It is difficult to claim to say something new about an author who is thought about as much as the Venerable Bede. Difficulty aside, though, at least some people have succeeded in recent years, so I’ll give it a whirl. A few years ago began to wonder here at Kalamazoo who read Bede in Anglo-Saxon England and how to measure that. The person I was in conversation with suggested that this had already been done, pointing specifically to George Brown’s recent work for Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture. And he wasn’t entirely wrong: certainly both manuscripts of Bede and Bede’s influence in the Alfredian age or on Aelfric had been at least looked into by George, and Joyce Hill, and others. Still, I considered the quest worth undertaking to see what if anything I could make of it.
Last year at this time, I reported the results of a year-long exercise in data mining into the work of multiple scholars to help determine the answering my query. Among my results, I discovered that contrary to what I had been taught that Bede was considered an exegete by his contemporaries and those in the medieval period, that nonetheless, the most read, cited, and influential work of Bede’s was not any of his commentaries, but rather the Historia Ecclesiastica. This was certainly something of a surprise to me.
The next natural question for me to ask and try to answer was specifically who in the Anglo-Saxon period read Bede’s Historia and what did they make of it. Naturally enough, many of the luminaries in our field in fact have looked into the nature of Bede’s influence at various points in the period. Was there more to discover here?
Before answering that question, allow me to reminisce. Long years ago it now seems one of my first Kalamazoo papers was to consider the notion of Brian Stock’s “textual community” and apply that idea to the education and translation program of Alfred the Great. It seemed obvious to me that quite beyond the examinations of Alfred’s political schema of forming a “single English nation” and dealing with the new geo-political situation that where there had been many Anglo-Saxon polities now there was one, that Alfred was placing himself in a somewhat unique position as translator of text, as “interpres” of a set of texts to a specific audience: the church and noblemen of Wessex. After asking myself the question regarding who read the Historia in Anglo-Saxon England, it occurred to me that here in that early work I had an initial answer: Alfred and company not only were reading Bede, but were reading Bede and creating a textual community with the Historia!
Before getting into the heart of the matter, one more interruption. And this interruption is simply about what this is and why it is important or why we should care. Brian Stock back in 1994 wrote a book titled Listening to the Text. In that book he defined a textual community as a community that is based on an interpreter’s understanding and elucidation of a text. Three things are required: a text, an interpres to be Latinate on a Sunday morning, and a community that accepts and in some understands itself based on those interpretations. Stock chose as his medieval example the Waldensians: the text was the Bible, newly translated for Waldo into French, Waldo’s understanding of the text, and the followers he gathered then and afterward who championed his understanding of the Biblical text.
Stock was interested in some of theory out of which this idea was born; I’m interested in more prosaic methods. Describing and assessing a textual community gathers its rosebuds not where it may but from the basic medievalist disciplines of source criticism, textual analysis, audience reception and the like. But we are not here simply saying that a textual community is a fancy way of describing or using these disciplines in tandem. Rather than merely asking the question of what source or text a particular author is using and so on, defining a textual community if such exists in the particular situation notes and describes stages of deliberitarity: a deliberate choice of text, a deliberate relationship built with an audience, and perhaps even a deliberate choice of what to say about the text. It is the deliberate nature of the relationship that moves this beyond simply saying that such and such a text is an influence on this author and look that author had an audience.
Now I must confess that my title is a little misleading. For I am not speaking today about Bede as interpreter gathering a community, though that topic would certainly be easy enough: for who even in the modern period is not influenced by Bede’s computes in some way, or by long line of descent influenced by his modern historical method that so influenced earlier generations? Rather, my topic today is to try and look at a text of Bede’s as the text that others are interpreting and gathering a community, perhaps one of many, perhaps a main text. That is, when answering the question of who read Bede’s Historia in Anglo-Saxon England, the most widely cited of Bede’s work in the period, I noticed not just who was reading this work and how it influenced, but how there was a deliberate relationship being formed at various junctures between Bede’s narrative and a new generation that constitutes a textual community.
I can only attempt to quickly overview and discuss a few such moments. Since I have already mentioned Alfred, I will begin there. And since much has been said about Alfred, I will only summarize. But there has been little doubt expressed that when Alfred in his Preface to the Pastoral Care looks back over the history of the island and how glorious things used to be, he is taking in large part his information from Bede’s Historia, a text that certainly fits his description with Latin a unifying language, with great saints Christianizing first the peoples of England, but then returning to the continent to evangelize there, a story of Anglo-Saxons Victorious in battle against paganism for Christ, replacing the recalcitrant Brits whom God has judged. In fact, Bede’s tale is about the only period in ASE history where Alfred’s description would have much meaning, since the rest of the eighth and into the ninth century was somewhat less golorious, less learned, less full of books than what Alfred describes.
