Bede

Portrait of Bede
Portrait of Bede writing, from a 12th-century copy of his Life of St Cuthbert (British Library, Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r)

Biography

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, one of our best-written sources for early English history. For this reason, Bede is sometimes regarded as the father of English history.

Early life

Born around 673 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 (d. 690) and Ceolfrith (d. 716).

Bede devoted his life to teaching and writing, and produced a large body of work. He wrote many biblical commentaries, which focus on the reading and interpretation of Scripture. He composed three saints’ Lives, known as ‘hagiographies’, which were important contributions to this form of writing. He wrote two hagiographies of St Cuthbert (d. 687) – 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 text. 

Scientific Texts

Bede also wrote a variety of works on orthography (spelling conventions), and metre (poetic rhythm) as well as a number of scientific treatises. His early work De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things) is an encyclopaedic text, collecting contemporary theories about a wide range of subjects, including cosmology, time and arithmetic. De temporum ratione (On the Reckoning of Time), written around 20 years later, provides instruction in the use of different calendars, the meaning of the Zodiac and the calculation of Christian holy days such as Easter. It remained a central feature of the school curriculum throughout medieval Europe for centuries after his death.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Bede is most famous for his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), which was completed in 731 when he was around 59 years old. This work was modelled on the Ecclesiastical History by the Greek historian Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339/340), and it tells the story of the establishment and spread of Christianity in England and the emergence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It survives in some 150 manuscripts. Different versions suggest that the work was circulated while Bede was still alive, such was its popularity.

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