• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

A Byzantine In England: A Glimpse Into The Life Of Theodore Of Tarsus



In AD 669 Theodore, a Byzantine monk from Tarsus, arrived in England having been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury two years previously. Born in 602, he’d been obliged to flee west to avoid the Arab invasions and was in Rome when Constans II visited the city (663), indeed the latter stayed in the region until his death (bludgeoned by a silver soap tray/bucket) in 668.


Theodore was joined the following year by the African Hadrian, the former abbot of a monastery in Campania,[1] who’d been explicitly instructed not to let the Byzantine introduce any foreign customs to the English. Indeed, tensions were so high (with Constans’ presence in the west) that Ebroin, Mayor of the Palace of Neustria, tried to prevent Hadrian’s Channel crossing on the grounds that:


“He suspected him of having some mission from the Eastern Roman Emperor to the kings of Britain, which might be directed against the kingdom over which at that time he held the chief charge.”[2]



They soon established a school. Bede later recounted students who could speak Greek and Latin.[3] Many included men who’d later become important ecclesiastics including Tobias (bishop of Rochester), Albinus (Hadrian’s successor as abbot in Canterbury), Oftfor (bishop of Worcester) and John of Beverley (bishop of York). Aldhelm isn’t mentioned but an extant letter from him to Hadrian demonstrates that he was among their number. Indeed, he’s the only one of this select bunch of Canterbury alumni to have left any writings.


Fortunately, we get a direct (if brief) glimpse of Theodore in the scribblings of Stephen of Ripon who recorded (in his Vita S. Wilfridi) a verse epistle that the Archbishop of Canterbury sent to Bishop Haeddi of Wessex:


Te nunc, sancta speculator,

Verbi Dei digne dator

Haeddi, pie praesul, precor,

Pontificum ditum décor,

Pro me tuo peregrine

Preces funde Theodoro.[4]


An excerpt notable mostly for its trochaic rhythm, which emphasises the natural stress of Latin words (all Latin words are stressed on the penultimate syllable except in the case of polysyllabic words whose penultimate syllable is short, in which case the accent is thrown forward onto the antepenultimate syllable).


In ecclesiastical matters, Theodore personally ensured his bishops signed up to the decrees of the Second Council of Constantinople (553). His Iudicia AKA Canones Theodori – a collection of pronouncements on penitence and discipline – were disseminated by Anglo-Saxon missionaries on the content.


Other traces of the Byzantine can be discerned in the presence of a Persian saint in the Old English Martyrology,[5] the apparition in Early England of a Greek vita of the Persian martyr Anastasius (who was the patron saint of a Byzantine monastic community in Rome) and the occurrence of a Byzantine litany as a tenth century English addition to a continental psalter (British Library, Cotton Galba A. xviii). Moreover, we have copies of lecture notes taken during his exegetical lessons. In one note, biblical history converged with contemporary politics:


“The race of Ishmael was that of the Saracens, a race which is never at peace with anyone but is always at war with someone.”[6]


In medicine, Theodore was known to offer advice on bloodletting and his Iudicia contained a recipe for dysentery (the gall of a hare mixed with pepper). Indeed, his reputation seems to have been larger than the Anglosphere. In a ninth-century manuscript from St Gallen (Stiftsbibliothek 44) there is a collection of medical recipes with titles such as antidotum teodori, followed immediately by an antidotum adrianum quod est optimum multis infirmis.


One of the ninth-century catalogues from Lorsch lists a symbolum quod composuit Theodorus archiepiscopus Britanniae insulae – a creed composed by Theodore.[7] Another manuscript preserves the Greek text (transliterated into Roman characters) of the “Old Roman Creed” AKA Cotton Galba A. xviii; an eighth-century manuscript, BL Royal 2. A. XX preserves the original Latin text of this creed – though there’s no evidence Theodore was behind this.


