If all has gone according to plan, this post has gone online shortly before today’s class and our presentations. If it hasn’t, then on screen right about now you will have seen me log in and frantically hit the “publish” button.
My PhD research is on the eschatology and apocalypticism of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, the last book of which has largely been overlooked by historians, who are more concerned with Bede’s account of the politics and conversion of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. And if you’re wondering why I have differentiated between eschatology and apocalypticism, it’s because they are two separate, though related themes. Eschatology is the study of last things, including the fate of the soul after death. The apocalypse, as Bede would have understood it, was the end of time, although I think most of us have this or a similar image in mind:
The reason most historians ignore book five (a Latin version is here), or at least don’t treat it in its proper context, is that it is full of visions of heaven and hell as well as miracles, along with descriptions of Jerusalem, missions to Germany, a Saracen incursion into Gaul, and other eclectic things. This marks it out from the rest of the text, which is generally chronological and more tightly structured.
But Bede was a teacher, even though he is most readily associated with being a historian. My core argument is that this series of pious things is actually what the whole text has been leading up to. John Burrows has said that the HE turns to the visions and miracles because by the end of book four the English — Bede’s HE is responsible for English (Angli) being used as a catch-all term for all the Germanic peoples of Britain — have been converted: “Mission accomplished”, as he puts it. I argue the opposite, which is that Bede believes the English still need miracles because they have not been properly converted. Bear in mind that Bede was a providential historian, and as such saw a divine plan and direction in history. He would also have known of Matt 24:14, which says that the end will come after the gospels are preached to the whole world. In Classical tradition, Britain and Ireland were beyond the civilised world, and this was interpreted by Christians as meaning that their conversion was a pre-condition for the end of the world.
However, speculating on when the end would come was heresy (and Bede was accused of thisby someone who misunderstood his work on time): Bede himself said it would come suddenly, like a thief in the night. But the end would be foreshadowed by lawlessness and corruption, and Bede’s Letter to Egbert (or Ecgbert) presents his kingdom as being in exactly such a state. In the Historia, he says the people of the 700s were suffering “spiritual death”. He had read the sixth-century De Excidio Britanniae of Gildas and seen how the Britons, the Romano-Celtic population, had fallen into cycles of sin, repentance, and sin and were faced with a final, cataclysmic judgement – a preview of the apocalypse, as it were. In fact, Bede says the Britons were unable to awaken from spiritual death and so were defeated by the English.
My argument is that Bede sees the English falling into the same patterns, but that he knew the Britons had been supplanted by the English, and both Gildas and Bede saw this as divine punishment. Thus, at its most boiled down level, I am arguing that, because he believed the end was going to be sudden but that the preconditions had been fulfilled, and because he believed his people to be living in spiritual death, which would see them barred from heaven, Bede used apocalyptic concerns to shape his history writing in such a way as would do the most moral good.
I am trying to make this blog a research portfolio separate from my other internet possessions (insomuch as anything can be owned on the internet).
It will contain a research journal along with some thoughts on the subject of apocalytpicism and related subjects in the early medieval period. Pretty much anything history-related is eligible for a look-in. I will also devote a section to abstracts and upcoming talks, although for now I am using Academia.edu for that.
A long-term plan would be to upload podcasts of my conference papers, although this is where I run in to issues regarding copyright and publication of thesis material. I would ultimately integrate these recordings into the section on abstracts, etc.