Jarrow and the Venerable Bede

Saturday, May 16th, 2020. Today we are thinking about a man you could claim was the most significant Englishman of the first millennium: the Venerable Bede. Though it’s thought he hardly ever travelled outside of his native Northumbria, his fame spread throughout Christian Europe. Two centuries after his death, a Swiss monk wrote “God, the orderer of natures, who raised the Sun from the East on the fourth day of Creation, in the sixth day of the world, has made Bede rise from the West as a new Sun to illuminate the world.”

Bede was born around 673 A.D. on the lands of the monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. At the age of 7, he became a boy scholar there, under the founding abbot Benedict Biscop, and his successor Ceolfrith. His education and studies there went on throughout his life, and scholarship was so important to him that, though it is thought he should have become abbot in turn, he insisted that his primary calling was study and writing.

His most famous work is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, still widely read today. It is a primary source of much of our knowledge of Britain in the first eight centuries, on the strength of which Bede has often been called ‘the father of English history’. But he was far more than just a historian. He wrote numerous biblical commentaries, saints’ lives, and hymns. He was also a man of science, and wrote a treatise called De Natura Rerum, which had chapters on

1. De Quadrifario dei opere (on the fourfold work of God) 2. De mundi formatione (on the formation of the earth) 3. Quid sit mundus (what the world is) 4. De elementis (on the elements) 5. De firmamento (on heaven) 6. De varia altitudine cœli (on the differing height of the sky) 7. De cœlo superiore (on the upper sky) 8. De aquis cœlestibus (on the celestial waters) 9. De quinque circulis mundi (on the five circles of the earth) 10. De plagis mundi (on the climes of the earth) 11. De stellis (on the stars) 12. De cursu planetarum (on the course of the planets) 13. De ordine eorum (on their arrangement).

He understood the influence of the moon on the tides, he knew the world was round, not flat, (though I’ve always believed the idea that people of the middle ages believed the world was flat is a complete myth), he invented ‘A.D.’: Anno Domini,the system of dating years from the Birth of Christ.

The first time we really realised the extent of Bede’s Europe-wide fame and influence was when we visited Melk Abbey, and saw proudly displayed in its wonderful, wonderful library, a manuscript of De Natura Rerum. But in fact his works were sought after even further afield, and can be seen on display as far away as St Petersburg, where they were in the possession of monasteries. One of these is thought to contain the earliest example of a portrait within an illuminated capital.

Our first visit this morning is to St Paul’s, Jarrow, the site of the Jarrow monastery.

St Paul’s Jarrow
St Paul’s Jarrow. The Nave, looking towards the Chancel

Much of the church building is later than the time of Bede, but the chancel is the original chapel of the monastery, dating from 681. It’s one of those special thin places where you can reflect that Bede himself prayed the Offices there, and though separated by centuries of time, we are united with him and his eighth century brethren in the communion of saints.

For lunch, what could be a more fascinating sounding place than The Viking Tandoori? Alas, it is ‘only’ an Indian restaurant, rather than one with a peculiarly Nordic flavour. Curried pickled herring, anyone? Not a chance.

After lunch we visit Jarrow Hall, the Anglo-Saxon farm, village and Bede Museum. Anglo-Saxon fun for all the family, with reconstructions of 8th century houses, people in costume weaving baskets, children dressing up as monks and practising their illuminated letters.

Later we go for a drive as Alison has a hankering for the sea, and we take a stroll along Marsden Beach.

Marsden Beach

Tomorrow we head further north. It’s a long road, and somehow The North is always beyond you, so that you wonder whether you will ever actually arrive… Perhaps that too is a parable of Life.

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