THE Encyclopedia Britannica, in its article on the Venerable Bede, says that his Ecclesiastical History is very valuable, in spite of the superstitious legends with which it is deformed. This sentence would seem to mark the article as having been written some years ago, when the study of popular legends was much less valued than at present. Far from agreeing with this conditional praise, I think it would be very hard to find a book that so well supplied what a student would desire to have. Let us suppose that we. were told for the first time that there was a writer living in England nearly twelve hundred years ago, associating with the most learned and pious men, and yet by his calling placed also in continual fellowship with the common people--the husbandmen, labourers, sailors, and fishermen of that time--should we not wish that this man's book should not be merely a dry narration of facts, but should take us at once into the life of those times? Should not we wish to go with him into the monasteries, churches, towns, woods, and fields of England as she then was, into the libraries, refectories, and guest-chambers of the monasteries, into the palaces of the kings, over the lonely moors and uplands, and into the scattered inns and houses in the desolate country-places, into the shepherds' huts, and into the sailors' and fishers' boats? All this and still more we see visibly painted for us in the simple Latin of the old monk.
There is a striking and interesting difference between the histories of Bede and those of some other of the monkish historians a few centuries later, especially Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius. From the picture of the Anglo-Saxon people in their best days, as depicted with such evident truth by Bede, from their homely life and feeling, we turn with distaste to the unreal stories of Geoffrey, such as that of Lear, for instance--stories which, however attractive Shakespeare may have made them, have no particle of reality as connected with the early history of our island, and are evidently nothing but the invention of a retired "Literator," acquainted with the classic models, and utterly careless of recording or preserving the true thought and action of his age. Following this subject farther, an exact analogy of this difference in historic writing may be traced to two distinct kinds of religious legends. The first are those which the people formed for themselves out of such worthy materials as the long-remembered life of a good man whom they had received benefits from, and whom they still loved in spite of death; the occurrence of strange and unexplained incidents, in nature or in human life; and above all, a simple faith in the reality of God's presence and of His ruling over men. The other kind are those which ecclesiastics invented in their cells, for the glory of their several orders, and in some instances no doubt from a disinterested affection for the memory of their departed brother, and a desire to forward the spread of religion. I believe it would not be difficult to determine to which of these two classes any particular legend belongs. If my test is a true one, it must be confessed that the writings of Bede contain both kinds, although the former are vastly more numerous than the latter. In his Beati Felicis confessoris Vita, a very beautiful book, he records that the saint being wanted to succour an ancient bishop who had fled into the wilderness to escape his persecutors, is released from prison by a miracle suspiciously resembling that worked on behalf of St. Peter. But so seldom does this kind of legend occur, that, at the moment of writing, I cannot remember more than one or two instances of it in our author's books. On the contrary, at the end of this very life of St. Felix, there is a beautiful instance of the nobler sort of legend, evidently springing fresh from the heart of a simple and needy rustic life. In accepting which legend, which is simply the account of a poor man who recovered his two oxen, his sole support, when stolen by thieves, we are not by any means obliged to pledge ourselves to the doctrine of the intercession of Saints, nor need we be very positive that any miracle was performed at all, but we may perhaps see in it something of a rude country-life elevated, and a weight of poverty lessened, by the glimpse of a divine truth.
