15.11.32, Darby and Wallis, eds., Bede and the Future

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Gernot Wieland

The Medieval Review 15.11.32

Darby, Peter, and Faith Wallis, eds. Bede and the Future. Studies in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014. pp. xv, 269. ISBN: 978-1-40945-182-2. (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Gernot Wieland
The University of British Columbia

It is not just the title of this book that is intriguing, but, as is to be expected from some of the most prominent Bede scholars, the content as well. What exactly does the title mean? On a first glance it could denote future scholarship on Bede, along the lines of "what is the future of Bede studies?" And while the book certainly contains suggestions for further research, that is not its primary aim. Instead, it states that it will examine the way Bede saw his own future--both the immediate and the ultimate future, i.e. the 740s and 750s as well as the end of times on Doomsday.

An introduction authored by both the editors is followed by nine articles, whose content will be briefly outlined here. Faith Wallis opens the book with an article entitled "Why did Bede Write a Commentary on Revelation?" In answering her question she considers Bede's primary motive not to have been the desire to fill a gap left by the Church Fathers, but his continued need to defend himself against the detractors who had accused him of heresy. Bede wished to assure himself of the good will of the new bishop Acca, who, as a member of the earlier bishop's Wilfrid's household, was aware of the accusations against him. According to the Annus Mundi calculations, the year 6000 would fall in the year 800, which meant that at the beginning of the eighth century, when Bede wrote the Expositio Apocalypseos, only about a century would be left before the end of the world. In his De temporibus, Bede had shown that the old calculation of about 1000 years per age of the world was not consistent with the Vulgate text of the Bible, and his reliance on the Vulgate had earned him the accusation of heresy. Since, along with Augustine and Jerome, Bede was convinced that neither the day nor the hour of the end of the world could be predicted, he wrote the commentary on the Apocalypse in response to those who held on to the outdated Annus Mundi calculations. In short, Bede wrote the Commentary on Revelation to clear himself of the charge of heresy, to gain the good will of Acca, and to deal with a theological problem that had arisen on account of the supposed proximity of the end of the world.

Alan Thacker's "Why Did Heresy Matter to Bede? Present and Future Contexts" answers the question of the title by pointing to the few heresies, such as Monothelitism and Pelagianism, that Bede directly addresses in his exegetical work. Heresy for Bede, however, meant a lot more than an incorrect theological opinion: for him the concept included all efforts to sow disunity in the Church. In the preface to book 4 of his commentary on 1 Samuel, Bede inserts a surprisingly personal passage in which he states that progress on the commentary had been halted because of Ceolfrith's unexpected departure to Rome in 716 and his subsequent death. Thacker believes that it was disunity in the monastery that caused Ceolfrith to leave, and that caused Bede to react so strongly. According to Thacker, Bede returns to the theme of disunity within the Church in his commentary on Ezra and Nehemiah, written around 730, another turbulent time for the Northumbrian Church in which various factions vied for the position of archbishop of York.

In "Separation Anxiety: Bede and Threats to Wearmouth and Jarrow" Christopher Grocock examines Bede's Historia abbatum, and especially Benedict Biscop's speech to his monks when he is dying. Benedict is concerned about three things, namely that the monks keep the rule, that they keep the library, and that they keep control of the monastery in the monastic family. Grocock believes that this speech, which historically would have taken place in 689, actually reflects Bede's anxieties of 716 when, with the departure of Ceolfrid, the monastery once again was without a leader and in possible danger of breakup. The Epistola ad Ecgbertum, written in 734, seems to confirm that Bede considered the period from ca. 705 onwards a politically unstable one, and one that could threaten the very existence of Wearmouth-Jarrow.

