Saint Bede the Venerable
Saint Bede the Venerable
British Theologian, Historian, and Writer
Saint Bede the Venerable is regarded as the most learned man of the seventh and eighth centuries. He was convinced that the Christian Church could bring order and culture out of the violence and ignorance of the Dark Ages that followed the downfall of the Roman Empire. Acting on this conviction, he remained personally committed to cultural progress throughout his life. He wrote on virtually all areas of knowledge of interest in his time, including natural science.
Nothing is known of Bede's family and birth. At the age of seven, his family left him at a Benedictine monastery in Wearmouth, Northumbria, in northern England. He later became a monk and resided in the monastery all of his life, making few trips into the outside world. There he studied and wrote, and his work made Northumbria a center of the revival of ancient learning, influencing scholarship in Britain and on the continent. The British scholar Alcuin (735-804) used Bede's scholarship as a basis for the instruction in the cathedral schools that he established for Charlemagne (742-814), and thus insured Bede's influence on the Carolingian Renaissance.
As a churchman, Bede regarded the Bible not only as a source of literal truth but also containing the rich symbolic meaning of allegory. As a result he was more open to scientific observation and explanation than many of his contemporaries.
Bede wrote between 40 and 60 books on a broad range of subjects, including science, history, biography, scriptural commentary, and grammar. He was also a poet. His best known work dealt with the history of the Christian Church and with the setting of dates (chronology). In his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical history of the English people) Bede covered the history of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain to Christianity from the Roman invasion (55-54 b.c.) to the coming of Saint Augustine of Canterbury (a.d. 597).
Certainly one of his most important contributions to chronology was the introduction of the practice of dating historical events from the birth of Christ, using the terminology anno Domini (in the year of our Lord) or a.d. He also developed a systematic method for calculating the date of Easter, simplifying the previous complicated procedures that were a consequence of combining the Roman solar calendar with the Hebrew lunar calendar. His approaches, contained in On the Reckoning of Time, were eventually adopted throughout the Western world.
Bede's writings on scientific subjects are of two types: summaries of natural science as it was then understood and more original applications of scientific thought to practical problems. His works are excellent compilations and commentaries on the state of understanding of the natural world in the period prior to the translation of Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers. Bede's knowledge was based on the encyclopedia of Roman writer Pliny the Elder (23-79), on the cosmology of the Christian Fathers—such as Saint Ambrose (340-397), Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Saint Basil (329-379), and Saint Gregory (540-604)—and on the encyclopedic works of Isidore of Seville (570-636). He did, however, add elements of his own in his distillation of their writings. Bede's writings contain the basic elements of modern science. He down-played the mystical in the natural world and sought explanations in terms of cause and effect, attempting to extract general laws that were internally consistent and that agreed with observational evidence. His own original applications of scientific knowledge and thought dealt with such practical matters as the tides, the calendar, and problems in arithmetic. Bede's principal works that dealt with scientific matters were De natura rerum, De temporibus, and De temporium ratione.
J. WILLIAM MONCRIEF