It is time for this blog to turn back to the book and the author, Bede and the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. I know, I know… this is supposed to be an early modern blog. Thing is, Bede was one of the best educators in English history, so I’m happy to make an exception for him.
Who was he and what was his life like? Why is it that this book seems so improbable to modern eyes, given the depth of scholarship and the place where it was written? And finally, how did such scholarship even occur, given the period? Does such an engagement with the world of ideas and the very concept of historiography give the lie to the age old appellation of this period as “The Dark Ages”?
As D. H. Farmer notes in his Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Ecclesiastical History… regarding Bede’s relationship with the world around him, “Bede did not know everything, nor did he always tell us all that he knew: sometimes he oversimplified complex realities, sometimes he concentrated on the didactic value (as he saw in) in a particular narrative” (23). Ask yourself though, why does he give such a large scope to Coifi, the chief priest of the pagans, during the section on the conversion of the Northumbrians? Why does he describe in such detail the image of the bird flying through the hall, given by the anonymous, yet philosophically minded, thane?
In terms of how Bede shaped his representations of history, think about what I said regarding the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons. The myth of Hengist and Horsa is one thing, but the facts of archeology present a different story. The migration of the German speaking Angles, Jutes, and Saxons took almost two hundred years, and though it is clear that they supplanted the Celtic kingdoms, they ended up producing a stronger and more coherent system of governance than has been previously supposed. That is, Bede represents the Northumbrians and the East Anglian king Raedwald as loose knit groups of warriors, yet archaeological evidence such as that at Sutton Hoo, more of which in a moment, shows that the governance of the time was far more rigorous than has been previously thought.
One of the main inspirations for Bede must have been Gregory of Tours History of the Franks. The Franks were the Germanic-speaking peoples who eventually evolved into the French, to put it simply. Gregory of Tours’ text was written almost 150 years before The Ecclesiastical History…, yet it clearly served as a model for Bede in terms of understanding the history of a single people. (Even if Bede had to suggest a unity of Anglo-Saxon English identity that may have been, at that point, a bit spurious.) One of the primary differences, however, is that Bede’s subjects were a set of peoples that had virtually no documents and no books to speak of. It was an oral society and would remain so for some time to come. Imagine trying to create a scrupulously researched history in an oral culture like that of the Anglo-Saxons.