Bede

(c. 673-735)
   Traditionally known as the Venerable Bede, Bede is the most important and influential Anglo-Saxon scholar and the most important scholar of the period from the death of Pope Gregory I, called the Great, to the coronation of Charlemagne in 800, a period sometimes known as the Age of Bede. He was a monk at the communities of Wearmouth and Jarrow, which were founded by Benedict Biscop. He was a devout monk who seldom traveled far from his Northumbrian monastery. He was also an accomplished writer and teacher, whose values were transmitted to the Carolingian world by his most famous admirer, Alcuin. He popularized the anno Domini dating system and had great influence on the practice of biblical exegesis and history writing. He wrote numerous commentaries on Scripture and other works, but his most famous work is A History of the English Church and People.
   Much of what is known of Bede comes from an autobiographical note at the end of his history. Born probably in 673 on lands that later belonged to the monastery of Wearmouth, Bede tells us that he was sent to that monastery at the age of seven. He later joined Abbot Ceolfrith at the monastery of Jarrow, which he ruled, together with nearby Wearmouth, after its founder, Benedict Biscop, died. In the anonymous life of Abbot Ceolfrith, we learn that a young boy, generally believed to be Bede, was one of the only survivors, with the abbot, of a plague that struck Jarrow in 686. Bede helped the abbot sing the canonical hours after the disaster and retained a great love for the hours throughout the rest of his life. In a story told by Alcuin, Bede is once supposed to have said, "I know that angels visit the congregation of brethren at the canonical hours, and what if they should not find me among the brethren? Would they not say, 'Where is Bede?'"
   Bede himself tells us that he spent his entire life in the monastery, although he did visit the abbey of Lindisfarne and other monasteries, as well as the archbishop of York and King Ceolwulf of Northumbria, who was a patron of learning and who became a monk shortly after Bede's death. He also notes that he became a deacon at age nineteen and a priest at age thirty and that he "observed the regular discipline [of a monk] and sung the choir offices daily in church" (Bede 1981, 336). Although devoted to the monastic life, he explains that his greatest pleasure came from "study, teaching, and writing" (336). From the age of thirty until the age of fifty-nine he "worked, both for my own benefit and that of my brethren, to compile short extracts from the works of the venerable Fathers on Holy Scripture and to comment on their meaning and interpretation" (336). He lists these works in his autobiographical note, and they include commentaries on the books of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scriptures, letters, saints lives, a history, a martyrology, and a book on hymns.
   He continued writing and teaching until his death, four years after writing his autobiographical note. His last work, which he left unfinished when he died on May 25, 735, was an Old English translation of the Gospel of John. He was buried in the south porch of the monastery church but later moved to the main altar. His fame continued long after his death and was the cause of the theft of his relics in 1020. His bones were stolen by a monk of Durham, who buried them at the shrine to St. Cuthbert in Durham. They were later encased in a gold and silver reliquary, and during the Reformation, when the monasteries were pillaged and closed by Henry VIII, his relics were allegedly transferred to the Holy Land.
   Bede's fame rests on his talents as biblical commentator, teacher, and historian. He left a great legacy to the generations that followed and had a marked influence on the Carolingian Renaissance because of his writing and teaching. In the Middle Ages, he was perhaps best known for his biblical commentaries. He wrote some twenty-four commentaries on the books of the Bible in an elegant, almost classical Latin, mainly line-by-line explanations of biblical texts, which were commissioned by Bishop Acca of Hexham. Most of his exegetical work is on the books of the Hebrew Bible, including commentaries on Genesis, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Daniel, and Job. He wrote commentaries on the Gospels of Mark and John as well as works on the Epistles and Apocalypse of John. His commentaries on the books of the Bible employed allegorical interpretation of the literal events recorded in Scripture. He borrowed from numerous Christian fathers, including St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Ambrose, and Pope Gregory the Great. Although he often read his sources in compendia rather than the original texts, Bede was very familiar with Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate.
   His talents as a teacher are revealed in two ways. First, they are demonstrated in the importance of his students and the students of his students, such as Alcuin. His talents, along with his interest in teaching, are also revealed in numerous works written as instructional aids. In fact, all his work, including the lives of St. Cuthbert and of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, have a didactic purpose. He wrote three little books designed specifically for teaching students in monastic schools, one book on spelling and two books on poetry. The books on poetry include a collection of commentaries on an ancient Latin book of grammar and a book in which Bede discusses the language of the Bible. He wrote a book on natural phenomena, influenced by Isidore of Seville, which discusses earthquakes, storms, the planets, stars, and the heavens. He was also a master of the important monastic art of computus, the science of calculating dates in the calendar, most importantly Easter. His first attempt to explain this science, written in 703, led to charges of heresy against Bede, which he vigorously denounced in a letter to another monk. A second work, De temporum ratione, was much less controversial and much more successful. It became the standard introduction to the science of computus, and through it the practice of dating from the birth of Jesus Christ, rather than from the beginning of the world, became commonplace in medieval Europe.
   Bede's most important and well-known work, however, is his History of the English Church and People, which he completed in 731. True to his concerns as a teacher, Bede wrote his history so that his reader could follow the good examples therein and act in ways pleasing to God. Organized in five books, the History traces the events from the time of Roman Britain, through the period of invasions, the deeds of the Anglo-Saxon kings, and the establishment of Roman Christianity in England. The arrival and triumph of Roman Christianity is one of the important themes of the book and includes some of his more memorable stories, including the tale of Gregory the Great's decision to evangelize England, and the tale of the Synod of Whitby in 664.
   The work itself is a true history and not a simple chronicle of events, of the kind his predecessors and contemporaries had compiled. It was an immensely popular work throughout the Middle Ages because of Bede's powerful style and command of the Latin language. He also was most skilled at handling his sources, and although he included miraculous events, he was a critical reader of his sources. He sifted through a variety of eyewitness, oral, and written traditions and borrowed from writers such as Orosius and Pliny. His History was so popular that it was translated into Old English during the reign of King Alfred the Great, and his talents as a historian so great that he has been called the father of English history.
   Bede was truly one of the great teachers and writers of the early Middle Ages. A devout monk and ardent supporter of Roman Christianity, Bede was venerated in his own time and is still venerated in ours for his many talents and faith. In 1899 he was declared a Doctor of the Church, and in 1935 he was declared a saint. His tomb in Durham, pillaged in 1541, remains a site of veneration.
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Bede. Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. Trans. Lawrence Martin. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1989.
 ♦ --- . Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1991.
 ♦ Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
 ♦ Brown, George Hardin. Bede the Venerable. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
 ♦ Farmer, David H. The Age of Bede. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1998.
 ♦ Laistner, Max L. W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe, a.d. 500-900. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.
 ♦ Lapidge, Michael. Bede and His World: The Jarrow Lectures, 1958-1993. 2 vols. Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 1994.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth to the Eighth Century. Trans. John Contreni. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1978.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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