With God’s help, I, Bede, the servant of Christ and priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul at Wearmouth and Jarrow, have assembled these facts about the history of the Church in Britain, and of the Church of the English in particular, so far as I have been able to ascertain them from ancient writings, from the traditions of our forebears, and from my own personal knowledge
– St. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People
One cannot underestimate the influence one solitary monk, who lived all his life in the monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria, has had on our understanding and knowledge of early British history. He never travelled further than 50 miles away from the monastery in which he spent most of his life, from the age of 7 years until he died at the age of 62. By all accounts he was an intelligent man. His most famous work was The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but he wrote many more books, on numerous subjects, including biblical commentaries on dozens of the Biblical books, histories of the Abbots of his monastery, hymns, and a scientific book on chronology. But his most famous book (or books, it actually comprises five volumes) was the Ecclesiastical History, and it was believed to have been completed in 731, a few years before his death in 735 AD. It is certainly one of the most popular works of history of all time. Without Bede we would know much less about Anglo-Saxon England and the colourful history of its church and kings.
In doing my research for my novels, I quickly came to understand the value of Bede’s contribution to our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England. There is little surviving original material from this era, for many reasons. The upheavals of the age did not lend itself to the careful storage of documents. Monks and scribes would use wax tablets in their schools for the pupils to use to learn how to write and, presumably, to take notes. But these were temporary. Paper production, although done in China at that time, was centuries away from arriving in Europe. So, the options for any permanent record were stone, papyrus, parchment, and vellum; examples of all of these dating from the Early Medieval period can be found today.
All of those materials take considerable time and effort to produce, and so naturally only the most important things were deemed worthy of recording. Generally that meant information about the lives of the important people, such as kings, or the copying and preservation of documents that had either educational or spiritual value. The monks of the Dark Ages played a huge role in the preservation of ancient knowledge such as the accumulated wisdom of the Greek and Roman philosophers along with the scientific and mathematical knowledge that had been gathered to that point.
Bede was a monk who had spent his whole life studying, teaching, and writing about these works. He also contributed to them himself, by writing treatises on mathematics, chronology, and science. But he also was obviously keenly interested in history, in particular, in the history of the church in his own country. Of course the history of the church was intertwined wtih the history of the rulers of England and so he wrote about them as well.
It is certainly true that part of Bede’s motive for writing his Ecclesiastical History was to show the superiority of the Roman “brand” of Christianity that he subscribed to over the Celtic Christianity practiced by the Britons. However his admiration for some of the important leaders of the Celtic Church such as Aidan of Lindisfarne is evident in his writings, despite his dubious feelings about their church practices.
Bede begins his History with a brief setting of the scene, describing Britain and it’s location, and description of the peoples of the Island – the British, Irish, and Picts. Next he recounts the invasion of the Romans and their departure, the story of the first British martyr (Alban), the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to the island, the arrival of the monks sent by St. Augustine to re-establish the Roman church in Britain, and finally he turns his attention to the dawning of the great age of the Northumbrian kings in which he, himself, lived.
If it were not for Bede we can safely say we would know none of this, or at least, none of what happened after the Romans left. The Roman themselves kept careful records, but the details of what happened after they left would likely have been lost to the mists of time were it not for Bede and his effort of researching and recording the history of his own people. His information about some of the people came from interviews of those who had known them, or even, in some cases, from first-hand knowledge. So you can see it is a rare chance to see this century from the perspective of one who lived in it.
Through Bede I got a glimpse into the world of 7th century Britain, and a sense of the people who were the major players o the scene at the time. Bede alternately praises and condemns the various kings and Bishops in his work. Some of this you have to take with a grain of salt of course, but it still gives you a picture, albeit incomplete and distorted as it might be by Bede’s particular ecclesiastical bias, of the various personalities and issues that concerned them.
Bede died on May 25th, 735 AD. A writer to the end, the monk Cuthbert describes how Bede was translating chapters of St. John’s Gospel on his deathbed, and that upon realizing that there were only a few lines left, Bede dictated them in the moments before he died. Even in his own lifetime the fame of his learning had already spread beyond Northumbria, and within fifty years of his death his relics were said to bring about miraculous cures.
Bede was buried at Jarrow, but in the 11th century his remains were interred in Durham Cathedral (brought there by a sacrist of Durham who was a collector of holy relics). I’m sure Bede would not have been happy to be moved away from his home monastery, but there he lies today.
Bede is traditionally known as the “Venerable” Bede, rather than “Saint” Bede. It is a name that was given to him by the Council of Aachen in 836 and has stayed with him ever sense. It was a term used by Bede himself to describe some of the kings and saints he wrote about, and it meant “Worthy of honour”.
It’s an appropriate name for this monk who through dedication and careful scholarship preserved for all time an account of a history that otherwise would have been lost.
Picture credit: The Venerable Bede Translates John, by James Doyle Penrose, on wikicommons
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History can be found online. Take a few minutes to browse through it – it’s really quite fascinating (well, at least to me….).