Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Leo Sherley-Price's translation brings us an accurate and readable version, in modern English, of a unique historical document.

This edition now includes Bede's Letter to Egbert concerning pastoral care in early Anglo-Saxon England, at the heart of which lay Bede's denunciation of the false monasteries; and The Death of Bede, an admirable eye-witness account by Cuthbert, monk and later Abbot of Jarrow, both translated by D.H. Farmer.

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What Bede wants to tell us is going to be within the explicit framework of a story of the growth and progression from strength to strength of Christianity in the British Isles, if necessary irrespective of the facts.

But it's also a rather long history, and there are certainly sections that are going to be boring for those who aren't a specialist in Christian conversion, Anglo Saxon kingship, or the Paschal Controversy.

King Ethelbert, after listening to the preachings of Augustine, says the following (according to Bede): "Your words and promises are fair indeed, but they are new and uncertain, and I cannot accept them and abandon the age-old beliefs that I have held, together with the whole English nation.

Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum is one of the most important sources on the early Germanic settlement of Britain, the founding of the early kingdoms and the growth of Christianity amongst the English. By modern historical standards the work would be considered unreliable because Bede interprets history with a strong Christian and Northumbrian bias, causing modern historians to use a little caution while using this text to reconstruct the period.

I also find it incredibly interesting how many times St. Bede alludes to Virgil's Aeneid throughout the five volumes.

When Thucydides sat down about 400 years before the birth of Christ to write The History of the Peloponnesian War, his chronological ordering of events was a radical break with what had gone before. Even The Histories of Herodotus, written about 40 years before Thucydides put quill to parchment, have a confusing, scattergun approach with chronology largely absent. The illiterate Anglo-Saxons retreat from recorded history and into archaeology and rarely emerge until 731 when Bede wrote his magnificent History of the English Church and People and it was another Mediterranean arrival that made this possible: Christianity. The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons pushed Christianity back to the remaining British areas, Wales, the north-east, and Cornwall, where, disconnected from it, they developed in a rather different way from the Roman church Augustine represented. But the competition between religious men, the only literate section of the population, and the simultaneous replacement of illiterate paganism by literate Christianity through the seventh century led to an early flowering of English writing. It was the Anglo-Saxons, wrote Dorothy Whitelock who in the eighth century led the scholarship of Western Europe, who were mainly responsible for the conversion to Christianity of the of the German and Scandinavian peoples, and who, alone of the Germanic races, have left behind from so early a date a noble literature in verse and prose. Bede sheds some light through the murk of Anglo-Saxon history. He matter-of-factly describes how, in 449, the British King Vortigern, deserted by Rome and plagued by barbarian raids, invited Anglo-Saxon mercenaries from Germany to protect Britain. Under their chieftans Hengist and Horsa, the Anglo-Saxons arrived in three longships, and were granted lands in the eastern part of the island on condition that they protected the countryThey engaged the enemy advancing from the north, and having defeated them, sent back news of their success to their homeland, adding that the country was fertile and the Britons cowardly. In a similarly matter-of-fact way Bede describes the fighting between the British and the Anglo-Saxons in the sixth century and the internecine fighting between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria, Kent, and Wessex, and the spread of Christianity in the seventh century. More importantly, like Thucydides, who had been a general in the Peloponnesian War, Bede was working mostly with first or second hand information. As importantly perhaps, Bede called his book a history of the English People. At a time when the Anglo-Saxons were still divided into often warring kingdoms Bede had a conception of them as a common English polity. Much of what we know of the life of arguably the greatest Englishman who ever lived comes from Life of King Alfred written in 893 by Asser, a friend of Alfreds who, showing again the link between Christianity and history, was a Bishop. If Bedes work was important for its identification of an English people with a shared identity Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain sought to tell the other side of the story. Geoffrey was, after all, a Briton from south-east Wales who called the Anglo-Saxons the odious race. Where Bede told the story of the birth of England, Geoffreys story was the death of Britain. This partly explains why, despite being written around 1136, 400 years after Bede, Geoffreys book, replete with giants, dragons, and wizards, represents a regression in historical writing away from Thucydides and towards Homer. Geoffrey claimed to have based his work on a certain very ancient book written in the British language and just because no such book, other than that compiled under the name Nennius, has come down to us doesnt mean it didnt exist. This particular Brutus never existed; Rome was never sacked by a Briton called Belinus; and Geoffreys Arthur is far nearer to the fictional hero of the later Arthurian romancesthan to the historical Arthur. Geoffreys book gives us much more detail on the lives of, say, Hengist and Horsa than Bede does, but then most of it is made up or probably taken from something made up.

Several of the English kingdoms celebrated Easter on the day following Jewish Passover. This debate was not settled until 664 when the Synod of Whitby decreed that the method prescribed by the Roman Catholic Church must be followed throughout England.

Bede was moreover a skilled linguist and translator, and his work with the Latin and Greek writings of the early Church Fathers contributed significantly to English Christianity, making the writings much more accessible to his fellow Anglo-Saxons.

  • English

  • History

  • Rating: 3.84
  • Pages: 400
  • Publish Date: September 27th 1990 by Penguin Classics
  • Isbn10: 014044565X
  • Isbn13: 9780140445657