The History of the English Church and People (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


The History of the English Church and People (also known as The Ecclesiastical History of England), completed in 731 and possibly revised and updated over the next few years, is arguably the greatest and most influential work of history of the Middle Ages. Written by the Anglo-Saxon scholar and monk the Venerable Bede, the work is at once a national history and a witness to the greatness of God and His church on earth. An immensely popular work, the History contributed to the adoption of the Annus Domini dating ...
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The History of the English Church and People (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


The History of the English Church and People (also known as The Ecclesiastical History of England), completed in 731 and possibly revised and updated over the next few years, is arguably the greatest and most influential work of history of the Middle Ages. Written by the Anglo-Saxon scholar and monk the Venerable Bede, the work is at once a national history and a witness to the greatness of God and His church on earth. An immensely popular work, the History contributed to the adoption of the Annus Domini dating system, which Bede used throughout his great work. Although Bede included discussion of numerous miracles in the work, he collected evidence and evaluated sources in an almost modern way that has led many to identify Bede as the "father of English history."
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Meet the Author


Bede was born around the year 673 and spent nearly his entire life in the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, seldom venturing beyond its confines. He became a deacon at nineteen years old and a priest at thirty; he observed the monastic rule all his life. A conscientious monk, Bede was also a devoted scholar and teacher whose writings had a profound influence on early medieval learning. An orthodox Christian, Bede was charged with heresy over the contents of his first book on computus, the science of calculating dates of the calendar. His second book on computus, however, became the standard work on the subject in the Middle Ages and was important preparation for his History. He died on May 25, 735. In 1899, he was declared a Doctor of the Church, and in 1935, Bede was declared a saint.
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Introduction

Introduction

The Ecclesiastical History of England (also known as The History of the English Church and People), completed in 731 and possibly revised and updated over the next few years, is arguably the greatest and most influential work of history of the Middle Ages. Written by the Anglo-Saxon scholar and monk, the Venerable Bede, the work is at once a national history and a witness to the greatness of God and His church on earth. An immensely popular work, the History contributed to the adoption of the Annus Domini dating system, which Bede used throughout his great work. Although Bede included discussion of numerous miracles in the work, he collected evidence and evaluated sources in an almost modern way that has led many to identify Bede as the “father of English history.”

Bede lived in the late seventh and early eighth centuries during what is commonly called the Dark Ages, but as his writings and life demonstrate, this was far from an age of ignorance or cultural darkness. He was a central figure in the Northumbrian Renaissance, one of the many cultural revivals of the early Middle Ages, and his broad reading and elegant Latin demonstrate the high quality that scholarship and literary production could achieve at that time. He composed the History near the end of his life with the hope that his readers, of whom there would be many throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, would learn from the example, both good and bad, of its many very human characters. His work focuses on the history of the conversion to Christianity of the people of England and often examines the actions of the leading figures of society—the kings, bishops, abbots, and nuns—who were the key actors in English history. He also reveals the experiences of simple monks and gives us a glimpse of the everyday life of less exalted figures, and, thus, provides a comprehensive picture of the English people in a formative period in their history.

Bede was probably born around the year 673 on lands that belonged to the famous monastery of Wearmouth, which had been founded by Benedict Biscop and which Bede himself would eventually join. He later transferred to its companion monastery of Jarrow and may have been one of the few survivors of a plague that struck the community in 686. He spent nearly his entire life in the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, seldom venturing beyond its confines. He did make trips to the famed abbey of Lindisfarne and other monasteries in England as well as making visits to the archbishop of York and Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria. He tells us that he became a deacon at nineteen years old and a priest at thirty and that he observed the monastic rule all his life. A conscientious monk, Bede was also a devoted scholar and teacher whose writings had a profound influence on early medieval learning. He wrote numerous commentaries on the books of the Bible and the works of the Fathers. Widely read in both sacred and profane letters, although he knew pagan authors mostly through anthologies, Bede wrote two books on poetry, one of which included a commentary on Latin grammar. Influenced by Isidore of Seville and Pliny the Elder, whose work he read in the original, Bede wrote a book on natural phenomena. An orthodox Christian, Bede was charged with heresy over the contents of his first book on computus, the science of calculating dates of the calendar. His second book on computus, however, became the standard work on the subject in the Middle Ages and was important preparation for his History. His final work, a translation into Old English of the Gospel of John, was left unfinished when he died on May 25, 735. By then Bede had achieved great fame and was buried in the porch of the monastery church, later his remains were moved to the main altar. In 1020, his relics were stolen and buried at the shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham. His relics were allegedly moved to the Holy Land when King Henry VIII shut down the monasteries in England. In 1899, he was declared a Doctor of the Church, and in 1935, Bede was declared a saint.

The History was one of the most popular works of the Middle Ages and achieved almost instant acclaim. Indeed, like many of Bede’s works, it was a “best seller” in the Middle Ages. Although no copy of the History in Bede’s own hand is extant today, the earliest copy that exists was compiled within a few years of his death. Almost no important library in the Middle Ages was without a copy of the work or at least a part of it, and more than 150 manuscript copies of the History as well as numerous manuscripts with extracts of it are to be found today. Bede’s elegant and literate Latin as well as his narrative techniques made the work popular in its original and in translation in the Middle Ages and beyond. The earliest translation into Old English was made during the time of King Alfred the Great in the ninth century. The first modern English translation was made by Thomas Stapleton and was printed by John Laet in Antwerp in 1565. The first printed version of the History was made by Heinrich Eggestym in c. 1475, placing it in the ranks of the earliest printed books. It was so popular and widely read that polemicists on both sides of the Reformation and Counter Reformation used it in their religious debates.

