by Eleanor Parker
25 May is the feast of one of the greatest historians Britain has ever produced, the Venerable Bede, who died in 735. A saint and scholar whose works were read throughout Europe, Bede has done more than any other medieval writer to shape our understanding of British history in the early Middle Ages.
Born around 673, Bede was just seven years old when he entered the twinned monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow, near the River Tyne in Northumbria, where he spent the rest of his life. He never travelled far beyond this small corner of Northumbria, but his mind and his scholarly interests were without limits, ranging very widely through all kinds of historical and theological learning. Wearmouth-Jarrow had an excellent library and well-developed links to the wider international church, so Bede lived in a world of thriving monastic scholarship. In a short account of his life which he included at the end of one of his works, he tells us that the guiding principle of his life was his love of learning: ‘my chief delight has always been in study, teaching, and writing’, he says. This scholarly delight led him to take an interest in many topics, and his known works include numerous Biblical commentaries, poems, hymns, saints’ lives, writings on the calculation of the calendar, and a translation – sadly lost – of the Gospel of John into English.
He’s best known for his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’), which he wrote around 731. This is an invaluable source of information about the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, and the establishment of the English church in the seventh century. It’s full of fascinating stories and characters, giving us a vivid picture of an era which we’d otherwise know little about. Bede’s History was very widely read in the Middle Ages, and it had a huge and lasting impact on the English church’s understanding of its own sense of identity. When Bede wrote, there was no such country as England; the Anglo-Saxons lived in independent kingdoms, and it was Bede more than anyone else who popularised the idea that there was a single ‘people of the English’, sharing a common culture, language and religion. He helped to create the idea of England, which later Anglo-Saxon kings such as Alfred the Great worked to make a political reality.
However, Bede’s work isn’t only important for England, but for the history of Christianity in Britain as a whole. Naturally enough given its geographical location, Northumbria was a region with strong links to Ireland and Scotland, and the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian church took its distinctive character from its place within this cultural sphere. Bede provides valuable details about the interaction between the Northumbrian kings and their counterparts to the north and west, as well as the monks and missionaries who travelled throughout the region. He’s an important source for the activities of saints such as Aidan, Columba, and Ninian, and for the influence of Iona on early Northumbrian Christianity.
In Bede’s narrative, the influence of the British and Irish churches sometimes comes into conflict with the traditions brought by the Roman missionaries who had converted the southern Anglo-Saxons, beginning with the mission of St Augustine of Canterbury to Kent in 597. In general, Bede identified himself more closely with the Roman than with British tradition, especially when it came to the tricky question of the dating of Easter. In the seventh century, there were alternative methods for calculating the date of Easter, and these variations could result in problems, since in places like Northumbria some people would be feasting while their neighbours were keeping the Lenten fast. Bede writes about this at length in his History, and he had sharp words for those in the Irish and Scottish churches who didn’t share his view. What this suggests, though, is that he cared very much that there should be unity across the church on this important issue. For Bede, as for other medieval scholars, the study of time and the calendar was not just a human science, but a sacred pursuit: the structure of the year reflected profound truths about the nature of the universe, planned and created by God. Time was part of God’s creation; to study it was to learn something about the mind of its divine creator, so getting the date of Easter right was crucially important.
As it turned out, the date of Bede’s own death was significant too. Though his feast is kept on 25 May, he actually died on 26 May, which was a meaningful date for two reasons: it’s the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, whose story forms such an important part of Bede’s History, and in 735, the year of Bede’s death, it was also Ascension Day. A moving eyewitness account of Bede’s death was recorded by a monk named Cuthbert, a former pupil of Bede’s, who was present at his deathbed. He tells how in his last hours Bede continued to teach his students and to work on his English translation of John’s Gospel, singing to comfort himself the words of the Ascension liturgy: ‘O King of glory, who on this day ascended in triumph above all heavens, do not leave us orphaned, but send to us the Spirit of truth’. At the words ‘do not leave us orphaned’, Cuthbert says, Bede broke down in tears and wept. But his death was peaceful and happy, as he distributed his few possessions (just a few grains of pepper and incense) among his pupils, and bid them farewell. Cuthbert concludes, touchingly, that ‘all who saw and heard of the death of our father Bede declared that they had never known anyone end his days in such deep devotion and peace.’
Permission to reproduce here given by Eleanor Parker
Medievalist at Oxford University