Doctor of the Church, Monk, Historian
Born ca. 673 near Sunderland
Died 26 May 735 Jarrow, Northumbria
Honored in Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican Communion, Lutheran Church
Canonized 1899 recognised as Doctor of the Church, Rome by Pope Leo XIII
Feast 25 May (Western Churches)
27 May (Orthodox Church and General Roman Calendar, between 1899–1969)
ˈbiːd/ beed; Old English: Bǣda or Bēda; 672/673 – 26 May 735), also referred to as Saint Bede or the Venerable Bede (Latin: Bēda Venerābilis), was a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth, today part of Sunderland, England, and of its companion monastery, Saint Paul's, in modern Jarrow (see Wearmouth-Jarrow), both in the Kingdom of Northumbria. Bede's monastery had access to a superb library which included works by Eusebius and Orosius among many others.
He is well known as an author and scholar, and his most famous work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) gained him the title "The Father of English History". In 1899, Bede was made a Doctor of the Church by Leo XIII, a position of theological significance; he is the only native of Great Britain to achieve this designation (Anselm of Canterbury, also a Doctor of the Church, was originally from Italy). Bede was moreover a skilled linguist and translator, and his work with the Latin and Greek writings of the early Church Fathers contributed significantly to English Christianity, making the writings much more accessible to his fellow Anglo-Saxons.
Historian and Doctor of the Church, born 672 or 673; died 735. In the last chapter of his great work on the "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" Bede has told us something of his own life, and it is, practically speaking, all that we know. His words, written in 731, when death was not far off, not only show a simplicity and piety characteristic of the man, but they throw a light on the composition of the work through which he is best remembered by the world at large. He writes:
Thus much concerning the ecclesiastical history of Britain, and especially of the race of the English, I, Baeda, a servant of Christ and a priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, which is at Wearmouth and at Jarrow (in Northumberland), have with the Lord's help composed so far as I could gather it either from ancient documents or from the traditions of the elders, or from my own knowledge. I was born in the territory of the said monastery, and at the age of seven I was, by the care of my relations, given to the most reverend Abbot Benedict [St. Benedict Biscop], and afterwards to Ceolfrid, to be educated. From that time I have spent the whole of my life within that monastery, devoting all my pains to the study of the Scriptures, and amid the observance of monastic discipline and the daily charge of singing in the Church, it has been ever my delight to learn or teach or write. In my nineteenth year I was admitted to the diaconate, in my thirtieth to the priesthood, both by the hands of the most reverend Bishop John [St. John of Beverley], and at the bidding of Abbot Ceolfrid. From the time of my admission to the priesthood to my present fifty-ninth year, I have endeavored for my own use and that of my brethren, to make brief notes upon the holy Scripture, either out of the works of the venerable Fathers or in conformity with their meaning and interpretation.
After this Bede inserts a list or Indiculus, of his previous writings and finally concludes his great work with the following words:
And I pray thee, loving Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously given me to drink in with delight the words of Thy knowledge, so Thou wouldst mercifully grant me to attain one day to Thee, the fountain of all wisdom and to appear forever before Thy face.
It is plain from Bede's letter to Bishop Egbert that the historian occasionally visited his friends for a few days, away from his own monastery of Jarrow, but with such rare exceptions his life seems to have been one peaceful round of study and prayer passed in the midst of his own community. How much he was beloved by them is made manifest by the touching account of the saint's last sickness and death left us by Cuthbert, one of his disciples. Their studious pursuits were not given up on account of his illness and they read aloud by his bedside, but constantly the reading was interrupted by their tears. "I can with truth declare", writes Cuthbert of his beloved master, "that I never saw with my eyes or heard with my ears anyone return thanks so unceasingly to the living God." Even on the day of his death (the vigil of the Ascension, 735) the saint was still busy dictating a translation of the Gospel of St. John. In the evening the boy Wilbert, who was writing it, said to him: "There is still one sentence, dear master, which is not written down." And when this had been supplied, and the boy had told him it was finished, "Thou hast spoken truth", Bede answered, "it is finished. Take my head in thy hands for it much delights me to sit opposite any holy place where I used to pray, that so sitting I may call upon my Father." And thus upon the floor of his cell singing, "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost" and the rest, he peacefully breathed his last breath.
