Celts to the Crèche: Day 23
The Venerable Bede
672/673-May 25, 735 AD
On this 23rd day of our journey with the Celts to the Crèche, we meet Bede who was a historian, theologian, monk, scholar, writer, scribe, and a person of deep faith in Christ who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is his best known work. We know very little about his personal life except what he wrote in the last chapter of his Ecclesiastical History that was completed about 731. He lived most of his life at the Wearmouth-Jarrow Monasteries in Northeast England.
If it were not for Bede’s works, we would know very little of the early history of the English nation. You may desire to continue reading more about Bede or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this page.
His Life: Bede implies that he was in his fifty-ninth year in 731, which would give a likely birth date of about 672–673. He said that he was born “on the lands of this monastery,” referring to the two twin monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, but there is also a tradition saying that he was born at Monkton, two miles from the monastery at Jarrow. Bede says nothing about his parents, but he was likely from a Christian family of nobility from the area of Lindsey (Lincolnshire) that later was dissolved into Northumbria and sometimes into Mercia. Bede’s first abbot was Benedict Biscop, and the names “Biscop” and “Beda” both appear in the Anglian Collection of Genealogies, which is a list of the early kings of Lindsey further suggesting that Bede came from a noble family. The name “Bede” was not a common one at the time.
Early Life: At the age of seven, he was sent to the monastery of Monkwearmouth by his family to be educated by Benedict Biscop and later by Ceolfrith.
Monkwearmouth’s sister monastery at Jarrow was founded by Ceolfrith in 682, and Bede probably transferred to Jarrow with Ceolfrith that year. Bede would have been surrounded by the finest manuscripts, pictures, relics, Roman furniture, and religious vestments as Benedict Biscop would often travel to Rome to choose the finest items he could for his monastery and for it’s library.
Jarrow Church: The dedication stone for the church has survived to the present day; it is dated 23 April 685, and as Bede would have been required to assist with menial tasks in his day-to-day life, it is possible that he helped in building the original church. It is wonderful to be in the Jarrow church in which Bede likely helped build, where he worshipped, and where he lived and wrote.
Bede records that Benedict Biscop only wanted stone churches and buildings like those he saw in Rome versus the wooden churches of the Anglo-Saxons, so Benedict brought over from Italy the finest Roman stonemasons and from Mainz, Germany the best glass artists for his new monastery. Benedict also brought over one of the finest cantors, Abbot John of the Roman monastery of St. Martin’s to teach his monks to sing and how to read outloud. The south wall of the Jarrow church was filled with pictures or figurines of the Gospels while pictures or figurines from the Revelation of John were displayed along the north wall. Bede said that the church was so filled with pictures and scenes from the life of Christ that even if one was unable to read, that they could understand the Gospel message.
Plague: The very next year, in 686, plague broke out at Jarrow. The Life of Ceolfrith, written in about 710, records that only two surviving monks were capable of singing the full offices; one was Ceolfrith and the other a young boy, who according to the anonymous writer had been taught by Ceolfrith. The two managed to do the entire service of the liturgy until others could be trained. The young boy was almost certainly Bede, who would have been about 14.
Scriptorium: There must have been a large scriptorium at Jarrow as the famous 75 lb. Codex Amiantinus that was to be a gift for Pope Gregory II was produced by St. Ceolfrith.
This Bible was a great set of handwritten and illuminated volumes using the Vulgate Bible. It is possible that the Jarrow scriptorium is where Bede did his writing also.
Ordination: In about 692, when Bede was 19, he was ordained a deacon by his diocesan bishop, John of Beverly (see Celts to the Creche day 12) who was Bishop of Hexham, and was later Bishop of York. Bishop John was trained in St. Hilda of Whitby’s monastery (see day 2 of Celts to the Creche), so Bede had this great Celtic influence. The canonical age for the ordination of a deacon was 25 so Bede’s early ordination may mean that his abilities were considered exceptional or that the minimum age requirement was waived after the monastery was decimated by the plague. In Bede’s thirtieth year (about 702), he became a priest, with the ordination again performed by Bishop John of Hexham.
Bede as a Writer: Bede was a prolific writer, penning over 60 books, most of which have survived. He was very concerned for the welfare of the English and wanted them to know how to read and write Latin to aid in their conversion to Christianity.
In order to make the scripture accessible to his people, he worked at translating Latin works into English such as the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Besides his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he also wrote the Lives of Saints such as Cuthbert and Felix; a book on martyrology; and many biblical works such as commentaries and exegesis on Samuel, Genesis, Ezra, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Acts, Luke, Mark, Epistles and Revelations. He even wrote sermons and poems. Bede is also credited with being one of the first to use the dating system of Anno Domini (A.D.) that was developed by Dionysius Exiguus in 525 A.D.Both Dionysius and Bede considered Anno Domini as commencing at the incarnation of Christ.
