Many will have heard of the Venerable Bede (673–735) and appreciate that, to have been given that title, he must have been rather special and probably really clever. This new book by Michelle Brown explains exactly that – and more besides. Bede was clearly a most remarkable man whose intellect and reasoning was way beyond most, if not all, of his contemporaries and which still has an impact on us today.
Of course, any book by Michelle Brown is worth reading! Her knowledge in particular of this period is extensive and deep, but she wears her expertise lightly, and her writing is clear and most user-friendly. She considers Bede from a number of different aspects both the man and his work, and there are chapters about him as a monk and priest, as an historian and reformer, concerning the origins of written poetry, as a scholar and scientist, his influence on the Ceolfrith Bibles, Lindisfarne and the Lindisfarne Gospels and much more.
The three Ceolfrith Bibles, commissioned by the abbott himself, are particularly interesting and Michelle considers the text in detail and the ways in which it was influenced by Bede’s thought and writing. Two of the bibles stayed in England, one for the monastery at Jarrow and one for Monkwearmouth, but the book that became the Codex Amiatinus was taken to Italy to present to the pope. The cover of Michelle’s book shows this image of Ezra from Amiatinus, shown here. Ezra, from the Old testament, was a scribe and priest and is shown, of course, writing. The image of the scribe, with his feet resting on a footstool, an open book, and the slightly weird angle of the bench that he is sitting on is almost the same as the Matthew image in the Lindisfarne Gospels. What is sometimes missed at first glance are the instruments of making the book in the foreground. There are compasses which indicate the distances of the lines and the width of the text block, what looks like a stylus or dull point to draw the lines, and two ink sacks, probably pig’s bladders. In front of Ezra is another weirdly angled table with his inks, a well for red and a well for black.
Excitingly, though, the use of Greek letters to mark passages of note in the Codex Amiatinus (see more about this book here), Michelle suggests could actually be the hand of the great man. Bede knew Greek and was using a system of Greek letters, applied here, in an innovative way. Michelle goes further than that in suggesting that one of the seven different scribes who wrote the huge book, a pandect containing in one volume all the books of the bible, was Bede.
Her book also dispels one of the common myths that all people at this time thought that the world was flat. Bede worked out that in fact the variations in the length of shadows cast on sundials and the changes in the length of daylight hours according to latitude indicated that in fact the earth was a sphere.
The date of Easter had long been a thorny problem at this time as the calculation depended on either the ‘Nicene ruling’ or the Johannine belief. Easter was the most important date to be marked in the Christian calendar, and at a time when missionaries were still on the frontline converting non-believers it must have seemed incongruous that one sector celebrated Easter at one time and others were at that same date still observing Lent and marked Easter on a different day. This matter was considered at the Synod of Whitby in 664 at which Wilfrid promoted the Roman dating system and Colman the Ionan. Because the Roman system was based on the city where St Peter established the Christian church, being ‘the rock’ on which is was to be built, and, in addition held the keys to heaven, it was decided to adhere to the Roman dating. But Bede’s studies went further than this and he devised a system whereby the date of Easter could be accurately calculated in perpetuity.
In her extensive studies of this great man, Michelle Brown has identified a number of ‘firsts’. It is possible that the red interlinear gloss for the book of John in the Lindisfarne Gospels, written by Aldred who describes himself as ‘a miserable priest’, is in fact the translation of this gospel into English by Bede himself, in which case it would be the earliest translation of any part of the bible into the vernacular.
Bede was clearly a most remarkable man, perhaps the cleverest man there has ever been with his range of interests and the work he produced. This book brings together the many intriguing strands of the man, his huge intellect and the ways in which he influenced thought at the time and how that still applies today, as well as his extensive interests. It is the most fascinating and illuminating read, incredibly informative and detailed, and is very highly recommended.