The title Venerabilis seems to have been associated with the name of Bede within two generations after his death. There is of course no early authority for the legend repeated by Fuller of the "dunce-monk" who in composing an epitaph on Bede was at a loss to complete the line: Hac sunt in fossa Bedae . . . . ossa and who next morning found that the angels had filled the gap with the word venerabilis. The title is used by Alcuin, Amalarius and seemingly Paul the Deacon, and the important Council of Aachen in 835 describes him as venerabilis et modernis temporibus doctor admirabilis Beda. This decree was specially referred to in the petition which Cardinal Wiseman and the English bishops addressed to the Holy See in 1859 praying that Bede might be declared a Doctor of the Church. The question had already been debated even before the time of Benedict XIV, but it was only on 13 November, 1899, that Leo XIII decreed that the feast of Venerable Bede with the title of Doctor Ecclesiae should be celebrated throughout the Church each year on 27 May. A local cultus of St. Bede had been maintained at York and in the North of England throughout the Middle Ages, but his feast was not so generally observed in the South, where the Sarum Rite was followed.
Bede's influence both upon English and foreign scholarship was very great, and it would probably have been greater still but for the devastation inflicted upon the Northern monasteries by the inroads of the Danes less than a century after his death. In numberless ways, but especially in his moderation, gentleness, and breadth of view, Bede stands out from his contemporaries. In point of scholarship he was undoubtedly the most learned man of his time. A very remarkable trait, noticed by Plummer (I, p. xxiii), is his sense of literary property, an extraordinary thing in that age. He himself scrupulously noted in his writings the passages he had borrowed from others and he even begs the copyists of his works to preserve the references, a recommendation to which they, alas, have paid but little attention. High, however, as was the general level of Bede's culture, he repeatedly makes it clear that all his studies were subordinated to the interpretation of Scripture. In his "De Schematibus" he says in so many words: "Holy Scripture is above all other books not only by its authority because it is Divine, or by its utility because it leads to eternal life, but also by its antiquity and its literary form" (positione dicendi). It is perhaps the highest tribute to Bede's genius that with so uncompromising and evidently sincere a conviction of the inferiority of human learning, he should have acquired so much real culture. Though Latin was to him a still living tongue, and though he does not seem to have consciously looked back to the Augustan Age of Roman Literature as preserving purer models of literary style than the time of Fortunatus or St. Augustine, still whether through native genius or through contact with the classics, he is remarkable for the relative purity of his language, as also for his lucidity and sobriety, more especially in matters of historical criticism. In all these respects he presents a marked contrast to St. Aldhelm who approaches more nearly to the Celtic type.
Writings and editions
No adequate edition founded upon a careful collation of manuscripts has ever been published of Bede's works as a whole. The text printed by Giles in 1884 and reproduced in Migne (XC-XCIV) shows little if any advance on the basic edition of 1563 or the Cologne edition of 1688. It is of course as an historian that Bede is chiefly remembered. His great work, the "Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum", giving an account of Christianity in England from the beginning until his own day, is the foundation of all our knowledge of British history and a masterpiece eulogized by the scholars of every age. Of this work, together with the "Historia Abbatum", and the "Letter to Egbert", Plummer has produced an edition which may fairly be called final (2 vols., Oxford, 1896). Bede's remarkable industry in collecting materials and his critical use of them have been admirably illustrated in Plummer's Introduction (pp. xliii-xlvii). The "History of the Abbots" (of the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow), the Letter to Egbert", the metrical and prose lives of St. Cuthbert, and the other smaller pieces are also of great value for the light they shed upon the state of Christianity in Northumbria in Bede's own day. The "Ecclesiastical History" was translated into Anglo-Saxon at the instance of King Alfred. It has often been translated since, notably by T. Stapleton who printed it (1565) at Antwerp as a controversial weapon against the Reformation divines in the reign of Elizabeth. The Latin text first appeared in Germany in 1475; it is noteworthy that no edition even of the Latin was printed in England before 1643. Smith's more accurate text saw the light in 1742.
Bede's chronological treatises "De temporibus liber" and "De temporum ratione" also contain summaries of the general history of the world from the Creation to 725 and 703, respectively. These historical portions have been satisfactorily edited by Mommsen in the "Monumenta Germaniae historica" (4to series, 1898). They may be counted among the earliest specimens of this type of general chronical and were largely copied and imitated. The topographical work "De locis sanctis" is a description of Jerusalem and the holy places based upon Adamnan and Arculfus. Bede's work was edited in 1898 by Geyer in the "Itinera Hierosolymitana" for the Vienna "Corpus Scriptorum". That Bede compiled a Martyrologium we know from his own statement. But the work attributed to him in extant manuscripts has been so much interpolated and supplemented that his share in it is quite uncertain.
