The Venerable Bede

01:00 Fri 05th Apr 2002 |

Q. Hang on. Mackem

A. Someone from Sunderland or its environs. Said to come from the saying 'We mackem; you tackem', it refers to the days when the city had some of the most important shipyards in the world. A big distinction is made locally between Mackems and their neighbours in Newcastle, Geordies, and you mix them up at your peril.

Q. So the Venerable Bede was a Mackem

A. Both a Mackem and a Geordie. St Bede the Venerable - aka Baeda or Beda - was born in 672 or 673 AD, probably in Monkton, Jarrow, now on Tyneside, so a Geordie by birth. At the age of 7, he was entrusted to Abbot Benedict Biscop - now St Benedict - of the monastery of St Peter in Wearmouth, near Sunderland, hence the Mackem appellation. Bede had moved with Biscop to the new monastery of St Paul in Jarrow by 685 and was ordained as a deacon at 19 then as a priest aged 30. Records indicate that, apart from occasional calls on friends and visits to Lindisfarne and York, he remained in Jarrow for the rest of his life.

Q. So what are his credentials in the arts-and-lit field

A. As well as a noted theologian he was a prolific author and historian and he is the single most important source from which we have first-hand information about Anglo-Saxon England in the 7th century.

Q. What did he write

A. Although he is best known today for his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), his reputation during his own lifetime and the subsequent few centuries was founded on his scriptural commentaries, copies of which were commonly found in all the great monastic libraries of western Europe. Bede's writing encompassed three main disciplines: scriptural commentary, history and reference works on grammar and what passed at the time for science.

No complete edition exists of his oeuvre, but it is certain that he himself regarded his biblical commentaries as pre-eminent among his achievements. His first commentary was probably that on the Revelation to St John (written sometime between 703 and 709), in which he set the style for his work by attempting to explain in terms relevant to the reader the teachings of the Church. He also wrote commentaries on the whole of the Pentateuch, the books of Kings, Tobias, the Canticles, the gospels of St Mark and St Luke, Acts and the Epistles. A commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew was published under his name, but its authenticity is doubtful - in itself a valuable indicator of the esteem in which his name was held. The list is long and the list of works claimed to be his is longer still.

Q. And what about his scientific writings

A. Among his scientific works, probably the most significant were those dealing with the calendar; in particular methods for the calculation of Easter Day. He also began the practice of referring to events after the birth of Christ using the now-familiar notation anno domini ('in the year of our Lord',� AD). In addition, he wrote books on the theory and practice of ecclesiastical music, which are the earliest records of the Gregorian tradition in Britain.

For modern-day scholars, however, it is for his contribution to history that he is most valued.

Q. Any examples

A. Although some of his works, such as the life of St Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, tended to be rather uncritical and relate as fact a somewhat improbable number of miracles, his Historia Abbatum ('Lives of the Abbots'), a book of the lives of the abbots of England, is more typical and much more of a useful, objective historical reference work.

As a priest and a monk, scripture was taken as the supreme authority, but in most of his works he was inclined to explore and rationalise rather than accept unquestioningly. There is no doubt that Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum is a masterpiece by the standards of any age; it is regarded by modern scholars as the authoritative account of Christianity in England from its inception to Bede's own time.

Q. What is his legacy

A. The title 'Venerable' began to be applied within a couple of generations of his death, as the influence and esteem of his writings spread. His influence was and is great, and might have been greater still but for the Viking sacking of the monasteries of northern England during the 9th century.

Bede was the most learned man of his day in England, and quite possibly in Christendom. Unusually, he was scrupulous in recording the sources of his information - and he asked those who copied and edited his work to preserve these references, an instruction which, unfortunately, they all too often failed to follow.

See also the answerbank article on Britain's oldest building

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By Simon Smith

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