The Venerable Bede (673/4–735) was the first historian to write in English, which makes him a very important author.
He wrote on many subjects; being a priest, it was of course mostly about religious matters, but also on English Grammar and vocabulary. The most original of Bede’s contributions to writing was his kind of martyrology. He went beyond simply recording martyrs and places of execution in a calendar (which is all existing work of this kind did) but rather sought briefly ‘to record’ as he put it, ‘all I could discover, not only the day of martyrdom but by what kind of combat and under whom as judge they overcame the world’. He gave short accounts of 116 saints,which reflects extensive research. In 716 or later Bede completed a history of the foundation of his monastery and of its abbots. It is largely non-hagiographical in style. Though concerned to edify, it contains much solid information and nothing of the miraculous, and has been claimed to be the most ‘modern’ of Bede’s works in its treatment of motive.
Though he spent all his life in the far north of England, mostly at the monastery of Jarrow, he managed to write the first history of the English, by describing the various races up to the time they were converted to Christianity, and of course the benefits they gained from their conversions. Bede gathered from numerous kingdoms and dioceses was most remarkable. It was variously dated, if at all. Bede’s achievement in co-ordination was outstanding.By far the larger part of present knowledge of the church and rulers of early England comes from him.
Bede can indeed seem almost like a modern historian, for example in his inclusion of original documents, his concern to state and to cite his sources, his exact chronology.But he was not concerned to record political and secular events except in so far as they related to the history of the church or displayed God’s judgement
But what intrigues me with his blatant manipulation of his writing. when he wrote of kings, he warned that he would only do so if they behaved in an acceptably Christian way; otherwise, he would erase them from the record, so he was being manipulative, as well as appealing to the great vanity of kings. This raises questions as to who was and was not included.
Recognition of Bede’s qualities has flourished since his own day. Boniface wrote that he shone like a candle of the church by his knowledge of the scriptures. Soon after his death he came to be regarded as a saint. In his poem on the bishops, kings, and saints of York, Alcuin attributes a miracle to his relics. Boniface gave Abbot Cuthbert silk in which to wrap them. In due course both Fulda and Glastonbury claimed to have such relics. At the Council of Aachen in 836, he was characterized as an ‘honourable and admirable teacher’ and put on an equal level with the fathers. From the ninth century he was sometimes or commonly called Venerabilis (but this sobriquet was commonly given to priests). His reputation extended as far as Ireland. In a later century he was commemorated by Dante who put him beside Isidore in paradise. The extent of his fame can be judged partly by the extent to which works by others were falsely attributed to him.