Bede's exegetical writings both in his own idea and in that of his contemporaries stood supreme in importance among his works, but the list is long and cannot fully be given here. They included a commentary upon the Pentateuch as a whole as well as on selected portions, and there are also commentaries on the Books of Kings, Esdras, Tobias, the Canticles, etc. In the New Testament he has certainly interpreted St. Mark, St. Luke, the Acts, the Canonical Epistles, and the Apocalypse. But the authenticity of the commentary on St. Matthew printed under his name is more than doubtful. (Plaine in "Revue Anglo-Romaine", 1896, III, 61.) The homilies of Bede take the form of commentaries upon the Gospel. The collection of fifty, divided into two books, which are attributed to him by Giles (and in Migne) are for the most part authentic, but the genuineness of a few is open to suspicion. (Morin in "Revue Bénédictine", IX, 1892, 316.)
Various didactic works are mentioned by Bede in the list which he has left us of his own writings. Most of these are still preserved and there is no reason to doubt that the texts we possess are authentic. The grammatical treatises "De arte metricâ" and "De orthographiâ" have been adequately edited in modern times by Keil in his "Grammatici Latini" (Leipzig, 1863). But the larger works "De naturâ rerum", "De temporibus", "De temporium ratione", dealing with science as it was then understood and especially with chronology, are only accessible in the unsatisfactory texts of the earlier editors and Giles. Beyond the metrical life of St. Cuthbert and some verses incorporated in the Ecclesiastical History" we do not possess much poetry that can be assigned to Bede with confidence, but, like other scholars of his age, he certainly wrote a good deal of verse. He himself mentions his "book of hymns" composed in different meters or rhythms. So Alcuin says of him: Plurima versifico cecinit quoque carmina plectro. It is possible that the shorter of the two metrical calendars printed among his works is genuine. The Penitential ascribed to Bede, though accepted as genuine by Haddan and Stubbs and Wasserschleben, is probably not his (Plummer, I, 157).
Venerable Bede is the earliest witness of pure Gregorian tradition in England. His works "Musica theoretica" and "De arte Metricâ" (Migne, XC) are found especially valuable by present-day scholars engaged in the study of the primitive form of the cha
As Chapter 66 of his On the Reckoning of Time, in 725 Bede wrote the Greater Chronicle (chronica maiora), which sometimes circulated as a separate work. For recent events the Chronicle, like his Ecclesiastical History, relied upon Gildas, upon a version of the Liber pontificalis current at least to the papacy of Pope Sergius I (687–701), and other sources. For earlier events he drew on Eusebius's Chronikoi Kanones. The dating of events in the Chronicle is inconsistent with his other works, using the era of creation, the anno mundi.
His other historical works included lives of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, as well as verse and prose lives of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, an adaptation of Paulinus of Nola's Life of St Felix, and a translation of the Greek Passion of St Anastasius. He also created a listing of saints, the Martyrology.
In his own time, Bede was as well known for his biblical commentaries and exegetical, as well as other theological works. The majority of his writings were of this type, and covered the Old Testament and the New Testament. Most survived the Middle Ages, but a few were lost.It was for his theological writings that he earned the title of Doctor Anglorum, and why he was made a saint.
Bede was not an innovative religious thinker. He made no original writings or thoughts on the beliefs of the church, instead working to synthesise and transmit the learning from his predecessors. In order to do this, he learned Greek, and attempted to learn Hebrew. He spent time reading and rereading both the Old and the New Testaments. He mentions that he studied from a text of Jerome's Vulgate, which itself was from the Hebrew text. He also studied both the Latin and the Greek Fathers of the Church. In the monastic library at Jarrow were a number of books by theologians, including works by Basil, Cassian, John Chrysostom, Isidore of Seville, Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome, Pope Gregory I, Ambrose of Milan, Cassiodorus, and Cyprian.He used these, in conjunction with the Biblical texts themselves, to write his commentaries and other theological works. He had a Latin translation by Evagrius of Athanasius's Life of Antony, and a copy of Sulpicius Severus' Life of St. Martin.He also used lesser known writers, such as Fulgentius, Julian of Eclanum, Tyconius, and Prosperius. Bede was the first to refer to Jerome, Augustine, Pope Gregory and Ambrose as the four Latin Fathers of the Church. It is clear from Bede's own comments that he felt his job was to explain to his students and readers the theology and thoughts of the Church Fathers.
Bede also wrote homilies, works written to explain theology used in worship services. Bede wrote homilies not only on the major Christian festivals such as Advent, Lent or Easter, but on other subjects such as anniversaries of significant events.
Both types of Bede's theological works circulated widely in the Middle Ages. A number of his biblical commentaries were incorporated into the Glossa Ordinaria, an 11th-century collection of biblical commentaries. Some of Bede's homilies were collected by Paul the Deacon, and they were used in that form in the Monastic Office. Saint Boniface used Bede's homilies in his missionary efforts on the continent.
