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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

V. Latin Writings in England to the Time of Alfred

§ 6. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

The Ecclesiastical History of the English Race is, as we know, Bede’s greatest and best work. If a panegyric were likely to induce our readers to turn to it for themselves, that panegyric should be attempted here. Probably, however, a brief statement of the contents and sources of the five books will be more to the purpose. The first book, then, beginning with a description of Britian, carries the history from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the year 603, after the arrival of Augustine. Among the sources used are Pliny, Solinus, Orosius, Eutropius, Marcellinus Comes, Gildas, probably the Historia Brittonum, a Passion of St. Alban and the Life of St. Germanus of Auxerre by Constantius.

The second book begins with the death of Gregory the Great, and ends in 633, when Edwin of Northumbria was killed and Paulinus retired to Rochester.

It is in this book that the wonderful scene is described in which Edwin of Northumbria takes counsel with his nobles as to the acceptance or rejection of the Gospel as preached by Paulinus; and here occurs the unforgetable simile of the sparrow flying out of the winter night into the brightly-lighted hall and out again into the dark.

In the third book we proceed as far as 664. In this section the chief actors are Oswald, Aidan, Fursey, Cedd and Wilfred.

The fourth book, beginning with the death of Deusdedit in 664 and the subsequent arrival of his successor Theodore, with abbot Hadrian, deals with events to the year 698. The chief figures are Chad, Wilfrid, Ethelburga, Etheldreda, Hilda, Caedmon, Cuthbert.

In the fifth and last book we have stories of St. John of Beverley, of the vision of Drythelm, and others, accounts of Adamnan, Aldhelm, Wilfrid, the letter of abbot Ceolfrid to Nechtan, king of the Picts, the end of the Paschal controversy, a statement of the condition of the country in 731, a brief annalistic summary and a list of the author’s works.

In the dedication of the History to Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria, Bede enumerates the friends who had helped him in the collection of materials, whether by oral or written information. The chief of these were Albinus, abbot of Canterbury, Nothelm, afterwards archbishop, who, among other things, had copied documents preserved in the archives of Rome, and Daniel, bishop of Winchester. Bede used to the full, besides, his opportunities of intercourse with the clergy and monks of the north who had known the great men of whom he writes.

It is almost an impertinence, we feel, to dwell upon the great qualities which the History displays. That sincerity of purpose and love of truth are foremost in the author’s mind we are always sure, with whatever eyes we may view some of the tales which he records. “Where he gives a story on merely hearsay evidence, he is careful to state the fact”; and it may be added that where he has access to an original and authoritative document he gives his reader the full benefit of it.

From the literary point of view the book is admirable. There is no affectation of learning, no eccentricity of vocabulary. It seems to us to be one of the great services which Bede rendered to English writers that he gave currency to a direct and simple style. This merit is, in part, due to the tradition of the northern school in which he was brought up; but it is to his own credit that he was not led away by the fascinations of the Latinity of Aldhelm.

The popularity of the History was immediate and great. Nor was it confined to England. The two actually oldest copies which we possess, both of which may have been written before Bede died, were both produced, it seems, on the continent, one (now at Namur) perhaps at St. Hubert’s abbey in the Ardennes, the other (at Cambridge) in some such continental English colony as Epternach.

The two lives of St. Cuthbert and the lives of the abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow must not be forgotten. The lastnamed, based to some extent upon an anonymous earlier work, has very great beauty and interest; not many pictures of monastic life are so sane, so human and, at the same time, so productive of reverence and affection in the reader.

The two lives of St. Cuthbert are less important in all ways. The metrical one is the most considerable piece of verse attempted by Bede; that in prose is a not very satisfactory expansion of an earlier life by a Lindisfarne monk.

Enough has probably been said to give a general idea of the character of Bede’s studies and acquirements. Nothing could be gained by transcribing the lists of authors known to him, which are accessible in the works of Plummer and of Manitius. There is nothing to make us think that he had access to classical or Christian authors of importance not known to us. He quotes many Christian poets, but not quite so many as Aldhelm, and, clearly, does not take so much interest as his predecessor in pagan authors.