One creed that Theodore can be associated with was promulgated at the Council of Hatfield (680) over which he presided. It’s a rather curious statement, however, as it contains:


“procedentum ex patre et filio inerarrabiliter”


A sentiment perfectly compatible with the beliefs of western theologians but very controversial with their Byzantine counterparts. Therefore, it would be interesting to recover the manuscript that the Lorsch catalogue lists as it might supply evidence as to whether this was a contemporary scribal error or “correction,” a later interpolation, or whether the judicious Theodore found it a matter to which oikonomia applied.


Back at the school in Canterbury, Aldhelm reports that studies included Roman law, metre, astronomy, computus.[8] Theodore’s Iudicia drew on Justinian’s huge Corpus iuris civilis – particularly the Codex Iustinianus and Novellae, so much of the Roman/Byzantine law much have come from his own collection of books, his own writings or even his memory. Astronomy was based largely on Isidore’s Etymologiae.


More importantly, Theodore seems to be the missing link as to why northern European glossaries use an original English collection(s) c. AD 600-850 as quarries for their own compilations. These texts – littered with English aspects[9] – were transmitted sometimes whole and sometimes piecemeal to continental centres connected with Anglo-Saxon missionary activity during the eighth century. As much is clear from the number of manuscripts that independently assign individuals words by name to Theodore or Hadrian. For instance, in the Leiden Glossary:


“Cynaris (“harps”) in Ecclesiasticus xxxix.20: These harps are nabla, citharas longer than a psaltery, for a psaltery is triangular, Theodore said so.”[10]


Even more fascinatingly, the knowledge contained in these glosses went as far south as Italy. In Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiania, M. 79 sup., an eleventh-century Italian manuscript contains a gloss on oppido, which occurs in Genesis XIX.3 and could be mistaken for the rare Latin adverb:


“It is not Greek, as many say, oppido being equivalent to ualde. Theodore denies that it is a Greek adverb”.[11]


Hadrian got a look in too with a gloss on the word ualuas in IV Kings xviii.16 (Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek Aug. IC):


“Hadrian says that these are the walls surrounding the temple.”


And at St Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek 913 in a gloss on larum in Leviticus xi.16:


“Hadrian says that larum is a meum” [Old English maw, a sort of seagull].


[1] For further reading see M. Deanesly, The Pre-Conquest Church in England (1963) 104-59; W. F. Bolton, A History of Anglo-Latin Literature (1967), 58-62 and N. Brooks, The Early History of the Church of Canterbury (1984) 71-98.

[2] HE. IV.1. (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. B. Colgrave & R. A. B. Mynors [1969]).

[3] HE. IV.2

[4] See M. Lapidge, “Some Remnants of Bede’s Lost Liber Epigrammatum,” The English Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 357 (Oct, 1957), 798-820.

[5] St Miles, bishop of Susa in Persia, commemorated on 15 November.

[6] B. Bishcoff & M. Lapidge (eds./trans.) Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian (1994) p.325.

[7] G. Becker, Catalogi Bibliothecarum Antiqua (1885) 85-6: “liber de abusivis interrogationes sancti Augustini de questionibus fidei. exemplar fidei sancti Hieronymi presbyteri et symbolum quod composuit Theodorus archiepiscopus Britanniae insulae et liber Gregorii Nazianzeni. In uno codice.”

[8] Aldhelmi Opera, ed. Ehwald, 476-7; Aldhelm: the Prose Works, trans. Lapidge & Herren, 152-3.

[9] For example, inventing neologisms for the currency of Christ’s life. Instead of the gold shillings and pennies of England, there are argentei (silver coins) and cesaringas (imperial gold coins).

[10] Leiden xii.40: “Cyneris Nablis. Idest citharis longiores quam pslaterium. Name psalterium Triangulum fit. Theodorus dixit” (A Late Eighth-Century Latin-Anglo-Saxon Glossary, ed. Hessels, 13).

[11] 63r. The biblical lemma is compulit illos oppido: “.i. oppidum intrare. Non est grecum ut multi dicunt oppido quasi ualde. Quod negat [NB: present tense] Theodorus esse aduerbium grece.”

221 views