter from Heaven on the Observance of the Lord’s Day (Oxford: Blackwell, 1936); for the letter in England, see W. R. Jones, “The Heavenly Letter in Medieval England,” Medievalia et Humanistica, 6 (1975), 163-78; Clare A. Lees, “The ‘Sunday Letter’ and the ‘Sunday Lists’,” Anglo-Saxon England, 14 (1985), 129-51; and Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture: The Apocrypha, ed. Frederick Biggs, (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2007), pp. 58-61.

6. Edessa, now believed to have been on the site of the modern city of Urfa in southern Turkey, was a prosperous trading center before the time of Christ. Afterwards, it became a regional center for the promulgation of Christian teachings. The remains of its church, destroyed by a flood in 201 CE, could be the oldest surviving Christian construction. In the subsequent centuries, Edessa was the center of Syriac-speaking Christianity, responsible for producing two manuscripts of a Syriac New Testament. The city was also home to a well-known Persian school that advanced Nestorian teachings, and the city was later associated with the opposition to the Christological doctrines of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE. On Edessa in Christian history, see the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997).

7. Eusebius is edited by Eduard Schwartz and Rufinus’ Latin translation by Theodor Mommsen in Eusebius Werke, vol. 2, ed. Mommsen, II, Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte, 9/1-2 (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1903-08).

8. On the early non Anglo-Latin reflexes of the legend, see R. A. Lipsius, Die edessenische Abgar-Sage kritisch untersucht (Braunschweig: C. A. Schwetschke und Sohn, 1880); Isaac H. Hall, “Syriac Version of the Epistle from King Abgar to Jesus,” Hebraica, 1 (1884-85), 232-35; L.-J. Tixeront, Les Origines des l’église d’Edesse et la légende d’Abgar, étude critique: suivie de deux textes orientaux inédits (Paris: Maisonneuve et Ch. Leclerc, 1888); Ernst von Dobschütz, Christusbilder: Untersuchungen zur christlichen Legende, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur, 18 (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1899); Ernst von Dobschütz, “Der Briefwechsel zwischen Abgar und Jesus,” Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie, 43 (1900), 422-86; J. G. C. Anderson, “Pontica,” Journal of Hellenic Studies, 20 (1900), 151-58; Søren Giverson, “Ad Abgarum: The Sahidic Version of the Letter to Abgar on a Wooden Tablet,” Acta Orientalia, 24 (1959), 71-82; Getatchew Haile, “The Legend of Abgar in Ethiopic Tradition,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica, 55 (1989), 375-410; and Martin Illert, Die Abgarlegende: Das Christusbild von Edessa, Fontes Christiani, 45 (Brepols: Turnhout, 2007).

9. The letters are printed in Eusebius Werke, II, 86-89. The translations are my own.

10. The text is edited in Das Decretum Gelasianum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis in kritischem Text, ed. Ernst von Dobschütz (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1912), p. 13. The Decretum likewise states that “Epistula Abgari ad Iesum apocrypha.”

11. For backgrounds and references on the Decretum Pseudo-Gelasianum, see Wilhelm Schneemelcher, “General Introduction,” in New Testament Apocrypha, rev. ed., ed. Schneemelcher, trans. R. McL. Wilson, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991-92), I 38-40.

12. Earlier scholarship (see, e.g., Éthéria: Journal de Voyage, ed. and trans. Hélène Pétré, [Paris: Éditions du Cerf., 1948]) refers to Egeria as “Etheria.” The text is edited in Itinerarium, ed. A. Franceschini and R. Weber, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina [CCSL], 175 (Brepols: Turnhout, 1965), pp. 29-90.

13. Itinerarium, p. 62.

14. Itinerarium, p. 62.

15. The letters cannot be dated nearer to the time of Jesus than the date of the Gospels, since the text is borrowed in several places from the Gospel texts (cf. John 20:24, “dicit ei Iesus quia vidisti me credidisti beati qui non viderunt et crediderunt,” Matthew 13:14, “et adimpletur eis prophetia Esaiae dicens auditu audietis et non intellegetis et videntes videbitis et non videbitis” with the first few lines of Jesus’ letter of Rufinus’ Latin version of the text, and also cf. Isaiah 6:9, “et dixit vade et dices audietis et non intellegetis et nolite intellegere et videte visionem et nolite cognoscere”). Pressing the date of the letters even later is the hypothesis that the borrowed texts of the letters do not reflect Gospel borrowing but rather borrowing from Tatian’s concordance, which would place the letters firmly in the third century, since the Diatessaron was the only Gospel text available in Syria in the third and fourth centuries (see Dobschütz, Christusbilder, p. 134).

