The Venerable Bede | Sam Rubinstein

The Last Chapter

There are few things which the Venerable Bede would have hated more than being called a ‘rogue’ and featuring in the pages of a political magazine. Bede detested ‘rogues’. He saw himself as the ultimate conformist, committing his life to the promotion of religious orthodoxy on matters that, to the twenty-first century mind, seem trivial and pedantic. And Bede – although I consider him to be a profound political thinker – preached a kind of anti-politics that viewed all earthly and secular affairs, including those which concern this publication, with a measure of disgust. He was, in many respects, a stock-figure from the familiar scenery of English life, and perhaps its prototype: the old fuddy-duddy, the wizened curmudgeon, who lives a tranquil life in the north-east surrounded by sheep and complains to anyone who will listen that ‘things were better back in my day’. In this yearning for things past, he was perhaps not so different from the bulk of the Mallard’s readership. 

Bede probably did not see himself as extraordinary – but he was extraordinary. The very fact that I can put forth such a portrait of him ought to prove as much. He is, I would argue, the first Englishman for whom we can construct a personality, and there is none else like him at least until we arrive at Alfred the Great, who was born over a century after his death. Great kings came and went: Æthelberht left his law-code, Oswald his saint-cult, Offa the great dyke that separates the English from the Welsh. But from this age only Bede, sequestered in his monastery at Jarrow, leaves us with more than a trace of the kind of person he was.

Bede – or Bæda, as he was known in Old English – was born in Northumbria around the year 673. Aged only six or seven, he was committed as an oblate to the twin monasteries of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. There he remained, maturing, singing, writing, and meditating, until he died in 735. One of his young disciples, a monk named Cuthbert, was present at his deathbed, and was so moved by the passing of his mentor that he wrote a letter to his friend Cuthwin: ‘I declare with truth that I have never seen with my eyes, or heard with my ears, any man so earnest in giving thanks to the living God’. Unlike many other churchmen of the period, Bede was not given to showmanship or performative asceticism. He was not a prolific healer or miracle-worker. Yet his simple life – one of deep thought and contemplation – was extremely inspirational to the younger generation that clung to him, of which Cuthbert is only one example.

The first thing to stress about Bede, and what makes him so remarkable, is that he operated in a vacuum. Northumbria in the year of Bede’s birth was on the periphery of Roman Christendom. Indeed, it had only fully been subsumed into Roman Christendom nine years earlier, at the synod of Whitby, when king Oswiu decided to adopt the Roman Easter and the Petrine tonsure (two things which Bede cared an awful lot about), finally breaking away from Celtic influence. York was not yet an archbishopric, and Canterbury, save for a period in the late seventh century under archbishop Theodore of Tarsus, was hardly a centre of Christian thought. So Bede, inquisitive as he was, had to be resourceful. He picked up scraps of information, here and there, without ever straying far from his monastic base: he corresponded endlessly with other churchmen; he harassed foreigners for information when they passed through his environs; he wolfed down every page of every book that had been hauled from the continent to Jarrow by abbot Benedict Biscop. His horizons were not particularly broad: he writes, for instance, that he spent his entire life ‘a dweller in that monastery’. But he had an insatiable hunger for knowledge, ‘taking delight in learning, teaching, and writing’. It is testament to Bede’s genius that, despite living in what was effectively a backwater, he was nonetheless able to assert himself as the finest mind in the Latin west.

He devoted this mind to various projects. Most famously, Bede is lauded as the ‘Father of English History’, on the basis of his magnum opus, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which he wrote four years before his death. But, as James Campbell reminds us in a ground-breaking essay, ‘Bede was not only, or even primarily, a historian’. He was an accomplished theologian and exegete, whose commentaries earned him a place as the only English Doctor of the Church. And he was also a mathematician, whose computus calculations – outlined in De temporibus and De temporum ratione – remain indispensable for Catholics today. Computus was quite a risky hobby at the dawn of the eighth century, and, on at least one occasion, Bede was even accused of heresy. But he stood by his convictions, and his work, even after his death, convinced the majority of Roman Catholics that he was in the right. He was, in short, a polymath – and one who cropped up in the unlikeliest of places.

But to my own quite secular mind, Bede’s scriptural exegesis, and his writings on the calculation of Easter, seem rather arcane. I am a student of history, and what I admire most about Bede is his historical method. James Campbell cautions against this, too: ‘Bede’s greatness’, he wrote, ‘comes not only from qualities which would have made him a good historian by modern professional standards, but also from others which would have made him an extremely bad one’. This may be so; for even where Bede is ‘bad’, by Campbell’s ‘modern professional standards’, he still reveals his genius.

