In August I purchased a copy of Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People (or A History of the English Church and People as my copy is titled). It was only recently that I’ve finally gotten the chance to start reading it. Like a lot of medieval texts, especially ones documenting historical events, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History includes many wild stories. These wild stories include events that today’s science-based culture may write off as exaggerations or flat out false.
However, I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t really matter how “true” the stories are if you are reading a text for fun. They were written during a different time and in a different culture than our own. Thus, these stories offer a lot of insight into how people thought. (I’m also of the opinion that it’s fun to try to figure out the science behind miracle stories, but that isn’t what I’m doing today.)
Today, I want to talk about some of the chapters/events that I find particularly interesting or amusing. I have yet to finish An Ecclesiastical History (I’m only on page 70!), so I’m more than positive that I’ll be writing another blog post about the text. For reference, I’m reading the 1970 Penguin Classics edition translated by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R.E. Latham.
The first excerpt I’ve selected isn’t a complete story, but part of one. It comes from Book One, Chapter One of An Ecclesiastical History. Early Britain was filled with many different groups of people. In the beginning, only Britons lived in Britain (hence the name). Eventually, the Scots (who were actually from Ireland) and the Picts migrated into Britain. Apparently, after the Picts settled in the north, they had to ask the Scots for wives because they didn’t bring any women with them. The Scots agreed under the condition that if any dispute occurred, the Picts would choose a king from the female royal line, instead of the male royal line. The Picts agreed to this and the practice was still going on when Bede wrote An Ecclesiastical History.
The second excerpt I’ve chosen comes from Book One, Chapter Seven. This particular chapter tells the story of how Saint Alban was martyred. Saint Alban is the first person to be martyred in Britain (at least he’s the first recorded one). While the account is super interesting and full of miracles, I’ll save the full story for another post. What I want to focus on is Saint Alban’s first executioner.
After the first executioner saw Saint Alban perform some miracles, he refused to kill him. As a result, he was executed alongside the saint. Bede notes that even though the first executioner wasn’t baptized, it was decided that he could still go to Heaven. Now, if you aren’t familiar with early Catholicism, this is a Big Deal. One belief was that if you weren’t baptized, you couldn’t go to Heaven. This included babies. That’s why emergency baptisms were a thing. Even if you weren’t a priest you could baptize infants. Heck, even if you were pagan or Jewish you could perform an emergency baptism! (I’ll add that in modern-day Catholicism the belief has changed. Now babies can get into Heaven even if they aren’t baptized.) The fact that people thought the first executioner was qualified to get into Heaven for converting and refusing to kill Saint Alban is definitely something that jumped out at me.
The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Fourteen. This is another small event that I found notable. During most of the early chapters, the Britons are repeatedly getting slaughtered by invaders. However, in this story, the Britons finally are able to defend themselves. After the Britons “drive the Barbarians out of their land” (Bede’s words, not mine on page 54), they are finally able to cut a break. They’re able to grow a lot of corn. With this surplus, the Britons are able to live lives of luxury. But with luxury comes corruption. According to Bede, the “increase in luxury, [was] followed by every kind of crime, especially cruelty, hatred of truth, and love of falsehood” (pg. 55). Things don’t really change much, do they?
(I will also add that Bede tells us that because the Britons fell into debauchery, God sends a plague to kill a lot of people. This plague results in more invasions from the north.)
The fourth excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Fifteen. As previously stated, things go bad for the Britons again. It’s the year 449 A.D. and the Picts and Scots are attacking again. The Briton king Vortigern decides to ask for help from “the Angles or Saxons”(pg. 55). They were two pagan tribes who lived in what is now modern-day Germany. They come to Britain and they do help. However, Britain is a really nice place and the Britons are “cowardly” (pg. 56) and it would be insanely easy to defeat them and settle down. Needless to say, there is another migration and the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes make themselves at home. To add insult to injury, the Angles make an alliance with the Picts – the very people they were hired to conquer!
This alliance results in the Britons being slaughtered once again. Buildings are destroyed, priests are murdered on their altars, people no matter their rank in society are also killed, “and none remained to bury those who had suffered a cruel death” (pg. 57). Like other medieval writers, Bede exaggerates a little. There are still some Briton survivors. These survivors have either escaped overseas or run into the hills. The Britons who escape to the hills suffer many different fates. Some are captured and killed, others are also captured after surrendering due to hunger and are sold into slavery, and the remainder of those who escaped live “a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests, and crags, ever on the alert for danger” (pg. 57).
Bede makes this very clear that this horror is God punishing the Britons for getting too sinful during the events recorded in Book One, Chapter Fourteen. Personally, I think genocide is a harsh punishment for a few years of rampant corruption but apparently, Bede doesn’t share my view.
The fifth (and the final excerpt for today’s post) is from Book One, Chapter Seventeen. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tends to jump around a lot, so this event takes place twenty years before the fourth excerpt. The Pelagians are spreading around heretical views and Bishop Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes are asked to stop them. They are both from Gaul (part of modern-day France) so they must cross the sea to get to Britain. At first, the wind is “favourable” (pg. 58), but halfway through their journey a storm picks up. According to Bede, this storm is caused by devils trying to stop Germanus and Lupus from “recall[ing] the Britons to the way of salvation” (pg. 58).
While the storm is happening (and the ship is essentially being destroyed) Germanus is sleeping. It’s only when almost all hope is lost do Lupus and their companions wake Germanus up “to oppose the fury of the elements” (pg. 59). Germanus is good in a crisis and he knows exactly what to do. Instead of panicking, Germanus “called upon Christ and cast a few drops of holy water on the waves in the Name of the Sacred Trinity” (pg. 59). As he did this, Germanus had his companions pray with him. Luckily for Germanus and Co., God heard them and made the devils go away.
Now, whether or not Germanus actually stopped a storm, isn’t really important to me. What is important is that Christ does the same thing in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Of course, Christ is able to calm the storm using only his words instead of holy water and prayers, but both figures are able to save their boats from capsizing. I also find it interesting that both Christ and Germanus are asleep before they stop the storm. Another early medieval account of Germanus’ life, Constantius of Lyon’s Vita Germani includes the story as well (however, here Germanus uses oil instead of holy water). Germanus’ similarities to Christ means that he was a respected figure to early medieval people. (This is further emphasized by his sainthood.)
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.