Saint Bede the Venerable’s [673-735] “Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum”

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BEDE

“A History of the English Church and People” was complete about 731 AD. Much of the what the world knows about England before 700 AD is based on a history written in Latin by Benedictine monk, Bede, who is often called the father of English history. Bede was the most learned scholar of his day not only in England but in all of Western Europe. Although he wrote 40 books on a variety of subjects, his reputation would be secure on the basis of a single book- his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum.

Bede was born in Wearmouth (now the city of Sunderland) on the northeast coast of England. As a child of seven, he entered the nearby monastic school of Jarrow on the river Tyne. A diligent student, he took full advantage of the library at Jarrow, in time becoming a priest, teacher, and scholar at the monastery. He remained at Jarrow for the rest of his life.

A contemporary of the unknown author of Beowulf, Bede was fascinated by a broad range of ideas. His writings summarized much of the thought of learning at the time. As the earliest important English prose writer, he concentrated on the Bible but did not neglect science and history. One of his innovations was the dating of events from the birth of Christ, a system that other scholars began to follow. It was through Bede’s work that the Christian chronology in use today became common throughout Europe.

Bede had a deep love for his native island and its people, which led him to write his History of the English Church and People. In working on his history, Bede gathered information from many kinds of documents, interviewed knowledgeable monks, and in general, proceeded very much like a modern historian, although he accepted as fact some miracles that a modern historian would not. This was the way of the people back then though.

In the History of the English Church and People, Bede describes the conquest of the Anglo-Saxon tribes and the fortunes of the various small fiefdoms that spread across the land. His primary concern however, was the expansion of Christianity and the growth of the Church in England. He wrote in Latin, the language of scholarship in his age. There are several surviving manuscripts, however, that have the Old English text in additions to Bede’s Latin version. He became famous throughout the land as one of the most learned scholars of his age, despite the fact that he never ventured beyond Northumbria.

In the century after his death, Kind Alfred translated Bede’s history from Latin into English. In the same century, the word Venerable was first applied to his name to honor his wisdom and achievements. The honor was well deserved. The Venerable Bede was largely responsible for what was sometimes called the Christian Renaissance in 8th Century England.

Historical writing is a factual narrative or record of past events. Unless a historian has actually observed events being described, he or she must rely on outside sources (which is generally how it’s done). These sources include testimony from living witnesses, accounts in letters or memoirs, and records from courts, businesses, churches, armies, or other groups. Today’s historian has libraries of books, newspapers, and films to consult, as well as unwritten records, such as buildings, artwork, and various physical remains of bygone days. An enormous amount of historical material exists.

This was not the case in Bede’s time. English monastic libraries had modest collections of documents that Bede read, cross-checked, and evaluated. He made excellent use of the limited resources he had. Bede was an innovator among historical writers, and if he sometimes accepted the unlikely tale as truth, he did so far less often than other scholars of his era. Also, the fact that he sometimes did is apart of history as well, as almost everyone would have.

Cuthbert, a former student, wrote of Bede’s death: “At the ninth hour, Bede said to me, ‘I have few valuables in my cask- pepper, vestments, and incense. Run quickly and bring the priests of our monastery, so that I may share among them little gifts, such as God has granted me.’ And I did so trembling. When they were all present, he addressed each and every one, urging them, imploring them they should say prayers and masses for him- which they freely promised. But they all kept weeping and sorrowing, especially because he said they must not think to see his face much longer in this world. But they rejoiced because he said, ‘It is time for me, my Maker sees fit, to be freed from the flesh and go to Him who made me out of nothing, at the time when I was nothing. I have lived a long time, and my merciful judge has ordered my life well…’ This and much else he said for our instruction, and passed his last day happily until evening… upon the floor of his little cell, chanting… his spirit passed from his body.”

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