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History of the Christian Church, Volume IV: Mediaeval Christianity. A.D. 590-1073.
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§ 156. The Venerable Bede (Baeda).


I. Venerabilis Baeda: Opera omnia, in Migne, Tom. XC.-XCV., substantially a reprint of Dr. J. A. Giles’ edition. London, 1843–1844, 12 vols. His Ecclesiastical History (Historica ecclesiastica) has been often edited, e.g. by John Smith, Cambridge, 1722; Joseph Stevenson, London, 1838, and in the Monumenta historica Britannica I. 1848; George H. Moberley, Oxford, 1869; Alfred Holder, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1882. Books III.-V. 24 were separately ed. by John E. B. Mayor and John R. Lumby, Cambridge, 1878. The best known English translation of the History is Dr. Giles’ in his edition, and since 1844 in Bohn’s Antiquarian Library. His scientific writings are contained in Thomas Wright: Popular Treatises on Science written during the Middle Ages. London, 1841. Marshall translated his Explanation of the Apocalypse, London, 1878. For further bibliographical information regarding the editions of Bede’s History, see Giles’ ed. ii. 5–8.

II. Biographies are contained in the above-mentioned editions. Hist. V. 24, and the letter on his death by Cuthbert (Giles’ trans. in Bohn, pp. xviii.-xxi.) are the best original sources. The old Vitae given in the complete editions are almost worthless. Modern works are Henrik Gehle: Disputatio historico-theologica de Bedae venerabilis presbyteri Anglo-Saxonis vita et scriptis. Leyden, 1838. Carl Schoell: De ecclesiasticae Britonum Scotorumque historiae fontibus. Berlin, 1851. Karl Werner: Beda der Ehrwürdige und seine Zeit. Wien, 1875. 2d ed. (unchanged), 1881. Geo. F. Browne: The Venerable Bede. London, 1879. Cf. Du Pin, VI. 89–91. Cave, II. 241–245. Ceillier, XII. 1–19. Clarke, II. 426–429. Bähr, IV. 175–178, 292–298. Ebert, I. 595–611.


The Venerable Bede (properly Baeda) is never spoken of without affectionate interest, and yet so uneventful was his useful life that very little can be said about him personally. He was born in 673, probably in the village of Jarrow, on the south bank of the Tyne, Northumbria, near the Scottish border. At the age of seven, being probably an orphan, he was placed in the monastery of St. Peter, at Wearmouth, on the north bank of the Wear, which had been founded by Benedict Biscop in 674. In 682 he was transferred to the newly-founded sister monastery of St. Paul, five miles off, at Jarrow.10381038    King Egfrid gave the land for these monasteries. He is not known ever to have gone away from it farther than to the sister monastery and to visit friends in contiguous places, such as York. The stories of his visit to Rome and professorship at Cambridge scarcely deserve mention. His first teacher was Benedict Biscop, a nobleman who at twenty-five became a monk and freely put his property and his learning at the public service. Biscop traveled five times to Rome and each time returned, like Ethelbert and Alcuin subsequently, laden with rich literary spoils and also with pictures and relics. Thus the library at Wearmouth became the largest and best appointed in England at the time.10391039    Biscop was the first to import masons and glaziers into England, and to introduce the Roman liturgy and the art of chanting. It was Biscop’s enterprise and liberality which rendered it possible that Bede’s natural taste for learning should receive such careful culture. So amid the wealth of books he acquired Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and laid up a rich store of multifarious knowledge. Such was his character and attainments that at nineteen, six years before the then canonical age, he was ordained deacon, and at thirty a priest. He thus describes his mode of life: “All the remaining time of my life [i.e., after leaving Wearmouth] I spent in that, monastery [of Jarrow], wholly applying myself to the study of Scripture, and amidst observance of regular discipline and the daily care of singing in the church. I always took delight in learning, teaching and writing.10401040   043 Hist. V. 24 (Giles’ trans. in Bohn’s Library, p. 297, altered slightly). He declined to be abbot because the office, as he said, demands close attention, and therefore cares come which impede the pursuit of learning. As it was, the “pursuit of learning” took up only a portion of his time, for the necessary duties of a monk were many,10411041    Giles, ibid., p. x. and such a man as Bede would be frequently required to preach. It appears that he published nothing before he was thirty years old, for he says himself: “From which time [i.e., of his taking priest’s orders] 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.”10421042    Hist. V. 24 (Giles, ibid., p. 297). Then follows his list of his works. The result of such study and writing was that Bede became the most learned man of his time, and also the greatest of its authors. Yet he was also one of the humblest and simplest of men.

