Bede

Biography

Chivers, Tom. ‘St Etheldreda’s Church’. Accessed April 18, 2016. 

Bede was born within ‘the territory’ of Wearmouth monastery, in what is now Sunderland, of free birth, possibly from a high-status family in AD 673/4. As a Benedictine monk, he would have taken vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. It is likely that Wearmouth was where he lived and worked until his death in AD 735, completing a translation of John's gospel in his final hours.[1]  He shared all his worldly possessions - amounting to ‘some pepper, and napkins, and incense’ - among his fellow priests before he died.[2] His contribution to Christianity was recognised by papal authority through elevation to Doctor Ecclesiae in 1899 and Sanctus in 1935.

Education and Life Events

When he was seven, Bede entered, as an oblate, the relatively new twin monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow (founded 674/681) which shared a significant, indeed possibly one of the greatest contemporary libraries - perhaps some 200 books, comprising 250 distinct works from 75 or more authors.[3]

He was ordained Deacon at an unusually youthful age of 18 or 19, and a priest at 30. There is no indication that he achieved elevation to any higher church status. Initially, he would have learnt, then later taught, Latin, Greek, Theology, Biblical exegesis, Computation, Astronomy, Medicine, Poetry and Chanting. His days would have been filled with the reciting of prayers, chanting psalms and biblical readings eight times a day, interspersed with research and study: writing and teaching for around six hours a day throughout his monastic life. He does not appear to have travelled widely, but he probably visited York, Hexham and Lindisfarne. William of Malmesbury writes, in a hagiographical context, of a tradition that he once visited Rome.[4]

Noted Works

'I cannot have my children learning what is not true, and losing their labour on this after I am gone.' [5]

His magnum opus is Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum - 85,000 words, all handwritten and copied by hand, completed in 731AD.  It is the story of how Christianity was brought to and through God's chosen people (the English), from the arrival of Augustine in Kent in 597 to 731AD. Following the fractious Synod of Whitby in 664, Bede, perhaps, felt the need for a coherent chronology of God's chosen people. It is scholarly work, but well written and easy to read.  He drew on a wide variety of sources, which he critically evaluated, including earlier writers: Eusebius of Caesarea, Orosius, Gildas for instance, as well as copies of papal manuscripts acquired for him. The style is inspired by Eusebius of Caesarea. A fifth of the books is taken up with original documents laboriously copied out as source material. There are significant hagiographical and biographical elements, and he includes legends; although he selects from only the more plausible ones. More contemporary entries are less frequent and less detailed than earlier ones. He ends with a summary - a short chronology of dates and events starting with Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain. The draft was sent to Ceolwolf, King of Northumbria, to whom the work is addressed and dedicated, for correction; who received a final copy as a gift. For centuries, ‘Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum’ has formed the foundation of our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history up to 731AD. Because of a general paucity of contemporary material, the work, with its heavy sociological and religious bias, severely restricted the view of historians of the period up to the mid-twentieth century.

De temporibus(703AD) and De temporum ratione (20 years or so later), both innovative books on computations of time and chronology.

Aside from his crowning work, Bede was particularly noted for stabilising the calculation of the date of Easter (a complicated concept that involved solar and lunar measurements) so that ecclesiastical centres from different traditions - Roman, Irish (Celtic) and British -  could celebrate it at the same time of the year.  In undertaking this work he risked the accusation of heresy. Separately, he recalculated the time from creation to the birth of Christ as 3952 years in opposition to the accepted 5199 years - important because it postponed the apocalypse defined by Augustine of Hippo and Isidore of Seville as the end of the sixth age. In this case, the work did lead to accusations of heresy.[6]

He wrote biblical commentaries and translations - at least fifteen that we know about - as well as fifty homilies on the Gospels, the hagiography of four Saints, material for liturgical use and, at least, sixteen hymns.[7]

Bede lived and worked at the northernmost tip of European intellectual movements.[8] Far from being isolated, however, he had an extended set of ecclesiastical contacts throughout Britain and in Europe. Although aware of the work of Gregory of Tours (A History of the Franks) of a century earlier, he took a very different line - a more focused and classical approach. Bede drew heavily on the Irish tradition, even recommending Irish learning for Englishmen, and he knew of the work of the major Irish literary scholar and poet Aldhelm of Malmesbury, whose long-winded prose could not match Bede's clarity of expression. Adhelm's output was neither as extensive, nor focussed, ranging from a treatise on hexameter in Latin poetry to another on virginity, expressly written for nuns possibly in a double monastery.[9] Bede also tapped into Roman sources, acquired both from the travels of his abbot, the travels of others, and from Canterbury where he respected the works of Archbishop Theodore and Hadrian, his colleague. Through his abbot, bishop and others, Bede had contacts in Rome and access to the works of Gregory the Great, as well as to the extensive collection of papal biographies in the Liber Pontificalis. Bede's sources included at least one nun, and possibly others, for women were respected at the time, and he relied heavily on personal contacts, visitors and passing travellers for contemporary history and geography. Nevertheless, he was shrewd and careful about the way he used information.

