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Mabillon, and apparently so well borne out by Bede's own words, is perhaps the best that can be adopted.
It is always to be regretted, when little is known of the early life of eminent men, as in all cases where many facts have been handed down concerning the years of their youth, something or other has invariably broken forth significant of their future life and fortunes. So very little, however, is known of this great ornament of England and father of the universal church, that, except his own writings, the letter of Cuthbert his disciple, and one or two other almost contemporary records, we have no means whatever of tracing his private history.
The place of his birth is said by Bede himself to have been in the territory afterwards belonging to the twin-monasteries of St. Peter and St. Paul, at Wearmouth and Jarrow. The whole of this territory, lying along the coast near the mouths of the rivers Tyne and Wear, was granted to abbat Benedict by king Egfrid two years after the birth of Bede. William of Malmesbury points out more minutely the spot where our author first saw the light. His words are these: “Britain, which some writers have called another world, because, from its lying at a distance, it has been overlooked by most geographers, contains in its remotest parts a place on the borders of Scotland, where Bede was born and educated. The whole country was formerly studded with monasteries, and beautiful cities founded therein by the Romans; but now, owing to the devastations of the Danes and Normans, it has nothing to allure the senses. Through it runs the Wear, a river of no mean width, and of tolerable rapidity. It flows into the sea, and receives ships, which are driven thither by the wind, into its tranquil bosom. A certain Benedict built two churches on its banks, and founded there two monasteries, named after St. Peter and St. Paul, and united together by the same rule and bond of brotherly love."* The birth of Bede happened in the third year of Egfrid, son of Oswy, the first of the kings of Northumberland, after the union of the provinces Deira and Bernicia into one monarchy. The dominions of this king extended from the Humber to the Frith of Forth, and comprehended all the six northern counties of England, and the
* Hist, of the Kings of England, book i. chap. iii., p. 54.
whole of the southern part of Scotland. The piety of Egfrid induced him to grant the large tract of land above mentioned to one Biscop, surnamed Benedict, who had formerly been one of his thanes, but now became a monk, and built thereon a monastery, which he dedicated to St. Peter, on the north bank of the river Wear, and which from this circumstance derived the name of Wearmouth. The same pious abbat, eight years after [A.D. 682], built another monastic establishment, which he dedicated to St. Paul, at Jarrow, on the banks of the Tyne, at the distance of about fire miles from the former. In memory of this, the following inscription, which has been preserved, was carved on a tablet in the church at Jarrow:
Anno XV Egfridi regis
Conditoris anno IV,
in the fifteenth year of king Egfrid
who, under God, founded the same church. These two establishments were for many years ruled by Benedict himself, and his associates Ceolfrid, Easterwin, and Sigfrid, and from the unity and concord which prevailed between the two, deserved rather, as Bede expresses it, to be called “one single monastery built in two different places.” *
We cannot be certain as to the exact spot, but it is sufficiently near the mark to ascertain that Bede was born in the neighbourhood of these two monasteries, and probably in the village of Jarrow.
Of his parents nothing has been recorded. He tells us, in his own short narrative of himself, that he was placed, at the age of seven years, under the care of abbat Benedict, in ,the abbey of Wearmouth, that of Jarrow being not yet built. When, however, this second establishment was founded, Bede appears to have gone thither under Ceolfrid
* Leland. Antiq. de Reb. Brit. Coll. ed. Hearne, iii. 42.
its first abbat, and to have resided there all the remainder of his life.
Sect. 2.—Of his youth. For a youth of such studious habits and indefatigable industry, no situation could have been more appropriate than that in which he was now placed. Benedict Biscop, the founder of the monasteries, was a man of extraordinary learning and singular piety. Though a nobleman by birth, he was unwearied in the pursuit of knowledge, and in ameliorating the condition of his country. In order to accomplish his benevolent intentions, he travelled into other countries, and introduced not only foreign literature, but arts hitherto unknown, into our island. He was the first who brought masons and glaziers home with him, having need of their services in the noble buildings which he erected. He travelled four or five times to Rome, and became intimate with Pope Agatho. Here he was much captivated with the liturgy of the Roman church, and their manner of chanting, for until then the Gallican or Mozarabic liturgy was used both in Britain and Ireland, as is alluded to in Augustine's Questions to pope Gregory. Each time, on his return to England, Benedict carried back with him the most valuable books and costly relics and works of art which could be procured for money. This collection, which was, by his orders, preserved with peculiar care, received considerable augmentations from the zeal and munificence of his successors. Bede's thirst for study was here, no doubt, satisfied : so large and valuable a library could scarcely have been within his reach elsewhere, even among the other Benedictines of the day, however well qualified that order was to encourage a taste for learning, and to provide means for gratifying that taste among its fosterlings. In so large a community, too, as that of Wearmouth, there were doubtlessly many scholars of mature age, who would all assist in promoting the studies of so talented a youth as he who was now introduced within their walls.
