1902 Encyclopedia > Bede (The Venerable Bede)

(also known as: the Venerable Bede)
English historian and theologian
(c. 673 - 735)

BEDE, BEDA, or BAEDA (commonly called The Venerable Bede), the father of English history, the most learned English-man and most eminent writer of his age, was born about the year 673, in the neighbourhood of Monkwearmouth, in the N.E. of the county of Durham. The story of his life is told by himself at the conclusion of his most famous and most important work : " Thus much of the Ecclesiastical History of Britain, and more especially of the English nation, as far as I could learn either from the writings of the ancients, or the tradition of our ancestors, or of my own knowledge, has, with the help of God, been digested by me, Bede, the servant of God, and priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, which is at Wear-mouth and Jarrow; who being born in the territory of that same monastery, was given, at seven years of age, to be educated by the most reverend Abbat Benedict, and after-wards by Ceolfrid ; and spending all the remaining time of my life in that monastery, I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture; and, amidst the observance of regular discipline, and the daily care of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, teaching, and writing. In the nineteenth year of my age I received deacon's orders ; in the thirtieth, those of the priesthood. . . . From which time, till the fifty-ninth year of my age, I have made it my business, for the use of me and mine, to compile out of the works of the venerable Fathers, and to interpret and explain according to their meaning these following pieces" (a list of his writings follows). The two associated monasteries here mentioned were founded by Benedict Biscop on the lands between the Wear and the Tyne granted to him by King Ecgfrith. This learned and pious abbot was " the first person who intro-duced in England constructors of stone edifices, as well as makers of glass windows" (Will, of Malmesb.) But a greater honour attaches to him as having collected in his visits to Rome a large quantity of valuable books, which, deposited in the noble buildings he erected, had much to do with the extensive learning of his celebrated pupil. Bede, after three years at Wearmouth, removed with the Abbot Ceolfrid to the newly-founded Jarrow monastery, where he pursued to the close of his fife those studies in every department of literature and science within his reach, the results of which we have in his numerous works.

Bede's industry was marvellous, alike in acquiring and in communicating his stores of knowledge. Besides the usual manual labours of the monastery, the duties of the priest, and his additional occupation as a teacher, he succeeded in writing upwards of forty distinct treatises, which together form what may be looked upon as an early encyclopaedia. Of these treatises twenty-five are on Biblical subjects, including commentaries on most of the books of the Old and New Testament and the Apocrypha. The remainder consist of lives of saints and martyrs ; lives of the Abbats of this Monastery ; his Ecclesiastical History of our Island and Nation ; treatises on The Nature of Things, astronomy, chronology, arithmetic, medicine, philosophy, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, music; together with a Book of Hymns, and a Book of Epigrams in heroic or elegiac verse. While exhibiting little original thought or discovery, except in his historical works, and partaking of the credulity of his time, Bede excels in good judgment, and in thoroughly digesting and clearly arranging and expounding, in simple Latin, what he gathered in his wide range of reading in classical and theological authors. His Biblical works are principally made up of extracts from the Fathers, especially from St Augustine-—his interpretations following the allegorical mode of the Middle Ages, as suggested by his own declara-tion : " He who knows how to interpret allegorically will see that the inner sense excels the simplicity of the letter, as apples do leaves." The scientific treatises are founded on the Bible, and the science of the ancients as contained in such writers as Pliny. Bede's historical works, on the other hand, and especially his great historical work, are remarkable for the patience indicated 'in the search after all trustworthy sources of information, for his careful statement of these various sources, for the sincerity and love of truth manifest throughout, and for the pleasant artlessness with which the story is told. In the pursuit of knowledge Bede declined the dignity of abbot; for, he said, " the office demands household care, and household care brings with it distraction of mind, which hinders the prosecution of learning." But his reputation as-a scholar, combined with " aptness to teach," made very famous the school of Jarrow, where it is recorded 600 monks, besides strangers from a distance, were at one time in attend-ance. The influence and authority of the modest teacher on Tyneside were acknowledged throughout the West of Europe, of which Northumbria became now for a period the literary centre. By the renown of its schools, its libraries, and its learning, chiefly represented by him, that kingdom had some recompense for the height of military glory it had reached in Bede's youth, and from which it had recently fallen at Nechtansmere. Pope Sergius, by a letter to Coelfrid, sought Bede's presence and counsel at Rome, but it is almost certain the invitation was not acted upon. In another way, we can scarcely doubt, he efficiently helped the Bapal court. Born about ten years after Rome gained her final victory over Iona at the Synod of Whitby, and four years after Theodore arrived at Canterbury to complete the ecclesiastical conquest, the character and writings of Bede must have strengthened the dominion of the hierarchy in the North of England His positive efforts may have been confined to his three treatises on the time of celebrating Easter—one of the main questions in dispute. But indirectly, his historical works had the same tendency, exalting, as they do, the missionaries from Italy, while not ignoring the zealous labours of the followers of Columba. In himself, too, the people of Northumbria, the scene of contest, beheld one who brought honour to them as a fellow-countryman,—honour for which, at the same time, they were indebted to the now dominant church that had given him his training and opportunities of study. History, confirmed by the evidence of his writings, is loud in praise of Bede's humble piety as well as his learning. A long letter of his pupil Cuthbert has been preserved, giving a simple and touching account of his death, which probably took place in 735. Though " he suffered in his stomach, and drew his breath with pains and sighs," he was full of thanksgiving and rej oicing, singing psalm s, con versing with his pupils, and dictating an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Gospel according to John. He was buried in the church at Jarrow, but his bones were stolen by a monk from Durham and placed beside those of St Cuthbert. There they continued until the middle of the 12th century, when they were enclosed in a splendid shrine by Bishop Pudsey. This shrine was demolished and the relics scattered in the reign of Henry VIII., there only remaining now at Durham the Latin inscription, which concludes with the well-known line—

"Hac sunt in fossa Bedae venerabilis ossa."

The origin of the title " Venerable" cannot be traced, but it appears as early as 836 ; and succeeding ages have gladly owned the justness of the appellation. For centuries his theological and educational works held a high position as authorities and even as text-books. The chief monument of his labours and erudition is his Ecclesiastical History, which gives us the most and the best of our knowledge of the history of England until 731, four years before his death.

Bede's works were published in 6 vols, fol., Paris, 1644, 1545, 1554, editions now rare ; 8 vols, fob, Basel, 1563, and Cologne, 1612 and 1688 ; 12 vols. 8vo, with English translation, edited by Dr Giles, London, 1843-44. MSS. of the History are at Cambridge and Brit. Mus. Alfred translated it into Anglo-Saxon. Other translations are by Stapelton, 1565 ; John Stevens, 1723; and "W. Hurst, 1814. Stevens's translation improved, edited by Giles, is published along with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in Bonn's Antiquarian Library, 1847. All the historical works translated by Stevenson form part of vol. i of The Church Historians of England, 1853-54.

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