Bede was an Anglo-Saxon genius, says Christopher Howse One fact is enough to establish St Bede (674-735) as the greatest Catholic Englishman: apart from the Bible, his History is the only book to have been read by every English generation from his to our own – through 1,300 years. I owe this observation to the AngloSaxon scholar Professor James Campbell, for Bede was Anglo-Saxon, consciously so.
His great book, A History of the English Church and People, is not just of interest to professional historians, though it is by far the fullest source for the story of St Augustine of Canterbury’s evangelisation of the English from 597 onwards. It is the best history from that time anywhere in the world. Bede took care with his sources, presented them fairly and had no predetermined thesis. If in fact his story was of the growth of Catholicism in England; he did not presume that the Good News would flourish after his time. He knew such things depended partly on the fidelity of the people and their leaders; and there were the heathen Vikings, who could unmake Christian settlements overnight.
Bede wrote more than 30 other books, but we are by and large too stupid to read them. Though he lived in the so-called Dark Ages, not many today can read Latin and enjoy it as he did. He wrote a life of St Cuthbert in 1,000 Virgilian hexameters, and he knew Greek too. The Greek manuscript of the Acts of the Apostles that he probably used is preserved in the Bodleian library in Oxford.
He did not despise the English language, for at his death he had just completed a translation of St John’s Gospel. Sadly that work has not survived, perhaps because most manuscripts of his works were handed down on continental Europe, for in his time and for cen
turies after, ideas were exchanged over the whole range of Christendom. For his own people, scholars in King Alfred’s court, eleven generations after his death, turned the Latin of his History into English. And another 22 generations on, Thomas Stapleton, a Catholic, translated it into an English that had changed unrecognisably since the days of Alfred. For Stapleton, a controversialist in 1565, the important thing that remained recognisably the same was the Church in England, and its relation to Rome.
Bede did not stand for some kind of ethnic church or proto-C of E. The Archbishop of Canterbury in his youth, Theodore, came from Tarsus, St Paul’s city in Asia Minor, now part of Turkey.
Theodore had undertaken a series of commentaries on the Bible, some of which still remain unprinted. Bede followed in his footsteps, and if Bede’s methodology differed in emphasis, it was not because Bede was English and Theodore Asian. Theodore was follow
ing the rather more literal approach of Antioch, Bede the more metaphorical tack of Alexandria – a theological tradition from Egypt.
If Bede’s commentaries, which always take the literal sense first, make some surprising leaps in their moral interpretation, he was only approaching the Scriptures in the same way as St Augustine of Hippo, St Jerome and St Gregory the Great. He was nearer in time to Gregory than we are to Robert Louis Stevenson, say, and his literary style would have sounded as modern.
Most impressively to our own more individualistic age, Bede was a thoroughly rounded human being. There is a charming story in his biography of Cuthbert of a young monk following the saint from a distance as he went out at night to pray, and finding that when Cuthbert emerged from the dark sea where he had been praising God, a pair of sea otters came and breathed on his feet to warm them, and to dry them with their fur.
It may come as some surprise to discover that Bede joined the monastery of Wearmouth aged only seven. It did him no harm. He was not a monk then, but lived in the community, learning his letters with other boys in the cloisters. Nor was he a woman-hater. The Anglo-Saxon Church respected women and allowed them to exert power. They often ruled in double (but separated) communities of nuns and monks. Bede corresponded by letter with good and learned women of his time.
Bede recorded that his life was devoted to prayer, learning, teaching and writing. The latter three activities formed part of the first. Bede’s life task was to follow the way of a saint. He was recognised when alive as a holy man and revered as a saint on his death. His writings were counted among those of the Fathers of the Church. Dante places him in Paradise beside the great encyclopaedist St Isidore of Seville. Only today is his reputation in his own country slightly foggy. But the fog is in our own outlook, not his.
Christopher Howse is an assistant editor of The Daily Telegraph.