Such scant information as we have on the life of St. Bede the Venerable comes from two principal sources: an autobiographical note appended to his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and a description of his death, contained in a letter from his student Cuthbert (afterwards Abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow) to an otherwise unknown lector named Cuthwine. 
Bede's life was tied up with the history of the Northumbrian Abbeys of St. Peter at Wearmouth and St. Paul at Jarrow. These twin institutions--in many ways one community at two sites--were the creations of St. Benedict Biscop. Bede wrote Benedict's biography as part of his History of the Abbots; he says that as a young nobleman, Biscop Baducing (as the future abbot was then known) left the Northumbrian court to go on pilgrimage to Rome, traveling for part of the way with his fellow countryman, Wilfrid. Returning home, he became a kind of publicist for the customs of the Roman church--a controversial topic in the years immediately before the Synod of Whitby, at which Wilfrid was the chief spokesman for the Roman side. On his way back to England after another Roman pilgrimage (c. 666), Biscop stayed for two years at the already ancient monastery of Lérins, on the island off Cannes now known as St. Honorat (after the community's founder): it was presumably there that he took the name of Benedict. He travelled from Lérins to Rome for a third visit in 668. Not long before, the English priest Wighard, nominated to be Archbishop of Canterbury, had died at Rome while awaiting consecration. Having chosen the aged Theodore of Tarsus to be the new Archbishop, and the African Abbot Hadrian, perhaps to counterbalance any untoward Greek tendencies in Theodore, Pope Vitalian turned to Benedict, directing him to break off his visit and shepherd the two back to England: in the event, Benedict spent two years assisting Theodore as Abbot of St. Peter and St. Paul in Canterbury before being allowed to complete his pilgrimage to Rome, about 671. Returning to Northumbria laden with books and experience, Benedict was prepared to begin a monastery of his own. King Egfrid gave him a wide tract of land from his personal property, and there, in 673 or 674, Benedict founded a monastery dedicated to St. Peter.
Bede (Bæda, in Old English) was born in 672 or 673, on territory that later came into the possession of Wearmouth-Jarrow; at age 7, kinsmen sent him to the monastery to be educated. In 680, the boy would have found Benedict Biscop lately returned from yet another trip to Rome with further treasures of books, relics, and pictures, and in the company of the Pope's own choirmaster, dispatched to teach Roman chant at this distant outpost of the church. In a world where kings' halls were made of wood or reclaimed Roman ruins, Wearmouth already boasted a stone church--mortar built, in the continental manner, with stained-glass windows and imported paintings of the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles, and scenes from the Gospels and the Apocalypse. With continuing royal patronage, the community was prosperous enough to begin the second house, at Jarrow, within a year or two of the time Bede entered, and it was there that Bede spent most of his life. He tells us at one point that he studied under an Irish monk named Trumberht (HE, IV.3); in the biographical note, he names as teachers Benedict Biscop himself and Ceolfrid, first the deputy in charge of Jarrow and then sole abbot of both houses: he may also have been taught by Sigfrid, another of Benedict's deputies.
We know nothing else for certain about Bede's childhood. An anonymous Life of Ceolfrid tells a story of Ceolfrid's abbacy: the monastery was hard hit by disease, and the only people left able to sing the Daily Office were the Abbot himself and a young boy
In view of the reduction in forces, Ceolfrid directed that the psalms of the little offices be said without the usual antiphons; but after a week, he could no longer tolerate even this abbreviation of the accustomed pattern, and directed that the antiphons be restored. People have often reasoned that as Bede was a boy in the monastery at the time in question, and later became a priest in the same community, he must have been the boy in the story. However, Dorothy Whitelock casts some doubt on the identification. ("Bede and His Teachers," 20-22.) She points out that Bede was not the only boy in the monastery at the time (Hwætberht, later to be called Eusebius, was another), and that the language of the passage is more that of a modest author referring to himself than of one referring to a learned friend. The assumption that Bede was the author of the anonymous Life would solve the problem, but raises new questions of its own. In the end, Whitelock leaves the possibility that Bede was the choirboy open: but no more than that.
