Bede (Beda Venerabilis),
- Scott DeGregorio
Bede (Beda Venerabilis) was Anglo-Saxon England’s most prolific Latin writer, and indeed one of the most distinguished authors of the early Middle Ages. At the end of his most celebrated work, Historia ecclesiastical gentis Anglorum (HE), he provides a cursory autobiographical note which remains the starting point for what we know about his life and many writings.1 Born in the kingdom of Northumbria, at the age of seven he was given by his parents to the monastery at Wearmouth, founded in 674, to be reared and educated. When a sister monastery was founded in 681 some seven miles away at Jarrow, Bede was probably among the monks transferred to that new site, and there he remained until his death in 735, at the age of fifty-nine. Ordained deacon at the age of nineteen and priest at the age of thirty, he devoted the whole of his life to monastic observance and scriptural study, memorably stating that “amid the observance of the discipline of the Rule and the daily task of singing in the church, it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write.”2 The fruits of this labour are readily evidenced by the long list of his writings that concludes Bede’s note, with its some forty works in various genres—impressive in any era, to be sure, but not least in one popularly understood as “dark” in comparison to the luminous achievements of the classical past.
Bede’s special achievement is highlighted all the more when it is viewed from the perspective of the centuries leading up to it. At the start of the century in which Bede was born, his kingdom (indeed, most of present-day England) was ruled by pagans who had no written tradition of learning or literacy to speak of.3 The Latin Christian culture that had flourished centuries before in late Roman Britannia had given way when Roman rule ended there in the early 5th century; however, many vestiges of it carried on into the sub-Roman period of the 5th and 6th centuries. The lone work of the British monk Gildas (c. 500–575), whose De excidio et conquestu Britanniae notoriously lamented the fate of the island as it fell into the hands of Saxon invaders, is the last notable flicker of Latin learning before the reconversion of the island around 600, when monks from Rome sent by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) arrived to preach God’s word to an unlettered populace. And yet, by the end of that century, there stood Bede as one of the most literate men in all western Christendom. That astounding development has much to do with his broader locale, the kingdom of Northumbria, as well as his specific home, the twin foundation of Wearmouth-Jarrow. Unlike the more southerly kingdoms, Northumbria was converted through two separate and culturally distinct waves of evangelization, one Roman, the other Irish. While tensions between the two were not unsubstantial (these were healed at the Synod of Whitby in 664), in the years leading up to Bede’s birth the productive combination of Roman and Irish ideals ushered in something of a golden age in the Northumbrian church, as networks of monasteries at Lindisfarne, Hexham, Ripon, Whitby, and elsewhere arose as key centres of religious life, ecclesial organization, and learned Christian culture. Wearmouth-Jarrow, to which Bede was extremely fortunate to be attached, highlights the remarkable extent of this development. Founded by the nobleman Benedict Biscop (Biscop Baducing, c. 628–690) on land donated by King Ecgfrith (c. 645–685), Wearmouth-Jarrow was an exceptionally well-endowed house. Benedict himself went to great lengths to import to his own native Northumbria the accoutrements of the Christian culture he had encountered abroad on many trips to the Continent. He brought back stonemasons and glassmakers from Gaul to build a church in the Roman style; he himself drafted a monastic rule based on that of Saint Benedict (c. 480–547) and on the customs of seventeen monasteries he had visited on his journey through Gaul; and most important, he acquired “a good many books of all divine teaching”4 to provide his monks with a Christian curriculum of sacred study. The Wearmouth-Jarrow library, with its some 250 volumes of biblical and patristic writings, was a sine qua non for Bede’s grand intellectual achievements.5 During the height of his authorial career (700–735), this twin monastery emerged as one of western Europe’s primary intellectual centres, making substantive impacts abroad as well as at home. For it not only transported the ideas of late Roman antiquity and the early Christian world to the upper northern limits of western Christendom, but it also succeeded in transferring them back—in the form of Bede’s own writings, or of that other famed Wearmouth-Jarrow production, the large Vulgate Bible known as the Codex Amiatinus—for consumption all across Christian Europe.
