Today is the feast of St Bede, usually simply called Bede, sometimes Venerable Bede (or Venomous Bede if you know Sellar and Yeatman). I don’t know why today is his feast day in some communions (Orthodox and Episcopalian). He died May 26th and some communions celebrate him today, some on May 25th, but none on May 26th. Bede was an English Benedictine monk at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul in the kingdom of Northumbria of the Angles (now known as Monkwearmouth–Jarrow Abbey in Tyne and Wear). Bede was born on lands likely belonging to the Monkwearmouth monastery, and was sent there at the age of 7 and later joined Abbot Ceolfrith at the Jarrow monastery, both of whom survived a plague that struck in 686, an outbreak that killed a majority of the population there. While he spent most of his life in the monastery, Bede traveled to several abbeys and monasteries across the British Isles, even visiting the archbishop of York and King Ceolwulf of Northumbria.
Bede is well known as an author, teacher (a student of one of his pupils was Alcuin), and scholar, and his most famous work, Ecclesiastical History of the English People gained him the title “The Father of English History”. His ecumenical writings were extensive and included a number of Biblical commentaries and other theological works of exegetical erudition. Another important area of study for Bede was the academic discipline of computus, the science of calculating movable feast dates, especially Easter, an effort that was mired in controversy. He also helped establish the practice of dating years forward (and backwards) from the birth of Jesus (AD and BC), a practice which eventually became commonplace in medieval Europe. Bede was one of the greatest teachers and writers of the Early Middle Ages and is considered by many historians to be the single most important scholar of antiquity for the period between the death of Pope Gregory I in 604 and the coronation of Charlemagne in 800. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII declared him a Doctor of the Church. He is the only native of Great Britain to achieve this designation. Anselm of Canterbury, is also a Doctor of the Church, but was originally from Italy. I’ll give you a little biography, and then I want to assess Bede as an historian.
Almost everything that is known of Bede’s life is contained in the last chapter of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It was completed in about 731, and Bede implies that he was then in his fifty-ninth year, which would give a birth date of 672 or 673. A minor source of additional information is the letter by his disciple Cuthbert (not to be confused with the saint, Cuthbert, who is mentioned in Bede’s work) which relates Bede’s death. Bede, in the Historia, gives his birthplace as “on the lands of this monastery”. He is referring to the twinned monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, in modern-day Wearside and Tyneside respectively; there is also a tradition that he was born at Monkton, two miles from the monastery at Jarrow. Bede says nothing of his origins, but his connections with people of noble ancestry suggest that his own family was well-to-do. Bede’s first abbot was Benedict Biscop, and the names “Biscop” and “Beda” both appear in a king list of the kings of Lindsey from around 800, further suggesting that Bede came from a noble family.
Bede’s name reflects West Saxon Bīeda (Northumbrian Bǣda, Anglian Bēda). It is an Anglo-Saxon short name formed on the root of bēodan “to bid, command”. The name also occurs in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (late 9th century) as Bieda, one of the sons of the Saxon founder of Portsmouth. The Liber Vitae of Durham Cathedral names two priests with this name, one of whom is presumably Bede himself. Some manuscripts of the Life of Cuthbert, one of Bede’s works, mention that Cuthbert’s own priest was named Bede; it is possible that this priest is the other name listed in the Liber Vitae.
At the age of 7, Bede was sent, as a puer oblatus, to the monastery of Monkwearmouth by his family to be educated by Benedict Biscop and later by Ceolfrith. Bede does not say whether it was already intended at that point that he would be a monk. It was fairly common in Ireland at this time for young boys, particularly those of noble birth, to be fostered out as an oblate; the practice was also likely to have been common among the Germanic peoples in England. Monkwearmouth’s sister monastery at Jarrow was founded by Ceolfrith in 682, and Bede probably transferred to Jarrow with Ceolfrith that year. The dedication stone for the church has survived to the present day; it is dated 23rd April 685, and as Bede would have been required to assist with menial tasks in his day-to-day life it is possible that he helped in building the original church. In 686, plague broke out at Jarrow. The Life of Ceolfrith, written in about 710, records that only two surviving monks were capable of singing the full offices; one was Ceolfrith and the other a young boy, who according to the anonymous writer had been taught by Ceolfrith. The two managed to do the entire service of the liturgy until others could be trained. The young boy was almost certainly Bede, who would have been about 14.