Bede who lived his entire life at the monastery, rarely left it even to travel, but in 733, he took a trip to York to visit Ecgbert, the Bishop of York and he also went to the monastery of Lindisfarne where Æthelwald was Abbot then. At some point he visited the unknown monastery of a monk named Wicthed, that he mentioned in a letter to that monk.
There must have been a large library at Jarrow for Bede to use for his research, that aided his writings. Bede also said that his research included personal interviews with religious leaders of his time that he knew. One of these interviews was likely with Adomnán, the 9th Abbot of Iona and the biographer of St. Columba who visited Ceolfrith when Bede was a youth. Another person who likely shared information with Bede was St. John of Beverley (also of Hexham and York) who had ordained Bede both as a deacon and a priest. St. John of Beverly would have been able to give firsthand information on St. Hilda of Whitby since he was trained by her. We are grateful that Bede included information on this great Abbess Hilda as otherwise her life might have been lost to history. Also, we only know about the shepherd Caedmon and his song about creation and how Hilda discovered him.
The complete listing of Bede’s works can be found on Wikipedia: List of Bede’s Writings.
Place of Resurrection: Bede died at about 62 years of age on Thursday, May 26, 735 and was buried at Jarrow. Cuthbert (different than St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne), a disciple of Bede’s, wrote a letter to Cuthwin, describing Bede’s last days and his death. According to Cuthbert, Bede fell ill, “with frequent attacks of breathlessness but almost without pain,” before Easter. On Tuesday, two days before Bede died, his breathing became worse and his feet swelled.
He continued to dictate to a scribe, however, and despite spending the night awake in prayer he dictated again the following day. At three o’clock, according to Cuthbert, he asked for a box of his to be brought, and distributed among the priests of the monastery “a few treasures” of his: “some pepper, and napkins, and some incense.” That night he dictated a final sentence to the scribe, a boy named Wilberht, and died soon afterwards. Cuthbert’s letter also relates a five-line poem in the vernacular that Bede supposedly composed on his deathbed, known as “Bede’s Death Song”.
Bede was buried at Jarrow, but his body was ‘translated’ (his relics were moved) from Jarrow to Durham Cathedral around 1020, where his body was placed in the same tomb with St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. Later Bede’s remains were moved to a shrine in the Galilee Chapel at Durham Cathedral in 1370. The shrine was destroyed during the English Reformation, but his bones were reburied in the chapel. In 1831 his bones were dug up, and then reburied in a new tomb, which is still there. It is interesting that during that opening of Bede’s tomb, that three casts were made of his skull. All three disappeared over time, but one has been discovered by Professor Jo Story, of the University of Leicester. She found it in 2015 among the collections of the Duckworth Laboratory in the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge.
Jarrow Hall, formerly called Bede’s World in Jarrow is a must visit for anyone interested in Bede and that time period in history. It is an interactive museum filled with items about Bede and the two monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. It is next door to the ancient and historical Jarrow Church where each May the church brings in Anglo-Saxon scholars for the Jarrow Lecture to share about this fascinating period of history. Also Wearmouth has begun a lecture series with Anglo-Saxon scholars each year in August. The archaeologist for Jarrow was Dr. Rosemary Cramp who often speaks at the Jarrow Lectures.
Feast Day May 25 (even though his death date is May 26)
As we are a little over half-way through our Advent journey, we discover that we too are like a multitude of Mary’s, pregnant with the Christ child, anxiously awaiting the birth of this Messiah anew in our lives. It is our prayer during this pilgrimage that Jesus the Christ will be born anew into our world and into our lives. May the light and love of Christ so penetrate our souls and our very lives that we become lighthouses wherever we continue our life pilgrimage.
May we like Bede be both deeply spiritual and also studious, using our mind and our heart to be a manger for Christ to be born.
Annual Wearmouth Lecture information on St. Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth Facebook page.
Bede’s Lost Skull Cast’ rediscovered’. BBC. 5 September 2015.
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Website from Fordham University.
Bede. The Holy Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow. Fordham University. Medieval Sourcebook.
“Bede,” by Roger Ray in Lapidge, Blaire, Keynes, & Scragg, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
Bede’s Way Walk. This is a 12 mile pilgrimage between the twin St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s churches.