16. For a translation of this text, see The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementia, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa, and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, rev. ed. by A. Cleveland Coxe, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 8 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), pp. 657-65. Also see Illert, Die Abgarlegende, pp. 29-44 and 132-176.

17. Mary Swan’s article on “Remembering Veronica in Anglo-Saxon England,” in Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts, ed. Elaine Treharne (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002), pp. 19-39, demonstrates how this later version of the Abgar story becomes the Veronica legend. However, Swan confuses these two early versions of the Abgar legend. Speaking about the later version that originates with the Doctrine of Addai, she states “This version of the story is recorded by Eusebius of Caesarea” (p. 23, n. 8), although Eusebius says nothing at all about a portrait. This is an unfortunate confusion, since it obscures the fact that both versions survived in Anglo-Saxon England: the later story as the legend of Veronica, and the earlier one in which Christ’s letter to Abgar is a material object cognate with Veronica’s miraculous cloth.

18. “Der Briefwechsel,” p. 486.

19. In his De temporibus liber: “Abgarus uir sanctus regnauit” (The holy man Abgar ruled) ed. C. W. Jones, CCSL, 123C (Brepols: Turnhout, 1980), p. 608; in his De temporum ratione: “Abgarus uir sanctus regnauit Edessae” (The holy man Abgar of Edessa ruled) ed. C. W. Jones, CCSL, 123B (Brepols: Turnhout, 1977), p. 503; and in his Expositio actuum apostolorum: “Iudas uero Iacobi, id est frater Iacobi, idem est qui in euangeliis uocatur Taddeus, missus que est Aedissam ad Abgarum regem Osroenae, ut ecclesiastica tradit historia” (Indeed, Jude, who is the brother of James, who is likewise called Thaddeus in the Gospels, was sent to Edessa to King Abgar of Osroene, as the church history relates) ed. M. L. W. Laistner and D. Hurst, CCSL, 121 (Brepols: Turnhout, 1983), p. 11. And in his Retractatio in acta apostolorum, Bede very similarly mentions the mission of Thaddeus to Abgar’s kingdom.

20. With the title of his own Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum, Bede “no doubt chose to evoke . . . the Historia ecclesiastica of Eusebius of Caesarea, which Bede had read closely in the Latin translation of Rufinus,” as pointed out by Roger Ray in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), p. 58. Furthermore, Bede relied on a variety of sources for his chronological works, Rufinus being only one of many (see W. F. Bolton, A History of Anglo-Latin Literature 597-1066, vol. 1: 597-740 [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1967], pp. 101-85). Also see Danuta Shanzer’s “Bede’s Style: A Neglected Historiographical Model for the Style of the Historia Ecclesiastica?,” in Source of Wisdom: Old English and Early Medieval Latin Studies in Honour of Thomas D. Hill, ed. Charles D. Wright, Frederick M. Biggs, and Thomas N. Hall (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2007), pp. 329-52, for the suggestion that Bede used Rufinus as a stylistic model.

21. As late as the eighteenth century, Jeremiah Jones (quoted in “The Teaching of Addæus the Apostle,” in The Twelve Patriarchs, ed. Coxe, p. 659, n. 7) could write, “The common people in England had it [Jesus’ letter to Abgar] in their houses in many places in a frame with a picture before it: and they generally, with much honesty and devotion, regard it as the word of God and the genuine epistle of Christ.” Certainly, however, the Anglo-Saxons knew the Decretum (and probably regarded it as genuine): Helmut Gneuss, Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A List of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 241 (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2001) lists six Anglo-Saxon manuscripts containing the text, nos. 763, 573, 713, 749.5, 800, 808.2. But as Joyce Hill, “The Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England: The Challenge of Changing Distinctions,” in Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Kathryn Powell and Donald Scragg (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003), p. 165, states, catalogues of accepted and rejected texts “often functioned more as reference points for those who wished to support a particular position at a given moment than as definitive lists which determined universal practice.”

22. Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, ed. Walter W. Skeat, EETS o.s., 76, 82, 94, and 114 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1881-1900, reprinted in two vols., 1966).

