Saint Bede


'The Venerable Bede translates John'
J. D. Penrose (ca. 1902)
Doctor of the Church
Born ca. 672in Tyneside, County Durham
Died 26 May 735in Jarrow, County Durham
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church; Anglican Communion
Canonized 1899 recognised as Doctor of the Church, Rome by Pope Leo XIII
Major shrine Durham Cathedral, County Durham.
Feast Generally, 27 May; RC since 1969, 25 May
Attributes monk writing in a book
Patronage English writers and historians; Jarrow
Saints Portal

Bede (IPA: [/biːd/]) (also Saint Bede, the Venerable Bede, or (from Latin) Beda (IPA: [/beda/])), (ca. 672 or 673 – May 27, 735), was a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Wearmouth, today part of Sunderland, and of its companion monastery, Saint Paul's, in modern Jarrow (see Wearmouth-Jarrow), both in the English county of Durham (now Tyne and Wear). He is well known as an author and scholar, whose best-known work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) gained him the title "The father of English history".



Bede became known as Venerable Bede (Lat.: Beda Venerabilis) soon after his death, but this was not linked to consideration for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, his title is believed to come from a mistranslation of the Latin inscription on his tomb in Durham Cathedral, intended to be Here lie the venerable bones of Bede, but wrongly interpreted as here lie the bones of the Venerable Bede.


Almost all that is known of Bede's life is contained in a notice added by himself when he was 59 to his Historia (v.24), which states that he was placed in the monastery at Wearmouth at the age of seven, that he became deacon in his nineteenth year, and priest in his thirtieth, remaining a priest for the rest of his life. He implies that he finished the Historia at the age of 59, and since the work was finished around 731, he must have been born in 672/3. It is not clear whether he was of noble birth. He was trained by the abbots Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrid, and probably accompanied the latter to Wearmouth's sister monastery of Jarrow in 682. There he spent his life, prominent activities evidently being teaching and writing. There he also died, on 26 May 735, and was buried, although his body was later translated to Durham Cathedral.


His works show that he had at his command all the learning of his time. It was thought that the library at Wearmouth-Jarrow was between 300-500 books, making it one of the largest and most extensive in England. It is clear that Biscop made strenuous efforts to collect books during his extensive travels.

Bede's writings are classed as scientific, historical and theological, reflecting the range of his writings from music and metrics to Scripture commentaries. He was proficient in patristic literature, and quotes Pliny the Elder, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace and other classical writers, but with some disapproval. He knew some Greek, but no Hebrew. His Latin is generally clear and without affectation, and he was a skillful story-teller. However, his style can be considerably more obscure in his Biblical commentaries.

Bede practised the allegorical method of interpretation, and was by modern standards credulous concerning the miraculous; but in most things his good sense is conspicuous and his kindly and broad sympathies, his love of truth and fairness, his unfeigned piety and his devotion to the service of others combine to make him an exceedingly attractive character.

Saxon chancel of the monastic church of St. Paul, Jarrow, with (right) a modern statue of Bede
Saxon chancel of the monastic church of St. Paul, Jarrow, with (right) a modern statue of Bede

Historia Ecclesiastica

The most important and best known of his works is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, giving in five books and 400 pages the history of England, ecclesiastical and political, from the time of Caesar to the date of its completion (731). The first twenty-one chapters, treating of the period before the mission of Augustine of Canterbury, are compiled from earlier writers such as Orosius, Gildas, Prosper of Aquitaine, the letters of Pope Gregory I and others, with the insertion of legends and traditions.

After 596, documentary sources, which Bede took pains to obtain throughout England and from Rome, are used, as well as oral testimony, which he employed with critical consideration of its value. He cited his references and was very concerned about the sources of all of his sources, which created an important historical chain.

Bede's use of something similar to the anno Domini era, created by the monk Dionysius Exiguus in 525, throughout Historia Ecclesiastica was very influential in causing that era to be adopted thereafter in Western Europe. Specifically, he used anno ab incarnatione Domini (in the year from the incarnation of the Lord) or anno incarnationis dominicae (in the year of the incarnation of the lord). He never abbreviated the term like the modern AD. Unlike the modern assumption that anno Domini was from the birth of Christ, Bede explicitly refers to his incarnation or conception, traditionally on March 25. Within this work, he was also the first writer to use a term similar to the English before Christ. In book I chapter 2 he used ante incarnationis dominicae tempus (before the time of the incarnation of the lord). However, the latter was not very influential—only this isolated use was repeated by other writers during the rest of the Middle Ages. The first extensive use of 'BC' (hundreds of times) occurred in Fasciculus Temporum by Werner Rolevinck in 1474, alongside years of the world (anno mundi).

Other historical and theological works

Bede lists his works in an autobiographical note at the end of his Ecclesiastical History. He clearly considered his commentaries on many books of the Old and New Testaments as important; they come first on this list and dominate it in sheer number. These commentaries reflect the biblical focus of monastic life. "I spent all my life," he wrote, "in this monastery, applying myself entirely to the study of Scriptures." (Bede, Hist. eccl., 5. 24).

