Bede : biography

– 26 May 0735


The monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow had an excellent library. Both Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith had acquired books from the Continent, and in Bede’s day the monastery was a renowned centre of learning.Cramp, "Monkwearmouth (or Wearmouth) and Jarrow", pp. 325–326. It has been estimated that there were about 200 books in the monastic library.Michael Lapidge, "Libraries", in Lapidge, Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 286–287.

For the period prior to Augustine’s arrival in 597, Bede drew on earlier writers, including Solinus. He had access to two works of Eusebius: the Historia Ecclesiastica, and also the Chronicon, though he had neither in the original Greek; instead he had a Latin translation of the Historia, by Rufinus, and Saint Jerome’s translation of the Chronicon.Campbell, "Bede", in Dorey, Latin Historians, p. 162. He also knew Orosius’s Adversus Paganus, and Gregory of Tours’ Historia Francorum, both Christian histories, as well as the work of Eutropius, a pagan historian.Campbell, "Bede", in Dorey, Latin Historians, p. 163. He used Constantius’s Life of Germanus as a source for Germanus’s visits to Britain. Bede’s account of the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons is drawn largely from Gildas’s De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.Lapidge, "Gildas", p. 204. Bede would also have been familiar with more recent accounts such as Eddius Stephanus’s Life of Wilfrid, and anonymous Lives of Gregory the Great and Cuthbert. He also drew on Josephus’s Antiquities, and the works of Cassiodorus,Meyvaert "Bede" Speculum p. 831 and there was a copy of the Liber Pontificalis in Bede’s monastery.Meyvaert "Bede" Speculum p. 843 Bede quotes from several classical authors, including Cicero, Plautus, and Terence, but he may have had access to their work via a Latin grammar rather than directly.Colgrave & Mynors, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, pp. xxv–xxvi. However, it is clear he was familiar with the works of Virgil and with Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, and his monastery also owned copies of the works of Dionysius Exiguus. He probably drew his account of St. Alban from a life of that saint which has not survived. He acknowledges two other lives of saints directly; one is a life of Fursa, and the other of St. Æthelburh; the latter no longer survives.Plummer, Bedae Opera Historic, vol. I, p. xxiv. He also had access to a life of Ceolfrith.Campbell, "Bede", in Dorey, Latin Historians, p. 164. Some of Bede’s material came from oral traditions, including a description of the physical appearance of Paulinus of York, who had died nearly 90 years before Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica was written.

Bede also had correspondents who supplied him with material. Albinus, the abbot of the monastery in Canterbury, provided much information about the church in Kent, and with the assistance of Nothhelm, at that time a priest in London, obtained copies of Gregory the Great’s correspondence from Rome relating to Augustine’s mission.Keynes, "Nothhelm", pp. 335 336. Almost all of Bede’s information regarding Augustine is taken from these letters. Bede acknowledged his correspondents in the preface to the Historia Ecclesiastica;Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, Preface, p. 42. he was in contact with Daniel, the Bishop of Winchester, for information about the history of the church in Wessex, and also wrote to the monastery at Lastingham for information about Cedd and Chad. Bede also mentions an Abbot Esi as a source for the affairs of the East Anglian church, and Bishop Cynibert for information about Lindsey.

The historian Walter Goffart argues that Bede based the structure of the Historia on three works, using them as the framework around which the three main sections of the work were structured. For the early part of the work, up until the Gregorian mission, Goffart feels that Bede used Gildas’s De excidio. The second section, detailing the Gregorian mission of Augustine of Canterbury was framed on the anonymous Life of Gregory the Great written at Whitby. The last section, detailing events after the Gregorian mission, Goffart feels were modelled on Stephen of Ripon’s Life of Wilfrid.Goffart Narrators pp. 296–307 Most of Bede’s informants for information after Augustine’s mission came from the eastern part of Britain, leaving significant gaps in the knowledge of the western areas, which were those areas likely to have a native Briton presence.Brooks "From British to English Christianity" Conversion and Colonization pp. 7–10Brooks "From British to English Christianity" Conversion and Colonization pp. 12–14