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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:

  • calendar computation (computus)
  • natural science
  • grammar
  • poetry
  • biblical exegesis (scriptural interpretation and commentary)
  • hagiography (saints’ lives)
  • history
pronounced hey-gee-AH-grah-fee

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

Pedagogical Writings

Works on literature and nature
Bede wrote a number of basic texts for the schoolroom. He did short treatises related to Latin grammar:

  • De orthographia (On Correct Writing)
  • a glossary for English students of Latin words which can be confusing
  • De arte metrica (On the Art of Latin Poetic Metrics)

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
Of much greater importance are Bede's works on time: first, De temporibus (On Times), which he soon realized was too compressed for his students to assimilate.  This was followed by the much larger and more comprehensive treatment De temporum ratione (On Temporal Reckoning), which he calls his “book about the fleeting and wave-tossed course of time.”  It concentrates especially on the principles for the annual dating of Easter by calculating the lunar and solar cycles. This was written because various unsatisfactory calculations had been causing widespread confusion in the Church’s Easter dating. The work, which survives in over 250 manuscripts, set the standard for medieval computistical manuals.

Theological Writings

Bede was well known for his biblical commentaries. The books of the Bible that he interpreted are of two types:

  1. Books that had already been interpreted by the Church Fathers (Saints Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory), such as Genesis and Exodus, the Song of Songs, and the Gospel of Luke.
  2. Books that were largely unexplored by earlier interpreters, such as Ezra and Nehemiah, the Book of Samuel, Tobit, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Catholic Epistles.

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.

Bede revised the Martyrology.  It became the basis of the modern Roman Catholic Martyrology. He composed hymns for the liturgy and a number of poems and epigraphs. He wrote a prose life of St. Felix and reworked various poems on that saint by Paulinus of Nola. However, it was his two Lives of St. Cuthbert  (monk, bishop, and hermit of Lindisfarne, c. 637-687) that both established Bede’s reputation as a hagiographer and also helped establish the saint’s cult throughout Europe.

Martyrology:a calendrical register of Christian martyrs and saints

Historical Writings

Shorter Works: local and world histories
Although Bede's biblical commentaries were greatly admired in the Middle Ages, he is now most celebrated as an historian. He wrote a fine local biography of his own abbots.  He gives them full credit as dedicated monks but attributes no miracles to them. On a larger frame, by contrast, Bede wrote two world Chronicles, modeled on the late antique work of Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-340), which he attached to his books on time. These chronicles provide brief accounts of the most important world events within the scheme of six ages of the world. 

The Ecclesiastical History
The work that established Bede’s eternal fame is his Ecclesiastical History (in Latin or translated into English) . It is a uniquely important source for historical information about England from the fifth to the eighth century.

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.   

Influential Afterlife

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).

II. Translations

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:

Bede, On Ezra and Nehemiah, trans. Scott DeGregorio (Liverpool, 2006);

Bede: On the Tabernacle, trans. Arthur G. Holder (Liverpool, 1994);

Bede: On the Temple, trans. Seán Connolly (Liverpool, 1995);

Bede: A Biblical Miscellany, trans. W. Trent Foley and Arthur G. Holder (Liverpool, 1999);

Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, trans. with commentary by Faith Wallis    (Liverpool, 2004).

Cistercian Studies Publications has published a number of translations of Bede’s other works:

Bede: Commentary on the Acts of the Apsotles, trans. Lawrence T. Martin   (Kalamazoo, 1989);

Bede the Venerable: Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles, trans. David Hurst (Kalamazoo, 1985);

Bede the Venerable: Homilies on the Gospels, trans. David Hurst, 2 vols.    (Kalamazoo, 1991).

Other translations:

Bede: On Tobit and On the Canticle of Habakkuk, trans. Seán Connolly (Dublin, 1997).

Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, trans. Bertam Colgrave (Cambridge, 1985).

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.