Today is the feast day of Venerable Bede, Ora pro nobis.
Bede was born 672 or 673. Bede, the illustrious ornament of the Anglo-Saxon Church and its first English historian, was consecrated to God in 680 at the age of seven, and entrusted to the care of Saint Benedict Biscop at Weremouth. He became a monk in the sister-house of Jarrow, which he would never leave, and there he trained no fewer than six hundred scholars, whom his piety, learning, and sweet disposition had gathered around him.
Here, he was ordained a deacon when he was 19 and a priest when he was 30; and here he spent the rest of his life. He never travelled outside of this area but yet, became one of the most learned men of Europe.
The scholarship and culture of Italy had been brought to Britain where it was transported to Jarrow. Here it was combined with the simpler traditions, devotions and evangelism of the Celtic church. In this setting Bede learned the love of scholarship, personal devotion and discipline . He mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew and had a good knowledge of the classical scholars and early church fathers.
Bede’s writings cover a broad spectrum including natural history, poetry, Biblical translation and exposition of the scriptures. His earliest Biblical commentary was probably that on the book of the Revelation. He is credited with writing three known Latin hymns. He is remembered chiefly for his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People.” This five volume work records events in Britain from the raids by Julius Caesar in 55-54 BC to the arrival of the first missionary from Rome, Saint Augustine in 597. Bede’s writings are considered the best summary of this period of history ever prepared. Some have called it “the finest historical work of the early Middle Ages.”
Bede’s influence both upon English and foreign scholarship was very great, and it would probably have been greater still but for the devastation inflicted upon the Northern monasteries by the inroads of the Danes less than a century after his death. In numberless ways, but especially in his moderation, gentleness, and breadth of view, Bede stands out from his contemporaries. In point of scholarship he was undoubtedly the most learned man of his time. A very remarkable trait, noticed by Plummer (I, p. xxiii), is his sense of literary property, an extraordinary thing in that age. He himself scrupulously noted in his writings the passages he had borrowed from others and he even begs the copyists of his works to preserve the references, a recommendation to which they, alas, have paid but little attention. High, however, as was the general level of Bede’s culture, he repeatedly makes it clear that all his studies were subordinated to the interpretation of Scripture.
In his “De Schematibus” he says in so many words: “Holy Scripture is above all other books not only by its authority because it is Divine, or by its utility because it leads to eternal life, but also by its antiquity and its literary form” (positione dicendi). It is perhaps the highest tribute to Bede’s genius that with so uncompromising and evidently sincere a conviction of the inferiority of human learning, he should have acquired so much real culture. Though Latin was to him a still living tongue, and though he does not seem to have consciously looked back to the Augustan Age of Roman Literature as preserving purer models of literary style than the time of Fortunatus or St. Augustine, still whether through native genius or through contact with the classics, he is remarkable for the relative purity of his language, as also for his lucidity and sobriety, more especially in matters of historical criticism. In all these respects he presents a marked contrast to St. Aldhelm who approaches more nearly to the Celtic type.
The Saint was employed in translating the Gospel of Saint John from the Greek, even to the hour of his death, which took place on the eve of the Ascension in the year 735. He spent that day joyfully, writes one of his scholars. In the middle of the afternoon he said: It is time that I return to the One who gave me being, creating me out of nothing… The moment of my liberty is approaching; I desire to be freed from the bonds of the body and to join Jesus Christ. Yes, my soul longs to see Jesus Christ its king, in the splendor of His glory. In the evening a scribe attending him said, Dear master, there is yet one chapter unwritten; would you be disturbed if we asked you additional questions? He answered, No; take your pen, and write quickly, which the disciple did. He prayed then until his last breath.
The title Venerabilis seems to have been associated with the name of Bede within two generations after his death. There is of course no early authority for the legend repeated by Fuller of the “dunce-monk” who in composing an epitaph on Bede was at a loss to complete the line: Hac sunt in fossa Bedae … ossa and who next morning found that the angels had filled the gap with the word venerabilis. The title is used by Alcuin, Amalarius and seemingly Paul the Deacon, and the important Council of Aachen in 835 describes him as venerabilis et modernis temporibus doctor admirabilis Beda. This decree was specially referred to in the petition which Cardinal Wiseman and the English bishops addressed to the Holy See in 1859 praying that Bede might be declared a Doctor of the Church. The question had already been debated even before the time of Benedict XIV, but it was only on 13 November, 1899, that Leo XIII decreed that the feast of Venerable Bede with the title of Doctor Ecclesiae should be celebrated throughout the Church each year on 27 May. A local cultus of St. Bede had been maintained at York and in the North of England throughout the Middle Ages, but his feast was not so generally observed in the South, where the Sarum Rite was followed.
Image: “The Venerable Bede Translates John” by James Doyle Penrose (1862-1932) (5)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff
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