The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731 AD) is Bede's most famous work.As well as providing the authoritative Colgrave translation of the Ecclesiastical History, this edition includes a new translation of the Greater Chronicle, in which Bede examines the Roman Empire and contemporary Europe. His Letter to Egbert gives his final reflections on the English Church justbefore his death, and all three texts here are further illuminated by a detailed introduction and explanatory notes.
Putting that aside, this book was an interesting mix of history and fiction. Written by the monk Bede in the 7th century, it gives readers a general feel for what was going on in Great Britain at the time. I say “general feel” because you really can’t go by the letter of what Bede is saying here, because he sprinkles the narration with accounts of miracles designed to impress and astound pagans with the power of the Christian God.
The dubious history of some of these chronicles doesn’t spoil anything for me. As long as I’m clear that I’m not reading straight-up history, I don’t mind reading about holy daggers that cure illness, magical wooden posts which don’t burn, and holy men who drive out demons. That Bede wrote any of this down (and maybe even believed it) is just part of the picture of England in 600’s A.D. Christianity was still competing with assorted pagan religions for the hearts and minds of …well, mostly of the regional rulers. Once you had them in pocket, it seems the public was compelled to follow. That’s why so there are so many tales in here of pagan kings who embraced Christianity, and whom Heaven rewarded with drastically improved fortunes (usually on the battlefield). About half of these stories show the king then lapsing back into paganism and suffering for it, only to save the day by re-embracing Christianity –this time permanently. It does get a bit repetitive.
As far as actual history goes, the book faithfully describes a lot of bloody warfare between English, Angles (immigrants from Denmark), Picts in the North (modern day Scotland), the Irish, British, and assorted lesser others. I assume the names of kings, and the lineages described are accurate, but I’m not sure why I think that, given the other liberties Bede has taken.
There are quite a lot of people named Egbert, and Cuthbert, and Ekelbert other things that sound like that. It can be confusing, trying to keep track of them all.
If you’re trying to develop a broad view of British history, this book does a nice job picking up where John Morris’ Londinium leaves off. Julius Caesar first set foot on British soil in 55 B.C. From that date on, Roman power grew in fits and starts, with London a center of first military and eventually economic power. While Rome suffered repeated humiliation in wars with the Huns and Vandals, Britain remained safely remote from these, and in fact benefitted economically as a reliable supplier of materiel for Roman armies in Gaul and Germania. The gravy train ended, of course, with the complete destruction of the Western Empire in the 5th century. England might have been on its own after that, but it was really the Christian church which maintained cultural ties between Britain and Rome. That’s what this book illuminates so well. Although Roman soldiers could no longer be relied on to defend the Northumbrians from the Picts, the Vatican still had spiritual authority over monks like Bede, and through the many active and robust monasteries, members of the British congregation could learn Latin, and become versed in the classics of history and literature. The church even had an active hand in shaping politics in the British Isles (see above). Thus, the picture which emerges is that the Catholic Church seamlessly supplanted the Romans as the framework on which England was now (loosely) integrated with other components of the former empire in language, architecture, political thought, religion, science, history, and philosophy. Good stuff.
From the invasion of Julius Ceasar to his own time Bede tells the story of Britain in his own words.
Focusing upon the coming of the Saxons, and their conversion to the Catholic religion under Augustine, Bede's voice permeates this text. Sometimes praising the warrior Kings of Legend and history, passionately recording the conversion of his countrymen, or pouring scorn upon the 'Britons', it is an authentically human account.
Though his methodology and the didactic purpose of his writing would be frowned upon by modern Historians, Bede's belief in the importance of verifying accounts, and gleaning as much information as he could from eyewitnesses (or people who had known eyewitnesses) shows that Bede was no amateur and his epithet `the father of English history' is perhaps well deserved.
The nature of Bede's contacts and some of his sources of information shed a fascinating light on the cosmopolitan nature of Medieval monasteries - how else could a monk of in a remote corner of Northern England have known about an the Islamic invasions of North Africa and Spain happening thousands of miles away?
The one time mayor of London Ken Livingstone once rejected this work out of hand because Bede 'did not mention King Arthur' and others in recent years have condemned the history because of Bede's bias against the Britons and other. Whilst the latter is at least historically justifiable; the former is utterly ludicrous as a criticism of The Ecclesiastical History.
Yet for all its shortcomings, be they Bede's obvious bias, polemics and rants, and his unlikely miracle stories, and occasional errors of fact, the Ecclesiastical History still stands as the penultimate contemporary source for the Early Anglo Saxon period and essential reading for students or curious lay-people alike.
Love him or hate him, Bede is inescapable and without the Ecclesiastical History out knowledge of 6th-8th century England would be severely lacking. Indeed, its very existence bears testament to a complex, literate and multi-faceted society, far removed from traditional image of the Anglo Saxons as ignorant, backwards grunting barbarian savages.
Bede is one of our primary sources for the period. His chronicle thinks highly of the bishops and monks from Augustine onward as well as those rulers who converted or proved zealous for the faith. A lot of miracle stories are recorded.
Bede is not quite as kind about British/Celtic Christianity. He recognizes their greater antiquity and speaks of the developments which led to their faith, but regarded them generally in contempt. The big concern throughout is when Easter should be observed: we today may find it trifling, but for Bede it proves almost all-important. One needs to have the virtues of an Aidan to be able to overcome that bias.
In Bede's account can be seen the imposition of the "order" of Roman Catholicism on Celtic Christianity via the conversion and continual correction of the English by Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory, and those who came after him.
This version is highly readable with helpful notes and also includes a letter of Bede to a bishop and Cuthbert's chronicle of Bede's death.
An indispensable resource to understanding the development of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England.
I should cut Bede some slack about Easter though - it seems like the history of the Church from the fall of Rome until the 8th Century, in England at least, was largely concerned with how Easter was calculated, which led to most of the wars and executions, banishments and excommunications that were so frequent.