Bede: Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum [Ecclesiastical History of the English People] (1960 words)


Bede's Historia ecclesiastica (HE) is one of our earliest and best primary sources for information about the arrival, settlement and conversion of the Germanic tribes in England. Bede wrote in Latin and dedicated this great work, completed in 731 CE, to King Ceowulf of Northumbria [see also the entry on Bede]. His audience, however, grew larger almost immediately. The HE, along with fragments of or excerpts from it, survives in about 158 manuscripts from England and Europe dating from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. It was available on the Continent by the late eighth century, and translated into English and Irish around the beginning of the tenth century. First printed in Strasbourg c.1475-80, then frequently republished during the modern era, the HE has been continuously available since Bede wrote it. Bede's careful attention to sources and evidence has led some scholars to describe his work as almost scientific and to regard him as the “Father of English History”.

In addition to providing details about early English kings, queens and saints, Bede's HE provides us with the now famous stories of Cædmon, and Gregory the Great and the slave boys, among others. More importantly, the HE has been influential because it disseminated and popularized two patterns that have become central to the shape of Western historiography: the pattern of reading the worldly history of a people as part of their spiritual progress (that is, reading history as salvation history), and the practice of recording dates according to the Anno Domini (A.D., “the year of our Lord”) system, which was developed by Dionysius Exiguus.

In his introduction to the definitive edition of the HE, Bertram Colgrave describes Bede's decision to use the A.D. system as his “main contribution to historical writing” (Colgrave, xix). Historians before Bede used a variety of systems, including the regnal years of Roman emperors (or English kings) or indictions, which were fifteen year cycles beginning in A.D. 312. But, because there were three different types of indictions, that system provided little uniformity. Bede not only used the A.D. system, but he also calculated and published the equivalent dates in the other systems. So when Bede referred to important events in history, he did so in terms of “the year of our Lord” and in reference to Roman emperors and indictions. By doing so, he articulated a foundational timeline for early Roman and European history in general. This may have been one of the reasons that Bede's history of the English church was in such demand on the Continent in the eighth century.

Although Bede also popularized the pattern of salvation history, he was not the first to use it. He derived the narrative shape of his history from Rufinus of Aquileia's adaptation of Eusebius of Caesarea's Ecclesiastical History (c.403). He also drew on Gregory of Tours's History of the Franks (591) and Orosius's Histories Against the Pagans (418) as models. Gildas's Concerning the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (c.540) provided him with background and the idea that the conquest of one people by an invading force constitutes the just punishment of God, an idea that becomes a key component of the pattern of salvation history. In addition to his use of these sources and models, Bede's History innovates on several fronts. Although he used Eusebius's model and title, Bede's focus on the history of one gens, which means “people”, has led scholars to see his work as a kind of proto- political or social history, though it should be stressed that Bede's explicit concern remained ecclesiastical. Although later historians and political architects extended his terminology “gens anglorum” to refer unambiguously to the English in general, Bede used it to refer to the tribe of the Angles as often as he used it as an umbrella term. Given that the kingdom of the Northumbrian Angles had lordship over much of the island for much of the seventh century, even in the cases when Bede uses “gens anglorum” more generally the term probably does not refer to “England” as we know it today as a geographic and political entity. Bede's sources and perspective have been shown by Walter Goffart and Nicholas Brooks to be preponderantly Northumbrian and eastern. His universalizing impulse corresponds to his belief in the “fellowship of the Church of Christ” in heaven and on earth (V.22).

Bede tells his History in five books. Book I begins by describing the islands of England and Ireland. Bede briefly recounts the history of Roman Britain, then details the “fall” of the Britons, drawing heavily on Gildas. Although Bede never mentions King Arthur, he describes the success of Ambrosius Aurelianus at the Battle of Mt. Badon (I.16). The arrival and successes of the Germanic tribes, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes under the leadership of Hengist and Horsa, then the mission of Augustine of Canterbury to the court of King Æthelbert of Kent dominate Book I. Bede's inclusion of eight papal letters to document his account of Augustine's mission contribute significantly to the attitude of modern scholars that Bede had a nearly modern sense of history. Bede includes fifteen papal letters in total, including Gregory the Great's Libellus Responsionum, a letter containing the pope's responses to a series of questions about pastoral care sent to him by Augustine of Canterbury.

Book II begins with a brief account of the life of Pope Gregory the Great. It continues Bede's account of the mission of Augustine, then recounts the conversion of King Edwin. Book III predominantly recounts the careers and miracles of King Oswald and his missionary from Ireland, St Aidan. Along with Bede's accounts of the conversion of the Mercians, as well as the Middle and East Angles, it includes Bede's version of the famous Otherworldly visions of St Fursey. Finally, Bede recounts the arguments of Bishop Wilfrid at the Synod of Whitby. The synod was held by King Oswiu of Northumbria in 664 in order to resolve the problem of the differences between the dates of the Irish and Roman celebration of Easter. By convincing Oswiu of the superiority of the Roman dating system, Wilfrid moves the early Church in England one more step towards Bede's ideal of ecclesiastical unity.