When Bede was about 17 years old, Adomnán, the abbot of Iona Abbey, visited Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. Bede would probably have met the abbot during this visit, and it may be that Adomnan sparked Bede’s interest in the Easter dating controversy. In about 692, in Bede’s 19th year, he was ordained a deacon by his diocesan bishop, John, who was bishop of Hexham. The canonical age for the ordination of a deacon was 25; Bede’s early ordination may mean that his abilities were considered exceptional, but it is also possible that the minimum age requirement was often disregarded. There might have been minor orders ranking below a deacon; but there is no record of whether Bede held any of these offices. In Bede’s 30th year (about 702), he became a priest, with the ordination again performed by Bishop John.
In about 701 Bede wrote his first works, the De Arte Metrica and De Schematibus et Tropis. Both were intended for use in the classroom. He continued to write for the rest of his life, eventually completing over 60 books, most of which have survived. Not all his output can be easily dated, and Bede may have worked on some texts over a period of many years. His last-surviving work is a letter to Ecgbert of York, a former student, written in 734. A 6th century Greek and Latin manuscript of Acts of the Apostles that is believed to have been used by Bede survives and is now in the Bodleian Library at University of Oxford. ; it is known as the Codex Laudianus. Bede may also have worked on one of the Latin Bibles that were copied at Jarrow, one of which is now held by the Laurentian Library in Florence. Bede was a teacher as well as a writer. He enjoyed music, and was said to be accomplished as a singer and as a reciter of poetry in the vernacular. It is possible that he suffered a speech impediment, but this depends on a phrase in the introduction to his verse life of Saint Cuthbert. Translations of this phrase differ, and it is uncertain whether Bede intended to say that he was cured of a speech problem, or merely that he was inspired by the saint’s works.
In 708, some monks at Hexham accused Bede of having committed heresy in his work De Temporibus. The standard theological view of world history at the time was known as the Six Ages of the World. In his book, Bede calculated the age of the world for himself, rather than accepting the authority of Isidore of Seville, and came to the conclusion that Christ had been born 3,952 years after the creation of the world, rather than the figure of over 5,000 years that was commonly accepted by theologians. The accusation occurred in front of the bishop of Hexham, Wilfrid, who was present at a feast when some drunken monks made the accusation. Wilfrid did not respond to the accusation, but a monk present relayed the episode to Bede, who replied within a few days to the monk, writing a letter setting forth his defense and asking that the letter also be read to Wilfrid.
In 733, Bede traveled to York to visit Ecgbert, who was then bishop of York. The See of York was elevated to an archbishopric in 735, and it is likely that Bede and Ecgbert discussed the proposal for the elevation during his visit. Bede hoped to visit Ecgbert again in 734, but was too ill to make the journey. Bede also traveled to the monastery of Lindisfarne, and at some point visited the otherwise-unknown monastery of a monk named Wicthed, a visit that is mentioned in a letter to that monk. Because of his widespread correspondence with others throughout the British Isles, and due to the fact that many of the letters imply that Bede had met his correspondents, it is likely that Bede traveled to some other places, although nothing further about timing or locations can be guessed. It seems certain that he did not visit Rome, however, as he would have mentioned it in the autobiographical chapter of his Historia Ecclesiastica. Except for a few visits to other monasteries, his life was spent in a round of prayer, observance of the monastic discipline and study of the Scriptures. Bede died on the Feast of the Ascension, Thursday, 26th May 735, on the floor of his cell, singing “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” and was buried at Jarrow.
One further oddity in Bede’s writings is that in one of his works, the Commentary on the Seven Catholic Epistles, he writes in a manner that gives the impression he was married. The section in question is the only one in that work that is written in first-person. Bede says: “Prayers are hindered by the conjugal duty because as often as I perform what is due to my wife I am not able to pray.” Another passage, in the Commentary on Luke, also mentions a wife in the first person: “Formerly I possessed a wife in the lustful passion of desire and now I possess her in honourable sanctification and true love of Christ.” The historian Benedicta Ward argues that these passages are Bede employing a rhetorical device.
Although Bede is mainly studied as a historian now, in his time his works on grammar, chronology, and Biblical studies were as important as his historical and hagiographical works. The non-historical works contributed greatly to the Carolingian renaissance. Bede’s best-known work, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, was completed in about 731. Bede was aided in writing this book by Albinus, abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. The first of the five books begins with some geographical background, and then sketches the history of England, beginning with Caesar’s invasion in 55 BCE. A brief account of Christianity in Roman Britain, including the martyrdom of St Alban, is followed by the story of Augustine’s mission to England in 597, which brought Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons. The second book begins with the death of Gregory the Great in 604, and follows the further progress of Christianity in Kent and the first attempts to evangelize Northumbria. These ended in disaster when Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, killed the newly Christian Edwin of Northumbria at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in about 632. The setback was temporary, and the third book recounts the growth of Christianity in Northumbria under kings Oswald of Northumbria and Oswy. The climax of the third book is the account of the Council of Whitby, traditionally seen as a major turning point in English history. The fourth book begins with the consecration of Theodore as Archbishop of Canterbury, and recounts Wilfrid’s efforts to bring Christianity to the kingdom of Sussex. The fifth book brings the story up to Bede’s day, and includes an account of missionary work in Frisia, and of the conflict with the British church over the correct dating of Easter. Bede wrote a preface for the work, in which he dedicates it to Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria. The preface mentions that Ceolwulf received an earlier draft of the book; presumably Ceolwulf knew enough Latin to understand it, and he may even have been able to read it. The preface makes it clear that Ceolwulf had requested the earlier copy, and Bede had asked for Ceolwulf’s approval; this correspondence with the king indicates that Bede’s monastery had excellent connections among the Northumbrian nobility.
