The Venerable Bede,

Saint and Church Historian

June 9 (May 27 old calendar)

St. Bede the Venrable will be the subject of worldwide attention in 1985, the 1250th anniversary of his death. At least one icon, to the author's knowledge, is being painted for the feast day, May 27th.

Our subject did for British Christianity what Eusebius did for Constantinople and what St. Nestor did for Kievan Rus, namely, he recorded the histor of Chistianity in his own region up to his own time. Indeed, his History of the English Church and People has run into numerous editions and is a best-selling religious paperback throughout the English-speaking world.

St. Bede was born probably in 673, in the ancient kindgom of Northumbria. The exact site of his birth is unknown, but it was in the region of the modern city of Yarrow in northern England. At the age of seven he was sent to school at the newly-founded monastery of Wearmouth, the ruins of which may still be visited, only the church surviving intact. He was, however, soon moved to the monastery's twin house at Jarrow where he remained until his death. It was perhaps this early training that caused him to be ordained to the diaconate when only 19. Eleven years later he was made a priest. That he retained a love for the services may be seen from a letter which he wrote: "I know that the angels are present at the canonical Hours, and what if they do not find me among the brethren when they assemble? Will they not say, Where is Bede? Why does he not attend the appointed devotions with his brethren?"

Our saint was a pupil of St. Benedict Biscop (commemorated Jan. 12), who had founded both monasteries and who had previously been a monk at Lerins, the most ancient monastery in Europe. From Lerins, monasticism spread throughout the European continent. It was the large library of books which St. Benedict Biscop brought with him from Lerins, as well as from other libraries in Europe, which enabled St. Bede to write many of his scholarly works.

On the eve of his death, St. Bede said that "from the time of my receiving the priesthood until my fifty-ninth year, I have worked, both for my own profit and that of my brethren, to compile extracts from the words of the venerable fathers on Holy Scripture, and to make commentaries on their meaning and interpretation." St. Bede is known for his biblical commentaries, but he is even better known for his work as a Church historian. He certainly must have known personally several of the Anglo-Saxon saints. His histories were written for edification, however, rather than as scholarly exercises, and topics outside this scope tend to be omitted by him.

No historian is completely objective, and St. Bede is no exception. It should be borne in mind when reading his books that he was a patriotic Northumbrian and his work was intended for royal use. Secondly, he is better informed about events in his own part of Britain than elsewhere. Thus, Wales features hardly at all in his work, for it was not then linked with England, and its population was ethnically different.

Christians seeking the history of Britain's many Orthodox saints, including St. Cuthbert and the Proto-martyr St. Alban, are often totally dependent upon St. Bede's accounts. The Saint has been criticized for his account of the Synod of Whitby (664), at which virtually all the English - except for the ancient monastery of Iona - accepted the Roman dating method for Pascha. Modern scholarship suggests that this rather emotional topic was not the reason this local council was summoned, although the question of the Paschal calendar was put on its agenda. There were men of undoubted sanctity on both sides of the dispute. The king's own bishop, St. Colman of Lindesfarne (commemorated Feb. 18) resigned his see rather than accept the Synod's decision. But he was allowed to nominate St. Eata (Oct. 26), a man who accepted the decision, as his successor.

Through his writings, St. Bede brings to life for us today the monastic and secular life of seventh- and eighth-century Britain. Most importantly, he has preserved for us the lives of many early saints of England - and that is a very precious legacy.

St. Bede and all you holy Saints of Northumbria, pray to God for us! 


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(bede_historian.doc, 08-15-2000)