The Author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People
By Roy Peachey
In 1899 an English historian was declared a doctor of the Church. A man who had never had political influence or held high office in the Church was now officially one of the Church’s great teachers. His name was Bede, or the Venerable Bede as he was called even in his own lifetime.
Why was Bede so highly regarded? What difference did he make to the culture in which he lived? And what can this Anglo-Saxon monk and historian teach us today? The first point to make is that Bede wasn’t just a historian. He wrote many Bible commentaries and was particularly interested in time, writing two important books on the subject. In fact, the main reason we use the calendar we do is because Bede popularised the idea that the birth of Christ should be the pivot on which human history turned. The reason we call this year 2017 is largely because of Bede.
But Bede’s greatest work was a history book, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People. But we will only truly appreciate this book if we get to grips with how history was understood in Bede’s day. In his wonderful novel Laurus, Eugene Vodolazkin has one of his characters explain it like this: “historians in the Middle Ages were unlike historians these days. They always looked for moral reasons as an explanation for historical events. It’s like they didn’t notice the direct connection between events. Or didn’t attach much significance to it…. They were looking above the everyday and seeing higher connections.”
This explanation would have made perfect sense to Bede. As he saw it, history had a job to do. It was much more than a bare record of events. “If history records good things of good men,” he wrote, “the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good: or if it records evil of wicked men, the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God.”
Such an approach might seem surprising in the 21st century. We assume that history should be objective or neutral. But it never is. Historians select material according to their own priorities and beliefs. Bede did the same, only his priorities and beliefs were different from the ones held by most modern historians.
When, for example, he wrote the famous passage about St Gregory the Great first seeing English slaves in the Roman marketplace, he was doing much more than simply showing off the Pope’s verbal dexterity (the Angles, who had angelic faces, would become co-heirs with the angels in heaven, St Gregory said.) He was also making a point about who was responsible for the evangelisation of the English. For Bede, it was important to emphasise that it was primarily St Gregory rather than St Augustine of Canterbury or St Aidan who was the Apostle of the English. The English were converted because the Pope reached out to them from Rome. The Pope was the great unifier and in sending St Augustine to Canterbury he was bringing an island on the furthest edge of the known world into the Catholic Church.
Though he probably never set foot outside Northumbria, Bede was certainly not a parochial figure. As a faithful historian, he wanted to show that the English Church was part of the universal Church whose centre on earth was Rome. England’s first historian knew that England could only be understood in its Roman context. That is why he paid so much attention in his book to what could appear to be an obscure debate over the date of Easter. What was at stake was not simply when Easter should be celebrated but who had the right to decide. Would the English Church follow the custom of the rest of the Catholic Church or go it alone? For Bede, there was no contest. The Synod of Whitby decided in favour of the Roman custom, a decision with momentous consequences. By choosing to follow the Pope’s lead, England became part of the mainstream.
If the English Church needed to be understood in its Roman context then the history of the world also needed to be seen in a broader context. Specifically, it needed to be seen in the light of eternity. As far as Bede was concerned, it simply didn’t make sense to write about earthly events without also considering heavenly consequences. Far from limiting his work as a historian, this understanding of the historian’s vocation actually made him more conscious of the need for precision.
Reading the Ecclesiastical History of the English People we are struck by Bede’s determination to place events in time, to get his dates right. But, as one of his most famous stories was designed to remind his readers, getting time right takes us only so far.
When Edwin, the King of Northumbria, was trying to decide whether to convert to Christianity, he held a council to decide the question. “When we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge,” one of his men told him, “it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought us any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.” Like Bede, Edwin’s advisor knew that life is brief and that eternity is what really matters.
But, as every monk also knows, eternity has already broken into this world. Bede saw the history of the English people as being caught up into the events of salvation history. That is why he did not shy away from including healings and other miracles in his account of the historical development of the English. The wonders that were described in the Acts of the Apostles didn’t just stop, he believed, because the Holy Spirit continued to work in human history.
So let us return to our opening questions. Why was St Bede so highly regarded? As England’s first historian, he is still an indispensable source of information about the Anglo-Saxon era. As a historian of the English he has no equals. But what difference did he make to the culture in which he lived? Bede created a sense of what it meant to be English before England existed as a country, but he also created a model of faithful scholarship that inspired writers, missionaries, and popes for years after his death.
And what can he teach us today? Too much for one short article, so perhaps we should restrict ourselves to just one lesson, using the words of Pope Benedict XVI who argued that “with his works Bede made an effective contribution to building a Christian Europe in which the various peoples and cultures amalgamated with one another, thereby giving them a single physiognomy, inspired by the Christian faith. Let us pray that today too there may be figures of Bede’s stature, to keep the whole continent united; let us pray that we may all be willing to rediscover our common roots, in order to be builders of a profoundly human and authentically Christian Europe.”
Roy Peachey is an English, History, and Theology teacher, and Head of Higher Education and Careers at Woldingham School, Surrey. After studying at Oxford University, the Open University, Lancaster University, and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, he is now working on a doctorate on Catholicism and Contemporary Fiction at the University of Nottingham. He has written for Humanum Review, First Things, and the Telegraph, and teaches for the Second Spring Summer School.