Bede's most attractive books, of course, are the Ecclesiastical History, the Life of St. Cuthbert, and the Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, his own monasteries. Let us turn over a few leaves of the Ecclesiastical History. Whatever may have been the influence of the Romans in England, we find no trace of it in Bede. Whether the whole of the cities built by them were totally destroyed and swept away during the wars that immediately succeeded their leaving the island, and their institutions, manners, and almost their very memory, were forgotten like a dream, or whether, as Mr. Wright1 wishes to prove, the cities remained for centuries in some degree as the Romans had left them, and exercised a very marked influence in forming the English constitution, I have no space to inquire. But a study of Bede would, I believe, lead us to conclude that the former theory was the correct one. Not only is there no trace of the influence of the Romans on the Saxon people to be found in his books, but the character and habits of that people as there described are totally opposed to the classic refinement of the Roman colonist. As we turn over the leaves, England seems to us one great woodland, with sparse towns and hamlets, monasteries, churches, and religious houses not a few, common land in abundance, lonely uplands and moors, traversed only by shepherds and their flocks. A simple people fighting a good deal; not so much given to hunting as to friendly meetings in each other's houses; deeply religious, with a fondness for miraculous stories; not altogether unable upon occasion to stand the martyr's test, though in Bede's time the necessity for this had nearly gone by; not altogether unlearned, particularly if connected in any way with the monasteries,--Alfred, King of Deira, giving eight hides of land (about eight hundred acres) for a " beautiful book of the geographers " which the Abbot Benedict had brought from Rome; not entirely unaccustomed to the luxuries of polished life. "In the courts of princes," says Bede, "are men and women moving continually in splendid vestments,"--very strict in their moral laws, as the same extract goes on to prove. In common with the rest of the world, their exposed and hazardous life, and their constant familiarity with uncultivated nature, brought them in imagination very near to the spirit world. The traveller on horseback through the lonely woods and moors, when he reached at last, after many strange sights, the monastery where he asked shelter for the night, was entertained during supper, in the guests' apartment, with stories of the temptation and triumph of saints, of the personal appearance and conflict of evil spirits, of miraculous gifts and mercies, of delicate women made strong in martyrdom, and of horrible rites of pagan people, inspired, he was taught, directly by the Fiend. Lying down to sleep after supper, he heard the wind moan and sweep through the vast branches of the primeval forest that came up nearly to the abbey walls; sometimes the moonlight threw pallid shadows across his bed; every now and then some strange cry came to him from the depths of the wood--it might be of some beast, but not at all impossibly of that Wicked One that "walketh to and fro upon the earth." In his next day's ride there happened to him such adventure as this. Oswald of Northumbria, king and saint, fighting desperately against the pagan Mercians in the wilds of Lancashire, was slain in a great battle and his army routed. Not long after a man was travelling near the place; his horse, which had gone a long way that day, here broke down altogether, and fell to the earth dying. But happening to fall on the exact place where the blessed king was slain, the virtue of the spot was so great that it restored him at once to his former strength. His master, riding on a little farther to an inn, and finding there the niece of the landlord (paterfamilias, the Latin calls him), who had been ill for a long time, recounts his adventure for her benefit, and she, being taken out and laid on the spot, is also restored to health. Another traveller, also riding by the same place, is struck with the fresh appearance of the herbage on it, and being, as Bede says, of a reflective and religious mind, immediately concludes the ground to be possessed of some extraordinary virtue. He dismounts, and taking some of the earth in a bag, takes it away with him. Riding a little farther on, he comes to a village, and enters a house where the neighbours were feasting at supper. The house, like most others, was built of one principal room with an open (unceiled) roof. Being received by the master of the house, he sat down with the others at the feast, hanging the bag in which he brought the earth on a post against the wall. They sat long at supper, and drank hard. There was a great fire in the middle of the room, and the sparks flying up, caught the roof of the house, which, being composed of wattles and thatch, was soon in flames. The guests ran out in a fright without being able to stop the fire. The house was entirely burnt down; only that post on which the earth hung remained entirely whole and unsinged. Of course, I do not quote these stories for the miracles, but for the pictures they show us of the old Saxon life. Is it not indeed worth while to think a little on these antique travellers, so infinitely removed from their successors of to-day in everything--in their ways of travelling, in the objects of their journeys, in the sights they saw, and still more in the sights and things which it was supposed possible that they might see and encounter? As, for instance, that young