218. History of the English Church and People, by the Venerable Bede (c.731 AD)

“Heathen nations who never trembled before armed hosts now accept and obey the teachings of the humble”     Book II, ch.1

The history of Britain, between the arrival of Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory I to convert the heathen English and Britons in 596 AD, to the final adoption of a Christian wide method of calculating the date of Easter with the capitulation of the Iona monasteries in 716 AD. Bede lists all the comings, goings, power struggles and conversions of the English Kings of Northumbria, Mercia, Kent and Sussex, and just as importantly from his viewpoint, the Archbishops and Bishops of these years.

My version was a very attractive Folio Society hardback edition with colour plates, thick paper and headings in Celtic style font, with the text first published by Penguin Classics, translated by Leo Sherley-Price.

Thoughts: There is something very calming about reading of devout men living peacefully and religiously, and the miracles attributed to them. Less fascinating was the obsession and wrangling between the English and Irish churches over the calculation of the date of Easter, partially resolved after the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD. Depending on the background and beliefs of the person who first brought Christian teachings to an individual, this could split families, husband and wife, even King and Queen, and accordingly their subjects.

But as Whitby is one of my favourite English towns, I am resolved to let them bask in another highlight to their already rich history.

Having just finished reading the Life of St. Columba and his monasteries at Iona and surrounds, it is ironic that Iona was the last hold out to adopting the Catholic/English method of calculating Easter – moving from leaders in Christian conversion to ignorant but well meaning monks on the edge of the known world in the very next book I read.

Also included in Bede’s work, amongst letters between Pope and Archbishops copied out often in entirety, there is a short hymn attributed to Caedmon, believed to be the earliest surviving English poem. It is not particularly wonderful otherwise and could easily be overlooked otherwise.

Bede’s history ends with the remark that the land was now at peace and prosperous, with more men laying aside weapons for the monastic life. He could not have foreseen the Scandinavian raiders about to figure largely in English history very soon.

Favourite lines/passages:

Notable was the report from a man who died but was brought back to life specifically to warn everyone with a first hand account of Heaven and Hell.

“The side to our left was dreadful with burning flames, while the opposite side was equally horrible with raging hail and bitter snow blowing and driving in all directions. Both sides were filled with men’s souls … when the wretches could no longer endure the blast of the terrible heat, they leaped into the heart of the terrible cold; and finding no refuge there, they leaped back again to be burned in the middle of the unquenchable flames”

And this was merely the waiting room before reaching the mouth of Hell !!

Once returned to life, the man gave away all his belongings and became a hermit and lived many years. His daily routine included plunging repeatedly into a nearby river, sometimes up to his neck, reciting psalms and prayers for as long as he could endure. In winter, with broken cakes of ice floating around him, those who saw him used to say

“Brother Drythelm (for that was his name), it is wonderful how you can manage to bear such bitter cold.” To which he … would simply reply “I have known it colder”   Book V, ch. 12

Digressions/diversions:   

Historiated initials: Illuminated manuscripts often have the first letter of a chapter much larger than the following text, with pictures inside the loops. If the letter depicts a recognisable person or event, it is called a historiated letter, while an anonymous figure or animal not specific is an inhabited letter.

Personal rating: 7/10. Even more valuable to scholars of Anglo-Saxon England with its listings of dates and Kings.

Also in the years from 700 to 760 AD:

  • Arabs invade the Punjab area of India 708-715, Spain 711-715; besiege Constantinople 717-718, and invade France 720
  • Start of the Nara period in Japan 710-784
  • Pepin III founds the Carolingian Dynasty and donates former Byzantine-held land in Italy to the Pope, which will become the Papal States 756 AD

 

 

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