Is the narrator of An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, third-person omniscient or first-person limited?

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These are interesting terms to apply to Bede's great Latin work, drawn from the vast library at his Jarrow monastery, about how Christianity came to Britain and how the Celtic and Roman forms warred in the early days. The very brief part of it which is in the first person—the...

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These are interesting terms to apply to Bede's great Latin work, drawn from the vast library at his Jarrow monastery, about how Christianity came to Britain and how the Celtic and Roman forms warred in the early days. The very brief part of it which is in the first person—the preface—is limited by definition. A preface is an introduction to the book to follow, in which the author explains what he hopes to achieve in writing the book and how he experienced the writing process, his aims, and so on. In his preface, Bede explains from his own perspective why he is writing this work, who has helped him, and what his sources are.

The rest of the work is written in the third person. In later chronicles, such as those of Walter Map, we often do find the narrator interject his own experiences into the text; even in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, written only a century after Bede's work, we do see the chroniclers say things such as "I have given an account of the most important kings here," or "I have heard it said that . . . " Bede, however, in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, does not do this. However, the terms "limited" and "omniscient," which really are best applied to literature, don't necessarily capture what Bede is really doing in his work.

An omniscient third person narrator knows the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of all the characters in a novel. A limited third person narrator knows only the thoughts and feelings of his protagonist, whose point of view he is currently inhabiting, even if this person changes. A historian might write about characters in history in this way, but even apparently omniscient historians have their own motivations for writing.

Bede is writing a history of the Church in England in which he, as he says in the preface, draws from a vast number of sources and describes all that has happened based upon these sources. To an extent, then, his point of view is "omniscient." However, we must consider that this was a point in time when the concept of "England," let alone Britain, was extremely loose. Bede identified himself as a Northumbrian, and consequently he uses his sources rather selectively to ensure that the kingdom of Northumbria is privileged above its neighbors in his writings. He also omits some seemingly significant events we know of from other chronicles, which makes us question whether he did not know about them from his library, or whether he chose to leave them out for some reason or another.

Bede's narration certainly encourages us to think of him as a third person omniscient narrator, but as with all histories, it can be dangerous to think of a historian in such simple terms.

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The preface of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, otherwise known as An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, is written in first person.  Bede was an English monk, and this, his most noted work, told the history of the Church of England, but it also contained a lot of English history, as well.  After writing this book, he was often referred to as "The Father of English History".  In the preface, Bede is basically telling the reader why he's writing the history, and how he went about writing it.

After the preface, though, the "I" point of view so common with the first person narration disappears.  It can be assumed, however, that this first person narration continues, but from a limited point of view.  My definition of first person limited has always been that the narrator is a "fly on the wall", making observations but not participating in the actual events, as opposed to the regular first person narrator who not only observes but also participates in the plot.

After reading Bede's work and taking into consideration the definition of a first person limited narrator, I would have to say that our narrator is third person omniscient, since he was not actually living to observe all of the history he so painstakingly wrote about.

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