The Father of English History

St. Bede the Venerable

Today is the feast of St. Bede and it is an important day for the Catholic Textbook Project. In 2000 at CTP’s inception, our first General Editor, Dr. Rollin Lasseter chose to put the new venture under the patronage of Venerable Bede, Doctor of the Church. Besides finding it natural to seek help from the Catholic Church’s patron saint of historians, Dr. Lasseter, as a convert from Anglicanism, wanted a bridge to the England that was once universally Catholic. He also found inspiration in St. Bede’s honoring the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, as the greatest event in human history – a theme which remains unbroken throughout the CTP history books. 

Dr. Lasseter and his wife, Ruth, made a pilgrimage in 2000 to Durham Cathedral in England to visit the tomb of St. Bede where they prayed for his heavenly assistance and guidance of CTP. Upon the tombstone itself is inscribed one word:  “Bede.” Above the tomb are inscribed words written by St. Bede himself:  Christ is the Morning Star, who, when the night of this world is past, brings to His saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day. Through the years that he wrote, until his death in 2008, Dr. Lasseter kept an image of Saint Bede on his computer screen and also in a small frame above his desk.

Who was this man that inspired Dr. Lasseter? In CTP’s Light to the Nations (Part I, pg. 205) is written:

“A man who was said to be the most learned man of his time was a monk who rarely left his monastery – St. Bede, the Venerable. In 679 when Bede was seven years old, his well-to-do parents entrusted him to the care of Ceolfrith, co-abbot of Jarrow Abbey in Northumbria. The boy had a talent for language and words, a fine appreciation of poetry and music, as well as a prodigious memory. Bede spent the rest of his life in the confines of Jarrow, free to study and ponder the works in the large monastic library. Bede is mostly remembered today for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a history of England from the landing of Julius Caesar to Bede’s own time. But Bede was more than just a historian. He wrote on many subjects, including grammar, music, and natural science. He was also a poet and a composer of hymns.”

Remains of Jarrow Abbey

About two centuries before Bede’s birth the Roman Empire had begun its slow decline, eventually dissolving with the dramatic invasions of the barbarian tribes from the North. Much of classical civilization and learning was in danger of being lost during the following chaos and social dissolution. Benedictine monasteries were invaluable in bringing peace amidst the destruction and preserving learning. St. Bede’s scholarship contributed to remaking the Dark Ages into Christendom.

In the closing chapter of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, we see the method of Bede’s historical writing: “Thus much concerning the ecclesiastical history of Britain and especially the race of the English, I, Bede, a servant of Christ and priest of the monastery of the Blessed Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, which is at Wearmouth and at Jarrow, have with the Lord’s help composed as far as I could gather it either from ancient documents or from from the traditions of the elders or from my own knowledge.” Another of trait of his writings (which to us moderns is common practice) was unusual in his day – the noting of the passages he borrowed from other writers or referencing his sources. 

Historical scholar and fellow Benedictine, Francis Aidan Cardinal Gasquet, wrote of St. Bede’s work:

“When we compare the work done under the inspiration of Bede at Wearmouth and Jarrow with other literary efforts of the seventh and eighth centuries, one characteristic at once strikes us. The work of that northern school is what may be called ‘thorough and scholarly’… It will bear the test of examination: it carries with it evidence of wide reading and full knowledge utilized with judgement and critical tact, and for this it became a model to subsequent generations… Reflect how his great record of our own country was composed. Remember that its author was a man who lived his whole life within the narrow circuit of a few miles; remember also the difficulty of obtaining information in those days. Still, to acquire knowledge, and accurate knowledge, he went to work precisely as the historian would at the present day, never resting till he had got at the best sources of information attainable at the cost of whatever time or patience or labour it might involve. It is only now, in this age of minute criticism, that we can realize the full excellence of Bede’s historical methods.”

However, St. Bede’s writing is not only know for it’s scholarly quality, but also for its beauty. His history was not dry, but engaging, eloquent, and at times, poetic. Dr. Lasseter hoped these qualities would also be the distinguishing marks of the CTP’s books.