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  • Bede and Gregory's Allusive Angles
  • Stephen J. Harris

The Venerable Bede, monk of the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow and doctor of the Catholic Church, was known throughout the Middle Ages primarily for his Scriptural commentary. In 731, he produced the single most influential history of England, the Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (HE ), our best written source on seventh-century England. Classed as history, the HE is today embedded in a generic context which, however helpful, commits us to selective methods of interpretation, ostensibly proper to historical works. Attending chiefly to causal or factual issues in the HE can keep us from considering the literary or symbolic measure of this seemingly nonfictional narrative. Bede assessed this measure as a vera lex historiae, a true law of history, by which facts are ultimately at the service of (and sometimes changed by) spiritual truth.1 Bede's approach to the interpretation (and production) of narrative generally indicates that his texts included, in their stylized evocation of spiritual truth, an important figurative sense. Indeed, Bede's interpretative methods suggest that learned readers of his HE expected his historical narrative both to engage a symbolic language and to reproduce allusively the traditional discourse of Christian faith.

The HE was composed in the context of Bede's Scriptural commentary.2 Scripture provided Bede with the paradigmatic medieval historical narrative, and the Catholic commentary tradition offered Bede a way of understanding the role of history in the scheme of salvation. Although the past comprises events and persons and texts, Bede also understood the past to be indicative of a divine order-rational, numbered, and sometimes symbolic.3 A king's name, the number of vessels carried to a city, the height of a wall, the mention of a cloak-all offer themselves in a narrative as historical facts and as possibly significant of larger spiritual truths. More important, perhaps, Bede wrote at great length and with deep conviction about the role of priests and monks as spiritual teachers; and his historical work, equally with his commentaries, aimed at extending the franchise of his faith through teaching and scholarship. The possible coincidence of Bede's exegetical method and his curatorial view [End Page 271] of historical narrative may be at work in the HE, a work intended ultimately to configure the gens Anglorum4 symbolically as God's new chosen people (although salvation is extended by Bede to some co-religionists).

Bede famously said in his Preface to the HE that he writes "ad imitandum bonum auditor sollicitus instigatur" ("to urge the solicitous listener into imitating the good").5 His explicit aim is curatorial, "generalis curam"-from the Latin cura, care, devotion, or attention; those who teach or write are to some degree curates, taking pastoral care of a community. Though we may mine the HE for a factual history of early Britain, its author was foremost a priest, and its chief function was the demonstration of a vera lex historiæ.6 To those unfamiliar with the exegetical method, or whose experience of it has been overwhelmed by its wholesale application to late medieval literature by D. W. Robertson, history may seem an ordered collection of facts, insignificant of spiritual meaning.7 Bede's theological elaborations have struck more contemporary secular readers as sometimes fantastical, but they define Bede's method and what we may presume to be his expectations of his own readers.8 The Church father Origen had written in his Against Celsus, "if anyone has the capacity, let him understand that in what assumes the form of history, and which contains some things that are literally done, yet it conveys a deeper meaning. . . ."9 Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the most influential doctor of the Church, defines history as sive divinitus sive humanitus gesta, deeds effected by human or divine agency, and, like Origen, as revelatory of the divine plan.10 Bede, following Origen and Augustine, writes in his commentary on the book of Ezra that certain spiritual implications of history are clear to the learned or skilled (doctus) reader and we must take care (curabimus) to elaborate them for the less learned.11 Whether there is actually a spiritual meaning to medieval...


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