23. On the manuscript, see Ker, Catalogue, pp. 198-201. For a critical edition of the manuscript with information on scribes, sources, structure, date, etc., see Bernard J. Muir, A Pre-Conquest English Prayer-Book (BL MSS Cotton Galba A.xiv and Nero A.ii (ff. 3-13)), Henry Bradshaw Society, 103 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 1988). Also see the entry in Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture: The Apocrypha, p. 57, which nonetheless omits listing the copy of the letter in the Galba manuscript (Gneuss, Handlist, no. 333).

24. Don C. Skemer, Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2006), p. 72. Skemer also notes that “[e]cclesiastical authorities from Charlemagne’s Admonitio generalis (789) to Hugh of St. Victor (1096?-1141) condemned the [letter of Jesus to Abgar],” p. 101.

25. Skemer, Binding Words, pp. 45-47. And there is evidence of a strong Insular tradition of collecting apotropaic texts. In addition to the survival of charms, loricae, curses, and exorcisms, Karen Louise Jolly, “Prayers from the Field: Practical Protection and Demonic Defense in Anglo-Saxon England,” Traditio, 61 (2006), 95-147, identifies a set of prayers “to protect fields and crops from birds, vermin, and other demonically inspired threats to the agricultural community” (p. 95), and Raymond S. J. Grant, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 41: The Loricas and the Missal, Costerus n.s. 17 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1979), p. 26 suggests that the marginalia in CCCC 41 are not random but focus on charms of protection, including the ancient “sator arepo tenet opera rotas” formula (pp. 19-22), a four-way palindrome that can be rearranged to spell out a cruciform “Paternoster” and may therefore explain the formula’s appeal to Christians, though its translation is disputed (see Skemer, Binding Words, pp. 116-17, 134).

26. And so I have not provided a translation for the Royal text (see the Rufinus translation above), but compare the first sentence in the version of Rufinus, “Beatus es, qui credidisti in me, cum me ipse non videris,” with that of Royal 2.A.xx, “Beatus es qui me non uidisti et credisti in me,” in which the cum clause is omitted and the relative is reworked using two verbs in the preterite.

27. Note also the grammatical bonding of the text from Rufinus to the addition through the continuation of the second person singular pronouns and verb forms.

28. On the early history of the text’s apotropaic uses, see Skemer, Binding Words, pp. 97-99. As Skemer states, the bishop of Edessa apparently offered copies of the letter to Egeria’s party for protection “on the long and perilous journey home,” p. 97. The Doctrine of Addai states that the original letter was placed above the gate to the city of Edessa to repel a Persian attack, and Egeria relates the bishop’s story of how Abgar, holding open the letter in his uplifted hands, staved off Persian attackers by invoking God’s power to darken the skies, befuddling the enemy, and she states that the letter was used thusly on many occasions.

29. In fact, the minor syntactic differences between the letter in Rufinus and that found in the first part of the letter in the Royal manuscript may represent two distinct Latin textual traditions of the letter in the medieval West. The real question is “Did knowledge of Jesus’ letter to Abgar entail knowledge of Rufinus?” The answer is likely a qualified “no.” For learned ecclesiasts, Rufinus’ Latin translation of Eusebius was the most important historical account of the early church, so it was widely read, certainly, in Anglo-Saxon monasteries and abbeys, as we have seen with Bede. Among the secular clergy, knowledge of Rufinus must have been limited, since it was not a text that pertained to any of the duties particular to the major or minor orders, which were largely liturgical. And knowledge of Rufinus among the tiny fraction of literate laypersons is highly improbable, with only the conditions provided by a court of learned retainers-such as that which Alfred enjoyed with Asser and his associates-to explain, reasonably, how a layperson might be exposed to Rufinus.

30. As most scholars do, including Dobschütz, “Der Briefwechsel,” p. 487, and Cora Lutz, “The Apocryphal Abgarus-Jesus Epistles in England in the Middle Ages,” in Essays on Manuscripts and Rare Books (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1975), p. 58.

31. For example, Ælfric, as stated above, copied the letters in full and related the narrative context of the letters in his version of the story of the martyrdom of the Christian kings Abdon and Sennes in his collection of the lives of saints. Gneuss, Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, identifies five manuscripts produced or owned in Anglo-Saxon England containing Rufinus’ translation (complete or excerpted) of the Historia (nos. 57, 61, 137, 768, 773.5). Ælfric seems to have known Rufinus’ version of Eusebius very well: the Fontes Anglo-Saxonici database returns more than seventy sources from Rufinus’ Historia in Ælfric’s work, much more than any other Anglo-Saxon author, including Bede (see the author reference summary for Rufinus in Fontes Anglo-Saxonici, Fontes Anglo-Saxonici Project,, accessed December 2007).