Bede’s own intellectual formation becomes readily evident when the range and aims of his own writings are examined more closely, and here it is well to return to the curriculum vitae he appended to the HE. A total of forty-four Latin works are listed there. The four genuine compositions not listed (the treatises De locis sanctis and De octo quaestionibus and two letters, Epistula ad Albinum and Epistola ad Ecgbertum Episcopum) bring the total tally of his surviving corpus to forty-eight. Whether Bede also wrote in the Old English vernacular is an interesting question; nothing has survived, though the account of his death by his disciple Cuthbert has Bede hurrying in his final hours to translate Saint John’s gospel, “which he was turning into our mother tongue to the great profit of the Church.”6 Yet Bede undoubtedly perceived himself as an auctor in the great ecclesiastical tradition of the Latin Fathers, in whose footsteps—vestigia patrum sequens, as he often said—he solicitously aimed to follow. That is obvious from the fact that, in his list of works, his exegetical commentaries on the Bible come first. Today Bede’s popular reputation is mainly that of an historian, derived from the acclaim of the HE, the work of his that students and general readers are most likely to know. This, however, muddles the prominence both he himself and his contemporaries imputed to his exegetical writings, as well as the extent to which the HE itself is shot through with exegetical habits of thought.7
Bede’s exegetical corpus is comprised of eighteen commentaries and a series of fifty homilies of the Gospels. The commentaries themselves are of two kinds: either verse-by-verse interpretations of whole or nearly whole books (here fall his commentaries on Genesis, First Samuel, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Tobias, and Ezra-Nehemiah, Mark, Luke, Acts, Seven Catholic Epistles, and Apocalypse), or discussions of select verses or chapters (here belong his discussions of the Tabernacle and Temple, various questions concerning the Book of Kings, eight various questions on both the Old and the New Testaments addressed to the priest Nothhelm, his treatment of the Canticle of Habakkuk, his Retraction of Acts, and his collectaneum on Paul’s letters). Two of Bede’s letters are also exegetical in thrust: the works known as the De mansionibus filiorum Israel (On the Resting-Places of the Children of Israel), and De eo quod ait Isaias (On What Isaiah Says). Some of the commentaries, like those on Genesis and Luke, traverse ground well covered by earlier Church Fathers, while others, such as those on Ezra-Nehemiah and the Seven Catholic Epistles, are truly ground-breaking expositions on books none had commented on before. Like the Latin Fathers who preceded him, Bede practiced a Christian hermeneutic of allegorical reading in which the literal details of the biblical text figure forth deeper spiritual meanings about Christ, the church, and God’s providential ordering of the scheme of salvation. In actual practice, Bede usually observes a basic twofold distinction between a literal and a spiritual (variously termed “allegorical,” “figurative,” “mystical,” or “hidden”) sense, though at times he outlines a fourfold scheme comprising historical, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical meanings, while never enforcing it rigidly.8 The Latin style of these commentaries and even some of the gospel homilies tends to be difficult, in matters of sentence length, word order, and grammatical structure, especially when compared to the more classically measured prose of Bede’s historical and educational writings.9 The translation of the commentaries into good English translations is a recent and thus highly significant development in Bede studies, making these recondite texts more accessible to wider audiences of English readers.10
As Bede’s writings as an historian also comprise his hagiographical output, the major works that belong to this category include not only the HE but also the Historia abbatum, a work in two books recounting the foundation of Wearmouth-Jarrow and the lives of its first abbots, Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith (c. 642–716), the latter also of noble ancestry and equally a key player in the monasteries’ expansion and success (it is with his sudden departure for Rome in 716 that the work ends); there are as well two lives of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (c. 634–687), one in verse (composed c. 705, revised 720?) and a later, longer version in prose (composed c. 725). Both the Historia abbatum and the prose life of Cuthbert are apologetic in tone, the former being written, among other aims, to defend matters pertaining the internal governance of the monastery and its abbots’ connection to external political turmoil in both the church and the kingdom at large; the latter is intended to present the figure of Cuthbert, with his extravagant asceticism and zeal for pastoral care, as an antidote to the polemic figure of Bishop Wilfrid (633–709), whose own vita had been penned by Stephen of Ripon after Bede completed his verse life of Cuthbert. Bede’s prose life, in other words, appears to be a conscious response to Stephen’s text, with its aggrandizing portrait of Wilfrid as