Monk, priest, theologian, and Doctor of the Church;b. in the English kingdom of Northumbria in the region south of the River Tyne, probably 672 or 673; d. in his monastery in the same region, probably 735. Knowledge of the main facts of his life and work is solidly based on his own account at the end of his Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (completed 731). Born on land that shortly afterward came to belong to the dual monastery of SS. Peter and Paul, with houses at Wearmouth and Jarrow, Bede was entrusted by relatives to that monastery. He spent the rest of his life there, being ordained deacon at the unusually early age of 19 and priest at 30. The "Venerable"; by which he is commonly known was probably the title given to priests then (see jarrow, abbey of; wearmouth, abbey of).
Scope of His Work. In the course of an outwardly quiet life, Bede used the considerable monastic library assembled by the founder and abbot, Benedict Biscop (c. 628–690), to become one of the great polymaths of the medieval Church. His works cover secular areas, such as grammar, metrics, and chronology; the latter a speciality of his, related both to his historical interests and to his
concern with the controversy, still alive in his day, against those Celts who had not yet accepted Roman practice in computing the date of Easter (see easter con troversy). The Ecclesiastical History is commonly and rightly regarded as a decisive moment in the development of the art and science of historiography. Bede's voluminous commentaries on Scripture were highly valued by his contemporaries and throughout the Middle Ages. Here Bede seems to have aimed primarily at presenting clearly the opinions of the great Latin Fathers, mainly (but not exclusively) Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, and Gregory; but he certainly knew Greek and probably some Hebrew. Some of Bede's letters, particularly one to his former student egbert (d. 766), Archbishop of York, are also of importance. Other of his historical works are the History of the Abbots (of his monastery) and a life of Cuthbert in verse and prose.
More specifically, literary works include Latin poems, homilies, and a poem on death in five alliterative lines in Northumbrian English. In general, present literary taste finds Bede at his best in the great sections of the Ecclesiastical History and in passages of a more personal character, such as prayers, scattered throughout his works.
The general image of Bede suggested by these passages is borne out by an account of his death written by a pupil who was present. Bede was a monk radiant with a holy joy in teaching and learning. All who come to know him in his work will understand why Plummer wrote in 1896: "We have not, it seems to me, amid all our discoveries, invented as yet anything better than the Christian life which Bede lived, and the Christian death which he died."; Regard for the beauty of Bede's character, however, should not obscure appreciation of his intellectual acuity and of the originality of his contribution to the development of practice and thought in the Western Church. Bede had a sense for contemporary fact. His exegetical works show, in their precision and clarity, his feeling for the needs of the monastic students of non–Latin background who would use them. The letter to Egbert is full of sane, practical suggestions, including use of the vernacular in prayers, for improving the religious life of the Northumbrian laity.
Significance of the Work. Bede's own sense for the exigencies of time and situation sharpened his awareness of the same quality in others and hence contributed to the value of the Ecclesiastical History. The notable portrait of St. aidan (of lindisfarne, d. 651) is a case in point. Almost everything known about Aidan is from Bede, and what Bede tells of the specific working of the Irish mission makes it possible to say that Aidan was one of the great missionary geniuses of all time. Knowledge of another practical genius, the Easterner, Theodore of Tarsus (602–90), who came to England well advanced in age, and, as archbishop of Canterbury, inaugurated a golden era of early English Christianity, is likewise derived mainly from Bede's pages. That golden age was coming to an end by the time of Bede's death, but it had fulfilled its purpose; it had brought to completion the long and demanding task, begun 300 years earlier by British and Irish Celts, of preparing Western Christianity to assimilate the unromanized and barbarous North.
With almost prophetic genius Bede saw and judged clearly the importance of what had been going on in the England of his own and the preceding generation. His Ecclesiastical History images forth great events in a way that reveals their significance. Therein lies its value as history; but more than historical insight is involved. It may well be that Bede's scriptural commentary is derivative and presents little in the way of theological development. The Ecclesiastical History, however, does represent a significant advance in theological insight. Here an opening to a new day in the life of the Church was recognized, even as it took place, and was preserved in a form that taught posterity to sense the theological significance of the contemporary.
Feast: May 25.
See Also: historiography, ecclesiastical.
Bibliography: The Complete Works, ed. j. a. giles, 12 v. (London 1843–44), latest complete ed. A new ed. meeting modern philological requirements is now appearing in Corpus Christianorum. Series latina (Turnhout, Belg. 1953–) v. 119 (1962) and v. 120 (1960), Opera exegetica, ed. d. hurst, and v. 122 (1955), Opera homiletica, ed. d. hurst, and Opera rhythmica, ed. j. fraipoint, have appeared. Ecclesiastical History, ed. c. plummer, 2 v. (Oxford 1896; repr. 1956), indispensable notes and best general account and appreciation of Bede. Trs. of Ecclesiastical History, t. stapleton (1565), rev. j. e. ki g (Loeb Classical Library (London–New York–Cambridge, Mass. 1912–); New York 1930), bilingual. English Historical Documents, ed. d. douglas (New York 1953–), to be completed in 12 v., v.1, c. 500–1042, ed. d. whitelock, select bibliog. m. l. w. laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe, A.D. 500 to 900 (2d ed. New York 1957). Bedae Venerabilis opera de temporibus, ed. c. w. jones (Studies in Medieval History NS 9; Cambridge, Mass. 1943). t. a. carroll, The Venerable Bede: His Spiritual Teachings (Washington 1946). b. ward, The Venerable Bede (London 1998). l. l. j. r. houwen and a. a. macdonald, Beda Venerabilis: Historian, Monk & Northumbrian (Groningen, Netherlands 1996). j. f. kelly, "On the Brink: Bede [Christian Scholar 'Between two World,' 7th–8th Cent.]," Journal of Early Christian Studies 5 (1997): 85–103. b. p. robinson, "The Venerable Bede as Exegete," Downside Review 112(1994): 201–226. Bede and His World: The Jarrow Lectures, 1958–1993 (Aldershot, England 1994). p. hunter blair, The World of Bede (Cambridge 1990). j. m. wallace–hadrill, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary (Oxford 1988). g. h. brown, Bede the Venerable (Boston 1987). h. e. j. cowdrey, "Bede and the 'English People,"' Journal of Religious History 11 (1981): 501–523. r. t. farrell, ed., Bede and Anglo–Saxon England: Papers in Honour of the 1300th Anniversary of the Birth of Bede (Oxford 1978). g. bonner, ed., Famulus Christi: Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede (London 1976).
[c. j. donahue]