Further and far more importantly, it is Bede’s Northumbria with the relationship between royal power and monastic power described by Bede that is the source for Alfred’s own model. Not only so, but Bede often describes the royal figure as making or breaking the success of the church in Christianization or even Christians among the populace. And so Alfred uses text, as did the royals in Northumbria, not only to further his power and control, but to create his power, and create a new textual community. Translating the “gens Anglorum” into a native concept of the Angelcynn and Englalond and even styling himself king of the English are all concepts contained within Bede’s pages that are not found elsewhere. Further, like Bede’s Oswald, it is Alfred who stands as “interpreter” between the texts of old, those most necessary to know, and the new community he and his court are creating in Wessex.
Now at this point the hearer might say, “Swain, you haven’t mentioned the obvious yet, the Old English Bede!” And you would be right. For I no longer think that text belongs in the Alfredian circle. As many here will know the debate surrounding the misnamed Old English Bede, or the Old English Historia, is whether it is a production of the Alfredian effort to translate necessary books or whether it is an independent Mercian production. No third way has been considered until recently. Long years ago now, even before that Alfred paper I mentioned above, I dared write a short paper on Anglo-Saxon translation “theory” built from the ground up, so to speak, by observing how they did it. I reacted negatively then in 1999 to the depiction of the Old English Bede as a “fairly accurate and faithful translation” of the original as Greenfield and Whitelock had it and even Donald Fry who looked at certain miracles in Bede’s original and argued that Bede’s translator not only understood the original but rendered it with a certain heightened emotive power. I noted at that time the fact that first, the Old English translator reshaped Bede’s narrative, not only by getting rid of the Latin “books” schema but instead a single unbroken narrative of chapters which changed the flavor of the whole. I continued on observing that the well known excisions of the majority of Book I of the Latin Historia, and any reference to the Easter controversy, were not faithful translations, but changes chosen by the translator. I did not reach any conclusion about the reason or nature of those conclusions, still being rather positive that the work belong to the Alfredian period and most likely to Alfred.
After my fledgling attempt at real scholarship, Sharon Rowley began a project looking at the Old English Bede that began at the first Marco Institute conference held at the University of Tennessee Knoxville with Roy Liuzza and culminating in her 2011 book on the text in question. In that book, Rowley, to my mind at least, argues that the reshaping of the Old English Bede gives the text a whole different theme, a different purpose, and a different message than the Historia. This does not mean that the Old English translator did not understand Latin; quite the contrary the Old English translator knew very well what he or she was doing.
The translator has changed Bede’s triumphalist Anglo-Saxon replacement theology with a story that simply says the Anglo-Saxons came in and took over. Gone are the indictments of the British church and suggestions of God’s judgment upon them. Gone also are the majority of papal letters and other information regarding the papacy. Thus, for example, when the leaders of the British church and Augustine meet at Augustine’s oak, Augustine’s papal authority is not included in the Old English text and there has not been an indictment of the British church, so both parties simply come across as stubborn adherents to tradition rather than the Augustinian side as the side of divinely, and papally, sanctioned right. This is a much different message than Bede’s original. Further, the Old English translator avoids expressions such as Angelcynn and Englalond, which suggest that the translator is not part of Alfred’s efforts. The translation also focuses on key Anglo-Saxon saints and overall suggests a more ecclesiastical center, less a royal one, and focuses on royal SAINTHOOD rather than royal power over church and state, and less emphasis on one people and retaining the emphasis on one church.
The foregoing has important implications. First, not only does Rowley challenge over a century of discussion of Old English Bede, a rereading I think necessary, but also calls into question the very tools we use: Thomas Miller’s much vaunted EETS edition of the Old English Bede minimizes the differences and reshapes the text to match as nearly as possible the Latin text. In fact, let me issue the call here that if someone is not already doing it, a new critical edition of this text is needed. Don Fry’s ironic title some years ago “Bede Fortunate in His Translators” should no longer have the weight it once bore, though his article there helps elucidate the very emphasis on ecclesiastical concerns mentioned a moment ago.
Returning then to the notion of the “textual community”, the Old English translator, nee adapter, of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, is again, obviously to me, creating a textual community through the process of translation and adaptation of Bede’s original. We have our text, we have our interpretations, we have our interpreter. The question is, who then constitutes the community, the audience?
The earliest evidence of the Old English Bede comes to us in the form of London, British Library, Cotton Domitian A.IX folio 11. This folio contains a few excerpts from the text that I will return to below. The manuscript has been dated to late ninth or early tenth century, more specifically the years 882-930 by David Dumville. Dumville also posits a London origin as probable. Thomas Miller, whom I have already criticized, I will now praise for his demonstration that the language of the Old English Bede is Anglian.
