Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People: An Introduction and Selection
Bloomsbury Continuum, 2012
200 pp., $32.00
Gerald J. Russello
The Ecclesiastical History of the British People
The cultural and political situation Bede was writing about and in which he lived was complex. The western Roman Empire was no more, though its influence was everywhere felt. The centurions had left Britain a century and more before, and the overarching civitas of Rome—though nominally continued in the West under the Emperor in Constantinople—had been replaced by a set of squabbling kingdoms. Moreover, the native Britons were being displaced by those whom Bede calls the Angli, first by their raiding parties, then by their colonization. Who the Angli were is not clear, but they were not, initially, Christian; the native Britons were. But Bede reminds us throughout the work that although the political power of Rome has faded, its sacramental influence and institutional force as the Church remain, and he is careful o trace legitimate ecclesial and even on occasion political authority to Rome.
This may seem to set up a simplistic dichotomy of pious Britons versus pagan Angli invaders, with the latter ultimately converted by the former. But Bede was too conscious of the record to make that mistake, and his narrative is too rich in nuance to permit a Whiggish history. The pagan faiths and Christianity were competing, sometimes within the same household. Bede recounts, for example, that King Raedwald, king of the East Saxons, although nominally a Christian, "seemed at the same time to serve Christ and the gods whom he had served before; and in the same temple he had an altar to sacrifice to Christ, and another small one to offer victims to devils." Bede instead inverts the expected narrative, replaying (as Williams puts it) the drama of salvation history in Britain. The native, Christian Britons are chastised for their weak convictions and for failing to evangelize the invaders. The Angli, on this view, are an instrument of God's plan, even as Israel was chastised through non-Jewish overlords. They will become the basis for the revivified Church in England, not the Britons. Indeed, so the story goes, it was seeing the faces of these Angli in a slave market in Rome ("Non Angli, sed angeli!") that caused Pope Gregory to send Augustine to preach the faith in Britain. (This missionary bishop, who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, is to be distinguished from his great predecessor, Augustine of Hippo.)
Seen in this way, the title of Bede's work comes into better focus. He is writing an ecclesiastical history of the English people. That is, he is exploring how the newcomers came into the Kingdom of God. Thus the importance of something as remote to us as the proper calculation of Easter comes into focus. For Bede—who was legendary in his own day for being able properly to calculate the precise date of Easter and other holidays—whether the British would follow the Roman practice was emblematic of whether they would continue to celebrate the truer faith. But even here he is not doctrinaire: those who proceed in their Paschal calculations (according to Bede's lights) in error, but who are nonetheless acting according to their faithful attempts to live the Gospel, still receive praise. Moreover, Bede does not whitewash the record. Not all of his heroes are saints, and the villains are not unredeemed by good actions, even actions that further the faith.
Bede's History is a masterful effort to recount the real events of history under the auspices of discerning God's actions in history, to show the eternal even in the temporal squabbles of kinglets and the singing of peasantry.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (www.kirkcenter.org).
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