The First Council of Braga was a meeting of eight bishops that took place around AD 560. They produced a number of decrees, one of which relates to the type of songs that could be sung in church. Debates over the style and content of worship songs continue in many Christian traditions today, so some appeal to the early and medieval church, including this council.

I haven't been able to find any full English translation of Braga's canons, but they are available in Latin. The relevant canon here is number XII, and is as follows:

Item placuit, ut extra psalmos vel canonicarum scripturarum novi et veteris Testamenti nihil poetice compositum in ecclesia psallatur, sicut et sancti praecipiunt canones.

This is beyond my skill to translate, and even beyond the vocabulary of my Classical Latin parser, but I'd venture the following guess:

Likewise it satisfies, that except for the psalms of the canonical scriptures of the New and Old Testaments, no poetic composition shall be sung in church, as is also taught in the holy canons.

So, at a high level, my question is – how close is this translation? More specifically, so that's it clear what I'm getting at, a 19th century commentator (Jas. Harper, The Psalter in the Early Church) makes the following claims about this canon:

  1. it was ordained [...] that no poetic composition be sung in the Church except the Psalms of the sacred canon
  2. this decree seems to allow the use of other songs than those contained in the Psalter
  3. it plainly debars the use of any songs in worship except those contained in the Word of God.
  4. the singing must be limited to poetic portions of Scripture, not extended to any part of the Bible whatsoever.

Harper's (1) seems to be contradictory to (2), and my translation seems to indicate that (2), not (1), is correct. (3) seems to be there as well, but I'm not sure about (4). Which of Harper's points can be defended in the text?

  • (1) and (2) are not contradictory if it's possible to have psalms outside of the Psalter which are still in other parts of the Old or New Testament. Such singable parts of the bible are usually called "canticles" today, but it is far from uncommon to use "psalms" in an inclusive sense to include canticles.
    – Figulus
    Jun 30, 2020 at 15:28

2 Answers 2


One thing confuses me about the quoted portion of the canon: it does not seem gramatically correct for canonicarum scripturarum to be in the genitive. Given that it is copulated with vel to another accusative object of extra, I can only read it as accusative. It is interesting that there are several Google hits for canonicas scripturas instead, which makes a lot more sense: I will therefore amend the phrase:

Item placuit, ut extra psalmos vel canonicas scripturas novi et veteris Testamenti nihil poetice compositum in ecclesia psallatur, sicut et sancti praecipiunt canones.

Preserving word order and translating fairly literally, this reads:

Likewise it has pleased [the council] that, besides the psalms and the canonical writings of the new and old Testament, no poetic composition be sung in church, as the holy canons decree as well.

I am having difficulty reconciling Harper's points among each other, much more so with the text, and regardless it strikes me as a silly exercise to atomize what is really a fairly simple proscription. My comments:

  1. False, since it allows psalms or (vel, inclusive "or") canonical scriptures. The fact that he says "psalms of the sacred canon" leads me to think that he is misconstruing the phrase and perhaps a little confused: there is generally very little disagreement about what the "canonical psalms" are: canonical contextually and intuitively makes more sense applied to scripture as a whole, not just the psalms.
  2. True, it allows the psalms and Scripture.
  3. Debateable: it forbids non-Scriptural poetic compositions in church. This seems to leave open (a) non-poetic compositions and (b) worship that does not take place in the ecclesia. (This second point might be unnecessary, depending on Harper's definition of "worship")
  4. False (or, if I worked for Politifact, "Pants on Fire False"): this has no basis in the text at all, even if we were to adopt the (highly improbable) reading below.

First Edit

I thought about it, and I think it is possible to make sense of the original formulation if you read vel as an adverb ("even") and canonicarum scripturarum as a partitive genitive with nihil. This would translate:

...that besides the psalms, no poetic composition even of the canonical scriptures of the new and old Testament should be sung in church.

This reading strikes me as highly unlikely, both from a syntactical perspective (the word order is unnatural and clumsy) and from a commonsense perspective.

Second Edit

Based on the footnotes of this edition of the decrees of the Council of Braga, I believe the best explanation for this is that libros is understood. It says:

Item placuit, ut extra psalmos, vel canonicarum Scripturaruma novi et veteris Testamenti, nihil poetice compositum in ecclesia psallatur, sicut et sancti praecipiunt canonesb.

a Adde: Libros.
b Can. 59. Laodic.

