- Bede, The Venerable
- (ca. 673–735)The Venerable Bede was an English monk who, though he never traveled beyond the boundaries of his native Northumbria, gained an international reputation as perhaps the most learned man of his age. Though he wrote some 40 books on theology, hagiography, rhetoric, and science, his best-known work, on which most of his modern reputation depends, is the Historia ecclesiástica gentis Anglorum (The ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH PEOPLE), completed in 731. The Historia tells the history of Britain from the time of Julius Caesar’s conquest of the island through the Saxon invasions to the arrival of Saint Augustine, the first Roman missionary, in 597, and the squabbles of the petty kingdoms of Saxon England.Appended to the last chapter of his Historia, Bede gives an account of his life, which is the chief source of our knowledge about him. He relates that he was born in the vicinity of Wearmouth, where he was taken by his relatives to the nearby monastery of St. Peter at the age of seven. There he was put in the care of the abbot, Benedict Biscop, to be educated.He became a deacon at the age of 19 and a priest at 30. After completing his education, he moved to the sister monastery of St. Paul in Jarrow, where he spent the rest of his life. Bede seems to have been a much-loved member of the Wearmouth and Jarrow communities. A letter from one of his students, Cuthbert, describes the Venerable Bede on his deathbed: During his last illness, according to Cuthbert, his students still came in to read by his bedside. Even to the last, Bede was working on translating the Gospel according to John into Old English, and is reputed to have expired immediately after completing it, with a pious prayer and a peaceful acceptance of his end. He died on May 27, 735.The libraries at Wearmouth and Jarrow must have been magnificent for their time. It is from them that Bede gleaned his vast knowledge of such a wide variety of subjects, from astronomy to theology. He wrote chiefly in Latin, the universal language of his age, but he also knew Greek and Hebrew well and was familiar with the writings of the church fathers and of classical writers. Bede’s remarkable scholarship shows in a number of ways. He is the first scholar to have written that the calendar in use in his own time was inaccurate because the solar year was slightly longer than 365 days—a mistake that was not corrected until the establishment of the Gregorian calendar hundreds of years later. Bede was also the first scholar to write in the English language, though only fragments of his English writings survive. He wrote hymns as well, and was one of the first in England to use the style now called Gregorian. He wrote the first martyrology that included historical notes.But he is best known and remembered as a historian, chiefly for his Historia. Here his innovations are equally impressive. He was the first historian to date events from the year of the incarnation, and so it is to him we owe the convention of A.D. and B.C. dating. He put his history together from a large variety of sources, written and oral, and was careful to note in his text what he had borrowed from other writers. He was also careful to sort fact from hearsay when he reported something. For these reasons, Bede is often referred to as the first modern historian.But Bede’s motives for writing history were different from most modern historians. He says at one point that if history records the actions of good men, then the reader will be inspired to do likewise; and if it records the deeds of evil men, then the reader will be compelled to shun their example. Everything he did or wrote, Bede says, was subordinate to his study of Scripture, and the underlying theme of his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum is the providential unfolding of Christianity’s growth in England.Bede’s reputation was widespread in his own day and became even greater in the generations that followed. More than 150 manuscripts of the Historia are still extant, attesting to its wide popularity, and King ALFRED THE GREAT had the book translated into English in the ninth century. Bede was called “Venerable” to acknowledge his great learning within a few generations of his death— he is so called by ALCUIN and others in the early ninth century, and in 853 the Council of Aachen formalized the title. The Venerable Bede was named a doctor of the church by Pope Leo XIII in 1899, and May 27 was declared his feast day.Bibliography■ Bede. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Edited by Beretram Colgrave, and R. A. B.Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.■ ———. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; The Greater Chronicle; Bede’s Letter to Egbert. Edited by Judith McClure, and Roger Collins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.■ Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.■ Ward, Benedicta. The Venerable Bede. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1998.
Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.