Ecclesiastical History of the English People


Ecclesiastical History of the English People
   by The Venerable Bede
(731)
   The Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) is the most important work by the Anglo-Saxon scholar, the Venerable BEDE, a learned eighth-century Northumbrian monk.Writing the five books of his history in Latin, the universal language of Europe at the time for scholarly texts, Bede traces the history of Britain from the time of the Roman invasion through the invasion of the tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, which Bede dates to 449 C.E., up until Bede’s own time.
   Bede is most interested in the fortunes of Christianity in Britain, and therefore focuses the early part of his text on the conversion of the Britons, dealing at some length with the Pelagian heresy that was the focus of much of St. AUGUSTINE’s polemical writing, and whose founder, Pelagius, was a Briton. Bede then describes the invasion of the pagan Anglo-Saxons (basing this section largely on the work of the sixth-century monk GILDAS), and then begins to relate the fortunes of the seven petty kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England (Wessex, Sussex, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia, Kent, and Northumbria). This is the low point of the history of the church on the island, until the arrival of a later Saint Augustine, an emissary of Pope GREGORY THE GREAT, who is charged with establishing a church in England.Augustine succeeds in converting King Ethelbert of Kent, and the success of the English church grows steadily from that point. Perhaps the best-known section of Bede’s history is his description of the cowherd CAEDMON, who,divinely inspired to compose a hymn of praise for God’s Creation, is the first recorded poet in the English language. A number of manuscripts of Bede’s history include the Old English text of Caedmon’s hymn alongside Bede’s Latin rendition of it. While Bede was in many ways the first “modern” historian—he questioned the authenticity of his sources and strove to use eyewitness accounts when possible—he also had a clearly didactic purpose, focusing on morality and including a number of SAINTS’ LIVES as a part of his text, whose miracles served as evidence of the divinely ordained mission of the English church. Bede is the first historian to date events from the birth of Christ, thereby creating the “B.C.” and “A.D.” dating system.
   In all, more than 150 manuscripts of Bede’s history survive, a testament to its widespread popularity and early recognition as a masterpiece. It was translated into OLD ENGLISH at the behest of King ALFRED THE GREAT in the ninth century, and it continues to be the most important historical source for the early Anglo-Saxon period in England.
   Bibliography
   ■ Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
   ■ Colgrave, Beretram, and R. A. B. Mynors, eds. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.
   ■ McClure, Judith, and Roger Collins, ed. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; The Greater Chronicle; Bede’s Letter to Egbert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
   ■ Ward, Benedicta. The Venerable Bede. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1998.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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