The Venerable Bede. After the fall of Rome and the retreat of learning into the monasteries, Europe produced few notable scholars who can truly be called scientists until about the twelfth century. One exception was Bede (circa 673–735), who became known among medieval scholars as the Venerable Bede for his great learning and piety. He entered the monastery of St. Peter in Wearmouth, on the rocky northeast coast of England, at the age of seven, and two years later he moved to the nearby abbey of Jarrow, where he spent the remainder of his life. There he wrote important ecclesiastical histories, world chronologies, and commentaries on scripture, grammar, and music—as well as three long works on what now would be considered natural science. De natura rerum (On the nature of things, written circa 703) is an encyclopedic treatise on all manner of natural phenomena. Unlike other early encyclopedias, Bede’s work is not just a catalogue. He tried to explain why things were as they were and was the first scholar to show an interest in cause and effect.
Works about Time. Bede’s other two scientific treatises, De temporibus (On time, written in 703) and De temporum ratione (On the reckoning of time, written in 725), are about calendars and chronology and set out astronomical rules for determining the date of Easter, an issue of great importance in the early eighth century. The various medieval methods of dating could result in calendars that varied by as much as two weeks, leading to situations in which some of the devout were still in abstinence for Lent while others were celebrating Easter. This confusion arose because it was necessary to use both
the Roman calendar, based on the solar year, and the Hebrew calendar, based on the lunar month, to determine the exact dates of Easter and other religious holidays. Because there are no common factors for 365 (the approximate number of days in a solar year) and 29 (roughly the number of days in a lunar month), there is no simple way to determine the day of the year in the Julian calendar, the form of solar-year calendar then in use, on which Easter (computed from lunar cycles) falls. Added to this difficulty was the pragmatic way in which individual congregations marked time from one feast to the next through cycles of specific texts and Psalms. Over decades and centuries, these cycles had become badly out of sync with the proper dates as determined by the heavens and as required by Church law. By the third century C.E. an entire discipline had been founded to calculate those dates and came to be called computus after the lengthy computations necessary to predict the motions of the moon and the sun throughout the year. For more than eight hundred years, Bede’s De temporum ratione was the standard textbook for performing these calculations. In it he treats the motions of the sun, the moon, the stars, and even the tides, trying to set down the general laws that govern all these phenomena. For practical purposes, he included tables and formulae for calculation and calendars, as well as mnemonic devices to remind his brethren how to calculate time.
A New Dating System. Bede was the first historian to publicize the modern idea of anno domini (A.D.)—that is, the method of dating events from the birth of Christ. Although he did not intend to cause controversy, this new system led to speculation on the “end of the world” or the second coming of Christ. Bede was unfairly accused of fostering this sort of thinking, and he felt obliged to disavow this rampant speculation in language uncharacteristically strong for such a gentle and scholarly monk: “I am as much grieved as I can be, I confess, or else greatly annoyed, whenever upstarts ask me how many of the last thousand years remain [until the Second Coming]. And I am equally annoyed when they ask me, ‘How do you know that the last thousand years are in progress?‚ The Lord does not state in the Gospels whether the time of His Advent is near or far-distant.... If anyone should say to me, ‘Lo, here is the Christ!‚ Or ‘Lo, there!‚ I would not listen to him or follow him.”
Bede, The Reckoning of Time, edited and translated by Faith Wallis (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999).
Alistair Cameron Crombie, Augustine to Galileo: The History of ’Science A.D. 400—1650, second edition, revised and enlarged (Cambridge, Mass.: verpool University Press, 1999).
Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts (Cambridge: Camphia: University Press, 1973).
Charles W. Jones, Bede, the Schools and the “Computus,” edited by Wesley M. Stevens (Aldershot: Variorum, 1994).
David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
Wesley M. Stevens, “Bede’s Scientific Achievement” in Bede and His World: The Jarroiv Lectures, 1958–1993 (Aldershot: Variorum, 1994), pp. 645–688.