Monday, March 26, 2012

A venerable history of England

A History of the English Church and People, Venerable Bede

I have spent the last few days in the 8th century, and it was a surreal experience.  Reading Bede's History, wandering through the centuries of Romans and Saxons and Scots, kings and bishops and popes, moving from Bernicia through Lindisee to Wessex, I would suddenly stumble upon familiar names that link his England of 731 to the present, reminding me that what I was reading, after all, was history.
"In the year of our Lord 604, Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, consecrated two bishops, Mellitus and Justus. Mellitus was appointed to preach in the province of the East Saxons, which is separated from Kent by the river Thames, and bounded on the east by the sea.  Its capital is the city of London, which stands of the banks of the Thames, and is a trading center for many nations who visit by land and sea."
Bede's History, completed in 731, is considered both a literary classic and one of the most important sources for early English history.  He traced the history of Britain from the first settlements of the peoples he calls Britons (from Brittany) and Picts (from Scandinavia), though the centuries of Roman colonization and influence, and the later arrivals (or invasions) of the Scots (from Ireland. just to add to the confusion) and the Angles, Saxons & Jutes (from Germany).  There was constant war between kings and princes, invasion of territory, with pillage and slaughter. Much more important for Bede was the arrival of Christianity in 156 AD. Long before Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine as bishop to the Saxons of Kent in 596, missionaries like Columba and Ninian had brought the faith to Britain.  Over the centuries, Christianity would begin to knit together the disparate peoples, drawing them into a common identity in their faith.

The History is a remarkable work of scholarship.  Bede had access to Roman histories, to diocesan archives across Britain, and even to documents copied from the papal archives.  Among the Vatican documents was a papal letter affirming that pregnant women could be baptized and that women on their cycle were not only welcome in church but could receive Communion, which raises some interesting points about women's status at the time.  Bede also had the equivalent of oral histories, from people who had witnessed the later events he chronicled, or who knew the leading figures.  He often noted his sources, to demonstrate the authenticity of his history.  It is amazing to consider that he achieved all of this from an isolated monastery on England's northeast coast, where he had lived since the age of seven and which he rarely left.  There were no expense-account research trips for him.

As modern as his techniques may have been, though, this is not history as it would be wriitten today.  While broadly chronological in scope, it jumps back and forth in time.  The editor helpfully included dates in brackets in the chapter headings, which provide something of an anchor.  Even more confusing is the constantly changing cast of characters.  If I were reading this book for a class, say, I would have made a chart of all the kings and the bishops.  Bede had a tendency to introduce a character, and then return to him five chapters later, with a breezy "As I mentioned before, Earconbert...."  There was no index in my ancient Penguin edition and I quickly gave up trying to keep everyone straight.  Fortunately there was a map, with the locations of both kingdoms and peoples, and with the ancient as well as modern names.  The History also abounds with stories of saints and miracles, though here again Bede often cited his sources, in some cases the eyewitnesses from whom he heard the stories directly.

In one sense, this is classic history, the kind we used to learn in school, kings and bishops (with a few queens and nuns).  Reading this book, I had no sense of the lives of the ordinary people, either men or women, except that it must have been a precarious existence, and not only because of the constant wars (Bede also mentioned frequent plagues).  They are there in the background, though, all those lives lived, who sometimes surface in place names, when all other traces are lost.


  1. I've always heard Bede mentioned, but haven't had the courage to read this history. It is so amazing to think that the roots of modern England are so long and so abundant. If I ever do read it I'll be sure to get one that has a chart or index of characters!

  2. This is something I've never thought about reading, but you've made it sound so interesting I think I'd like to try it. I feel slightly ashamed that I don't know more about Bede as I'm from the northeast of England myself!

  3. I was suprised at how readable this book is, considering it's 1200-plus years old. Bede's narrative just flows along.

    Anbolyn, I learned about Bede when I was studying English history in college, but until I came across this in a used bookstore, I'd never thought about actually reading him. And an index would have made all the difference!

  4. Helen, I haven't spent much time in the north of England on my (too few) visits, but I've added Whitby and Jarrow to my list for next time, to visit the monastic sites that date back to Bede's time.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!