32. For the Leabhar Breac text and for a list of the Irish versions of the Abgar legend, see P. Considine, “Irish Versions of the Abgar Legend,” Celtica, 10 (1973), 237-57. Also see Martin McNamara, The Apocrypha in the Irish Church (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1975), pp. 58-59.

33. The manuscript is edited in The Irish Liber Hymnorum, ed. J. H. Bernard and R. Atkinson, 2 vols., Henry Bradshaw Society, 13, 14 (London: Henry Bradshaw Society, 1898), I, 94-95.

34. Liber Hymnorum, II, 174. On the Basel Psalter, see Martin McNamara, The Psalms in the Early Irish Church, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 165 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp. 58-61, who says “[t]he Basel Psalter is generally considered to have come from the circle of Sedulius of Liège.”

35. On Theodore’s commentaries, see Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian, ed. Bernard Bischoff and Michael Lapidge, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 10 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994); on Theodore’s life and works, see Michael Lapidge, “The Career of Archbishop Theodore,” in Archbishop Theodore: Commemorative Studies on His Life and Influence, ed. Michael Lapidge, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 11 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 1-29, to which much of the account of Theodore here is indebted.

36. An explanatory gloss on Numbers 11:5 in the Canterbury Biblical commentaries ascribed to Theodore states: “cucumeres et pepones unum sunt, sed tamen cucumeres dicuntur pepones cum magni fiunt; ac saepe in uno pepone fiunt .xxx. librae. In Edissia ciuitate fiunt ut uix potest duo portare unus camelus” (Cucumbers and melons are the same, but cucumbers are called melons when they become large; sometimes a melon will weigh thirty pounds. In the city of Edessa they grow [so large] that one camel can hardly carry two [melons]).

37. An entry for Saint Milus of Susa appears in the Old English Martyrology with corrupt Syriac place names. The life of the Persian saint was not translated into Greek, which indicates the possibility that the text came to England in its original language. See Das altenglische Martyrologium, 2 vols. ed. Günther Kotzor, Abhandlungen der Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, phil.-hist. Klasse, n.s. 88 (Munich: C. Beck, 1981), I, 370; Christopher Hohler, “Theodore and the Liturgy,” in Archbishop Theodore, ed. Lapidge, p. 225; and Jane Stevenson, “Ephraim the Syrian in Anglo-Saxon England,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies, 1.2. (July 1998) <> (7 December 2007), para. 5-6 (quotation from para. 5).

38. It should also be noted that the writings of St. Ephraim do not mention the Abgar legend.

39. And it is possible that Theodore borrowed themes from Ephraim. For example, although the Chistus medicus motif is common, Stevenson, again (“Ephraim the Syrian,” para. 22) points out that “Ephraim’s favourite metaphor for Christ, ‘The Physician’,” is found in the Laterculus Malalianus-a translation with exegesis of the portions relating to the life of Christ found in John Malalas’ sixth-century Greek chronicle of the world (for convincing arguments that Theodore himself wrote the Laterculus, see Jane Stevenson, The “Laterculus Malalianus” and the School of Archbishop Theodore, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 14 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995), and Jane Stevenson, “Theodore and the Laterculus Malalianus,” in Archbishop Theodore, ed. Lapidge, pp. 204-21). The metaphorical representation of Jesus as the physician of humankind also finds expression in other works attributed to Theodore-in Theodore’s letter to Æthelred in 686 and in the preface to the Penitential of Theodore, where the metaphor is shaped to include the concept of penance as the cure for the affliction of sin. See Die Canones Theodori Cantuariensis und ihre Überlieferungsformen, ed. Paul Willem Finsterwalder (Weimar: H. Böhlaus, 1929), p. 287. Patrick Sims-Williams, “Ephrem the Syrian in Anglo-Saxon England,” in Britain and Early Christian Europe: Studies in Early Medieval History and Culture (Aldershot: Variorum, 1995), pp. 213-15, suggests that knowledge of Ephraim could be one source of the Christus medicus metaphor in non-liturgical Anglo-Latin prayers. The metaphor also finds expression in the Abgar tradition through Jesus’ letter’s use as an amulet against affliction, and the thematic arrangement of Royal 2.A.xx suggests an interest in literal and figurative healing.

