Bede

Depiction of Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.
Depiction of Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

Bede (IPA: /biːd/), also Saint Bede, the Venerable Bede, or (from Latin) Beda (IPA: /beda/), (ca. 672 or 673May 27, 735), was a Benedictine monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Wearmouth, today part of Sunderland, and of its companion monastery, Saint Paul's, in modern Jarrow, Great Britain. Bede became known as Venerable Bede soon after his death, but this was not linked to consideration for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, his title probably comes from an error in Latin by a medieval scribe who meant to write about the venerable works of Bede. His scholarship and importance to Catholicism were recognised in 1899 when he was declared a Doctor of the Church as St Bede The Venerable.

He is well known as an author and scholar, whose best-known work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) gained him the title "The father of English history".

He is the only Englishman in Dante's Paradise (Paradiso' X.130), mentioned among theologians and doctors of the church in the same canto as Isidore of Seville and the Scot Richard of St. Victor. He is also the only English Doctor of the Church.

Monastery Church of St. Paul, Jarrow
Monastery Church of St. Paul, Jarrow

Contents

Life

Almost all that is known of Bede's life is contained in a notice added by himself when he was 59 to his Historia (v.24), which states that he was placed in the monastery at Wearmouth at the age of seven, that he became deacon in his nineteenth year, and priest in his thirtieth, remaining a priest for the rest of his life. He implies that he finished the Historia at the age of 59, and since the work was finished around 731, he must have been born in 672/3. He died on Wednesday 25th May 735. It is not clear whether he was of noble birth. He was trained by the abbots Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrid, and probably accompanied the latter to Wearmouth's sister monastery of Jarrow in 682. There he spent his life, prominent activities evidently being teaching and writing. There likewise he died and was buried, but his bones were, towards the beginning of the eleventh century, removed to Durham Cathedral.

Work

His works show that he had at his command all the learning of his time. It was thought that the library at Wearmouth-Jarrow was between 300-500 books, making it one of the largest in England. It is clear that Biscop made strenuous efforts to collect books during his extensive travels.

Bede's writings are classed as scientific, historical and theological, reflecting the range of his writings from music and metrics to Scripture commentaries. He was proficient in patristic literature, and quotes Pliny the Elder, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace and other classical writers, but with some disapproval. He knew some Greek, but no Hebrew. His Latin is generally clear and without affectation, and he was a skillful story-teller. However, his style can be considerably more obscure in his Biblical commentaries.

Bede practiced the allegorical method of interpretation, and was by modern standards credulous concerning the miraculous; but in most things his good sense is conspicuous and his kindly and broad sympathies, his love of truth and fairness, his unfeigned piety and his devotion to the service of others combine to make him an exceedingly attractive character.

Historia Ecclesiastica

The most important and best known of his works is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, giving in five books and 400 pages the history of England, ecclesiastical and political, from the time of Caesar to the date of its completion (731). The first twenty-one chapters, treating of the period before the mission of Augustine of Canterbury, are compiled from earlier writers such as Orosius, Gildas, Prosper of Aquitaine, the letters of Pope Gregory I and others, with the insertion of legends and traditions.

After 596, documentary sources, which Bede took pains to obtain throughout England and from Rome, are used, as well as oral testimony, which he employed with critical consideration of its value. He cited his references and was very concerned about the sources of all his sources, which created an important historical chain.

In Historia Ecclesiastica (I.2), he created a method of referring to years prior to the Christian era (anno Domini), which the monk Dionysius Exiguus created in 525. He used ante incarnationis dominicae (before the incarnation of the Lord). This and similar Latin terms are roughly equivalent to the English before Christ.

"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by J. D. Penrose
"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by J. D. Penrose

Other historical and theological works

Bede lists his works in an autobiographical note at the end of his Ecclesiastical History. He clearly considered his commentaries on many books of the Old and New Testaments as important; they come first on this list and dominate it in sheer number. These commentaries reflect the biblical focus of monastic life. "I spent all my life," he wrote, "in this monastery, applying myself entirely to the study of Scriptures." (Bede, Hist. eccl., 5. 24).

His other historical works included lives of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, as well as lives in verse and prose of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. In his Letter on the Death of Bede, Cuthbert describes Bede as still writing on his deathbed, working on a translation into Old English of the Gospel of John and on Isidore of Seville's On the Nature of Things. (McClure and Collins, p. 301).

