Book 2, Chapter 3, 827 AD to 857 AD – The Clergy and The Monasteries – Continued
Bede, “the Venerable” (as he was designated after his death, owing to his character and attainments) was a native of Sunderland, and was trained at the monastery of Jarrow, where he passed forty-three years, devoting the whole of his time either to his own improvement or to that of others, and resisting all attempts to entice him away, even for purposes of ecclesiastical preferment. He was born in 673 and died in 735. An account of his writings is an account of English learning in that age, taken in its most advantageous view.
Many of his works remain, and he wrote both in prose and in verse, on a variety of subjects, but chiefly on theology. He treated also of music, rhetoric, grammar, the art of versification and arithmetic. All these are short pieces, chiefly catechetical, and were designed for the use of pupils in his monastery. He likewise made a very ample and valuable collection of short philosophical, political, and moral maxims from Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, and other sages, and a separate one of common places from Cicero, whom he greatly admired. The work by which Bede is best known is “The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation.” This book opens with a description of the island, in a manner which would not have disgraced a classical author, and prefixed to it is a chronological abridgment of ancient history, which displays vast erudition and research.
During and immediately after his time, there was a great multiplication of books in the country. The monks were emulous of attaining skill in writing and illuminating, and at a later period this was included, among the accomplishments of so great a man as Dunstan. Diligence and industry, in the absence of the more speedy process of printing, enabled the Anglo Saxons not only to form several public libraries in England, as well as private collections, but also to send out of the country manuscripts in considerable numbers. Boniface, from the continent, addressed frequent demands of this kind to his brethren at home, who, on the other hand, constantly applied for copies of new books, or such as were not known in England, which he might meet with, in order to increase their stores.
Many specimens of the magnificent writings of this age are still preserved. A noble copy of the Gospels, written at Lindisfarne towards the end of the seventh century, after having escaped many perils both by fire and flood, is now deposited among the Cottonian Mss. of the British Museum, where it is known by the title of the Durham Book. A fuller account of the state of learning and literature of the period will have to be furnished in connexion with the history of King Alfred, but on the general subject of the attainments and industry and position of the clergy at this period, Mr. Kemble may be quoted. (Saxons in England ii. 432.) ” As a body the clergy in England were placed very high in the social scale, the valuable services which they rendered to their fellow creatures, their dignity as ministers and stewards of the mysteries of the faith, lastly the ascetical course of life which many of them adopted, struck the imagination and secured the admiration of their rude contemporaries.
At first too, they were honourably distinguished by the possession of arts and learning, which could be found in no other class, and although the most celebrated of their commentaries upon the Biblical books or the works of the Fathers, do not now excite in us any very great feelings of respect, they must have had a very different effect upon our simple progenitors. Whatever states of ignorance the body generally may have fallen into in the ninth and tenth centuries, the seventh and eighth had produced men famous in every part of Europe for the soundness and extent of their learning. To them England owed the more accurate calculations which enabled the divisions of times and seasons to be duly settled, the decency, nay even splendour, of the religious services were maintained by their skilful arrangements, painting, sculpture, and architecture were made familiar through their efforts, and the best examples of these civilizing arts were furnished by their churches and monasteries, it is probable that their lands in general supplied the best specimens of cultivation, and that the leisure of the cloister was often bestowed in acquiring the art of healing, so valuable in a rude state of society, liable to many ills which our more fortunate period could, with ordinary care, escape.
Their manuscripts yet attract our attention by the exquisite beauty of the execution, they were often skilled in music, and other pursuits which at once delight and humanize us. To them alone could resort be had for even the little instruction which the noble and wealthy coveted, they were the only schoolmasters, and those who yet preserve the affectionate regard, which grows up between a generous boy and him to whom he owed his earliest intellectual training, can judge with what force such motives acted in a state of society so different from our own. Moreover, the intervention of the clergy in many most important affairs of life was almost incessant. The marriage that most solemn of all the obligations which the man and the citizen can contract was celebrated under their superintendence without the instruments which they prepared no secure transfer of property could be made, and as arbitrators or advisers, they were resorted to for the settlement of disputed right, and the avoidance of dangerous litigation. Lastly, although during the Anglo Saxon period we nowhere find them putting forward that shocking claim to consideration which afterwards became so common the being makers of their Creator in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we cannot doubt that their calling was supposed to confer a peculiar holiness upon them, or that the orders which they received, were supposed to remove them from the class of common Christians into a higher and more sacred sphere.”
Chapter 3, Egbert
Chapter 3, The Clergy and The Monasteries
Chapter 3, The Witenagemot
Categories: Book 2