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Medieval England

Steven Muhlberger

The Age of Bede

Our subject in this hour is the Christian church in England around the year 700, when it had ceased to be a precarious missionary organization and had become an established part of English culture.

I called this lecture the age of Bede because Bede himself is the most accessible witness to the transformation. Bede, who came to maturity in 687 and died in 735, was a new kind of Englishman. He could not have existed a century or even a generation earlier. He was born of Christian parents and at the age of seven was sent to be a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Wearmouth; soon after that he was transferred to the nearby monastery of Jarrow,where he stayed all his life, praising God, studying the sacred writings, and using his literary talents to teach others the elements of the Christian faith.

The monastery at Jarrow was filled with books that its founder, Benedict Biscop, had brought from Rome and elsewhere. Bede made the best use possible of that library: he was  an expert not only in the interpretation of the Bible, but in chronology, poetry and music, as well as a historian and biographer of great talent.

Was Bede the typical English Christian of the 8th century? No,but Bede is symptomatic of the great changes that had overtaken English society.  His learning and his religion were not unique, nor was his monastery.  Perhaps most important of all, Bede was part of a large group of English people who believed that being Christian was an essential element of being English. For Bede, the English were a New Israel, a chosen people, brought to Britain from the pagan wilderness so that they might enjoy a new homeland as faithful Christians. Bede's history combines a zealous Christianity with an unmistakeable English patriotism. The combination is a remarkable one, especially when one remembers that there was no single English kingdom or people in Bede's time. The closest thing they had to a national institution was the English church led by the archbishop of Canterbury.

Bede could exist in his time because in the previous generation, Christianity had caught the imagination of a number of native-born English people, people of talent and, often enough, wealth and rank. They created the securely Christian England that Bede grew up in.

A couple of examples will give you an idea of this activity. One of the most famous English bishops of the generations before Bede was Wilfrid. He lived between 634 and 709. He wa brought up in the Irish mission to his kingdom, Northumbria. Early on, he was also influenced by Rome. He went there in 653. Before returning home, he spent time in a monastery in Lyons, in southeastern France. When Wilfrid came back to England about 660, he became quickly prominent as one of the best trained of the native-born clergy. He was the spokesman for the Roman point of view at Whitby, and when the Irish bishop of Lindisfarne left afterwards, Wilfrid became bishop in Northumbria.

Wilfrid spent the rest of his life as a sort of ecclesiastical wild card. He was very independent of spirit, and three times lost his see because he could not get along with the king or the other bishops. Wilfrid went to Rome twice to demand his rights, and was in exile from Northumbria for long periods before he was finally given a smaller see around Hexham.

Despite this peculiar contentious aspect of his character, Wilfrid had his constructive side. He founded a number of monasteries, acted as a bishop in Mercia and Wessex, converted the last pagan kingdom, Sussex, and even preached to the Frisians on one of his journeys to Rome. Wilfrid did his best to found an independent family of monasteries obeying only on him, and at his death, though he had a lot of enemies, there were many English people who looked to him as their father in God.

Benedict Biscop is a second example of a Northumbrian noble who threw himself into ecclesiastical activity at an early stage. He was in fact a young warrior at court in the 650s, when Bishop Aidan was reconverting Northumbria. Aidan had a big impact on Benedict (this was not his original name): at the age of 25, he gave up his secular life and went on pilgrimage to Rome.  For 20 years, he travelled around the continent, mostly visiting monasteries to learn how each one practiced what was considered the apostolic life. During these years he also visited Rome six times. Eventually he came back to Northumbria, not to become a bishop, despite his name, but an abbot instead. He was the founder of Wearmouth and Jarrow, the two monasteries that Bede lived in. . Bede was precisely the kind of learned monk that Benedict Biscop was seeking to produce. His monasteries were remarkable centers of Christian culture.

I could cite other early saints, but these two suffice to make a number of points about the founding generation of native English churchmen.

  • First, they were eager students of everything they could learn from the outside world.
  • Second, they were extremely charismatic. These English bishops and abbots convinced kings to finance their projects, young men and women to enter monasteries and nunneries, and students to immerse themselves in Christian learning.
  • Finally, in their effort to move from the basics of Christian belief to the real thing, a full Christian life, they were all promoters of and participants in the monastic life.

In the seventh and eighth century, the monastic life was universally seen as the true Christian life, the high road to salvation. Zealous Christians burned to give up the world, seen as a place of temptation and sordid involvement with transitory things, and to take up a life devoted to eternal things: knowledge of God, prayer to God. Denial of the flesh was seen as a necessary part of this devotion.