Book IV begins with the story of Theodore of Tarsus's appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, including an account of the school he founds there with Abbot Hadrian. According to Bede, Theodore provides a central unifying point of the English church and a golden age of learning. He “visited every part of the island where the English peoples lived”, and founded a school where they taught Scripture, along with the arts of metre, astronomy and the calculation of Easter (IV.2). Book IV also includes the famous stories of Cædmon, Imma and the nuns of Barking. It reflects the growth, development and success of the early English church, including several English saints' lives, including the lives of Æthelthryth and Hild, as well as Bede's third account of the Life of Cuthbert (Bede wrote separate verse and prose Lives of Cuthbert).

At the same time as Book V continues Bede's account of early English kings, saints and abbesses, its focus turns towards heaven and salvation. Bede begins the book with the miracles of John of Beverly. He describes the pilgrimages of Kings Ceadwalla and Ine, as well as the missionary activities of St Willibrord and Swithbert on the Continent. Book V also includes a series of otherworldly visions, and extensive excerpts from Adomnán's Book of Holy Places, which provides an armchair pilgrimage to the Holy Land for Bede's audience. Bede's emphasis on the Otherworld, pilgrimage and the Holy Land in Book V follow (and perhaps coincide with) the decline of the fortunes of the English under King Ecgfrith of Northumbria. Bede's description of the ways in which the political fortunes of the English “ebb and fall away” (IV.26) cautions against reading the HE as a story of English political success or proto-nationhood. Bede remains uncertain about what the future will bring politically. At the same time, however, he emphasises a continued process of ecclesiastical unification, because the Picts under King Nechtan adopt the Roman Easter. Book V concludes with a summary of the state of England in 725, and a chronicle reiterating the key dates and events from the HE as a whole.

Because of Bede's importance to the history of chronology, scholars have tended to focus on the chronicle, Bede's autobiography and the activities of the English missionaries to the continent in Book V, at the expense of the pilgrim kings and miraculous otherworldly visions. The visions in Book V bring the question of miracles in Bede's History into sharp focus. Although the care with which Bede establishes his dates, sources and evidence should not be underestimated, it is important to keep his larger purpose and early medieval Christian world view firmly in mind. He was writing the history of the English church and people. Although his miracle stories have been seen as unfortunate, or even as “monkish superstitions” since the Enlightenment, Bede was a monk and an ecclesiastical historian. His miracle stories play an important role in establishing the truth of Christianity and the sanctity of the English church in an age of conversion. In Bede's world view, the miracles of saints like Æthelthryth and Cuthbert reflected the connection between that church and the larger framework of the Christian universe.

Miracle stories and Northumbrian perspective notwithstanding, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People has provided an invaluable historical resource since its composition. Its early popularity on the Continent helped to preserve it through the Viking Age, and an anonymous Old English translation brought Bede's text to vernacular audiences in England during the tenth century (see the entry “The Old English version of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum”). It would not be an exaggeration to say that Bede's HE became the source for early English history in the medieval period. It formed the basis for a wide range of later historical writings, including The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (1136) and Henry of Huntingdon's History of the English (1154). It also continued to play an ideological role in the affairs of Church and State: during the religious turmoil of the Early Modern period, Bede's HE was called into service of both Catholics and Protestants. Thomas Stapleton translated it into English in 1565 with the hopes that it would inspire Queen Elizabeth I to return to the Catholic Church. Protestant writers in the Early Modern era, including John Foxe and John Bale, turned to Bede for evidence of the practices and purity of the early Church of England. Although Bede's miracle stories met with scorn during the heyday of the Enlightenment, even David Hume depended on Bede (or derivative histories) for evidence about early England. Today, cultural studies helps foster a clearer understanding of Bede's world view and miracle stories, while micro-historical approaches help clarify his local perspective. At the same time, advances in archaeology and research into other surviving sources have supplied missing details and expanded our knowledge. That being said, Bede's careful chronology and detailed account established the pattern with, and against which, historians ever since have explored and understood the history of early England.

Works cited and Further Reading:

Bede. The ecclesiastical history of the English people; The Greater Chronicle; Bede's Letter to Egbert. Ed. Bertram Colgrave, Judith McClure, Roger Collins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970, rpt. 1990.
Colgrave, Bertram. “Historical Introduction” to Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969 [rpt. 1991]).
De Gregorio, Scott, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009 (forthcoming).
Lapidge, M., ed. Bede and His World: The Jarrow Lectures, 1958-1993. 2 vols. Aldershot, Hampshire: Variorum Publishing, 1994.

Citation: Rowley, Sharon. "Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 24 April 2009 [, accessed 27 January 2022.]

4740 Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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