A Rare and Singular Bede


The Venerable Bede was born in a small and obscure village near Jar-row, in Northumbria, in or about 672, and nothing is known of his parents except that according to early commentators they were of humble origins; he was not the first English writer whose modest beginnings spurred an ambition and aspiration towards great achievement. At the age of seven he was taken to the monastery at Wearmouth; someone must have recognised his abilities, therefore, and caused him to be enrolled in what was then an orthodox course of education.

At this early age he began to memorise the Latin psalmody and hymnal, with the help of an Anglo-Saxon gloss, so that he might participate in all the Divine Offices of the monks; he then began to work upon Latin grammar and metrics, so important for the understanding of plainchant. He suffered from an impediment in his speech, however, but he was cured while writing about the miraculous relics of St. Cuthbert. This personal experience should be recalled when examining his many descriptions of miraculous healing which purblind readers have ascribed to credulity or superstition.

He was educated under the tutelage of Abbot Benedict, and later of Abbot Ceolfrid, both of them important figures in seventh-century England. The young oblate was transferred to the neighbouring monastery of Jarrow, where he was to remain for the rest of his quietly exacting life. At the age of nineteen he became a deacon, and the fact that he was appointed some six years before the customary time suggests that he was already notable for his learning. He was ordained priest at the age of thirty and, by his own testimony, then began his commentaries upon the Bible. From that time forward he rarely travelled beyond the confines of the monastery, and never left Northumbria; he was one of those English writers of whom it can confidently be said that he saw the universe within the context of a specific geographical place. Like Blake and Bunyan he was granted intimations of the spiritual world upon his own spot of earth, and the writing poured forth as from a spring.

At the close of his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum Bede added a short autobiographical passage in which he declared that for almost thirty years he had laboured in his cell and had produced on a rough calculation some sixty-eight “books,” including commentaries upon Mark and Luke as well as Isaiah and Daniel, histories of the saints and books of hymns and epigrams, histories and text-books on poetry and chronology. It was a noble achievement. His was a life devoted to reading and chanting, writing and teaching; although he was well aware of events in the outer Anglo-Saxon world, with the death of kings and the rivalry of abbots, nothing could affect his dedication to his constant and assiduous work; he might almost have been born a scholar and writer, and he persevered in this course until the very close of his life.

The remains of Jarrow still stand, with stone walls, small squared windows and carved stone; the dedication stone, marking its foundation in 685, can be found in the wall above the arch of the chancel. Housing some two hundred monks, Jarrow was a large foundation which, according to Benedictine rule, had independent status as a house of prayer and learning. Something of the old tribal structure remained, with an abbot, normally of royal lineage, ruling his band of brothers as “chieftain to the community.” 1 On the abbot’s death the leadership of the monastery was given to one of his kinsmen. Thus the society within the walls of the religious establishment copied the wider governance of England. The Latin word for town, civitas , was in turn applied to monasteries. But just as the observances of Celtic (that is, British) Christianity were being supplanted by the Benedictine (that is, continental) rules of the Anglo-Saxon monks, so the ethos and purpose of English monasteries were slowly being transformed. A letter of Bede’s to Egbert, Bishop of York, condemns those bishops “given to laughter, jokes, idle tales, feasting and drunkenness” who are at once lazy and unlearned, and denounces those who purchase monasteries in order to fill them with their own followers and concubines; all these abuses the Benedictine rule was designed to extirpate. There were of course centres and occasions of Celtic piety, particularly within the hermitic tradition, but the ancient order of faith had degenerated through the very fact of its longevity. The Benedictine dispensation was in turn responsible for, and responsive to, a fresh movement of devotion to learning. It is the single most important context for the transmission and preservation of Anglo-Saxon literature.

There was a common dormitory and common refectory at Jarrow but Bede, given his high occupation as commentator and historian, was granted a separate hut or cell of stone in which to live and work. Situated somewhere to the south of the principal buildings, between the church and the river, it was approximately ten feet square with a wooden screen separating the space for prayer and meditation. In the area adjoining lay, perhaps, the codices upon which he worked. Bede would have recited the Divine Office each day, but whether he engaged in the normal routine of husbandry and field labour is open to doubt. There must also have been a larger scriptorium which he visited and used each day; here a few monks would be engaged in translation, transcription and manuscript illumination, preparing the Word of God and contributing texts for a select and devout audience. Here, again, lie some of the origins of English literature.

