The Venerable Bede is well known because he wrote a five volume work called ‘An Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. This is the source of much of our information about the early saints in England. It is questioned by modern historians but is still an amazing work of information gathering carried out mostly by letter. Yesterday as we remembered Bede in our 2pm SLT service, I talked about other books of his and of his life in general.
The readings were Psalm 34:1-8, Ecclesiasticus 39:1-10, Luke 12:32-37.
Bede, whom we remember today, was born in 673 AD. He was born on the land owned by the twinned monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow (near Sunderland and Newcastle in the North East of England), though there is some dispute as to exactly where. Nothing is known of Bede’s family but he had connections with several noble men which may suggest that his family was of some social standing.
At the age of seven Bede was given to the monastery of St Peter and Paul at Wearmouth where he was educated by Benedict Biscop, who had founded the monastery. Later Ceolfrith took over his education. When Ceolfrith founded the sister monastery at Jarrow in 682 Bede moved there with him and stayed there for the rest of his life. It’s not known if Bede went initially to the monastery with the intention that he should become a monk, or whether his family were simply following the custom of some noble families and fostering him out while he was educated.
In 686AD plague afflicted Jarrow. A biography of Ceolfrith states that there were only two of the surviving monks still able to sing the antiphons, those being Ceolfrith himself and a boy of 14 who is thought to be Bede.
At the age of 19 Bede was ordained deacon by John, Bishop of Hexham. It was normal to ordain deacons at the age of 25. Perhaps rules were meant to be broken or perhaps Bede was so talented that this exception to the rule was made. Bede was ordained priest by Bishop John when he was around 30, so possibly in 702 AD. He attended the daily offices and choir with great diligence.
Bede was both a teacher and a writer. He says that “It has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write”. From around 701 AD onwards Bede wrote books and completed over 60 in his lifetime. Amazingly there are copies of virtually all his books still in existence. His first books were designed for teaching in the classroom at the monastery school. De Arte Metrica was about composing Latin verse. This became the standard textbook on the subject for several centuries. Another early book was on the use of rhetoric in the Bible. Bede also was said to be a wonderful singer and a reciter of poetry.
Bede had access to a huge library for the time, probably with around 500 books in it. Many of the books were brought into the monastery collection from continental Europe by Biscop and Ceolfrith when they went on their travels. This library was one of the biggest in England and helped give the monastery its reputation as a centre of learning. Bede wrote on many subjects including science, history and religion. His commentaries on books of the Bible were also important and earned him the title of Doctorum Anglorum, as well as causing him to be made a saint by Pope Leo XIII in 1899. The content of these commentaries was not anything new, but drew together the teaching from earlier scholars. In order to be able to do this, Bede learnt Greek and some Hebrew in addition to Latin. Boniface said of his commentaries: ‘he shone forth as a lantern in the church by his scriptural commentary.’ Bede said of himself, “I have made it my business, for my own benefit and that of my brothers, to make brief extracts from the works of the venerable fathers on the holy scriptures, or to add notes of my own to clarify their sense and interpretation”. He also wrote homilies to explain various seasons in the life of the church such as Lent and Advent.
His more scientific works show that he was aware that the earth was spherical. He knew that the length of shadows varied and that this was related to the movement of the sun during the year. He also knew that it was the moon which affected the tides. His work on measuring time helped the church to calculate the date of Easter. Bede calculated the age of the world and dated creation as 3952 BC. This led to his being accused of heresy in 708 by some drunken monks. Bede’s calculations did not agree with the accepted ones. Bede wrote to Bishop Wilfrid of Hexham to defend his position.
Bede is remembered most now as a historian and it has been said of him that he “holds a privileged and unrivaled place among first historians of Christian Europe”. His book ‘An Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ completed in 731, is probably the most famous. It is the first historical work to use the BC and AD dating system. It comprises five volumes and begins with Caesar’s invasion of England in 55BC. It continues up to his own day and includes reference to the debate about how to date Easter. In order to write his history, Bede used previous manuscripts for the most ancient times but then relied on having many contacts all over England with whom he corresponded in order to gather more information. Although modern historians question much of what Bede wrote, it is thanks to him that we know so much about the saints from the early times of English Christianity, including St Aldhelm whom we also remember today.
Bede was still dictating works right up to his death in 735. On the day he died he completed dictating the last chapter of a book according to Cuthbert, his pupil. In the afternoon Bede said “I have a few treasures in my box, some pepper and napkins and incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of our monastery, and I will share among them such little presents as God has given me.”
Everyone was very sad, knowing that Bede was dying but he encouraged them when he said, ‘If it so pleases my Maker, the time has come for me to be released from this body, and to return to the One who formed me out of nothing. I have lived a long time, and the righteous Judge has provided for me well throughout my life. The time for my departure is near, and I long to be dissolved and be with Christ. My soul longs to see Christ my King in all his beauty.’
Cuthbert describes Bede’s last few minutes of life like this:
“‘Hold my head in your hands. It would please me much if I could sit opposite the holy place where I used to pray, so that I may call upon my Father sitting up.’ And so it happened that as Bede sat upon the floor of his cell, singing ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit’ he breathed his last. And we can believe without hesitation that, inasmuch as he always laboured in this life to the praise of God, so his soul journeyed to the joys of heaven for which he longed.”
It’s of interest to us here in this cathedral which is modelled on Durham Cathedral in England, that Bede’s tomb is in that cathedral and can still be visited to this day.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor