Bede studies

Team Bede - assemble!

Working on a PhD can be a very isolating experience, even if you’re around loved ones. It’s never easy to explain what you’re doing – not only do you feel self conscious, but for those of us in what you might call more esoteric fields, it can be downright embarrassing.

It’s not that what we exegetical and intellectual historians are doing anything bad, per se. But explaining that you’re examining Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as an eschatological text is going to get you some strange looks. The “ecclesiastical” part will catch the attention for some. The “eschatological” will make others look at you strangely. Explaining what eschatology means is bad enough. I study how Bede built his mental world and how his beliefs about the end of time and geography influenced how he wrote. However, the mention of apocalyptic thinking concerning a Christian writer tends to get you pigeon-holed unnecessarily, and often without follow-up questions. You can tell by the look in the eyes.

So it was with some relief and not a bit of anticipation that myself and 9  fellow Bedans got together at University College Cork last week for a symposium on our research concerning the man himself.

No need to be embarrassed. No need to explain the basics for those who’ve never heard of the guy. Just a chance to talk about the research and bounce a few ideas around the table without an audience. It was also a chance to meet with Peter Darby, who has just published a book on Bede and the end of time (which gave me unfounded panic attacks concerning my own PhD). He’s rather nice.

What was particularly interesting was the breadth of our studies, and we were just a small band of Bedan scholars in one part of the world (from peoples once described by Cummian as “pimples on the face of the Earth“, I must add). Even where our work was in a similar broad field – such as mine and Peter’s – we have gone about it in completely different ways and looked at different source material in many areas.

Many of us, in fact all of us except for Peter, have been moulded in some ways by Jennifer O’Reilly, who also attended the roundtable. At a conference in Galway recently I and a couple of other graduates from Cork’s medieval studies courses were described as “the grandchildren of Jennifer O’Reilly”, which has a certain accuracy. Her analysis of Bede’s ouevre has greatly influenced all of our work, which was apparent during the discussion.

In many ways, we are following in her footsteps, while synthesising an array of different materials into new, original works. Bede might approve.

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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…

Using the past

We all use the past for our own purposes. Some of these are quite innocent, some are not. I’m sure we can all thing of examples for both cases. As you might expect, it has gone on since the invention of writing. Skirmishes became major victories, minor rulers become emperors, and so on and so forth. I’m watching V For Vendetta as I write this, in which a man in a dystopian future uses ideas about the past to inform the present and future. Although there are no Guy Fawkes or revolutionary figures on show here.

Bede: “Should history tell of good men and their estate…”

Some medieval writers were very clear about why they were using the past. Bede, the subject of my PhD, wrote that “should history tell of good men and their estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful or perverse”. Bede’s interpretation is always religious, and for him, learning from “good men and their estate” would inspire people to live good, Christian lives. But by establishing this in the preface, he establishes the precise meaning that he wants the audience to derive from the work. It’s only one facet of the text, but it’s a very important one.

Bede, of course, was not an innovator in this. The Classical world had paideia, and education by good example was an important part of this; consider the qualities extolled in The Odyssey or The Aeneid (although neither are actual histories, they were intended and were understood to be such).

People’s use of the past is often determined by what they need for the present. In Bede’s case, it was to encourage moral and religious reform amid what he believed to be a deep spiritual crisis. By using examples from Anglo-Saxon and continental history, his Ecclesiastical History became a “gallery of good examples”, to quote the oft-repeated phrase of James Campbell. I, like most people working in the field, would hesitate to say that Bede invented aspects of an individual’s character, and he probably did not. However, that is not to say that Bede did not emphasise certain elements in order to inspire the most reform. There are enough facets of King Edwin’s character, for example, that work against him being an ideal Christian ruler when Bede could simply have written them out and made him the Constantine-style ruler that King Oswald is in the EH. Edwin, for example, promises to convert several times but always finds an excuse not to become Christian. Oswald is Christian from the beginning of his reign.

