Bede and the Ecclesiastical History
A Bit of Medieval Knowledge
Bede lived in 7th and 8th century Northumbria, apparently spending virtually his entire life at the monastery in Jarrow. Today he is best known for the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (common shorthand: EH). He has written many other works — commentaries on Biblical books, biographies, etc — but it is for the EH that he is today called the father of English history. Many have expressed surprise that a monk at what is then considered the edge of the civilised world can produce such historical writing about Europe that, according to some scholars’ assessment, isn’t matched till the 12th century. Bede benefited from having a well-stocked library, with books and papal letters collected by abbots who visited Rome; he also took into account oral histories as told to him or relayed to him secondarily.
But what is an “Ecclesiastical History”? It’s a history book, in that it describes ‘what happened to whom and where’. In particular it lays out the efforts of Christianity to take root in England, with a focus in the Northumbrian kingdoms which Bede was more familiar with, through the agency of Irish monks, priests sent by the pope in Rome, and kings who play roles of saints or villains in this story that Bede shaped.
I used the word ‘shaped’ — we have to remember that scholars back then had a different conception as to what is historical writing, at least partly stemming from different motives for writing it. For Bede, one of the main reasons he is writing this is didactic, that is to teach. He wanted to establish a sense that there is such a thing as an English people, held together by a king who rules by the grace of God — as long as the king continues to obey God. The book is dedicated to the then Northumbrian king, Ceolwulf, suggesting that Bede wanted Ceolwulf to read the book and be advised and inspired to do good, for:
If History relates good things of good men, the attentive hearer is excited to imitate that which is good.
Here I take a short detour to explain the history of the British Isles of that era. The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, which then consisted of peoples we call Britons (who live in present-day England), Picts (who live in present-day Scotland), and what Bede would call the Scotti or the Irish (but labeled as the Scots in this diagram; note that they occupy both Ireland and the west coast of present-day Scotland). The Romans were only ever able to conquer the Britons, judging the Picts of the north too savage — and perhaps deciding there is no longer anything worth conquering so far to the north and the cold anyway — so they built the famous Hadrian’s Wall that bisected Britain.
By the 5th century Rome was in decline, so around 410 AD Rome pulls out of Britain, leaving behind their cities and roads. The cities don’t survive, the roads do. Much of Britain reverted back to their own culture and languages; Latin never quite took root among the local population.
Later in that century came the Germanic migrants, the Angles and Saxons and Jutes, according to Bede. The story was that they were initially invited to help fight the wars going on between the British tribes, which they did, then decided they like the land enough that they invited more of their Anglo-Saxon cousins to come over, and soon the Britons were pushed to the west, while the Anglo-Saxons form the English kingdoms East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, Mercia, Deira and Bernicia (these two will at certain periods combine into Northumbria).
Pay attention now: the Britons will eventually become the modern day Welsh; the Anglo-Saxons are the so-called English in this story.
So now we have the four peoples named by Bede in the beginning of the EH: the British, the English, the Irish, and the Picts. Each of them speak their own language, and then there is a minority of people like Bede and the Irish monks who can read and write in Latin.
Where did Bede get the idea to write the Ecclesiastical History? In fact, there was an Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote the history of the church leading up to it becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine I. Where Eusebius was concerned with the development of Christianity across the whole empire, Bede was, as you by now know, concerned about its development among his own people only.
Bede was also influenced by other writers. He actually begins his book with a description of landscape and flora and fauna of Britain, an idea apparently inspired by Orosius. Mayr-Harting even suggests that Bede’s highly improbable description of Ireland (that no reptiles can survive in Ireland, and that by scraping books brought out from Ireland one can cure a serpent bite, etc) was a tongue-in-cheek joke; if it was, it was Bede’s only one.
Where a modern historian would prioritise objective truth above all else, writers in Bede’s era prioritise their purpose. For example, an important figure at the time was the bishop Wilfrid, who was influential but may have earned Bede’s disapproval because as a monk he behaved like a nobleman. Yet Bede never mentions any of his misgivings towards Wilfrid, but instead gives Wilfrid a long and respectful chapter about his contributions, while omitting mentioning a whole chunk of Wilfrid’s history.
On the other hand, Bede’s bias against the Britons was very clear. He takes the same line as Gildas in chastising the Britons for not doing their duty of preaching Christianity to the incoming English, and pretty much says that God punished them by having the English take over their lands. Another writer, Nennius, mentioned that the British did have a hand in the development of Christianity in some English kingdoms; this is entirely absent in Bede’s EH.
Another one of Bede’s bias is his fondness for St Aidan and the other Irish missionaries. The trouble with the Irish missionaries, in Bede’s view, is that they do not observe the right Easter date — the right one being according to the date computation rules observed in Rome. Which sounds trivial, but for monks at the time it’s pretty much a full-blown theological crisis. Asides from that, Bede also had an issue with the style of tonsure (the way their hair was cut) the Irish missionaries had used, which again is different from that ordained by Rome. Bede doesn’t omit mentioning his misgivings, but his overall tone towards the Irish missionaries was one of appreciation for their contribution towards the development of Christianity for the English kings and the people, as well as for their “Celtic style of spirituality, its ascetic temper, loving humility and simplicity of life” (Markus).
According to Roger Ray, Bede’s attitude towards rhetoric can be seen in contrast against two former great writers, St Augustine of Hippo and St Jerome. Augustine believed it was perfectly alright to learn from classical rhetoric (from classical Greece and Rome), despite the pagan content that would be contained in those works, and apply the rhetorical principles when writing for God-serving purposes; Jerome disputes this. In this case, Bede is on the side of Augustine.
On the other hand, Jerome does not flinch from the idea of telling falsehoods, stating that “the narrator is privileged to say what he knows is false if he does it in a high cause.” Augustine isn’t too happy with this concept, saying that if one can tell one falsehood, who’s to say the rest of what one says can be trusted now? In this case, Bede is on the side of Jerome.
“Through eloquence, one can be of help to others by urging good things which one does not oneself actually love.” Overall, Bede shows remarkable rhetorical pragmatism.
Despite the triumphant tone — Bede, after all, was trying to sell the idea to kings and to the people that trust in God and success will come — Bede was increasingly pessimistic towards the end of his life. (The EH was completed just a few years before his death; he listed his entire life’s work at the end of the EH, which might suggest that he knows this would be his last book.) Partly it’s the thought that the end of the world and judgment day is nigh, a thought possessed by many theologians in every century since the first one post-Christ. But he was also troubled by the way monasteries seem to grow richer in material rather than spirit, and the increasingly close relationship of the monks to politics (reminding him of the way Wilfrid did things perhaps).
Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Campbell, James. Essays in Anglo-Saxon History (1986).
Cowdrey, H.E.J. ‘Bede and the “English People”’, Journal of Religious History 11 (1981), pp. 501–23.
DeGregorio, Scott, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Bede (2010).
Markus, R.A. Bede and the Tradition of Ecclesiastical Historiography, Jarrow Lecture 1975.
Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England (1972).
Ray, Roger. Bede, Rhetoric, and the Creation of Christian Latin Culture, Jarrow Lecture 1997.