Bede


Scribe at writing desk from Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, MS26 f2r (c) British Library

The Venerable Bede died on 25th May 735 CE at the 10th hour of the day. Most of what we know about him comes from his own writings, primarily the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” which was completed in 731 CE.

He was born on the lands of monastery of Wearmouth around 673 CE. In 680 CE, at the age of seven, he was given to the Church as a child oblate (a person dedicated to God) under Benedict Biscop. The monastery at Jarrow was founded in 681 CE and he was sent there in the care of Abbot Ceolfrith. As an oblate he followed the rule of Benedict and the routine of work, prayer, study and sleep.

According to the “Life of Ceolfrith” when a plague visited the monastery all the monks were struck down except for Ceolfrith and a young boy who between them sustained the Rule and sang the offices daily until more monks were able to join them. As he obviously survived, the boy must have been Bede and he would have been about 14 at the time.

Bede was ordained as a Deacon at the age of 19 by John of Beverley, who was at that time Bishop of Hexham. The canonical age for ordination as a deacon was 25, so the early date and the presence of John indicates that Bede was already recognised as exceptional. He became a priest at 30, again ordained by John. In due course he became probably the most learned man in Europe.

Bede left Jarrow only twice, visiting Lindisfarne in 721 CE and York in 733 CE. He lived the life of a scholar-monk, delighting in learning, teaching and writing. In this, he benefited enormously from Benedict Biscop’s collection of books acquired on his many trips to the Continent. Among his pupils was Ecgberht, later Bishop of York (whose ordination was the reason for his trip in 733 CE); Ecgberht invited Bede to the ceremony for his elevation to Archbishop in 735 CE but Bede was already too frail to make the journey.

His most famous work is of course the “Ecclesiastical History”, but he also wrote a huge range of other works, some of which have been lost but others survive. He was an historian, poet, musician, scientist, theologian and hagiographer. His major early works include “On the Nature of Things” (De Natura Rerum) and “On Time” (De Temporibus), which established the basis for his future intellectual development.

“On the Nature of Things” aimed to refute superstition by the rational explanation of the nature of the universe. This included phenomena such as earthquakes, eclipses, and thunder and lightning. Bede also aimed to foster appreciation and admiration for the beauty of the natural order.

His preface says:

“In brief chapters, I, Bede, the servant of God,

Have lightly touched on the varied natures of things

And on the broad ages of fleeting time.

You who study the stars above,

Fix your mind’s gaze, I pray, on the Light of the everlasting day.”

“On Time”, as well as being a reflection on the divinely instituted order of time, also represented the new Christian genre of the computus manual for calculating the date of Easter – a genre which Bede himself played a very significant role in developing.

Both works were in the format of question and answer and could easily have been adapted for teaching.

In his later expanded work, “The Reckoning of Time” (De Temporum Ratione), Bede took up and promoted the ideas of Dionysius Exiguus and Isidore of Seville and embedded the concept of the “Years of Grace” or “Anno Domini” method of dating which led to it being widely adopted.

In the “Reckoning of Time” ch 32 Bede describes the Earth as a globe:

“It is not merely circular like a shield [or] spread out like a wheel, but resembles more a ball, being equally round in all directions.”

In addition to these scientific endeavours Bede is known for writing the “Lives of the Abbots”, a history of his own monastery. He also wrote two versions of the “Life of Cuthbert”, one in prose and one in verse.

In the “Ecclesiastical History” Bede shows himself to be a true historian, collating and analysing his sources and quoting his authorities. Five 8th century copies still remain and it was chosen by Alfred for translation as one of the books “most needful for men to know.”

Bede was buried at Jarrow and was later translated (relocated) in the early 11th century to Durham under slightly questionable circumstances; the monks of Durham stole his remains to bring to their church, being dissatisfied that Bede’s relics were held at Jarrow. He now lies in the Galilee Chapel beneath a quotation from his own writings:

“Christ is the morning star, who, when the night of this world is past, brings to his saints the promise of the light of life, and opens everlasting day.”

But perhaps we should finish with another poem, credited to Bede (although not known certainly) about final thoughts before death and which is known as Bede’s Death Song:

Bede's tomb at Durham Cathedral
Bede’s tomb at Durham Cathedral

“Before the journey that awaits us all
No man becomes so wise that he has not
Need to think about, before his going hence,
What judgement will be given to his soul
After his death, of evil or of good.”