John Gayford considers the life and legacy of the Venerable Bede
Bede was a modest but very intelligent Anglo-Saxon monk from Northumbria who lived from about 671 to 735, entering the monastic life as a child oblate at the age of seven. He has a humble shrine in Durham Cathedral and a plain railway station named after him on the Tyne and Wear Metro. Fortunately, he lived at the peak of Anglo-Saxon monastic life, before the Vikings sacked his and other monasteries at the end of the eighth century. In about 680, Abbot John the arch-cantor from Rome visited Bede’s monastery and stayed for over a year teaching liturgy and chant, having a strong influence on the young Bede—remember there was no written music at that time and all chant had to be committed to memory. Due to an epidemic of plague while Bede was only a boy, the majority of the choir monks became unavailable, either because of death or illness. Bede and the abbot were left as the sole monks capable of singing the monastic offices, a remarkable accomplishment for such a young boy. Monastic health and numbers must have increased rapidly as there are later reports of 300 monks in each of the joint monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow. The communities could then produce three copies of the Codex Amiatinus which was a massive vellum version of the full Bible, our oldest extant copy of Jerome’s complete Vulgate Bible, using Jerome’s third revision of the Psalms, this time from the Hebrew. This was a colossal undertaking in which Bede was one of the scribes and also adviser, and which required a herd of nearly 2000 cattle to produce the vellum. One copy of the Codex was intended for each of the monasteries, and the third has survived the Viking ravages by being intended for the Pope, taken by Abbot Ceolfrith travelling through France where it became lost until relatively recently, the abbot dying on the journey. Unlike his two abbots (Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith) Bede was not a traveller and rarely left the monastery, but spent his time writing, teaching and singing the liturgy of the church. Bede became a deacon at the age of 19 when the usual age was 25, and he was ordained priest at the age of 30. He never became abbot or prior, but had all the qualities that made him a cantor and novice master. The Psalms were on Bede’s lips from the time he entered the monastery. For any potential choir monk the learning of the Psalms by heart was an essential first task. To make matters more difficult Bede knew three versions of the Psalms and he added to this by composing an abbreviated version of the Psalter choosing specific verses which could be used in prayer.
All the extensive works Bede wrote that have survived were written in a Latin which was (and still is) considered elegant and readable, and were thus were well received in the Carolingian Empire. This is fortunate for us as they could be re-imported back into England when Viking destruction had come to an end and monastic life was becoming re-established in the tenth century. It has to be remembered that Bede was writing principally for other monks and clergy, but this did not stop him writing on a wide range of topics. Works like his Reckoning of Time may have little relevance for us now, but are a useful source of study of medieval times. Most of his works were Biblical exegesis of selected passages from the Old Testament and more extensive coverage of the New Testament. While most of his New Testament works relied on the principle of literal interpretation, others like On the Tabernacle and On the Temple and the Song of Songs used allegorical description which he preferred to call spiritual or mystical interpretation. Thus it is not surprising these works have always been popular in contemplative monastic meditation. Egbert was the first Archbishop of York and a pupil of Bede who received advice from his former master on corruptions that needed to be eradicated from the church in his diocese. Bede wrote many letters which are lost, as are other things he wrote in ‘English’ (this would be in Old English, which is probably more difficult to translate than his Latin!)
Bede was not an original or creative writer, but his judgements are scholarly and this prevented him from becoming controversial. He founded his opinions on tested and approved patristic thought. We do not know if his many homilies were ever preached, but they certainly proved useful for meditation. Bede wrote the majority of his homilies in the later part of his life, and less than 100 years after his death many were being included in the night office.
While there has through the centuries been a respect for the writings of Bede this was limited to those who could study the Latin text. In the last few decades there has been renewed interest in Bede and his works, with translation of his Latin texts into English. Added to this, Anglo-Saxon studies have become popular. Bede stands at the apex of this with an extensive bibliography. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People has been translated a number of times and has earned Bede the title ‘Father of English History.’ Most of what we know about Bede himself comes from passages included in this work.
Almost in his own day Bede was known as ‘The Venerable Bede’ meaning that he was a person who was given great respect because of his wisdom and experience. Bede was never canonized in a formal sense, but at councils called by Emperor Louis the Pious at Aachen in 816 and 836 Bede was proclaimed as doctor admirabilis and admired for his teaching. It was not until 1899 that Pope Leo XIII proclaimed him as a Doctor of the Church. Although his saint’s day varied in history it has now settled on 25 May.
Since the twelfth century we know that Bede has been depicted in art by imaginative artists who usually paint him as a monk sitting in his cell writing, sometimes surrounded by books. Dante included Bede as the only Englishman in his Paradiso and places him along with St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure. There are nineteenth or twentieth century stained glass windows depicting Bede. Churches and educational institutes now bear his name and have commissioned statues and mosaics.
Study of Bede takes us into a fascinating Anglo-Saxon world where kings and queens might become monks and nuns, and where monastic life is flowering before Viking invasions. We can see the roots of our English history in church and state, and the wide knowledge, faith and wisdom of a humble monk in Northumbria—in Bede’s time the edge of civilization. Bede has been called the Thomas Aquinas of the English even though he lived some 500 years earlier. He is worthy of much further study.
Revd Dr John Gayford is Honorary Assistant Priest at St Mary the Virgin, East Grinstead
Suggested further reading:
– Peter Hunter Blair, The World of Bede (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
– Scott DeGregorio, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bede (Cambridge University Press, 2010)
– Judith McClure and Roger Collins (editors with introductory notes), Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford University Press, 2008).
– Benedicta Ward, The Venerable Bede (Geoffrey Chapman, London, 1998).
– Benedicta Ward, Bede and the Psalter (SLG Press, Oxford, 2002).