the de facto leader of the Northumbrian church, an image to which Bede clearly took exception.11 In the same way, the HE itself is hardly untouched by its own polemical agenda, however much it appears, on the surface anyway, to be an unbiased and happy account of events leading up to, and eventuating in, the conversion of the English to Christianity. In five books—possibly mirroring the Pentateuch—Bede covers all the high points of the story: Caesar’s invasion of Britannia in 55 bce, the coming of the Saxons with Hengist and Horsa, Augustine’s mission to England in 597, the conversions of great kings like Æthelbert and Edwin, the growth of Christianity in Northumbria under kings Oswald and Oswy, the Synod of Whitby’s decision to follow Roman over Irish Christian practices, the consecration of Theodore as archbishop of Canterbury, and last, the conversion of the Irish monastery of Iona to correct Easter dating. Thus, like its 4th-century predecessor, Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica, to which it certainly looked as a model,12 Bede’s story is a purposeful vindication of Christianity, a triumphalist story of the religion’s defeat of unbelief and heresy. But digging deeper, the reader encounters other objectives. The overwhelming focus on Northumbria, Bede’s own kingdom, hints at concerns the author had at home.13 These are spelled out most clearly in another work, the Epistola ad Ecgberhtum, the detailed letter of reformist rebuke that Bede wrote just months before he died in May 735, to Egbert, bishop of York (d. 766), urging him to address problems in the Northumbrian church, having to do with corrupt ecclesiastics, ineffective teaching, and decaying of monastic values. Read alongside this letter, the HE can be understood as a response to these same problems, its assembly of holy kings and saints being images not of past glory but for present emulation.14 Bede writes in the preface to HE
“Should history tell of good men and their good estate, the thoughtful reader is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectively the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful and perverse, and himself with greater care pursue those things which he has learned to be good and pleasing in the sight of God.”15
Bede’s remaining writings can be grouped under the heading of “educational” works. Here fall two treatises, the De temporibus and De temporum ratione, devoted to chronological calculations ranging from the day at one end to the world-ages at the other, to which Bede added a survey of computus (i.e., Easter reckoning by astronomical calculation); the De natura rerum, a survey of cosmology; and three tracts devoted to grammar and rhetoric, De arte metrica, De schematibus et tropis, and De orthographia. Again Bede’s achievement is truly substantive. Calvin Kendall points out:
“To compose quantitative verse in an age when speakers of Latin were no longer able to distinguish the difference between a long and a short vowel aurally, and when no dictionaries existed to preserve the historical vowel lengths of classical antiquity, necessitated committing to memory a prodigious amount of classical verse. And to carry out complex calculations that require long division or the use of fractions is several orders of magnitude more difficult and laborious when working with Roman than it is with Arabic numerals. Bede surely owed his accomplishment both to a superb memory and to an elite cadre of teachers.”16
These works, then, provide a window onto both the scope of Bede’s prodigious education and his role as a teacher in the schoolroom at Wearmouth-Jarrow. It must be stressed that, at this time and place, the aims of education had shifted from those of the old Roman Empire. Now the focus was an understanding of the Latin Bible, to which all other aims were subservient. So these Bedan treatises were effectively conceived as textbooks, designed to cater to the fundamentally practical monastic needs of education taught at Wearmouth-Jarrow, where proficiency in the Word of God, not the liberal arts in and of themselves, was all that mattered. The De orthographia, with its alphabetized treatment of common spelling mistakes, thus provided a handbook of instruction in elementary Latin, while the De arte metrica and De schematibus et tropis furnished instruction in the rules of Latin verse composition and the analysis of figurative language, respectively, both essential for a full understanding of the Christian sacred text. Yet it is in these latter two works that the divide between Bede and the classical past becomes conspicuous. There is no doubt that Bede had direct knowledge of Vergil’s poetry,17 which he cites with some frequency, and citations from others, such as Horace, Lucan, and Terence, can also be found throughout his oeuvre.18 In his poetic life of Saint Cuthbert, a poem of 979 hexameters, Bede shows himself a gifted poet, able to compose classically correct hexameters with refinement and subtlety.19 Like many Christian authors before him, however, Bede regarded pagan literature as problematic, for its beauty and immorality diverted the mind away from God and toward sin. The extent of Bede’s wariness in this regard is plainly to be observed in De arte metrica, where illustrative quotations from classical