Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Patron saint of Historians

The Venerable Bede (673-735) is the patron saint of scholars and historians. He is also the only person in history to have the title vererable. Bede was born on land to the south of the Tyne which afterwards became the property of the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow. At the age of seven Bede was given by his family to the care of Abbot Benet Biscop for an education. Here he was ordained a deacon at the age of nineteen and a priest at the age of thirty. He would spend the rest of his life at the monastery. Bede never traveled far from the monastery, yet he became one of the most learned men of Europe.

At the monastery he lived a simple uneventful but happy life, as a teacher and scholar. Almost all of what is known of his life is from his own words. "I have spent the whole of my life," wrote Bede, "within that monastery, devoting all my pains to the study of the Scriptures, and amid the observance of monastic discipline and the daily charge of singing in the church, it has been ever my delight to learn or teach or write."

St. Benedict Biscop had brought with him a large library from Lerins, and this enabled Bede to carry out his life work. His range of writing included orthography, meter, compurisitics, and chronology as well as the lives to the saints. He considered his most important work his twenty-five works of Scripture comentary. His earliest Bibical commentary was most likely his work on the Revelations. "From the time of my admmission to the pristhood to my present fifty-ninth year," wrote Bede, "I have endeavored for my own use and that of my brethern, to make brief notes upon the Holy Scripture, either out of the works of the venerable Fathers or in conformity with their meaning and interpretation."

His best remembrered writing are his historical works, especially The Ecclesiastical History of the Englishe People. This five volume work records the events in Britain from the landing of Julius Caesar in 55-54 BC to the arrival of the first missionary from Rome, Saint Augustine in 597. Bede was a careful scholar who wrote his account in a sober and objective manner. For his sources he claimed the authority of ancient letters, the "traditions of our forefathers," and his own knowledge of contemporary events. He was careful to cite his sources in the text, and asked the copyist to include the sources in later editions, which, unfortunately, many did not do. It has been called "the finest historical work of the early Middle Ages."

Bede explained his reason for writing the history: "For if history records evil of wicked men, the good religious reader or listener is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse, and to follow what he knows to be good and plesing to God."

Bede completed his history of the Englishe people in 731. To this he added Lives of five early abbots of Wearmouth ad Jarrow. He carried out all of his writing alone. "I am my own secretary; I dictate, I compose, I copy all myself." Not until the end of his life would he take on a secretary.

He was at work on a translation of the Gospel of St. John into Old Englishe when he fell ill from a lung infection. Knowing he did not have long to live, he pressed on with the work. On the Tuesday before Ascension Day he summoned the priests of the monastery, made them little gifts of pepper and incense and beged their prayers. Then over the next forty-eight hours he dictated the translation to his scribe, a boy named Wilbert, while propped up in his bed. Even in the face of death, Bede still took care in comparing the text and preserving its accuracy. "I don't want my boy's," he said, "to read a lie or listen to no purpose after I am done." His students begged him to rest, but Bede insisted on working. "we never read without weeping," said one.

At the end of the day, the boy Wilbert said, "There is still a chapter wanting, had you not better rest for a while?"

"Be quick with your writing," replied Bede, "for I shall not hold out much longer."

When night fell, Wilbert said: "There is yet one sentence not written."

"Write quickly," said Bede.

When the sentence was sritten, Wilbert said, "Now it is finished."

"You have spoken truly," replied Bede. "It is well finished. Now raise my head in your hands for it would give me great joy to sit facing the holy place where I used to pray, so that I may sit and call on my Father."

He died singing "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost."

When news of his death reached the missionaries who used his Scripture commentaries, Boniface wrote the "the candle of the Church, lit by the Holy Spirit, was exinguished."

The title TheVenerable Bede, tha tis, worthy of honor, may have been used during his life time, it was certainly used within two hundred years of his death. Bede is the only Englishman Dante names in the Paradise. Pope Leo XIII gave Bede the title of Doctor of the Church in 1899, the year he was made a saint. His feast was originally on May 26, but was moved to May 27, to avoid a clash with the feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Since 1969, Bede's feast has been on Mya 25.


At 12:08 PM, Anonymous Theresa said...

How will you celebrate the feast? Reading, recording, reciting history? Or recommending?

Perhaps he was a smoker or the incense he gave as a gift caused his lung infection. Incense would explain why those surrounding him were in tears. What about the poor scribe next to him? Sad that he is not better remembered by Dante and the like.

At 7:54 AM, Anonymous James said...

Dear Theresa,

I am still looking for ideas as to how to celebrate the day. I think reading a little history just might be the way. How to you plan to celebrate the day?

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At 8:35 AM, Blogger marnanel said...

"He is also the only person in history to have the title vererable."

All archdeacons are "venerable", and all persons declared to be Servants of God by the Roman church. There are very many of both in existence.


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