May 25: Bede, the Venerable Priest, and Monk of Jarrow, 735

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

At the age of seven, Bede’s parents brought him to the nearby monastery at Jarrow (near Durham in northeast England) for his education. There, as he later wrote, “spending all the remaining time of my life … I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture, and amidst the observance of regular discipline, and the daily care of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, teaching, and writing.”

Bede was ordained deacon at nineteen, and presbyter at thirty. He died on the eve of the Ascension while dictating a vernacular translation of the Gospel according to John. About 1020 his body was removed to Durham, and placed in the Galilee, the Lady Chapel at the west end of the Cathedral nave.

Bede was the greatest scholar of his time in the Western Church. He wrote commentaries on the Scriptures based on patristic interpretations. His treatise on chronology was standard for a long time. He also wrote on orthography, poetic meter, and especially on history. His most famous work, The Ecclesiastical History of England, written in Latin, remains the primary source for the period 597 to 731, when Anglo-Saxon culture developed and Christianity triumphed. In this work, Bede was clearly ahead of his time. He consulted many documents, carefully evaluated their reliability, and cited his sources. His interpretations were balanced and judicious. He also wrote the History of the Abbots (of Wearmouth and Jarrow), and a notable biography of Cuthbert, both in prose and verse.

His character shines through his work—an exemplary monk, an ardent Christian, devoted scholar, and a man of pure and winsome manners. He received the unusual title of Venerable more than a century after his death. According to one legend, the monk writing the inscription for  his tomb was at a loss for a word to fill out the couplet:

Hac sunt in fossa Bedae—blank—ossa

(This grave contains the— blank—Bede’s remains)

That night an angel filled in the blank: Venerabilis.

Collects

I.   Heavenly Father, who didst call thy servant Bede, while still a child, to devote his life to thy service in the disciplines of religion and scholarship; Grant that as he labored in the Spirit to bring the riches of thy truth to his generation, so we, in our various vocations, may strive to make thee known in all the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

II.    Heavenly Father, you called your servant Bede, while still a child, to devote his life to your service in the disciplines of religion and scholarship: Grant that as he labored in the Spirit to bring the riches of your truth to his generation, so we, in our various vocations, may strive to make you known in all the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Lessons

Psalm 78:1–4

Wisdom 7:15–22

1 Corinthians 15:1–8

Matthew 13:47–52

Preface of a Saint (1)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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14 Responses to May 25: Bede, the Venerable Priest, and Monk of Jarrow, 735

  1. Michael Weylandt says:

    I normally leave the bio to those who have more of a knack for it than I, but I just have to say: this one is flat-out-terrible. The first paragraph (being mostly a quote) is fine, possibly even poetic, but after that it goes to heck in a handbasket. I’ll reproduce it paragraph by paragraph with my comments:

    Bede was ordained deacon at nineteen, and presbyter at thirty. He died on the eve of the Ascension while dictating a vernacular translation of the Gospel according to John. About 1020 his body was removed to Durham, and placed in the Galilee, the Lady Chapel at the west end of the Cathedral nave.

    Might it be important to give a year of birth (as far as we know it) so that these ordinations could be dated? Why does he die in the second sentence of his bio? (And why is that particular detail so important) Random reference to his burial.

    Bede was the greatest scholar of his time in the Western Church. He wrote commentaries on the Scriptures based on patristic interpretations. His treatise on chronology was standard for a long time. He also wrote on orthography, poetic meter, and especially on history. His most famous work, The Ecclesiastical History of England, written in Latin, remains the primary source for the period 597 to 731, when Anglo-Saxon culture developed and Christianity triumphed. In this work, Bede was clearly ahead of his time. He consulted many documents, carefully evaluated their reliability, and cited his sources. His interpretations were balanced and judicious. He also wrote the History of the Abbots (of Wearmouth and Jarrow), and a notable biography of Cuthbert, both in prose and verse.

