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St Bede

Feast day: 25 May

St Bede, often called the Venerable Bede, was sent by his family as a “puer oblatus” to the monastery of Monkwearmouth, to be educated by Bishop Biscop and later by Ceolfrith. It was a fairly common practice in Ireland at this time for young boys - particularly those of noble birth - to be fostered out as oblates, and it was likely that this was also true in England. Monkwearmouth’s sister abbey at Jarrow was founded by Ceolfrith in 682, so Bede probably transferred there that year. The dedication stone for the church has survived to this day and is dated 685.

Most of what we know about Bede is contained in the last chapter of his famous work The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which was a history of the church in England completed in 731. Bede implies that he was then 59, which indicates that he was born in 672 or 673. A minor source of information is a letter written by his disciple Cuthbert (not St Cuthbert who is mentioned in Bede’s work), which relates to Bede’s death. Bede wrote that his birth place was on the monastery lands but does not say anything about his parents. It is assumed that he came from a well-to-do family since he had connections with the nobility.

In 686 a plague broke out at Jarrow. The Life of Ceolfrith, written in about 710, records that only two  of the surviving monks were capable of singing the full office; one was Ceolfrith and the other a young boy who - according to the anonymous writer - had been taught by Ceolfrith. The young boy was almost certainly Bede and he would have been about fourteen. He was ordained a deacon at the age of nineteen which was below the canonical age, possibly because he already showed great ability. He was ordained a priest at the age of thirty. In 701 he wrote his first works De Arte Metrica and De Schematibus et Tropis, both being intended for the classroom. He wrote over sixty books, many of which have survived. The last work is a letter to Ecgbert of York, a former student, written in 734.

The library at Jarrow was thought to contain about five hundred books. With these resources, Bede was versed in natural philosophy, the philosophical principles of Aristotle, astronomy, arithmetic, grammar, ecclesiastical history, the lives of the saints and especially sacred scripture. He was a skilled translator and linguist and enjoyed music, being an accomplished singer and reciter of poetry. His work falls into three categories: grammatical and “scientific,” scriptural commentary and historical and biographical.

He expanded his work of 708, De Temporabis ("On Times”), with a much longer work in 725. Both these writings were mainly concerned with the reckoning of Easter. There was an acrimonious debate between the Celtic and Roman churches on this subject, which was only resolved at the Council of Whitby in 664. Bede supported the Roman position, having made his own calculations. He was also responsible for the dating of events from Christ’s birth, through the popularity of his writing, though he was not the first to do this.

Bede wrote many bible commentaries; the first was probably on the Revelation to St John. In this and other studies his aim was to transmit and explain relevant passages from the Fathers of the Church. His interpretations were mainly allegorical, searching for deeper meaning in the text. He did, however, use some critical judgement. Many of his commentaries were brought to the monastic libraries of Europe. Bede was remarkable in that as well as Latin he seems to have known some Greek, the study of which largely ceased during the Middle Ages. He was familiar with the writings of many of the Fathers of the Church. He also wrote two lives of St Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne - one prose, the other poetry. They are hagiographical rather than biographical.

Bede is best known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which took him thirty years to write. Bede’s aim was to write a history of the growth of a united church in England. It is divided into five books. It begins with the arrival of Julius Caesar and concludes with that of St Augustine to convert the English. He used a variety of sources, from classical authors such as Cicero, Virgil, Terence and Pliny the Elder to lives of the saints and various histories. He also had a wide circle of correspondents who supplied him with information. He seems to have been very careful to check the veracity of his sources. His emphasis is very much on church history and he omits the activities of kings and events, which he does not see as relevant. Since he lived in Northumbria he tends to concentrate on that kingdom rather than the others. In spite of these drawbacks and the relating of miracles, most historians regard Bede’s work as a valuable  source of information. There are 160 manuscripts surviving, many of which are in libraries on the continent.

Bede seems to have been a humble man who refused the office of abbot, preferring to live a life of prayer and of study which he felt was his way of serving God. He was much loved by his community. His student Cuthbert relates how Bede completed his translation of the Gospel of John on the day of his death, the feast of the Ascension in 735, after which he fell to the floor and passed quietly away. He was buried in Jarrow but his remains were moved in 1370 to Durham cathedral, where his tomb can still be seen today.

Pope Leo XIII canonised Bede in 1899 and gave him the title ”Doctor of the Church”. He is the only Englishman to be so honoured. In his day he was chiefly known for his biblical commentaries but he became increasingly important as a historian. Alcuin of York, a student of one of  Bede’s pupils, became a leading figure in the Carolingian Renaissance of the late eighth and early ninth century. Bede is the only Englishman to be mentioned in the Paradiso of Dante’s Divine comedy in the fourteenth century.

St Bede of Jarrow, pray for us.