Bede

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The Venerable Bede (c. 672 - May 25, 735) was a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Wearmouth (today part of Sunderland), and of its daughter monastery, Saint Paul's, in modern Jarrow. He is well known as an author and scholar, whose best-known work is Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), which gained him the title The Father of English History. St. Bede wrote on many other topics, from music and musical metrics to scripture commentaries. His feast day is observed on May 25, 26, or 27, depending on the sources used by the calendar.

The Venerable Bede

Contents

Bede the Man

Almost all that is known of his life is contained in a notice added by himself to his Historia (v. 24), which states that he was placed in the monastery at Wearmouth at the age of seven, that he became deacon in his nineteenth year, and priest in his thirtieth, remaining a priest for the rest of his life. It is not clear if he was from noble birth or not. He was trained by the abbots Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrid, and probably accompanied the latter to Jarrow in 682. There he spent his life, finding his chief pleasure in being always occupied in learning, teaching, or writing, and was zealous in the performance of monastic duties.

Bede became known as Venerable Bede soon after his death. His holy relics are in a raised tomb at one end of the cathedral in Durham, England.

Bede's Writings

His works show that he had at his command all the learning of his time. It was thought that the library at Wearmouth-Jarrow was between 300-500 books, making it one of the largest in England. It is clear that Biscop made strenuous efforts to collect books on his extensive travels. Bede was proficient in patristic literature, and quotes from Pliny the Younger, Vergil, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace, and other classical writers, but with some disapproval. He knew Greek and a little Hebrew. His Latin is clear and without affectation, and he is a skilful story-teller.

Bede practiced the allegorical method of interpretation, and was by modern standards credulous concerning the miraculous; but in most things his good sense is conspicuous, and his kindly and broad sympathies, his love of truth and fairness, his unfeigned piety, and his devotion to the service of others combine to make him an exceedingly attractive character.

The Venerable Bede's commentaries on Holy Scriptures owed much to other patristic sources, as he often inserted long quotations from other Latin Fathers, especially Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Jerome. In addition to two books of homilies on the Gospel pericopes of the liturgical year, the great monk of Wearmouth's surviving works include verse-by-verse commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles, the Seven Catholic Epistles, and The Explanation of the Apocalypse. His commentaries on the Pauline Epistles are contained in The Biblical Miscellany. He also compiled St. Augustine's commentary on the Pauline Epistles into a single volume that follows their order in our present canon. His allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament survive in two works: On the Temple and On the Tabernacle.

Bede's writings are classed as scientific, historical, and theological. The scientific include treatises on grammar (written for his pupils), a work on natural phenomena (De rerum natura), and two on chronology (De temporibus and De temporum ratione). Bede made a new calculation of the age of the Earth and began the practice of dividing the Christian era into B.C. and A.D. Interestingly, Bede wrote that the Earth was round "like a playground ball," contrasting that with being "round like a shield."

Historia Ecclesiastica

Tomb of the Venerable Bede
Durham Cathedral, England

The most important and best known of his works is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, giving in five books (about 400 pages) the history of England, ecclesiastical and political, from the time of Caesar to the date of its completion (731). The first twenty-one chapters, treating of the period before the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury, are compiled from earlier writers such as Orosius, Gildas, Prosper of Aquitaine, the letters of Pope St. Gregory the Great (known as St. Gregory the Dialogist in the Byzantine East), and others, with the insertion of legends and traditions.

After 596, documentary sources, which Bede took pains to obtain, are used, and oral testimony, which he employed not without critical consideration of its value. He cited his references and was very concerned about sources of all his sources, which created an important historical chain. He is credited with inventing footnoting. (Due to his innovations like footnoting he was accused of heresy at the table of Bishop Wilfred. The actual accusation was for miscalculating the age of the world. His chronology was contrary to the calculation of the time. It is linked to footnoting because Bede cited another source in a note, rather than opining himself, showing a misunderstanding by others of what citing another source is.)

Other Works

His re-editing of the Bible was important, and was used by the Roman Catholic Church until 1966. He did not copy any one source, but researched from several sources to create single volume Bibles (highly unusual for the time—the Bible normally had circulated as separate books).

His other historical works were lives of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and the life in verse and prose of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. The most numerous of his writings are theological, and consist of commentaries on the books of the Old and New Testaments, homilies, and treatises on detached portions of Scripture. He also composed a number of hymns.

His last work, completed on his death-bed, was a translation into Anglo-Saxon of the Gospel of John.

Famous Quotation

"Better a stupid and unlettered brother who, working the good things he knows, merits life in Heaven than one who though being distinguished for his learning in the Scriptures, or even holding the place of a doctor, lacks the bread of love."
-St. Bede the Venerable


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