In the Year of Our Lord
By Travis Copeland
The so-called Dark Ages had their share of luminaries—not least among them a religious brother from the fringes of Europe ...
In A.D. 731, a monk and writer by the name of Bede published his most significant work: Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, or The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This scholarly work would prove to be an extraordinarily important text on the inhabitants of Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England. Even more, Bede’s works shed light not only on England but on the writer himself, offering biographical snippets in the twenty-fourth section. The British Isles at this time were in some disarray.
Since the Romans abandoned the province of Britannia in the fifth century, the islands had become a patchwork of warring petty realms. From the eastern coast to about the line of the Severn lay kingdoms established by Anglo-Saxon colonists, an overwhelmingly pagan people. The western recesses of the island (including modern Wales) were dominated by largely Romanized and Christian Celts. This period in Britain is loosely known as the Heptarchy.
Bede—eventually canonized, and often surnamed “the Venerable”—was born in 672 or 673 in “the territory of this monastery” (Wearmouth and Jarrow, located about halfway between the city of York and the border with Scotland). The combined monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow was under the authority of the Northumbrian monarchs, the most northerly Anglo-Saxon kingdom, centered around York, a powerful urban center. Among the English kingdoms, Northumbria’s greatest days were behind it, with both Wessex and Mercia to the south competing for supremacy. However, Northumbria maintained prestigious learning and culture in large part due to Bede’s own leadership. Wearmouth and Jarrow had an exceptionally far-reaching influence, extending into southern Europe and even to the Byzantines. While Britain obviously remained at a distance from mainland Europe, Bede’s monastery was known throughout the mainland, providing a place of immense learning for the budding scholar. Bede recognized the cultural and political heritage of his monastery and his kingdom, and they played important roles in motivating him to write on the topics of English history and English Christianity.
The Ecclessiastical History offers a limited window into the life of St. Bede. Beginning at age seven, Bede shares details on his earliest study of Latin under the tutelage of Abbot Benedict, and later Ceolfrith, both members of the monastic house at Jarrow. An apt student, he began “applying himself entirely to the study of the Scriptures.” Bede goes on to say that his chief delights were in studying, teaching, and writing, pursuits he would continue to the end of his days.
A prolific scholar, Bede had access to an uncommon breadth of literature by the spare standards of Early Medieval England. The monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow was stocked full of literature on a range of topics. This led Bede to write widely, including natural science, classical biography, and church history. The variety of works is one indication that Bede was one of the most learned Englishmen in the Middle Ages.
The Ecclesiastical History is divided into roughly twenty-four sections. It aims to trace English religious history from Julius Caesar’s initial voyage across the English Channel to Bede’s day. The work is littered with critique of pagan societies—both Saxon and Roman. Pulling no punches, he often attributes catastrophes to idolatry, and declares that repentance is the path to cultural and political renewal. A love for the divine and the miraculous are frequent in his work, encouraging a way of reading history that elevates the works of God and denigrates the wickedness of man.
St. Bede also took an interest in the reckoning of time, especially computus, or the proper dating of Easter. This had been a contentious topic among Christians for centuries. One of the earliest debates in the history of the Church (not counting those that appear in the New Testament) was over the correct calculation of Easter, as it was strongly felt that this greatest of sacred holidays had to be celebrated in unison, whatever other ritual differences might be allowed; and only a few years before Bede was born, the Vatican had achieved union with the Celtic churches on the issue of computus (and a few other matters) at the Synod of Whitby. It may have been this which turned Bede’s attention to the nature of time and measurement themselves, and prompted him to use and popularize a relatively new system of reckoning years—one that depended neither on the date of the current emperor’s accession, nor upon the fifteen-year cycles on which the imperial census and taxes were based. Instead, it was based on the amount of time that had passed since the Incarnation, and was accordingly known as anno Domini, “in the year of Our Lord,” still in use today.
Just one year after completing his Ecclessiastical History, at the age of fifty-nine, St. Bede passed from death to life. His absence was immediately felt at Wearmouth and Jarrow; a saintly cultus for the great monk sprung up in honor of his memory, from which he earned his usual epithet “the Venerable.” His body was interred in the cemetery for ten years, after which (according to the normal custom of Medieval monasteries) his bones were dug up, to be washed and venerated as relics. Famous for his love of the miraculous, one story told after his death might have pleased him greatly: Alcuin of York, a famed scholar in the Northumbrian region writing after Bede’s death, noted an unusual healing: “a sick man was surrounded by the bones of that blessed father [Bede],” and was healed. This report is unverifiable; still, he might have enjoyed knowing that he continued to play a part in the miraculous. Since 1022, Bede’s bones have remained in Durham Cathedral (a little north of Wearmouth and Jarrow), as a testimony to the great learnedness and Christian love of the venerable priest.
While the Anglo-Saxons remained fractured into a variety of sub-kingdoms, St. Bede presents one of several notable movements toward a unified England. The Christianization of the various peoples and the careers of Bede and Alfred the Great are all early shapers of English identity. The Ecclesiastical History was translated from Latin into Old English under the ægis of King Alfred, and reprinted much more widely after the turn of the millennium. Tucked away in the remote north of an extinct realm, Bede can seem forgettable, yet he helped to preserve and transmit the learning of the classical world, as well as more than six centuries of Christian heritage, through an era famous for its tragic and irretrievable losses to scholarship. Without St. Bede the Venerable, there would hardly be a Britain as we know it. In the words of another celebrated Englishman almost a thousand years later, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.”*
*From Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII, by John Donne.
Travis Copeland holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, and teaches humanities at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a “Hobbit” lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might like other profiles from our series on the Author Bank, such as Julius Caesar, St. Augustine, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and Susan B. Anthony. You might also enjoy some of our other guest posts from Mr. Copeland, like this one on the historical significance of hospitality, or this one on the civic importance of The Federalist Papers.
Published on 29th August, 2022.