Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Review: Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede

Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede

In celebration of his feast day today (at least today (May 25, 2013) as the post is published), here's a review of the Venerable Bede's most famous work.

One of the great writers in early English literature is the monk Bede. He lived from 672 to 735 A.D. in northern England at the monastery of Jarrow. He was a great scholar and author of many works, Ecclesiastical History of the English People being the most famous. It is a primary source for early British history.

The book starts with the Roman invasions by Julius Caesar in the first century B.C. and Claudius in the first century A.D. This part is quickly covered, since Bede's main interest is to chronicle the coming of the Christian faith to the islands of Britain. He presents the first organized missionaries led by Augustine of Canterbury (as he was later known) in the late 500s. Various successes and failings are described as well as the lives of many kings and queens (at this point several different kingdoms existed on the island), some pagan, some converts. Other religious and lay people are also chronicled, including people in Bede's own living memory.

One of the reasons the book is highly regarded is Bede's style and method. Bede has an engaging style--he bubbles over with Christian enthusiasm and knows to throw in stories to illustrate his points about historical figures. His Latin is quite excellent (from what I've read) though I read an English translation. The book is also well-researched, making use of the extensive library at Jarrow and many other eye-witness accounts. Bede is rightly called the Father of English History.

The book is interesting as a view into the past. People led lives of squalor, solitude, and splendor as they do today. Controversies within the church sprang up, mostly around the proper calculation of Easter's date each year. The problem was resolved at the Synod of Whitby in 664, where bishops met together to discuss the matter. It reminded me of the national bishops' conferences that we have today. People are still people, no matter the age in which they live.

Of course, some bits are less familiar to modern readers. Sometimes the names are quite a mouthful ("Ethelbert was son of Irminric, son of Octa, and after his grandfather Oeric, surnamed Oisc, the kings of the Kentish folk are commonly known as Oiscings." p.112) Having wandered over England a bit the past year and a half, the places and the names are a little more familiar, which helps.

The book is easy to read in small sections. Each chapter covers one story or event, so reading a few pages a day or now and then won't be disruptive. I've read it bit by bit over a few months and found it very interesting and very rewarding.

SAMPLE TEXT, wherein the Bishop Germanus volunteers to lead an army against pagans, which seems awfully unclerical, except...
When, after the celebration of Easter, the greater part of the army, fresh from the [baptismal] font, began to take up arms and prepare for war, Germanus offered to be their leader. He picked out the most active, explored the country round about, and observed, in the way by which the enemy was expected, a valley encompassed by hills of moderate height. In that place he drew up his untried troops, himself acting as their general. And now a formidable host of foes drew near, visible, as they approached, to his men lying in ambush. Then, on a sudden, Germanus, bearing the standard, exhorted his men, and bade them all in a loud voice repeat his words. As the enemy advanced in all security, thinking to take them by surprise, the bishops three times cried, “Hallelujah.” A universal shout of the same word followed, and the echoes from the surrounding hills gave back the cry on all sides, the enemy was panic-stricken, fearing, not only the neighbouring rocks, but even the very frame of heaven above them; and such was their terror, that their feet were not swift enough to save them. They fled in disorder, casting away their arms, and well satisfied if, even with unprotected bodies, they could escape the danger; many of them, flying headlong in their fear, were engulfed by the river which they had crossed. The Britons, without a blow, inactive spectators of the victory they had gained, beheld their vengeance complete. The scattered spoils were gathered up, and the devout soldiers rejoiced in the success which Heaven had granted them. The prelates thus triumphed over the enemy without bloodshed, and gained a victory by faith, without the aid of human force. [pp.78-79]

1 comment:

  1. Will certainly add this to my catholic reading list! Thanks for the review. I love the diversity of your reviews.