Ecclesiastical History of the English People Summary

Synopsis

The Venerable Bede, referred to as "venerable" because of his piety, was born near the Jarrow Monastery in Dedham, where he spent his entire life. Because of his wide variety of ecclesiastical and historical writing, he is generally considered to be the father of English history.

Written around 730 C.E. (the middle of the Dark Ages), Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People is the first comprehensive history of the early English Christian church as well as English secular life, an accomplishment that is almost unimaginable given the conditions under which Bede worked. Before the writings of King Alfred in the tenth century, the only reliable history of England is contained in Bede's History.

For his sources, Bede drew widely from what he called primum scripta (“early writings”), which included Roman sources such as Pliny, Eutropius, and Gildas (an earlier English historian). Bede seems to have relied on few secondary sources for his ecclesiastical history, but he uses and refers to The Life of St. Fursa, The Life of St. Ethelburg, and The Anonymous Life of St. Cuthbert. He also refers to using some annals. For information about other parts of England, he seems to have relied on a network of fellow clerics.

In Book I, Bede discusses Britain’s early history from the Roman invasion of Julius Caesar to 600 C.E., including a description of Britain’s early races, warfare with the Scots and Picts, the occupation of Rome, and the advent of the Saxons after the Romans left to deal with unrest on the Continent.

Book II describes Gregory the Great, an important early church leader, and events from Gregory’s death to about 633 C.E., including the conversion of the kingdom of Kent to Christianity, a high point for the early English church. Book II also gives us perhaps Bede’s most famous passage when, in an argument to convince Northumbria to convert to Christianity, he describes man’s life as like a sparrow that flies into a warm banquet hall, seeking warmth on a cold winter’s night, and then quickly flying out into the cold again.

Bede depicts in Book III the return of Northumbria to paganism, King Oswald’s victory at Havenfield in 634 C.E., and the consequent return of Northumbria to Christianity, in part the result of the influence of monks from the island of Iona. Bede also discusses at great length the difficulties of the early Christian church in establishing itself in the kingdoms of Mercia, Essex, and, as always, Northumbria.

Book IV carries momentous ecclesiastical news in that Bede describes the establishment of Christianity in all but one English kingdom. This book is chiefly concerned with the organization and development of the English church. The secular history of various kingdoms is presented, and it ends with a long discussion of Northumbria’s internal political struggles.

Book V, the last section of the work, covers the personal history of Holy Ethelwald, including a miracle thought to be a result of Ethelwald’s influence. Bede again discusses the growth of the English church in detail and the acceptance by the converted Picts of Roman rules regarding Easter and the tonsure (haircut) of monks. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People ends in 731 C.E. with a summary of the development of the episcopate in the English church.

Ed. Scott Locklear