traveller that St. Augustine tells of, who, watering his horse at a brook towards evening, was suddenly confronted and possessed by a devil, and underwent terrible torments until cured by divine aid. As we turn over the pages, we are taken into every scene that these travellers themselves could have come into. Into the monasteries,--as in the Life of St. Cuthbert we are taken into the travellers' apartment of one of them, where he entertains an angel whom he supposes to be a traveller, driven in for shelter by a heavy fall of snow, and who, departing, leaves no mark of his feet on the white ground; into the country houses of the princes and nobles; into the inns; to the houses of the parish priests, like that of Bishop Aidan, "a church and a few fields about it"; to small oratories and cells in the woods; past the stately monasteries in the forest from which arise the notes of singing, like that of Lastingham, to the door of which Owini, favourite of Queen Ethelred, forsaking the world, came, quitting all that he had, clothed in a plain garment, and with a hatchet in his hand to denote that he came for work and not for idleness, and near which afterward cutting wood in the forest, he one day heard miraculous melodies; into the palaces of the kings, like that in the story of Edwin the Etheling. Edwin, afterwards King of Northumbria, fled from the pursuit of his enemies to the court of Redwald, King of the East Angles. When Ethelfrid, who was persecuting him, heard where he was, he sent messengers to Redwald, his host, and after a long time, partly by threats and partly by promises, induced him to promise either to kill him or to give him up. The Etheling, being warned of this by a friend, as he was going to bed, and being afraid to stay longer in the palace (which consisted of several buildings together surrounded by a wall, the gate of which opened into the street of the town), and being equally uncertain where else to go, went out, before the gates of the king's house were closed, and sat down before the entrance. Here he sat through the night in great trouble of mind, not knowing what to do nor where to turn himself. When the deadest hour was past, just before the first ghastly light of morning came over the distant woods, there came to him, walking up the street, a person whose face and habit were equally strange. This person, after inquiring what he did there at that dismal hour, sitting alone and melancholy when every one else was asleep, comforted him, telling him that no evil should happen to him, but that he should escape from his enemies and attain to greater power than he ever expected. But he charged him, by the gratitude he owed to one who brought him such comfort, that, at a future time, when a man should come to him, giving him better and more useful advice for his life and health that any of his kindred had ever heard of, he should remember that night and submit to that man, and follow his wholesome counsel. This strange visitant had scarcely departed before his friend who had before warned him came out of the king's house to him, to tell him that Redwald had changed his mind, having been persuaded by his wife not to sell his good friend, when in such distress, for gold, nor his honour for lucre of money. Years afterwards, when Edwin was on his throne, Bishop Paulinus converted him to Christianity, by recalling to his memory his heavenly visitor in the hour of his distress.
We follow St. Cuthbert in his preaching, to the "villages and out-of-the-way places among the mountains," and to the lonely shepherds' huts which they built for their shelter during the summer nights. "It was then the habit of the English people to flock together whenever a clerk or priest entered the village, that they might learn something from him and amend their lives." We are taken to the sea-coast at Lindisfarne and Monk Wearmouth; we see before us the wide expanse of the lonely ocean and the wild, wooded shore; we see the first arrival of the few feeble monks; their wooden houses and huts; their persecutions by the rude inhabitants, who did not like the men who had changed all their old customs and beliefs; the dangers they encountered--at one time driven out to sea in their little fishing-boats, bringing wood to build their houses--at another half-perished with cold and hunger from the failure of their scanty crops. We see the improvement that took place; we see the great Abbot Benedict arrive, the stately building he put up, his library, his beautiful pictures, his carpenters and artificers in stained glass, his teacher of the choristers, all brought from Rome. Out at sea off Lindisfarne we see the lonely island-rock where St. Cuthbert passed so many years, in a hut dug down in a hollow and surrounded by a wall, so that not even the view of the dreary ocean expanse and distant coast should disturb his meditations. We so£ the flocks of sea-birds sweeping over the dancing billows--birds which for so many centuries had been almost the sole inhabitants of those wastes, and which then saw for the first time the predecessors of that thronged populace which now has almost destroyed them oft the face of the waters. A few years after Bede was laid to rest by their brink, these lonely waters were to be visited by unwelcome ships, carrying the destroyers of the Saxon monarchy. At the conclusion of Bede's History he says:
Such being the peaceable and calm disposition of the times, many of the Northumbrians, as well nobles as common people, having leisure to lay aside their weapons, rather inclined to dedicate themselves and their children to learning and the monasteries than to the practice of arms.