St. John of Beverly, Bishop of Hexham, ordained Bede deacon at the very early age of 19 and priest at 30, the canonical norm. Such of his time as was not devoted to the monastic opus dei Bede occupied with his teaching (he may have been choirmaster at Jarrow) and studies, and most of all with the study of scripture. He says:
He lists some forty works that he had written by the time he finished the Ecclesiastical History: beginning with the large corpus of scriptural studies, it also includes letters on several topics, including the leap year and the equinox; lives of the saints (in both verse and prose) and other historical works; studies on chronology and the "nature of things;" and treatises on orthography and several rhetorical topics, including tropes and meter. [ Chronology of Bede's work]
According to the letter of Cuthbert, Bede was taken ill before Easter of 735. He remained cheerful and devout, encouraging his students with scriptural quotations and with poetry in Old English, as well. The letter gives a Latin version of the Old English poem Bede repeated, but some manuscripts give the original, either in the West Saxon dialect or in a Northumbrian dialect which presumably resembles the version Bede would have used.
Bede continued to work literally until the moment of his death on the eve of the Ascension (25-26 May): having distributed his few personal possessions and dictated the last sentence of the two projects he had under way (an English translation of the Gospel according to John down to 6:9, and selections from--or perhaps corrections of--Isidore's De Natura Rerum), he asked to be helped to sit up, so that he might look on the place in his cell where he had been accustomed to pray; and so, chanting the Gloria Patri, he died.
Bede was, naturally, buried at Jarrow; but in one of the examples of "sacred theft" which surround the cult of the saints, his remains were stolen in the eleventh century and taken to Durham, where they were placed in the same coffin as those of the Cathedral's great patron, St. Cuthbert; in the next century, they were honored with their own silver and gold feretory. Later, Bede's shrine was moved to the Galilee, where it remained until the dissolution of the monasteries. Bede was reburied in the Galilee under a marble slab: in 1831, this grave was examined, various bones being found; and today the site is again marked for the edification of pilgrims and tourists. [Picture of Bede's Tomb]
Bede's influence through the centuries since his death has been immense; if he had done nothing more than popularize the system of dating Anno Domini, his mark on western culture would be omnipresent.  His commentaries themselves were frequently copied; within a dozen years of the author's death, St. Boniface, at work in the German mission field, wrote to Wearmouth-Jarrow to ask for copies of the work of that candela Ecclesiae which had recently shone in their midst. Authors of the Carolingian period excerpted, anthologized and borrowed from Bede--his homilies appear in the collection of Paul the Deacon; Alcuin manipulates Bede's Genesis commentary to his own purposes in his Questions and Answers on Genesis; and Hrabanus Maurus incorporates much of Bede's Acts commentaries in his own. When the Glossa Ordinaria was compiled, its creators frequently turned to Bede or to sources themselves based on Bede--especially in the case of books like Acts, for which there were no earlier commentaries available. In his Four Books of Sentences, Peter Lombard quotes Bede alongside Augustine, Gregory and the other Fathers, and Thomas Aquinas cites him in the Summa Theologiae. (E.g., in ST I, qq. 65-74) Dante put Bede in the heaven of the Sun, where Aquinas introduces him as one of a dozen great thinkers.  Readings from Bede (including some mistakenly attributed to him) were incorporated into the night offices of the Roman Breviary. The Reformation brought a whole new wave of interest in Bede, as both Catholics and Protestants attempted to find in his writings evidence that the Church in Great Britain in the early middle ages was an exemplar of their own point of view; this polemical mining of Bede persisted to some degree into the present century.
