The Venerable Bede

Bu Erica Dines

The Venerable Bede, a monk and scholar of Northumbria, was and still is considered the greatest scholar of his time – thus earning his “Venerable” title (which means worthy of respect, or revered) (Pedersen, 1997). He was very devout in his faith and religious duties and passionate in advancing his knowledge and preserving that knowledge for future generations. He was also an exceptional teacher. The Venerable Bede was an extremely influential individual who significantly impacted the education system in many ways, among which include his development of textbooks, his establishment of a standard system of dating, and his revival of education as a whole.

To understand the influence of this man, it is first necessary to examine his character, life, and work. The Venerable Bede was born in Northumbria in 673 AD. Little is known about his family or life before the age of seven, but at this age (680 AD) he was placed in the care of Abbot Benedict Biscop – at which time he was dedicated to the monastic life to serve God the rest of his days. Although placing a child in the care of a monastery was fairly common at this time, six or seven years old was the earliest age possible to do so; one can only imagine how strange and frightening this must have been for the young Bede. Not only was he taken away from his family at a very young and vulnerable age to live in a strange place, but it was an extremely demanding new lifestyle he was being committed into. This can be understood in essence by the offering ceremony of the child (now called an oblate); during this ceremony, three promises were made for him: “that he would not wander from the monastery, that he would give himself wholly to the life of a monk, and that he would obey the rules of his order…his kinsmen swore never to make him any gifts of any kind. He was cut off from this family roots and from all idea of personal ownership. He was entirely dependent on the monastery” (Price, 1968, p. 11). In addition to this serious commitment, the lifestyle was extremely demanding and strict – especially for a young boy. All members of the monastery awakened to start the day at 2 a.m. and proceeded to the first service. The rest of the day followed in strict structural order, consisting of incessant prayer, praise, and work. Here Bede learned to read and write, speak Latin, fulfill the life and responsibilities of a monk, and become naturally accustomed to the daily schedule of services (of which there were seven) and study; first and foremost of course, he was instructed in the word of God – Scripture. The boys were disciplined strictly among these practices, receiving a beating for faltering in the services, for speaking or laughing during a designated time of silence, or for failing to promptly rise in the morning. Only once a day were the young boys set free for a short period to play and move about. However tough and demanding the circumstances though, Bede seemed to enjoy his work and proved to be very bright (Price, 1968).

Bede began his study at the monastery, Wearmouth. This monastery and its accompanying church were founded by Benedict Biscop on a land grant from King Egfrith. After traveling to Gaul, Italy and Rome, Biscop was inspired to build a church like those he saw in Gaul and Italy – in the “Roman manner” – and an extensive amount of supplies, specialized workers, and craftsmen were brought in from such places to construct them. This was an incredible monastery that influenced much of Britain and advanced Ecclesiastical art – and gave Bede his start (Brown, 1987). Later, the king was so impressed with Wearmouth that he granted Biscop another piece of land on which the twin monastery – Jarrow (Gyruum) – was built. At around age twelve, Bede moved to this place where he spent the rest of his life (Price, 1968).

At age nineteen, Bede was ordained as a deacon. This was a miraculous accomplishment because the earliest age one could become part of the holy order – by law of the church – was at 25 years old; exceptions were made only in rare circumstances. This act exemplifies Bede’s advanced intelligence, devotion and outstanding character. By age 30, he was ordained priest (Price, 1968).

An extremely intelligent man with a passion for knowledge, Bede said that he “delighted always to learn, to teach, and to write” (Thompson, 1969). It is assumed that shortly after becoming a deacon he was given the task of teaching the oblate boys. This task brought about his first significant writings – textbooks for the use of students to enhance teachings. Bede was an excellent textbook writer and would create a compilation of the best works and findings by the most famous and influential scholars, including his own material as well (Price, 1968). The relevance and importance of textbooks in today’s society is obvious. Almost without exception, textbooks are used in every class, on every subject, and in nearly every level of the education system. They are especially utilized in establishments of higher education. These sources allow for reference and reiteration, clarification of that which is taught and research outside of it, and for additional studying and emersion in the topic. Without textbooks, the learning process would be much less effective and a greater expanse of time would be necessary for the material to be efficiently understood. Though Bede did not invent the textbook, he developed and used them in a way that spread the idea for the standard use in the future of education, and set precedent for how they were to be compiled and written. Bede’s textbooks were exceptionally useful and impressive due to “his order of selection, his omission of nonessential material and editing of the rest, the accuracy, simplicity, and precision of his definitions, and the formation of a new synthesis that respected the authority of his sources” (Palmer, 1959, p. 32). Bede was well interested in a very wide range of subjects and he skillfully and artfully wrote on many of them.

