The Venerable Bede
"It seems to me that the life of man on earth is 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 captains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird 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. So man appears on earth for a little while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing." - Venerable Bede’s History of the English People:
The Venerable Bede was born, plain old Bede, in AD 673. The name Venerable – meaning ancient and worthy – was added later as his fame as a scholar spread. He was born on the grounds of the monastery he was later to make famous and in which he was to serve as a monk for over 50 years. Little is known about his very early life until at the age of 7 he was entrusted into the care of Benedict Biscop, the founder of the monastery. When plague struck in 685 Bede, then aged 12, was one of only two survivors from the devastated congregation. He was to spend the rest of his life in Jarrow on the banks of the Tyne river where linguists can trace the modern day “Geordie” accent directly back to the dialect of Old English that Bede and his kinsmen would have spoken all those years ago.
Through his writings we get to know Bede in a very personnel way. He tells us of his interest in carpentry and music and how he enjoyed long walks along the Northumbrian coast that allowed him to study the movement of the tides. Above all he tells us that he loved cooking and he was especially proud of his store of peppercorns and spices that he added to the bland food of the monastery.
Bede was essentially a very simple man but he also possessed a huge intellect. His enthusiasm for books and learning inspired those around him and his reputation as a scholar shone forth as a lantern across “Dark Age” Europe. Because of Bede, Jarrow in the far northern reaches of Christian Europe was know as a centre of learning across the entire continent. It's influence is felt to this day and many still see it as a birthplace of modern European culture and learning. From these very humble beginings Bede was to become Europe's greatest 8th century scholar and the first historian of the English nation. He translated parts of the bible into English and his works are still in use over 13 centuries later.
He tells us “It has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write". And he explains that "I have made it my business, for my own benefit and that of my brothers, to make brief extracts from the works of the venerable fathers on the holy scriptures, or to add notes of my own to clarify their sense and interpretation". During his time at the monastery he was to complete over 68 books – everything from biblical teachings and astrology to science and philosophy. He knew that the earth was a sphere. He had a sense of latitude and the annual movement of the sun into the north and south hemispheres from the evidence of varying lengths of shadows. He knew that the moon influenced the cycle of the tides. It is largely down to Bede that we use the AD method of dating where all dates are taken from the birth of Christ. But foremost of all his works was his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” which he completed in AD 731. In it he tells us of the very beginnings of what was to become the English nation. He tells of the early English migrations from their continental homelands. Through his narrative, history comes alive, and often on very human level we hear of the everyday struggle of the ordinary English people for survival. But also in an extremely violent and brutal age his sense of humour shines through. Above all Bede was an Englishman and he was proud of it. He had very little time for the Scots or the Welsh, and the Irish were often a particularly favourite target for his wit.
Even in these very early days while the foundation stones were still being laid of what was to become the English nation Bede was to all intents and purposes an English nationalist. He was a visionary – a man decades if not hundreds of years ahead of his time. His “Ecclesiastical History of the English People" was far from being a tale of fractured Germanic tribes in search of a new land. It was a vision of a united English people who had come together under one language, one God, and one country – and that country was Anglo-Saxon and it was Christian. He believed in a strong united England and he believed in the English people themselves who he looked upon as God’s own chosen people.
He died in his cell at the monastery, surrounded by his pupils, in the year 735 at which in Anglo-Saxon times, he was the grand old age of 62. Cuthbert a young monk who was with him at his passing later wrote an account of his death. He describes how his last hours were taken up translating the Gospel of St John into “our language” – that is Latin into Englisc - in order that his own people would be able to read the holy scriptures for themselves. When he had finished he turned to one of his pupils and said "I have a few treasures in my box, some peppercorns, a napkin and incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of our monastery, and I will share among them such little presents as God has given me."
He handed out amongst his fellow monks the few worldly treasures that he possessed and then he died. Bede’s gifts to the monks may seem modest but to his people he left so much more. To modern day Englishmen he left a message of hope, which even over a millennia later we can see in his idea of the kinship and brotherhood of all the Anglo-Saxon people. To his contemporaries he left the vision of a single, united English nation – something that over the next 200 years his people – his beloved English people – would come to realise.