Bede sometimes included in his theological books an acknowledgement of the predecessors on whose works he drew. In two cases he left instructions that his marginal notes, which gave the details of his sources, should be preserved by the copyist, and he may have originally added marginal comments about his sources to others of his works. Where he does not specify, it is still possible to identify books that he must have had access to by quotations that he uses. A full catalogue of the library available to Bede in the monastery cannot be reconstructed, but it is possible to tell, for example, that Bede was very familiar with the works of Virgil. There is little evidence that he had access to any other of the pagan Latin writers–he quotes many of these writers but the quotes are almost all to be found in the Latin grammars that were common in his day, one or more of which would certainly have been at the monastery. Another difficulty is that manuscripts of early writers were often incomplete: it is apparent that Bede had access to Pliny's Encyclopedia, for example, but it seems that the version he had was missing book xviii, as he would almost certainly have quoted from it in his De temporum ratione.
Works on the Old Testament
The works dealing with the Old Testament included Commentary on Samuel, Commentary on Genesis,Commentaries on Ezra and Nehemiah, On the Temple, On the Tabernacle, Commentaries on Tobit, Commentaries on Proverbs, Commentaries on the Song of Songs, Commentaries on the Canticle of Habakkuk, The works on Ezra, the Tabernacle and the Temple were especially influenced by Gregory the Great's writings. He was also the one responsible for replacing the title God in the Hebrew texts to read 'Lord of Hosts.'
Works on the New Testament
Bede's works included Commentary on Revelation, Commentary on the Catholic Epistles, Commentary on Acts, Reconsideration on the Books of Acts, On the Gospel of Mark, On the Gospel of Luke, and Homilies on the Gospels.
Works on historical and astronomical chronology
De temporibus, or On Time, written in about 703, provides an introduction to the principles of Easter computus. This was based on parts of Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, and Bede also include a chronology of the world which was derived from Eusebius, with some revisions based on Jerome's translation of the bible.In about 723, Bede wrote a longer work on the same subject, On the Reckoning of Time, which was influential throughout the Middle Ages.He also wrote several shorter letters and essays discussing specific aspects of computus.
On the Reckoning of Time (De temporum ratione) included an introduction to the traditional ancient and medieval view of the cosmos, including an explanation of how the spherical earth influenced the changing length of daylight, of how the seasonal motion of the Sun and Moon influenced the changing appearance of the New Moon at evening twilight, and a quantitative relation between the changes of the Tides at a given place and the daily motion of the moon.Since the focus of his book was calculation, Bede gave instructions for computing the date of Easter and the related time of the Easter Full Moon, for calculating the motion of the Sun and Moon through the zodiac, and for many other calculations related to the calendar. He gives some information about the months of the Anglo-Saxon calendar in chapter XV. Any codex of Bede's Easter cycle is normally found together with a codex of his "De Temporum Ratione".
For calendric purposes, Bede made a new calculation of the age of the world since the creation, which he dated as 3952 BC. Due to his innovations in computing the age of the world, he was accused of heresy at the table of Bishop Wilfrid, his chronology being contrary to accepted calculations. Once informed of the accusations of these "lewd rustics," Bede refuted them in his Letter to Plegwin.
In addition to these works on astronomical timekeeping, he also wrote De natura rerum, or On the Nature of Things, modelled in part after the work of the same title by Isidore of Seville. His works were so influential that late in the 9th century Notker the Stammerer, a monk of the Monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, wrote that "God, the orderer of natures, who raised the Sun from the East on the fourth day of Creation, in the sixth day of the world has made Bede rise from the West as a new Sun to illuminate the whole Earth".
Bede wrote some works designed to help teach grammar in the abbey school. One of these was his De arte metrica, a discussion of the composition of Latin verse, drawing on previous grammarians work. It was based on Donatus' De pedibus and Servius' De finalibus, and used examples from Christian poets as well as Virgil. It became a standard text for the teaching of Latin verse during the next few centuries. Bede dedicated this work to Cuthbert, apparently a student, for he is named "beloved son" in the dedication, and Bede says "I have laboured to educate you in divine letters and ecclesiastical statutes"Another textbook of Bede's is the De orthographia, a work on orthography, designed to help a medieval reader of Latin with unfamiliar abbreviations and words from classical Latin works. Although it could serve as a textbook, it appears to have been mainly intended as a reference work. The exact date of composition for both of these works is unknown.
Another educational work is De schematibus et tropis sacrae scripturae, which discusses the Bible's use of rhetoric. Bede was familiar with pagan authors such as Virgil, but it was not considered appropriate to teach grammar from such texts, and in De schematibus ... Bede argues for the superiority of Christian texts.Similarly, his text on poetic metre uses only Christian poetry for examples.
