The Venerable Bede (672-735)



Born: 672/3, Northumbria, England
Died: May 25, 735, near Newcastle, England
Feast day: May 27

The Venerable Bede was the first English church historian. He 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.

Bede is well known as an author and scholar. His most famous work is Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), which gained him the title "The father of English History." Bede also wrote on many other topics, from music and metrics to scripture commentaries.



Biography of Bede

Bede "the Venerable" was the first great English scholar. He was born in Northumbria (according to tradition, at Monkton, Durham, east of Newcastle) 672 or 673 and died at the monastery of Jarrow (6 m. e. of Newcastle) on May 25, 735. Almost all that is known of his life is contained in a notice added by himself to his Historia ecclesiastica (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.

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 zealous in the performance of monastic duties.

His works show that he had at his command all the learning of his time. He was proficient in patristic literature, and quotes from Puny 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.





Like all men of his time he was devoted to the allegorical method of interpretation, and was 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. His works were so widely spread throughout Europe and so much esteemed that he won the name of "the teacher of the Middle Ages."

Bede became known as Venerable Bede soon after his death, but this was not linked to consideration for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. His scholarship and importance to Catholicism were recognized in 1899 when he was declared a Doctor of the Church as St Bede The Venerable.

Bede's Tomb in Durham

Bede was first buried at the monastery of St. Paul at Jarrow in 735. However, in about 1022, his bones were brought to Durham where they were placed with those of St. Cuthbert in the Choir. In 1370, Bede's remains were moved to a splendid shrine in the Galilee Chapel. This shrine was destroyed during the Reformation in 1540 and Bede's bones were then buried in a grave where the shrine had stood.

Eventually, in 1831, the present tomb, made from polished Carboniferous limestone, was erected over Bede's grave. It has the following simple inscription cut into its surface:

HAC SUNT IN FOSSA BEDAE VENERABILIS OSSA

Translated from the Latin, this means 'In this tomb are the bones of the Venerable Bede'. A sculptured quotation from one of Bede's prayers hangs on the east wall above his tomb. It was designed by George Pace and placed there in 1970 as a memorial to Dean Alington (1933-1951). It says in Latin and then in English:

"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
& opens everlasting day."

(Source: "St. Bede's Tomb" - University of Durham)

Works of Bede

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.

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).

The most important and best known of his works is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, giving in five books the history of England, ecclesiastical and political, from the time of Cæsar to the date of completion (731). The first 21 chapters, treating of the period before the mission of Augustine, are compiled from earlier writers such as Orosius, Gildas, Prosper of Aquitaine, and others, with the insertion of legend and tradition. 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.

His other historical works were lives of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and lives in verse and prose of St. Cuthbert. 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. His last work, completed on his death-bed, was a translation into Anglo-Saxon of the Gospel of John.



References

  1. New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914. This article incorporates some public domain text from this source.
  2. "The Venerable Bede" - Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911. <www.newadvent.org/cathen/02384a.htm>
  3. "Bede the Venerable" - Patron Saints Index. <http://www.catholic-forum.com/ saints/saintb10.htm>
  4. "St. Bede's Tomb" - University of Durham, 2004. <http://www.dur.ac.uk/~dla0www/c_tour/point4.html>

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Works of Bede

The collected editions of Bede's works (such as by J. A. Giles, with Eng. transl. of the historical works and life, Patres ecclesiæ Anglicanæ, 12 vols., London, 1843–44; in MPL, xc–xcv) leave much to be desired. Good editions of the historical works, particularly of the Historia ecclesiastica, have been issued by J. Smith, Cambridge, 1722; J. Stevenson, Hist. eccl., London, 1838, Opera historica minora, 1841; G. H. Moberly, Oxford, 1869; J. E. B. Mayor and J. R. Lumby, Hist. eccl., books iii and iv, Cambridge, 1881; A. Holder, Freiburg, 1890; C. Plummer, 2 vols., Oxford, 1896; Eccl. Hist., transl., introduction, life, and notes, by A. M. Sellar, London, 1907. The two works on chronology have been edited by T. Mommsen in MGH, Chron. min., iii (1898). There are English versions of the Ecclesiastical History by Stevens, 1723, revised by J. A. Giles, London, 1840; J. Stevenson, ib. 1853; and L. Gridley, Oxford, 1870. The old Eng. version of the Hist. eccl., with transl. and introduction, was ed. by T. Miller, in 4 parts, ib. 1870.

Biographies of Bede

For Bede's life consult the introductions and notes to the editions mentioned, particularly those of Stevenson and Plummer; G. F. Browne, The Venerable Bede, in The Fathers for English Readers, London, 1879, New York 1891; K. Werner, Beda der Ehrwürdige und seine Zeit, Vienna, 1881; J. B. Lightfoot, in Leaders of the Northern Church, London, 1890 (biographical sermons); F. Phillips, in Fathers of the English Church, vol. i, London, 1891 (simple, scholarly, fair); W. Bright, Early English Church History, pp. 367–371 et passim, Oxford, 1897.

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