Priest, monk, and biblical scholar, Bede was the first English historian. He was educated from the age of seven, first by Benedict Biscop at Wearmouth and afterwards by Ceolfrith at Jarrow (near Durham in Northumbria), where he was to be a monk for the rest of his life. There, as he later wrote, “spending all the remaining time of my life…I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture, and amidst the observance of regular discipline, and the daily care of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, teaching, and writing.”
Bede was ordained deacon at nineteen, and presbyter at the age of thirty, about 703. His life was uneventful, as the outside world measures such things. He apparently traveled little, probably never leaving Northumbria. Being continually occupied with monastic life and with his writing, made possible by the acquisition of books by Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith, he was little acquainted with courts and kings. A moving contemporary account of his death on the eve of the Ascension in 735 survives, revealing the veneration felt for him by his disciples. The account tells how he spent his last days, singing the psalms, working on his translation of the Gospel according to Saint John into English. Knowing that he was to die soon, Bede pressed onwards with his translation and finished it, dictating his last sentence to the boy who was serving as his scribe. That evening he also sang antiphons from the divine office, especially those for Ascension Day, and he died singing Gloria Patri: Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. When news of his death reached English missionaries on the continent, Saint Boniface wrote that “the candle of the Church, lit by the Holy Spirit, was extinguished”.
Bede was the greatest scholar of his time in the Western Church. He wrote commentaries on the Scriptures based on patristic interpretations. His treatise on chronology was the standard for a long time. He also wrote on orthography and poetic meter, but it is as a historian that his talents truly shone. His most famous work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in Latin, remains the primary historical source for the period from 597 to 731, when Anglo-Saxon culture developed and flourished and the Christian faith triumphed. Bede’s methods were ahead of his time. He consulted many documents, carefully evaluated their reliability, and cited his sources. His interpretations were balanced and judicious. He also wrote a History of the Abbots (of Wearmouth and Jarrow), and a notable biography of Saint Cuthbert, both in prose and in verse.
Bede’s character shines through his work: an exemplary monk, an ardent Christian, devoted scholar, and a man of purity and grace. He receive the unusual title of Venerable more than a century after his death. According to one legend, the monk writing the inscription for his tomb was at a loss for a word to fill out the couplet:
Hac sunt in fossa
Bedae – blank – ossa
(This grave containes
the – blank – Bede’s remains.)
That night an angel filled in the blank space: Venerabilis.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980) and
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
Heavenly Father, you called your servant Bede, while still a child, to devote his life to your service in the disciplines of religion and scholarship: Grant that as he labored in the Spirit to bring the riches of your truth to his generation, so we, in our various vocations, may strive to make you known in all the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Bede the Venerable, Priest and Monk of Jarrow, are published on the Lectionary Page website.