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Bede, Venerable

Historian and Doctor of the Church, b. 672 or 673; d. 735

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Bede, the VENERABLE, historian and Doctor of the Church, b. 672 or 673; d. 735. In the last chapter of his great work on the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” Bede has told us something of his own life, and it is, practically speaking, all that we know. His words, written in 731, when death was not far off, not only show a simplicity and piety characteristic of the man, but they throw a light upon the composition of the work through which he is best remembered by the world at large.

“Thus much”, he says, “concerning the ecclesiastical history of Britain, and especially of the race of the English, I, Bwda, a servant of Christ and priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, which is at Wearmouth and at Jarrow (in Northumberland), have with the Lord’s help composed so far as I could gather it either from ancient documents or from the traditions of the elders, or from my own knowledge. I was born in the territory of the said monastery, and at the age of seven I was, by the care of my relations, given to the most reverend Abbot Benedict [St. Benedict Biscop], and afterwards to Ceolfrid, to be educated. From that time I have spent the whole of my life within that monastery, devoting all my pains to the study of the Scriptures, and amid the observance of monastic discipline and the daily charge of singing in the Church, it has been ever my delight to learn or teach or write. In my nineteenth year I was admitted to the diaconate, In my thirtieth to the priesthood, both by the hands of the most reverend Bishop John [St. John of Beverley], and at the bidding of Abbot Ceolfrid. From the time of my admission to the priesthood to my present fifty-ninth year, I have endeavored for my own use and that of my brethren, to make brief notes upon the holy Scripture, either out of the works of the venerable Fathers or in conformity with their meaning and interpretation.” After this Bede inserts a list or Indiculus, of his previous writings and finally concludes his great work with the following words: “And I pray thee, loving Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously given me to drink in with delight the words of Thy knowledge, so Thou wouldst mercifully grant me to attain one day to Thee, the fountain of all wisdom and to appear for ever before Thy face.”

It is plain from Bede‘s letter to Bishop Egbert that the historian occasionally visited his friends for a few days, away from his own monastery of Jarrow, but with such rare exceptions his life seems to have been one peaceful round of study and prayer passed in the midst of his own community. How much he was beloved by them is made manifest by the touching account of the saint’s last sickness and death left us by Cuthbert, one of his disciples. Their studious pursuits were not given up on account of his illness and they read aloud by his bedside, but constantly the reading was interrupted by their tears. “I can with truth declare”, writes Cuthbert of his beloved master, “that I never saw with my eyes or heard with my ears anyone return thanks so unceasingly to the living God.” Even on the day of his death (the vigil of the Ascension, 735) the saint was still busy dictating a translation of the Gospel of St. John. In the evening the boy Wilbert, who was writing it, said to him: “There is still one sentence, dear master, which is not written down.” And when this had been supplied, and the boy had told him it was finished, “‘Thou hast spoken truth’, Bede answered, `it is finished. Take my head in thy hands for it much delights me to sit opposite any holy place where I used to pray, that so sitting I may call upon my Father.’ And thus upon the floor of his cell singing, `Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost‘ and the rest, he peace-ly breathed his last breath.”

The title Venerabilis seems to have been associated with the name of Bede within two generations after his death. There is of course no early authority for the legend repeated by Fuller of the “dunce monk” who in composing an epitaph on Bede was at a loss to complete the line: Hac cunt in fosse Bedce . . ossa and who next morning found that the angels had filled the gap with the word venerabilis. The title is used by Alcuin, Amalarius, and seemingly Paul the Deacon, and the important Council of Aachen in 835 describes him as venerabilis et modern’s temporibus doctor admirabilis Beda. This decree was specially referred to in the petition which Cardinal Wiseman and the English bishops addressed to the Holy See in 1859 praying that Bede might be declared a Doctor of the Church. The question had already been debated even before the time of Benedict XIV, but it was only on November 13, 1899, that Leo XIII decreed that the feast of Venerable Bede with the title of Doctor Ecclesics should be celebrated throughout the Church each year on May 27. A local cultus of St. Bede had been maintained at York and in the North of England through-out the Middle Ages, but his feast was not so generally observed in the South, where the Sarum Rite was followed.

Bede‘s influence both upon English and foreign scholarship was very great, and it would probably have been greater still but for the devastation inflicted upon the northern monasteries by the inroads of the Danes less than a century after his death. In numberless ways, but especially in his moderation, gentleness, and breadth of view, Bede stands out from his contemporaries. In point of scholarship he was undoubtedly the most learned man of his time. A very remarkable trait, noticed by Plummer (I, p. xxiii), is his sense of literary property, an extraordinary thing in that age. He himself scrupulously noted in his writings the passages he had borrowed from others and he even begs the copyists of his works to preserve the references, a recommendation to which they, alas, have paid but little attention. High, however, as was the general level of Bede‘s culture, he repeatedly makes it clear that all his studies were subordinated to the interpretation of Scripture. In his “De Schematibus” he says in so many words: “Holy Scripture is above all other books not only by its authority because it is Divine, or by its utility because it leads to eternal life, but also by its antiquity and by its literary form” (positione dicendi). It is perhaps the highest tribute to Bede‘s genius that with so uncompromising and evidently sincere a conviction of the inferiority of human learning, he should have acquired so much real culture. Though Latin was to him a still living tongue, and though he does not seem to have consciously looked hack to the Augustan Age of Roman Literature as preserving purer models of style than the time of Fortunatus or St. Augustine, still whether through native genius or through contact with the classics, he is remarkable for the relative purity of his language, as also for his lucidity and his sobriety, more especially in matters of historical criticism. In all these respects he presents a marked contrast to St. Aldhelm who approaches more nearly to the Celtic type.