    This paragraph reads like a sixth grade history project — too many short, choppy sentences with little flow. Unless there was a definitive survey, add “arguably” to the first sentence. No connection between 2nd and 3rd sentences. Nor between 3rd and 4th. Is there any point to “written in Latin” other than to sound impressive? English didn’t exist yet and all all writing of that period, particularly scholarship, was in Latin. The bits about his historiography are just silly in their simplicity: Bede certainly was not the first scholar ever to do any of those things… Unsupported judgment as to the accuracy of his record of things. How is the biography of Cuthbert in prose and verse? Does it alternate?

    His character shines through his work—an exemplary monk, an ardent Christian, devoted scholar, and a man of pure and winsome manners. He received the unusual title of Venerable more than a century after his death. According to one legend, the monk writing the inscription for his tomb was at a loss for a word to fill out the couplet:

    Hac sunt in fossa Bedae—blank—ossa

    (This grave contains the— blank—Bede’s remains)

    That night an angel filled in the blank: Venerabilis.

    “Winsome”? I love the word, but contrasted with the less than formal writing of the rest of the bio, it sounds like someone was just excited to get out the thesaurus. And why was his tomb being inscribed a century after his death? Does this relate to the translation of his remains awkwardly mentioned above?

    If I have some time, I’ll try to rewrite this bio later.

    COLLECT:

    Heavenly Father, who didst call thy servant Bede, while still a child, to devote his life to thy service in the disciplines of religion and scholarship; Grant that as he labored in the Spirit to bring the riches of thy truth to his generation, so we, in our various vocations, may strive to make thee known in all the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

    Did Bede consider he had a particular scholarly vocation? His quote above suggests his vocation lay in the sacrificum laudis and that his scholarship was a pleasant diversion. I’m not sure writings on orthography quite live up to “labored in the Spirit to bring the riches of thy truth to his generation”… “in our various vocations” seems like a silly throw-away phrase to add an “inclusive” moment, while the collect is actually no more or less embracing of all the baptized without it. I am happy to see that the traditional collect formula made it through the SCLM’s ever trimming scissors this time though.

  2. John Morrell says:

    Second paragraph. Insert “Porch” after “Galilee.” A Galilee porch is a type of narthex. Is a narthex a part of the nave, or, like the quire and sanctuary, separate? I defer to an ecclesiastical architecture expert, but if it isn’t part of the nave, then the text in the bio should be changed.

    Third paragraph. My edition of Bede’s great work (Colgrave and Mynors, eds, OUP, 1969) calls it “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” not “of England.” The text seems to confirm this:”historiam gentis Anglorum ecclesiasticam.”

  3. djgrieser says:

    Why not adapt Bede’s own language in the collect: “I pray you, noble Jesu, that as You have graciously granted me joyfully to imbibe the words of Your knowledge, so You will also of Your bounty grant me to come at length to Yourself, the Fount of all wisdom, and to dwell in Your presence for ever.” (from the Penguin edition)

  4. S. Sauter says:

    Venerable Bede was born in 672 or 673. According to the note which Bede added at the end of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he was 59 years old. (The title is NOT England as printed in the current text which has been used for years apparently without correction.) I do not know why Bede’s simple autobiography was not simply paraphrased for LFF and now HWHM. That way, we would have learned about his love of teaching, learning , writing, singing and simple monastic discipline before reading about his death. In 735.

    According to the World Heritage website for Durham Cathedral his current tomb dates from 1831. By then, the title of “Venerable” had been used for Bede for about 1000 years. So the fairytale at the end of the biography in HWHM about HAC SUNT IN FOSSA BEDAE VENERABLIS OSSA do not make a lot of sense since his original tomb at St. Paul’s monastery had been replaced by a more splendid one in the Galilee Chapel (Chapel not Porch according to one website.) of the Durham Cathedral in 1022. This chapel was destroyed under Henry VIII . Further destruction occurred when the cathedral was used as a prison for Scottish prisoners of war during the English Civil War.

