The Venerable Bede, Part 2

I have written before about Bede, the 7th century Northumbrian monk who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In that work Bede gives us a rare glimpse of the history and times in which he lived.

Bede is sometimes called the Venerable Bede, which is a title given to those a little lower than full Sainthood in the Catholic Church.* His work on the Ecclesiastical History would alone be enough to ensure his fame, but the wonderful thing about Bede is that he is the author of many, many books and letters on a wide-ranging scope of topics, including biblical commentaries, science, mathematics, geography, hymns, poetry, and school textbooks. In fact, when you add up all that he wrote, the total number is over forty.

You may wonder how we know that all the books purported to be by him are, in fact, actually written by him. This is a good question. But in fact we can state exactly what books he wrote with complete accuracy, as at the end of the Ecclesiastical History, he included a list of the other books he had written. For a handful of these we have no extant copies available, unfortunately. There are also a few manuscripts that are attributed to Bede that are not listed in the Ecclesiastical History, because they were written after that work was completed. Some of these are disputed, but others are confirmed as Bede’s work after careful analysis of the works and comparisons to his other writings.

Besides the Ecclesiastical History, the works of Bede that really fascinate me are his scientific treatises, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things) and De Temporum (On Time). “Scientific” is not exactly the right term for these books, as of course “science” as we understand it was not something that Bede would have been familiar with (ie the scientific method comes much later, in the 19th century). But at any rate these works are attempts to understand and explain the natural world and how to calculate and understand the passage of time, and as such, they are extremely valuable windows into the mind of a 8th century Christian monastic scholar.

De Natura

Part of a 10th century copy of De Natura Rerum. Image from British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog

These books were written in AD 703**, early in Bede’s career as a monk. He would have been around thirty years old, teaching in the monastery of Monkwearmoth-Jarrow, and he had just been ordained as a priest. These books are a distillation of all that he knew about these subjects at the time. In AD 725 he expanded On Time  and wrote another book, named De Temporum Ratione, or On the Reckoning of Time. The best guess is that De Natura Rerum and De Temporum are likely his first literary works.

Bede was not writing about these things in isolation, of course. His books rely heavily on a previous work that was much admired at the time, also called On the Nature of Things, by Isidore of Seville (AD 560-636). He also compiles and draws upon the Classical understandings of these topics from works of Pliny and Augustine, among others.  But there is also original thinking in these books. They are not merely a regurgitation of what had come before.***

The books present a thoroughly Christian view of cosmology, of course. Part of the reason for Isidore’s book was to combat the superstitious practices and beliefs brought about by the solar and lunar eclipses in AD 611 and 612. Isidore, and Bede after him, sought to bring an understanding of the order and rationality of the Creation, and that things such as eclipses or other phenomenon such as volcanoes or earthquakes were part of this natural order, ordained by God, not the works of demons.

The other reason for Bede’s books were to explain how to calculate time, and most importantly, how to calculate the date of  Easter. Easter is a movable date based on the cycles of the moon. It was vitally important in the Christian church to be able to calculate when this most important day would be recognized, and so a complicated method of doing so, named computus, was developed. Bede’s influence, through these books, on the development of these mathematical and scientific calculations cannot be understated.

The first book, On the Nature of Things, includes fifty-one short chapters, starting with the fourfold work of God (Chapter One), the formation of the earth (Chapter Two), what the world is (Chapter Three), and the elements (Chapter Four). He goes on from there to cover a wide range of topics, in which he starts from the heavens and works his way downwards. He has chapters on the stars, the planets, the moon, eclipses, comets, rainbows, lightning,  hail, snow, the sea, the tides, the earth, earthquakes, and many, many more.

I wish I had a copy of these books, but I am forced to rely on a few quotes and snippets here and there that I have found on the web, as well as studying some of the commentaries that explain what is in the books. One of these days I will have to order a translation of my own. But one thing is abundantly clear. The depth of Bede’s intellect and his understanding of the natural world is truly astounding, especially when we consider the times in which he wrote.