Monastic life was respected by many who felt no desire or aptitude for it themselvesThe foundation and endowment of monasteries was the most pious act that a king or a noble could undertake. The sons and daughters of the aristocracy saw monasticism as a respectable career.

Monasticism in this period was the institutional framework of the church, and the highest expression of its life. These men, and a few women like St. Hilda, were amazingly successful in planting a new Christian culture in England.

Two innovations associated with this movement were the book and building in stone. The first had an incalculable impact. Reading and writing exposed the English of Wilfrid's time, or Bede's. to an entirely new tradition, mostly Christian, but with important elements of pagan philosophy and lore from the distant past. Of course the direct effects were limited to a fraction of the elite of Anglo-Saxon England. But it was the elite that was affected, and everyone else was influenced too.

Most Anglo-Saxon stone buildings were pulled down in the later Middle Ages to make bigger and better ones. The surviving ones show that the English caught on quickly here, too. The impact of these buildings must have been very great as well, and maybe more direct than writing. Early stone buildings were all ecclesiastical, and they must have served in a very concrete way to mark out the church as a special institution. The issue of expense occurs to me, too. The construction of a stone church could not help but have economic consequences; they may not have all been good.

So far I have depicted the introduction of Christianity to England as a flood of foreign influence being absorbed by the English. But there was more to it than that.

  •  First, the English were not just second-rate imitators of a superior culture. What the English did with the new techniques surpassed what other Christian peoples were doing in the West. Bede was not just the best English scholar of his generation: he was the best scholar working in Latin anywhere.
  • Second, the English, while they adopted foreign standards and styles, used their own artistic tradition in the service of their new goals. The English were expressing themselves and their new found faith in every medium with a startling energy.
This new "high culture" affected not just churchmen and patrons.

The establishment of the church in England meant the establishment of an entirely new aristocracy. Founding and maintaining espicopal establishments and monasteries involved a major redirection of resources in an era where making sure that everyone had enough to eat required the vast majority to work on the land all the time.  Church corporations, even in the seventh century, were big and were given large endowments. Wearmouth and Jarrow had hundreds of monks and lay brothers, big stone buildings with glass windows (another innovation), and an initial endowment of 150 hides -- enough land, or payments from enough land, to support 150 free families in some style. When Wilfrid's patron Cadwalla, King of the West Saxons, conquered the Isle of Wight, he gave a quarter of it to Wilfrid for the use of the church. At another time, the king of the South Saxons, in gratitude to Wilfrid for converting his people, gave him eighty-seven hides at Selsey.

One thing that distinguished church corporations from other lordships is that the church properties were meant to be eternal.  Lay properties were not very stable -- families died out or split their property among many heirs. Church property was different. It was held in perpetual trust for the service of God and the support of the poor. It was often visualized as the property of a dead patron saint, under whose protection it was. The church introduced written royal charters into England in an effort to guarantee that donations to the church would be respected over the generations.  The possession of all this inalienable property made the heads of the church a big political factor in Christian England.

Once the church was well established in England, the inevitable process of accommodation began. Wealthy bishops and abbots found it hard to avoid living like secular men of the same rank. Early church councils had to forbid bishops surrounding themselves with the harpists who praised and entertained warrior nobles.

This process of secularization accelerated when noble families began to realize the earthly benefits that founding monasteries could have. Giving land to a monastery nullified the claims that the king or more distant relatives had on that land. It was permanently sacrosanct, untouchable, protected by supernatural guarantees, church law, and the king's law. But if that monastery was entrusted to abbots who were members of the family, the property could still be used to advance family interests on earth. It was like a tax-free foundation.

We know of at least 200 monasteries and nunneries that were founded in England before the Vikings.  Some of these monasteries were almost indistinguishable from noble estates. We hear of kings disporting themselves with noble nuns who lived all too much like secular ladies, and Bede himself complained that the many family monasteries, with their untouchable endowments, were causing a land shortage.  There was not enough disposable land to set up the new dioceses that Bede thought England needed. There wasn't even enough to endow young warriors to defend the country.

Bede's history reads like the tale of a golden age -- but it could also be read by contemporaries as a warning. The British had misused their prosperity, and look what happened to them!

But in Bede's time, and even after, there was plenty of real dedication left in the English church. The eighth century, in fact, was one of the periods of European history where England has had the most influence on the continent. Churchmen looking for new lands to conquer for Christ went to Frisia and still-pagan Germany to convert peoples they thought of as their distant cousins.

They were remarkably successful, not just in doing the work of conversion, but in setting up a well-organized German church on the English model, a church not only well-run, but closely tied to Rome. The English idea that Rome should set the religious style of the church was a very influential one. The cultural unity of Western Europe thus owes something to the spirit of Bede and the age of Bede.

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Copyright ©1999, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.