He died on Wednesday, May 26, 735, of a complaint accompanied with asthma, from which he had long suffered. The circumstances of his death are related by his pupil Cuthbert.10431043    Giles gives Cuthbert’s letter in full, ibid., pp. xviii.-xxi. During Lent of the year 735 Bede carried on the translation of the Gospel of John and “some collections out of the Book of Notes” of Archbishop Isidore of Seville. The day before he died he spent in dictating his translations, saying now and then, “Go on quickly, I know not how long I shall hold out, and whether my Maker will not soon take me away.” He progressed so far with his rendering of John’s Gospel that at the third hour on Wednesday morning only one chapter remained to be done. On being told this he said, “Take your pen, and make ready, and write fast.” The scribe did so, but at the ninth hour Bede said to Cuthbert, ’ “I have some little articles of value in my chest, such as pepper, napkins and incense: run quickly, and bring the priests of our monastery to me, that I may distribute among them the gifts which God has bestowed on me. The rich in this world are bent on giving gold and silver and other precious things. But I, in charity, will joyfully give my brothers what God has given unto me.” He spoke to every one of them, admonishing and entreating them that they would carefully say masses and prayers for him, which they readily promised; but they all mourned and wept, especially because he said, “they should no more see his face in this world.” They rejoiced for that he said, “It is time that I return to Him who formed me out of nothing: I have lived long; my merciful Judge well foresaw my life for me; the time of my dissolution draws nigh; for I desire to die and to be with Christ.” Having said much more, he passed the day joyfully till the evening, and the boy [i.e., his scribe] said, “Dear master, there is yet one sentence not written.” He answered, “Write quickly.” Soon after the boy said, “It is ended.” He replied, “It is well, you have said the truth. It is ended. Receive my head into your hands, for it is a great satisfaction to me to sit facing my holy place, where I was wont to pray, that I may also sitting call upon my Father.” And thus on the pavement of his little cell, singing, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,” when he had named the Holy Ghost, he breathed his last, and so departed to the heavenly kingdom.”

Bede’s body was buried in the church at Jarrow, but between 1021 and 1042 it was stolen and removed to Durham by Elfred, a priest of its cathedral, who put it in the same chest with the body of St. Cuthbert. In 1104 the bodies were separated, and in 1154 the relics of Bede were placed in a shrine of gold and silver, adorned with jewels. This shrine was destroyed by an ignorant mob in Henry VIII’s time (1541), and only a monkish inscription remains to chronicle the fact that Bede was ever buried there.

The epithet, “Venerable,” now so commonly applied to Bede, is used by him to denote a holy man who had not been canonized, and had no more reference to age than the same name applied to-day to an archdeacon in the Church of England. By his contemporaries he was called either Presbyter or Dominus. He is first called the Venerable in the middle of the tenth century.

Bede’s Writings are very numerous, and attest the width and profundity of his learning, and also the independence and soundness of his judgment. “Having centred in himself and his writings nearly all the knowledge of his day, he was enabled before his death, by promoting the foundation of the school of York, to kindle the flame of learning in the West at the moment that it seemed both in Ireland and in France to be expiring. The school of York transmitted to Alcuin the learning of Bede, and opened the way for culture on the continent, when England under the terrors of the Danes was relapsing into barbarism.” His fame, if we may judge from the demand for his works immediately after his death, extended wherever the English missionaries or negotiators found their way.”10441044    Beda in Smith and Wace, Dict. Chr. Biog. I. 301, 302.

Bede himself, perhaps in imitation of Gregory of Tours,10451045    See last paragraph of §154, this vol. gives a list of his works at the conclusion of his History.10461046    Hist. V. 24 (Bohn’s ed., pp. 297-299). There are few data to tell when any one of them was composed. The probable dates are given in the following general account and enumeration of his genuine writings. Very many other, writings have been attributed to him.10471047    Stubb’s art., p. 301.

I. Educational treatises. (a) On orthography10481048    De orthographia in Migne, XC. col. 123-150. (about 700). The words are divided alphabetically. (b) On prosody10491049    De arte metrica. Ibid., col. 149-176. (702). (c) On the Biblical figures and tropes.10501050    De schematis et tropis sacrae scripturae. Ibid., col. 175-186. (d) On the nature of things10511051    De natura rerum. Ibid., col. 187-278. (702), a treatise upon natural philosophy. (e) On the times10521052    De temporibus. Ibid., col. 277-292. (702). (f) On the order of times10531053    De temporum ratione. Ibid., col. 293-578. (702). (g) On the computation of time10541054    De ratione computi. Ibid., col, 579-600. (726). (h) On the celebration of Easter.10551055    De Paschae celebratione. Ibid., col. 599-606. (i) On thunder.10561056    De tonitruis. Ibid., col. 609-614.

