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PREFACE TO BEDA.
§ 1. It is a cause for deep regret that no contemporary life of the Venerable Beda' has reached our times. Whilst we have detailed and authentic information respecting his less important contemporaries, St. Guthlac and St. Cuthbert, St. Columbanus and St. Wilfrid, St. Wilbrord and St. Willibald, we are left without any such guide when investigating the life of the earliest English historian. What he did so willingly and so well for others, others did not do for him. No biography of him anterior to the eleventh or twelfth century is known to exist; and that, as might have been expected, is too vague to be of any critical value.
§ 2. Yet, assuredly, this deficiency in our early literature did not arise from any ignorance on the part of his contemporaries respecting the merits of Beda, or from any unwillingness to acknowledge them with due respect and reverence. Shortly after his death his sanctity was universally admitted, having been established by the miracles said to have been wrought by his relics. His works were circulated far and wide among the principal churches of the continent, and were eagerly sought after and studied by the most learned men throughout Europe. Nor was this reputation of a transitory character, for it extended with each succeeding generation ; and the history of our early church exhibits few individuals whose character stands higher, either for moral worth or literary acquirements, than does that of the Venerable Beda.
§ 3. We must therefore look elsewhere for the reasons of this apparent neglect; nor will it be difficult to find them. They arise from the character of the historian's life, which passed without the occurrence of any of those incidents which afford the chief scope for the exercise of the biographer's occupation. Had a life of Beda been written by a contemporary, it would almost necessarily have been scanty, even to meagreness; and though we might have possessed definite information upon many points which are at present obscure, or even unknown to us, yet in all probability we should not have been gainers to the extent which at first might be anticipated. These remarks, let it be remembered, apply only to the external incidents of his life. Had he possessed a biographer enabled, by circumstances and kindred feeling, to record his conversation and the tone and character of his mind, to furnish us with the picture
1 The editor has not hesitated to discard the erroneous form of Bede, and to restore to our historian his true name of Beda. Not only is this the correct and grammatical termination, but by this designation he was known to our earlier English writers, such as Jewell, (Works, iv. 778, 779) Fulke, (Rhemish Testament, 1 Epist. John iii. annot. 4. Apoc. ix. 1,) Featley, (Clavis Mystica, p. 393,) and many others. Pref. to Beda.
of his every-day occupations, as he was at study in the cell, or at prayer in the church, and to admit us to communion with his spirit as his days passed in the retirement of the monastery, this indeed would have been a treasure. Yet we scarcely have a right to expect such a document. Beda was, in his own time, no prominent character. The placid devotion of his existence in this world was similar to that of thousands of others whose good works and labours of love are unrecorded, and whose very names are forgotten. His learning, extensive as it was, drew no very marked distinction between himself and his fellows, for he lived in a learned age, and among those by whom learning could be appreciated; he left behind him a wide circle of learned scholars; and, generally speaking, the mere possession of literature affords no sufficient scope, in itself, for the biographer. His peculiar recommendation as the historian of the English church, in which character he is best known to later generations, arises partly indeed from the merits of the work itself; yet not entirely. That reputation is, in some measure, the growth of the centuries which have passed between his era and our
His contemporaries could not, in their day, anticipate the combination of circumstances which stamp upon every page of that precious document the peculiar value with which time has invested it. It is without a rival in the literature of our country. However much, therefore, we may lament the absence of an early biography of Beda, we ought not to be surprised at this omission. There was not much to record beyond his birth and his death, his prayers and his labours. He did not, like St. Guthlac, retire into the wilderness, and wage war with the evil spirits by which it was haunted. He did not like St. Cuthbert, lay aside the bishop's robe for the hermit's cowl, and exchange the splendour of a court for the solitude of a rocky island. He did not, like St. Columbanus, carry the reputation of his native church into foreign countries, and establish monasteries which should vie with each other in recording the history of their founder. He did not, like St. Wilfrid of York, plead his cause before kings and synods, and strive, through all opposition, to raise the ecclesiastical power above the secular authority. He did not, like St. Wilbrord and St. Willibald, preach Christianity among the heathen, and leave home and kindred for the extension of the everlasting gospel. Had he done any of these things he would, most probably, have found a biographer ; but his life presented no such salient points, and it was unrecorded.
§ 4. Yet we must not suppose that no authentic materials remain whereupon a life of Beda may be founded.' He himself has
1 The earliest of these appears to be the “Vita Venerabilis Bedæ, Presbyteri, et Giruensis Monachi," a translation of which is appended to this Preface, see p. xxxix.
