Bede the Venerable

Priest, and Monk of Jarrow

St bede the Venerable (ca 673–735) was the greatest scholar of his time in the West. Never traveling, as far as we know, outside Northumbria, he nevertheless seems to have been smack in the middle of the history and culture of Western Europe and its Church; any reading about or discussion of him quickly touches upon the entire history of Insular Christianity and culture, the origins of Western monasticism, the Carolingian Renaissance, the writing and production of some of the most important books in existence, the quite astonishing connections between East and West even in those troubled times... there seems no end to the web of connections.

Around the year 680, when he was seven years old, Bede (Bæda or Beda) was taken by his parents to the priory of Monkwearmouth, near Durham in Northumbria, to be educated – a common practice among nobler families in the Isles. Monkwearmouth had been founded in 674 as a model monastery for England by St Benedict Biscop – himself a very important figure in the history and life of the Church – and had an outstanding library for the time, among the fruits of Benedict’s five trips to the Continent.*

In 682 St Bede moved to the new sister monastery at Jarrow† with Ceolfrið, its Abbot. Bede was ordained deacon at nineteen, and priest at thirty, by St John of Beverley, Bishop of Hexham and later of York. He later wrote, ‘spending all the remaining time of my life... I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture, and amidst the observance of regular discipline, and the daily care of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, teaching, and writing’ – and indeed this seems an accurate summary of his personality and interests.

In such a great center of learning as Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, where during his lifetime such volumes as the Codex Amiatinus‡ and the St Cuþberht Gospel§ were produced, St Bede was able to blossom into a great scholar. He knew the Latin and Greek Fathers and classical authors such as Pliny and Virgil, as well as having some Hebrew, and he wrote Scriptural commentaries and homilies, hagiography and biography, and works on chronology, orthography, grammar, rhetoric, and history, many of which – especially his commentaries (many of which were incorporated into the Glossa Ordinaria, a standard Biblical commentary) and homilies (some of which appeared in the collection made by Paul the Deacon and used extensively in the Daily Office) – were very important in the subsequent Carolingian Renaissance. His promulgation of the Anno Domini system of dating has obviously had profound influence to this day, and his most famous work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), remains the primary source for the period 597 to 731, when Anglo-Saxon culture flourished. Though he was by no means a modern historian, he took particular care to use the best texts and most reliable sources available.

St Bede, who was a poet and was said to have been a fine singer and reciter of vernacular poetry, also had a great love for the liturgy, and believed that since the angels were present with the monks during the services, he should also be there. ‘What if they do not find me among the brethren when they assemble? Will they not say, “Where is Bede?” ’ Indeed, during an outbreak of plague in 686, he urged Abbot Ceolfrið that the Daily Office should continue to be sung in full, and he nearly singlehandedly kept the round of services going until other monks recovered or new ones could be recruited and trained.

St Bede’slast days are recounted by his disciple St Cuþberht. For about two weeks before Easter, 735, Bede was ill ‘with frequent attacks of breathlessness but almost without pain’. He remained cheerful and gave daily lessons to his students, then spent the rest of the day singing Psalms and giving thanks to God. He was also working on a vernacular translation of the Gospel of St John for the use of clerics unfamiliar with Latin, and for the unlettered souls in their cure (unfortunately it does not survive, but it must have been an important part of what was to become a flowering of Old English literature). On the Tuesday before the Feast of the Ascension, his breathing became more labored, and his feet began to swell. ‘Learn quickly,’ he told those who were taking dictation from him, ‘for I do not know how long I can continue. The Lord may call me in a short while.’

After spending the night in prayer, St Bede continued his dictation on Wednesday morning. At midafternoon, he paused and asked for a box of his to be brought so that might distribute among the monks ‘a few treasures’: ‘some pepper, and linens, and some incense’. When these monks came to him, he spoke to each of them in turn, asking them to pray for him and to remember him in the services. Then he said, ‘The time of my departure is at hand, and my soul longs to see Christ my King in His beauty.’

That night, Wilberht, his scribe, said to him, ‘Dear Master, there is one sentence left unfinished.’ Bede said, ‘Very well, write it down.’ Then the young monk said, ‘It is finished now.’ St Bede replied, ‘You have spoken truly, it is well finished.’ Then he asked Wilberht to raise his head so that he could see the church. After chanting the Gloria Patri, St Bede fell asleep in the Lord, on Thursday, 26 May (Ascension Day that year and also the Feast of St Augustine of Canterbury – thus his own commemoration on 25 May). St Boniface and Alcuin, both very prominent Englishmen working on the Continent, promoted his veneration as they circulated his works.

About 1020 St Bede’s body was translated to the cathedral of Durham and placed in the same tomb as that of St Cuþberht. In 1370 his relics were moved to a shrine in the Galilee Chapel there. This was destroyed during the English Reformation, but the remains were reburied in the chapel, and in 1831 reburied once again in a new tomb.