Calvin Kendall's "Bede and Islam" offers an intentionally anachronistic look at Bede's knowledge of Islam. Bede, of course, did not know the term "Islam," and he consistently referred to the Muslims as "Saracens." Though Bede never mentions the presence of the Saracens in Spain, he is aware of their attack on Gaul in 729. His commentary on Genesis leaves little doubt that he knew that they occupied parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Kendall points out that Bede skips over the promise made to Ishmael that his descendants will form a gentem magnam (Gen. 17.20), presumably because he could not fit the Ishmaelites (=Muslims) into the threefold scheme of pagans, Jews, and Christians. In what appears to show his anxiety for the future, Bede mentions Saracen incursions towards the end of both the Chronica maiora and the Ecclesiastical History.

In his article "Bede's History of the Future," Peter Darby sets his sights at the end of the world as Bede saw it. While acknowledging Augustine's and Jerome's injunction against any attempt to calculate the timing of Doomsday, in his De temporum ratione Bede nonetheless thinks that the last seven years or so will follow a certain pattern. Taking information from Revelation 11.3 and 13.5 as well as from Daniel 12.11, Bede believes that the first part of the last seven years will see a return of Enoch and Elijah and will last three and a half years; it will be followed by the death of Enoch and Elijah and a persecution by Antichrist, which will also last three and a half years; between the death of Enoch and Elijah and the defeat of Antichrist a period of about forty-five days will test the patience of the faithful. Bede could have allegorized these numbers (1260 days, 42 months, and 1290 days respectively; the additional 45 days derive from the difference between Dan. 12.11 = 1290 days and Dan. 12.12 = 1335 days), but refused to do so. Even as he insisted that no one could know when the last seven years and forty-five days would begin, he felt certain that the last seven years and forty-five days would progress as they were outlined in Revelation and Daniel.

James T. Palmer's "The Ends and Futures of Bede's De temporum ratione" comes back to the text Darby had examined, but takes a different tack. He is more interested in what became of this text in the Carolingian world and less in the text itself. With some fifty-seven manuscripts surviving from the eighth and ninth centuries, the De temporum ratione became very popular. Nonetheless, its reception on the Continent was not uniform, as can be seen in the Karlsruhe Bede (Karlsruhe, Landesbibliothek, MS Aug. perg. 167), which omits the world chronicle Bede had established in chapter 66 according to the "Hebrew Truth" (i.e. the Vulgate rather than the Septuagint version) and replaces it with Isidore of Seville's chronicle from the Etymologiae, which in turn was based on the Septuagint version. It also omits the remaining chapters of the De temporum ratione. Other manuscripts, too, end the De temporum ratione at chapter 65, and even when they reproduce the chronicle, they do so as a separate text. Though Bede was considered an authority on the computus, apparently chapters 66 to the end of the De temporum ratione caused some anxiety among the more conservative-minded Carolingians.

Máirín Mac Carron, "Christology and the Future in Bede's Annus Domini" examines Bede's use of the Annus Domini calculation, primarily in the Ecclesiastical History. Several other methods of calculating time were available, e.g. from the first Olympiad (776 BC); ab urbe condita (735 BC); the Annus Mundi, which starts from Creation; the Annus Passionis, which counts from the year of Christ's passion; and the Annus Domini. According to MacCarron, Bede chose the AD calculation for theological reasons. It is, first of all, a powerful reminder of Christ's incarnation; second, it is prospective and open-ended and at the same time distances itself from the Annus Mundi calculations which had become tainted because of attempts to predict the end of the world for the year 6000 AM; and third, it distances itself from Victorius's Easter tables, which were based on the Annus Passionis, and reinforces Dionysius Exiguus's Easter tables, which were based on AD. Mac Carron also shows that Bede meticulously avoids any mention of AD in book 3 where he speaks of Oswald, Oswine, Oswiu, and Aidan; these men all celebrated the "wrong" Ionian Easter (an 84-year cycle) and not the "correct" Dionysian Easter (a 92-year cycle, and based on AD).