So, the question is where in England would a text that includes information on the traditions of the British church, but not in a condemnatory way, information on the Irish church, but not in a condemnatory way and minimizes the charges of heresy and disobedience to divine in both, while emphasizing ecclesiastical rights against royal control, avoiding over emphasis on relations with the papacy, and has an Anglian dialect? Why, Viking East Anglia might just be the place, an area that included Ely, the home of one of the saints emphasized in the Old English Bede. Further, in the process of Christianization of the Danish invaders, it is from this area that the first Danish archbishop of Canterbury hails….Since the Viking leaders were nominally Christian, the church would want to maintain some independence. And since the Vikings also had holdings in Wales and Ireland, deemphasizing the past wrongs of those fellow Christians would be desireable. Also, the earliest manuscript excerpts items of concern about marriage and the number of bishops to be consecrated: both of concern after the Viking takeover. East Anglia came under Wessex control again 919. Thus, the textual community of the Old English Bede are a group of churchmen, particularly monks who live in East Anglia under Viking rule reading a text for devotion and information that though an old text addresses very much their present.
In the mid-, tenth century we find a new audience for the Old English Bede. London, British Library Cotton Otho B.XL is one of those burned badly in the Ashburnham fire. Fortunately for us, early Anglo-Saxonists made transcriptions! It is a West Saxon production, most probably from Wessex. Now we should ask given the message of the transformed text of the OE Bede, what is a copy doing in Winchester, the capital, in the mid-tenth century. Included in the manuscript are a copy of the ASC, lists of popes and bishops, Laws of Alfred and Ine, the Burghal Hidage, a poem on the seasons of fasting and herbal recipes, all in Old English. This copy, among others, testifies to the importance of the Old English Bede, but also that the translator has found a new audience. We know, for example, that later Aethelward and Aelfric both will use copies of the OE Bede to establish historical information in their respective works. In short, by the middle of the century just as the Benedictine Reform movement is getting started that a text that emphasizes church authority rather than royal control would be a most welcome work, and undoubtedly because the name of “Bede” goes with the text, that lent it a greater authority. This manuscript miscellany though seems to be intended seems to be intended as a collection of Old English covering chiefly history of the late ninth century, the Age of Alfred. The Old English Bede has moved from being a somewhat radical text to a mainstream one, and created a new audience.
As a final example, I would like to draw our attention to the Benedictine Reform movement and to one moment in particular. Abbo of Fleury c. 884 wrote a story that comes down to us as the Martyrdom of St. Edmund of East Anglia. I have argued elsewhere that this wee tale is an invention, more of the modern kind than the medieval. But it does bear witness to the power of text: according to Abbo the monks with whom he has been staying say they know this story, but few other do, and they beg Abbo to write it down. It is only after the writing of thss text that the story becomes more widely known. But what is interesting here is a specific instance of the use of Bede’s Historia as the foundation for a textual community in a wider context.
But let me start with Abbo’s text. Abbo begins interestingly enough with Bede’s historia! The first section of Abbo’s text is a description of the island of Britain taken directly from Bede’s Historia, bk I ch I, focusing then on Bede’s later statements about East Anglia before we get into the story proper. When we do become acquainted with Edmund, he is presented to the audience in terms the same as those Bede uses of another royal saint previously mentioned, Oswald. Both men are humble, righteous, good to the poor. Both have posthumous miracles. Both face a pagan foe. Now it should be mentioned that the only historical information we have about Edmund comes from the 869 entry in the ASC that states simply that Edmund fought the Vikings in East Anglia and lost. There is nothing in the text about spectacular events around that death that are talked about in Abbo’s text. In addition to the front matter and the analogy with Oswald, there are a number of other citations and references to Bede. In short, I argue that Bede’s hagiography provides the direct template for almost everything we find in Abbo’s tale.
I suggested above that the Martyrdom of Edmund actually is an invented story in the modern sense. I argue that in part because the origin of the story is not the monks among whom Abbo has been staying but Dunstan who has kept the story to himself for some 60 years. But Dunstan is no fool. He has a message, a message gleaned from Bede’s Historia: the role of the church and the role of royal power move in tandem, a good, successful kingdom rests on Oswald figure who gives heed to his bishops, for example. And everywhere we look at the Benedictine Reform in England we see the hand of Bede guiding it. Attitudes toward royal power, attitudes toward marriage, the interest in the past….that Dunstan’s student and fellow reformer, another Oswald, travelled Northumbria to collect relics and the number of refoundations of monastic houses mentioned by Bede in this era are simply the fingerprints to see that the Benedictine Reformers figured out long before modern scholarship did the reforming ideal which Bede preached and embedded in so much of his work. One can easily see Bede’s ideal of reform living a successful life in the reigns of Dunstan, Edgar, and Aethelwold. The Martyrdom of St. Edmund is part of a whole textual community of reformers who have rewritten England in the tenth century. And if we must look closely to find an intepres in the issue, that must be Dunstan.
The examples above illustrate a few of the textual communities created around a reader of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. In each case, the reader as interpreter has used Bede’s work to create a community that in some way or other is utterly dependent on the reading of Bede’s Historia offered by the interpreter in question. This goes beyond source critical issues and beyond audience reception to note a deliberative, considered relationship between text and community.