Bede was given the title of Venerable – unusual today, but used of others at the time – in the ninth century. He is the only Englishman mentioned in Dante’s Paradiso, and the only native of Britain to have been named a Doctor of the Church (Doctor Anglorum, named in 1899 by Pope Leo XIII). In 1935 he was officially canonized as a saint by the Roman Church, and he is venerated in Anglican and Eastern Churches.

Two of his hymns appear in the Hymnal: ‘A hymn of glory let us sing’ (Hymnum canamus gloriae), for the Ascension [217/18], and ‘The great forerunner of the morn’ (Praecursor alti luminis) [271/2], for the Nativity of St John the Baptist. ‘Praecursor alti luminis’ is part of a very long poem ‘On the six primordial days and the six ages of the world’; it became the Office Hymn for Vespers of the Nativity of St John the Baptist but was supplanted by another hymn, ‘Ut queant laxis’, to whose tune Bede’s hymn has, ironically, been set in the Hymnal 1982.

The Episcopal Church’s Collect for Bede the Venerable:

Heavenly Father, who didst call thy servant Bede, while still a child, to devote his life to thy service in the disciplines of religion and scholarship; Grant that as he labored in the Spirit to bring the riches of thy truth to his generation, so we, in our various vocations, may strive to make thee known in all the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord...

*  Benedict brought masons and glaziers from Francia to build what must then have been one of the most impressive buildings in Britain; he also

brought back [from Rome] many holy pictures of the saints to adorn the church of St Peter he had built: a painting of the Mother of God, the Blessed Mary ever-Virgin, and one of each of the twelve apostles which he fixed round the central arch on a wooden entablature reaching from wall to wall; pictures of incidents in the gospels with which he decorated the south wall, and scenes from St John’s vision of the apocalypse for the north wall. Thus all who entered the church, even those who could not read, were able, whichever way they looked, to contemplate the dear face of Christ and His saints, even if only in a picture, to put themselves more firmly in mind of the Lord’s Incarnation and, as they saw the decisive moment of the Last Judgment before their very eyes be brought to examine their conscience with all due severity.
     Bede, History of the Abbots, vi.

and on his fifth and final journey to Rome, ca 685,

a large supply of sacred books and no less a stock of sacred pictures than on previous journeys. He brought back paintings of the life of Our Lord for the chapel of the Holy Mother of God which he had built within the main monastery, setting them, as its crowning glory, all the way round the walls. His treasures included a set of pictures for the monastery and church of the blessed apostle Paul, consisting of scenes, very skilfully arranged, to show how the Old Testament foreshadowed the New. In one set, for instance, the picture of Isaac carrying the wood on which he was to be burnt as a sacrifice was placed immediately below that of Christ carrying the cross on which He was about to suffer. Similarly the Son of Man upon the cross was paried with the serpent raised up by Moses in the desert.
     Bede, History of the Abbots, ix.

†  A chapel at Jarrow still survives as the chancel of the Church of St Paul and contains the dedication stone from 685 as well as fragments of the oldest stained glass in the world. The stone reads as follows:

dedicatio basilicae
sci pavli viiii kl mai
anno xv efridi reg
ceolfridi abb eivsdem
q eccles do avctore
conditoris anno iiii

The dedication of the basilica
of St Paul the 9th day before the Kalends of May
in the 15th year of King Ecgfrið,
and of Abbot Ceolfrið, of the same
church (God being the author)
the founder, the fourth year

‡  The Codex Amiatinus is the oldest surviving nearly complete (lacking Baruch), and one of the most accurate, manuscripts of St Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Bible. An immense volume, measuring 19 1/4 by 13 3/8 inches and weighing 75 pounds, it is made not in the Insular style of the more famous Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels but rather is clearly modeled upon Late Antique originals – especially the now lost Codex Grandior, the large Old Latin Bible made by or for Cassiodorus and brought to Monkwearmouth-Jarrow by Benedict or Ceolfrið.

Commissioned in 692 by Ceolfrið as one of a set of three Bibles (one each for the twin monasteries, and one intended as a gift for Pope Gregory II), the book found its way to the Abbey of the Savior in Monte Amiata in Tuscany – thus its name – and now resides in the Laurentian Library in Florence. Bede, who had a high regard for the role of the scribe in transmitting knowledge, especially sacred learning, may well have been one of the scribes who worked on these Bibles.

§  The St Cuþberht, or Stonyhurst, Gospel is a small (5.4 × 3.6 in) manuscript of the Gospel of St John found inside St Cuþberht’s coffin in 1104, having been placed there probably in 698. It is the oldest known Western bookbinding to survive, clearly showing Eastern influences in the method of sewing and style of tooling (similar bindings are portrayed in the portrait of Ezra from the Codex Amiatinus, shown above); handsome enough in its red goatskin, it shows traces of decoration with several colors of pigment. Like the Codex Amiatinus, it is written not in an Insular hand, but in an extremely handsome Roman Uncial, colometrically (that is, with each phrase beginning a new line, as recommended by St Jerome). It was used at one point as an amulet – a not uncommon practice in medieval times. The book eventually came into the hands of the Jesuit Stonyhurst College, from whom the British Library purchased it in 2011 for £9 million.