‘St Bede’, by Aloysius Atkinson

St Bede translating the last line of St John’s Gospel

From the Editor: In commemoration of St Bede’s death, The Society President writes reminding us of the great achievements of Bede. Enjoy!

St Bede died today, 25th May, in 735. That year, as this year, it was the vigil of the Ascension. As the great historian lay on his death-bed, his brother-monks gathered round him to sing first vespers of the feast. At the line ‘O King of Glory, do not leave us orphans’, he burst into tears.

Fifty years earlier, Bede had been an orphan, entrusted to the monastery at Jarrow, in the north-east of England. His parents, who had been tenants of the monks, died and relatives placed him under the care of Abbot Ceolfrith. Soon afterwards, tragedy came again, when plague struck the abbey. All the monks died or fell gravely ill. Only Ceolfrith and Bede were left to sing the divine office – monastic prayers throughout the day; Ceolfrifth dispensed them from the antiphons, so they just sang the psalms. 

This incident left a mark on Bede. He became so devoted to his abbot that when he resigned and left for a final pilgrimage to Rome, Bede suffered a breakdown. He felt bereaved over again. Bede also became devoted to Scripture. He spent most of his life teaching and writing, becoming the greatest Scripture scholar of his age. Even today, outside Britain, Bede is primarily known as an exegete, for which he was declared a doctor of the Church in 1899. Pope Francis chose his motto, miserando atque eligendo (by having mercy and by choosing), from Bede’s commentary on St Matthew’s Gospel.

Miserando atque eligendo sums Bede up. The phrase is constructed in a classical Latin way, showing attention to real grammar and style. Bede’s learning was remarkable, especially given that his grandparents’ generation would have been illiterate pagans. His love of Latin culture was matched by his love of Rome. He venerated above all St Gregory the Great, the pope who, in the 590s, had sent missionaries to the pagan English. Miserando atque eligendo thus also sums up Bede’s theology of England. He believed God had intervened, through Gregory, to have mercy on pagans living at the very edge of the world, to choose them and call them to become a holy people.

So, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the work for which he is best remembered in this country, came out of his profound reflection on Scripture and salvation history. His history of England is the story of disparate pagan peoples – Kentish and Wightish Jutes; East, South and West Saxons; East and Middle Angles; Mercians; and his own Northumbrians – being called by God through Roman and Irish missionaries. As they are called they are united in faith; they cease being Angles, Saxons and so forth and become English. England remained politically divided in his day, but God created an English people by calling them together into one Church, under Gregory and his successors in Rome. Bede’s model in writing was the Acts of the Apostles: the story of the Gospel spreading out from Jerusalem to Judaea, Samaria and ultimately the whole world.

Bede’s history was thus theological. But it was no less rigorous for that. Bede gathered primary sources – mainly letters and witness-statements – which he assessed critically.

In fact, modern historians often have to remind themselves that Bede lived thirteen hundred years ago, because his methods are so familiar. 

His reason for writing, however, was pastoral, not merely academic or antiquarian. He believed that the Church in England had advanced from the time of Gregory the Great up until his own young days, in the late seventh century. By the 680s, all the English kingdoms accepted Christianity and were united under Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury. Theodore came from Tarsus, in Asia Minor, which was also St Paul’s hometown. Like Bede, he was a monk and scholar, but was displaced by the Islamic invasions of the Eastern Roman Empire. Arriving in Italy, the pope appointed him archbishop of Canterbury and sent him to England. For Bede, Theodore’s archiepiscopate had been a golden age of pastoral care, learning and religious life.

By the 730s, Bede was worried that monasteries had become corrupt. He was also angered that the clergy taxed the rural poor, but rarely, if ever, visited them. The work of evangelising the English had stalled. Bede made his own contribution. Having been ordained priest at the age of 30, he had an active ministry outside his monastery. But his special contribution was intellectual. He wrote the Ecclesiastical History to remind his fellow-countrymen of the mercy God had shown them and the dignity to which he called them. As well as his Scriptural commentaries, he also translated St John’s Gospel into English. As he was on his deathbed, his assistant, Wilbert, pointed out that one verse remained untranslated. His last act was to translate: ‘There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Sancte Beda, ora pro nobis. 

Aloysius Atkinson, DPhil candidate in Medieval History, St John’s