Turn over a few more pages of the Saxon Chronicle, and we read the short entry that had such a terrible significance:
Anno 787.--This year King Beotric took to wife Eadburga, King Offa's daughter; and in his days first came three ships of Northmen out of Haeretha land. And then the reve rode to the palace, and would have driven them to the king's town, because he knew not who they were, and they slew him. These were the first ships of Danish men that sought the land of the English nation.
But Bede has lain peacefully beneath the porch of the church at Jarrow fifty-two years.
The Essay Meeting is hardly the place for it, or Bede would take us into the library of his monastery, and would give us very much admirable instruction, both human and divine. It is curious that, in the midst of what is called the darkest age, a book should have been written in a remote corner of England like his De Natura Rerum, which, in spite of the errors it contains, teaches a method of the study of nature perfectly sound in principle, and more natural truths, and fewer errors than any known book on the same subject. "It is evident," says Mason Turner, "that the establishment of the Teutonic nations in the Roman Empire did not barbarise knowledge." I should like to have translated several excellent passages, both from this book and from his books on Times and The Reason of Times, but I must deny myself. I confess I have read but little of his homilies and dissertations on the Scriptures, but Dr. Giles says "he who studies them with care will be surprised at the comprehensiveness with which he treats his subjects." In speaking of the religious element in his books, I may say, however, that in reading them we understand (as when reading St. Augustine and some others also) something of the "ages of faith," and see that, however great may be the names of some of the opponents of the theory, there have been ages in the history of Christianity of such a character as to justify so noble a title. Following, as Bede says himself, ac viam patrum, there breathes in his writings that fervent desire which animated them of elevating the spiritual life above the temporal, of realising the unseen, of throwing off the weight of the fleshly will. "It is good for a man," says the Vulgate, translating the 27th and 28th verses of the third chapter of Lamentations--"it is good for a man when he hath borne the yoke from his youth: he shall sit alone and shall be silent, because he shall raise himself above himself." It is not the sense of the Hebrew, but the idea was so constantly present to St. Jerome, as to the rest of them, that it formed a refrain to all he thought and did and read.
I have given a very faint idea of the peculiar charm which hangs about this old monkish book. Of its simple and pure faith, of its religious calm, of its homely friendliness and humanity, I have said little or nothing. I know of no book written so long ago that takes a stronger hold on your sympathies--that makes you more akin to a people so distant from you. The pictures of that old primeval life, no matter of what people or land, whether Hellenic or Roman or Saxon pastoral (when, in a life of such rudeness and simplicity, the individual man possessed a cultivation1 in its] manner as complete, and a spiritual life in its way as exalted as our own), have a touching pathos and beauty upon which the modern intellect, jaded and weary, delights to linger and to reflect. I have taken, in conclusion, one sentence of almost a perfect beauty; by a sort of mysterious fitness it is found not in the De Natura Rerum--in the book of science--though it speaks of fire, nor in the book of homilies, though it speaks of faith, but, where the noblest things of the world ever are found, in the record of the life militant of the righteous man:
In the case of the real fire which he thus extinguished he imitated that venerable priest, Marcellinus of Ancona, who, when his native town was on fire, placed himself in front of the flames, and put them out by his prayers, though all the exertions of his fellow-citizens had failed to extinguish them. Nor is it wonderful that such perfect and pious servants of God should receive power against the force of fire, considering that by their daily piety they enable themselves to conquer the desires of the flesh, and to extinguish all the fiery darts of the wicked one; and to them is applicable the saying of the prophet, "when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the fire kindle upon thee." But I and those who are, like me, conscious of our own weakness and inertness, are sure that we can do nothing in that way against material fire and indeed are by no means sure that we shall be able to escape unhurt from that fire of future punishment which never shall be extinguished. But the love of our Saviour is strong and abundant, and will bestow the grace of its protection upon us, though we are unworthy and unable, in this world, to extinguish the fires of vicious passions, or to put out the flames of punishment in the world which is to come.