Thursday, November 16, 2006

Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101. This evening, we continue in the vein of last week’s episode of St. Thomas Becket, and delve into the author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People – Venerable Bede, Saint, Doctor of the Church, and, to many, the father of English history. There are some Latin terms in here, and I will be applying my elementary language skills to pronounce them. Please bear with me if I make a few mistakes.
Bede was born in approximately 673 at Tyne in County Durham, England. At the age of seven, he was taken to the monastery at the abbey of Saints Peter and Paul at Wearmouth. He was soon moved to become one of the first members of the monastic community at Jarrow. This was only 5 or 6 miles from Wearmouth, and the two were meant to function under one abbot – for this reason, many sources cite Bede as entering the monastic life at Wearmouth-Jarrow. He was ordained a deacon at the age of 19 and became a priest at age 30. He never left this area, and yet he was one of the most learned men of the time throughout all Europe.
Very little of Bede’s actual life and the events therein are known – the best source of such knowledge is an addition to his Ecclesiastical History that he wrote after finishing the book when he was 59. The main concern of Bede is his writings – and he was well-written. He wrote over a wide range of topics, from natural history and science to Biblical commentary. His most famous work is that which has already been mentioned several times here – The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, or Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum as Bede originally titled it in Latin. It covers events from the arrival of Julius Caesar in 55-54 BC to the arrival of Augustine, the Roman missionary, in 597. It originally spanned over five different books and took up about 400 pages. Bede’s reasons for making such a record are seen clearly in his own words: “For if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good; or if it records evil of wicked men, the good, religious reader or listener is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse, and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God.” Historia Ecclesiastica has been called the finest historical work in the early Middle Ages, and rightfully so. Also, aside from the history it provides, Bede’s writing contributed greatly to dating the time from the birth of Christ – he commonly used the terms anno ab incarnatione Domini (in the year from the incarnation of the Lord).
Aside from Historia, Bede put pen to paper and created texts offering commentary on many books of the Bible – he lists these works at the end of Historia and they dominate the list of his writings. He also wrote a history of the abbots of Wearmouth-Jarrow. He lists several other books in the end pages of Historia, and in his own words they are:
“A martyrology of the festivals of the holy martyrs, in which I have diligently tried to note down all that I could find about them, not only on what day, but also by what sort of combat and under what judge they overcame the world…A book of hymns in various metres and rhythms…A book of epigrams in heroic and elegiac metre…Two books, one on the nature of things and the other on chronology: also a longer book on chronology…A book about orthography arranged according to the order of the alphabet…A book on the art of metre, and to this added another small book on the figures of speech or tropes, that is, concerning the figures and modes of speech with which the holy Scriptures are adorned.”
It is quite easy to see that Bede was well-learned and well-written.
Bede is thought to have been writing even upon his deathbed. This account of his last days, written by Cuthbert (one of Bede’s contemporaries), describes it quite beautifully. As with the writing we encountered with St. Thomas, this excerpt is lengthy, but the writing is powerful and I think it most definitely bears listening to:
“On Tuesday before the Ascension he began to be much worse in his breathing, and a small swelling appeared in his feet; but he passed all that day pleasantly, and dictated in school, saying now and then, 'Go on quickly; I know not how long I shall hold out, and whether my Maker will soon take me away.' To us he seemed very well to know the time of his departure. He spent the night awake in thanksgivings. On Wednesday morning he ordered us to write speedily what he had begun. After this, we made the procession according to the custom of that day, walking with the relics of the saints till the third hour, (or nine o'clock in the morning;) then one of us said to him: 'Most dear master, there is still one chapter wanting. Do you think it troublesome to be asked any more questions?' He answered: 'It is no trouble. Take your pen and write fast.' He did so. But at the ninth hour (three in the afternoon) he said to me: 'Run quickly; and bring all the priests of the monastery to me.' When they came, he distributed to them some pepper-corns, little cloths