Almost all that is known of the life of Bede is derived from a touching description of his death written by a disciple, the monk Cuthbert, and a short factual account in the final chapter of his famous work, the Ecclesiastical History of England, from which we quote: “Thus much of the ecclesiastical history of Britain and especially of the English nation, have I, Bede, a servant of Christ and priest of the monastery of the Blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, which is at Wearmouth and Jarrow, with the Lord’s help composed as far as I could gather it, either from ancient documents or from traditions of the elders or from my own knowledge.”
Bede was born on the lands of the monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow, which stood on the River Tyne in northeastern England. At the age of seven he was given by his relatives to the Abbot Benedict to be educated. From that time, he spent his whole life in the monastery devoting himself to the study of the Scriptures. He was a born scholar. “Through all the observance of monastic discipline,” Bede wrote, “it has ever been my delight to learn and teach and write.” In his nineteenth year he was admitted to the diaconate and in his thirtieth to the priesthood, both by the hands of Bishop John of Beverley and at the bidding of the Abbot Ceolfrid. “From the time of my ordination up till my present fifty-ninth year I have endeavored for my own use and for that of the brethren to make brief notes upon the Holy Scriptures, either out of the works of the venerable fathers or in conformity with their meaning and interpretation.” Bede then gives a list of his many writings, works on science, chronology, poetics, and history, as well as commentaries on the Scriptures. He concludes with these pious words: “And I pray Thee, loving Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously given me to drink in with delight the words of Thy knowledge, so Thou wouldst mercifully grant me to attain one day to Thee, the fountain of all wisdom, and to appear forever before Thy face.”
Beyond a few visits to friends in other monasteries, Bede’s life was passed at Jarrow in one round of prayer and praise, writing and study. A fortnight before Easter in the year 735, he began to be much troubled by shortness of breath, and his brothers realized that the end was near. Nevertheless, his pupils continued to study by his bedside and to read aloud, though their reading was often interrupted by tears. He for his part talked and read to them and sang praises to God. During the Forty Days from Easter to Ascension Day, he took time from his singing and instructing to start dictating two new books, one a translation of St. John’s Gospel into Anglo-Saxon, and the other a collection of notes from se. Isidore. On the Tuesday before Ascension Day he began to grow weaker. He passed the day cheerfully and kept on with his dictation, saying occasionally to the scribe: “Go on quickly; I do not know how long I shall hold out and whether my Maker will not soon remove me.”
After a wakeful night he began to dictate the last chapter of St. John. At three in the afternoon, he sent for the priests of the monastery, distributed among them some pepper, incense, and a little linen which he had by him in a chest, and asked for their prayers and Masses. That evening the boy who was taking down his translation of the Book of John said: “There is still one sentence, dear master, that I have not written.” That last sentence was supplied, the boy said it was finished, and the dying man murmured: “You have well said . . . all is finished. Now take my head in your hands that I may have the comfort of sitting opposite the holy place where I used to pray, and so sitting may call upon my Father.” And on the pavement of his cell, the brothers around him singing “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,” he peacefully breathed his last.
The title of “Venerable” by which Bede is usually known was a term of respect bestowed in ancient times on highly esteemed members of religious orders. We find it applied to Bede by the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle in 836, and it has clung to him through succeeding centuries. Though in 1899 he was named Saint and Doctor of the Church, “Venerable” remains his special designation to this day. A Benedictine scholar, the late Cardinal Gasquet, has left a high tribute to Bede’s literary work. “When we compare,” he writes, “the work done under the inspiration of Bede at Wearmouth and Jarrow with the other literary efforts of the seventh and eighth centuries, one characteristic at once strikes us. The work of that northern school is what may be called ‘thorough and scholarly.’ . . . It will bear the test of examination; it carries with it evidence of wide reading and full knowledge, utilized with judgment and critical tact, and for this it became a model to subsequent generations.
Whether we take Bede’s History for chronology and the careful determination of dates; or his treatise on meter, which is really philological; or his Scripture commentaries, and compare them with the efforts of a century or two before, or even with those of a century or two later, we can at once detect the difference. … Look at his History…. Reflect how this great record of our own country was composed. Remember that its author was a man who lived his whole life within the narrow circuit of a few miles, remember also the difficulty of obtaining information in those days. Still, to acquire knowledge, accurate knowledge, he went to work precisely as the historian would at the present day, never resting till he had got at the best sources of information available at the cost of whatever time or patience or labor it might involve. It is only now, in this age of minute criticism, that we can realize the full excellence of Bede’s historical methods.