As a historian, Bede continued and built on the tradition of polemical and rhetorical historiography, expressing his work in high-quality Latin and flowing narration. The work shows a critical searching for the truth, with a disciplined use of considerable source material and his own extensive knowledge. For instance, he knew a great deal about the extent of the Roman and Byzantine empires,[10] but there is very little indication of this in Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, whose theme is Britain. His attempts to marry collective memory and understanding among the contemporary educated, with his critical search for the truth generates a tension within his writing. He includes legends but with a caveat that he is only reporting what he has been told.

His focus was on the 'Great Men' or 'Top Down' approach expressed through legends, biographies and hagiographies of the great and good. He was always keen to provide Christian models for his colleagues - even royalty - to follow; so was reticent about pointing to anything negative about individual subjects. Towards the end of his life, he was much keener to express generalised criticism, usually followed by positive recommendations, where he saw failings in the Church, as he did in his letter to Egbert, Bishop of York.[11]

His biblical commentaries follow an analogical approach rather than the literal, and he was interested in allegorical layers and connections. For instance, in considering the empty tomb, before he gives the history of tomb construction, he links the rolled stone to the Law written on stone rolled away, and the opening of the tomb to the opening up of the Lord's Passion to his people as he expresses in Homilies II, 10. His overriding concern is always to show God working for and through his own creation.

Politically this was a time of tension locally, both internally within the kingdom (dynastic - a succession of short-lived kings) and externally as the Northumbrian (Bernician) power was waning, leading to trouble with the Picts in the North and the Mercians in the South. Bede, although intellectually concerned - he ends his magnum opus expressing concern for the political future - was largely shielded in his monastery.[12]

Reputation and Impact

‘After Bede, almost all British chroniclers - Eadmer, Matthew Paris, William of Newburgh, Roger of Hovedon, and Henry of Huntingdon - invoked his work.’ [13]

Bede was first and foremost a monk working as a priest in a monastery of 600 souls, so much of his output was for the monastery and monastic communities. To his fellow monks, he would have been famous for his deep knowledge of scripture, his research and pedagogical aids - Latin textbooks on grammar for students, for instance - as well as his teaching and homilies. In a wider field, his computational books on time and chronology, sophisticated poetry as well as biblical commentaries, biography and hagiography seem to have been widely read by contemporary scholars and well respected. He wrote two history books, both towards the end of his life: one on the abbots of Wearmouth-Jarrow and the other being the more famous ‘Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum’; used as material for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, started a century and a half later.

Bede wrote his major works in Latin for an educated contemporary audience of both sexes.  In most cases that meant those within the sphere of the Christian Church, but there were exceptions. These works were in high demand at the time, both in England and on the continent, but each book had to be copied by hand. So great was the demand that special arrangements had to be devised to ensure sufficient copies. Eventually, a new smaller script had to be developed to speed up writing in his own scriptorium. Over 1500 pre-sixteenth century hand copied works and significant fragments survive.

‘To judge by their prominence in surviving medieval library catalogues, Bede's writings ranked with the works of the Latin Fathers in importance in a typical twelfth-century book collection.’ [14]

It may have been Alfred the Great who, in the ninth century, having a need to consolidate the peoples of Mercia with his own in Wessex in the face of Viking invasion, politicised Bede's concept of the English. He turned it into a label for a political grouping akin to a nation, rather than a religious people. Alfred also had a translation into Old English made of ‘Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum’. More generally, however, the copying of Bede's major works, particularly history and biblical commentaries, peaked at around four hundred years after his death, although his contribution to computational and scientific thinking had been revised by then, in the light of new knowledge.[15]

His selection of material is also under debate, partly, perhaps, because of his reluctance to criticise. There are, for instance, a number of prominent contemporary figures who do not appear in his writings, notably Bishop, later Saint Boniface. Boniface would go on to describe Bede as a candle of the church. Further, the latter's treatment of the Northumbrian Bishop Wilfrid (d. 709) is seen as odd.

Over-arching all is the concern about how far the reality of Anglo-Saxon Britain has been hidden from us through reliance on his work, however scholarly presented. Bede was a historian of a particular tradition and milieu. As such his work is only one window, albeit an important window, into the period.

Bibliography/Reading List

For a popular translation of Bede's most famous work:

Bede, the Venerable, Saint, et al. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; The Greater Chronicle ; Bede's letter to Egbert. ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins. (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1994)

For an evaluation of the Wearmouth-Jarrow monasteries:

Smart, Anthony. ‘Bede, Wearmouth-Jarrow and Sacred Space.’ International Journal For The Study Of The Christian Church 14, no. 1 (January 2014): 22-40

For an overview of Bede's significance: 

Baxter, Stephen, ed. The times of Bede: Studies in early English Christian society and its historian, by Patrick Wormald and Blackwell Publishers. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell (an imprint of John Wiley & Sons Ltd), 2006.)

Burrow, John. A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century.(London: Penguin Books, 2009): especially 213-216.

