Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People

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The Venerable Bede, noted scholar at the Jarrow monastery in Northumbria, was the most learned man of his time. His knowledge of the world around him and of holy scripture was unparalleled. He wrote on an enormous number of subjects, but he is most remembered for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, an account of the growth of the Christian Church in Anglo-Saxon England.

This widely read and widely respected book traces the growth of Christianity, from its earliest beginnings in Kent to its explosion after the Synod of Whitby. The overriding theme of the book is that the Church used its powers of persuasion to overcome paganistic violence and brutality and make the Germanic tribesmen see the true light of Christianity.

Time and again, in episode after episode, both Bede’s scholarly nature and the impact of the events he is describing shine through, illuminating a period otherwise darkened by the absence of written evidence. His knowledge of his subject matter and his command of the English language are entirely evidence throughout, as is his passion for imparting his knowledge and observations to others.

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People is at once a beautiful and a helpful book, full of amusing anecdotes and life lessons, of examples of the good life and the good soul. It is a shining example that a great many have followed.

But it is a history book as well. Bede the historian didn’t let tall tales get in the way of his facts. His book is very much a history book of the Island as a whole as well. Many times, historians find that Bede’s book is their only source for the history of England during this period. If there is one weakness in the History, it is that Bede tends to focus on things happening right around him–that is to say, Northumbria. The rest of the Saxon kingdoms feature in the book, but Wales and other non-Germanic parts of the Island have minimal (if any) reference. Thus, it is a history book of the period, but it is a history book of the Christian Saxon period primarily.

Still, it is a wonderfully succinct glimpse into a time long thought forgotten, a time when two great religions were struggling against each other, when the clashes over every part of life dominated settlement of Britain, and when an Island was finding its identity to be a melting pot of weapons, ideas, and beliefs.