The monastery with its scriptorium was truly what King Alfred called, at a later date, a house of knowledge. In Anglo-Saxon literature, there are accounts of burnished books, inscribed in letters of gold and covered with precious jewels; they are treasures of “gold and godweb” designed to illumine and glorify the scriptures but also powerfully to impress the sensibilities of the pagan English. In themselves they became sacred objects; water used to be poured over the Book of Durrow before being collected and given to ailing cattle. The Codex Amiatinus was created at Jarrow; the skins of 1,550 calves were required in order to provide the parchment, and two men were needed to carry it. It served as a reliquary or casket as well as a text. Sometimes, too, the book would speak—“the bird’s feather often moved over my brown surface, sprinkling meaningful marks.” 2The art of illumination makes the English tradition paradigmatic of the whole Western spiritual tradition which, unlike that of the East, favours learning rather than looking. The parchment would have been tanned and then scraped with a knife before being smoothed with a pumice-stone; it was whitened with fine particles of chalk, and then ruled with lines before pen and ink were devoted to its illumination. The scriptorium itself represented “contempt of earthly things,” a sacred concept of writing which survived until the twentieth century and into W. H. Auden’s “cave of making.”

Yet the world kept on breaking through. There are marginalia, or doodles, upon the edge of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts which provide some evidence of circumambient life. A dog trots across the bottom of one page of Andreas , a long poem on the ministry of St. Andrew, while a later page is marked with the half-erased name of “Eadgith” or Edith. In the margin of another manuscript are found the words “Writ thus odde bet; ride aweg; Aelfmaer Patta fox, thu wilt swingan Aelfric cild,” which may loosely be translated as “Write like this or better; ride away; Aelfmaer Patta the fox, you will flog the boy Aelfric.” Patta is the teacher and Aelfric the pupil set to work upon transcription. “Ride away” may suggest the child’s longing to be gone.

There are passages in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum which also evoke the true nature of the Anglo-Saxon world, and of its monasticism in particular. One of them concerns the departure of the abbot of Monkwearmouth, Ceolfrid, on a final pilgrimage to Rome. On Thursday morning, 4 June 716, he stood upon the altar of the monastic church with a burning censer in his hand; he bade the monks farewell and gave them the kiss of peace, but the sound of loud weeping from the assembly interrupted the chant of the litanies. An age of violence was also an age of ready emotionalism. He and the brethren then advanced in procession to the bank of the Wear, where the monks fell upon their knees as he and a few close companions boarded a boat. “The deacons of the church embarked with them, carrying lighted candles and a golden cross. After crossing the river, he venerated the cross, mounted his horse and rode off.”There is revealed here, in the carrying of the golden cross and the lighted candles across the river, an intrinsic respect for ritual and display; in a world racked by storms of every description, where life itself may be short and harsh, the glowing gold and the candlelight afford a fleeting vision of sacredness.

The quiet life of Bede was succeeded by a no less peaceful death. In his sixty-third year he knew that he was dying; he continued to teach his monastic pupils but spent the rest of each day and most of each night in song and prayer. He chanted the Latin scriptures and repeated by heart many old English poems—perhaps those he had learnt as a child near Jarrow—but when he reached the words of one antiphon, “Do not leave us orphans,” he burst into tears. His pupils wept with him, crying even as they studied under his instruction, but until almost the moment of death he kept them at their work of dictation. “Learn quickly now, for I don’t know how long I shall live . . . write quickly.” Here is an indication of his fervour for learning. He distributed his few “treasures”—pepper, handkerchiefs, incense—and then he was told by one of his pupils that there was still one sentence to be written.

“Write it then.”

“It is written.”

“Good. It is finished.”

He sat upon the floor of his cell, singing, until he died.

So ended a life of incessant labour and prodigious learning. His reputation was unrivalled in Europe as well as in his own country. “It seems right to me,” a monk from Jarrow wrote, “that the whole race of the English in all provinces wherever they are found, should give thanks to God that he has granted to them so wonderful a man in their nation.”

The seventh and eighth centuries were, perhaps, the most learned period in the nation’s history. Bede was one of a number of scholars and clerics of impeccable if somewhat insular Latin scholarship. There was, in fact, such a literary phenomenon as “Anglo-Latin” characterised “by a lavish display of vocabulary designed to impress by the arcane nature of its learning . . . in obscure, learned-sounding words, such as archaisms, grecisms and neologisms,”a style which haunts English prose in the work of such writers as Robert Burton and Thomas Browne. The sixteenth-century term was “euphuism” but there has always been an affection for it within the English imagination; it represents almost a deliberate parody of learning or, rather, a delight in ornate language and pattern rather than in profound scholarship for its own sake.

