Beda

, or Bede, the brightest ornament of the eighth century, and one of the most eminent fathers of the English church, whose talents and virtues have procured him the name of the Venerable Bede, was born in the year 672, or according to some in the year 673, on the estates belonging afterwards to the abbies of St. Peter and St. Paul, in the bishopric of Durham, at Wermouth and Jarrow, near the mouth of the river Tyne. Much difference of opinion prevails among those who have treated of this illustrious character, respecting the place of his birth, some even contending that he was a native of Italy; but we shall confine ourselves to such facts as seem to be clearly ascereertained by the majority of historians. These are indeed but few, for the life of a studious, recluse, and conscientious ecclesiastic, cannot be supposed to admit of many of the striking varieties of biographical narrative. At the age of seven years, or about the year 679, he was brought to the monastery of St. Peter, and committed to the care of abbot Benedict, under whom and his successor Ceolfrid, he was carefully educated for twelve years, a favour which he afterwards repaid by writing the lives of these his preceptors, which were first published by sir James Ware at Dublin in 1664, 8vo. At the age of nineteen he was ordained deacon, and in the year 702, being then thirty, he was ordained priest by John of Beverley, bishop of Hagulstad or Hexham, who had been formerly one of his preceptors. It was probably from Beverley, a person of high character for piety and learning, that JBede imbibed his opinions concerning the monastic state, and the duties of such as embraced it. The bishop thought that in all professions men ought to labour for their own maintenance, and | for the benefit of the society. He was consequently averse to the great errors of this institution, ease and indolence. He inculcated upon Beda’s mind, that the duties of this life consisted in a fervent and edifying devotion, a strict adherence to the discipline of the house, an absolute selfdenial with respect to the things of this world, an obedience to the will of his abbot, and a constant prosecution of his studies in such a way as might most conduce to the benefit of his brethren, and the general advantage of the Christian world.

Nor were these lessons thrown away. Beda became so exemplary for his great diligence and application, and his extensive and various learning, that his fame reached the continent, and particularly Rome, where pope Sergius made earnest applications to the abbot Ceolfrid, that Beda might be sent to him; but Beda, enamoured of his studies, remained in his monastery, exerting his pious labours only in the Northumbrian kingdom, although tradition, and nothing but tradition, insinuates that he at one time resided at the university of Cambridge, a place which in his day probably had no existence, or certainly none that deserved the name of university. Remaining thus in his own country, and improving his knowledge by all the learning his age afforded, animated at the same time with a wish to contribute to the improvement of his brethren and countrymen, he concentrated his attentions to that point in which he could be most useful. The collections he made for his “Ecclesiastical History” were the labour of many years, a labour scarcely conceivable by modern writers in the amplitude and facilities they possess for acquiring information. This history was in some respects a new work, for although, as he owns, there were civil histories from which he could borrow some documents, yet ecclesiastical affairs entered so little into their plan, that he was obliged to seek for materials adapted to his object, in the lives of particular persons, which frequently included contemporary history: in the annals of their convents, and in such chronicles as were written before his time. He also availed himself of the high character in which he stood with many of the prelates, who procured for him such information as they possessed or could command. They foresaw, probably, what has happened, that this would form a lasting record of ecclesiastical affairs, and making allowance for the legendary matter it contains, without a mixture of which it | is in vain to look back to the times of Beda, few works have supported their credit so long, or been so generally known, and consulted by the learned world. He published this history in the year 731, when as he informs us, he was fifty-nine years of age, but before this he had written many other books on various subjects, a catalogue of which he subjoined to this history. By these he obtained such reputation as to be consulted by the most eminent churchmen of his age, and particularly by Egbert bishop of York, who was himself a very learned man. To him Beda wrote an epistle, which illustrates the state of the church at that time. It was one of the last, and indeed probably the very last of Beda’s writings, and in it he expresses himself with much freedom, both in the advice he gave to Egbert, and with respect to the inconveniencies which he wisely foresaw would arise from the multiplication of religious houses, to the prejudice both of church and state.