The extent to which the knowledge and works of the Venerable Bede excelled – other than simply by his natural intelligence and endless desire to learn – was fostered by the resources available to him. Benedict Biscop, wealthy founder of the monasteries, ensured that they were provided with grand libraries; each time he travelled – especially to Rome – he would return with a great number of books and manuscripts as well as relics and sacred paintings. These materials were then added to the monastery libraries and were therefore at the disposal of the inquisitive Bede (Brown, 1987). The libraries held an impressive collection of books that were of the best scholastic quality at the time. Not only did this provide a vast amount of reading material for Bede to learn from, but it also drew many scholars to this place which provided very beneficial and stimulating collaboration, discussion, and teaching (Price, 1968).

Among other subjects, Bede was especially interested in time; because of this, his influence is lasting and evident at Easter. In Bede’s time, the Roman church and the Celtic church – though parallel in almost every aspect and practice – differed in the way they calculated the date of Easter. Bede recognized that something as fundamental as celebrating the day of Christ’s resurrection needed to be unified for all the Christian faith, and took to the task of doing so. He wrote two books on the subject of time for this purpose – De Temporibus and De Temporum Ratione – and developed the standard method for calculating the church calendar (from the year of Christ’s birth) that is still used today. This made a clear model for such a calculation, but also was important because it settled a dispute between different church branches (Price, 1968). It was significant for more reasons than establishing the universal calculation of an important holiday though. By confidently determining Christ’s birth, thus standardizing a “year zero”, Bede was responsible for how history was understood and taught thereafter in terms of relational time in history. Today, when a year is followed by the acronym B.C. (before Christ) or A.D. (anno Domini), it is describing a year in relation to Bede’s “year zero” by years either before or after Christ’s birth. Time has forged a greater gap between Christianity and common culture – in contrast to Bede’s time – and the acronyms B.C.E (before common era) and C.E. (common era) now replace the words with Christian reference to be more politically correct; however, it is still Bede’s system being used (simply with different acronyms). Bede’s “year zero” unified the world of education forever afterward in terms of how history is taught. Without a universally accepted reference point – a year zero – the chronological aspect of the world’s history would not be the coherent system it is today.

Another way that Bede’s work was of great influence during the time was through his spiritual/scriptural writings. His extensive compilation of commentary on the Bible brought together work from the great religious authors – Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory the Great – in addition to much of his own respected insight. This exceptional work occupied the majority of his “free” time and was almost assuredly the work he considered most important and worthwhile – as his main focus in life was always to serve God. These commentaries were famous during Bede’s time and even for many centuries after were used as standard works of reference. During his committed 25 years of writing Bede produced 40 titles on a very wide range of subjects. Though these books were in high demand and could be found in nearly every important library of the time, their popularity has not lasted and they are rarely used today; that is, however, with the exception of one work – the reason for his lasting fame – The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Price, 1968).

“The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written by the Venerable Bede and finished in the year 731, is probably one of the most popular history books in any language and has certainly retained its popularity longer than any rival. The enthusiasm shown for his writings in the eighth century by English missionaries on the continent such as Boniface, Lul, and others, led to the spread of the knowledge of his works not only in England but also in western Europe… as the spread of his manuscripts shows, the History became popular all over western Europe and 160 of them survive to this day in spite of all the wars and other dangers to which manuscripts are always subject, as for instance when after the dissolution of the monasteries or during the eighteenth century when vandalism and ignorance played havoc with our ancient libraries” (Colgrave, 1969, pg. 1). Bede’s History was widely used, and influential members of society who owned and read it spread the popularity and teachings of this fantastic work. Almost without exception, anyone who studied or wrote on the history of the English people borrowed from this source throughout the Middle Ages, and it has certainly stood the test of time as it is still used frequently today. It is so influential, in fact, that if Bede had not written this book very little knowledge would exist today on the history of England and the saints before the eight century. Important information and individuals of the time would likely not even be known or recognized, and the sources that would exist would be very sparse; they would possess much less credibility in comparison to Bede also, as he went to great lengths to validate his sources and exerted much effort to verify the veracity of the information he was to publish. If not for this exceptional scholar and his research and discipline in creating The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the history of England that is known and taught today would be a mystery (Colgrave, 1969).

