The Venerable Bede

Portrait of Bede


Bede, St Bede or the Venerable Bede, was one of the greatest scholars of the Anglo-Saxon period. He produced a large number of works on subjects as varied as science, music, poetry and biblical commentary, but he is most famous for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People – a vitally important text without which we would have very little idea about early English history. For this reason, Bede is sometimes regarded as the father of English history.

Early life in monasteries

Born in c. 673 CE in the north of England, Bede entered the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow at the age of seven. Later in 682 he moved to Jarrow, where he had access to a well-stocked library that had been created by the abbots who had founded the community – Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrid.

He devoted his life to teaching and writing, and produced a large body of work. He composed three saints’ lives, known as ‘hagiographies’, which were important contributions to this form of writing. He wrote two hagiographies of the Bernician saint Cuthbert – one in verse and one in prose – as well as lives of the Continental saints Felix and Anastasius. Equally important was his historical ‘martyrology’ – a list of martyrs and saints arranged in calendar order, according to their feast days. Many martyrologies written afterwards were modelled on Bede’s. He also wrote a variety of works on orthography (spelling convention), metre (poetic rhythm) and time reckoning (specifically how to calculate Easter, the date of which was calculated differently by separate branches of the Church).

Works on the Bible and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Bede’s main focus, however, was his work on the Bible. He wrote many commentaries which were intended to help his readers interpret the Scriptures. Despite this, Bede is most famous for his 'Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum' or Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which was completed in 731 CE when Bede was around 59 years old. It is the first work of history in which the AD system of dating is used. This work was modelled on the Ecclesiastical History by the Greek Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (260/265 – 339/340 CE), and it tells the story of the establishment and spread of Christianity in England. It survives in some 150 manuscripts. There are two different versions of the text, known as ‘manuscript traditions’, which suggests that the work was circulated while Bede was still alive.

In terms of the intellectual scope of his work, Bede stands on the threshold of two historical periods. His work is poised between late antiquity and the learning of the Church fathers, and the medieval world. He was a beneficiary of the rich seam of Christian and classical learning which he found in the library at Wearmouth-Jarrow, but it was what he did with this learning, in his lively and scholarly works, that has assured him a place among the greatest historians Britain has ever produced.

Further information about the life of Bede can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.