The Father of English History
The Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) lived nearly five hundred years before the Scholastic period. He was a monk who lived in a monastery. His scholarship and encyclopedic knowledge in every area of the monastic curriculum ensured him the admiration of writers throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.
monastery: a community bound by a vow to observe a religious life
Like Bartholomew, Bede was an Englishman who wrote texts for students, especially scientific manuals. As the pedagogue of his monastery he taught and wrote on every subject in the curriculum:
Bede did this so admirably that he is called the “Teacher of the Whole Middle Ages” and “The Father of English History.” His works furnished authoritative models for posterity. His writings also connected the Fathers of the Church, especially Gregory the Great and Augustine, with later authors, since he summarized and synthesized so much from the Fathers. Most of all, Bede’s own investigative spirit and scientific bent established him as an exemplar for the Scholastics, despite their different methodological approaches and attitudes.
Fathers of the Church: theologians and writers who lived during the first 500 years of Christian history
Bede's Life and Career
Information on Bede’s life comes mostly from the brief curriculum vitae and bibliography he appended to the last chapter of his famous Ecclesiastical History of the English People. There he says that he became a monk of the Northumbrian twin monastery of St. Peter at Wearmouth and St. Paul at Jarrow (near present-day Newcastle).
Entering the monastery as an oblate at age seven, Bede received his education under its founder abbot, Benedict Biscop (c.628-690), and abbot Ceolfrith (c.642-716). The abbots acquired a vast array of books on a number of trips to Europe, and established one of the best libraries in the early medieval West, which Bede put to good use.
oblate: a child offered to God’s service by relatives
abbot: head of the monastery
Bede was ordained deacon at the age of nineteen and priest at thirty. “From then on,” he says, “I have spent all my life in this monastery, applying myself entirely to the study of the Scriptures, and amid the observance of the discipline of the Rule and the daily task of singing in the choir, it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write.”
deacon:a minor cleric, one step away from becoming a priest
Works on literature and nature
De arte metrica is a clear account of various Latin meters in quantitative and accentual verse. Its companion work, De schematibus et tropis (On Figures of Speech), deals with parables, metaphors and analogies.
Drawing on earlier works by the Roman Pliny and the Spaniard Isidore of Seville, Bede assembled a brief work, De natura rerum (On Nature), explaining natural phenomena such as planetary motions, eclipses, tides, earthquakes, etc.
Works on time
Both kinds of commentary filled pedagogical needs. The first type displays Bede’s talents as an editorial adapter and synthesizer. In them he undertook to sift and collate the best of the Fathers’ comments and to digest and simplify the material for his pupils. The second type testifies to Bede’s originality and personal contribution within the exegetical tradition. Here Bede displays his own insights and his particular emphasis on symbolic meaning.
Martyrology:a calendrical register of Christian martyrs and saints
Shorter Works: local and world histories
The Ecclesiastical History
Bede's Ecclesiastical History is comprised of five books, in which Bede combines a universal history of the English people with local history.
Bede draws upon whatever records he can garner from the rest of England (especially Canterbury) and reports and documents from abroad (especially Rome). He records events in ever-increasing detail, portraying the people of England (especially of the north) as one of God’s chosen tribes, in which the Christian faith advances in time and geography (Acts 1:8). The march is a hard one, marked by pagan defeats and backsliding and human foibles, passion, warfare, and struggle, but it is one of inevitable advance.
Bede's optimism in the Ecclesiastical History is balanced by the worries he expresses in a letter (734) to his former student, (Arch)bishop Egbert of York. Writing to Egbert, Bede deplores the lack of pastoral services to the people, suggests remedies, and condemns the aristocratic practice of creating false monasteries as shelters from taxation and military service.
Bede and his works are cited by nearly every theologian and historian in the Middle Ages. Alcuin of York (c. 735-804), Charlemagne’s tutor and court teacher, thought of Bede as his father and honored his works by further developing Bede’s themes. From the eighth century on, Bede’s works were widely disseminated on the Continent.
In England the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles drew heavily on Bede for the early periods, and The Ecclesiastical History was translated into Old English during the period of King Alfred, who ruled from 871 to 899. The great twelfth- and thirteenth-century English historians, such as William of Malmesbury (c. 1090-1143), Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1085-1155), and William Newburgh-- (1135-c.1198), acknowledged their debt to Bede both for information and methodology. Great tributes have been accorded him by modern scholars, and William Wordsworth celebrated him in The Ecclesiastical Sonnets (I.23). Most important for modern students, Bede's admirers have supplied good modern translations of many of his works.
I. Collected Works (in Latin)
Bedae venerabilis opera in the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vols. 118-23, 175-76. To date (Turnhout, 1975- ), which supersedes J.-P Migne, ed., Patrologia Latina, vols. 90-95 (Paris, 1850-51).
For a complete list of Bede’s works in Latin, consult the Clavis Patrum Latinorum, 3rd ed., ed. E. Dekkers and A. Gaar (Turnhout, 1995).
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, ed. Bertram Colgrave and R.A. B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969). This translation is used in the excellent paperback, Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, and Bede’s letter to Egbert, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins (Oxford, 1994).
The Old English Version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Thomas Miller, E.E.T.S. o.s. 95, 96, 111 (Oxford, 1890-93).
The Liverpool University Press has published a number of translations of Bede’s works:
Cistercian Studies Publications has published a number of translations of Bede’s other works:
III. Studies and Information
George Hardin Brown, Bede the Venerable (Boston, 1987). This is being superseded by a book now in preparation.
Benedicta Ward, The Venerable Bede (Wilton, 1990).
Patrick Wormald, The Times of Bede (Oxford, 2006).
Bede and his World, The Jarrow Lectures 1958-1987, ed. Michael Lapidge, 2 vols. (Aldershot, 1984). Each year subsequently the Jarrow Lecture has been published as a separate pamphlet.
Entries in reference works and encyclopedias, such as The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge (Oxford, 1999) and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1997).
Bede’s World , Museum, Exhibitons,and Anglo-Saxon Demonstration Farm.