The Venerable Bede



Bede was a Northumbrian, born in 673 on the lands of the monastery of St Peter at Wearmouth. At the age of seven, his parents sent him to St Peter’s to begin his education. And there he remained, first as student and then as master, either at Wearmouth or at the twin monastery of St Paul at Jarrow on the river Tyne, till his death in 735 at the then ripe age of 62. 

It would be hard to think of a career that was more circumscribed or less eventful. But that is to see it simply in physical terms. Instead, Bede was an adventurer of the mind and his terra incognita was the great library accumulated by his own patron and teacher, Abbot Benedict Biscop, at Jarrow. Bede explored this library thoroughly and meticulously. But he was no dry-as-dust scholar. Rather, as with all those who go into the unknown, there was a touch of boldness about him, and a willingness to think afresh.

Depiction of the Venerable Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Depiction of the Venerable Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

The result was that this provincial monk, who never stirred more than a few dozen miles from his place of birth, became responsible for a remarkable series of scholarly innovations which changed the intellectual life of Europe.

He was particularly interested in chronology, that is, the ordering of events in time. This is the basic tool of the historian and to help himself and others to date events accurately he wrote two handbooks. They listed world events from ancient times to his own day and – in place of the chaos of different eras used then and for long after – they popularized what has become our standard means of dating by the year BC or AD.

He was also, since he was unusually scrupulous both about naming his sources and quoting from them accurately, one of the pioneers of the footnote and the bibliography. He had a clear understanding of causation, and wrote a version of the plain style that was refreshingly different from (say) Gilda’s excitable rhetoric.

Bede on his deathbed completing his translation of St John's Gospel to the young scribe Wilburt (Wilbur), 1902 by James Doyle Penrose

Bede on his deathbed completing his translation of St John’s Gospel to the young scribe Wilburt (Wilbur), 1902 by James Doyle Penrose

Finally, Bede invented the idea of England, or at least the idea of the English as a single people. And he applied all of this to his late masterpiece, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which he finished only four years before his own death. If the writing of history is one of the glories of England as a country and of English as a language, then Bede, though he wrote in Latin, deserves an honoured place as the founder of a national tradition.

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