Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2032
Article abstract: Bede is the author of the first worthy extant example of English Christian scholarship. In his own time, Bede set an example by his saintly life and his dedication as a teacher. Today he is known primarily for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which has earned for him the title “the father of English history.”
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Bede (Latin Baeda or Beda) was born of Saxon parents in 672 or 673 c.e., south of the Tyne River on land which in 674 was incorporated into the monastery of St. Peter founded at Wearmouth by Benedict Biscop. At the age of seven, Bede was placed by his parents in the care of Abbot Benedict to receive an education. A year later, in 681 or 682, he was transferred to the newly founded, and associated, nearby monastery of St. Paul at Jarrow, under the authority of Abbot Ceolfrid. In 686, a plague so ravaged the monastery that, according to Ceolfrid’s anonymous biographer, only the abbot himself and one boy were well enough to sing the antiphons in the choir. This boy probably was Bede, who even at this young age was able to fulfill the duties of a choir monk.
Bede was reared in a very scholarly environment. His first abbot, Benedict, had been trained at the famous monastery of Lerins on the French Riviera. Benedict had visited Rome several times and was a Greek and Latin scholar expert in art, astronomy, music, and theology. Bede derived great benefit from the monastic library, assembled by Benedict and subsequently doubled in size by Ceolfrid. In spite of his relative isolation, he had much of contemporary European scholarship ready at hand; what was not available often could be borrowed from another monastery. Most of the books available to Bede would have been the writings of the Church fathers, such as Ambrose of Milan, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, and Gregory the Great, upon whom Bede based most of his theological study. He was much less familiar with—or at least had less access to—the writings of the classical Latin authors, many of which were not rediscovered until the Renaissance.
Bede eventually became a master of both Latin and Greek, and he even knew some Hebrew. While still in his teens, Bede was recognized for his learning and scholarship. At the age of nineteen, in 692 or 693, he was made a deacon by Bishop John of Hexham, even though the canonical age for such an office was twenty-five. At thirty he was made a priest by the same bishop. Both promotions were made on the recommendation of his abbot, still Ceolfrid.
Bede rarely traveled far from home, although he did visit the monastery at Lindisfarne before 721, and his friend Egbert, Archbishop of York, in 733. He also may have visited the learned king Ceolwulf of Northumbria, who eventually abdicated and himself became a monk.
Bede is known primarily for his literary activities, to which he gave devoted and incessant effort. He said of himself,
I have spent all . . . of my life in this monastery and devoted myself entirely to the study of the Scriptures. And while I have observed the regular discipline and sung the choir offices daily in church, my chief delight has always been in study, teaching, and writing.
His occupation with such activities also would have enabled him to escape much of the drudgery which was endured by the other, less intellectually oriented, monks.
A great number of Bede’s works still survive, although many of the shorter works still have not been edited adequately. Much of this writing consists of commentaries, mostly allegorical in nature, on the Scriptures. Bede said of them,
from the time of my receiving the priesthood until my fifty-ninth year, I have 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.
Indeed, Bede wrote voluminously on both the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as several works of ecclesiastical history and biography. Of the former, the best known is his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731; Ecclesiastical History of the English People). He also wrote Vita sanctorum abbatum monasterii in Wiramutha et Girvam, Benedicti, Ceolfridi, Easteruini, Sigfridi, atque Huaetbereti (c. 725; Lives of the First Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow: Benedict, Ceolfrid, Eosterwine, Sigfrid, and Huetbert, 1818), about the abbots of his own monastery, and a life in verse and prose of the monk and bishop Cuthbert. He translated the lives of Saint Felix and Saint Anastasius, and compiled a martyrology, or list of the feast days of various saints.
Another group of works can be classified as scientific, primarily on chronology: the six ages of the world, the resting places of Israel, the words of Isaiah 24.22, the bisextile year, and Anatolius’ explanation of the equinox. He also wrote linguistic and literary works: a book on orthography, a book on the art of poetry, a book on tropes and figures, a book of hymns, a book of epigrams—the list goes on. Bede was not only prolific but also wide-ranging in the matters he took up for consideration, even in a time when the distinctions between the various “fields” of scholarship were not as clearly delineated as they are today.
Bede’s most famous work, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731 near the end of his life, is simple and straightforward. In its earlier sections, it is little more than a compilation. Unlike many writers, Bede nearly always named his sources. He also often quoted his source documents verbatim and at great length. Those of his sources which survive indicate that he attained a high level of accuracy in his quotations. He paid particular attention to chronology, attempting to make it as exact as he could. He introduced the idea that the adventus Saxonum (arrival of the Saxons) marked the beginning of a new period in British history, even though he wrongly saw it as a single, distinct event of the mid-fifth century rather than as a continuing process which had begun rather earlier.