poets are kept to a bare minimum and examples are drawn instead from the Vulgate and from Christian Latin authors such as Arator and Prudentius. In De schematibus et tropis, Bede cites not a single example from Roman secular authors, stating in the preface that since “Scripture takes precedence over all other writings not only by virtue of its authority, in that it is divine, and its utility, in that it leads to eternal life . . . I have decided to demonstrate by means of examples gathered from its pages that there is not one of these schemes and tropes which teachers of classical rhetoric boast of which did not appear in it first.”20 Elsewhere, however, Bede can be found taking the side of Saint Augustine of Hippo (e.g. De doctrina christiana, Book 4, against Saint Jerome and his famous dream encounter—“You are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ!”; Jerome, Letter 22)—in claiming that the classical rhetorical arts are in themselves morally neutral and, just like the treasure of the Egyptians, may be plundered wherever effective use of them for holy ends can be achieved.21 Thus Bede’s attitude to classical literature was more nuanced than may first appear, at times cautious or hostile, but refusing in the end to proscribe it wholesale.
Bede died from illness on 26 May 735. We possess an account of his last days by his disciple Cuthbert, which shrouds the master in an aura of sanctity. Bede was, however, never canonized in any formal sense; in the early 9th century, he was declared venerabilis at the Council of Aachen, an epithet that has been applied to him constantly since. In 1899 he was recognized as doctor ecclesiae and remains to this day the only Englishman to be so named. This title is a salutary reminder of his achievement as a biblical scholar and exegete, his life’s real focus; yet today, and indeed since the 19th century, he is most often recognized as the historian who wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, rightly praised as a masterpiece of historiographic narrative. Indeed, from his own day until the early modern age, it was his biblical commentaries and educational treatises that learned Latin readers sought out. For this, among other reasons, Bede is unquestionably one of the most important intellectual and authorial figures to flourish between the civilization of the ancient world and its rebirth in the renaissances of the 12th and 16th centuries.
Bede, Abbots of Wearmourth and Jarrow, edited by Christopher Grocock and Ian Wood, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford: Clarendon, 2013).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Contains Latin and English versions of Bede’s Historia abbatum and Epistola ad Ecgberhtum as well as the anonymous Vita Ceolfridi. Also useful is the translation of the Historia abbatum in The Age of Bede, edited by David H. Farmer (New York: Penguin, 1965, reprinted 2004).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat
Bede, De temporum ratione, edited by Charles W. Jones, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, vol. 123B (Turnhout: Brepols, 1977).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat English translation: Bede: The Reckoning of Time, translated by Faith Wallis, Translated Texts for Historians 29 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999).
Bede, De arte metrica et de schematibus et tropis, edited by Calvin B. Kendall, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, vol. 123A (Turnhout: Brepols, 1975).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat English translation: Bede: Libri II De Arte Metrica et De Schematibus et Tropis, The Art of Poetry and Rhetoric, translated by Calvin B. Kendall (Saarbrücken: AQ-Verlag, 1991)Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat.
Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, edited by Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969; reprinted 2001).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Contains the Latin edition with facing English translation.
Bede, In primam partem Samuhelis, edited by David Hurst, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, vol. 119 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1962).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat English translation: Bede: On First Samuel, translated by Scott DeGregorio and Rosalind Love, Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017).Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat
- Blair, Peter H. The World of Bede. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Reprinted 1990.
- Bonner, Gerald, ed. Famulus Christi: Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede. London: SPCK, 1976.
- Brown, George H. Bede the Venerable. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
- DeGregorio, Scott, ed. Innovation and Tradition in the Writings of the Venerable Bede. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2006.
- DeGregorio, Scott, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bede. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- Hawkes, Jane, and Susan Mills, eds. Northumbria’s Golden Age. Stroud: Sutton, 1999.
- Laistner, M. L. W. “Bede as a Classical and a Patristic Scholar.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 16 (1933): 69–93.