A second life, apparently of the thirteenth century, is contained in the Barlow MS. 39, fol. 143 (see § 82). It is framed on Beda's information respecting himself, gleaned, with some care, from his various writings, and it consequently supplies us with no new facts, as the writer candidly admits, for he thus humbly expresses himself :-“Nos autem novam materiam non invenimus; sed more fabri, vetera et usu ita ac particulatim comminuta in ignem reponentes, follium ac incudis seu malleoli adjutorio in unum readunamus." He states that Beda died upon the 7th of the kalends of June, A.D. 734, being Ascension-day. The
furnished us with an outline of his personal history; a few other details may be gleaned from his writings; and the affectionate regard of one of his scholars has preserved a minute and most touching account of his last moments. Upon these the subsequent sketch is framed, in the course of which the editor will avail himself of such incidental illustrations as may be gathered from other credible authorities.
§ 5. Of the descent or family of Beda nothing is known. He gives us no information respecting the names, circumstances, or rank of his parents; and other writers leave us in the same ignorance upon these particulars. But hence to conclude that he was of lowly origin' would be no fair inference ; for such was his humility that he would, doubtless, have lightly esteemed the advantages of birth, had he possessed them. He was born, according to the most probable calculation, in the year 674, although other writers prefer A.D. 672 or 673. In a previous work the editor stated his belief that the arguments preponderated in favour of the year 674; more recent authors, however, have conceived that this date is certainly one, possibly two years too late. Yet upon a renewed examination of the question, it appears to have lost none of its former verisimilitude, and he has seen no reason to abandon it for any other editor considers it unnecessary to print this narrative. It commences with the words, “ Operæ prætium est cognoscere et celebri memoria tenendum posteritati mandare."
Simeon of Durham, notwithstanding his local advantages, contents himself with inserting in the first book of his Ecclesiastical History of that see, almost in Beda's own words, an account of the erection of the monastery at Jarrow, an extract from the introduction to the Ecclesiastical History, a list of his writings, and lastly, the letter from Cuthbert to Cuthwin. He mentions, incidentally, the translation of Beda's remains at Durham, (of which we know from other autho. rity that he was an eye-witness,) and that the “ porch " of the church of Jarrow had beer dedicated to him. From this writer we also learn that there existed, in his day, a “mansiuncula” of stone, in which report said that our historian had been used to study and meditate. For these particulars the reader is referred to Simeon's own history, which forms part of the present series.
Mabillon (Act. SS. Ordinis S. Bened. sec. iii. p. i. p. 501) has given, from a manuscript which formerly belonged to De Thou, a short life of Beda, which professes to have been written by one Anthony, his disciple. It agrees very closely in facts, arrangement, and diction with the production of Simeon; and as it also contains an allusion to Beda's removal at Durham, it must have been written or interpolated after the occurrence of that event; see this Preface, (8 42.)
The compilers of the Acta Sanctorum have inserted in that work (Maii, vi. 718) a life of Beda, which is only, as they remark, a series of extracts from Simeon of Durham and Beda himself, appended to which is Cuthbert's letter to Cuthwin. They refer to another account, which they did not think it advisable to print, in consequence of the fables with which it was interspersed. The same character may be assigned to the legend inserted in the compilation of John Capgrave, (Nova Legenda Angliæ, fol. xxxiii.b. ed. Lond. 1516.)
Beyond these materials we have no other information respecting the life of Beda, excepting a few particulars, which will be noticed in the present memoir.
Whence the Magdeburg Centuriators obtained their authority for the statement which they make upon this point does not appear.
The editor is aware that by far the greater number of authorities ascribe his birth to either 672 or 673. The author of the Life in the Biographia Britannica, and Mr.Wright (p. 264), hesitate between these two years. The earlier date is supported by Smith in his edition of the Hist. Eccl. (p. 222), by Cave (Hist. Eccl. i. 612), by Du Pin, cent. viii. p. 89 (fol. Lond. 1693), and by Natalis Alexand. vi. 30 (fol. Venet. 1778). The year 673 is preferred by Fleury, xlii. $ 13, and by Archbishop Ussher, Antiq. Brit. pp. 491, 538.
which has been proposed. It becomes necessary, therefore, that we examine in detail the arguments upon which each theory is founded.
$ 6. Beda tells us ($ 451) that he finished his History in the year 731; and in an appendix to that work ($ 454) he states that, from the time when he received the presbyterate until his fifty-ninth year, he had devoted himself to reading and writing, and that he was the author of certain books, one of which was the Historia Ecclesiastica. It has been customary thence to assume that he was in his fiftyninth
year in A.D. 731 ; and this being admitted, we are carried back to 672, or perhaps to 673, for the date of his birth. The position of the editor however is, that thus to synchronize a. D. 731 with Beda's fifty-ninth year is a hasty assumption, which will not bear the test of a closer scrutiny.