II. Expository works. These are compilations from the Fathers, which originally were carefully assigned by marginal notes to their proper source, but the notes have been obliterated in the course of frequent copying. He wrote either on the whole or a part of the Pentateuch, Samuel, Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, the Twelve Minor Prophets, Tobit, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Catholic Epistles and the Apocalypse.10571057    Bede’s expository works fill Tom. XCI., XCII., XCIII. in Migne’s series. His comments are of course made upon the Latin Bible, but his scholarship comes out in the frequent correction and emendation of the Latin text by reference to the original. The most frequent subject of remark is the want of an article in the Latin, which gave rise to frequent ambiguity.10581058    G. F. Browne, The Venerable Bede, pp. 129-132. A translation of one of Bede’s homilies is given on pp. 148-159. Throughout he shows himself a careful textual student.10591059    The Uncial E (2), the Codex Laudianus, which dates from the end of the sixth century, and contains an almost complete Greek-Latin text of the Acts, is known to have been used by Bede in writing his Retractions on the Acts. The Codex was brought to England in 668.

III. Homilies.10601060    Tom. XCIV., col. 9-268. These are mostly doctrinal and objective. The fact that they were delivered to a monastic audience explains their infrequent allusion to current events or to daily life. They are calm and careful expositions of passages of Scripture rather than compact or stirring sermons.

IV. Poetry.10611061    Ibid., col. 515-529, 575-638. Most of the poetry attributed to him is spurious. But a few pieces are genuine, such as the hymn in his History upon Virginity, in honor of Etheldrida, the virgin wife of King Egfrid;10621062    Hist. IV. 20. Bohn’s ed., pp. 207, 208. the metrical version of the life of Saint Cuthbert and of the Passion of Justin Martyr, and some other pieces. The Book of Hymns, of which he speaks in his own list of his writings, is apparently lost.

V. Epistles.10631063    Migne, XCIV. col. 655-710. These are sixteen in number. The second, addressed to the Archbishop Egbert of York, is the most interesting. It dates from 734, and gives a word-picture of the time which shows how bad it was.10641064    Browne (I. c., pp. 172-179) reproduces it. Even the archbishop himself comes in for faithful rebuke. Bede had already made him one visit and expected to make him another, but being prevented wrote to him what he desired to tell him by word of mouth. The chief topics of the letter are the avarice of the bishops and the disorders of the religious houses. After dwelling upon these and kindred topics at considerable length, Bede concludes by saying that if he had treated drunkenness, gluttony, luxury and other contagious diseases of the body politic his letter would have been immoderately long. The third letter, addressed to the abbot of Plegwin, is upon the Six Ages of the World. Most of the remainder are dedicatory.

VI. Hagiographies.10651065    Migne, XCIV., col. 713-1148. Browne (pp. 80-126) gives a full account of the first two of these works. (a) Lives of the five holy abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, Benedict, Ceolfrid, Easterwine, Sigfrid and Huetberct. The work is divided into two books, of which the first relates to Benedict. (b) The prose version of the Life of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. The poetical version already spoken of, is earlier in time and different in character in as much as it dwells more upon Cuthbert’s miracles. The prose version has for its principal source an older life of Cuthbert still extant, and relates many facts along with evident fictions. Great pains were bestowed upon it and it was even submitted for criticism, prior to publication, to the monks of Lindisfarne. (c) The life of Felix of Nola, Confessor, a prose version of the life already written by Paulinus of Nola. (d) Martyrology. It is drawn from old Roman sources, and shows at once the learning and the simplicity of its author.

VII. Ecclesiastical History of England.10661066    Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Tom. XCV., col. 21-290. This is Bede’s great work. Begun at the request of King Ceolwulf, it was his occupation for many years, and was only finished a short time before his death. It consists of five books and tells in a simple, clear style the history of England from the earliest times down to 731. The first twenty-two chapters of the first book are compiled from Orosius and Gildas, but from the mission of Augustin in the 23d chapter (a.d. 596) it rests upon original investigation. Bede took great pains to ensure accuracy, and he gives the names of all persons who were helpful to him. The History is thus the chief and in many respects the only source for the church history of England down to the eighth century. In it as in his other books Bede relates a great many strange things; but he is careful to give his authorities for each statement. It is quite evident, however, that he believed in these “miracles,” many of which are susceptible of rational explanation. It is from this modest, simple, conscientious History that multitudes have learned to love the Venerable Bede.



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