Some thoughts on Bede’s Ecclesiatical History

The three centuries after the fifth-century CE fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe have often been bleakly described as the “Dark Ages.” In accordance to this historiographical tradition, it has been argued that the collapse of Roman power in Western Europe, and the subsequent rise of successor “barbarian” kingdoms, brought about both the decline of civilization and the triumph of superstition over rationality.[1] In the past forty years, however, historians have begun to question this paradigm. Today’s blog explores some of the current historiographical debate surrounding the Early Middle Ages. It examines  Bede’s eighth-century CE Ecclesiastical History of the English People.By understanding, how these Early Medieval historians depicted this era, a greater understanding and appreciation of this important period may be achieved.

Despite many historians’ attempts to represent Bede as the first “English” historian, Dominic Janes argues that Bede’s Ecclesiastical History must be seen primarily as a tool for “spiritual instruction.” Janes’ emphasizes that, at the end of the Ecclesiastical History, Bede indicated that he had “given his life to the study of Scripture.”[1] This Biblical vision of history is apparent throughout Bede’s writings.

Bede believed that the spiritual and the physical weakness of the Britons had caused the fall of Roman Britain. He claimed that the Britons “were untrained in the science of war,” and, as a result, had to rely on the Angles and the Saxons to protect them from marauding Picts and Scots. Bede blamed the Britons’ defeat on their lack of faith, claiming: “Many were compelled to surrender to the invaders; others, trusting in God’s help where no human hand could save them, continued their resistance.” Bede lamented, however, that these stouthearted Christians were the exception, and he asserted that the, “Lord’s flock and Pastors” had abandoned Christ, and, like the pagans, given “themselves up to drunkenness, hatred, quarrels, and violence.” Bede concluded that the Britons’ sinfulness had evoked God’s wrath, and he proclaimed that the treachery of the Anglo-Saxons had “been ordained by God as a punishment for their [Britons] wickedness.”[2]

 Bede venerated the Anglo-Saxons. Mary Garrison claims that this adulation followed examples found in the Old Testament. She declares that Bede depicted the Anglo-Saxons as “God’s chosen people, even when, as pagans, they attacked Christian Britons.” Bede’s vision of history “allowed no room for the British as the elect, despite his admiration for some British saints.”[3]

According to Bede, Britain’s isolation from the “true” Roman Church had long hindered the island’s spiritual development. Bede illustrated how this separation from the center of Christianity had allowed the Britons to fall into heresy. An example of this tendency towards sin may be seen in Bede’s description of the rise of the Briton Pelagius at the end of the fourth century CE. Bede remained aghast that the Britons had supported Pelagius, permitting him to spread the “heretical” notion “that man had no need of God’s grace.”[4]

Bede’s distaste with the Celtic Church is apparent in his writings.

Bede described how the Celtic system of Christianity, based on monasticism, had gradually declined, and was replaced by the highly centralized Roman Church in Britain.[5] Bede condemned the Britons for their failure to convert the Saxons, yet, he argued that this oversight was all part of God’s larger plan: “But God in his goodness did not completely abandon the people [the Saxons] whom he had chosen, for he remembered them, and sent this nation more worthy preachers of truth to bring them the faith.”[6] Therefore, Bede’s image of the Anglo-Saxons might have less to do with his need to create a “national” history, and more to do with his desire to show the battle for supremacy between the Celtic Church and the Roman Church.

 

 

A close examination of the Early Medieval sources reveals that modern historians must reevaluate their description of these centuries as years of decline. All of the writers examined in this essay shared a Christian vision of history. Gregory, Fredegar, and Bede attempted to describe their worlds in Christian terms. Each followed examples found in the Old Testament, and envisioned an ideal Christian state guided by virtuous Christian kings and pious martyrs. This model had a lasting impact on European history. In the Early Medieval world the existence of martyrs, saints, and miracles served as proof of God’s hand in contemporary events. Like the virtuous men and women of Classical literature, the martyrs and saints served as heroic examples for all Christians to emulate. By placing their worlds in a Biblical context, these writers sought to reassure their readers that God remained interested in their world. These works, however, must not be seen as early attempts of nationalistic history. These writers lived in a Christian world and followed Biblical models of history. While the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons could be described as God’s chosen people, the notion of a France or an England was still a long way off. 

 

[1] Dominic Janes, “The World and its Past as Christian Allegory,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 112-13.

 

[2] Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo-Sherley-Price (London: Penguin Books, 1955), 54-5.

 

[3]Mary Garrison, “The Franks as the New Israel? Education for identity from Pippin to Charlemagne,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Yitzhak Hen and Mathew Innes  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000),  157.

 

[4] Bede, 49.

 

[5] Leo Sherley-Price introduction to, A History of the English Church and People, by Bede, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (London: Penguin Books, 1955), 22.

 

[6] Bede, 66.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s