The Venerable Bede 673 AD to 735 AD ? Life and Times
I thought it would be of interest to write this article about one of the earliest pieces of English prose by The Venerable Bede – One of England’s earliest Icon’s. Bede wrote scientific, historical and theological works, reflecting the range of his writings from music and metrics to exegetical Scripture commentaries.
Bede was the greatest man of learning of the Anglo-Saxon age. His works were known throughout Europe and his monastery at Jarrow was the brightest light of learning in ‘Dark Age’ Europe. Bede’s importance cannot be under estimated.
He was the first man to write a history of the English and his chronological works were the most important factor in encouraging Europe to adopt the numbering of years from Christ’s birth. Anno Domini (AD), The Year of Our Lord , was a phrase used by Bede in his chronological works. The system of dating we use today was first popularised by Bede over 1,200 years ago.
At the age of seven, he was sent to the monastery of Wearmouth 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; the practice was also likely to have been common among the Germanic peoples in England. Wearmouth’s sister monastery at Jarrow was founded by Ceolfrith in 682, and Bede probably transferred to Jarrow with Ceolfrith that year. Four years later, 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 “with antiphons”; one was Ceolfrith, and the other a young boy of 14, thought by most historians to have been Bede.
When Bede was about 17 years old, Adomnan, the abbot of Iona Abbey, visited Wearmouth 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 nineteenth year, Bede 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 thirtieth year (about 702) Bede 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 of 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 Egbert of York, a former student, written in 734. A 6th-century manuscript of Acts that is believed to have been used by Bede is still extant. 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. 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.
In 708, a number of monks at Hexham accused Bede of heresy, because his work De Temporibus offered a different chronology of the Six Ages of the world theory from the one commonly accepted by theologians. The accusation occurred in front of the bishop of Hexham of the time, 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 defence and asking that the letter be read to Wilfrid also. Bede had another brush with Wilfrid, for the historian himself says that he met Wilfrid, sometime between 706 and 709, and discussed the abbess of Ely. Wilfrid had been present at the exhumation of her body in 695, and Bede questioned the bishop about the exact circumstances of the body and asked for more details of her life, as Wilfrid had been her advisor.
In 733, Bede travelled to York, to visit Egbert, who was then bishop of York. The see of York was elevated to an archbishopric in 735, and it is likely that Bede and Egbert discussed the proposal for the elevation during his visit. Bede also travelled 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 travelled to some other places, although nothing further about timing or locations can be guessed.
Bede hoped to visit Egbert again in 734, but was too ill to make the journey. He died on 26th May 735 and was buried at Jarrow. Cuthbert’s letter is mainly concerned with relating the last days of Bede, and mainly has interest for two things, one that Bede was still struggling to complete works right before his death, and two, the relating of a poem that Bede composed on his deathbed. Bede’s remains may have been transferred to Durham Cathedral in the 11th century; his tomb there was looted in 1541, but the contents were probably re-interred in the Galilee chapel at the cathedral.
One further oddity in his 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 view, where 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, where Bede writes “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, but another historian, N. J. Higham, offers no explanation for the passages.
My family tree has been traced back to the early Kings of England from the 7th Century AD. I am also a direct descendent of Sir Christopher Wren which has given me an interest in English History, English Sports, English Icons, English Discoveries and English Inventions which is great fun to research.
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