Thursday, May 26, 2011

St. Bede the Venerable, the Churchfather of England

In the way that St. Patrick is the emblem of the Christianity in Ireland, St. Bede, also known as “The Venerable” could be considered the symbol of the Christian treasure of England.
The anglo-saxon Christianity have always had some particularities which made it special among the whole Church of Christ. The insularity of Great Britain and of Ireland made the customs here to be somehow distinct and conservative, if we compare them whether to the Eastern or to the Western Church. The Conversion of England itself is special, being the result of two distinct groups of missionaries, first among them being the ones who came from the Celtic-speaking lands (such as Bretagne or Ireland) and the second from Rome. For a long time the priests and the bishops remained here as married men, the the monks lived an ascetic individual life, approximately like the ones in the Egyptian Desert, the churches were emptier as we may imagine, and the baptism occurred often on the shores of the rivers. The Easter’s date was established independently from the rest of the Church for many years.
Like in Egypt or Cappadocia, the monasteries represent for Britain the beginnings of the new culture. Even before the Danish and later the Norman invasions, the monks were writing in Latin or Celtic some original pieces of Christian Works. Between those literate ascetics could be counted also Bede “the Venerable”, who lived in the 7th-8th centuries in northern England.
Bede (Old English: Bæda or Bēda, translated as “prayer”) was a Benedictine monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth, (today Sunderland) and later at the monastery of Saint Paul (the modern Jarrow). The kingdom of Northumbria, in which he lived, was a native angle-speaking country which covered the north-eastern part of the actual England, which resisted to the Danish invasion, but it was conquered by the Normans in 954.
Among the convents in the area, Bede's monastery had a big library which included works by Eusebius and Orosius, which were used by Bede in writing his own historical works. Because of his historical preoccupations, he is well known as the “Father of the English History” both ecclesiastical and civil.

The life of Bede

Bede is born probably in 672 or 673 in Wearside or Tyneside, somewhere near the monastery of St. Peter in Wearmouth, where h went as a young child, at 7 years old. His education was putted under the care of St. Benedict Biscop (in calendars on 12 January), meaning that he would came from a high-class family. St. Benedict came from the French monastery in Lerins, bringing a lot of books which represent the first sources of the later Bede’s writings. After a while Bede went to the new monastery in Jarrow in 682, together with his new teacher, St. abbot Celofrith (25 sept.). He remained here until his death, which occurred in 735 BC.
From an anonymous writing about the life of St. Ceolfrith it might be possible to know something more about Bede’s youth. The plague in 686 caused the death of the majority of the monks in the monastery. Only the abbot and a young boy remained alive, trying to follow further the monastical rules and to continue the holy services. With this occasion the young boy is made priest. With this occasion we know that the ritual in the monastery insisted on the antiphonic type of singing, which means the monks were separated in 2 groups which sang alternatively, making the service more active. On some other source, Beda was made deacon when he was 19 and later priest with 30 years old, being ordained by St. John of Beverley (celebrated on 7 may), bishop of Hexham and York.


Before writing the historical book which made him famous, that is the Ecclesiastic History, Bede started with some other minor works, intended as manuals for the classrooms, De Arte Metrica and De Schematibus et Tropis (both about the poetic art, written about in 701). Totally, he wrote approximately 60 books, the later being a letter addressed to his student, Ecgbert of York, from 734.
In 708, some monks at Hexham accused Bede of having committed heresy in his work De Temporibus, because he contradicted the standard theological view of world history as the six ages of the world, after the opinion of Isidore of Seville. In contrast, in his book, Bede calculated the age of the world for himself, rather than accepting the authority of Isidore, 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. Bede wrote a letter to Wilfrid, the bishop of Hexham in which he replied, defending successfully himself.
Without speaking more about his minor works, we come directly to his Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum (The church history of the English people), a work of ecclesiastical and political history in 5 books and about 400 pages. It referes to the period from the Republic in the Caesar’s ages (about 55 BC) to 731 AD, when the work was written. The first 21 chapters covers the history of the English church before the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury, that means, the “celtic” period, before the official Roman mission.
The Church History of Bede refers to different passages from earlier writers, such as Orosius, Gildas, Prosper de Aquitanie or Pope Gregorius I, mixing legends with historical facts. The speciality of Bede is using the new era’s year counting, that means he calculates the years in the way that the Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus made in 525 BC. That means, he doesn’t use anymore the old calendars, based whether on the Foundation of Rome, whether of the Greek Olympiads, but he refers to the year 1 as the Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Even if the later scholars found a mistake of about 4-7 years in the calculation of Dionysius, the new era represents a revolution in the modern thinking, placing Jesus Christ in the middle of the history and in meantime at the beginning of the Time of Healing.
If Dionysius is the author of the new calculation, Bede is the one who popularized the new calendar in Western Europe, with some expressions as “anno ab incarnatione Domine”, for the years before Christ and “anno incarnationis dominicae”, for the years and events before the Incarnation of Our Lord. In his time, the new year began with the day of the Annunciation, on 25th March.
At the end of his Ecclesiastic History Bede wrote some lines about himself, saying that he is spending his life in the monastery, being interested in the study of the Holy Scriptures.