His other historical works included lives of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, as well as lives in verse and prose of Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. In his Letter on the Death of Bede, Cuthbert of Jarrow describes Bede as still writing on his deathbed, working on a translation into Old English of the Gospel of John and on Isidore of Seville's On the Nature of Things. (McClure and Collins, p. 301).

Depiction of Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.
Depiction of Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493.

Scientific writings

The noted historian of science, George Sarton, called the eighth century "The Age of Bede"; clearly Bede must be considered as an important scientific figure. He wrote several major works: a work On the Nature of Things, modeled in part after the work of the same title by Isidore of Seville; a work On Time, providing an introduction to the principles of Easter Wallis 2004, pp. 82-85, 307-312). Since the focus of his book was calculation, Bede gave instructions for age of the world since the Creation. Due to his innovations in computing the age of the world, he was accused of heresy at the table of Bishop Wilfred, his chronology being contrary to accepted calculations. Once informed of the accusations of these "lewd rustics," Bede refuted them in his Letter to Plegwin (Wallis 2004, pp. xxx, 405-415).

His works were so influential that late in the ninth century Notker the Stammerer, a monk of the Monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, wrote that "God, the orderer of natures, who raised the Sun from the East on the fourth day of Creation, in the sixth day of the world has made Bede rise from the West as a new Sun to illuminate the whole Earth" (Wallis 2004, p. lxxxv).

The Death of St. Bede
The Death of St. Bede

Vernacular poetry

According to his disciple Cuthbert, Bede was also doctus in nostris carminibus ("learned in our song"). Cuthbert's letter on Bede's death, the Epistola Cuthberti de obitu Bedae, moreover, commonly is understood to indicate that Bede also composed a five line vernacular poem known to modern scholars as Bede’s Death Song (text and translation Colgrave and Mynors 1969):

And he used to repeat that sentence from St. Paul “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” and many other verses of Scripture, urging us thereby to awake from the slumber of the soul by thinking in good time of our last hour. And in our own language,—for he was familiar with English poetry,—speaking of the soul’s dread departure from the body:
Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

More prudent than he has good call to be,
If he consider, before his going hence,
What for his spirit of good hap or of evil
After his day of death shall be determined.

Fore m nedfere nnig wiore

onc snottora on him earf si
to ymbhycgenne r his hinionge
hwt his gast godes oe yfles
fter dea dge doemed wiore.

As Opland notes, however, it is not entirely clear that Cuthbert is attributing this text to Bede: most manuscripts of the letter do not use a finite verb to describe Bede's presentation of the song, and the theme was relatively common in Old English and Anglo-Latin literature. The fact that Cuthbert's description places the performance of the Old English poem in the context of a series of quoted passages from Sacred Scripture, indeed, might be taken as evidence simply that Bede also cited analogous vernacular texts (Opland 1980, 140-141). On the other hand, the inclusion of the Old English text of the poem in Cuthbert’s Latin letter, the observation that Bede "was learned in our song," and the fact that Bede composed a Latin poem on the same subject all seem to suggest that his connection to the vernacular poem was stronger than mere quotation. By citing the poem directly, Cuthbert seems to be implying that its specific wording was in some way important, either as a vernacular poem endorsed by a scholar who generally appears to have frowned upon secular entertainment (McCready 1994, esp. 14-19) or as a direct quotation of Bede’s final original composition (Opland 1980, 140-141, for a discussion of some of the implications of this passage).

Bede's tomb in Durham Cathedral.
Bede's tomb in Durham Cathedral.


Pilgrims were claiming miracles at Bede's grave, only fifty years after his death. His body was translated to Durham Cathedral in the mid-11th century and to its present location in the Galilee Chapel there in 1370. It is likely that his remains are authentic. Others relics were claimed by York, Glastonbury and Fulda.

His scholarship and importance to Catholicism were recognised in 1899 when he was declared the only English Doctor of the Church as St Bede The Venerable. He is also the only Englishman in Dante's

See also

Wikisource has original works written by or about:
  • English historians in the Middle Ages
  • College of St Hild and St Bede
  • San Beda College
  • Adtwifyrdi - term coined by subject


  • Colgrave, Bertram and R.A.B. Mynors, eds. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford, 1969.
  • Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978. ISBN 0-19282-038-9.
  • McCready, William D. Miracles and the Venerable Bede: Studies and Texts (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies), 118. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1994. ISBN 0-88844-118-5.
  • McClure, Janet and Roger Collins, eds. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Pr., 1994 ISBN 0-19-283866-0.
  • Mayr-Harting, Henry. The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. 3rd Ed. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-271-00769-9.
  • Opland, Jeff. Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: A Study of the Traditions. New Haven and London, 1980. ISBN 0-300-02426-6.
  • Wallis, Faith, trans. Bede: The Reckoning of Time Liverpool: Liverpool Univ. Pr., 2004. ISBN 0-85323-693-3.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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