Bede was born on the estate given by Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria, to Benedict Biscop for the foundation of his sister monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, probably, however, before the lands were so bestowed; for the Wearmouth estate was given in 674, and the Jarrow one in 682, whilst the birth of Bede seems satisfactorily fixed to 673.
The place of his birth is uncertain, for whilst tradition and local history fix it at Jarrow, there is no positive evidence. Nor are the names of his parents preserved. He himself, writing, as may be reasonably concluded, immediately on the completion of his History in 731, describes himself then as in his 59th year; this would fix his birth in 673; but as he lived until 735, and the passage may have been added at any time between 731 and 735, his birth has been sometimes put as late as 677. Mabillon, however, whose arguments are sound and whose conclusion has been generally received, accepts 673.
At the age of 7 Bede was handed over by his relations to the care of Benedict Biscop, who had not, in 680, begun the buildings at Jarrow, but had just returned from Rome bringing the arch-chanter John. Bede was educated in one or both of the sister monasteries, and after Benedict's death he passed under the rule of Ceolfrith. At the age of 19 he was ordained deacon by John of Beverley, then bp. of Hexham, and in his 30th year received the priesthood from the same prelate; as John ceased to be bp. of Hexham in 705, and the later date for Bede's birth would place his ordination as priest in 706 at the earliest, this conclusively favours the earlier date; in which case he was ordained deacon in 691 and priest in 702.
From his admission to the joint monastery to his death he remained there employed in study and devotional exercises, and there is no evidence that he ever wandered further than to York, which he visited shortly before his death. In the valuable MS. Cotton, Tiberius A. xv. fo. 50, which is not later than the 10th cent., is preserved a letter of pope Sergius to Ceolfrith, desiring him to send to Rome "religiosum famulum Dei N. venerabilis monasterii tui," to assist in the examination of some points of ecclesiastical discipline. This letter was very early believed to refer to Bede; and by the time of William of Malmesbury had begun to be read, "religiosum Dei famulum Bedam, venerabilis monasterii tui presbyterum"; the name of Bede resting on the authority of William of Malmesbury only, and the word presbyterum on an interlineation in the Cotton MS. as well. If presbyterum be authentic, it is a strong argument against the identification of Bede, for he was not ordained priest until 702, and Sergius died in 701; but it is not essential to the sense, rests apparently on an interpolation, and if genuine may be a mistake of the pope. Intercourse between Wearmouth and Rome was nearly continuous at this time, and there is no more likely monk under Ceolfrith's rule than Bede. Some monks of the monastery went to Rome in 701 (Bede, de Temporum Ratione, c. 47), and brought a privilege from Sergius on their return (Hist. Abbat. c. 12), but Bede was not among them. The invitation was probably meant for Bede, and perhaps the acceptance of it was prevented by the death of Sergius.
Whether Bede's studies were mainly at Wearmouth or at Jarrow is not important; as he died and was buried at Jarrow, he probably lived there chiefly, but the two houses were in strict union, and he was equally at home in both. Under the liberal and enlightened ministration of Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith, he enjoyed advantages perhaps not elsewhere available in Europe, and perfect access to all existing sources of learning in the West. Nowhere else could he acquire at once the Irish, Roman, Gallican, and Canterbury learning; that of the accumulated stores of books which Benedict had bought at Rome and at Vienna; or the disciplinary instruction drawn from the monasteries of the continent as well as from the Irish missionaries.
Amongst his friends and instructors were Trumbert, the disciple of St. Chad, and Sidfrid, the fellow-pupil of St. Cuthbert under Boisil and Eata; from these he drew the Irish knowledge of Scripture and discipline. Acca, bp. of Hexham and pupil of St. Wilfrid, furnished him with the special lore of the Roman school, martyrological and other; his monastic learning, strictly Benedictine, came through Benedict Biscop from Lerins and many other continental monasteries; and from Canterbury, with which he was in friendly correspondence, he probably obtained instruction in Greek, in the study of the Scriptures, and other refined learning. His own monastery offered rest and welcome to learned strangers like abbot Adamnan (Bede, H. E. v. 21), and Bede lost no opportunity of increasing his stores.
He describes the nature of his studies, the meditation on Scripture, the observance of regular discipline, the care of the daily singing in church, "semper aut discere, aut docere, aut scribere dulce habui." These were the occupations of his youth. After his ordination he devoted himself to selecting from the Fathers passages suitable for illustration and edification, and, as he says modestly, added contributions of his own after the pattern of their comments.
