Often called the father of English history, the Venerable Bede (Latin: Baeda) (c. 672-735), born in Northumbria, recorded the history of early medieval England, supported the reunification of the Celtic churches with the Roman Church, and popularized the term anno Domini (AD) in calendar dating. Bede’s histories and chronicles became a model of historical writing and the standard reference works in Europe, especially during the Carolingian Renaissance, being copied multiple times and circulated throughout Europe. The Venerable Bede’s literary works cover a variety of topics: biblical commentaries, hagiography, homilies and liturgical works, historical texts (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, History of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow), and scientific works (On Nature, On Time, On the Computation of Time).
In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (EH), completed in 731, Bede informs the readers that he was born in the territory of the monasteries of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Wearmouth and Jarrow (founded in 674 and 680). At the age of 7, Bede’s “kinsmen” entrusted him to the care of the abbots Biscop (also called Benedict) and Ceolfirth at these monasteries for his education. Bede lived a disciplined life within the monastic rule, receiving ordination as deacon at the age of 19 and priest at the age of 30. Although Bede did not travel far from Northumbria, he acquired an understanding of geography, providing place names and physical features; he recognized the various societal groups in England and Ireland and recorded the accounts of influential individuals. Bede’s histories, chronicles, and letters reveal his awareness of the chronology of past events, as well as a grasp of current facts (e.g., the state of kingdoms and well-being of his community and neighbors).
Under the direction of Abbot Biscop, the sister monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow stood out as a center for the arts and scholarship, welcoming Continental artists, liturgical directors, and scholars. These two monasteries worked together, sharing resources and an extensive and impressive library. The Northumbrian monks and their library and archives provided Bede with an example of historical study, meticulous record keeping, and adequate sources.
Historians strongly emphasize the significance of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This work provides the most accurate and detailed account of Christianity in Britain and Ireland from the late 200s to the mid-700s, recording biographies (e.g., Oswald, Columba, Aidan, Cuthbert) and crucial events. During the so-called Dark Ages, this history also explains the daily life of early medieval England and encouraged the spread of education, literacy, and a growing sense of national identity. Therefore, it appropriately became one of the earliest national histories and another important regional history of Christianity. The Venerable Bede supported the moral benefit of history, saying, “Should history tell of good men and their good estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful and perverse, and himself with greater care pursue those things which he has learned to be good and pleasing in the sight of God” (Preface, EH). Although the EH possesses historical value, Bede primarily wrote to show the spread of Christianity in England, hoping to convert others to the Christian faith.
One hundred and fifty medieval copies of the EH survive (proving its immediate importance), and this work became the first English history book to be printed for the public (proving its longterm influence and historical significance). The Venerable Bede carefully chose his sources (e.g., documents, testimonies, correspondence) and explained his methodology of research and writing; the EH became a model for future historical accounts, particularly influencing the scholarship of the Carolingian Renaissance. In terms of church history, the EH resembled Eusebius of Caesarea’s history of the church and also drew from the works of Jerome, Saint Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great.
Bede’s works (e.g., Ecclesiastical History, On Nature, On Time, and On the Computation of Time) reflect his interest in and exploration of the world of natural science, astronomy, and ecclesiastical computation or calendrical calculations. Bede contributed to the medieval understanding of the calendar in two ways. First, the EH popularized the use of the Latin term anno Domini (or AD, meaning “in the year of our Lord”). The Scythian- born monk Dionysius Exiguus (c. 500-540) invented the AD system, which is an altered Alexandrian calendar consisting of a 19-year Paschal cycle. Dionysius Exiguus also dated the birth of Christ at 753 ab urbe condita (or AUC, meaning “from the foundation of the city [Rome]”). Although this calendar was believed to be the most accurate, it still possessed weaknesses (e.g., Christ was born during the reign of Herod the Great, around 750 AUC, instead of 753 AUC). Bede recognized Dionysius’s errors but continued to use the system in all of his writings. The calendrical debate arose throughout Europe over the correct dating of Easter. From the EH, Bede explains that the Celtic churches followed an older calendar, which had long disappeared from Continental Christianity. Bede enthusiastically supported the Roman Church and encouraged the Celtic churches to adopt Roman practice (e.g., the dating of Easter). Historians usually recognize the submission of Celtic Christianity to the Roman Church at the Synod of Whitby in 664.
Second, Bede authored two world chronicles: On Time (or the Lesser Chronicle, 703) and On the Computation of Time (or the Greater Chronicle, 725). In these works, Bede examines the divisions of time, from the study of hours, days, weeks, and years to an explanation of the six ages of Christianity (as outlined in Saint Augustine’s writings). The six ages are listed as (1) Adam to the Flood, (2) Noah to Abraham, (3) Abraham to David, (4) David to the captivity, (5) the captivity to the birth of Christ, and (6) the present age until the return of Christ. In the Lesser Chronicle, Bede does not place a specific amount of time on the sixth age and calculates that 3,952 years passed from the time of Adam’s birth to Christ’s birth. Accused of heresy for suggesting these new calculations, the venerable monk modified his chronologies and published his larger work, the Greater Chronicle. These two works followed Dionysius Exiguus’s Alexandrian calendar, becoming the standard method of time keeping and recognizing seasonal changes and annual holidays in medieval Europe. Bede’s experience with the orderly monastic life and observation of the environment in which he lived (e.g., ocean tides, agriculture) gave him plenty of reason to study the passing of time. This literary genre became a popular style of writing and influenced the production of similar manuscripts.
The Northumbrian community revered Bede as a scholar, teacher, priest, and fellow monk, calling him “Bede the Venerable.” Tradition holds that the monks buried Bede at the monastery of St. Paul at Jarrow. To protect the grave from Viking invasions during the late 700s to early 800s, the monks moved his body to Durham Cathedral, where his grave remains today. Historians and scholars are indebted to the work of Bede; without his Ecclesiastical History little would be known of early medieval Britain and the spread of Christianity in England and Ireland. Most importantly, the Venerable Bede helped to clarify the ecclesiastical computus and popularized the use of the term anno Domini in calendar dating.
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