In "Quae res Quem sit Habitura Finem, Posterior Aetas Videbit: Prosperity, Adversity and Bede's Hope for the Future of Northumbria" Paul C. Hilliard notes the seemingly optimistic ending of the Ecclesiastical History with people laying aside weapons and flocking to monasteries next to Bede's comment "what the result will be, a later generation will discover." A priori one might assume that full monasteries would please Bede (and the Lord), and that he would see this as a positive sign for the future rather than an ambiguous one. Hilliard, however, shows that both in the Ecclesiastical History and his exegetical works Bede considered prosperity dangerous as it ties the prosperous person to the world; Hilliard also points to Bede's conviction that this world will always bring adversity to the Christian. Adversity can be punitive (i.e. God's punishment for sins), but it can also serve to bring Christians to repentance and to perfect their spiritual lives. For saints in particular, adversity helps them to break their attachment to worldly things. Bede thus left the ending of the Ecclesiastical History ambiguous because even though prosperity can have advantages, it also has its dangers.

Scott DeGregorio ends the book with his chapter "Visions of Reform: Bede's Later Writings in Context." He places Bede's concern for the reform of the Northumbrian church evidenced in the Epistola ad Ecgbertum at the centre of his examination of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, the De tabernaculo, the De templo, and In Ezram et Neemiam. He argues that the De tabernaculo and the De templo deal with the early stages of conversion, while In Ezram is more concerned with sin and redemption. He relates this to the Ecclesiastical History since it, too, chronicles the history of a gens to a promised land and the difficulties this gens had there. What Bede had only hinted at in the Ecclesiastical History and the exegetical works, he made explicit in his letter to Ecgbert. Why? Possibly because Bede realized that his death was approaching and that the Northumbrian church needed direct rather than veiled criticism if it were to prosper in the future.

As this necessarily superficial summary shows, the essays basically fall into two groups: the ones that are concerned with the end of times (Wallis, Darby, Palmer, Mac Carron), and those that deal with Bede's and Northumbria's immediate future in the eighth century (Thacker, Grocock, Kendall, Hilliard, and DeGregorio) whereby the dividing line is not always clear. Wallis's chapter, for instance, while examining Bede's thoughts on the end of times, considers events during Bede's life time responsible for his writing the commentary on the Apocalypse. Even though Bede's placement of Saracen incursions at the end of the Ecclesiastical History may indicate a concern for the future, it may also be nothing more than a thorough chronicler's attempt at including the latest events (Kendall). In other chapters, time does not really seem to matter as Bede is talking about never-changing truths: the church will always be beset by disunity (Thacker) and it will always have to deal with adversity (Hilliard). And while DeGregorio makes a very good case for Bede's dire warnings about the future of the Northumbrian church being foreshadowed in his exegetical works, if what Thacker and Hilliard have to say is correct, then those warnings in the exegetical works would be universally applicable and not just for the 730s in Northumbria. The chapters dealing with the end of times perforce clearly focus on the future, with Palmer's chapter neatly embracing the next hundred years or so after Bede's death (i.e. his reception in Carolingian scriptoria) as well as the end of times.

Because Bede never mentioned any specific bishops, dates, or events in his exegetical works, even when he says et hodie--"even today"--it becomes very difficult to connect his criticisms with contemporaries of Bede. As Thacker puts it, Bede "revealed, albeit obliquely, his engagement with contemporary issues and controversies" (66), or as Grocock says, it is "a subject of conjecture" (91). Intriguing as the chapters on Bede's hints at the immediate future of Northumbria are, his exegetical works simply do not provide enough hard data to move away from "obliqueness" or "conjecture." It is to the credit of the scholars who have contributed to this book that they remain aware of this limitation, that they explore possibilities, but do not claim them to be facts.

Bede and the Future is a most learned book, and all Bede scholars should have it on their bookshelves. Because some of the questions it raises have not been, and with our present knowledge of the period cannot be, answered definitively, it confirms that there is still a future for scholarship on Bede.

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