According to his disciple Cuthbert, Bede was also doctus in nostris carminibus ("learned in our songs"). Cuthbert's letter on Bede's death, the Epistola Cuthberti de obitu Bedae, moreover, commonly is understood to indicate that Bede also composed a five line vernacular poem known to modern scholars as Bede’s Death Song
And he used to repeat that sentence from St. Paul “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” and many other verses of Scripture, urging us thereby to awake from the slumber of the soul by thinking in good time of our last hour. And in our own language,—for he was familiar with English poetry,—speaking of the soul’s dread departure from the body:
Facing that enforced journey, no man can be
More prudent than he has good call to be,
If he consider, before his going hence,
What for his spirit of good hap or of evil
After his day of death shall be determined.
Fore ðæm nedfere nænig wiorðe
ðonc snottora ðon him ðearf siæ
to ymbhycgenne ær his hinionge
hwæt his gastæ godes oððe yfles
æfter deað dæge doemed wiorðe.:
As Opland notes, however, it is not entirely clear that Cuthbert is attributing this text to Bede: most manuscripts of the letter do not use a finite verb to describe Bede's presentation of the song, and the theme was relatively common in Old English and Anglo-Latin literature. The fact that Cuthbert's description places the performance of the Old English poem in the context of a series of quoted passages from Sacred Scripture, indeed, might be taken as evidence simply that Bede also cited analogous vernacular texts. On the other hand, the inclusion of the Old English text of the poem in Cuthbert’s Latin letter, the observation that Bede "was learned in our song," and the fact that Bede composed a Latin poem on the same subject all point to the possibility of his having written it. By citing the poem directly, Cuthbert seems to imply that its particular wording was somehow important, either since it was a vernacular poem endorsed by a scholar who evidently frowned upon secular entertainment or because it is a direct quotation of Bede’s last original composition.
There is no evidence for cult being paid to Bede in England in the 8th century. One reason for this may be that he died on the feast day of Augustine of Canterbury. Later, when he was venerated in England, he was either commemorated after Augustine on 26 May, or his feast was moved to 27 May. However, he was venerated outside England, mainly through the efforts of Saint Boniface and Alcuin, both of whom promoted the cult on the Continent. Boniface wrote repeatedly back to England during his missionary efforts, requesting copies of Bede's theological works. Alcuin, who was taught at the school set up in York by Bede's pupil Egbert, praised Bede as an example for monks to follow and was instrumental in disseminating Bede's works to all of Alcuin's friends. Bede's cult became prominent in England during the 10th-century revival of monasticism, and by the 14th century had spread to many of the cathedrals of England. Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester (c. 1008–1095) was a particular devotee of Bede's, dedicating a church to him in 1062, which was Wulfstan's first undertaking after his consecration as bishop.
His body was stolen from Jarrow and transferred to Durham Cathedral around 1020, where it was placed in the same tomb with Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. Later they were moved to a shrine in Galilee Chapel at Durham Cathedral in 1370. The shrine was destroyed during the English Reformation, but the bones were reburied in the chapel. In 1831 the bones were dug up and then reburied in a new tomb, which is still there. Other relics were claimed by York, Glastonbury and Fulda.
His scholarship and importance to Catholicism were recognised in 1899 when he was declared a Doctor of the Church, and was declared a sanctus in 1935. He is the only Englishman named a Doctor of the Church. He is also the only Englishman in Dante's Paradise (Paradiso X.130), mentioned among theologians and doctors of the church in the same canto as Isidore of Seville and the Scot Richard of St. Victor.
His feast day was included in the General Roman Calendar in 1899, for celebration on 27 May rather than on his date of death, 26 May which was then the feast day of Pope Saint Gregory VII; however, the 1969 calendar reforms allowed Bede's feast day to move to its proper day. He is venerated in both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church, with a feast day of 25 May.
Bede became known as Venerable Bede (Lat.: Beda Venerabilis) by the 9th century, but this was not linked to consideration for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. According to a legend the epithet was miraculously supplied by angels, thus completing his unfinished epitaph. It is first utilised in connection with Bede in the 9th century, where Bede was grouped with others who were called "venerable" at two ecclesiastical councils held at Aix in 816 and 836. Paul the Deacon then referred to him as venerable consistently. By the 11th and 12th century, it had become commonplace. However, there are no descriptions of Bede by that term right after his death.
|A page from a copy of Bede's Lives of St. Cuthbert, showing King Athelstan presenting the work to the saint. This manuscript was given to St. Cuthbert's shrine|