From His Age to Ours: St. Bede the Historian

Relatively little is known about the Englishman St. Bede (672-735), traditionally referred to as the “Venerable Bede,” who lived in that misty period known as the Dark Ages. Even so, the genius of the Benedictine monk who labored at the monastery of Jarrow was acknowledged for centuries by the use of B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini – Year of Our Lord). Though the system was first devised by St. Denis of France in the 6th century, it had lain dormant for two centuries until Bede popularized it in his philosophical and historical tracts. From Bede it was passed on to English missionaries and thence to Charlemagne’s court, the popes, and eventually all European society. But most readers familiar with the Anglo-Saxon monk will know him through his chronicle The Ecclesiastical History of England (written in 731 A.D.).

Following the collapse of Roman rule England underwent a period of backwardness and savagery that defies imagination. One gets some sense of the gloomy zeitgeist from the writings of St. Ambrose, a contemporary witness living in Italy. He spoke of the impending Apocalypse as barbarians swarmed over the remains of a decaying empire.

There are many interesting sidelights to Bede’s panoramic view of the past. Describing St. Wilfrid’s mission to the pagans, we are told that found the inhabitants of early Sussex so idiotic that they hardly knew how to feed themselves and were reduced to starvation. In despair they began tying themselves together with rope and throwing themselves off cliffs into the sea. The priest asked why they didn’t catch fish for supper. The pagan king replied they were too slippery. The missionary took pity on the benighted Saxons and taught them to make nets whereupon the people, amazed at his wisdom, converted en masse and Wilfrid became their bishop.

One decisive turning point has been forgotten in the passage of millennia. It was the manner in which Britain was re-evangelized in the post-Roman era. Imagine for a moment that today we spoke a Gaelic dialect stemming from the original Celtic Christians of the island. But things didn’t turn out that way. The English monk explains that when St. Augustine of Canterbury began his mission among the Saxons in 597 the Britons in the west refused to have anything to do with the pagan settlers in the east. As a result, Anglo-Saxon became the basis of our language and culture and left its imprint well beyond the Norman Conquest of 1066.

A refined product of a crude age, the scholarship of Bede’s History was exemplary. The author conscientiously cited other books and even requested copies of important documents from the papal archives in Rome—all this at a time when civilization was near its lowest ebb. Bede’s chronicle remains a readable and instructive work for all times.

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