The list of his works given at the conclusion of his History, Bede seems to have arranged in order of relative importance, not of their composition; and most of them afford only very slight indications of the dates of writing. Probably the earliest of his writings are the more elementary ones, on Orthography, the Ars Metrica and the de Natura Rerum. The Ars Metrica is dedicated to Cuthbert, a "conlevita," which seems to fix the date of writing before 700 (Opp. ed. Giles, vi. 78). The de Temporibus, the latest date of which is 702, may have followed almost immediately, and the de Natura Rerum has been referred to the same date. The de Sex aetatibus Saeculi was written 5 years later to be read to Wilfrid. The whole of the commentaries are later; they are all dedicated to bp. Acca, who succeeded his master Wilfrid in 709. The Commentaries on the Apocalypse, the Catholic Epp., and Acts, came first. Then that on St. Luke; that on Samuel followed, 3 books of it being written before the death of Ceolfrith in 716; that on St. Mark many years after. De Temporum Ratione is assignable on internal evidence to 726. Before the History come the Life of Cuthbert and of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow which are referred to in the greater work. The History was completed in 731, after which only the Ep. ad Egbertum seems to have been written. The work on which he was employed at the time of his death was the translation of St. John's Gospel.
Bede's attainments were very great. He certainly knew Greek (H. E. v. 24) and some Hebrew. He knew Vergil, Ovid, Lucan, Lucretius, Terence, and a host of smaller poets. Homer he quotes once, perhaps at second-hand. He knew nearly all the second-rate poets, using them to illustrate the Ars Metrica. The earlier Fathers were, of course, in familiar use. The diversity and extent of his reading is remarkable: grammar, rhetoric, poetry, hagiography, arithmetic, chronology, the holy places, the Paschal controversy, epigrams, hymns, sermons, pastoral admonition and the conduct of penitents; even speculations on natural science, on which he specially quotes Pliny, employed his pen, besides his great works on history and the interpretation of Scripture. On all these points his knowledge was thoroughly up to the learning of the day; his judgment independent and his conclusions sound. He must have had good teachers, a good library, and an insatiable desire for learning. These qualifications fitted him for the remarkable place he holds in literature.
By promoting the foundation of the school of York, he kindled the flame of learning in the West at the moment that it seemed to be expiring both in Ireland and in France. This school transmitted to Alcuin the learning of Bede, and opened the way for culture on the continent, when England was relapsing into barbarism under the terror of the Danes. It is impossible to read the more popular writings of Bede, especially the Ecclesiastical History, without seeing that his great knowledge was coupled with the humility and simplicity of the purest type of monasticism. Employed on a theme which, in the prevailing belief of miraculous stories, could scarcely be treated of without incurring the charge of superstition, he is eminently truthful. The wonders he relates on his own account are easily referred to natural causes; and scarcely ever is a reputed miracle recounted without an authority. His gentleness is hardly less marked. He is a monk and politician of the school of Benedict Biscop, not of that of Wilfrid. The soundness and farsightedness of his ecclesiastical views would be remarkable in any age, and especially in a monk. His letter to Egbert contains lessons of wisdom, clear perception of abuses, and distinct recommendation of remedies, which in the neglect of observance of them might serve as a key for the whole later history of the Anglo-Saxon church. It breathes also the purest patriotism and most sincere love of souls. There is scarcely any father whose personal history is so little known, and whose personal character comes out in his writings so clearly as does that of Bede in this letter, and in his wonderful History.
Loved and honoured by all alike, he lived in a period which, at least for Northumbria, was of very varied character. The wise Aldfrid reigned during his youth and early manhood, but many years of disquiet followed his death, and even the accession of his friend Ceolwulf in 731 did not assure him of the end of the evils, the growth of which, since king Aldfrid's death, he had watched with misgivings. His bishops, first John of Beverley, and after the few years of Wilfrid's final restoration, Acca his friend and correspondent, and his abbots, first Ceolfrith and then Huaetbert, were men to whom he could look up and who valued him. His fame, if we may judge from the demand for his works immediately after his death, extended wherever English missionaries or negotiators found their way, and must have been widespread during his life. Nearly every kingdom of England furnished him with materials for his history: a London priest searched the records at Rome for him; abbot Albanus transmitted him details of the history of the Kentish church; bp. Daniel, the patron of Boniface, supplied the West Saxon; the monks of Lastingham, the depositories of the traditions of Cedd and Chad, reported how Mercia was converted; Esi wrote from East Anglia, and Cynibert from Lindsey.
Soon after visiting Egbert at York in 734 his health began to fail; and by Easter, 735, he had become asthmatic. But he laboured to the last, and, like Benedict Biscop, spent the time of unavoidable prostration in listening to the reading and singing of his companions. When he could, he continued the work of translation, and had reached the 9th verse of John vi. on the day he died. As the end approached, he distributed the few little treasures he had been allowed to keep in his chest, a little pepper, incense, and a few articles of linen; then, having completed the sentence he was dictating, he desired to be propped up with his face towards his church. He died repeating the Gloria Patri. The day is fixed by the letter of Cuthbert, who details the events of his deathbed to his friend Cuthwin, May 26, 735. He was buried at Jarrow where he died; his relics were in the 11th cent. removed to Durham, and in 1104 were found in the same coffin with those of St. Cuthbert. The story of his epitaph and the tradition of the bestowal of the title of Venerable is too well known and too apocryphal to be repeated here. For the subsequent fate of his remains see CUTHBERT. Alcuin has preserved one of his sayings: "I know that the angels visit the canonical hours and gatherings of the brethren; what if they find not me there among the brethren? Will they not say, Where is Bede: why does he not come with the brethren to the prescribed prayers?" (Alc. Ep. 16, ed. Migne).