It was in Bede’s History that his influential chronological method first emerged. When he began writing, three alternative options that dealt with dating were at his disposal – the Greek, Caesarean or Roman method. All of these began on different dates. He was faced with a complication and eventually came to the conclusion that the best way was to use a dating system from the Incarnation year or year of grace (birth of Christ) – a system first proposed by Dionysius Exiguus. This choice of chronological system not only made his historical compilation more coherent, but was hereafter adopted by historians as the standard. “It is his system of dating by the year of grace which is his main contribution to historical writing; indeed it is not too much to say that it was to this History more than to any other source that Christendom and most of the world owes its present system of chronology. But it is not merely that Bede’s work provided future historians with a method of dating; the book itself became a pattern that gave a new conception of history to Western Europe” (Colgrave, 1969). Bede’s impact can also be seen in the later years of Europe’s history through the individuals influenced directly and indirectly by his teachings.

The period of Europe known as the Dark Ages is so named because so little is known about it and there seemed to be a regression of scholarship, sustained by the fact that much less intellectual advancement took place than in the times preceding and following this period. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, most higher education either came to a halt, or was severely hindered. The scholars and teachers who could understand and interpret the language and teachings of the very dynamic education system of the earlier Greek society died out, so only a shadow remained of the educational merit and progress of older times. In addition, the Romans did not feel the need to translate most of the Greek works into their language, so resources were very limited. The resources that still existed, existed in a time when raids and battles were frequent; this created a precarious situation for keeping old scrolls, manuscripts and books in tact through the ages. The empire seemed to be a shell of its former educational splendor. In addition to the lacking educational picture, there was also a lacking of political and religious unity which created an environment of confusion and even hostility outside the modest walls of the monasteries (Pedersen, 1997). It was this milieu in which Bede was brought up. Because of this, Bede’s passion for learning and important writings and teaching were a breath of fresh air in the grim setting. This early scholar brought back a focus to education as well as new methods and influence.

The teaching methods of the Venerable Bede were very influential as were, subsequently, the pupils he taught. For example, “among Bede’s pupils was the later archbishop of York, Egbert and Egbert’s colleague and successor Aelbert, among whose pupils in the York cathedral school was Alcuin, later to become the chief proponent of the reform of education in Europe” (Pedersen, 1997, pg. 48). In 766 Alcuin became master of the school at which he had studied, St Peter’s in York. In 781 on a trip back from Rome, he met Charlemagne (King of Franks) and thereafter worked at his court school; then from 781-790 Alcuin was the minister of education for King Charles. Therefore, Alcuin was the main proponent of Charles’ vision for general education (similar to that which is seen in earlier Greek society). Later, in France, as abbot of St Martin’s in Tours, Alcuin set up a library and scriptorium that in addition to the grand monastery there became the most significant center of learning of the age. In addition, Alcuin was influential in his efforts to normalize the liturgy in his revision of the Latin Bible and with the significant writings he left behind (Pedersen, 1997). Without the educational background and respect for the advancement of knowledge instilled in Alcuin through Bede and the monastic learning he spread, this individual might never have made the important progress he did for the realm of education.

Bede’s teachings took root in a widespread area through his education and those fortunate enough to receive it. Through his fascination with and study of time, he unified a system of chronology that remains the standard and changed forever the way history is written and taught. Through his extensive research and examination of sources he compiled The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which has stood the test of time and is still widely used today; a source which has been vital in the understanding of an early English culture, otherwise lost. Not even this listing does justice in addressing the entirety of Bede’s accomplishments and influence – a man who shone the light of scholarship and the importance of knowledge through the Dark Ages. The Venerable Bede was a brilliant and devoted man who had a lasting impact on education as it is known today.

Bibliography

Brown, George Hardin. Bede, the Venerable. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Print

Colgrave, Bertram, and R. A. B. Mynors. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People;. Oxford: Clarendon P., 1969. Print

Palmer, Robert B. “Bede as a textbook writer: A Study of His De Arte Metrica,” Speculum 34 (1959): 573-84

Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities: Studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

Price, Mary Roper. “Bede.” Bede and Dunstan,. London: Oxford U.P., 1968. 7-32. Print

Thompson, A. Hamilton. Bede; His Life, Times, and Writings; Essays in Commemoration of the Twelfth Centenary of His Death,. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966. Print