I first read Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, somewhat improbably, while on holiday in Japan with my family, in the summer of 2018. Like generations of historians until fairly recently, I was prepared, while sitting on the bullet trains and gorging myself on sushi, to take his account of things at face-value, treating him as a sort of encyclopaedia for information about Britain in late antiquity. Unlike some of his contemporaries – Stephen of Ripon, for example, wrote a hagiography of St Wilfrid that is shot through with almost comical misogyny, and some antisemitism to boot – Bede does a very good job of seeming disinterested, dispassionate, and therefore reliable on most matters. It was only on my second reading – after I had imbibed some of the secondary literature, most of which flows directly from the brain of James Campbell – that I realised that Bede really is a polemicist, and a rather mischievous one at that, who felt strongly that the church, and his kingdom more broadly, was heading in a very bad direction. In the closing pages of the Ecclesiastical History, and again in his letter to bishop Ecgberht of York in 734, he laments that the church is ‘demented with error’, plagued by ‘spurious monasteries’, and that Northumbria has been in a state of decline since the death of king Aldfrith in 705. His decision to point to this particular moment is fairly arbitrary; he may just as easily have chosen the Northumbrian defeat by the Picts at Nechtansmere in 685, or the deaths of Benedict Biscop and archbishop Theodore in 690. The point – as is often the point in polemical literature – is to create a lost ‘golden age’ for contemporaries to emulate, and to which they could aspire. He was a remarkably talented historian, but he wrote not for the sake of posterity, but to edify and instruct those around him. 

Bede is, as I said, an anti-political thinker. His heroes are figures like Cuthbert and Aidan – holy men who secluded themselves on Lindisfarne, keeping their hands clean of worldly affairs. He tries, as best he can, to follow their example, and is so awed by their selfless piety that he is prepared even to overlook their Celtic eccentricities. He views with suspicion (as Campbell teased out) churchmen like Wilfrid, who, despite being of a more orthodox disposition than Cuthbert and Aidan, embraced the wealth of the church and revelled in its corrupting secular power. He never says this outright: perhaps he takes to heart one of his observations in his commentary on the Book of Samuel, that the prophet never put any priests on trial. But through hints, euphemisms, omissions, and other various breadcrumbs, he makes his real thoughts and opinions clear, to those who know how to look for them.

Bede is subtler than most of his own intellectual influences. Eusebius of Caesarea, his forerunner in the realm of ecclesiastical history, felt obliged to contort Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine the Great, into a crypto-Christian in order to defend his character. Likewise, Paulus Orosius, in his History against the Pagans, consistently equates Roman paganism with moral vice and suffering, to be juxtaposed with boundless virtue in Christ. Bede understands that the world is a lot more nuanced than any such binary schema will allow. In Bede’s moral vision, pagans can be good and Christians can be bad. In the first book of the Ecclesiastical History, he even goes so far as to celebrate the victory of the king of Northumbria Æthelfrith, ‘ignorant of true religion’, over the Celtic Christians. This does not undermine his faith. Rather, he sees Æthelfrith as an instrument of divine providence. 

And it was Bede who birthed to us the very concept of England; it was he who saw the Germanic peoples of Britain as a single gens speaking a single tongue, and heralded them as a new Israel, imbued with a providential purpose. When the viking menaces of the ninth century encouraged a greater degree of national solidarity among the English peoples, it is no surprise that Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex, looked back to Bede for guidance. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History was translated into Old English, almost certainly at Alfred’s behest. His conception of the gens Anglorum became Angelcynn. Over the next few centuries, the Angelcynn developed a formidable administrative apparatus; Patrick Wormald went so far as to characterise England as the first nation-state in Europe. One people, under one king, under one God: this national identity, upon which much of our modern state is ultimately built, can be traced back to the mind of a monk who died almost 1300 years ago.

Just as Northumbria languished on the periphery of Roman Christendom in the age of Bede, so too does Bede languish on the periphery of the English consciousness today. His name is sufficiently unique and recognisable that he has not faded into total obscurity, and his ubiquitous sobriquet, ‘the Venerable’, is a handy aide-mémoire (Yeatman and Sellar called him ‘the Venomous Bead’). He is a symbol of local pride in the north-east, and he is of course of particular significance to English Catholics. But even if they are familiar with his name, people tend not to know very much about him. If he does have any pull on the national imagination, it is as the image of a fusty scholar, amassing trivia about his world and compiling them in his great work ‘history’. This image of Bede omits the vitality, the genius, and the (dare I say) roguishness that animates his work, and makes his Ecclesiastical History such a fascinating text to read over and over again.

This essay is an entry to the Mallard’s Rogues’ Gallery competition. You can find more information here.

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