Saturday, April 14, 2012

Book Review: Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede

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Lindisfarne Church

This is an excellent translation of the "father of English history"'s most popular (and presumably finest) work Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In this history, Bede tells the story of the first evangelization of the Britons by Roman missionaries, then the destruction of the Briton church in the invasion of the Saxons, and finally the re-evangelization of the "English" (="Anglos and Saxons"/"Anglo-Saxons") by the Celtic church in Ireland and the Roman church on the continent (though the missionary work of Augustine of Canterbury).
This second evangelization is the one that stuck and, the remainder of the history is the two-fold story of the spread of the Gospel through the various English kingdoms (including Mercia, Northumbria, and the various smaller Saxon kingdoms), and the conflict and eventual reconciliation between the different practices (the date of Easter and the proper form of clerical attire) of the Celtic and Roman churches.
Overall, the themes of the book are how the Gospel brings life to a dead world (England) and unity of faith from a diversity of peoples and practices. Bede is evenhanded in his treatment of people he disagrees with (the Celtic church), admitting that the difference is merely one of practice and not one of doctrine. Even better, the issues that separate Christians at the time are 1) never resolved with force; and 2) never resolved by appeals to authority. At this stage, even intervention by the Bishop of Rome (never called "Pope") merely takes the form of argument and encouragement, not command. Eventually, the differences over the date of Easter and clerical vestments are resolved through a series of synods and pulpit preaching, with no ill-will, loss of rights, or persecution on either side. Granted, the process takes almost two hundred years, but it's not like Christians don't have the time...

There are three big drawbacks to this book:
-First, the Gospel is not clearly presented, and in fact is occasionally obscured by various dream sequences and mystical visions that portray good works as the way to get into heaven. The fact that these are merely dreams softens the difficulty somewhat, but Bede doesn't do a very good job of straightening out his theology of grace (though in the letters by and about Bede appended by Penguin Classics to the end much of this is resolved). Having said that, the overall presentation of Christianity in the book is a fine one, and has much to commend it.
-Second, there are many miracles reported. I'm not sure if this fully counts as a "downside" or not, since by and large the miracles are used to demonstrate the holiness and veracity of the various Christians being discussed, rather than to prove the truth of Christianity. Which I think is much less objectionable, even if as a historian I look askance and many of them.
-Third, the lists of names of kings and bishops gets a bit tedious. I know, I know, it's a history, we're supposed to care about stuff like that. But I suspect that one of the reasons that I am more of a Classicist than a Medievalist is that I just don't care about all of the petty kings scattered across England (or all of Western Europe for that matter), any more than I care to read a list of the mayors of New York. They may very well be good or bad people, and they may be important in their own right, but it's just not the same as studying the Emperors of Rome or the Presidents of the United States.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading this book and think I've gained a bit from it, and would cheerfully recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter.

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