Stormy summers in Bede’s day

I read the new Wallis-Kendall translations of Bede’s De Natura Rerum and De Temporibus during the week as part of my research into Bede, nature, and time. One passage in DNR struck me:

Pestilence is born from air that has been corrupted on account of the deserts of men either by excessive drought or rains [Isidore, De Rerum Natura]. When the air has been absorbed by breathing or eating, it engenders pestilence and death. Hence we very often observe that the whole of the summer season is transformed into tempests and wintry blasts. These are called ‘storms’ when they come in their own season, but when they come at other times there are called ‘portents’ or ‘signs’.

Although this was written in the early AD700s, The whole air/pestilence thing was a common belief until the nineteenth century, as Wallis and Kendall note in their commentary. But Bede’s line “we very often observe that the whole of the summer season transformed into tempests and wintry blasts” tells us a good deal about the world in which he lived.

It’s fair to say that Bede, living in Jarrow, Northumbria, in the north-east of what is now England, probably did not experience temperatures in the high-30s Celsius. However, Northumbria is not exactly Arctic either. Coming from a country that often experiences rains during summer, I can empathise with the feeling that summer seems full of “tempests and wintry blasts”. This line, which is Bede’s own observation and is not, as far as I can tell, derived from a secondary source such as Isidore, suggests then that Bede lived in a time of frequently cold, wet summers, probably exacerbated by Jarrow’s proximity to the North Sea. Whether he is speaking symbolically is another question though…

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4 thoughts on “Stormy summers in Bede’s day

  1. Interesting…. thanks for mentioning the new translation. Sounds like I have a book to order. 🙂

    Bede’s explanation that the air causes disease through people’s exhaled breath is very interesting. It makes sense from his context. I don’t think I’ve seen it articulated that way before. Of course, this is true for diseases spread by respiratory aerosols.

    You could look for references to weather accompanying Bede’s references to coming plagues. I know he notes a comet in 664 (which he calls a sign or portent), but I don’t recall if there are storms.

  2. It’s quite a good translation in the Translated Texts for Historians series. What surprised me was just how short the two Bede works were; De Temporibus is a very small fraction of what De Temporum Ratione would later be. The introduction is quite good though and both works have commentaries by the translators.

    I’m definitely going to have another look at the Historia to see if he mentions storms or the like in relation to plagues or other seemingly unrelated events.

    I hope all is going well ahead of your appearance at Kalamazoo. I hope to get to that conference at least once in my academic life!

  3. Pingback: On the Nature of Things « Heavenfield

  4. I noticed in introduction to On the Nature of Things and On Times that Faith Wallis is working on a new translation of On Revelations. I thought that might be of interest… no ETA.

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