- Lapidge, Michael, ed. Bede and His World: The Jarrow Lectures 1958–93. 2 vols. Aldershot: Variorum, 1994.
- Lapidge, Michael. The Anglo-Saxon Library. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Love, Rosalind C. “The Library of the Venerable Bede.” In The History of the Book in Britain, edited by Richard Gameson, vol. 1, 606–633. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
- Ray, Roger L. “Bede and Cicero.” Anglo-Saxon England 16 (1987): 1–15.
- Wallis, Faith, and Peter Darby, eds. Bede and the Future. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014.
- Wright, Neil R. “Bede and Vergil.” Romanobarbarica 6 (1981): 361–379.
1. See Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 5.24, edited and translated by Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon, 2001), 567–571.
2. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, 5.24, Colgrave and Mynors, 567.
3. Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, 3d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 1–73.
4. Historia abbatum, ch. 4, translated by Christopher Grocock, in Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, edited by Christopher Grocock and Ian Wood (Oxford Medieval Texts; Oxford: Clarendon, 2013), 31.
5. See Rosalind Love, “The Library of the Venerable Bede,” in The History of the Book in Britain, vol. 1, edited by Richard Gameson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), 606–633.
6. The text known as Cuthbert’s Letter on the Death of Bede (Epistola de obitu Bedae) is printed in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Colgrave and Mynors, 580–587, quotation at 583.
7. See Roger Ray, “Bede, the Exegete, as Historian,” in Gerald Bonner, Famulus Christi: Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede (London: SPCK, 1976), 125–140.
8. Arthur Holder, “Bede and the Tradition of Patristic Exegesis,” Anglican Theological Review 72 (1990): 399–411.
9. Richard Sharpe, “The Varieties of Bede’s Prose,” in Aspects of the Language of Latin Prose, edited by Tobias Reinhardt, Michael Lapidge and J. N. Adams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 339–355.
10. These translations are published by Cistercian Publications and Liverpool University Press, in the series Translated Texts for Historians.
11. Alan Thacker, “Bede’s Ideal of Reform,” in Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society: Studies Presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, edited by Patrick Wormald, Donald Bullough and Roger Collins (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), 130–153.
12. Robert Markus, “Bede and the Tradition of Ecclesiastical Historiography,” Jarrow Lecture, 1975, reprinted in Bede and His World: The Jarrow Lectures 1958–93, edited by Michael Lapidge (Aldershot: Variorum, 1994), vol. 1, 385–403.
13. D. P. Kirby, “Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum: Its Contemporary Setting,” Jarrow Lecture, 1992, reprinted in Bede and His World: The Jarrow Lectures 1958–93, edited by Michael Lapidge (Aldershot: Variorum, 1994), vol. 2, 903–926.
14. Scott DeGregorio, “Visions of Reform: Bede’s Later Writings in Context,” in Bede and the Future, edited by Faith Wallis and Peter Darby (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 207–232.
15. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, Preface, Colgrave and Mynors, 3.
16. Calvin Kendall, “Bede and Education,” in The Cambridge Companion to Bede, edited by Scott DeGregorio (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 101.
17. Neil Wright, “Bede and Vergil,” Romanobarbarica 6 (1981–1982): 361–379.
18. Michael Lapidge, The Anglo-Saxon Library (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 212, 219, 225.
19. Michael Lapidge, “Bede the Poet,” Jarrow Lecture 1993, reprinted in Bede and His World: The Jarrow Lectures 1958–93, edited by Michael Lapidge (Aldershot: Variorum, 1994), vol. 2, 927–956.
20. Bede, De schematibus et tropis, translated by Calvin B. Kendall, in Bede: Libri II De arte metrica et De schematibus et tropis. The Art of Poetry and Rhetoric (Bibliotheca Germania, Series Nova 2; Saarbrücken: AQ-Verlag, 1991), 169
21. For Bede’s articulation of this Augustinian stance, see his commentary on First Samuel, In primam partem Samuhelis, edited by David Hurst (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 119; Turnhout: Brepols, 1962), 120–121. See also Roger Ray, “Bede and Cicero,” Anglo-Saxon England 16 (1987): 1–15.