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Bede was the first historian to attempt a history of the English. Even if his viewpoint and main interest was for the ecclesiastical side to the history of the English, his works are of great interest to us. His information being from locals, we are given an insight into lost knowledge, which would forever have eluded us had he not started his research. To the study of this website he is all the more important for his first account of Vortigern.
Bede was born in the year 672 or 673 in the territory of monastery of the blessed apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, which is at Wearmouth and at Jarrow (in Northumberland). From his own words, we know that he was given to the most reverend Abbot Benedict, and afterwards to Ceolfrid, to be educated. When 19, he was admitted to the diaconate, at 30 he became a priest. It appears that he spent his entire adult life at the monastery in Jarrow, Northumbria. He died in 735, at the age of 62. He called himself Baeda, but soon after his death we find Hac sunt in fossa Bedae, while by 835 he is called Beda.
The title Venerabilis (the Venerable) seems to have come within two generations after his death. There is a legend that a monk who was composing an epitaph on Bede found that one morning an angel had filled the gap after the name of Bede with the word venerabilis. More secure is his title being used by Alcuin and Amalarius. The council of Aachen in 835 describes him as venerabilis et modernis temporibus doctor admirabilis Beda.
Though the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum is the work that has made Bede famous, it is but one of many scholarly works which Bede produced. We are very fortunate to know much of Bedes work. As an author he must have been very active, judging from his writings. He wrote the Historia Abbatum (History of the Abbots) (of the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow), but also De temporibus liber (The Book of Times) and De temporum ratione, which are chronological treatises that contain summaries of the general history of the world from the Creation to 725 and 703 respectively. These, and De natura rerum are dealing with science as it was then understood and especially with chronology. He also wrote a topographical work, De locis sanctis (On the Holy Places), which is a description of Jerusalem and the holy places based upon Adamnan and Arculfus.
The largest part of his work was of course on ecclesiastical matters. They included a commentary upon the Pentateuch as a whole as well as on selected portions, and there are also commentaries on the Books of Kings, Esdras, Tobias, the Canticles, etc. In the New Testament he has certainly interpreted St. Mark, St. Luke, the Acts, the Canonical Epistles, and the Apocalypse. Well-known are the Letter to Egbert, the metrical and prose lives of St. Cuthbert, and the other smaller pieces are also of great value for the light they shed upon the state of Christianity in Northumbria in Bede's own day. That Bede compiled a Martyrologium we know from his own statement.
Bede was also a poet. His life of St. Cuthbert is metrical and he also incorporated some verses in the Ecclesiastical History. He certainly wrote a good deal of verse, such as a (lost) book of hymns, while it is also possible that the shorter of the two metrical calendars printed among his works is genuine, but the Penitential is probably not his. Lastly, Bede was a musician as well! His works of chant, De arte Metrica and Musica theoretica, are the earliest witness of Gregorian tradition in England.
The Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum
In 731, the Venerable Bede completed his most famous work, the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People). His greatest work, it is the foundation of all our knowledge of British history and a masterpiece eulogized by the scholars of every age, giving an account of Christianity in England from the beginning until his own day. That it made him famous is probably due to the high quality of the work itself, but also because he was the first to write such a history. Though Bedes Historia Ecclesiastica, as the title suggests, is more concerned with matters of the church than those of secular affairs, he still provides us with lots of information that is unique for both Anglo-Saxon and British history.
While many modern scholars sometimes despair of Gildas, few would of Bede. This seems strange, for when Gildas is the absolute authority on 6th century Britain, Bede is still considered the more trustworthy writer for that period. But since he was born in 673 and wrote only early in the 8th century, he cannot be considered as a contemporary source. More so, his information came in a large part from paraphrasing Gildas! I have compared Gildas to Bede here.
It is not right to suppose that unlike Gildas, Bede made extensive use of the many sources which were available to him. Gildas used some continental writers as well, next to his prime source, the Bible. However, we can safely assume that Bede had many more sources available to him, which he enumerated in his preface to the Ecclesiastical History. For England's pre-Christian history, he drew from the sizeable library at the Jarrow monastery, which contained many classical writers. He also sent for manuscripts from other English monasteries, and he even received manuscripts on loan from Rome through a London priest named Nothelm.
For the post Roman times he predominantly used Gildas, who was his just about his only source for Britain in the fifth century. This scarcity is most aptly expressed by his paraphrasing of Gildas, and later also of Constantinus of Lyon, whose work he also used literally to described the visits to Britain by St Germanus of Auxerre. For the period after the adventus Saxonum, Bede used the oral and early historical traditions (but much more cautiously than Gildas and Constantnus material), which he collected from several contact persons in the different English kingdoms. The church records which Bede used as source material almost certainly included a collection of monastic annals, which had originated in the sixth century, and which began to be used for notations of other kinds (glosses) towards the end of the sixth century.
Bedes trustworthiness seems therefore founded more on the later part of his works, a trustworthiness which is such that he has overruled information on the earlier parts from other sources, such as the Historia Brittonum. Bedes sources were Late Classical continental writers, English contemporary sources and from written sources such as native king-lists or chronicles. One of these, the Kentish Chronicle, is very important for the history of Kent and Wessex. None of these is historical, though; the English memory did not go back to times before the 6th century. All before is pure folk-lore, myth and legend.
