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The Venerable Bede


Bede was born in 672 or 673 and died on May 27, 735. He was a Northumbrian monk associated with the monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow.

Completed in 731, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People is the most seminal source of the English foundation myth. The Latin text was copied widely and no fewer than four 8th century, and 156 later medieval manuscripts remain (Farmer, 1990: 36). In his introduction to the 1990 Penguin edition, Farmer says that: 'The History is readable and attractive' and 'Bede's insight, empathy and concision are evident'. Significantly, and unlike Gildas, Nennius or Geoffrey of Monmouth, his work has fashioned the common view of early English history. Stenton (1965: 187) explained this:

"...the quality which makes his work great is not his scholarship nor the faculty of narrative which Bede shared with many contemporaries, but his astonishing power of co-ordinating the fragments of information which came to him through tradition, the relation of friends or documentary evidence. In an age when little was attempted beyond the registration of fact, he had reached the conception of history."

In other words, Bede's attractiveness derives not from the mere recording of fact (or myth?) but his creation of a coherent 'history'.

Bede is not thought to have held a significant ecclesiastical position or travelled any great distance, but he appears to have been held in considerable respect at the time. Farmer (1990: 34) states that 'he went to Lindisfarne, Hexham and York, but he may have never left Northumbria. It seems safe to assume that he had little or no direct experience of kings and their courts, about which inevitably he formed his own opinions.'

However, the History was commissioned by the Northumbrian king and shows a careful respect for the secular and religious politics of the time. As John (1996: 51) observes: "... he was freely given information from all over England as well as the papal archives. He shows intimate familiarity with the world of high politics - especially as regards what it was expedient to ignore."

Moffat (2001: 10) has a different perspective, arguing that the transformation of Britain (in part) into England was a lengthy process, during which 'oral culture became gradually discredited and was replaced with the perceived greater certainties of ink and paper.' Anglo-Saxon historians such as Bede of Jarrow committed the English version of history to writing. This gave it permanence and authority - an authority that we would rarely give to a book today - and, moreover, 'the engines of government also came to depend on signed, witnessed and dated texts.'

In the introduction to a best-selling and overtly nationalistic book published in 2002, Peter Ackroyd (2002: xx) states:

"There is clear evidence that the concept of Englishness - the 'Englishness' of the Anglo-Saxons, as opposed to the 'Britishness' of the Celts - circulated widely in the Anglo-Saxon world. Bede composed Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), where the 'Gens Anglorum' were deemed to be a specific and identifiable race sprung out of Saxon and Old English roots. In Bede's history, 'the English were God's new "chosen" nation elected to replace the sin-stained Briton in the promised land of Britain'. "(last quote cited by Ackroyd from Greenfield, S.B. and Calder, D.G. (1986), A New Critical History of Old English Literature, New York University Press)

In fact, Bede was a medieval spin-doctor, casting the 'English' in a righteous, Catholic Christian role, while the (Celtic Christian) Britons were portrayed as faithless, cowardly and vindictive. John (1996: 42) expresses the view that:

"The History is in many ways a parochial book, reticent to the point of dishonesty. Bede is a master of the art of conveying a wholly misleading impression without actually telling a lie. I would offer as examples his account of the conversion of Edwin or his version of Chad's elevation to the see of York. The nearer he gets to his own time the more reticent he becomes. Bede was clearly a timid man: not for him the outspoken recklessness of Wilfrid. Since timidity is rather commoner than outspokenness in the groves of academe, this helps explain why Bede gets so much better a press than Wilfrid."

He goes on:

"It is evident that there was still a substantial element in the Northumbrian population of Romano-British descent, and some residual Christianity. Bede totally ignores them, though Wilfrid and his biographer did not. Within a generation of Bede's death his writings had been taken en masse to the Continent by the Anglo-Saxon missionaries, and his influence on what was to become Carolingian Francia was immense. In England Bede came into his own with the monastic revival of the tenth century: in the process he ceased to be a Northumbrian writer and became an English one."


Ackroyd, P. (2002), Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, Chatto and Windus
Bede, the Venerable (731), Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1990 Penguin edition, translated by L.Sherley-Price, edited with new introduction and notes by D.H. Farmer, Penguin: Harmondsworth.
Farmer, D.H. (1990), Introduction and notes in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1990 Penguin edition, translated by L.Sherley-Price, Penguin: Harmondsworth.
John, E. (1996) Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England, Manchester University Press.
Moffat, A. (2001) The Sea Kingdoms: The Story of Celtic Britain and Ireland, HarperCollins


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