Bede's Life and Work

Bede was born in 672 CE in the vicinity of Jarrow, in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. Jarrow lies on the south bank of the River Tyne, in what is now an industrial landscape between the mouth of the river and modern Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  The site may have been occupied in Roman times: it lies about two miles southeast from the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, and less than three miles from the Roman fort (Arbeia) at the mouth of the River Tyne. After the withdrawal of the Romans in the fifth century CE, the area was settled by migrants from northern Germany, the Angles, first as part of the Kingdom of Bernicia, and then as part of the unified Kingdom of Northumbria. The Anglo-Saxon name of Jarrow was Gyrvum, meaning “marsh.”

In 674, the abbot Benedict Biscop received land from King Ecgfrith for a monastery at Wearmouth, on the north bank of the River Wear. Seven years later, Biscop founded another monastery at Jarrow, on the River Tyne. Wearmouth-Jarrow, operating as a single monastery, controlled much of the land between the Tyne in the north and Wear in the south. In both locations, Biscop had the monastic buildings constructed of stone, and filled them with religious art and books gathered on numerous trips to Rome. By the time eight-year-old Bede entered Wearmouth in 680, this monastery more than a thousand miles from Rome was on its way to becoming an important center of monastic culture.

Under the tutelage of Abbot Ceolfrith at Jarrow, Bede was trained in Latin and Greek, theology, poetry, Church history, Gregorian chant, and other disciplines important to a monk’s education. One discipline that particularly fascinated him was computistics, the complicated science of computing the date of Easter based on the calendar date of the vernal equinox. Among the forty-eight works Bede produced during his more than fifty years as a monk at Wearmouth-Jarrow are works on computistics, Biblical exegesis, poetry, and history. The best known of these works is the Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (HE).

In 679, Ceolfrith accompanied Benedict Biscop to Rome, where he acquired a complete manuscript (called a pandect) of the Bible. The manuscript was the Codex Grandior, a Latin edition of the Bible produced in sixth century Italy under the direction of the scholar Cassiodorus (ca. 485–ca. 585).

In 692 Wearmouth-Jarrow was granted additional land to raise 200 head of cattle to provide vellum for the ambitious project of producing three complete illustrated Bibles, with the Codex Grandior as a model. Bede was undoubtedly involved in this project, which took more than two decades to complete. In 716, Abbot Ceolfrith carried one of the completed Bibles to Rome as a gift for Pope Gregory II. Ceolfrith died before he reached Rome, but the Bible—known as the Codex Amiatinus—survives as the oldest complete copy of the Vulgate Bible. The Codex Amiatinus is a remarkable monument to the monastic culture of late seventh- and early eighth-century Northumbria.

One of the most famous features of the Codex Amiatinus is a portrait of the Old Testament figure Ezra, who was sent to Jerusalem to reintroduce the Torah after the Babylonian exile. The illustration shows Ezra seated in a scriptorium beside an open armarium (book cupboard) in which are shelved nine books. It is believed that this portrait of Ezra is based on a portrait of Cassiodorus himself, with his nine-volume edition of the Latin Bible, that appeared at the beginning of the (no longer extant) Codex Grandior (Meyvaert 1996, 870–873; 2005).

For Bede, Ezra had a special significance. Among Bede’s extant works is a commentary On Ezra and Nehemiah, the only complete commentary on those Old Testament books produced during the Middle Ages. Ezra (like Cassiodorus) was a crucial figure in the transmission of Scripture during a period of upheaval and discontinuity. Above the illustration of Ezra in the Codex Amiatinus is the couplet (possibly composed by Bede himself): Codicibus sacrīs hostili clade perustīs / Esdra Deō fervēns hoc reparāvit opus (“After the sacred books had been destroyed by enemy devastation / Ezra, in his zeal for God, restored this work”).

Ezra’s restoration of sacred Scripture went hand-in-hand with his role as a priestly reformer. In his commentary on Ezra, Bede writes:

But because when the temple had been burned down and the city of Jerusalem had been demolished, the holy writings kept there were likewise burnt through enemy devastation (fuerant hostili clade perustae), it was proper that, when the Lord showed mercy and returned to his people, these writings should also be restored, so that having repaired the buildings that had been destroyed they would also have the writings from which they would receive encouragement and learn how they might be inwardly restored in faith and love of their Creator (On Ezra and Nehemiah, 108; trans. DeGregorio 2004).

The restoration of Scripture was a prerequisite of a restoration of religious faith and practice among God’s people.

In the story of Ezra, Bede saw clear parallels with the Northumbria of his own time. He saw a restored Church on English soil in desperate need of reform, and saw the priestly scribe and exegete—a man like Ezra and like Bede himself—as a primary agent of that reform (DeGregorio 2010, 139; 2004, 16–18). Reform of the Northumbrian church was high on Bede’s own agenda as a writer and scholar, and was a primary motivation for his works of Biblical exegesis and his other writings. In what may have been his last written work, Bede wrote to his bishop, Egbert, exhorting him to “preserve the purity of [his] words and actions” through the reading of Scripture, and to be a proper example to those under his care. Bede was concerned that, through ignorance and the poor example of some of its leaders, the Northumbrian church was lapsing into laziness and immorality.

The Historia Ecclesiastica emerged from the same reforming impulse. It provided its readers with examples of lives lived with proper discipline according to the teachings of Scripture, as well as examples (such as the convent of Coldingham) of the consequences of neglecting proper monastic discipline. The Historia, like all of Bede’s writing, serves a didactic purpose. As he writes to King Ceolwulf in the Preface: “Should history tell of good men and their good estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evils ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful and perverse, and himself with greater care pursue those things which he has learned to be good and pleasing in the sight of God” (trans. Colgrave and Mynors).