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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).


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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