The chief study of St. Bede and his fellow monks of Wearmouth and Jarrow was the Bible. It was from this monastery that has come to us the most correct manuscript of the Vulgate, a scientific achievement of the highest quality.” Bede’s writings include works on natural phenomena, chronology, and grammar, also commentaries on the Latin Fathers, and a <History of the Abbots>. He summed up and gave to the English people of his day the learning of Western Europe as well as an invaluable history of their own land. In all that he wrote he had the artist’s instinct for proportion, and a literary feeling for interesting and picturesque detail. Yet, above all, Bede was the Christian thinker and student.
Prefece to the Ecclesiastical History
. . . To the end that I may remove from yourself and other readers or hearers of this history all occasion of doubting what I have written, I will now tell you briefly from what authors chiefly I have gleaned the same. My principal authority and aid in the work was the learned and revered Abbot Albinus who was educated in the church at Canterbury by those venerable and learned men, Archbishop Theodore of blessed memory and the Abbot Adrian, and transmitted to me by Nothelm, the godly priest of the Church of London, either in writing or by word of mouth of the same Nothelm, all that he thought worthy of memory that had been done in the province of Kent and adjacent parts by the disciples of the blessed Pope Gregory, as he had learned the same either from written records or the traditions of his predecessors. The same Nothelm afterwards went to Rome, where by leave of the present Pope Gregory, he searched into the archives of the holy Roman Church and found some letters of the blessed Pope Gregory and other popes. Returning home, by the advice of the aforesaid most reverend father Albinus, he brought them to me to be inserted in my history.
Thus, the writings of our predecessors from the beginning of this volume to the time when the English nation received the faith of Christ we have collected and from them gathered the material of our history. From that time until the present what was transacted in the church of Canterbury by the disciples of St. Gregory and their successors and under what kings these things took place has been conveyed to us by Nothelm through the industry of the aforesaid Abbot Albinus. They also partly informed me by what bishops and under what kings the provinces of the East and West Saxons, as also of the East Angles and the Northumbrians received the faith of Christ. In short, I was encouraged to undertake this work chiefly by the persuasions of Albinus.
In like manner, Daniel, the most reverend bishop of the West Saxons, who is still living, communicated to me in writing some facts regarding the ecclesiastical history of that province and the next adjoining it of the South Saxons, as also the Isle of Wight. And how through the pious ministry of Cedd and Ceadda the province of the Mercians was brought to the faith of Christ, which they had not known before, and how the East Saxons recovered it after having rejected it, and how those fathers lived and died, we learned from the brethren of the monastery which was built by them and is called Lastingham…. And what took place in the church of the province of the Northumbrians from the time they received the faith of Christ until this present, I learned not from any particular writer but from the faithful testimony of innumerable witnesses who might know or remember the same, besides what I had of my own knowledge….
And I humbly entreat the reader that if he find anything in this that we have written not recounted according to the truth, he will not impute the fault to me, who, as the true rule of history requires, have labored sincerely to commit to writing what I could gather from the general report for the instruction of posterity. Moreover, I beseech all men who shall hear or read this history of our nation that for my manifold infirmities of both mind and body they will offer up frequent supplications to the throne of Grace. And I further pray that as reward for the labor wherewith I have recorded for the several countries the events which were most worthy of note and most grateful to the ears of their inhabitants I may have in recompense the benefit of their godly prayers.
The Conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria
The king, hearing these words, answered that he was both willing and bound to receive the faith which he taught; but that he would confer about it with his principal friends and counsellors, to the end that if they also were of his opinion, they might all together be cleansed in Christ the Fountain of Life. Paulinus consenting, the king did as he said; for, holding a council with the wise men, he asked of everyone in particular what he thought of the new doctrine, and the new worship that was preached? To which the chief of his own priests, Coifi, immediately answered, “O King, consider what this is which is now preached to us; for I verily declare to you, that the religion which we have hitherto professed has, as far as I can learn, no virtue in it. For none of your people has applied himself more delightedly to the worship of our own gods than I; and yet there are many who receive greater favors from you, and are more preferred than I, and are more prosperous in all their undertakings. Now if the gods were good for anything, they would rather forward me, who have been more careful to serve them It remains, therefore, that if upon examination you find those new doctrines which are now preached to us better and more efficacious, we immediately receive them without delay.”
Another of the king’s chief men, approving of his words and exhortations, presently added, “The present life of man, O King, seems to be, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein You sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So, this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are entirely ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”
Though his History is the greatest legacy Bede has left us, his work in all the sciences, especially in Scripture, should not be overlooked. During his last Lent, Bede worked on a translation of the Gospel of Saint John into English, completing it the day he died. But of this work “to break the word to the poor and unlearned” nothing remains today.
He is the Patron Saint of: