Bede Essay - Critical Essays



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.

Principal Works

De temporibus liber includens chronica minora [On Times Including a Short Chronology] (essay) 703

De natura rerum liber [On the Nature of Things] (essay) circa 703

Explanatio Apocalypsis [On the Apocalypse] (essay) circa 703-709

Liber hymnorum, rhythmi, variae preces [Hymns](songs) circa 703-731

Vita sancti Cuthberti metrica [Life of Saint Cuthbert, In Verse] (biography) circa 706-707

Expositio Actuum Apostolorum [On the Acts of the Apostles] (essay) circa 709

De orthographia [On Orthography] (essay) circa 710-731

De arte metrica et de schematibus tropis [On the Art of Metrics and On Figures and Tropes] (essay) circa 710-731

Homeliarum evangelii libri II [Homilies on the Gospels] (essay) circa 720-731

Vita sancti Cuthberti prosaica [Life of Saint Cuthbert, In Prose] (biography) circa 721

De temporum ratione liber includens chronica maiora [On the Reckoning of Times, Including a Long Chronicle] (essay) 725

Retractatio in Actus Apostolorum [Retraction on Acts] (essay) circa 725-731

Historia abbatum [History of the Abbots] (history) circa 725-731

Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum [Ecclesiastical History of the English People] (history) 731

Aliquot quaestionum liber [On Eight Questions] (essay) circa 731-735

Epistola ad Ecgbertum Episcopum [Letter to Egbert] (letter) 734


Rev. G. F. Browne (essay date 1887)

SOURCE: G. F. Browne, "The Homilies of Bede," in The Venerable Bede, E. & J. B. Young & Co., 1887, pp. 127-47.

[In the following excerpt, Browne examines the homilies of Bede, finding them devoid of rhetorical devices, helpful on problematic Latin translations of biblical passages, but characterized by "far-fetched figurative interpretation."]

The Homilies of Bede which have been preserved are in one sense disappointing; they throw little or no light upon the state of society in his time. There is no approach to anything at all resembling the personal interest of which the sermons of Chrysostom are so full. There is no rebuking of notorious...

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Bertram Colgrave (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: Bertram Colgrave, "Bede's Miracle Stories," in Bede: His Life, Times, and Writings, edited by A. Hamilton Thompson, 1935. Reprint by Russell & Russell, 1966, pp. 201-29.

[In the following excerpt, Colgrave summarizes many of Bede's miracle stories, contending that Bede did not write of miracles as a strict historian, but to satisfy the demand of popular taste, to venerate saints, to inspire, and to tell a vivid story.]

It probably comes as a shock to the reader unacquainted with medieval literature who approaches Bede's Ecclesiastical History for the first time, to find that a miracle occurs on almost every page. What reliance can be...

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R. W. Chambers (lecture date 1936)

SOURCE: R. W. Chambers, "Bede," in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. XXII, 1936, pp. 129-56.

[In the following lecture, Chambers presents Bede in historical context and asserts that, in the Ecclesiastical History, Bede captures two traditions: loyalty to Christ and loyalty to the chief.]

Ours is an age in which those who delight in such things delight to take a 'master mind' and to throw him down from his pedestal. My friend and predecessor in this series, Tenney Frank, speaking of Cicero as a master mind, had to vindicate against cavillers his hero's claim to that title. Indeed, said Professor Frank, 'the first poet of Greece is perhaps the only human...

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F. M. Stenton (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: F. M. Stenton, "Learning and Literature in Early England," in Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1943, pp. 177-200.

[In the following excerpt, Stenton asserts that Bede's greatest talent was his ability to coordinate fragments of information from assorted sources.]

Among the men who brought Northumbrian learning out of isolation, Benedict Biscop, the founder of Wearmouth and Jarrow, deserves to be regarded as the leader. In the history of his time he is overshadowed by his younger contemporary Wilfrid. But Wilfrid's contribution to the enlightenment of the north was made in the spheres of ecclesiastical observance and regulation; he was too...