Blair, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Blair, Peter Hunter. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
_____________.The World of Bede. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Bragg, Melvin with guests Michelle Brown, Sarah Foot, and Richard Gameson. BBC: In Our Time: The Venerable Bede. Audio only on Youtube. November 24, 2005. (scholars discuss Bede’s life and work)
The British Library. Anglo-Saxons Kingdoms Exhibition to Open in 2018. (Codex Amiatinus returned to England in October 2018 at the British Library for the first time in 1300 years along with an exhibition of St. Cuthbert’s Gospel.) It was an excellent exhibit!
__________. Tiberius Bede. (very early manuscript held in the British Library of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History)
Brown, Michelle P. “Bede’s life in context” in The Cambridge Companion to Bede. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
_____________. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland. Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2006.
chronicaminora.wordpress.com/category/bede/ (a blog of a Ph.D. student who is working on Bede for their dissertation)
Codex Amiatinus Bible Returns to Its Home in Jarrow. BBC. 15 May 2014.
Colgrave, Bertram. The Venerable Bede and His Times. Jarrow Lecture, 1958.
____________, trans. Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1940, 1985.
Cramp, Rosemary. Meet the Archaeologist: Rosemary Cramp. July 4, 2014.
Dales, Douglas. Light to the Isles: Mission and Theology in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Cambridge, UK: James Clarke & Co., 1997.
DeGregorio, Scott, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bede. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
De Hamel, Christopher. Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. New York: Penguin Random House, 2016. (there is a great chapter on the Codex Amiatinus).
Duckett, Eleanor S. Anglo-Saxon Saints and Scholars. New York: McMillan, 1947.
Fletcher, Eric. Benedict Biscop. Jarrow Lecture, 1981.
Foot, Sarah. Bede’s Church. Jarrow Lecture, 2012.
________. “Church and monastery in Bede’s Northumbria” in The Cambridge Companion to Bede. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Goffart, Walter. The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D.550-800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Higham, Nicholas J. and Martin J. Ryan. The Anglo-Saxon World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. (Article in the book by Martin J. Ryan on “The Venerable Bede” in Sources and Issues 3A is insightful.)
Hume, Basil. Footprints of the Northern Saints. London, UK: Darton, Longman, & Todd, Ltd., 1996.
Huntley, Dana. “The Venerable Bed-England’s First Great Historian.” British Heritage Travel. October 29, 2020 (originally published June 2006).
Jarrow Hall Anglo Saxon Farm Village and Bede Museum. (Note: formerly “Bede’s World”) t
Leyser, Henrietta. Beda: A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede. London: Head of Zeus, 2015.
Mary-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. University Park, PA: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 3rd ed. 1991.
McClure, Judith. “Bede and the Life of Ceolfrid, ” Peritia, Vol. 30. 1984, p. 71-84.
Parkes, M. B. The Scriptorium of Wearmouth-Jarrow. Jarrow Lecture, 1982.
Rollason, David. “The cult of Bede” in The Cambridge Companion to Bede. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
___________. Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, UK. Basil Blackwell, 1989.
Smart, Ian Hunter, Mavis Dry, and Geoff Green. The Royal Ancient & Monastic Parish Church of St. Paul, Jarrow. UK: Temprint. nd.
“St. Bede” by Dom Alberic Stacpoole in Benedict’s Disciples, edited by D. H. Farmer. Leominster, UK: Fowler Wright Books Ltd, 1980.
Stenton, F. M. Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed., 1971, 2001 reissue.
Sunfm 103.4. Historic Project Finished at Sunderland Church. 04/11/17 (new stained glass honoring Bede installed in Bede’s Bakehouse and Cafe, St.Peter’s Church, Sunderland) where first stained glass was installed in England in 674AD).
Turner, Sam, Sarah Semple, and Alex Turner. Wearmouth & Jarrow: Northumbrian monasteries in an historic landscape. Hatfield, UK: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2013.
Wallace-Hadrill, J.M. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1988.
Warren, Brenda G. The Venerable Bede: Delighting in our Giftedness. July 5, 2018.
Wilson, David M., ed. The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Wood, Ian. “The foundation of Bede’s Wearmouth-Jarrow” in The Cambridge Companion to Bede. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Wormald, Patrick. “Bede and Benedict Biscop” in Famulus Christi:Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede. G. Bonner, ed., London, 1976.
____________. Bede and the Conversion of England: The Charter Evidence. Jarrow Lecture, 1984.
Yorke, Barbara. Rex Doctissimus: Bede and King Aldfrith of Northumbria. Jarrow Lecture, 2009.
__________. The Conversion of Britain: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain c.600–800. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.