Often seen as a lone voice in the early medieval wilderness, Bede was instead the leading scholar of his time and a historian in a long line reaching back to Eusebius in the fourth century. Along with that first great Christian historian, Bede can be listed with Orosius and Cassiodorus in the early fifth century and, closer to his own time, Gregory of Tours, the historian of the Franks of the late sixth century whose work Bede surely knew but did not cite. In Bede’s own time, there were a number of annalists and chroniclers, most importantly Fredegar and his anonymous continuator, who told the story of the last kings of the Merovingian dynasty and the founders of the Carolingian line. Along with the chroniclers, there were many hagiographers, the authors of the lives of saints, who contributed to the historical record of the time. Indeed, saints’ lives were among the more important sources for the History. Bede himself wrote saints’ lives, including two versions of the life of St. Cuthbert, and his hagiographical work is often recognized as important preparation for his writing of the History. The Life of St. Germanus, Stephen of Ripon’s Life of Wilfrid, and the Whitby Life of Gregory were among the saints’ lives Bede used in the preparation of his great work, but, as with all the sources he used, Bede did not slavishly copy from the saints’ lives but adapted and carefully sifted the material to best suit the narrative he composed.

It is his use of sources that clearly distinguishes Bede from his contemporaries and establishes the History as one of the more reliable accounts of early medieval history. Bede’s work clearly demonstrates his wide reading and impeccable scholarship. Throughout the work there are traces of the great ancient Latin writer Virgil, whose works Bede probably knew only second hand. The Bible was an even more important source for Bede; references to both the Old Testament and New Testament can be seen throughout the History. Along with biblical and pagan sources and the hagiographers, Bede drew from earlier historians and other sources in a critical way that was almost modern. In fact, he was one of the few medieval writers to cite the sources he quoted. For the earlier part of his history, until the time of the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury, Bede relied on the historians Gildas and Orosius, the Life of St. Germanus, and a few other earlier writers. The rest of the work was based on a variety of sources, including a number of documents that the priest Nothelm of London brought back from Rome for Bede or that contacts at Canterbury provided him. At various points of the History, Bede cites the full text of letters sent by Pope Gregory I and other popes to the archbishops of Canterbury and various other ecclesiastics in England. He also cites the full text of synodal decrees and other ecclesiastical documents produced by members of the English church. Bede was also an early medieval oral historian; he gathered stories from the many churchmen he knew and included them in the history, often citing the name of the person who told the story and explaining his own relationship with that person.

Bede’s History tells the story of the conversion and history of early medieval England in five books running from the time of the invasions of Julius Caesar to Bede’s own time. It is no coincidence that the work is arranged in five books, recalling the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, because Bede recognized God’s hand in the history of the English just as God, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, worked his will through the ancient Israelites. The English may have been seen by Bede as the new chosen people, the new Israel upon whom God bestows his blessings. Indeed, the conquest of the island by the Anglo-Saxon peoples and defeat of the native Britons is presented by Bede as the bestowal of God’s rewards and punishments. The Britons were chastised by God for their failure to share the faith with other peoples, and the pagan Anglo-Saxons, invited by the already Christian Britons, were allowed to conquer the natives because of the sins of the Britons and were rewarded further by their own conversion to the Christian faith. The subsequent growth of the English kingdoms, notably Bede’s own Northumbria (a region that is the focus of much of the History), and the success and failures of the English kings was, for Bede, the result of God’s plan.

The purpose of the History, as Bede indicates in the preface, was to encourage his readers to do good and to avoid doing evil, and, dedicated to King Ceolwulf, the work fit into the genre of the mirror for princes, which was designed to encourage righteousness and good governance among kings. The narrative contains numerous moral exempla designed to encourage Bede’s readers to live good Christian lives. Vortigern’s invitation of the Anglo-Saxons, and the Britons’ defeat, is the first of many episodes that reveals the penalties for those who do not live according to God’s law. The failure of the West Saxons to convert to Christianity led to their downfall, just as the apostasy of other Anglo-Saxon kings led to their destruction by the pagan king Cadwalla. Various monks and priests also provide an example of those who lived sinfully. Bede tells the tale of a monastery that was burned to the ground because of the wickedness of the monks. Bede also provides repeated illustration of the benefits of accepting God’s law, most notably in the visions and miracles he describes throughout the History. The good Christian king, Oswald, revealed the power of God in the miraculous cures that occurred at the site of his death. Oswald also ended a fatal epidemic after the monks appealed to heaven for help. Saintly bishops and monks also cured diseases, calmed the waters to protect their followers, and were rewarded with visions of their own acceptance into heaven. In this way, Bede demonstrated both the power of God and the rewards for those who lived according to God’s law.

Central to Bede’s narrative was the decline of the Celtic church in England and the triumph of the church of Rome and adoption of the proper dating of Easter, the latter a particular concern of Bede’s considering his own interests in computus. The most renowned anecdotes in the History are associated with these two matters. Among these episodes is the tale of Gregory the Great and the Deiran boys, according to which the future pope was inspired to send a mission to convert England because of the angelic faces of the slave boys from the island he saw in the market place in Rome. The mission of Augustine of Canterbury and his reception by and conversion of King Ethelbert of Kent further details the triumph of the Roman church. Another example is Bede’s account of the synod of Whitby in 664, which celebrates the acceptance of Roman Christianity and the Roman method of calculating Easter. The victory of Rome was guaranteed at the council when the advocate for Rome proclaimed that the Roman system was that of St. Peter, keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Bede’s History thus provides a moving tale of the conversion of the English to Roman Christianity, is intended to provide guidelines for living morally, and is based on an almost modern historical methodology. For these reasons and because of Bede’s elegant style and dramatic sense of narrative, his History remains one of the most important and popular sources from the early Middle Ages.

Michael Frassetto holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Delaware and has taught at several colleges He is religion editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica and is the author of Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe: Society in Transformation.

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