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Charles W. Jones (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: Charles W. Jones, "Bede as Early Medieval Historian," in Bede, the Schools and the Computus, edited by Wesley M. Stevens, Variorum, 1994, pp. 2636.

[In the following excerpt originally published in 1946, Jones provides background and argues that Bede's historiography, which links chronography with hagiography, was typical of historians of his time.]

Although many believe, considering his archetypal position in English thought and letters, that Bede's contributions to medieval and modern thought have been unduly neglected, his historiography has been scrutinized by two outstanding scholars, Charles Plummer1 and Wilhelm Levison.2 I shall not...

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Eleanor Shipley Duckett (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: Eleanor Shipley Duckett, "Bede of Jarrow," in Anglo-Saxon Saints and Scholars, The Macmillan Company, 1947, pp. 217-338.

[In the following excerpt, Duckett examines several textbooks written by Bede on grammar, writing, and chronology, and asserts they were composed before he was a mature writer.]

The bishop who ordained Bede deacon was that John of Beverley who was just then causing Wilfrid anguish of spirit in holding the see of Hexham; the same John advanced him to the priesthood in his thirtieth year.1

Shortly after he entered the diaconate we may imagine him as not only teaching in Jarrow but also as writing manuals that would aid...

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R. W. Southern (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: R. W. Southern, "Bede, the Monk of Jarrow," in The Listener, Vol. 71, No. 1820, February 13, 1964, pp. 267-69.

[In the following excerpt, Southern examines the significance and impact of Jarrow, the site of Bede's monastery, on Bede 's works.]

One of the first things to recognize about the Middle Ages is that, far from being a period of substantial uniformity in which men thought and fought, prayed and expressed their beliefs in much the same way from beginning to end, the diversity of experience is immense.

All cats are grey in the dark and it was the darkness of the Middle Ages, now largely dispelled, which encouraged the belief that all men...

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J. Campbell (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: J. Campbell, "Bede," in Latin Historians, edited by T. A. Dorey, Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1966, pp. 159-90.

[In the following excerpt, Campbell emphasizes that Bede's main intention was to promote Christianity through his writings. He also considers Bede's sources and his occasional discrepancies on dates.]

Bede was not only, or even primarily, a historian. He finished the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum only three or four years before his death in 735. He may have known that it would be the last of his major works, for he ended it with an almost elegiac sketch of his own life and a list of his writings. These were numerous....

(The entire section is 10615 words.)

Leo Sherley-Price (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Leo Sherley-Price, in an introduction to Bede: A History of the English Church and People, translated by Leo Sherley-Price, revised edition, Penguin Books, 1968, pp. 15-32.

[In the following excerpt, Sherley-Price explores the background of Bede's historical writings and describes his chief merits as a historian.]

The centuries on which Bede concentrates are a crucial and formative period in our island history, during which the future shape and pattern of the English Church and nation were beginning to emerge. Once the shield of Roman protection was withdrawn, the Celtic peoples of Britain were steadily forced to yield ground before the ever increasing pressure...

(The entire section is 3105 words.)

James Campbell (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: James Campbell, in an introduction to Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People and Other Selections, edited by James Campbell, Washington Square Press, Inc., 1968, pp. vii-xxxiv.

[In the following excerpt, Campbell provides an overview of Bede's work and concludes that, at least in part, Bede transmuted the past into his own creation which reflected mainly his own values.]

Bede was born about 673 and died in 735. He entered the monastery of Monkwearmouth (Wearmouth), in Northumbria, at the age of seven, and the remainder of his life was spent there and in the sister monastery of Jarrow.1 Today he is famous chiefly as the historian of...

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Peter Hunter Blair (lecture date 1969)

SOURCE: Peter Hunter Blair, "The Historical Writings of Bede," in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, edited by M. Lapidge and P. Hunter Blair, Variorum Reprints, 1984, pp. 197-221.

