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Written at the twined monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow and finished in 731, Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum is a remarkable achievement. Though it distorts the genre by focusing on the conversion of just one people and the development of their Church, Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum is the finest example of an ecclesiastical history to survive from the Latin West; but rather than taking the Historia eccesiastica of Eusebius/Rufinus as its sole model, it also draws its approach from the Bible itself and from the works of Roman secular historiography. In the Old Testament Books of Kings Bede found a model for the religious history of a chosen people whose fortunes hinged on God's judgements upon its sins, and in the Acts of the Apostles he found a model for the history of an emerging church. Hence, like the Book of Acts,
his Historia ecclesiastica presents a young church born of the feats of great evangelists, wracked at first by a dispute over customs, saved from schism by a pivotal church council, and then blessed by miracles in a show of divine favor toward a new Christian people destined to preach the Gospel even beyond the seas (R. Ray, ‘Historiography’, in F. A. C. Mantello and A. G. Rigg (eds), Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide (Washington, DC, 1996), pp. 639-49, at 643).
But if the moral structure and overarching narrative framework of Bede's work is largely derived from religious models, his methods for handling key scenes owes much to classical rhetorical tradition. This much is clear from his treatment of the confrontation between the ‘Irish’ and the ‘Romanists’ at the Synod of Whitby, where the words put into Bishop Wilfrid's mouth damn him for his arrogrance at the same as they show him having the better of the contest. As Roger Ray declares, Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum was by far the most successful history of a Barbarian people:
Written from largely regional and mainly oral information, the finished edifice of this work is full of rhetorical art. A preface that reminds one of Livy, an ethnographical essay that calls to mind Tacitus, a Latin style that smacks often of Cicero, and an inventional imagination that rivals any of these make the Historia a great triumph of medieval historiography (ibid., p. 644).
Printed Facsimiles: Blair, P. H. (ed.), The Moore Bede: Cambridge University Library MS. Kk.5.16, English Manuscripts in Facsimile 9 (Copenhagen, 1959). Cambridge Kk.5.16 may be the oldest surviving copy of Bede’s HE and a product of the Jarrow/Wearmouth scriptorium. It may have been completed as early as 737, that is within two years of Bede’s death.
Online Images: The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts offers access to images from various copies of the Historia ecclesiastica in its collections, including five images from (1) Arundel 74, a late fourteenth-century copy of East Anglian origin; nineteen images from (2) Burney 310, a late fourteenth-century manuscript which combines Bede's Historia ecclesiastica with that of Eusebius / Rufinus; seven images from (3) Harley 3680, an early twelfth-century copy from Rochester Cathedral Priory; and five images from (4) Harley 4124, a mid-twelfth-century copy from Worksop Priory. The British Library’s Online Gallery adds three images from (5) Cotton Tiberius A.XIV, a mid-eighth-century manuscript from Wearmouth/Jarrow; five images from (6) Additional MS 14250, a mid twelfth-century copy from Plympton Priory in Devon in which a brief set of annals covering the years 1143 to 1170 have been appended to the text (fols. 150r-v); three images from (7) Additional MS 25014, a late twelfth-century English copy; four images from (8) Additional MS 38817, a twelfth-century copy made at Kirkham Abbey, Yorkshire; and two images from (9) Royal 13.C.V, a late eleventh-century copy from St Peter's Abbey, Gloucester. The Catalogue of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, also offers access eight images of HM 35300, a mid fifteenth-century copy of English origin.
Text and Translation: Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, ed. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, 1969; rev. edn, Oxford, 1991). MVC.
Translation: Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; The Greater Chronicle; Bede’s Letter to Egbert, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (Oxford, 1994).
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