Bede quoted his sources at length in his narrative, as Eusebius had done before him. Bede also appears to have taken quotes directly from his correspondents at times. For example, he almost always uses the terms “Australes” and “Occidentales” for the South and West Saxons respectively, but in a passage in the first book he uses “Meridiani” and “Occidui” instead, as perhaps his informant had done. At the end of the work, Bede added a brief autobiographical note; this was an idea taken from Gregory of Tours’ earlier History of the Franks. Bede’s work as a hagiographer, and his detailed attention to dating, were both useful preparations for the task of writing the Historia Ecclesiastica. His interest in computus, the science of calculating the date of Easter, was also useful in the account he gives of the controversy between the British and Anglo-Saxon church over the correct method of obtaining the Easter date.
Bede’s primary intention in writing the Historia Ecclesiastica was to show the growth of the united church throughout England. The native Britons (Celts), whose Christian church survived the departure of the Romans, earn Bede’s ire for refusing to help convert the Saxons. By the end of the Historia the English, and their Church, are dominant over the Britons. This goal, of showing the movement towards unity, explains Bede’s animosity towards the British method of calculating Easter: much of the Historia is devoted to a history of the dispute, including the final resolution at the Synod of Whitby in 664. Bede is also concerned to show the unity of the English, despite the disparate kingdoms that still existed when he was writing.
As I have been at pains to point out many times here, and in my teaching, the study and writing of history is not, not, not, the recording of facts. We can call that “archiving.” History is the process of finding meaning in those facts, and, of course, historians can (and do) differ on this point. Bede’s purpose, above all else, was rather ethnocentric: Anglo-Saxons good; Celts bad. He was also paving the way for a unified Anglo-Saxon kingdom which was finally achieved in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, by showing that the various kingdoms within the territory that is now England, all shared a common cultural heritage, and, thus, belonged united together. This endeavor is why he is sometimes called the father of English history, rather then simply being listed with a number of other chroniclers (whose main purpose was to record facts). He was doing real history in the modern sense. He let his biases creep in a bit too much, but there are plenty of modern historians who do the same.
Medieval cooking of Bede’s time is undocumented except for a number of images and occasional references in texts. The impression that most people are left with is that the rich ate mostly roast meat, and the rest ate bread and porridge with scavenged fruits and vegetables thrown in for good measure. There may be some truth to this image, but it is undoubtedly too narrow. There is a growing understanding that many medieval dishes often had the texture of a pureé, possibly containing small fragments of meat or fish. Nearly half of the recipes in the Beinecke MSS of the period are for dishes similar to stews or pureés. Such dishes could be broadly of three types: somewhat acid, with wine, vinegar, and spices in the sauce, thickened with bread; sweet and sour, with sugar and vinegar; and sweet, using then-expensive sugar. An example of such a sweet pureé dish for meat (it could also be made with fish) from one Beinecke manuscript is the rich, saffron-yellow “Mortruys”, thickened with egg:
Take brawn of capons & porke, sodyn & groundyn; tempyr hit up with milk of almondes drawn with the broth. Set hit on the fyre; put to sigure & safron. When hit boyleth, tak som of thy milk, boylying, fro the fyre & aley hit up with yolkes of eyron that hit be ryght chargeaunt; styre hit wel for quelling. Put therto that othyr, & ster hem togedyr, & serve hem forth as mortruys; and strew on poudr of gynger.
If you are having trouble with the language, here’s my paraphrase in modern English:
Mince chicken and pork that has been boiled. Mix together the meat, the boiling broth and some almond milk. Put the mixture on to heat and add sugar and saffron. When the mix is boiling, take some of the liquid and whisk it with egg yolks. Put this mix back in the pot and stir well to thicken. Serve the dish garnished with powdered ginger.
This is an aristocratic dish involving expensive items including sugar, saffron, and almond milk. In the modern world it is still extravagant, but affordable, and ought to be replicated easily.