[In the following lecture originally presented in 1969, Blair defends Bede's historical writings against some modern-day critics who impugn the accuracy of his chronologies, accuse him of prejudice against the Celtic and Welsh churches, and suggest that he was fooled by forgeries and suppressed evidence.]

Bede was born c. 671, about 260 years after the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, and about 225 years after what came to be regarded as the year in which the English first came to Britain. He...

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Bertram Colgrave (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: Bertram Colgrave, "Historical Introduction," in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, edited by Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, 1969. Reprint by Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1992, pp. xvii-xxxviii.

[In the following excerpt written in 1969, Colgrave discusses the historical sources for Bede's Ecclesiastical History.]

As Professor Levison has pointed out,1 when Bede was writing his History, saints' Lives were being written everywhere, but other forms of historical writing were in decay. Bede was familiar with two histories, both of which may have served him as models, namely Rufinus' translation and adaptation of...

(The entire section is 3607 words.)

Gerald Bonner (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Gerald Bonner, "Bede and Medieval Civilization," in Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 2, 1973, pp. 71-90. [In the following essay, Bonner discusses the limitations of Bede's library and the subsequent ramifications for his writings.]

The mortal remains of the Venerable Bede rest today in the cathedral church of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin, Durham. They were brought there in the early eleventh century by one Ælfred Westou, priest and sacrist of Durham and an enthusiastic amateur of that characteristically medieval form of devotion expressed in the acquisition, by fair means or foul, of the relics of the saints to the greater glory of God. The removal of Bede's remains to Durham,...

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Joel T. Rosenthal (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Joel T. Rosenthal, "Bede's Use of Miracles in Ecclesiastical History," in Traditio, Vol. XXXI, 1975, pp. 328-35.

[In the following essay, Rosenthal examines Bede's descriptions of miracles … in the Ecclesiastical History, contending that Bede used them carefully and for specific purposes, often to honor particular individuals.]

Bede believed in miracles. They were basic to him, both as a practicing Christian and as a working historian. Without accepting this we can understand him neither as a man of the seventh and eighth centuries nor as the author who carefully constructed the Ecclesiastical History.

One of Bede's...

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Benedicta Ward (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Benedicta Ward, "Miracles and History: A Reconsideration of the Miracle Stories Used by Bede," in Famulus Christi: Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede, edited by Gerald Bonner, SPCK, 1976, pp. 70-6.

[In the following essay, Ward addresses Bede's miracle stories and argues that, for Bede, the emphasis was on the significance of the miracle, not the miracle itself]

There is still a question mark against that part of the material in Bede's writings that concerns miracles. This has caused them to be either ignored by historians or treated to a cautious defusing so that they become safe to handle; at best they are...

(The entire section is 3138 words.)

J. N. Stephens (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: J. N. Stephens, "Bede's Ecclesiastical History," in History: The Journal of the Historical Association, n. s. Vol. 62, No. 204, February, 1977, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Stephens explains that Bede differed from other historians in that the proper focus of the Ecclesiastical History is the English people, for it was Bede's intent to provide them with a new and fuller history.]

Bede called his History 'The Ecclesiastical History of the English people' (Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.) It is usually said to be a history of the church. According to Levison, Bede takes 'the history of the English Church as a united...

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George Hardin Brown (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: George Hardin Brown, "Homilies, Hagiography, Poems, Letters," in Bede the Venerable, Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 62-80.

[In the following excerpt, Brown examines stylistic differences among the four different genres in which Bede composed: homilies, hagiography, poems, and letters.]

These popular medieval genres, once dismissed as dull or derivative, have peculiar qualities that have elicited a good deal of interest and study in recent years. But, despite Bede's important contributions and fame in each of these categories, his own creations have received little theological, historical, or literary attention. Bede's writing was often praised in his age and is...

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Further Reading


Price, Mary R. "Bede." In Bede and Dunstan, pp. 7-32. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Short, heavily illustrated biography of Bede.


Blair, Peter Hunter. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970, 381 p.

Provides general introduction to seven centuries of English history, from the latter part of the Roman occupation to the Norman Age.

——.The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 342 p.


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