As this epistle throws much light on the state of ecclesiastical affairs at the time, and, what is more important for our present purpose, affords many proofs of the superior wisdom and good sense of Beda, we shall avail ourselves of the following sketch of it. Amongst other heads of advice, he recommends the finishing St. Gregory’s model to this prelate, by virtue of which York was to have‘ been a metropolis with twelve Suffragans. He insists upon this plan, the rather, because in some woody, and almost impassable, parts of the country, there were seldom any bishops came either to confirm, or any priests to instruct the people; and, therefore, he is of opinion that the erecting new sees would be of great service to the church. For this purpose he suggests the expedient of a synod to form: the project, and adjust the measures j and that an order of court should be procured to pitch upon some monastery, ani turn it into a bishop’s see and to prevent opposition; from the religious of that house, they should be softened with some concessions, and allowed to choose the bishop out of their own society, and that the joint government of the monastery and diocese should be put into his hands. And if the altering the property of the house should make the increasing the revenues necessary, he tells him there are monasteries enough that ought "to spare part of their estates for such uses; and, therefore, he thinks it reasonable that some of their lands should be taken from them, ’and laid to the bishopric, especially since many of them | full short of the rules of their institution. And since it is commonly said, that several of these places are neither serviceable to God nor the commonwealth, because neither the exercises of piety and discipline are practised, nor the estates possessed by men in a condition to defend the country; therefore if the houses were some of them turned into bishoprics, it would be a seasonable provision for the church* and prove a very commendable alteration. A little after he intreats Egbert to use his interest with king Ceolwulf, to reverse the charters of former kings for the purposes above-mentioned: For it has sometimes happened, says he, that the piety of princes has been over-lavish, and directed amiss. He complains farther, that the monasteries were frequently filled with people of unsuitable practices; that the country seemed over-stocked with those foundations; that there were scarcely estates enough left /or the laity of condition; and that, if this humour increased, the country would grow disfurnished of troops to defend their frontiers. He mentions another abuse crept in of a higher nature: that some persons of quality of the laity, who had neither fancy nor experience for this way of living, used to purchase some of the crown-lands, under pretence of founding a monastery, and then get a charter of privileges signed by the king, the bishops, and other great men in church and state j and by these expedients they worked up a great estate, and made themselves lords of several villages, And thus getting discharged from the service of the commonwealth, they retired for liberty, took the range of their fancy, seized the character of abbots, and governed the monks without any title to such authority; and, which is still more irregular, they sometimes do not stock these places with religious, properly so called, but rake together a company of strolling monks, expelled for their misbehaviour; and sometimes they persuade their own retinue to take the tonsure, and promise a monastic obedience. And having furnished their religious houses with such ill-chosen company, they live a life perfectly secular under a monastic character, bring their wives into the monasteries, and are husbands and abbots at the same time. Thus for about thirty years, ever since the death of king Alfred, the country has run riot in this manner; insomuch, that there are very few of the lord-lieutenants, or governors of towns, who have not seized the religious jurisdiction of a monastery, and put their ladies in the | same post of guilt, by making them abbesses without passing through those stages of discipline and retirement that should qualify them for it; and as ill customs are apt to spread, the king’s menial servants have taken up the same fashion: and thus we find a great many inconsistent offices and titles incorporated; the same persons are abbots and ministers of state, and the court and cloister are unsuitably tacked together; and men are trusted with the government of religious houses, before they have practised any part of obedience to them. To stop the growth of this disorder, Beda advises the convening of a synod; that a visitation might be set on foot, and all such unqualified persons thrown out of their usurpation. In short, he puts the bishop in mind, that it is part of the episcopal office to inspect the monasteries of his diocese, to reform what is amiss both in head and members, and not to suffer a breach of the rules of the institution. It is your province, says he, to take care that the devil does not get the ascendant in places consecrated to God Almighty; that we may not have discord instead of quietness, and libertinism instead of sobriety.

It appears from this epistle that he was very much indisposed when he wrote it, and probably he began now to fall into that declining state of health, from which he never recovered. The last stage of his distemper was an asthma, which he supported with great firmness of mind, although in much weakness and pain for six weeks, during which he continued his usual pious labours among the youth in the monastery, and occasionally prosecuted some of his writings, that he might be able to leave them complete. In all the nights of his sickness, in which, from the nature of the disease, he had little sleep, he sung hymns and praises. His last days were partly employed on his translation of the Gospel of St. John into the Saxon language, and some passages he was extracting from the works of St. Isidore. The day before his death, he passed the night as usual, and continued dictating to the person who wrote for him, who observing his weakness, said, “There remains now only one chapter, but it seems very irksome for you to speak,” to which he answered, “It is easy, take another pen, dip it in the ink, and write as fast as you can.” About nine o’clock he sent for some of his brethren, to divide among them some incense, and other things of little Value, which were in his chest. While he was speaking to | them, the young man, Wilberch, who wrote for him, said, “There is now, master, but one sentence wanting,” upon, which he bid him write quick, and soon after the young man said, “It is now done,” to which he replied, “Well! thou hast said the truth, it is now done. Take up my head between your hands, and lift me, because it pleases me much to sit over against the place where I was wont to pray, and where now sitting I may yet invoke my Father.” Being thus seated according to his desire, upon the floor of his cell, he said, “Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” and as he pronounced the last word, expired. This, according to the best opinion, for the date is contested, happened May 26, 735. His body was interred in the church of his own monastery at Jarrow, but, long afterwards, was removed to Durham, and placed in the same coffin or chest with that of St. Cuthbert, as appears by a very ancient Saxon poem on the relics preserved in the cathedral of Durham, printed at the end of the “Decem Scriptores.

