Bede Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Bede c. 673-735

(Also transliterated as Baeda) English historian, scholar, biographer, scientist, poet, and composer.

Acclaimed as the father of English history, Bede provided the single most important source of information about England prior to 731 with his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731; Ecclesiastical History of the English People). The work is considered the first great history written in western Europe. There was no English nation as we know it when Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History, but through this work, he popularized the idea that the assorted peoples of the land—including those originated from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—were a united people, the English. Well over twelve hundred years later, the work continues to be an important source book for early English history from the Roman invasion of England through 731. In his own lifetime, Bede was known mostly for his exegetical works on the Old and New Testaments. His stated purpose in life was to teach and spread Christianity, and at this he was overwhelmingly successful. Bede wrote for his fellow monks but also for the layfolk, with his goal to inspire his readers to follow the Christian life. Many of his writings on the Bible became handbooks used by missionaries in foreign lands to convert non-Christians. Bede was regarded as a great scholar by most of his contemporaries, and today he is considered a scholar without parallel of Europe during the Middle Ages. His works became standards of the Church and were used for centuries, even beyond the Middle Ages. Bede was also renowned as an expert on chronology; his use of reckoning times from the Incarnation that popularized the practice and brought forth the Western calendar as we use it today.

Biographical Information

Bede was born in Northumbria about 673. Nothing is known of his parents other than that they were Christians of English descent. Possibly an orphan by the age of seven, Bede was placed in the monastery of Saint Peter at Wearmouth, where he became an oblate to Benedict Biscop. Bede soon transferred to the sister monastery of Saint Paul at Jarrow, a few miles away, where he would remain until his death. He never left Northumbria and traveled little; the only trips he is known to have taken were to monasteries in Lindisfarne and York. In 686, when Bede was about thirteen years old, the plague decimated Bede's monastery, killing all except Abbot Ceolfrid and his student, Bede. Ordained a deacon at age nineteen, six years earlier than is typical, Bede became a priest in 703. During this time Bede the monk worked tirelessly on his studies. The library at the monastery contained volumes numbering only in the low hundreds, but perhaps no library in Europe at the time was its superior. Bede said he worked "to compile extracts from the works of the venerable Fathers on holy scripture, and to make commentaries on their meaning and interpretation," and this is how he devoted most of his life. Bede did not speak out against the decadence of his age until his final year, when he criticized bogus monasteries and their pseudo-monks who joined to avoid military service and who did not understand Latin. Bede worked until the last days of his life, when he finished dictating a vernacular translation of the Fourth Gospel, a work that is now lost. On his deathbed he explained, "I do not want my boys to read a lie, or to labour in vain after I am gone." Bede died on May 25, 735.

Major Works

Although Bede spoke English, all of his works were written in Latin, the dominant language for writing during the Middle Ages. Bede's scientific works came naturally from his study of God's created order. De natura rerum liber (circa 703; On the Nature of Things) examines phenomena on earth, in the heavens, and in the ocean, and is mostly compiled from others' writings. Calculating the date of Easter was considered of great importance, and it was both a controversial and extremely difficult task. Designed to help solve the problems of the ecclesiastical calendar, De temporibus liber includens chronica minora (703; on Times Including a Short Chronology) was a treatise on the chronology of minutes, hours, days, months, years, centuries, and epochs. Bede's fellow monks urged him to write a more detailed book, and De temporum ratione liber includens chronica maiora (725; On the Reckoning of Times, Including a Long Chronicle) was the result. Its effect is still felt today, as it established in England the custom of reckoning years from the era of the Incarnation, rather than from the creation of the world. Bede did not originate this system, but there is no proof of its use in English documents before On the Reckoning of Times. Bede appended to this volume an outline of world histories with important dates since the creation of the world. Latin grammar was vital to those men who devoted much of their lives to reading, interpreting, and copying by hand the Bible and other Christian texts, and Bede wrote textbooks on grammar and poetry for his fellow monks. Until recently it was thought that these were Bede's earliest works, but scholars have found evidence supporting later dates for their creation, or at least their revision. De orthographia (circa 710-731; On Orthography) is an alphabetical arrangement of forms which would likely cause difficultly for students as to spelling or meaning. De arte metrica et de schematibus tropis (circa 710-731; On the Art of Metrics and On Figures and Tropes) introduces various types of Latin poetry, and its appendix is a study of stylistic figures of speech and allegory. Bede concentrated his efforts on the exegesis of biblical texts. Although much of his writing was not original and some was copied verbatim from other sources, Bede exercised impeccable judgment in his selections and arrangements. Since he wanted to be clearly understood, Bede wrote grammatically, shunning stylistic flourishes. Most of his commentaries were verse-by-verse analyses of a particular passage which detailed the literal meaning and then offered a spiritual meaning. Bede's hagiographies were designed to demonstrate through example the example of a good Christian life. Bede's matter-of-fact and frequent recording of miracles has caused great concern for many modern readers who wonder if he can thus be trusted as an historian, but Bede was following a tradition from which inspiration would result from indications of God's graciousness. Bede wrote two lives of the Northumbrian saint Cuthbert, one in prose circa 706-707, and one in poetry circa 721. Five other lives are the subjects of the Historia abbatum (circa 725-731; History of the Abbots), which gives a full picture of the life of monks at the beginning of the eighth century. Bede's greatest achievement, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, relates the developments of the Church but focuses on the history of the English nation. Bede's last surviving work, Epistola ad Ecgbertum Episcopum (November 5, 734; Letter to Egbert), angrily denounces the many false monasteries founded by the nobility to avoid their military duties and bemoans the fact that Bede had found himself having to provide English translations of liturgical texts even for the clergy.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Bede was highly popular and respected; from at least the ninth century on he has usually been referred to as the Venerable Bede. Such was his acclaim that many works were credited to him that were written by others in order to capitalize on Bede's reputation. At the end of the ninth century, Alfred the Great, almost forty years old, learned Latin himself so that he could translate and supervise the translation of books from Latin into English and educate his people. The Ecclesiastical History, one of the books "most necessary for all men to know," was included in King Alfred's project, and thus England was the first nation in Western Europe to have a great history written in the vernacular. Much of the Ecclesiastical History also appeared in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and his commentaries were used widely by the church until the twelfth century. No author of his time was more respected; this can be seen in the large number of his early manuscripts, including more than one hundred and fifty complete copies of the Ecclesiastical History, which survive in spite of massive destruction wrought by Vikings and others. Bede is also highly praised for his accuracy; very few errors in his writings have been found by modern scholars.