The long persistence of the style "Venerable" in association with Bede's name has sometimes left the impression that he was "Venerable" in the modern hagiographic sense, that is, that he had completed only the first stage of canonization. In fact, the adjective was used to describe Bede long before it had its technical value (in one legend, an angel is said to have provided it as the missing word in Bede's epitaph), and Bede has been recognized as a saint since soon after his death. Alcuin, writing some fifty years later, ascribed miraculous cures to Bede's relics in his poem "On the Bishops, Kings and Saints of York,"  and Colgrave and Mynors argue that Bede's feast was celebrated at least by the eleventh century. (EHxxii-xxiii.) He was entered in the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer of 1661, while the Vatican, in 1899, authorized universal observance of an office for his Mass as Doctor of the Church on 27 May. Currently, his feast in the Episcopal and Roman calendars is on 25 May.  The lectionary in the Episcopal Lesser Feasts and Fasts assigns for Bede's mass a remarkably apposite passage from the Apocrypha:
May God grant that I speak with judgment
Wisdom 7:17-22 (RSV)
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1. See Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969). The biographical note is on pp. 566-577, the letter on 579-587. Cited hereafter as EH, with book and chapter where appropriate. W. F. Bolton, "Epistola Cuthberti de Obitu Bedae: A Caveat," Medievalia et Humanistica N.S. 1 (1970), 127-139, points out difficulties with the letter: its relatively late manuscript evidence, its ambiguous way of specifying the date of Bede's death, and its enumeration of two last works of Bede which have not survived. Brief remarks in Bede's other writings give us occasional glimpses of other events in his career. [Return]
2. "...qui ab ipso nutritus et eruditus, nunc usque in eodem monasterio presbyterii gradum tenens, iure actus eius laubabiles cunctis scire volentibus et scripto commendat et fatu." Venerabilis Baedae Opera Historica(= Venerabilis Baedae Historiam Ecclesiasticam Gentis Anglorum, Historiam Abbatum, Epistolam ad Ecgbertum, una cum Historia Abbatum Auctore Anonymo), ed. Charles Plummer (Oxford: Clarendon, 1896; reprint, 1946), 393. The Life is translated by Dorothy Whitelock in English Historical Documents, c. 500-1042, ed. Dorothy Whitelock, Vol. 1 of English Historical Documents, ed. David C. Douglas (2nd ed., New York: Oxford UP, 1979), 758-770.[Return]
3. "...omnem meditandis scripturis operam dedi, atque inter obseruantiam disciplinae regularis, et cotidianam cantandi in ecclesia curam, semper aut discere, aut docere, aut scribere dulce habui." EH, V.xxiv, 566-567. The work of God clearly enjoyed first place: Alcuin, writing to the monks of Wearmouth- Jarrow, repeats a story he had heard of Bede: the master commented on regular attendance in choir that he did not wish the angels who visit the hours to say "Where is Bede?" (Alcuin, Letter 284, MGH Epistolarum IV, Epistolae Karolini Aevi 2:443.) [Return]
4. This version of the OE text, from St. Gall MS. 254, p. 253: Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse, 15th ed., rev. Dorothy Whitelock (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 183. My translation.[Return]
5. On Bede's nachleben,see (among other studies): in Famulus Christi, Charles W. Jones, "Bede's Place in Medieval Schools," 261-285; Iain M. Douglas, "Bede's De Templo and the Commentary on Samuel and Kings by Claudius of Turin," 325-333; Benedikt S. Benedikz, "Bede in the Uttermost North," 334-342; Terence Towers, "Smith and Son, Editors of Bede," 357-365; as well as Brown, Bede, 97- 103, and Ward, Venerable Bede, 134-146. [Return]
6. Paradiso X, 131. The others are Albert the Great, Gratian, Lombard, King Solomon, Dionysius, Orosius, Boethius, Isidore, Richard of St. Victor and Siger of Brabant. Brown quotes a Wordsworth sonnet on Bede, as well. [Return]
7. Mary Thomas Aquinas Carroll suggests that the main element in the spread of the epithet was the widely circulated Homiliary of Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), which used the term uniquely in giving credit to Bede, whereas several authors--e.g., Chrysostom, Gregory, and Leo--were labelled beatus and several others--Leo, Gregory, Augustine, et al.--sanctus (The Venerable Bede: His Spiritual Teachings Catholic University of America Studies in Medieval History N.S. 9 [Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1946], 57). [Return]
8. "Huius vita quidem qualis fuit ante magistri / Claro post obitum signo est patefacta salutis. / Aeger enim quidam patris dum cingitur almi / Reliquiis, penitus peste sanatus ab illa" (MGH, Poetae Latinae Aevi Carolini I. 198, ll. 1314- 1317). [Return]
9. While Bede died after sundown on 25 May--that is, after the beginning of the ecclesiastical 26 May-- 26 May was already the feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury, and medieval commemorations of Bede were displaced to the 27th, setting the pattern for the decree of 1899; the Roman feast was moved to May 25 in 1969. Bede's absence from the 1559 Book of Common Prayer apparently reflects the fact that the Elizabethan Prayer Book's Calendar was based on the Sarum Use, and medieval Salisbury did not celebrate the feast of Bede. The other additions to the 1661 Book were St. Alban the Protomartyr, St. Eunurchus, Bp. of Orleans, and Charles Stuart, King and Martyr. See John Henry Blunt, "An Introduction to the Calendar," in The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, ed. John Henry Blunt (London: Rivingtons, 1868), 37. [Return]
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This page last revised on Sept. 1, 1997.