    Even for those of us who are not historians, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is a major landmark for his use of contemporaneous witnesses to the history he wrote of his own times. Bede spoke and wrote in Latin and yet another one of his major contributions was the translation of the Gospel of John into the vernacular of his time.

    In the last full paragraph, I would ask that the word “winsome” be replaced. Although the word has good Old English roots, it has come to carry a pejorative connotation of fake child-like simplicity and charm. It has become one of those “damning with faint praise” words, unfortunately. And though Bede lived a very circumscribed life, there is not much that is childish in his faith or writings.

    I suspect that Bede is a favorite of many here, so hopefully our suggestions will result in a richer and more accurate biography. I love the suggested collect that djgries included above.

  5. Steve Lusk says:

    The HWHM may try to cram too much into too few paragraphs, but short, choppy sentences are necessarily bad. Not every author can aspire to the virtuous sonority of the Right Reverend Simon Patrick (1626-1707), whose flowing prose earned the admiration of Lord Macaulay (1800-59), who, commenting on Patrick’s efforts to revise the BCP, noted “whether he was or was not qualified to make the collects better, no man that ever lived was more competent to make them longer.” Bede’s Latin earned a more generous – and genuine – accolade from his editor, Charles Plummer (1851-1927), who said “it is very seldom that we have to pause to think of the meaning of a sentence.”
    No “arguably” is required in “Bede was the greatest scholar of his time.” Alcuin, Boniface, and Paul the Deacon admired him. His theological works were allegorical and so are out of fashion at the moment, but Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, and other medieval scholars ascribed to Bede the same authority they gave to Augustine of Hippo, Jerome, Gregory the Great, and Ambrose.
    Alfred the Great had Bede’s History translated into Old English (i.e., Anglo-Saxon) as “a book most necessary for all men to know.” Alfred’s contemporary, the historian Notker Balbulus, said

    God . . . who on the fourth day of creation brought forth the sun in the east, ordained in the sixth age of mankind Bede as a new sun in the west to illuminate the whole globe.

    And it’s not just the medieval scholars who admired him. One of the 20th century’s foremost historians of Anglo-Saxon England, Sir Frank Stenton (1880-1967), wrote,

    The quality which makes his work great is not his scholarship, nor the faculty of narrative which he 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. It is in virtue of this conception that the Historia Ecclesiastica still lives after twelve hundred years.

    In 1935, the then Bishop of Durham Hensley Henson said this in a speech marking the 1200th anniversary of Bede’s death:

    In him two streams of spiritual influence seemed to meet and blend — the evangelical passion of the Celtic missionaries, and the disciplined devotion of the Benedictine monks. He was near enough to the original conversion to have personal links with those who had companied with the missionaries from Iona, and to feel the thrill of their triumphant enthusiasm; and yet he was remote enough to have grown up in another atmosphere, and to have been shaped by the system which had disallowed and displaced theirs. He was too near not to know their merits; too generous not to recognize them; too religious not to revere their sanctity; too wise not to perceive their defects. So he stood at the point of new departure — a Benedictine monk in the yet living tradition of Celtic piety, an English student in the rich tapestry of Celtic learning, a disciple of Rome inspired by the intellectual passion of Ireland.

    Although none of Bede’s Anglo-Saxon (i.e., Old English) writings and Bible translations have survived, he was apparently the first to compose scholarly works in that language, so to note that his History was written in Latin in not altogether a waste of time. As for the title, you’ll find that while The Ecclesiastical History of the English People is most common rendering, there a scholarly editions which style it as HWHM does, The Ecclesiastical History of England, or even The History of the English Church and People. Bede won’t sue us, for as he himself noted in another context, “verses, however masterly, cannot be translated literally from one language into another without losing much of their beauty and dignity.”
    A moment’s pause would clear up the confusion about the biography of Cuthbert. Bede wrote two of versions, one in prose and one in verse. His poetry was also admired, and we still sing two of his hymns, #217/8 and 271/2 in the 1982 hymnal.
    Bede’s tomb is now in the Galilee Chapel (as the cathedral’s own website identifies it) at Durham Cathedral, but that can’t be where the monks who piously stole the relics from Jarrow put it in 1020. The chapel is Norman, dating only to the 1170’s. The story of the angelic inscription refers to the original (735) tomb at Jarrow. The present tomb, built in 1831, bears the same epitaph, presumably carved entirely by human hands. On the wall is inscribed this, from one of Bede’s poems:

    Christ is the morning star
    Who, when the night of this world is past,
    Brings to his saints the promise of the light of life
    And opens everlasting day.