I have written before that too often our perception of the so-called “Dark Ages” is skewed. The people then (at least the educated people) understood a lot more than we give them credit for. For example, Chapter 46 of On the Nature of Things is titled, Why the Earth is Like a Globe.” Yup. Even in back-water Northumbria at the beginning of the 8th century, Bede knew the Earth was round. Fascinating, hey? He also discusses the effect of the moon on the tides

I found a quote from Chapter Three, “What the World Is”. Bede states,

The world is the whole of everything, which is constituted by the sky and the land, the four elements in the form of a completely rounded sphere: fire, by which the stars shine; air, which all living things breathe; waters, which surround the land, encircling and penetrating; and the land itself, which is the middle and core of the world, hanging unmoving, with everything turning in equilibrium around it.

Again, note the “rounded sphere”.

On Time/The Reckoning of Time are Bede’s explanation of the calculation of time, and include a fascinating descriptions of the ancient calendars of the Hebrews, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and Anglo-Saxons. They also include detailed overviews of the seven days of Creation, lunar cycles, Paschal calendars (Bede explains the different ways to calculate the date of Easter and presents his reasoning for the method he prefers), and the Six Ages of the World (based on Biblical narrative; the First Age being from Adam to Noah, the Second Age from Noah to Abraham, the Third Age from Abraham to David, etc).

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A beautifully illustrated 13th century copy of De Temporum, showing zodiac symbols. In this book Bede goes into detail about how to calculate the course of the sun and moon through the zodiac. Image from Medieval Manuscripts Blog .

When you consider Bede’s historical treatise and all his other works, including these wonderful books on the natural world and time, it’s no wonder that he became one of the Early Medieval period’s most famed and studied scholars. It is precisely because his books were so popular that we have so many of his works available today. Many copies of the books were made and they circulated widely over not only England, but the Continent as well.  Because so many were made, it increased the opportunity for them to survive.

These books point to a truly remarkable and fascinating man. I’m so glad my research on Wilding, my historical fantasy book, brought me to his doorstep, so to speak, and that I can now share him with you!


*Those given the title “venerable” in the Catholic Church are deemed “heroic in virtue”, but in order to be declared “saints”, they must also either be a martyr, or have been proven to have miracles associated with them.

**We know this because at the end of On Time, Bede included a world chronicle from the beginning of time at Creation to his present, where he states “At this time Tiberius is in the fifth year of his rule…” This refers to Tiberius III Apsimar, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from AD 698-705.

***In fact, Bede is accused of heresy in later years because of some of the content of On the Reckoning of Time. Perhaps the subject of a future blog post…who knows?

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Anglo-Saxon Literature: The Husband’s Message

As I explained in a previous post, The Exeter Book is a manuscript dating from around 1050 AD, and contains many poems and riddles from Anglo-Saxon England. I’ve written about some of the material in the Exeter book before on the blog as part of my series on Anglo-Saxon literature, and I wanted to return to it today to tell you about the fascinating poem called The Husband’s Message.

The Husband’s Message is by an unknown author; just like the rest of the material in the Exeter Book it is anonymous. It has about 53 lines and is the sixtieth entry in the book. It follows immediately after The Wife’s Lament, and some scholars think the two poems might be linked. They speculate that The Husband’s Message could be the male side of the story of The Wife’s Lament.

Unfortunately the poem is near the end of the Exeter Book, which is a portion of the book that has been most damaged by fire, and therefore some of it, especially portions of lines 2-8, have been destroyed.

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Here is the poem, in the Exeter Book. The mark is a repaired burn, caused by someone laying a burning stick on the vellum (oops). Image from Asymptote Journal. If you click on the link to this online journal you will also find another link there where you can hear the poem read out loud, in the original Old English, as it was meant to be heard. Cool!

But even with that, we can still get a pretty good idea of what the poem is about. The “voice” of the poem is a piece of wood, possibly a rune-stave, which is a stick with runes carved on it. It is a message from a lord to his lady, urging her to come across the seas and follow him into exile, as he has been driven away by a nasty feud in which he obviously was the loser.  He urges her to remember the vows they have spoken, and tells her that he has made a nice life for himself over the seas, and wishes to have her at his side again, sharing in his wealth and being his lady, giving  out the gold and other booty to his warriors and loyal companions in his mead-hall.

