Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

Bede (672-735)

I wonder if you know what a monastery is. If not, I must tell you, or you would never understand about Bede and the place he lived in when he was a little boy.

A monastery is a house where monks live.

In the days of Bede there were a great many more monasteries in England than there are now, and a great many more monks.

There was no printing then, so everything had to be written, and it was part of the duty of the monks to write out the books, for other people had not time. Over all these monks was a man called an Abbot, who taught the young monks and looked after them.

It was very near a great monastery at Jarrow, in the county of Durham, that Bede was born.

About ten years before, another boy, called Caedmon, had lived in these same parts, and that boy had made himself famous by making the first English song. Bede became still more famous by writing the first history about the English people.

When Bede was seven years old he was left an orphan, and sent to the great monastery near his home. He was put under the charge of the old Abbot, whose name was Benedict.

There he lived a very happy life. When still a little boy he was made a chorister, and he loved to sing the old Roman chants with the other monks. He was very fond of study, and he would sit and pore over his books all day, eager to learn all he could.

Little by little he learnt all that was known about the stars at that time; he could read and write well, and do sums.

The Abbot Benedict taught him that his first duty was "to love the Lord God with all his heart;" his second duty, "to love his neighbour as himself," and, "to do unto others as he would have others do unto him."

When he had only been a few years under Benedict, he was placed under another Abbot. There were then twenty-two monks in the monastery.

Very soon after this change, a bad sickness broke out in the monastery, and every one died except "the Abbot and one little boy, who still continued to chant in the midst of his tears and sorrows." This little boy was Bede. The monastery soon filled again, and Bede became one of the best scholars. At the age of nineteen he was made a deacon, which shows how well he must have worked to be thought fit to teach others at such an early age.

Bede says, "It was always sweet to me to learn, to teach, and to write."

Before long he had six hundred pupils, all anxious to be taught by the great scholar, who was so willing to teach all he had learnt himself, with so much patience.

For these pupils he wrote many small books about music, arithmetic, and poetry, to help them; and he wrote the names of some of his favourite scholars in the beginning.

About this time he wrote a large history of the Church of England. He wrote it all in Latin, but Alfred the Great translated it later into English.

This large history tells us about the Pope Gregory, and how he tried to make the people Christians. It tells us, among other things, how one day Gregory saw some beautiful boys with fair skin and long fair hair standing in the market at Rome waiting to be sold as slaves. He asked who they were, and was told they were heathen boys from Britain. Gregory asked again the name of their nation.

"Angles," he was told.

"Not angles, but angels," he replied, "with faces so angel-like. What is the name of their king?" "Ella," they told him.

"Alleluia shall be sung there," cried Gregory, and passed on, resolved to bring about in some way the conversion of England.

And so he did. Not long afterwards he sent a party of monks to England, and very slowly, after much opposition, heathenism was swept away, and our island became the Christian England it has remained ever since.

All this and a great deal more, Bede tells us in his history.

He also wrote a book of verses in the English tongue, of which he was so fond. His last work was a translation of St. John's Gospel into English, which he hoped to complete before his death. This he did though not without difficulty.

Early in 735 Bede had a severe attack of asthma, which left him very weak and in much pain.

Still he worked on among his scholars, wishing to leave them well-taught.

"I don't want my boys to work to no purpose after I am gone," he said, when he was urged to take his much-needed rest.

The tears of his pupils mingled strangely with the old man's seeming gaiety and frequent bursts of English song.

"Learn with what speed ye may," he said cheerfully to his scholars, "I know not how long I may last."

The day before his death he passed another sleepless night, and morning found him weaker than before. His translation was not finished.

"There is yet one chapter more, but it seems irksome for you to speak," said the scribe, perceiving his increased weakness.

"It is easy: take another pen, dip it in the ink, and write quickly," replied his master.

The day wore on.

"There is yet, dear master, one sentence wanting," said the little scribe.

"Write it quickly," was the whispered reply. "It is finished now," said the boy at last.

"Thou hast said the truth, all is finished now. Lift me over against the place where I was wont to pray."

As the last words fell on the ears of the little knot of scholars around him, they obeyed, and so placed on the floor of his cell, his head supported by his sorrowing pupils, Bede chanted "Glory to God," as he was wont to do. As he uttered the last words, he passed quietly away.

Thus died the "Father of English learning," the first great English scholar, England's first historian, loved and honoured to the last, and worthy of the name bestowed on him by later ages, "The Venerable Bede."