The story of English Christianity begins with a man who was being called “the Venerable” within a generation of his passing. That story and even the very concept of “the English people” began with a monk who toiled for years writing one of the great historical works in early European history. While monasteries originated with a desire to withdraw from the world to worship God, Bede embodied the great civilizing aspect of the medieval monastery—the production and transmission of knowledge. He helped set the standard for learning and scholarship and demonstrated the importance of libraries at these centers of intellectual inquiry. Bede used his privileged position and freedom from labor to devote his life to scholarship. From within the walls of the monastery he wrote the story of life outside those walls and produced a history that continues to echo down through our world today.
Bede was born around 672 and passed away in his monastery at Jarrow, in Northumbria, on May 26, 735. Almost his entire life after the age of seven was spent in the monastery at Monkwearmouth and then at Jarrow. Only on a few occasions did he venture beyond those sanctified grounds to visit places such as York and the magnificent monastery at Lindesfarne on Holy Island in the North Sea. Not long after his death, all of these monasteries were attacked by Vikings and, unfortunately, some of his works were lost. Bede survived an outbreak of plague as a young man, at thirty he became a priest, and by the time of his death he had written over sixty books. He wrote on the Church Fathers, penned Biblical commentaries, extolled the virtues of music and especially enjoyed writing poetry. Surprisingly, it is also possible that Bede was married, if his off-hand comment of a wife is to be taken seriously. This was, after all, well before the eleventh century injunctions against married clergy, though it would have been quite out of the ordinary in a monastic setting.
Bede’s most important work was the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which was completed in 731. Beginning with Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC, Bede recounted the chaotic and often violent history of Christianity in the Roman and post-Roman world. It would take more space than I have here to adequately extol the importance of this great historical tome, but a few points may serve to encourage readers to find a copy and enjoy a voice that has been read with delight for almost 1400 years. Astoundingly, all of those things we value highly in scholarship—objective inquiry, honesty, insightful interpretation, and elegant writing—are evident in his work. He had an insatiable appetite for study and when he drew from the writings of others, which was often and extensive, he always provided a reference. In fact, he was so devoted to the importance of citations that he instructed future monastic copyists to include his notes and references when they copied his works. Unfortunately, those who followed did not always honor Bede’s wishes.
As an interpreter of history, Bede was moderate, careful, and usually did not try to go beyond what his sources supported. It is a phenomenal testament to his brilliant mind and judicious methods that his history has generally stood the test of time and remains a valuable source for modern historians. Bede did, however, have a large theme that he sought to weave through his history. Inspired by the histories in the Old Testament, Bede saw English history in the same light. When the Israelites followed God and were united in worship practices that centered on the temple in Jerusalem, turning away from worshiping at other “high places,” they were then blessed by God. Similarly, when the English people followed Christ and were united in their worship, God blessed them as well. When the people did not unite in worship, as was the case for earlier British Christians who did not support Rome, chaos and invasions followed. Bede had little use for Celtic Christianity and chose to ignore such figures as St. Patrick. The great unifying force, in Bede’s account, was the Catholic Church. Whether there ever was such unity in the preceding centuries or even his own times, Bede’s history in effect crafted the concept of a unified English Catholicism. It would be a powerful worldview for the next thousand years.
Historical interpretations, especially when dealing with religion, are often subjected to intense debate and, sometimes, censure. Bede’s history was no exception and the most dangerous charge of heresy centered on an issue that would cause headaches for the rest of Christian history. Orthodoxy at the time held that the creation of the world occurred around 5000 years before the birth of Christ. Bede, however, ever the careful historian, calculated the date at 3952 years before Christ. He survived the heresy accusations and eventually it was his views that were championed by Archbishop Ussher in the sixteenth century. Ussher’s chronology became accepted truth for English speaking Protestants well into the twentieth century. If nothing else, Bede’s trials can provide some comfort that heated argument over creation dates is not a new phenomenon in the Christian Church. In the process of his chronological work, Bede adopted the A.D. and B.C. system of dating. Contrary to common assumptions, Bede did not invent this method, but he did popularize it and subsequently this became the standard system for dating that we still use today.
It is spiritually moving to visit religious sites in Britain associated with Bede and early medieval Christianity. On a number of occasions I have visited the site of his monastery, his tomb in Durham Cathedral, and the holy island of Lindesfarne. Perhaps it is my fondness for ruins and whispers from fourteen hundred years ago, but I feel my Christianity strengthened when I connect with these rich traditions of Christian history And, even when we are not sympathetic with Bede’s desire for homogenous orthodox Christian conformity, there are many things to celebrate in Bede. He represents the essence of what the great medieval monasteries strove to achieve. He reminds us of the long and rich history of English Christianity. He also provided an historical account that continues to shape how we understand our Christian heritage. There is no better way to conclude these brief thoughts on the Venerable Bede than to remember the prayer with which he concluded his magnificent history:
"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."
Gregory Dodds is Professor of European History at Walla Walla University. His latest book, Exploiting Erasmus: The Erasmian Legacy and Religious Change in Early Modern England, was published in 2009 by the University of Toronto Press.