Ecclesiastical History of the English People, by Bede

September 19, 2010 at 17:54 (Book Reviews, English History, Historical, Mediocre Books, Theology) (, , , , )


The Venerable Bede (“old Bede-y eyes” to his friends) presented a vastly different Britain in his historica than might have been expected. Of course, if we wanted Caesars and Boudiccas, an Artos, an Ambrosius, a sprinkling of Vortigerns and Aelles…well, we might be better advised to look elsewhere. Gildas, perhaps. Of course, this is a history of the English people, not of the British Isles, and so Bede remains throughout a thorough jingoist, touching briefly or not at all on the early Dark Age and Roman periods, brushing over those events outside of Ængland that do not directly affect his litany of kings and saints. Much more interesting are the border disputes of Mercia, or the murderous ways of certain heathen usurpers of petty fiefdoms than any real attempt at a wide scope of English history.

Also of difficulty for any reader (even a Christian reader) is Bede’s peculiar preoccupation with a handful of relatively minor issues of dogma that he comments on from the very advent of Christianity in England through to the final paragraphs of the book. The placement of Easter and the correct tonsuring of priests appear to be the most weighty theological issues confronting his church, and he is very anxious to scan through history and comment pedantically whenever he considers these issues to crop up. This can become tiresome, but is indicative of his real and lasting concern that orthodoxy might be threatened (even in the most pithy ways) and that the authority structure of the Church might be damaged. This fundamentalism is evident throughout.

The most touching moment comes during one of many panegyrics for one of many anonymous saints, one Etheldreda. As Bede stands agog gazing up at this magnificent woman, making his usual respectful comments about the great lady’s life and acts, he stammers briefly like a thirteen-year-old and shyly mumbles that he–he–well, he wrote a poem about her. It’s…well, it’s not very good…but, well, you’re really–um–nice?

Even the crusty old sage with the inkstained hands gives us a glimpse of his blushing face, and reminds us that between fierce kings with Viking names and martyrs who starved themselves to death in earnest penitence, the 700s was populated by real people.

In honour of Bede’s high school poetry dedication slipped beneath the pages of his history like a love note crumpled hurriedly into a maths textbook, the reviewer here includes his own imagined reply from Etheldreda to Bede. Like Bede’s original, it is also an accrostic:

In humble chasteness send I this note
Response to thee, upon whom I dote
Expound your sweetness, dearest Bede
And many sweeter poems to read
Little letters that you call hymns
Lengthy lists of your kindly whims
You’re really nice and a very good monk
Lying alone in your lonely monk bunk
I don’t really like that you use the word ‘breast’
Kind of makes me get nervous, but let me confess
Every time that you write I want us to be togedda
You, Venerable Bede, and me, Etheldreda
Of course, this can’t happen, we both have our vows
Unless in the next world the good Lord allows!

xxx Dreddy

Permalink 1 Comment