§ 7. Let us bear in mind the circumstances under which the History was written. Having finished it towards the middle of the year 731, Beda transmitted a copy to Ceolfrith, king of Northumbria, with the request that he would read it carefully, and permit it to be inscribed to himself. Both these requests were granted, and the volume was returned to its author, who, after he had made a few additions, sent it once more to the king, in the form in which we now have it. It is important for us to bear in mind the inference, that some time must necessarily have been occupied in this process, and the fact that a revision of the whole, embodying certain alterations and additions, was actually made between its first and its second presentation to Ceolfrith. That one of these additions was the prologue to the History, in the form of a letter addressed to that sovereign, is self-evident; another is an allusion to the victory gained in October 732 ($ 448) by Charles Martel over the Saracens, the information respecting which could scarcely have reached Northumbria before the end of that year; and a third, the editor apprehends is the Appendix, which contains the notice of Beda's age, already mentioned. These appear to him to have been all written in 732 at the earliest. One certainly was; and he is at a loss to conceive how, under the circumstances of the case, the others could have been written sooner. The list of Beda's writings, moreover, which is embodied in that Appendix, includes the Historia Ecclesiastica, and it must therefore have been drawn up after that work had received Ceolfrith's final approbation ; for until that period Beda could not have regarded it as a completed work, or as entirely out of his hands. There seems, then, a strong body of evidence leading us to the inference that this Appendix was written, not in 731, but in 732 at the soonest, and that this date coincides with Beda's fifty-ninth year; and so we are carried back to A. D. 674, for his birth. And this brings into harmony, as we shall presently see, the chronology of Florence of Worcester, one of our earliest and most valuable historians, which otherwise must be rejected, for it is incompatible with any other date than that for which we have been contending.
§ 8. When Benedict Biscop returned from his journey to Rome in 672, he obtained from Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria, the gift of
a large tract of ground lying on the north side of the river Wear, upon which he forthwith proceeded to erect a monastery. The territory of this monastery,” as Beda himself expresses it, was his birth-place. This passage is so rendered by king Alfred in his Anglo-Saxon version, as to have led to the supposition that the present town of Sunderland was the exact locality which Beda had expressed so vaguely. This supposition is a natural one ; and the temptation to hazard it is certainly very great. The present town of Sunderland stands within a short distance of the spot on which the ancient monastery of Wearmouth was erected, and the similarity of the name to that mentioned by Alfred, might at first sight appear conclusive evidence of identity. Yet the theory is attended with difficulties too weighty to be rejected. The present Sunderland stands on the south side of the river Wear; whereas the spot on which Beda was born was on the northern bank, as was the whole district granted by king Ecgfrith. King Alfred, moreover, as is obvious from the sentence in which it occurs, uses the word " Sundorland,” not as a proper name, but as a close rendering of Beda's Latin territorium;" and other instances occur? in which these terms are explained the one by the other. We cannot, therefore, advance beyond the information which Beda himself has given us; and we must be satisfied with knowing that he was born somewhere to the north of the river Wear, and probably at no great distance from the present port of Wearmouth.
§ 9. About the year 681' the greater part of England was ravaged by one of those devastating pestilences by which it was so frequently visited. It is by no means improbable that the parents of Beda fell victims to this scourge ; but be this as it may, it would appear that at this time he was already an orphan. It is recorded by himself that in his seventh year, which (adopting our chronology as to the period of his birth) corresponds with A.D. 681, he was handed over by his relatives to the care of Benedict Biscop, that he might be educated in the newly-erected monastery of St. Peter at Wearmouth. From the earliest period of the history of the Benedictine order, its monasteries had been more especially dedicated to the advancement of learning. It could scarce be otherwise ; for St. Benedict hesitated not to take upon himself the education of such children as were offered through him to God's service, and gladly received them within his monastery, thus necessarily entailing upon himself the responsibility of their education. No sooner was he settled at Subiaco, than Placidus and Maurus were confided to his instruction ; and the precedent thus established
“natus in territorio ejusdem monasterii”...($ 454,) which is thus rendered by king Alfred :. “wæs ic acenned on sundorlande þæs ylcan mynstres." This term "sundorland," as its etymology shows, means land set apart, or sundered from the rest for some particular purpose, as this district was for the use of the newly-founded monastery.
? Lye quotes two passages from an ancient glossary in the Cottonian MS. Julius A. ii. fol. 5 and 152, in which Sundorland is rendered by “separalis terra, prædium, fundus, territorium.” No other instance of the use of this word occurs in Alfred's version of Beda besides that already quoted.
3 “Eodem fere tempore ... multas Britanniæ provincias mortalitas sæva corripiebat.” Hist. Eccl. § 292; Annales Cambriæ, ap. Petrie and Hardy, p. 883.