DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH, HISTORIAN
Feast: May 25
Historian and Doctor of the Church, born 672 or 673; died 735. In the last chapter of his great work on the "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" Bede has told us something of his own life, and it is, practically speaking, all that we know. His words, written in 731, when death was not far off, not only show a simplicity and piety characteristic of the man, but they throw a light on the composition of the work through which he is best remembered by the world at large. He writes:
Thus much concerning the ecclesiastical history of Britain, and especially of the race of the English, I, Baeda, a servant of Christ and a priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, which is at Wearmouth and at Jarrow (in Northumberland), have with the Lord's help composed so far as I could gather it either from ancient documents or from the traditions of the elders, or from my own knowledge. I was born in the territory of the said monastery, and at the age of seven I was, by the care of my relations, given to the most reverend Abbot Benedict [St. Benedict Biscop], and afterwards to Ceolfrid, to be educated. From that time I have spent the whole of my life 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. In my nineteenth year I was admitted to the diaconate, in my thirtieth to the priesthood, both by the hands of the most reverend Bishop John [St. John of Beverley], and at the bidding of Abbot Ceolfrid. From the time of my admission to the priesthood to my present fifty-ninth year, I have endeavored for my own use and that of my brethren, 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.
After this Bede inserts a list or Indiculus, of his previous writings and finally concludes his great work with the following words:
And I pray thee, loving Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously given me to drink in with delight the words of Thy knowledge, so Thou wouldst mercifully grant me to attain one day to Thee, the fountain of all wisdom and to appear forever before Thy face.
It is plain from Bede's letter to Bishop Egbert that the historian occasionally visited his friends for a few days, away from his own monastery of Jarrow, but with such rare exceptions his life seems to have been one peaceful round of study and prayer passed in the midst of his own community. How much he was beloved by them is made manifest by the touching account of the saint's last sickness and death left us by Cuthbert, one of his disciples. Their studious pursuits were not given up on account of his illness and they read aloud by his bedside, but constantly the reading was interrupted by their tears. "I can with truth declare", writes Cuthbert of his beloved master, "that I never saw with my eyes or heard with my ears anyone return thanks so unceasingly to the living God." Even on the day of his death (the vigil of the Ascension, 735) the saint was still busy dictating a translation of the Gospel of St. John. In the evening the boy Wilbert, who was writing it, said to him: "There is still one sentence, dear master, which is not written down." And when this had been supplied, and the boy had told him it was finished, "Thou hast spoken truth", Bede answered, "it is finished. Take my head in thy hands for it much delights me to sit opposite any holy place where I used to pray, that so sitting I may call upon my Father." And thus upon the floor of his cell singing, "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost" and the rest, he peacefully breathed his last breath.
The title Venerabilis seems to have been associated with the name of Bede within two generations after his death. There is of course no early authority for the legend repeated by Fuller of the "dunce-monk" who in composing an epitaph on Bede was at a loss to complete the line: Hac sunt in fossa Bedae . . . . ossa and who next morning found that the angels had filled the gap with the word venerabilis. The title is used by Alcuin, Amalarius and seemingly Paul the Deacon, and the important Council of Aachen in 835 describes him as venerabilis et modernis temporibus doctor admirabilis Beda. This decree was specially referred to in the petition which Cardinal Wiseman and the English bishops addressed to the Holy See in 1859 praying that Bede might be declared a Doctor of the Church. The question had already been debated even before the time of Benedict XIV, but it was only on 13 November, 1899, that Leo XIII decreed that the feast of Venerable Bede with the title of Doctor Ecclesiae should be celebrated throughout the Church each year on 27 May. A local cultus of St. Bede had been maintained at York and in the North of England throughout the Middle Ages, but his feast was not so generally observed in the South, where the Sarum Rite was followed.
Bede's influence both upon English and foreign scholarship was very great, and it would probably have been greater still but for the devastation inflicted upon the Northern monasteries by the inroads of the Danes less than a century after his death. In numberless ways, but especially in his moderation, gentleness, and breadth of view, Bede stands out from his contemporaries. In point of scholarship he was undoubtedly the most learned man of his time. A very remarkable trait, noticed by Plummer (I, p. xxiii), is his sense of literary property, an extraordinary thing in that age. He himself scrupulously noted in his writings the passages he had borrowed from others and he even begs the copyists of his works to preserve the references, a recommendation to which they, alas, have paid but little attention. High, however, as was the general level of Bede's culture, he repeatedly makes it clear that all his studies were subordinated to the interpretation of Scripture. In his "De Schematibus" he says in so many words: "Holy Scripture is above all other books not only by its authority because it is Divine, or by its utility because it leads to eternal life, but also by its antiquity and its literary form" (positione dicendi). It is perhaps the highest tribute to Bede's genius that with so uncompromising and evidently sincere a conviction of the inferiority of human learning, he should have acquired so much real culture. Though Latin was to him a still living tongue, and though he does not seem to have consciously looked back to the Augustan Age of Roman Literature as preserving purer models of literary style than the time of Fortunatus or St. Augustine, still whether through native genius or through contact with the classics, he is remarkable for the relative purity of his language, as also for his lucidity and sobriety, more especially in matters of historical criticism. In all these respects he presents a marked contrast to St. Aldhelm who approaches more nearly to the Celtic type.