The first two lines of the poem read:

Now in private, I will reveal

The kind of wood I grew up from as a young offspring

Right away we enter one of the scholarly controversies about this poem. There are different types of poems in the Exeter book, some are elegies, such as The Wife’s Lament, or The Wanderer but others are riddles, in which the poem is spoken from an object’s point of view, and the reader (hearer) is challenged to guess what the object is. In fact, the sixty previous entries in the Exeter Book are all riddles of this type. Because the poem starts this way, some feel that it might be a type of riddle.

The next lines, 2-8, are:

In me men . . . have other land
to establish . . .
salty seas . . .
Very often in a boat I . . . sought
where my lord . . .
over the high seas.

Drat. The ellipses are the places where the words have been destroyed by fire damage. So you can see the difficulty of determining who or what the “speaker” of the poem is, exactly. Obviously he/it has been on a boat, travelling the high seas, seeking his/its lord, or perhaps with him.

Most of the rest of the poem is legible. The next few lines make things much clearer:

Indeed, he who engraved this wood instructed me to ask
that you, adorned with jewels, yourself remember
in your mind the spoken vows
that you two often spoke in former days,
while you were permitted to occupy a home
in the cities where mead was drunk, inhabit the same land,
and show your friendship.

Aha. The speaker seems to shift slightly. Perhaps now the poem is in the voice of the person carrying the rune-stave, or whatever piece of wood that has the message carved on it. Or, it’s possible that this is still the wood itself speaking. Either way, the speaker goes on to remind the lady of the love that the two previously shared, and expresses hope and confidence that she will join him again, where he waits “beyond the ocean-path”.

It is this joyful confidence that sets this poem apart from the more gloomy nature of the elegies. The speaker lays out his case for his wife’s* return, reminding her of their love, and seems confident that she will go to him.

The final stanza of the poem contains one last surprise and mystery. Here is the text:

In accordance with the past vow of the two of you,
I hear
S joined together with R
and EA and W and M to declare an oath
that he would keep the pledge
and the vow of friendship as long as he lives,
that which in former days you two often uttered.

Those letters, S,R,EA, W, and M, are not written in the Old English Latin alphabet, but are indeed Anglo-Saxon runes. We are back in riddle territory again, harking back to other poems such as X which contained runes in the midst of the poem, a puzzle to be solved. In this case, the runes stand for: sigel, rad, ear, wenn, and monn, which mean sun (or sail), road, , sea (also could be ear, or grave), joy and man (could also be the rune for day).

Are these direction for the lady, written in a code only the two of them know? Perhaps. If the husband is indeed in exile, hiding from his enemies, he wouldn’t want them to chance upon his exact location, would he? But let’s keep in mind this is not a literal letter, it’s a poem, or a riddle, and this extra puzzle at the end was part of the experience of the poem for the hearers.

These Anglo-Saxon poems are so wonderful, as they give us a glimpse of so many facets of their culture that we would not know, otherwise. And they give us a glimpse of how they think, too, with their love of puzzles and riddles, and the flair for the dramatic.

This poem is a small treasure in a whole book of treasures. I like to imagine the monk or scribe who wrote these down and preserved them in this book. We owe him (or her, if it was a nun!) a great debt!

*It’s possible the lady is not his wife, but a lover, or someone who has vowed to marry but has not done so. But the most likely description would be wife, especially when we see the picture included of the lady handing out the booty in the mead hall alongside her lord.  That is the job of the wife, the highly valued companion, not a lover or friend.


Note: I got a lot of this information from the website Shmoop, which does a great job of analyzing poems and other works. If you want to dive even further into an analysis of  The Husband’s Message, click on the link! And don’t be scared off by fears of a “scholarly” analysis. Although they do a great job of the analysis, their style is readable and fun, and is aimed at teens. For example, here’s part of the summary of the poem:

Our speaker in “The Husband’s Message” entices his ladylove with the promise of lots of bling and fun parties at which she’ll be the belle of the ball. But his trump card is definitely the fact that he and his lady have a history together. They spoke vows. Were those just empty words? Did they mean nothing to her? Mix this guilt-trip in with a little bit of flattery and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty darn convincing let’s-get-back-together text message.

See what I mean?  🙂

Featured image of the Exeter Book is from exetercatherdral.com


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