40. See Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Litanies of the Saints, Henry Bradshaw Society, 106 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 1991), pp. 13-18. Cotton Galba A.xviii, the so-called “Athelstan Psalter,” was written in northeast France (Gneuss, Handlist, p. 64 [no. 334 ]suggests Liège or Rheims) in the second half of the ninth century but was in England by the beginning of the tenth century, as indicated by the addition of two quires, at the beginning and at the end, written in Anglo-Saxon minuscule. The Greek litany is preserved in the second (later) Anglo-Saxon addition, which is dated to the reign of King Athelstan (924-39). Lapidge suggests that Israel the Grammarian, an accomplished Greek scholar who sought the shelter of Athelstan’s court while political tumult roiled his native Brittany, collected a dossier of Greek materials while in England, the Greek litany in the Cotton manuscript having been one of them. That Israel’s hypothetical Anglo-Saxon exemplar must have predated the eighth century is confirmed by the fact that the Royal manuscript preserves a literal Latin translation of the Greek litany in the Cotton manuscript.

41. See Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Litanies of the Saints, pp. 23-24, and also Michael Lapidge, “The Study of Greek at the School of Canterbury in the Seventh Century,” in Anglo-Latin Literature 600-899 (London: Hambledon, 1996), pp. 123-39.

42. Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Litanies, pp. 13, 45.

43. On private reading in monasteries, see C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 2d ed. (London: Longman, 1989), pp. 115-16. On reading, M. B. Parkes, “Rædan, Areccan, and Smeagan: How the Anglo-Saxons Read,” Anglo-Saxon England, 26 (1997), 1-22; Paul Saenger, “Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society,” Viator, 13 (1982), 367-414; and Paul Saenger, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1997).

44. Anglo-Saxon Litanies, ed. Lapidge, p. 96.

45. Anglo-Saxon Litanies, p. 99.

46. Anglo-Saxon Litanies, p. 101.

47. Anglo-Saxon Litanies, p. 108.

48. Considine, “Irish Versions of the Abgar Legend,” p. 243.

49. Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Litanies, pp. 18-19, says that the singular form “omni malo” is an indication of Greek origins, since “the invariable wording of the petition which accompanies the Lord’s Prayer in Roman sacramentaries (both Gelasian and Gregorian) was ‘Libera nos, quaesumus, Domine, ab omnibus malis‘. . . . This indicates that the Greek litany in Galba A.xviii cannot be of Roman origin.”

50. Lapidge, p. 45, says that “a litany could be adapted to personal use simply through the substitution of singular pronouns for plural: ora pro me in lieu of ora pro nobis.”

51. Skemer, Binding Words, p. 133.

52. Again, I thank Professor Charles Wright for alerting me to the similarity of the pentrial to the Royal letter’s addition.

53. See Patrick Sims-Williams “Cuthswith, Seventh-Century Abbess of Inkberrow, near Worcester, and the Würzburg Manuscript of Jerome on Ecclesiastes,” Anglo-Saxon England, 5 (1976), 1-21; reprinted with original pagination and Addenda in Patrick Sims-Williams, Britain and Early Christian Europe: Studies in Early Medieval History and Culture (Aldershot: Variorum, 1995), no. VII; and Patrick Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature in Western England 600-800, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 190-97.

54. On the identification of Cuthswith’s foundation of Inkberrow, see Sims-Williams, “Cuthswith,” pp. 10-13.

55. On the date of the inscription, see Ker, Catalogue, p. 467. On the pen-trial, see Bernhard Bischoff, “Elementarunterricht und Probationes Pennae in der ersten Hälfte des Mittelalters,” in Mittelalterliche Studien Ausgewählte Aufsätze zur Schriftkunde und Literaturgeschichte, vol. I (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1966), pp. 77-78.

56. Humphrey Wanely prints this cipher and the manuscript’s extended passage on secret writing under the heading “Varia occulte scribendi genera, Anglo-Saxonibus usurpata” (see Wanely’s Catalogus in the second volume of George Hickes, Linguarum vett. [1703-05], p. 223, reprinted and ed. by R. C. Alston, English Linguistics 1500-1800, 248 [Menston: The Scolar Press, 1970]). For an edition of the manuscript’s psalter, see James L. Rosier, The Vitellius Psalter (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1962).

57. I wish to thank Professor Florence Newman, Professor Charles D. Wright, and an anonymous reviewer for their comments, suggestions, and corrections on earlier drafts of this paper.