Scientific writings

The noted historian of science, George Sarton, called the eighth century "The Age of Bede;" clearly Bede must be considered as an important scientific figure. He wrote several major works: a work On the Nature of Things, modeled in part after the work of the same title by Isidore of Seville; a work On Time, providing an introduction to the principles of Easter computus; and a longer work on the same subject; On the Reckoning of Time, which became the cornerstone of clerical scientific education during the so-called Carolingian renaissance of the ninth century. He also wrote several shorter letters and essays discussing specific aspects of computus and a treatise on grammar and on figures of speech for his pupils.

The Reckoning of Time included an introduction to the traditional ancient and medieval view of the cosmos, including an explanation of how the spherical earth influenced the changing length of daylight, of how the seasonal motion of the Sun and Moon influenced the changing appearance of the New Moon at evening twilight, and a quantitative relation between the changes of the Tides at a given place and the daily motion of the moon. (Wallis, pp. 82-85, 307-312). Since the focus of his book was calculation, Bede gave instructions for computing the date of Easter and the related time of the Easter Full Moon, for calculating the motion of the Sun and Moon through the zodiac, and for many other calculations related to the calendar.

For calendric purposes, Bede made a new calculation of the age of the world since the Creation and began the practice of dividing the Christian era into BC and AD. Due to his innovations in computing the age of the world, he was accused of heresy at the table of Bishop Wilfred, his chronology being contrary to accepted calculations. Once informed of the accusations of these "lewd rustics," Bede refuted them in his Letter to Plegwin (Wallis, pp. xxx, 405-415).

His works were so influential that late in the ninth century Notker the Stammerer, a monk of the Monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, wrote that "God, the orderer of natures, who raised the Sun from the East on the fourth day of Creation, in the sixth day of the world has made Bede rise from the West as a new Sun to illuminate the whole Earth" (Wallis, p. lxxxv).

Vernacular poetry

According to his disciple Cuthbert, Bede was also doctus in nostris carminibus ("learned in our song"). Cuthbert's letter on Bede's death, the Epistola Cuthberti de obitu Bedae, moreover, commonly is understood to indicate that Bede also composed a five line vernacular poem known to modern scholars as Bede’s Death Song (text and translation Colgrave and Mynors 1969):

And he used to repeat that sentence from St. Paul “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” and many other verses of Scripture, urging us thereby to awake from the slumber of the soul by thinking in good time of our last hour. And in our own language,—for he was familiar with English poetry,—speaking of the soul’s dread departure from the body:
Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

More prudent than he has good call to be,
If he consider, before his going hence,
What for his spirit of good hap or of evil
After his day of death shall be determined.

Fore ðæm nedfere nænig wiorðe

ðonc snottora ðon him ðearf siæ
to ymbhycgenne ær his hinionge
hwæt his gastæ godes oððe yfles
æfter deað dæge doemed wiorðe.

As Opland notes, however, it is not entirely clear that Cuthbert is attributing this text to Bede: most manuscripts of the letter do not use a finite verb to describe Bede’s presentation of the song, and the theme was relatively common in Old English and Anglo-Latin literature. The fact that Cuthbert’s description places the performance of the Old English poem in the context of a series of quoted passages from Sacred Scripture, indeed, might be taken as evidence simply that Bede also cited analogous vernacular texts (see Opland 1980, 140-141). On the other hand, the inclusion of the Old English text of the poem in Cuthbert’s Latin letter, the observation that Bede “was learned in our song,” and the fact that Bede composed a Latin poem on the same subject all seem to suggest that his connection to the vernacular poem was stronger than mere quotation. By citing the poem directly, Cuthbert seems to be implying that its specific wording was in some way important, either as a vernacular poem endorsed by a scholar who generally appears to have frowned upon secular entertainment (see McCready 1994, esp. 14-19) or as a direct quotation of Bede’s final original composition (see Opland 1980, 140-141, for a discussion of some of the implications of this passage).

The Death of St. Bede
The Death of St. Bede

References

Colgrave, Bertram and R.A.B. Mynors, eds. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford, 1969.

McCready, William D. Miracles and the Venerable Bede: Studies and Texts (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies), 118. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1994. ISBN 0888441185.

McClure, Janet and Roger Collins, eds. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1994 ISBN 0-19-283866-0.

Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. 3rd Ed. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. ISBN 0271007699.

Opland, Jeff. Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions. New Haven and London, 1980. ISBN 0300024266.

Wallis, Faith, trans. Bede: The Reckoning of Time Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Pr., 2004. ISBN 0-85323-693-3.

This article includes content derived from the public domain Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914.