This insertion makes sense of the passage and seems plausible. It avoids other attempts (like mine and Hugh's) to account for the genitive that simply do not sound right, and it also explains why some editions (see above link, as well as the second quote in Harper's own treatise) amended to accusative.

Finally, and most convincingly, this makes sense because the referenced "holy canons" of the the Council of Laodicea state (canon 59):

Non oportet ab idiotis psalmos compositos et vulgares in ecclesiis dici neque libros qui sunt extra canonem legere, nisi solos canonicos novi et veteris testamenti.

which is:

It is not fitting for psalms that are profane or composed by private individuals to be said in churches, nor to read books which are outside the canon, except only those canonical [books] of the new and old testament.

It then goes on to make a canonical list. This seems fairly conclusive proof that this is the sense of the passage.

  • @Nathaniel, I looked at the document a little more closely, and it turns out that Harper quotes the Latin text twice: once with the genitive canonicarum and once with the accusative canonicas. He obviously isn't being a sensitive translator if he didn't notice the difference. Now I'm just super curious to see the original manuscript(s).
    – brianpck
    Aug 23, 2016 at 14:02
  • It sure seems like at least all the reprints use canonicarum – take a look at this search of Google Books. Aug 23, 2016 at 15:18
  • @Nathaniel, I think I've got it! Edit coming.
    – brianpck
    Aug 23, 2016 at 15:29
  • Beautiful! This indeed makes sense, and the reference to Laodicea is very helpful as well. Does this impact your original conclusions? (perhaps, as the dust settles, I could persuade you to combine the important parts of each of the three versions into one?) Aug 23, 2016 at 16:45

The Council of Braga clearly restricts independent usage. It decrees that everyone shall follow one and the same appointed psalms (I. ...unus et idem ordo); only the appointed portions of scripture for the vigils and feast days shall be read (II. ...non diversas).

Item placuit, ut Next it was agreed, that...
nihil poetice compositum extra psalmos nothing poetically composed apart from the psalms
vel canonicarum scripturarum novi et veteris Testamenti indeed those of the New and Old Testament
in ecclesia psalletur may be sung in church,
sicut et even as
sancti praecipiunt canones. the holy canons decree.

'Item' means then, or next; not 'likewise.'
Placet' in a vote means It is agreed. Placuit, it was agreed. Vel, (on its own) where a climax is stated or understood, here means 'in particular,' as in these two examples:

Sed ex his omnibus nihil magis ridetur, quam quod est praeter exspectationem; cuius innumerabilia sunt exempla, vel Appi maioris illius, qui in senatu, cum ageretur de agris publicis et de lege Thoria et peteretur Lucullus ab eis, qui a pecore eius depasci agros publicos dicerent, "non est" inquit "Luculli pecus illud; erratis"; - defendere Lucullum videbatur - "ego liberum puto esse: qua libet pascitur."

De Oratore 2/284 http://nodictionaries.com/cicero/de-oratore-2/284

[translation] But of all these nothing is funnier than what is unexpected, of which there are innumerable eamples, indeed/in particular of Appius... who, when there was a debate about 'agris publicis,' public grazing etc., he [Appius] said (he seemed to be defending Lucullus)... " he's a freed man; he eats where he nibbles."

[ the punch line is a double entendre: a joke about uninvited guests at a private view going for the free food.]

Second example ( vel) Cicero Republic 3: 34 ...nihil potest esse illa beatius. sed tamen vel regnum malo quam liberum populum;

This means that the 150 psalms, plus the Canticles: e.g. Psalm 151, the Song of Moses, the Song of the Three Children, would be allowed from the OT, as well as Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from the NT. ...but only when everyone else in that church was singing them, and only when those psalms were appointed.

That seems to agree with all four bullet points, provided that 4 means 'not any random scripture.'

  • 1
    Can you provide an example where vel means scilicet, as in your suggestion here? The L&S entry for vel says that this usage "implies an alternative the first member of which is omitted, something else or even this." I've read a lot of Latin and I simply can't force myself to read this as just "indeed."
    – brianpck
    Aug 23, 2016 at 13:23

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