It is the 25th of May 2023 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Anglophiles rejoice- sticking around the British Isles this week- but this time going into the early middle ages- after the fall of Rome, when Romans fled, and so-called barbarians ruled- the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and the like but before the Norman invasion of 1066 and the unified England that would eventually swallow up most of the British Isles.
In fact, we only know about this time period in English history because of our man today- if this almanac had a patron saint, it would be the Venerable Bede- the English historian who gives us the story of Christianity amongst the English and is the patron saint of church historians. He stands out as one of the very few canonized saints who is canonized for academic work for the church. His job was to gather the resources, tell the story and try to understand the events that took place. In this sense, he is a descendant of the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides and Eusebius, who wrote a history of the church from the early church to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine.
So- what do we know about Bede, called the Venerable? What we do know comes from a short autobiographical sketch he included in his History of the English Church and Its People. He was born in the north of England, somewhere near the east coast by Durham, south of Newcastle (this was Northumbria). His family was likely noble, and he was sent to a monastery at the age of 7. If he was indeed of noble birth, this would likely be for an education and not necessarily a life of church work. But he would work at what was soon a double monastery at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. There he had access to one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon libraries- which, as we are centuries away from printing, would only number in the hundreds.
But part of what made Bede such a valuable historian was his desire to request texts from abroad. It was during this period that the Anglo-Saxon church developed a special relationship with the nearest ecclesiastical center: Rome. Bede was present at the monumental Synod of Whitby when the church decided to align itself with the Roman church over the Celtic church. Bede himself may have never traveled outside northern England but made requests from traveling priests and bishops, requested interviews, and attempted to get first-hand accounts of current events. One of the things that made his history so groundbreaking was his insistence on citing his sources. It should be noted that the work is thoroughly medieval in some senses and includes incredible stories based on his own supernatural worldview, but it was his attempt to “read and write and teach” the history of the church, for the church, for which he is rightly lauded.
And he had some role in the monumental decision of the Anglo-Saxon church to lean into its Roman relationship instead of the Celtic tradition. This was his obsession with the computus- you might remember that term from our weekend edition on Easter and time- this was the way in which Christians figured out the date of Easter. Bede wrote not only his history of the English people but also De Natura Rerum (on the nature of things) and De temporum Ratione (on the reckoning of time). This is his history of world calendars and the means by which different civilizations have counted time. In this work, he attempted to place the year of Christ’s birth and became the first to use the designation A.D. (Anno Domini- the “year of our lord” to reckon time since the incarnation. He also popularized marking the calendar with remembrances of Christian saints- something obviously dear to us here at the Almanac.
His History of the English Church and its People begins in 55 BC with Julius Caesar's invasion and then provides a record through the coming of Augustine of Canterbury in 597 (not that Augustine- the North African from Hippo, but a different Augustine… and hang around here he might be popping up soon), he was sent by Gregory the Great, and the story goes up through 731, about four years before his death on this day, the 25th or 26th of May- the Western church remembers him on this the 25th. His works would be copied and spread even in his lifetime and became the standard for later histories, hagiographies (the lives of saints), poetry, and encyclopedic works. In 1899 he was made one of the 2 dozen or so “doctors of the church” and the only one born in the British Isles. The Venerable Bede was 61 or 62 years old.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary as we approach the day of Pentecost. This is from Acts 2
2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 25th of May 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man working on a Michael Jackson/Weird Al parody song about English ecclesiastical history called “Bede It”- he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man working on a similar song about a Frankish bishop and saint, “Don’t Stop til You Get Arnulf (of Metz)” I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.