or handkerchiefs, and incense which he had in a little box, entreating every one that they would carefully celebrate masses and say prayers for him; which they readily promised to do. They all wept at his telling them, they should no more see his face in this world; but rejoiced to hear him say: 'It is now time for me to return to him who made me, and gave me a being when I was nothing. I have lived a long time; my merciful Judge most graciously foresaw and ordered the course of my life for me. The time of my dissolution draws near. I desire to be dissolved, and to be with Christ. Yes; my soul desires to see Christ my king in his beauty.' Many other things he spoke to our edification, and spent the rest of the day in joy till the evening. The above-mentioned young scholar, whose name was Wilberth, said to him: 'Dear master, there is still one sentence that is not written.' He answered, 'Write quickly.' The young man said: 'It is now done.' He replied: 'You have well said; it is at an end: all is finished. Hold my head, that I may have the pleasure to sit, looking towards my little oratory where I used to pray; that while I am sitting I may call upon my heavenly Father, and on the pavement of his little place sing, Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.' Thus he prayed on the floor, and when he had named the Holy Ghost, he breathed out his soul. All declared that they had never seen any one die with such great devotion and tranquillity…”
Certainly, Bede went forth from this world according to the wishes he wrote at the very end of Historia: “And I pray thee, merciful Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously granted me sweet draughts from the Word which tells of Thee, so wilt Thou, of Thy goodness, grant that I may come at length to Thee, the fount of all wisdom, and stand before Thy face forever.” Bede has most certainly gotten his wish, and his remains now lie at Durham Cathedral.
One legend as to how Bede acquired the title Venerable is that a monk sat down to write the epitaph for Bede’s tomb and came out with “Hac sunt in fossa Bedae . . . . ossa,” or “Here are in this tomb Bede’s bones.” He wanted to add another word to complete the line, but could not think of one and went to bed to sleep on it. When he awoke the next morning, the paper he was writing on said, “Hac sunt in fossa
Bedae Venerabilis ossa,” or “Here are in this tomb Bede the Venerable's bones.” According to the fable, angels had written the extra word in during the night. Most likely, the term actually entered usage in reference to Bede at the Council of Aachen in 835. Over a thousand years later in 1859, English bishops petitioned the Vatican to make Bede a Doctor of the Church. This request wasn’t granted until 1899, when Pope Leo XIII declared that the Feast of Venerable Bede be celebrated on 27 May (the feast has since been moved to the 25th May) and he was officially made a Doctor of the Roman Church. This title is conferred on those who exhibit both brilliant witness of faith and skilful articulation and defence of Catholic doctrine. Bede is one of 33 Doctors of the Church and the only English Doctor. Venerable Bede is also the only Englishman in the Paradiso part of Dante’s Commedia Divina.
Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica is valued as the best source of knowledge concerning early English history, and has shed light on incredible amounts of information that undoubtedly would have gone unknown if not for this monk from Wearmouth-Jarrow. I know that I as an amateur historian am personally indebted to Bede and grateful for his life’s work.
That’s the end of this week’s episode. I am reluctantly announcing in advance that I am suspending production of British History 101 next week in light of the Thanksgiving holiday here in the United States. It is a time for me to see family and friends that I rarely get to spend time with, and with as much work as I am required to do over the break anyway, I want to maximize that time with them. I hope you will forgive me for this hiatus, and I assure you I will be back the following week.
A transcript of this and past episodes of my podcast can be found at Send questions, comments, rants, and raves to If I am at my computer, I can also be reached via Skype by the name britishhistory101, all in lowercase letters. Our music tonight is “Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin,” performed by O Fickle Fortune and available on Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. I very much appreciate everyone taking time out of their week to learn with me, and my best to you all. If you are in the United States, have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and for those of you outside of my country I convey my warmest regards. Thanks again, and we’ll meet again soon.

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Hi, great post! Just a tip on pronunciation, if I might: the 'e' at the end of 'learned' is spoken, so that it is pronounced "lear-ned" rather than "learnd."
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