Although Bede diligently studied and used his source material, he was not always sufficiently critical in his use of it. He sometimes fell victim to the errors in his sources, especially for the more distant past. His dependence upon oral traditions and the obscure sixth century writer Nennius for the fourth through the sixth centuries, for example, led him to repeat Nennius’ errors and misconceptions. Much of his chronology for this period has had to be corrected on the basis of the extant Easter tables and Gallic Chronicles, which discuss some of the same events. The closer Bede came to his own times and his own experiences, however, the more vivid his history became.
Bede’s history also is limited, from a modern point of view, by its concentration upon ecclesiastical matters. He considered secular matters only when they had some impact upon the affairs of the Church. Even these mentions, however, demonstrate the contemporary lack of political unity in Britain. Bede also discussed in detail the role played by the English kings in the spread of Christianity in Britain, and in the functioning of the Church. The history and his Lives of the First Abbots contain much useful information about the ecclesiastical life and practices of the day, such as miracle stories, missionary activities, and the operations of the English monasteries. His character sketches of individuals from all levels of society are especially realistic. Bede also discussed some of the ecclesiastical controversies, such as that over the date of Easter. In this, he had some bias against Celtic church practices, as when he said in Ecclesiastical History of the English People, “The Britons . . . have a national hatred for the English, and uphold their own bad customs against the true Easter of the Catholic Church . . . . “
Bede died after a short illness at the age of sixty-three, on May 25, 735, still in the midst of an unfinished translation of the Gospel of Saint John. In the eleventh century, his remains were stolen and placed in the coffin of Saint Cuthbert at Durham, and in 1104 they were moved yet again and placed in a gold and silver casket in Durham Cathedral. In 1541, the casket was looted and the bones lost. Bede seems to have acquired the cognomen “Venerable” as early as the ninth century. Such an appellation, however, was commonly given to ecclesiastics of the time. In 1899, he was recognized as a saint and doctor of the Church.
Bede was one of the three greatest English scholars of his time, the other two being Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury and Bishop of Sherborne, and Alcuin, who ultimately served at the court of Charlemagne. More than anything, Bede was a teacher. He had little desire to be original or innovative; rather, he was content to pass his knowledge on to his students. His writings became accepted reference works even while he was still alive.
Bede’s voluminous and detailed history immediately became the standard account of early post-Roman Britain. It was soon translated into Old English by King Alfred the Great. It gave the first coherent British account of the troubled times of the fifth and sixth centuries, during which the native Romano-British population was gradually overwhelmed by the newly arriving Anglo-Saxons. It also provided a detailed account of how the insular practices of the “Celtic” church in Britain, in which the abbot usually held supreme authority, gave way in the seventh century to Continental, “Roman,” usages, in which the bishop was supreme. During this period, Britain once again was incorporated into the mainstream of Continental culture.
Bede’s own life reflects the extent to which the monastic life had taken hold of England. Yet, even though he was totally committed to the monastic way of life himself, he concluded his history with a cautionary note: “As such peace and prosperity prevail in these days, many . . . have laid aside their weapons, preferring to receive the tonsure and take monastic vows rather than study the arts of war. What the result of this will be the future will show.” Bede’s words foretell the troubles which were soon to follow, as the Danes began to ravage the English shores.
Alcock, Leslie. Arthur’s Britain. New York: Penguin Books, 1971. A detailed discussion of the use of Bede’s historical work as a source for fifth and sixth century Britain.
Beda, Venerabilis. Baedae “Opera historica,” with an English Translation. Translated by J. E. King, 2 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1930. A Latin text with English translation on facing pages of Bede’s historical works, with a thirteen-page introduction.
Beda, Venerabilis. Bedas metrische “Vita sancti Cuthberti.” Edited by Werner Jaager. Leipzig: Mayer and Müller, 1935. Edition of Bede’s metrical life of Saint Cuthbert.
Beda, Venerabilis. The Complete Works of Venerable Bede. Translated by J. A. Giles, 12 vols. London: Whittaker and Co., 1843-1844. Complete, but unsatisfactory, edition of Bede’s works.
Beda, Venerabilis. Opera historica ad codicum manuscriptorum. Edited by C. Plummer, 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1896. Annotated edition of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Beda, Venerabilis. Two Lives of St. Cuthbert. Translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940. Latin editions of Bede’s prose life of Saint Cuthbert.
Owen, Gale R. Rites and Religions of the Anglo- Saxons. New York: Dorset Press, 1985. A discussion of the religious background of the age of Bede, with special concentration on the transition from Anglo-Saxon pagan rites to Christianity.
Sherley-Price, Leo. Bede: A History of the English Church and People. New York: Penguin Books, 1968. A translation of Bede’s most significant works, with a map and twenty-four- page introduction. The above quotations are taken from this translation.
Stenton, F. M. Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947. A standard history of the period during which Bede lived, and the subsequent period of the Danish raids.
Webb, J. H., and D. H. Farmer, eds. and trans. The Age of Bede. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. A selection of four translations of works written by Bede and his contemporaries, with an introduction which, however, fails to discuss Bede himself.