Campbell, J. ‘Bede (673/4–735)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008)

DeGregorio, Scott, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bede. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.)

Rublack, Ulinka, ed. A Concise Companion to History. (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2012.)

Tinti, Francesca. ‘Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church: From Bede to Stigand.’ Early Medieval Europe 22, no. 2 (May 2014): 246-248

For a detailed examination of the works of Bede, see initially:

Thornbury, Emily V. ‘A Companion to Bede.’ The Journal Of English And Germanic Philology no. 3 (2010): 385

‘The Cambridge Companion to Bede.’ Medium Aevum no. 2 (2010): 364

For a detailed discussion of the translation ofHistoria ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum initiated by King Alfred:

Waite, Greg. ‘Translation Style, Lexical Systems, Dialect Vocabulary, and the Manuscript Transmission of the Old English Bede.’ MEDIUM MVUM 83, no. 1 (2014): 1–48.

For a discussion of the contribution Bede made to the prosody language base of his time:

Heikkinen, Seppo. ‘Re-Classicizing Bede?: Hrabanus Maurus on Prosody and Meter.’ Philological Quarterly 94 (2015): 1–2. 

For an investigation into his computational debt to Irish thinking, his horological methodology and instruments and how these affected his own subsequent thinking:

Nothaft, C. Philippe. ‘Bede's horologium: Observational Astronomy and the Problem of the Equinoxes in Early Medieval Europe (c.700-1100).’ English Historical Review 130, no. 546 (October 2015): 1079-1101

For an account of why Bede wrote his two books on chronology, his break from accepted tradition which led to his calculation of 3952 years from Creation to the birth of Christ and to accusations of heresy (warning Maths!):

Mac Carron, Máirín. ‘Bede, Irish computistica and Annus Mundi.’ Early Medieval Europe 23, no. 3 (August 2015): 290-307.

Gameson, Richard. ‘Peter Darby, Bede and the End of Time.’ Medium Aevum no. 1 (2014): 135.


Endnotes

[1] Saint Bede the Venerable et al., The Ecclesiastical History of the English People ; the Greater Chronicle ; Bede’s Letter to Egbert, ed. McClure, Judith et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): xiii-xiv

[2] Saint Bede the Venerable et al. ‘Cuthbert’s Letter on the Death of Bede.’ The Ecclesiastical History of the English People ; the Greater Chronicle ; Bede’s Letter to Egbert, ed. McClure, Judith et al.(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 302 - but this letter formed part of a cult of Bede that grew after his death.

[3] Rosalind,Love. ‘The world of Latin Learning’ The Cambridge Companion to Bede ed., DeGregorio, Scott (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) : 43

[4] David, Rollason. ‘The Cult of Bede’ The Cambridge Companion to Bede ed., DeGregorio, Scott (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) : 195

[5] Saint Bede the Venerable et al. ‘Cuthbert’s Letter on the Death of Bede.’ The Ecclesiastical History of the English People ; the Greater Chronicle ; Bede’s Letter to Egbert, ed., McClure, Judith et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 301

[6] J., Campbell. ‘Bede (673/4–735),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, May 2008,

[7]Saint Bede the Venerable et al., The Ecclesiastical History of the English People ; the Greater Chronicle ; Bede’s Letter to Egbert, ed. McClure, Judith et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): xvi-xvii

[8] McKitterick, ‘Map taken from The New Cambridge MedievalHistory, vol.ii’ in The Cambridge Companion to Bede ed., DeGregorio, Scott (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) : xvii

[9] Rosalind,Love. ‘The world of Latin Learning’ The Cambridge Companion to Bede ed., DeGregorio, Scott (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) : 50

[10] Saint Bede the Venerable et al. ‘The Greater Chronicle’ The Ecclesiastical History of the English People ; the Greater Chronicle ; Bede’s Letter to Egbert, ed. McClure, Judith et al., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 307-340

[11] Saint Bede the Venerable et al. ‘Bede’s Letter to Egbert.’ The Ecclesiastical History of the English People ; the Greater Chronicle ; Bede’s Letter to Egbert, ed. McClure, Judith et al., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 343-357 - For all his respectful language, his message is quite trenchant.

[12] Saint Bede the Venerable et al. ‘The Ecclesiastical History.’ The Ecclesiastical History of the English People ; the Greater Chronicle ; Bede’s Letter to Egbert, ed. McClure, Judith et al., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): 290

[13] Ulinka Rublack, ed., A Concise Companion to History (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2012), 86.

[14] Joshua, Westguard. ‘Bede and the continent in the Carolingian age and beyond’ in The Cambridge Companion to Bede. (Cambridge, CUP. 2010); 202

[15] Joshua, Westguard. ‘Bede and the continent in the Carolingian age and beyond’ in The Cambridge Companion to Bede. (Cambridge, CUP. 2010); 211

[xv] Joshua, Westguard. ‘Bede and the continent in the Carolingian age and beyond’ in The Cambridge Companion to Bede. (Cambridge, CUP. 2010); 211


Andrew Carpenter