Anyone with even an inkling of English history is likely to have heard of the Venerable Bede (c. 672-735) and probably will come across his most famous work, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede’s history, completed towards the end of his life, was the first history of the English or Anglo-Saxon peoples that considered the English as a whole, not in terms of political unity, but united by a common Christian faith.
But Bede was far more than the ‘Father of English History’, as he later would become known. He also produced works of Theology, early Science, Geography, hymns, poems and even Mathematics. Exploring the wider corpus of his work, produced during his highly productive life, will help us enter the exciting world of Anglo-Saxon monasticism and bring us to closer to understanding Bede personally.
In this post, we will look at five of his key works beyond the field of history that will allow us to appreciate more who Bede was and to place his works, including his History, in the wider historical context in which they were written.
1. Prose Life of St Cuthbert (c. 721)
Bede was born roughly a decade later than the Synod of Whitby, held in 664, where it had been decided that the Kingdom of Northumbria would follow the dating of Easter given by the Roman Church rather than the Celtic Church, which was centered on Iona. Northumbrian monks would also adopt the hair style or tonsure of Rome rather than of Iona.
Bede, himself a native of Northumbria, entered the monastery at Monkwearmouth at the age of seven, when divisions and antipathy between Celtic and Roman influences in the Northumbrian Church were still raw. Although Bede, especially in his History, comes down on side of Rome, he retained a great affection for Celtic Christianity, and especially towards one of its leading figures, St Cuthbert.
As part of his devotion towards St Cuthbert, who had died when Bede was 24 years old, Bede meticulously produced two hagiographies of Cuthbert, one written in verse and the other in prose. He devoted the far longer prose life, written in c. 721, to Bishop Eadfrith and the Lindisfarne Community over which Cuthbert had once resided.
Bede, inspired by Cuthbert, often feigned sleep for prayer, for it was not known at what hour God would speak and Bede’s prose Life often depicts Cuthbert at prayer or encountering visions in the silence of the night. But perhaps the most moving passage from the Life is Bede’s description of St Cuthbert’s death in 687.
Cuthbert is depicted as, at this moment of death, having ‘lifted up his eyes to heaven’ and ‘stretched out his hands above him’. Then, ‘his soul’, which was ‘intent upon heavenly praises’ did head towards ‘the joys of the heavenly kingdom’ (2).
2. De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things, c. 703)
This scientific treatise with a grandoise Latin title, produced alongside De Temporibus (On Times), was written by Bede at beginning of his scholarly career in c. 703.
To understand this work, we need to enter into the religious mentality of Bede, also strongly evident in his History, who believed that understanding the universe, in physical and mathematical terms, would lead to a deeper understanding of how God was present in nature. Such would lead to a recognition of how creation was redeemed by Christ’s death and ressurrection.
In his these works, Bede combined a survey of cosmology with an understanding of how time was measured. He also inserted a manual on how to calculate the date of Easter, known as the Science of Computus, which was later highly influential on Carolingian and later medieval scientific education.
However, lying beneath the surface of Bede’s scientific observations, is a strongly advocated method for the correct dating of Easter, a key point of conflict that had recently caused intense division between the Roman and Celtic churches.
3. Letter to Egbert of York (c. 734)
Reading Bede’s letter to Egbert, Archbishop of York (d. 766), will suprise many familiar with Bede’s serene and calm writings found in his History. This letter was a strong critique of the establishment of the large archdiocese of York by Egbert, after he was appointed Archbishop in c. 732, and advised Egbert to break up the diocese. Bede further advocated that St Aidan and St Cuthbert were model bishops and Egbert should reform his diocese.
This was to conform to the model that Gregory the Great (d. 604), who had organised the return of Roman Christianity to England with St Augustine in 597, had envisoned. But Bede’s advice fell on deaf ears and Egbert did not reform his diocese.
Bede, in his letter, is most critical of this, and states that Egbert’s diocese is ‘too extensive’ and further reminds Egbert that bishops should not ‘feed their bodies with carnal foods’ or the ‘temptations of an idle life’ but rather focus their ‘minds on the heavenly sacrifice’ (5).
This is Bede at his most admonishing and critical.
4. Hymn on Etheldreda (c. 731)
Bede also wrote hymns alongside his numerous other works and one of his most touching is written in honour of St Etheldreda of Ely (d. 679), an Anglo-Saxon queen, abbess and founder of Ely monastery (later cathedral) who was subsequently sainted. He described refers to her life’s story in his History in which she was famous for retaining her virginity despite being married twice.
Bede’s hymn concludes powerfully, with reference to Etheldreda’s eternal chastity, with the verse;
‘ Ah bride of Christ, bright fame on earth is thine!
More bright in Heaven thy bridal torches shine.
Exultant hymns proclaim in glad accord:
No power henceforth may part thee from thy Lord ‘
5. Bede’s Death Song (c. 735)
After a long life of productive scholarship, including works in all manner of fields, Bede’s legacy is still being understood and studied over 1,284 years since his death. However, ironically, after a lifetime of thinking, Bede is said to have spoken a few verses, attributed to him, on his deathbed that spoke of the importance of good deeds, not deep thoughts, in the end;
Before he leaves on his fated journey,
No man will be so wise that he need not,
Reflect whilst time remains,
Whether his soul will win delight,
Or darkness after his death day (7)
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If you liked this post , you may like to read about Escomb Church, one of the best preserved Anglo-Saxon churches that was in existence at the time of Bede (Join Alex on an epic adventure involving the crumbling walls of Rome, an Anglo-Saxon church, and an escape from a horse in hot pursuit).
- British Library Yates Thomson MS 26 version of Bede’s Prose Life
- Bede’s Prose Life of St Cuthbert, ch. 39. Translated by J.A. Giles (https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/bede-cuthbert.asp)
- Bede, Kendall, F and Wallis Faith, Bede: On the Nature of Things and on Times (Liverpool, 2010)
- MS. Canon. Misc. 560, fol. 23 (Bodleian Library, Oxford)
- Bede and Giles, J.A., The Historical Works of the Venerable Bede. Volume II (London, 1843)
- Illuminated manuscipt, British Library (http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=add_ms_49598)
- Crossley-Holland, Kevin, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology (Oxford, 2009)