One of its principal Anglo-Saxon exponents was Bede’s contemporary Aldhelm, who composed epistles and treatises in an elaborate and sometimes obscure prose; he also wrote Latin verse in continuous octosyllables, and continued the native inheritance by writing puzzles or mysteries or enigmata . He had been educated in the cathedral school of Canterbury under the tutelage of an African scholar named Hadrian, this salient fact alone suggesting the range of scholarship and civilisation existing in seventh-century England. Hadrian had arrived with the Greek scholar Theodore of Tarsus; Theodore was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian, and together with Hadrian established a school which according to Bede “attracted a large number of students,” who studied “poetry, astronomy and the calculation of the church calendar” as well as holy scripture. Bede testifies to the efficacy of their instruction by noting that in his time there were still Englishmen “as proficient in Latin and Greek as in their native tongue.” 5 In the ninth century King Alfred lamented the loss of such learning, but such attainments would also be rare in the twenty-first century.

The tradition of the cathedral school never entirely died, even in the worst periods of Danish invasion, so that we can point justifiably to a continuous legacy of learning in England. It is the source, for example, of “fly-ting,” or scholastic “contest,” preserved in the wisdom literature of the Anglo-Saxons, by means of which two scholars would address each other upon a particular theme and practise all their skills of rhetoric; the same competitions were part of the curriculum in medieval schools and continued within the Inns of Court of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is a tradition which helped to create Tudor drama—itself often performed in the halls of the Inns—and thus the theatrical renaissance of the late sixteenth century.

The texts of the Anglo-Saxon schools included the Evangelia of Juvencus, the Carmen and Opus Paschale of Sedulius and Arator’s De Actibus apostolorumtogether with other works from the corpus of Christian Latin literature. Virgil’s Aeneid was also widely known and quoted, as well as the work of other classical writers such as Lucian and Persius; it is an impressive list for scholars of any period, but it provides direct evidence for the beginning of “classics” in the English educational system. It is often remarked, with some surprise, that the administrators and politicians of the nineteenth century were accustomed to take quotations from, or make allusions to, the authors of classical antiquity. Yet as early as the seventh century the English bishops and abbots, who were the true administrators of the nation, were equally capable of making reference to Ovid, Virgil, Cicero, Pliny and others. There is, again, a continuity.

Bede’s library was itself formidable. It contained more than 130 texts, of which we may assume that a preponderant amount came from the collections of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow; the range of his reading was wide indeed, but his principal sources remain Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory. In other words Bede was placing himself directly and deliberately in the tradition of European Christian exegesis. The example of Bede and his successors provides clear evidence that the English nation was an inalienable part of European culture and society, as much a beacon of Western Christendom as Rome or Seville. English learning affected scholars upon the European main-land, but in turn European art and literature came to Canterbury and Jarrow, Winchester and Ely, London and St. Albans. It was always thus. From the time of the Roman occupation, and perhaps earlier, England was an integral part of the culture and texture of Europe. In 314 the bishops of London, York and Lincoln attended a general council in Arles, while French ecclesiastics came to England to combat the English heresies of Pelagius. When Pope Gregory sent Augustine on his mission to England in 597, a connection was established that was not severed until the “submission of the clergy” to Henry VIII in the spring of 1532. The enterprise of the Greek Theodore and the African Hadrian has already been outlined; as Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore also reorganised the administration of the English Church. When we consider “Englishness,” therefore, it is best to understand from what sources it springs.

The traffic was not in one direction only. It has been said that Boniface, a native of Credition in Devon, “had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any other Englishman who ever lived.” 6 His missionary work in Hesse and Thuringia led to his veneration as the “Apostle of Germany”; his was a cultural as well as a spiritual enterprise, and Anglo-Saxon texts or illuminations were deposited in the cathedrals and monastic foundations that he established in Germany. There was a common culture. When the founder of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, Benedict Biscop, traveled back to Northumbria after a period in Rome he brought with him many rare books as well as silks and panel paintings from Italy; he created a library at Wearmouth which became the most important centre of learning in northern England. Bede could not have undertaken the tasks of his scholarship without the early benefactions of Biscop. Bede himself, in his Lives of the Abbots, describes the “great mass of books of every sort” with which Biscop returned, as well as sacred relics, “many holy pictures of the saints” and illustrations from the gospels which were placed around the basilica at Wearmouth. Biscop also brought back glaziers and masons from the continent and a “chief cantor” or singing master who taught the monks of England the rules of Roman plainchant. So at the same time as Bede was composing his ecclesiastical history of England, the joint monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow were being furnished and ornamented in the most modern European style.

