The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 3)

As we get to the middle of the (college) summer, it’s time for our last post on the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, before we move on in July to two important works from Martin Luther — The Freedom of a Christian and The Bondage of the Will.  So far I have made some introductory comments and discussed Book I, and then I’ve dedicated a second post to Books II and III.  The focus for this post will be Bede’s Books IV and V, with some comments related to the work as a whole.  You’ll hopefully learn more about how and why Bede has been such an important figure in English church history!

Important Elements in Books IV and V

  1. Caedmon and Cuthbert.  These last two books contain virtually all the information we have on two important British figures: the English poet Caedmon (whose “call” gave the famous Christian music group their name) and the monk and bishop St. Cuthbert.  Caedmon’s story is told in IV.24, and it includes the only extant poem that we have from Caedmon — a song in praise of God the Creator.  Interestingly, Bede notes that Caedmon’s singular gift seems to have been his ability to “translate” passages of Scripture into English verse, once they were explained to him; note that he did not sing in Latin, and that he did not have his own education.  But he seems to have written LOTS of songs, even if only our one survives.  Cuthbert’s story is related in IV.27-29, with stories of miracles occurring via his relics in IV.30-32.  He is another of Bede’s model bishops, as Wright notes, joining the ranks of Augustine of Canterbury, Aidan, and Chad.  Like these others, Cuthbert leads not only by word but also by deed, and he is deeply humble.  Toward the end of his life, Cuthbert foresees his own death and tells others of its imminent occurrence; this gift of foresight recurs in Bede’s narrative, typically as an indication of the holiness or innocence of its recipient.  All in all, Cuthbert is a model of Christian virtue, as Bede also makes clear in a separate text — his poetic Life of Cuthbert (which you can read at this link).
  2. lindisfarne gospelsThe Importance of Scripture.  Something that has been true of Books I-III, but that I’ve mostly saved until now, is the immense importance of Scripture to Bede.  Something that modern readers are sometimes surprised by in reading ancient authors is their intense interest in and command of Scripture.  That’s true of Bede as well.  In some places, it’s quite simple, in that his characters quote Scripture (e.g., Bishop Chad’s quoting of Psalm 18 in IV.3).  Then, there are places where Bede uses Scripture to help his readers understand what is happening in the narrative, like Ecclesiastes 3 to explain Chad’s impending death in IV.3, or 2 Corinthians 12 to explain Ethelburga’s sickness in IV.9.  There are places in his text where he sees what’s happening in England as a continuation of biblical history (for example, IV.25, where the sinful members of a monastery do not follow the contrite example of the Ninevites in Jonah 3, and thus are destroyed by fire, or the very end of the text in V.23, where Britain is one of the islands that give thanks at the remembrance of God’s holiness, from Psalm 97).  At other times, he places words of Scripture into the mouths of his characters, as in his narrative of Cuthbert in IV.28, where Cuthbert remembers the commands of Jesus.  At still other places, he compares his subjects to biblical characters, as in his comparison at V.8 of Archbishop Theodore to the godly men of the past, following Sirach 44.  The big point is this: when one steps back and looks at the work as a whole, one sees that it is suffused with Scripture.
  3. Bede the Historian.  We have seen throughout the text that Bede is a careful historian, and that care manifests itself in a variety of ways.  That feature continues in this last part of the text, with Bede’s general intention to tell the story of the English church in chronological order, while also illuminating some important personalities.  He shares first-hand (e.g., IV.32) and second-hand accounts (e.g., IV.3) of various events, almost always naming his sources (like Abbot Berthun, who is the source of miracles described in V.2-4).  He also notes written records that he has consulted, as in IV.7 about various miracles.  In IV.5, he preserves the decisions of the Council of Hertford (AD/CE 673), and he preserves a conciliar letter from the Synod of Hatfield (AD/CE 680) in IV.17.  While Bede often focuses on “great men,” he also reveals a certain sense of obligation regarding other good stories, as in the case of of IV.16, where he tells of two young princes who convert to Christianity just before being executed.  Finally, he doesn’t hesitate to reprint material from still other sources, like gravestone epitaphs in V.8 and V.19, or books about the Holy Land in V.16-17.  Finally, he ends his text with a “how are things with Christianity in England now?” in V.23 and a chronological summary of the whole book in V.24.  He’s careful and helpful!
  4. Christian Controversies.  As we saw in the second post on Bede, he is very interested in the conflict between Celtic and Roman traditions, especially on the date of Easter and the proper monastic haircut.  And there continue to be places where Bede shows interest in various differences between Christian groups.  For example, when Theodore (of Greek heritage) comes to England to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope sends along an abbot to support him, but also to make sure that “he did not introduce into the Church which he was to rule any Greek customs which conflicted with the teachings of the true Faith” (IV.1).  Then, toward the end of the text, in V.19, Bede tells the story of bishop Wilfrid, who apparently represented the English churches at a synod in Rome that was part of the Monothelite controversy.  Finally, in V.21, Bede reproduces a letter from Abbot Ceolfrid to the king of the Picts in what is now Scotland; that letter contains lengthy reflections on the Celtic-Roman questions about Easter and the tonsure — a nice recap of Bede’s own position on those matters!  As we see throughout the text, Bede is a historian, but he is a historian with commitments about how things should be done, and he is not afraid to make those clear.
  5. Platonic View of Death.  A feature of the text that caught me off-guard — in that I had noticed it in the first three books — was Bede’s repeated descriptions of death as a type of liberation from the body.  In IV.3, a plague means that “death freed many members of the reverend bishop’s church from the burden of the flesh.”  Later in that section, the bishop himself dies, which Bede describes as that “his holy soul was released from the prison-house of the body.”  In IV.9, we hear of one nun who is “set free from the body” and of another named Tortgyth who is “delivered from the burden of the body.”  Then, in IV.14, an epidemic strikes the island of Britain, and while many people are saved from it, one young boy is “set free by death.”  By the time of Bede, traditional Christian teaching had connected Neoplatonic ideas about the body and soul (let me know if you have a better link) with some of the things that Paul says in his letters, such that the body was viewed as a hindrance to the proper spiritual activity of the soul; this view is perhaps most famously expressed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act III), where the lead character speaks of death as shuffling off “this mortal coil.”  Certainly, Bede’s views are also influenced by his monastic background, since we know that medieval monks often saw the body as the soul’s opponent, one which must be purified (or even punished) by penance.

Well, it’s time to wrap up Bede.  We’ve seen a lot of interesting things, and hopefully you’ve come to understand him and his text more fully.  The shame of it all is that we haven’t even been able to touch of everything of interest: we’ve totally left aside the story of Willibrord (the great missionary to the Frisians, described in V.10-11) and Bede’s comments here and there about church music in England.  I haven’t said much about Bede’s many comments (some subtle, some overt) about monastic life at the time, or the many miracle stories he includes throughout the text.  Further, I haven’t even discussed how Bede TOTALLY OMITS ST. PATRICK!  (You can read more about that at this link.)  For these and other omissions, I can only apologize for the brevity of this format, point you to Wright’s book, and encourage you to keep researching on your own!  In the meantime, a set of questions to conclude:

If you were to tell the story of Christianity in your denomination and part of the world, how would you do so?  What would you emphasize?  What would you leave out?  What parts of Scripture would you connect with?

Image credits: (the illumination of Bede), (the detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels), and (for the image from Vesalius of death contemplating death)

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