“I Bede, a servant of God and priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul at Wearmouth and Jarrow, being born in the territory of the same monastery, was given by my kinsfolk at seven years of age to be educated by the most reverend Abbot Benedict and afterwards by Ceolfrid; spending all the remainder of my life in that monastery, I devoted myself entirely to the study of scripture. Amid the observances of the rule and the daily charge of singing in the church I ever took delight in learning and teaching and writing.”
The main source of information about the life of Saint Bede is this short and humble autobiographical note, added by Bede at the end of his History of the English Church and People, for which he is often referred to as “The Father of English Historiography”. Monk, musician, teacher, poet and writer, he became the most learned scholar of his age. A century after his death, the Abbot of Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, was to effusively compare Bede to a new sun that God had caused to rise, not in the East but in the West. Yet Bede was a simple monk, who only ever left his monastery twice in his life. How can we make sense of his incredible influence?
It will help if we place Bede in the setting of his holy house, and start to work our way outwards. Picture Bede, at his desk in the great library of Jarrow. He is surrounded by numerous books and sacred manuscripts, too many to count, gathered from all over Europe by his journeying abbots, Benedict and Ceolfrid. It is thanks to them that Bede has access to commentaries on the scriptures by the great Fathers of the Church, as well as works of theology, history, mathematics and medicine. Outside the library we find more treasures amassed by the great abbots of the house; paintings and silk embroideries hanging on the walls, silver reliquaries and precious cups. Leaving the quiet of the monastery, which towers high in fine cut wood, we journey outwards to the abbey gate where we pass several of the poor and the sick coming and going. As we travel deeper into the surrounding county, we see monks working the land, tending field after field acquired through the growing wealth of the monastery. The image we start to form is of the monastery as a light and a magnet, exercising a powerful transformative effect on its surroundings. This influx of artistic richness, learning and the cultivation of the land permitted a cultural flowering which became known as Northumbria’s Golden Age, and culminated in the production of works such as the beautiful illuminated manuscript of the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Of course, such wealth and wisdom also bred contempt, and the monasteries were later to burn at the hands of the Vikings. Bede lived out his final years unconscious of this coming ruin. Yet it seems unlikely that such knowledge would have disturbed his intent. As a child he had seen the Yellow Death sweep through the abbey. In the long years of careful fidelity to the monastic rule that followed – years of contemplation and ceaseless study of the Fathers in particular – Bede was aware of being the heir of a great tradition. He was not engaged in a pursuit of new discoveries; his life-work was simply the perpetuation of this heritage. After his death in 735 his body lay undisturbed at Jarrow throughout the Viking invasions until it was moved to Durham Cathedral in the eleventh century. In 1899, Bede was declared ‘Doctor of the Church’ by Pope Leo XIII, the only Englishman to receive this title. Yet to this day he is known more commonly by a title first given to him at the Council of Aachen in 836: ‘The Venerable’: worthy of honour.