Welcome to early medieval England! This is the first of three posts dedicated to the English church historian Bede and his text called Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The translation that I am reading is the one originally published in 1955 as part of the Penguin Classics series, with a new introduction by D. H. Farmer in 1990. This version includes more information about Bede’s life in its introduction, in addition to a lot of really interesting notes. If you want a free, online version of the text (early 20th-century), check out this one at Paul Halsall’s excellent Medieval Sourcebook site. Also, for more information on the text itself, you may want to get a hold of J. Robert Wright’s A Companion to Bede: A Reader’s Commentary on The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; this book is a helpful companion as you wend your way through a book that is more than 1,000 years old!
Bede was a monk and priest who lived in the 600s and 700s, mainly in the area known as Northumberland (that is, north of the river Humber, with varying northern borders). He seems to have lived most or all of his life in a very small geographical area, but thanks to his historical sources, he had access to information from other places in England (like Kent, to the south of London) and even on the European mainland (as far away as Rome). If you want to know more about Bede, you can check out this encyclopedia link.
Now, the title of the book may suggest to us that he’s writing about the history of the church in England, but when we hear “English people,” we need to think in terms of the “Anglo-Saxons” who came to the island of Britain over the course of centuries after the Roman period. In other words, he is not talking about the history of the church among the Britons or other Gaelic peoples – that is, not the ones we would think of as living in places we now know as Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. And when he does talk about these people, it is not in complimentary terms. As a point of comparison, one may consult Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which was written 400 years later and from a Welsh perspective, and which uses Bede as a source. Bede celebrates Anglo-Saxon Christianity, centered in Canterbury, as a huge blessing for the English people; however, Geoffrey emphasizes that it was a mission to the apostate Anglo-Saxons, saying that the Britons had retained their traditional Christianity. Furthermore, he takes great pains to argue that Augustine and his bishops had no spiritual authority over the Welsh!
Back to Bede. His history is divided into five sections, traditionally called “books.” In this post I will comment upon Book I, and in the next two posts, I’ll talk about Books II and III, and then on Books IV and V. Book I sets the scene by describing British geography, and it gives important background by telling about the Roman influence in Britain, starting with Julius Caesar and other early Roman emperors, and continuing by describing the first British king to be made a Christian (ca. 156 AD/CE). The first book continues all the way until the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury from Rome, and Ethelfrid of Northumbria’s subduing of the Britons and Irish (603 AD/CE).
Before we dig into the meat of the book, we should note that Bede starts with a preface that dedicates the text to Bede’s king (and perhaps patron?), and here we see a point that reminds us of the end of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation: that the point of the text is that people will live more upright lives. Bede isn’t writing history for its own sake; rather, as he says, “if history records good things of good [people], the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good; or if it records evil of wicked [people], the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what [is known] to be good and pleasing to God.”
Other Notes on Book I
- Bede devotes chapter 7 of Book I to the tale of St. Alban‘s martyrdom. While Bede’s tale is not the first version of this story, it is the most detailed. The story is a compelling tale of self-sacrifice on the part of a new Christian. In fact, St. Alban was so new to the faith that he had not yet even been baptized. However, Bede notes that “although he had not received the purification of baptism, there was no doubt that he was cleansed by the shedding of his own blood, and rendered fit to enter the kingdom of heaven.” This idea is sometimes called the “baptism of blood” and is associated with the early Christian martyrs. (See also ch. 18, where the relics of St. Alban are used to help effect a healing.)
- Chapter 14 describes fifth-century England like something out of the biblical books of Judges or Kings — when their enemies’ attacks had subsided, the people gave themselves to luxury and crime, malice and dishonesty (See also ch. 15, where he makes explicit connection with the Chaldeans’ destruction of Jerusalem). As Bede says, “Giving themselves up to drunkenness, hatred, quarrels, and violence, they threw off the easy yoke of Christ.” After this apostasy, they suffered a terrible plague and then (even worse!) invited the Saxons to come from Germany to help them. Bede seems to want to speak like a prophet: that even a people blessed by God can fall away from their faith, and this example should serve as a warning to all.
- That said, it is also possible for a people to return to God. Chapter 17 describes two Gaulish (French) bishops who came to the island, preaching the true faith of Christ (that is, not the Pelagian heresy that had been infecting the nation). The description of preaching in both churches and outdoors in streets and fields reminds me of the 18th- and 19th-century revivals in Britain, under great preachers like John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon.
- When Christianity finally took root among the Anglo-Saxons under Augustine’s leadership, it was partly because their queen (a Frankish woman named Bertha, described in ch. 25) came from a family that had been Christian for three generations. She was apparently married to King Ethelbert of Kent for political reasons, but she was the great-granddaughter of Clovis, founder of the Frankish Merovingian dynasty. This story is a good reminder of the importance of transmitting the Christian faith within families; one never knows where one’s descendants will end up!
- Finally, Bede preserves several letters from Pope Gregory I (“the Great”). Scholars feel confident about the authenticity of most of these, and they contain several interesting features. For example, in letter 1 to Augustine, Gregory notes that clerical celibacy is an ideal, but he does not place it as a requirement on local clergy; in fact, it took many more centuries for priests’ celibacy to become standard and expected. In letter 2 we find a famous quote of Gregory’s: that we should help young Christians grow in the faith by using good ideas from lots of different church traditions; as he says, “things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.” And finally, in a subsequent letter to the Abbot Mellitus, Gregory gives the sensible and famous advice that “target populations” should be eased into the Christian faith by understanding their own religion and connecting elements of Christianity with it. Gregory is careful to avoid syncretism; rather, he teaches something quite like what modern missiologists would call the enculturation of the Gospel.
That’s it for Book I of Bede; in the next post, we’ll go on to Books II and III. In the meantime, be thinking: what can you do to help spread or shore up the Christian faith in your family or location?
Suggested next click: Ecclesiastical History, Part 2