The Venerable Bede - Historian and Theologian
Created | Updated Mar 29, 2009
The Venerable Bede1 was an Anglo-Saxon chronicler and theologian whose works form, in many cases, the only reliable records of large parts of English history. He is notable also as the first person to date events from the birth of Christ.
Although he is best known today for his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum ('Ecclesiastical History of the English People'), his reputation during his own life and the succeeding few centuries was founded on his scriptural commentaries, copies of which were commonly found in the great monastic libraries of western Europe.
Bede was born in 672 or 673 AD, probably in Monkton, Jarrow, Northumberland, and nothing is known of his parents. At the age of seven, he was entrusted to Abbot (St) Benedict Biscop of the monastery of St Peter in Wearmouth, near Sunderland, Durham. He'd moved with Biscop to the new monastery of St Paul in Jarrow by 685 and was ordained first as a deacon, aged 19, then as a priest aged 30. Records indicate that, apart from occasional calls on friends and visits to Lindisfarne and York, he remained there for the rest of his life.
Life and Work
Bede's writing encompassed three main disciplines: scriptural commentary, history, and reference works on grammar and what passed at the time for science.
No complete edition exists of his work, but it is certain that he regarded his biblical commentaries as pre-eminent. His first commentary was probably that on the revelation to St John (written sometime between 703 and 709), in which he set the style for his work by attempting to explain in terms relevant to the reader, the teachings of the fathers of the Church. He also wrote commentaries on the whole of the Pentateuch, the books of Kings, Tobias, the Canticles, the gospels of St Mark and St Luke, Acts, the Epistles and the Apocalypse. A commentary on the Gospel according to St Matthew was published under his name, but its authenticity is doubtful - in itself a valuable indicator of the esteem in which his name was held. The list is long, and the list of works claimed to be his is longer still.
Among his scientific works, probably the most significant were those dealing with the calendar; in particular methods for the calculation of Easter Day. He also began the practice of referring to events after the birth of Christ using the now-familiar notation anno domini ('in the years of our Lord', abbreviated to AD). In addition, he wrote books on the theory and practice of ecclesiastical music, which are the earliest records of the Gregorian tradition in Britain.
For modern-day scholars, however, it is for his contribution to history that he is most valued. Although some of his works, such as the life of St Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, tended to be rather uncritical and relate as fact a somewhat improbable number of miracles, his Historia Abbatum ('Lives of the Abbots'), a book of the lives of the abbots of England, is more typical and much more of a historical reference work. As a priest and a monk, scripture was taken as the supreme authority, but in most of his works he was inclined to explore and rationalise rather than accept unquestioningly. There is no doubt that his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum is a masterpiece by the standards of any age; it is regarded by modern scholars as the authoritative account of Christianity in England from its inception to Bede's own time.
Bede was revered and beloved by his community, who kept vigil by his bedside during his final illness. He continued to pray and to work until the last moment; an account by one of his followers, Cuthbert, relates how he completed dictation of a translation of the Gospel of St John on the day of his death, Ascension Day, 735, after which he supposedly fell to the floor of his cell, sang the Gloria, and passed peacefully away. While this account may exhibit some poetic license, it seems likely that this prolific, profoundly religious man was exceptionally well thought of by his peers. He was buried at Jarrow, though his remains now rest in Durham Cathedral.
The title 'Venerable' began to be applied within a couple of generations of his death, as the influence and esteem of his writings spread. He was thus addressed by the influential Council of Aachen in 835, and this authority was cited in 1859 by Cardinal Wiseman and the English bishops when petitioning the Holy See for Bede to be created a Doctor of the Church2. However, it was not until 13 November, 1899, that Pope Leo XIII decreed that the Feast of Venerable Bede, doctor ecclesiastæ be celebrated each year on 27 May (since moved to 25 May).
His influence was and is great, and might have been greater still but for the Danish sacking of the monasteries of North Britain during the ninth Century.
Bede was, it is fair to suggest, the most learned man of his day in Britain, and quite possibly the world. Unusually, he was scrupulous in recording the sources of his information - and in asking those who copied and edited his work to preserve these references (a practice which they all too often failed to follow).