Other Works

Bede was moreover a skilled linguist and translator, and his work with the Latin and Greek writings of the early Church Fathers contributed significantly to English Christianity, making the writings much more accessible to his fellow Anglo-Saxons.
Bede is also known for some chronicles and an adaptation of the Roman Martyrology.
He translated some works of the Church Fathers, wrote homilies, commentaries to books from the Bibles, of astronomy and time calculation (such as De Temporibus, mentioned above), educational works and some vernacular poetry.

Bede’s passing away

In 735 Sf. Beda got sick (of some breathing disease) but tried to teach further to the scholars and dictated his works further. On the Tuesday before Acension Day (26 May) his breathing became worse, and his feet swelled. He continued to dictate to a scribe, however, and despite spending the night awake in prayer he dictated again the following day. In the last night, he prayed the monks to remember him in their prayers. He said that “The time of my departure has come and my heart longs to see the beauty of Christ, my King”. He died exactly after finishing dictating his last work, a translation to the Gospel of St. John, singing “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost!”
A work known as “Cuthbert's letter” relates a five-line poem in the vernacular that Bede would have composed on his deathbed, known as “Bede's Death Song”. It is the most widely copied Old English poem, and appears in 45 manuscripts, but its attribution to Bede is not absolutely certain.
The text of the poem (adapted to modern English) is this:
Facing that enforced journey, no man can be
More prudent than he has good call to be,
If he consider, before his going hence,
What for his spirit of good hap or of evil
After his day of death shall be determined

A well-known saying of St. Bede is this: “Better a stupid and unlettered brother who, working the good things he knows, merits life in Heaven than one who though being distinguished for his learning in the Scriptures, or even holding the place of a doctor, lacks the bread of love.”


Bede died on 25th of May 735 in the Monastery in Jarrow. His body was moved from Jarrow and transferred to Durham Cathedral around 1020, where it was placed in the same tomb with Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. Later they were moved to a shrine in Galilee Chapel at Durham Cathedral in 1370. During the English Reformation, this shrine was destroyed, but the bones were reburied in the chapel. In 1831 the bones were dug up and then reburied in a new tomb, which is still there.
Other relics were claimed to be in the Cathedrals in York, Glastonbury, or even in the German town of Fulda.

As the author of Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum he gained him the title of “The Father of English History”. In 1899, Bede was made a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII, a position of theological significance; he is the only native of Great Britain to achieve this designation, only Anselm of Canterbury being also a Doctor of the Church, but he is originally from Italy. He is also the only Englishman in Dante’s Paradise (Paradiso X,130), mentioned among theologians and doctors of the church in the same canto with Isidore of Seville and Richard of St. Victor.
Bede became known as “Venerable Bede” (Latin: Beda Venerabilis) by the 9th century, but this was not linked to consideration for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. According to a legend the epithet was miraculously supplied by angels, thus completing his unfinished epitaph. It is first utilised in in the 9th century, where Bede was grouped with others who were called “venerable” at two ecclesiastical councils held at Aix in 816 and 836. Paul the Deacon then referred to him as “venerable” consistently. By the 11th and 12th century, it had become commonplace.

There is no evidence for cult being paid to Bede in England immediately after his death. One reason for this may be that he died on the feast day of Augustine of Canterbury (25th May). Later, when he was venerated in England, he was either commemorated after Augustine on 26th May, or his feast was moved to 27th May. He was first venerated outside England, mainly through the efforts of Saint Boniface and Alcuin. Bede’s cult became prominent in England during the 10th century revival of monasticism. Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester (c. 1008–1095) was a particular devotee of Bede, dedicating a church to him in 1062, which was Wulfstan’s first undertaking after his consecration as bishop.

His feast day was included in the General Roman Calendar in 1899, on 27 May rather than on his date of death, 25/26 May which was then the feast day of Pope Saint Gregory VII. After the 1969 calendar reform, Bede’s feast day moved to its proper day, on 25 May. He is also present in the Orthodox Calendar on 27th May.

Hymn (Troparion)
Throughout the dark years of thy times, O Bede, thou didst water the English lands and all the West with outpourings of grace, and like a skilled sower thou didst cast the seed of divine knowledge far and wide over the fields of thy Master, where, springing forth, it hath borne fruit for Him an hundredfold. Wherefore, having thus acquired boldness before Him, O venerable one, pray thou unceasingly that our souls be saved!