If like myself you have anything like a passing history in old Anglo-Saxon history or even history itself, the works of Bede are something to behold.
I always find it a bit boring I suppose that so many people think of British history as being Stonehenge, Romans, Vikings, a bonkers king who kept killing his wives, Victorians and WW2. Similarly populist history such as on the History Channel were all Romans, ancient Egyptians and Nazis but nothing about the 99% of history that is lesser known and all the more interesting for it. Rather like being a food connoisseur but only being interested in McDonalds.
Hopefully if there is one thing my 7 years of blogging has proved it is that people love obscure history too as history is all about people.
St Bede the Venerable is the bedrock of our understanding of the centuries up to and including early Anglo-Saxon history. As well as his incredible range of work he is chiefly responsible for working out the calculations for Easter as well as establish the to us extremely obvious and easy way of dating events from the time of Jesus. Of course people use various events for year zero but incredibly at one time in the British Isles and Europe at least, this was an entirely new concept!
Bede’s most famous work is the Historia Ecclesiastica and his primary motivation in writing the Historia Ecclesiastica was to show the growth of the united church throughout England. The native Britons, whose Christian church survived the departure of the Romans, earn Bede’s ire for refusing to help convert the Saxons; by the end of the Historia the English, and their Church, are dominant over the Britons.
This goal, of showing the movement towards unity, explains Bede’s animosity towards the British method of calculating Easter: much of the Historia is devoted to a history of the dispute, including the final resolution at the Synod of Whitby in 664.
Bede is also concerned to show the unity of the English, despite the disparate kingdoms that still existed when he was writing. He also wants to instruct the reader by spiritual example, and to entertain, and to the latter end he adds stories about many of the places and people about which he wrote.
Bede’s extensive use of miracles can prove difficult for readers who consider him a more or less reliable historian, but do not accept the possibility of miracles. Yet both reflect an inseparable integrity and regard for accuracy and truth, expressed in terms both of historical events and of a tradition of Christian faith that continues to the present day. Bede, like Gregory the Great whom Bede quotes on the subject in the Historia, felt that faith brought about by miracles was a stepping stone to a higher, truer faith, and that as a result miracles had their place in his works.
Bede died on Thursday, 26 May 735 (Ascension Day) on the floor of his cell, singing Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit and was buried at Jarrow. You might like to see my photos of the ruins of the old Jarrow Monastery, the old church and the oldested stained glass window in the world.
Bede was so studious that he worked up right until an hour or two before his death despite his ill-health as can be seen below in this wonderfully evocative painting.
Just before he died, Bede composed the following verse which has become known as Bede’s Death Song. Here it is in its original Northumbrian.
Fore thaem neidfaerae ‖ naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra, ‖ than him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae ‖ aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae ‖ godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege ‖ doemid uueorthae.
And translated into modern English…. Before setting forth on that inevitable journey, none is wiser than the man who considers—before his soul departs hence—what good or evil he has done, and what judgement his soul will receive after its passing.
Bede became known as Venerable Bede by the 9th century because of his holiness. According to a legend the epithet was miraculously supplied by angels, thus completing his unfinished epitaph.
Centuries after his death, the Bishop of Durham sent his men to Jarrow in the middle of the night and dug up the remains of Bede (translated is the ecclesiastical term for it) to the majestic Durham Cathedral most likely in 1020 and it was placed in the same tomb with Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. Later Bede’s remains were moved to a shrine in the Galilee Chapel at Durham Cathedral in 1370.
The shrine was destroyed during the 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 where I found him today although some of his relics can also be found in Glastobury, York and Germany.
I always enjoy visiting Durham and the Cathedral there is one of my very favourites. In fact American-British travel writer Bill Bryson states it is the most beautiful cathedral in the world. It is full of shrines and statues, chapels and stained glass windows but my favourite place is always the shrine of the Venerable Bede.
One isn’t normally encouraged to take photos but after having a little chat to the charming lady overseeing the chapel, I was allowed to. It’s quite something to visit the resting place of the father of English history. If we had an hour together to chat, I’m sure we would have the most incredible conversation about the past, present and future presuming of course we could understand each other which couldn’t be take for granted if you read An example of how English has changed over 1200 years.