Bede and Vortigern
Bede was the first source to name Vortigern, that we are sure of (Gildas may have done so as well, see Gildas & Vortigern). Bede first mentioned Vortigern in his Chronica Maiora, which he finished in 725. He described how the British appealed unsuccessfully to Aetius, and subsequently asked the Angles for help. The leader of the British he called Vertigernus, and he dated the action to the reign of Martianus and Valentinianus. The form Vertigernus, which probably went back to a British original of *Wortigernos, suggests that Bede had access to a near-contemporary source, which may have been either the fuller version of Gildas, or a gloss of that, or else a lost source:
tempore ratione, chapter 3
Later, in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, which he finished 6 years later, Bede used Vurtigernus:
Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, book 1, chapter 14
That he also added Hengist and Horsa at this point, together with their genealogies, may reflect that he had gained access to a Kentish source, which concerned the founding history of the kingdom of Kent. The use of Vurtigernus, which is a slightly later form, may well be independent of Bedes earlier sources, whether that be Gildas or another source. This last possibility is strengthened by the discovery of a ninth-century chronicle-fragment by David Dumville, which provides such a possible source. Dumville thought it a short British chronicle which shows an early form of the name "Vortigern":
The chronicle is based on Bedes annalistic summary in his Historia Ecclesiastica V.24, but with additional information. This passage is part of only twelve entries, starting at the year 60 B.C. and cut short after A.D. 565, where Bede continues. Though dating back to a French scriptorium in the second half of the ninth century the chronicle is almost certainly English, originated up to a century earlier. However, the sources of this chronicle might have included a very early British set of annals.
The evidence for this is the form of the name of Vortigern. The very early version of Vortigern's name (Uuertigerno) is considered by Kenneth Jackson to be evidence for a possible fifth-century source for the chronicle fragment. Though the spelling of Vortigerns name might have been drawn from another version of De temporum ratione, where the form Vertigerno is used, this certainly need not have been the case. Though it certainly proves that Bede used very early sources, it must be stressed that, apart from Gildas, such sources in fact did exist.
Apart from this valuable information on the earliest versions of Vortigerns name, Bede has little to add. He calls Vortigern a king in all his books, but he sticks mostly to Gildas narrative, adding nothing about Vortigerns character, family or geographical background.
Bede and the adventus Saxonum
Bede was the first to associate the Coming of the Saxons with the brothers Hengist and Horsa, and to date the event to what now is seen as the orthodox dating of the second half of the 5th century. This dating has today become the measure of all things, overruling contemporaries of Bede like the Historia Brittonum. But given that Bede wrote centuries after the events, how sure can we be of the reality of this dating? Bede used Gildas for the framework of his narrative, but elaborated time and again where Gildas gave no details. Thus when Gildas states that the Romans refused to aid the British any longer, Bede provided a reason for that, namely that they were occupied fighting the Huns. Bede is also responsible for the first emendation of Agitus to the known Aetius. Gildas may have written within decades at least, or a century at most, after the events now known as the adventus Saxonum, but we must accept that he did not give sufficient details for us, and therefore Bede as well, to arrive at any secure concept or dating of these events.
Nevertheless, Bede somehow arrived at a narrow time-frame for what he saw as the arrival of the founding fathers of the English kingdoms known to him in the middle of the 8th century. In his Chronica Maiora, which he finished 725, Bede dated the adventus Saxonum to the reign of Marcianus and Valentinianus (449-455). However, Bede names the Angles as the invited group, we should speak an adventus Anglorum! Six years later, in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, Bede changed that period to a number of dates, falling between 446 and 457. There are, in fact, several dates that he mentions for the adventus Saxonum:
It will be obvious that these dates do not represent a single source, but are the result of calculated approximations, and therefore useless as hard facts. Bede seems to have used a period of 40 years, which he added to the end of Roman Britain, which he reasonably calculated at AD 409. or 406, when the first usurped may have attempted to rise against the regular Roman government. Where this vague period of 40 years originated is unknown to us, other than that the Historia Brittonum mentions a similar period, which its author uses for a calculation of a similar period, which he placed between the death of the usurper Magnus Maximus (AD 388) and the adventus (AD 428). I have written more on this, and the supposedly lesser reliability of the dates for the adventus in the Historia Brittonum, in my article Forty Years of Fear. The dating of Bede is all the more curious, since the anonymous Gallic Chroniclers attest a Saxon take-over of Britain dated to AD 441, which pre-dates Bedes calculation at least 5 years.
Bede may have received his information for this calculation from his advisors in Kent, where his prime sources were the ecclesiastics Albinus and Nothhelm. The source they provided may have been a Latin or Anglo-Latin text, as we can hardly imagine these two men writing down the oral tradition of Kent just for Bedes curiosity. Even if these reached Bede in written form, we should realize that the Saxons only became literate as early as 560 (the arrival of the Frankish princess Bertha), or as late as 600-650. This would represent a historical horizon of a century, or even two, for any traditions about the adventus to have been written down. Therefore, I am obliged to conclude that, no matter how trustworthy the main part of Bedes historical achievements may be, his calculation for the date of the adventus Saxonum is as bad or as good as those of the Historia Brittonum. But while the latter may go back on a contemporary source by a hypothetical British literate ecclesiastic, Bede may not.
Full Bibliography of Bede, at: http://www.geocities.com/~jarrow/bib/bib.html
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