WRITINGS AND EDITIONS.—NO adequate edition founded upon a careful collation of manuscripts has ever been published of Bede‘s works as a whole. The text printed by Giles in 1844 and reproduced in Migne (XC-XCIV) shows little if any advance on the Basle edition of 1563 or the Cologne edition of 1688. It is of course as an historian that Bede is chiefly remembered. His great work, the “Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum”, giving an account of Christianity in England from the beginning until his own day, is the foundation of all our knowledge of early British history and a masterpiece eulogized by the scholars of every age. Of this work, together with the “Historia Abbatum”, and the “Letter to Egbert“, Plummer has produced an edition which may fairly be called final (2 vols., Oxford, 1896). Bede‘s remarkable industry in collecting materials and his critical use of them have been admirably illustrated in Plummer’s Introduction (pp. xliii-xlvii). The “History of the Abbots” (of the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow), the “Letter to Egbert“, the metrical and prose lives of St. Cuthbert, and the other smaller pieces are also of great value for the light they shed upon the state of Christianity in Northumbria in Bede‘s own day. The “Ecclesiastical History” was translated into Anglo-Saxon at the instance of King Alfred. It has often been translated since, notably by T. Stapleton who printed it (1565) at Antwerp as a controversial weapon against the Reformation divines in the reign of Elizabeth. The Latin text first appeared in Germany in 1475; it is noteworthy that no edition even of the Latin was printed in England before 1643. Smith’s more accurate text saw the light in 1742.

Bede‘s chronological treatises “De tempori bus liber” and “De temporum ratione” also contain summaries of the general history of the world from the Creation to 725 and 703, respectively. These historical portions have been satisfactorily edited by Mommsen in the “Monumenta Germanise historica” (4to series, 1898). They may be counted among the earliest specimens of this type of general chronicle and were largely copied and imitated. The topographical work “De locis sanctis” is a description of Jerusalem and the holy places based upon Adamnan and Arculfus. Bede‘s work was edited in 1898 by Geyer in the “Itinera Hierosolymitana” for the Vienna “Corpus Scriptorum”. That Bede compiled a Martyrologium we know from his own statement. But the work attributed to him in extant manuscripts has been so much interpolated and supplemented that his share in it is quite uncertain.

Bede‘s exegetical writings both in his own idea and in that of his contemporaries stood supreme in importance amongst his works, but the list is long and cannot be fully given here. They included a commentary upon the Pentateuch as a whole as well as on selected portions, and there are also commentaries on the Books of Kings, Esdras, Tobias, the Canticles, etc. In the New Testament he has certainly interpreted St. Mark, St. Luke, the Acts, the Canonical Epistles, and the Apocalypse. But the authenticity of the commentary on St. Matthew printed under his name is more than doubtful. (Plaine in “Revue Anglo-Romaine”, 1896, III, 61.) The homilies of Bede take the form of commentaries upon the Gospel. The collection of fifty, divided into two books, which are attributed to him by Giles (and in Migne) are for the most part authentic, but the genuineness of a few is open to suspicion. (Morin in “Revue Benedictine”, IX, 1892, 316.)

Various didactic works are mentioned by Bede in the list which he has left us of his own writings. Most of these are still preserved and there is no reason to doubt that the texts we possess are authentic. The grammatical treatises “De arte metric'” and “De orthographic” have been adequately edited in modern times by Kell in his “Grammatici Latini” (Leipzig, 1880), VII, and the “De Schematibus et Tropis by Halm in his “Rhetores Latini minores” (Leipzig, 1863). But the larger works “De nature, rerum”, “De temporibus”, “De temporum ratione”, dealing with science as it was then understood and especially with chronology, are only accessible in the unsatisfactory texts of the earlier editors and Giles. Beyond the metrical life of St. Cuthbert and some verses incorporated in the “Ecclesiastical History” we do not possess much poetry that can be assigned to Bede with confidence, but, like other scholars of his age, he certainly wrote a good deal of verse. He himself mentions his “book of hymns” composed in different metres or rhythms. So Alcuin says of him: Plurima versifico cecinit quoque carmina plectro. It is possible that the shorter of the two metrical calendars printed among his works is genuine. The Penitential ascribed to Bede, though accepted as genuine by Haddam and Stubbs and Wasserschleben, is probably not his (Plummer, I, 157).

Venerable Bede is the earliest witness of pure Gregorian tradition in England. His works “Musica theoretica” and “De arte Metrica” (Migne, XC) are found especially valuable by present-day scholars engaged in the study of the primitive form of the chant.


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