Bede was not, however, left to chance, or the untutored dictates of his own youthful fancy, to find his way as he could through the years spent in the rudiments of learning. In the study of theology and the Holy Scriptures, he received, as he himself tells us,* the instructions of Trumhere, a monk;. who had been educated under the holy Chad, bishop of Lichfield. The art of chanting, as it was practised at Rome, was taught him by John, the arch-chanter of St. Peter's at Rome, who had been, by the consent of pope Agatho, brought into Britain by Biscop Benedict. This celebrated singer attracted multitudes of people from the counties adjoining to the monastery of Wearmouth to witness his performances. It has also been said by Stubbs, † that Bede received instructions from John of Beverley, the disciple of archbishop Theodore ; and possibly this may have been the case, as he might also from others learned in the Greek and Latin tongue who were in the company of that famous archbishop ; but Mabillon thinks that the author above referred to has made a confusion between the two Johns, for there is no other mention whatever made of his being a pupil of John of Beverley. It is certain, however, that Bede possessed considerable knowledge, not only in the Latin and Greek languages, but also in the Hebrew, although nothing remains which has been ascribed to him in that language, save a vocabulary, entitled “ Interpretatio Nominum Hebraicorum,” which is now admitted to be the production of another. In the Greek tongue he must have made considerable proficiency, as appears from his “ Ars Metrica,” and from his having translated the life of Anastasius and the Gospel of St. John out of that language into Latin. The last two of these productions are no longer extant.
Whatever advantages, however, Bede may have enjoyed, the greatest was his own ardour in the pursuit of learning ; and let us remember, that the rules of the monastic institutions did not leave the student the uncontrolled disposal of his own time. Many offices, not wholly menial, were performed by the brethren ; he himself instances Biscop the founder, and says, that, like the rest of the brothers, he delighted to exercise himself in winnowing the corn, and threshing it, in giving milk to the lambs and calves, in the bakehouse, in the garden, in the kitchen, and in the other employments of the monastery ; a considerable portion of the day was spent in discharging the duties required by the monastic rules, and in the daily service and psalmody of the
* Ecclesiastical Hist. iv. 3, page 177. + Act. Pontif. Eborac.
church. · All his leisure time was not even then occupied in reading ; part was devoted to writing and to the instruction of others. His own words are here in point: “ All my life I spent in that same monastery, giving my whole attention to the study of the Holy Scriptures, and in the intervals between the hours of regular discipline and the duties of singing in the church, I always took pleasure in learning, or teaching, or writing something."
Sect. 3.—Of his admission to Holy Orders. The twenty-fifth year of one's age, was then, as the twentyfourth at present, the limit of admission to Deacon's Orders. Of his own entry into this holy ordination, let us hear what he says himself, “In the nineteenth year of my life I was made deacon, and in the thirtieth was ordained priest ; both ordinances were conferred on me by bishop John, at the bidding of abbat Ceolfrid.”
This John was bishop of Hagulstad, now Hexham, in the county of Northumberland, and the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow were in his diocese, for the see of Durham did not exist until a later period, when the brotherhood of Lindisfarne settled there, carrying with them the bones of St. Cuthbert. This John is also better known by the name of John of Beverley, and is mentioned in high terms by Bede in his History.
So remarkable a deviation from the general rule as the ordination of a candidate for Holy Orders in the nineteenth year of his age, is in itself a sufficient proof of the estimation in which the young student was held. His piety, moreover, must have been well known to the abbat who sent him for ordination, and to the bishop, who hesitated not to admit him so prematurely to that holy rite. It is moreover said of him that in his ardour for study, he declined to be raised to the dignity of an abbat, lest the distraction to which the care of such an establishment, or family, as the historian expresses it, would subject him, might allow him less time and leisure for his favourite pursuits. “The office," as he expressed it, “demands thoughtfulness, and thoughtfulness brings with it distraction of the mind, which impedes the pursuit of learning."*
Trithem, de Viris illust. ord. Bened. i. 21, 34,
. Griginal meaning?