Sunday, May 19, 2024

Fortnightly Book, May 19

St. Beda was born in the vicinity of the monastery of Monkwearmouth, sometime in the 670s. He studied at Monkwearmouth under the abbot St. Benedict Biscop, but soon after St. Ceolfrith established Monkwearmouth's sister monastery of Jarrow in 682, transferred there for his studies and remained there as a monk. He was ordained a deacon at about the age of 19 (which was unusually young), and became a priest about 702. He died May 26, 735, which happened to be both Ascension Thursday and the feast day of St. Augustine of Canterbury, one of the key saints on the English calendar. He began to be called 'The Venerable Bede' very early on, although the 'Venerable' here does not seem to have had anything to do with the canonization process. In fact, according to legend, the title was given to him by an angel; a monk was carving a Latin inscription for his tomb, and, not being very bright, was stymied at not being able to find a word to describe him that fit the meter and space. He fell asleep, and when he awoke, he found the word venerabilis carved perfectly into the space. Whatever the source, it became universal very quickly.

He wrote quite a few works, including works on the calendar, works of Scriptural commentary, and works of hagiography, but his most famous work is the work for which all these other works prepared him: Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, in English, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which has held its position as a classic ever since. The Ecclesiastical History was written about 731, when he was nearing sixty years of age. The overall approach is usually thought to be influenced by the Biblical book of Acts and by the History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, and the basic framework is usually thought to have been provided by Gildas's De excidio et conquestu Britanniae, the anonymous Liber beatae Gregorii papae, and Stephen of Ripon's Vita sancti Wilfrithi, but Beda was not a slavish follower of any of the three works; he draws heavily on many other sources, including oral tradition and his own informal investigations as he corresponded with various abbots and monks, traveled to various monasteries, and met various monastic travelers at Jarrow. It is as much what has gone into the book as the book itself that has led to St. Beda being regarded as patron saint of historians and the Father of English History.

For the fortnightly book I will be reading Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the Penguin edition, translated by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R. E. Latham; it comes with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede, translated by D. H. Farmer.