Bede

58

Bede : biography

– 26 May 0735

Models and style

Bede’s stylistic models included some of the same authors from whom he drew the material for the earlier parts of his history. His introduction imitates the work of Orosius, and his title is an echo of Eusebius’s Historia Ecclesiastica. Bede also followed Eusebius in taking the Acts of the Apostles as the model for the overall work: where Eusebius used the Acts as the theme for his description of the development of the church, Bede made it the model for his history of the Anglo-Saxon church. Bede quoted his sources at length in his narrative, as Eusebius had done. Bede also appears to have taken quotes directly from his correspondents at times. For example, he almost always uses the terms "Australes" and "Occidentales" for the South and West Saxons respectively, but in a passage in the first book he uses "Meridiani" and "Occidui" instead, as perhaps his informant had done. At the end of the work, Bede added a brief autobiographical note; this was an idea taken from Gregory of Tours’ earlier History of the Franks.

Bede’s work as a hagiographer, and his detailed attention to dating, were both useful preparations for the task of writing the Historia Ecclesiastica. His interest in computus, the science of calculating the date of Easter, was also useful in the account he gives of the controversy between the British and Anglo-Saxon church over the correct method of obtaining the Easter date.

Bede’s Latin has been praised for its clarity, but his style in the Historia Ecclesiastica is not simple. He knew rhetoric, and often used figures of speech and rhetorical forms which cannot easily be reproduced in translation, depending as they often do on the connotations of the Latin words. However, unlike contemporaries such as Aldhelm, whose Latin is full of difficulties, Bede’s own text is easy to read.Colgrave & Mynors, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, pp. xxxvii–xxxviii. In the words of Charles Plummer, one of the best-known editors of the Historia Ecclesiastica, Bede’s Latin is "clear and limpid … it is very seldom that we have to pause to think of the meaning of a sentence … Alcuin rightly praises Bede for his unpretending style."Plummer, Bedae Opera Historica, vol. I, pp. liii–liv.

Intent

Bede’s primary intention in writing the Historia Ecclesiastica was to show the growth of the united church throughout England. The native Britons, whose Christian church survived the departure of the Romans, earn Bede’s ire for refusing to help convert the Saxons; by the end of the Historia the English, and their Church, are dominant over the Britons.Colgrave & Mynors, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, pp. xxx–xxxi. This goal, of showing the movement towards unity, explains Bede’s animosity towards the British method of calculating Easter: much of the Historia is devoted to a history of the dispute, including the final resolution at the Synod of Whitby in 664. Bede is also concerned to show the unity of the English, despite the disparate kingdoms that still existed when he was writing. He also wants to instruct the reader by spiritual example, and to entertain, and to the latter end he adds stories about many of the places and people about which he wrote.

Bede’s extensive use of miracles is disconcerting to the modern reader who thinks of Bede as a more or less reliable historian, but men of the time accepted miracles as a matter of course. However, Bede, like Gregory the Great whom Bede quotes on the subject in the Historia, felt that faith brought about by miracles was a stepping stone to a higher, truer faith, and that as a result miracles had their place in a work designed to instruct.Colgrave & Mynors, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, pp. xxxiv–xxxvi.

Omissions and biases

Bede is somewhat reticent about the career of Wilfrid, a contemporary and one of the most prominent clerics of his day. This may be because Wilfrid’s opulent lifestyle was uncongenial to Bede’s monastic mind; it may also be that the events of Wilfrid’s life, divisive and controversial as they were, simply did not fit with Bede’s theme of the progression to a unified and harmonious church.