A lifelong monk whose works in theology, history, chronology, poetry and biography have led him to be accepted at the greatest scholar of the early medieval era, Bede is most famous for producing the Historia ecclesiastica (Ecclesiastical History), a source essential for our understanding of the Anglo-Saxons and the Christianisation of Britain.
Title: Saint Bede the Venerable
Died: May 25 735, Jarrow, Northumbria, UK
Canonized: 1899, feast day on May 25
Little is known of Bede's childhood, other than he was born to parents living on land belonging to the newly founded Monastery of St. Peter, based in Wearmouth, to which Bede was given by relatives for a monastic education when he was seven. Initially in the care of Abbot Benedict
, Bede's teaching was taken over by Ceolfrith, with whom Bede moved to the monastery's new twin-house at Jarrow in 681. The Life of Ceolfrith
suggests that here only the young Bede and Ceolfrith survived a plague.
Bede spent the rest of his life as a monk at Jarrow, first being taught and then teaching to the daily rhythms of monastic rule: for Bede, a mixture of prayer and study. He was ordained as a Deacon aged 19 – at a time when Deacons were supposed to be 25 or over – and a priest aged 30. Indeed, historians believe Bede left Jarrow only twice, to visit Lindisfarne and York. While his letters contain hints of other visits, there isn't any real evidence and he certainly never traveled far.
Monasteries were nodes of scholarship in early medieval Europe, and there is nothing surprising in the fact that Bede, an intelligent, pious and educated man, used his learning, life of study and house library to produce a large body of writing. What was unusual was the sheer breadth, depth and quality of the fifty plus works he produced, covering scientific and chronological matters, history and biography and, perhaps as expected, scriptural commentary.
Bede's biblical commentaries – in which he interpreted the bible mainly as an allegory, applied criticism and tried to solve discrepancies – were extremely popular in the early medieval period, being copied and spread – along with Bede's reputation – widely across the monasteries of Europe. This dissemination was helped by the school of Archbishop Egbert of York, one of Bede's pupils, and later by a student of this school, Alcuin, who became head of Charlemagne's palace school.
Bede's two chronological works - De temporibus
(On Times) and De temporum ratione
(On the Reckoning of Time) were concerned with establishing the dates of Easter. Along with his histories, these still affect our style of dating: when equating the number of the year with the year of Jesus Christ's life, Bede invented the use of A.D.
, 'The Year Of Our Lord'. In stark contrast to 'dark age' cliches, Bede also knew the world was round, the moon affected tides and appreciated observational science.
In 731/2 Bede completed the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. An account of Britain between the landings of Julius Caesar in 55/54 BC and St. Augustine in 597 AD, it's the key source on the christianisation of Britain, a mixture of sophisticated historiography and religious messages containing details simply not found elsewhere. As such, it now overshadows his other historical, indeed all his other, works.
Death and Reputation:
Bede died in 785 and was buried at Jarrow before being re-interred inside Durham Cathedral. He was already renowned among his peers, being described by a Bishop Boniface as having "shone forth as a lantern in the world by his scriptural commentary", but is now regarded as the greatest and most multi-talented scholar of the early medieval era, perhaps of the entire medieval era. Bede was sainted in 1899. We don't know how, or when, he acquired the soubriquet 'venerable'.
Bede on Bede:
The Historia ecclesiastica
finishes with a short account of Bede about himself and a list of his many works:
"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 Wearmouth 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 Abbot Benedict, and afterwards 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, both of them by the ministry of the most reverend Bishop John, and by the order of the Abbot Ceolfrid. 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..."
Cited from Bede, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, "translator not clearly indicated (But it seems to be L.C. Jane's 1903 Temple Classics translation)", Internet Medieval Source Book.