Read Bede: Wasn't he a monk or something?

Legions of authors have felled vast forests in pursuit of literary distinction. Most get sawdust, some receive gold, and a far smaller band find lasting fame. But only one got "Venerable." And not just as an occasional or even frequent compliment: The father of English history, author of 731's hot read A History of the English Church and People, is invariably the Venerable Bede. One feels guilty for not knowing why. Such was his impact that King Alfred was reputed personally to have translated some of his history into English, one imagines with one hand while hacking away at Danish raiders with the other before onlookers startled that a king could read. But it has since faded to the status of something you're pretty sure the authors of 1066 and All That were satirizing and um, wasn't he a monk or something?

Yes. And finally making his venerable acquaintance brings a variety of surprises, mostly pleasant. For instance, his initial description of the land and people of England seems weirdly inaccurate ... until it hits one that he was writing closer to the Roman abandonment of Britain than the Norman Conquest, when many tumultuous changes now lost in the mists of time lay in the thicker mist of future time.

Further surprises await. Bede writes soon after the Christian evangelization of Britain, which modern minds may regard as overlay of crudely ignorant superstition on a lower layer of even grosser credulity. Yet Benedict Biscop, who founded and ruled the monasteries where Bede spent his life, was a Greek and Latin scholar who helped import new styles of stonework, glasswork and music to the British Isles. And his travelling companion to England, Theodore, fluent in Greek and Latin and a distinguished Archbishop of Canterbury from age 66 until his death at 88, hailed from Tarsus in Asia Minor. It was a globalized era.

Bede lacks some of the apparatus of modern scholarship,* so one cannot be sure his extensive citations from the letters of Pope Gregory the Great are copied verbatim from documents before him nor, if so, of the nature and provenance of those documents. But their distinctive voice suggests Bede was drawing on more than mere monastic folklore, let alone invention. And they show a surprisingly sophisticated mind.

Gregory tells Augustine, his successful chief missionary to England, pagan temples "should on no account be destroyed." Instead, convert them into churches so "the people ... may abandon idolatry and resort to these places as before, and may come to know and adore the true God. And since they have a custom of sacrificing many oxen to devils, let some other solemnity be substituted ... They are no longer to sacrifice beasts to the Devil, but they may kill them for food to the praise of God ... " Without, one presumes, too many pointed questions. But Gregory is practical, not cynical, let alone foolishly rigid and ignorant.

When Augustine asked, "Since we hold the same Faith, why do customs vary in different Churches?" Gregory replied, "you are familiar with the usage of the Roman Church ... But if you have found customs, whether in the Roman, Gallican, or any other Churches that may be more acceptable to God ... teach ... the English ... For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things." As many a modern chauvinist could usefully learn.

One also values Gregory telling missionaries with cold feet: "It is better never to undertake any high enterprise than to abandon it when once begun." But just as one is drawing a deep breath of fine old English air, one chokes on dust capable of miracles because it comes from the spot in a graveyard where water was dumped after being used to wash the bones of saintly King Oswald. The book contains many equally grotesque superstitions repellent to an age that prefers fables about Lee Harvey Oswald. Bede even dwells on the triumph of English Christianity and dismisses 1066 and All That's Egg-kings and their Egg-deaths as though political history were but a footnote to social history.

In short, he's disconcertingly modern, once we blow away the dust from Oswald's bones.


* For instance, tedious footnotes.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson