November 19, 2009
Stanford celebrates the 'Father of English History' Venerable Bede
By Cynthia Haven
Chaos had reigned in the northern kingdom, and chaos would come again. But for a few short decades, peace had a toehold. In these years, one of history's greatest minds flourished.
The Northumbrian monk known as "Venerable Bede" (c.672-735) has been called "the teacher of the whole Middle Ages" and "the father of English history." For English Professor Emeritus George Hardin Brown, one of the world's leading Bede scholars and author of the newly published Companion to Bede, he is something more: The early scholar has been Brown's lifetime's work.
Bede was the ultimate polymath a master of every subject of his time: poetic principles and practice, mathematics, astronomy, history, theology, grammar. Most famously, he is the author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, considered one of the most important sources on Anglo-Saxon history.
"The reason I have worked with him and his works for years is that it takes a long time to cover all he did and the history he made," Brown said at a "Bede Celebration" recently at Green Library, which also showcased recent Bedan acquisitions. "Others have written on him as an historian, or computist, or scripture scholar, and so forth. I'm one of the few who has tried to encompass all he wrote, and I have tried to digest that knowledge succinctly in this book."
Scholar of many subjects
Bede was the author of more than 40 works. "In his time, there was no one like him," said Brown of the largely self-taught author of biblical commentaries, saints' lives and homilies, as well as works of science and mathematics and the "reckoning of time."
He not only wrote and taught, but he made the copies as well."I myself am at once my own dictator, stenographer and copyist," Bede wrote to a friend.
Brown is the founder of Stanford's Medieval Studies program, which he chaired for a dozen years. He was recently named a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, in addition to being a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. But the title he cherishes most is an unofficial one: "Bedemeister."
Brown's prominence at Stanford triggered a series of library acquisitions. "With an eminent Bede scholar such as George Brown here on our faculty, important antiquarian editions of Bede seemed very sound acquisitions for us," said John Mustain, rare books librarian and classics bibliographer at the Stanford University Libraries.
Although the collection remains "relatively modest" at less than two dozen volumes, all on display at the celebration, the library has added them "fairly aggressively over the past 10 years, as part of an effort to strengthen our holdings in antiquarian editions of medieval authors in general, and antiquarian editions of Bede in particular," Mustain said.
Bede likely would have approved. He was, as English Department Chair Jennifer Summit said, "a creature of the library." Book collections are not usually associated in the public mind to the rough world of Beowulf, a work that may have come from this period, yet Bede was privy to a library that included nearly 300 books, making it one of the best in Europe. "It was a terrific library. Because of it, Bede was able to read and write his work," said Brown.
Rare time of peace
There was hardly any need to leave home: In his lifetime, Bede stayed within 30 miles of his base at the remote but well-endowed Northumbrian monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow. Although murder and treachery had been the norm during the time Britain was governed by warring chieftains, Brown said that the years Bede lived were uncommonly safe. Bede himself wrote that a woman and child could walk across England unmolested.
The goal of Bede's quiet life was to "bring people close to God," said Brown. "He wasn't going out preaching but it was the message in everything that he was doing. Everything was directed to the Kingdom of God."
Peace didn't last long. By the end of the eighth century, Wearmouth-Jarrow was the second target of the Vikings, after the island jewel of Lindisfarne. "They all got bumped by the Vikings. They were easy marks, with undefended wealth," said Brown. Within decades after that, the Danes would demolish what was left of Bede's monastery.
Many of his original manuscripts were destroyed, but the Vikings were too late to destroy his legacy. Bede's work had been in high-demand since his death, and his popularity ensured survival.
Bede's renowned saintliness created a few other distinctions in the ensuing centuries: He is the only monk who is named a doctor of the Church and Dante made him the only Englishman in Paradiso. He's in Canto X, the "Circle of the Sun" one of three men "who in contemplation exceeded Man."