At the celebrated Synod of Whitby in 664 when the Celtic and Roman variants of Christianity were engaged in fierce debate, particularly over the dating of Easter and the nature of the “tonsure” or shaved head of the monk, the proponents of the Roman dispensation were successful; among them Wilfrid, a nobleman from Northumbria who had travelled extensively through the regions of the late Roman Empire, delivered the following rebuke to the old Celtic or British cause. “Do you think,” he said, “that a handful of people in one corner of the remotest of islands is to be preferred to the universal Church of Christ which is spread throughout the world?” 7 It was a defining moment and, under the aegis of the Abbess Hilda, the convocation of Whitby turned England firmly in the direction of Rome. Wilfrid’s message was in fact characteristic of English Catholicism, and its sentiments were repeated by Sir Thomas More during his trial for treason in Westminster Hall. “This realme, being but one member and smale parte of the Church, might not make a particuler lawe disagreable with the generall lawe of Christes Universall Catholike Churche.” Wilfrid and More, separated by almost nine hundred years, represent an authentic English sensibility. Both men were identified with a local area—Wilfrid was a native of Northumbria whose ministry was attended by “the goodwill of the whole Northumbrian people, high and low”8while More was a quintessential Londoner admired and honoured by his fellow citizens—and yet both men considered their national identity within a larger force. Both men, incidentally, were beatified and canonised.

The history of cross-fertilisation is a long one, and further examples may be adduced. In the eighth century “books actually made in the British Isles appear to have been taken to the continent in quite large quantities, and they were copied locally as far afield as Italy and Spain”;9 the same may be said of Anglo-Saxon sculpture. In Rome there was a special Saxon quarter, known as the Schola Saxonum . In the ninth century King Alfred imported both crafts-men and scholars from the continent of Europe, and his successors continued his example. The monastic reforms of the tenth century, springing from the Benedictine foundations of France and enjoining clear distinctions between the secular and spiritual life, in turn engendered a revival of monastic culture in England; monks were invited from Fleury and Cluny to encourage those of native birth. The tenth and eleventh centuries, as a result, were a period of vigorous activity; it is not surprising, therefore, that “the presence in England of foreign scholars was perhaps never so marked as during the eleventh century.” 10

Yet one caveat may be entered here. In the “Regularis Concordia” of the late tenth-century Council of Winchester, effectively promulgating the monastic restoration of that period, the emphasis rests upon “one Rule and one country.”11 There always was a recognition of native or national values. Anglo-Saxon scribes continued to use and develop a specifically English script while employing the Carolingian minuscule for Latin texts, a development which is paralleled by the expansion of Old English prose and by the continuing life of the ancient alliterative patterns of verse. It has likewise been supposed that there was “a fairly reluctant acceptance of some styles and fashions; except in a number of more or less isolated cases, there was no wholesale adoption of continental modes.” 12 So there is, on the face of it, a paradox or at least a disparity between England as part of European civilisation and England as the burgeoning source of a native culture.

The same conditions will present themselves throughout this book. There is at this early stage no need to reconcile them, except to notice the degree of absorption or assimilation present within the English sensibility. It has often been described as a mixed or mongrel kind, a hybrid like the people from which it derives, but it is distinctive precisely because of its willingness to adapt and to adopt other influences. The sensibility is as heterogeneous as its literature, as varied and various as the grand houses or cathedrals which were constructed piece by piece. It has been said that its uniqueness lies in the sum of its differences, but the real process is one of adoption and transformation where two hitherto incompatible influences—in the period under review they may be named as the Celtic and the Classical—are somehow amalgamated and thereby enlarged within a common sensibility. There is conflation and elaboration, not division or reduction. Thus the architecture of the Normans was incorporated and transcended by the English Romanesque, a transformation described by one historian as occurring “on the foundations . . . established by Alfred, Dunstan, Aethelwold, and others in Wessex.” 13 The origins of the English sensibility are once again traced far back.

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