  6. Michael Hartney says:

    This commemoration is already included in the Calendar. The New Testament reading is new.

  7. Michael Hartney says:

    Bio: He needs a ‘Who he is’ and ‘Why he is important’ statement. And a “He died in 735.’ statement, too.

    Readings: Hebrew reading – The title of the Book of Wisdom in the NRSV is ‘The Wisdom of Solomon.’ Shouldn’t we be using the NRSV title through HWHM to denote readings from this book?

    New New Testament reading – Doesn’t verse 8 seem odd for Bede? “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.’

  8. Nigel Renton says:

    I suggest the Title be “The Venerable Bede”, not “Bede, the Venerable”. I note that Episcopal News Service has already removed the comma, and calls him “Bede the Venerable”. Aargh!

    The subtitle should omit the fact that he was a priest, and tell us more about him. I suggest “Monk, Scholar, and Historian”.

    Begin the first paragraph ” Bede was born near Sunderland, in northeast England, in about 673.”

    Consequential amendment:: line 2, first paragraph: omit “in northeast England”.

    Line 1, second paragraph: add “in Jarrow,” after “died”.

    Line 2, second paragraph:add “May 25, 735, ” after “on”.

  9. Steve Lusk says:

    Typo in my previous post — it should be “short, choppy sentences are not necessarily bad.”
    The tomb in the Galilee Chapel was destroyed by Henry VIII’s commissioners, but the chapel itself survives to this day.
    For those who don’t like the fairy tale about the epitaph, there’s another version: In Bede’s old age, with his eyesight failing, some pranksters persuaded him that a large crowd had gathered in a rocky valley and wanted him to preach to them. He willingly obliged, and at the conclusion of his remarks the stones themselves — or perhaps the angels — responded “Amen, very venerable Bede!”
    And if you don’t buy that one either, you don’t want to hear his account of how an entire kingdom was converted by a single sparrow . . .

    • S. Sauter says:

      I stand corrected. It apparently was the ornate tomb to Venerable Bede and St. Cuthbert that was destroyed by order of Henry VIII. The current tomb for Bede is less than 200 years old.

  10. Philip Wainwright says:

    ‘His treatise on chronology was standard for a long time’—‘for a long time’ falls a bit flat. How about ‘well into the medieval period’?

    ‘When Anglo-Saxon culture developed and Christianity triumphed’—this linkage distracts the listener, raising all sorts of questions. Better to omit it than explain it, I think, and the point about his importance as a source is made without it.

    ‘Bede was clearly ahead of his time’—he was not the first church historian to consult many documents, carefully evaluate their reliability, and cite his sources, and there are plenty of modern historians who have been less conscientious about that than Bede. He was consciously following the example of Eusebius. His Historia could use a fuller description, since it is for this that he is remembered more than anything. ‘He himself seems to have regarded it as the culmination of his achievement, for he concludes it with an almost elegiac sketch of his own life and list of his works,’ says his ODNB biographer. Worth emphasising its popularity throughout the middle ages—about 150 manuscript copies have survived, which makes it a best-seller, and he must have had an international reputation if the locations of the surviving copies are anything to go by (France, Germany, Russia).

    The collect needs some work, especially in its reference to ‘bringing the riches of truth to his generation’. He was very clearly thinking of generations to come when he wrote the Historia.

  11. Pingback: May 25 – The Venerable Beded : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

  12. Pingback: May 25 – The Venerable Bede : St. Paul's Episcopal Church

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