Of the legendary or fictitious statements about Bede, the following are the most important: his personal acquaintance with Alcuin which is impossible; his education and sojourn at Cambridge, on which see Giles, PP. Eccl. Angl. i. lxx. seq.; his visits to Italy and burial at Genoa or at Rome, which seem to belong to another person of the same name, (ib. i. cvi.), and the legendary statements about his title of Venerable (ib. i. ci.). For a detailed investigation of these, and the alleged authorities for them, see Gehle's learned monograph, Disp. Hist. Theol. de Bed. Ven. (Leyden, 1838), pp. 2-4, 17-21, and for the fallacies as to the date of Bede's death, ib. pp. 31 seq.
Bede's own list of his works may be rearranged as follows:
(1) Commentaries on O.T.--viz. Gen. 4 books, derived chiefly from Basil, Ambrose, and Augustine; the Tabernacle, 3 books; Sam. 3 books; the Building of the Temple, 2 books; on Kings, 30 questions dedicated to Nothelm; Prov. 3 books; Canticles, 7 books; on Isa., Dan., the 12 minor prophets, and part of Jer., extracts from Jerome; on Ezra and Neh. 3 books; on the Song of Habakkuk, 1 book; on Tobit, 1; chapters of lessons on the Pentateuch, Josh., and Judges; Kings, Job, Prov. Eccles. Canicles, Isa., Ezra, and Neh.
(2) Commentaries on N.T.: St. Mark, 4 books; St. Luke, 6 books; 2 books of homilies on the Gospels; Acts, 2 books; a book on each Catholic Ep.; 3 books on the Apocalypse, Lessons on the whole N.T. except the Gospels.
(3) Letters: de Sex Aetatibus; de Mansionibus filiorum Israel; de eo quod ait Esaias "et claudentur, etc."; de Ratione Bissexti; de Aequinoctio.
(4) Hagiographies: on St. Felix, rendered from the poem of Paulinus; on Anastasius, a revised trans. from the Greek; on St. Cuthbert, in verse and prose; the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow; the History of the English Church; the Martyrology.
(5) Hymns and epigrams.
(6) Scientific books: de Natura Rerum, de Temporibus, de Temporum Ratione.
(7) Elementary books: on Orthography, Ars Metrica, Schemato, and Trope.
Besides these he wrote translations into English, none of which are extant, from the Scriptures; Retractationes on the Acts; the Letter to Egbert; and a book on penance is ascribed to him.
Bede's collected works, including many not his, were pub. at Paris, 1544; Basle, 1563; Cologne, 1612, 1688; and by Dr. Giles (Lond. and Oxf.) in 1843; and in Migne's Patr. xc.-xcv.
All study of Bede must henceforth begin with Mr. C. Plummer's monumental edition of the historical writings Baedae Opera Historica (Clarendon Press, 1896). It contains the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, the Historia Abbatum, the Ep. ad Egbertum, and the anonymous Historia Abbatum. An excellent introduction presents a critical survey of Bede's works with large references in footnotes to modern authorities. The student should consult the index in vol. ii. 418 for the frequent allusions scattered throughout the two vols. to the various writings of Bede. For the text of works other than historical reference must still be made to Migne's Patr. Lat. (vols. 94-95), or to Dr. J. A. Giles's Patres Ecclesiae Anglicanae (vols. 1-12). A critical edition of, at all events, the Biblical words of Bede is still a desideratum. Dr. Giles edited some of the smaller treatises 50 years ago, and Mr. Edward Marshall published Bede's Explanation of the Apocalypse in 1878; but with these exceptions few, if any, of his writings have in recent years appeared separately. In the 16th and 17th cents. homilies and other works were frequently printed. Reference may be made on this point to the art. BEDE in the 4-vol. ed. of this DICT. Translations of the historical books were made by Dr. Giles in 1840, Mr. Gidley in 1870, and by Miss A. M. Sellar in 1907. The last named is the most useful for the student. It is a revision of Dr. Giles, and his work is in turn based upon Mr. Stevens (1723). The notes in Mayor and Lumby's ed. of H. E. iii. and iv. (Camb. Univ. Press) are learned and important. Reference should also be made to Lives of Bede by Bp. Browne (1879) and Canon H. D. Rawnsley (1904),and to the general treatment of Bede and his times in Dr. Bright's Chapters from Early English Church Hist. (pp. 335-338), and Dr. W. Hunt's History of the English Church (vol. i. pp. 205-208). A monograph on "Place Names in the English Bede and the Localization of the MSS.," by Thomas Miller, was contributed to Quellen und Forschungen zur Sprachund Culturgeschichte der germanischen Völker (Strassburg, 1896). The important question of the chronological order of Bede's works is discussed by Mr. Plummer, op. cit. (i. cxlv.-clix.).
A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies
by Henry Wace