Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People: An Introduction and Selection
200 pp., $22.95
Gerald J. Russello
The Ecclesiastical History of the British People
The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in the double monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow by the Venerable Bede and completed in AD 731, is one of the great achievements of Western literature. As the British historian Christopher Dawson wrote, Bede's History is an "exceptional, almost a unique" work of history. In it, Bede tells the story of cultural conflict and religious controversy unfolding according to the divine plan for what became known as the British Isles. The History contains a wealth of historical detail, some found nowhere else. Although his methods were not modern, and Bede would not have understood the current obsession with "objective" history, nonetheless historians have long spoken approvingly of Bede as a historian. Bede knew what he knew, and what he didn't, and what was in between, and the word legetur (it is said) appears often as a clue to where Bede signals he is not fully sure of his source.
Bede wrote the History in a graceful and educated Latin, but it was so influential that King Alfred the Great selected it among only a few works that he ordered translated into Old English, during the 9th century. There was one major exception to Bede's Latin, however. He includes, in the original Anglo-Saxon, the earliest example of English poetry we have, what is called Caedmon's song. It is like a voice from the English fields and villages piercing the monastic Latinate veil of the rest of the work.
Of Bede himself, little is known other than what he himself tells us. There is a letter from a fellow monk, but that relays largely only details of his death. Bede lived his entire life at the monastery, in Northumbria, given to be educated by the monks there by his parents when he was about seven years old; that was not an unusual practice in this period. He lived in the monastery his whole life, dying (it is thought) in 735, and was the author of many works of theology and Scripture commentary in addition to the History. Long called the "Father of English History" for his wide learning and nuanced historical writing, Bede was made a Doctor of the Catholic Church in 1899.
Over the centuries since he died, however, Bede has often been invoked as a weapon during ecclesial or political conflict. The seeds were there, even in the actions of Alfred: the desire to set up Bede as a defender of a kind of insular Englishness, for example, remained strong. Later, during the Reformation in England, some reformers invoked Bede as an example of a unique British Church separate from Rome, although British Catholics also cited him as a call to return to the Old Faith. The reformers would have been better served by invoking Bede's adversaries, for as Rowan Williams notes in his thoughtful introduction, there is no question that Bede looked to Rome as the center of the Christian world. At important parts of his account, Rome's centrality is emphasized, such as Pope Vitalian's sending Hadrian and Theodore from Rome to serve as bishops in England. Indeed, the work is structured in large part as a call to the British church to stay within the Roman fold. The idea of a national church in the way we might understand, for example, the Church of England would have been incomprehensible to him.
Bede, therefore, remains of continued interest and importance, aside from the beauty of his language and the reserve of historical detail. For we too are caught in a part-pagan, part-Christian world where the future of the Church in the West may hang in the balance, and where the guardians of orthodox Christianity have arguably lost the fervor for preaching the Good News, as Bede thought they had in his. The History, among other things, shows us that the history of the Church is ever the same. The appearance of this heavily, but smartly, pruned edition of Bede's enduring work is therefore welcome.
These selections, translated by Sr. Benedicta Ward, feature some of the most well-known or important passages of the massive full History. Thus we find the great story of Pope Gregory sending missionaries to England, the actions of Oswiu and Oswine, and the lives of Bede's heroes, Saints Cuthbert and Aidan, among many other historical set pieces that linger, still, in the Western historical imagination.
Behind Bede stood seven centuries of thought on the actions of God in history, beginning of course with the person of Christ but continuing through to Bede's own time. Bede was a student of this tradition, especially of the philosophy of history as first adumbrated in the work of St. Augustine. This historical approach combined the world-chronicle typical of early medieval writers such as Eusebius with the microcosm of that chronicle in a particular place. St. Augustine, as Dawson explained, impressed upon Christian historiography the conviction that history is a dynamic process unfolding the divine plan, and that the individual has a role in that plan. Thus the saints become not simply exemplars of faith but historical actors: the saint "has become a citizen of the eternal city, a celestial patron and a protector of man's earthly life. So that in the lives of the saints we see history transcending itself and becoming part of the eternal world of faith."