Edwin: Good but not as good as he could have been 

Oswald, for example, becomes more than just a great king in Northumbrian history, he becomes a Northumbrian Constantine who restores and renews Christianity in the kingdom and, in Bede’s account, makes sure the religion becomes so embedded in the realm that it does not flitter away, as it had when Edwin was killed. I wrote a whole MA thesis on this, so I won’t repeat it here. But suffice it to say that Bede thus presents a progression in his people’s history, where they become more solidly Christian and so greater culturally and politically. By implication, these good examples become symbols of what they can achieve and what they stand to lose should they stray too far from the path, as he believes they are. Bede sought to use the past to make the present and future better.

Oswald: Shinier than this picture suggests

Gildas, the British writer of the sixth-century, wrote history for the very same reason, although he was also writing against the backdrop of Saxon invasions and the threat of imminent conquest, which he understood to be divine judgement. He, in turn, used the Bible as a model for his history: prophetic history. Gildas, by identifying current events with ancient patterns, stitched his people into universal history and, in doing so, sought to expose corruption and “sting” the present so that society could be healed.

The Bible was, for Gildas, a “mirror” for his own times. It was a key for medieval writers to unlock not only the past but their own times. By studious analysis of the narratives and themes, they saw patterns in history that they believed were being replicated in their own days. Bede too looked into the Bible and saw it as a reflection of the present. When commenting on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Bablyon (in the book of Kings), he says that the “allegory of so lamentable a history fits so well with the negligence of our own time”, but with Jerusalem standing for the Church and Bablyon for “the city of the devil”. Much of what I’m doing is recreating this sort of early-medieval mindset, because by studying the historian I can more effectively study the history.

The study of the Bible and commentary on the texts, exegesis, informed a good deal of medieval history writing. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is, as Benedicta Ward noted, as much theology as it is history. I’m not much of a theologian, but I have always been a decent literary critic and analyst, so those skills are very much coming to bear on the structure and development of Bede’s writing. It is a very different intellectual world from the one we inhabit, and as such it becomes all the more of a puzzle.

I suppose a fair question to ask at this point is, ‘How do I use history?’ I am no prophet or theologian. For me, history is a way to explore the past, both at a cultural and intellectual level. I can pick up a book and chip a way into a world now lost to us. It’s probably why I favour ancient and medieval history; the modern is just too familiar. While I have learned much from my study of history, I seek to learn and teach rather than mould wider society. I don’t have the specific drive of a Bede or a Gildas, or perhaps I do but with a different focus.

Having scribbled thus I feel there is a lot more to be said on the subject. I will return to it now and again, methinks. But for now, I shall let history tell its own stories.

Bede, you drive me crazy

For the last few days I have been finalising and editing a paper I am going to deliver at the Imbas conference in Galway next weekend. To say it has been frustrating is to put it mildly.

Admittedly, part of this is my fault. I should know by now that no matter how simple or straightforward a Bede paper appears, it is much more complicated than at first thought. Or, even if it turns out to be relatively straightforward, fitting it all into a 20-minute paper is another thing entirely. I seem to have a habit of picking big topics.

This paper focuses on Bede and the lay pastor. But it’s showing that they were needed because of a sense of a coming apocalypse. I know, I know. Me and apocalypses.

The only really frustrating side of this was fitting it into a 20-minute argument. There’s easily 6,000 words of an article in this, maybe more. At least with the paper it focuses me to get my thoughts together and condense the information into key points.

I found that I had the bones of the paper done in a couple of days: most of what I’m talking about is now second nature to me. But trawling through his exegesis and homilies slowed things considerably, and the process of being more selective in my quotations even more so.

When I write, I tend to write so that everything is necessary. If I’ve included background, it’s because I think it’s necessary in order for people to understand what I’m talking about. In this case, I’ve boiled the background down to its most basic points, although I feel it’s detailed enough to show the complexity of the situation. Whether my supervisor will agree is another thing; he may well feel that I’m expecting too much of the audience. My writing demands quite a bit of the reader, apparently, or at least it has in the section of the PhD I’ve put together for the department’s review process (i.e. a section that proves I’ve done a lot of work and know what I’m talking about).

I’ll post the abstract once the paper has been delivered, and I’ll also add a link to the podcast once that’s online.