Mr. Warton justly observes, that Beda’s knowledge, if we consider his age, was extensive and profound: and it is amazing, in so rude a period, and during a life of no considerable length, he should have made so successful a progress, and such rapid improvements, in scientifical and philological studies, and have composed so many elaborate treatises on different subjects. It is diverting to see the French critics censuring Be da for credulity: they might as well have accused him of superstition. There is much perspicuity and facility in his Latin style: but it is void of elegance, and often of purity; it shews with what grace and propriety he would have written, had his mind been formed on better models. Whoever looks for digestion of materials, disposition of parts, and accuracy of narration, in this writer’s historical works, expects what could not exist at that time. He has recorded but few civil transactions: but, besides that his history professedly considers ecclesiastical affairs, we should remember, that the building of a church, the preferment of an abbot, the canoniza T tion of a martyr, and the importation into England of the shin-bone of an apostle, were necessarily matters qf m,uch more importance in Bede’s conceptions than victories or revolutions. He is fond of minute description; but particularities are the fault and often the merit of early historians. The first catalogue of Beda’s works, as vye liare before | observed, we have from himself, at the end of his Ecclesiastical history, which contains all he had written before the year 731. This we find copied by Leland, who also mentions some other pieces he had met with of Beda’s, and points out likewise several that passed under his name, though in his judgment spurious. John Bale, in the first edition of his book, which he finished in 1548, mentions ninety-six treatises written by Beda; and in his last edition he swells these* to one hundred and forty-five tracts; and declares at the close of both his catalogues, that there were numberless pieces of our author’s besides, which he had not seen. Pits, according to his usual custom, has much enlarged even this catalogue; though, to do him justice, he appears to have taken great pains in drawing up this article, and mentions the libraries in which many of these treatises were to be found. The catalogues given by Trithemius, Dempster, and others, are much inferior to these. Several of Beda’s books were printed very early, and, for the most part, very incorrectly; but the first general coU lection of his works appeared at Paris in 1544, in three volumes in folio. They were printed again in 1554, at the same place, in eight volumes. They were published in the same size and number of volumes, at Basil, in 1563, reprinted at Cologne in 1612, and lastly at the same place in 1688. A very clear and distinct account of the contents of these volumes, the reader may find in the very learned and useful collection of Casimir Otidin. But the most exact and satisfactory detail of Beda’s life and writings, we owe to that accurate, judicious, and candid Benedictine, John Mabillon. Neither has any critic exerted his skill more effectually than he, though largely, and with copious extracts interspersed. But, perhaps, the easiest, plainest, and most concise representation of Beda’s writings, occurs in the learned Dr. Cave’s “Hist. Literaria,” which has been followed by the editors of the Biog. Britannica.

Those treatises of Beda, which are mentioned in his own catalogue of his works, were published by the learned and industrious Mr. Wharton from three Mss. in the famous library in the archiepiscopal palace at Lambeth, under the title of “Bedae Venerabilis Opera c|iuedam Theologica, nunc primum edita, necnon Historicu antea semel edita. Accesserunt Egberti Archiepiscopi Eboracensis Dialogus de Ecclesiastica Institutioue, et Adhelmi Episcopi | Seireburnensis Liber tie Virginitate, ex codice antiquiss’uno iemendatus,” Lond. 1693, 4to. The worthy editor gives a large account of these (and other pieces added to them) in an epistolary discourse addressed to the Rev. Mr. archdeacon Batteley, dated Aug. 30, 1693; wherein he takes notice, amongst other things, that he published these Opuseula of Venerable Bede, to remove the complaint of our negligence in this respect, and that foreign writers might not boast, as they had hitherto done, of being the sole publishers of the works of Beda. He added to these the small treatises that had been before published by sir James Ware, and which it seems were at that time become extremely scarce. But at the same time he shews that he was not transported, as some editors are, with such an affection for his author, as to conceive better of his works than they deserved; since he confesses that the divines of the middle ages are by no means to be compared with the ancient fathers in point of authority, or to the moderns in respect to acuteness; but nevertheless they have their uses, and therefore such collections had been well received by the learned world, and amongst them none better than such of the works of Beda as had^been before published. 1

1

Biog. Brit.—Cave, vol. I.—Warton’s Hist. of Poetry.—Henry’s and Hume’s Hist. of Great Britain, &c.