Bede : biography

– 26 May 0735


Bede wrote scientific, historical and theological works, reflecting the range of his writings from music and metrics to exegetical Scripture commentaries. He knew patristic literature, as well as Pliny the Elder, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace and other classical writers. He knew some Greek and Hebrew. His Latin is generally clear, but his Biblical commentaries are more technical.

Bede’s scriptural commentaries employed the allegorical method of interpretationHolder (trans.), Bede: On the Tabernacle, (Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Pr., 1994), pp. xvii–xx. and his history includes accounts of miracles, which to modern historians has seemed at odds with his critical approach to the materials in his history. Modern studies have shown the important role such concepts played in the world-view of Early Medieval scholars.McClure and Collins, The Ecclesiastical History, pp. xviii–xix.

He dedicated his work on the Apocalypse and the De Temporum Ratione to the successor of Ceolfrid as abbot, Hwaetbert.

Modern historians have completed many studies of Bede’s works. His life and work have been celebrated by a series of annual scholarly lectures at St. Paul’s Church, Jarrow from 1958 to the present. The historian Walter Goffart says of Bede that he "holds a privileged and unrivalled place among first historians of Christian Europe".Goffart Narrators p. 236

Although Bede is mainly studied as a historian now, in his time his works on grammar, chronology, and biblical studies were as important as his historical and hagiographical works. The non-historical works contributed greatly to the Carolingian renaissance.Goffart Narrators pp. 242–243


Primary sources

  • Bede, Hist. eccl. · Venerabilis Baedae opera historica, ed. C. Plummer, 2 vols. (1896)
  • Bede (c. 860)
  • (Parallel Latin text and English translation with English notes.)
  • (contains translations of On the Song of Songs, Homilies on the Gospels and selections from the Ecclesiastical history of the English people).

Secondary sources

  • Dorey, T.A. (ed.) (1966). Latin Historians. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Theological works

In his own time, Bede was as well known for his biblical commentaries and exegetical, as well as other theological works. The majority of his writings were of this type, and covered the Old Testament and the New Testament. Most survived the Middle Ages, but a few were lost. It was for his theological writings that he earned the title of Doctor Anglorum, and why he was made a saint.Ward "Bede the Theologian" The Medieval Theologians pp. 57–64

Bede synthesised and transmitted the learning from his predecessors, as well as made careful, judicious innovation in knowledge (such as recalculating the age of the earth – for which he was censured before surviving the heresy accusations and eventually having his views championed by Archbishop Ussher in the sixteenth century – see below) that had theological implications. In order to do this, he learned Greek, and attempted to learn Hebrew. He spent time reading and rereading both the Old and the New Testaments. He mentions that he studied from a text of Jerome’s Vulgate, which itself was from the Hebrew text. He also studied both the Latin and the Greek Fathers of the Church. In the monastic library at Jarrow were a number of books by theologians, including works by Basil, Cassian, John Chrysostom, Isidore of Seville, Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome, Pope Gregory I, Ambrose of Milan, Cassiodorus, and Cyprian. He used these, in conjunction with the Biblical texts themselves, to write his commentaries and other theological works. He had a Latin translation by Evagrius of Athanasius’s Life of Antony, and a copy of Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St. Martin. He also used lesser known writers, such as Fulgentius, Julian of Eclanum, Tyconius, and Prosperius. Bede was the first to refer to Jerome, Augustine, Pope Gregory and Ambrose as the four Latin Fathers of the Church.Ward Venerable Bede p. 44 It is clear from Bede’s own comments that he felt his job was to explain to his students and readers the theology and thoughts of the Church Fathers.Meyvaert "Bede" Speculum p. 827