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Bede and the End of Time by Peter Darby (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 1, 2013
pp. 232-233 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0063

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Medieval eschatology is a popular area of study, but scholarship has yet to mine fully the depths of eschatological preoccupation in Anglo-Saxon England. Bede and the End of Time is therefore a useful study of early Anglo-Saxon eschatology in the works of the Venerable Bede. Bede’s scholarship is certainly worth studying in this regard because, as Peter Darby writes, Bede created ‘a master narrative of the end-times, a coherent “history of the future”’ (p. 218), for an age and a land in which speculation about the apocalypse was rife.

The book’s introductory survey of Bedan scholarship is relatively short, but justifiably so as Darby’s work is among the first of its kind. While intertextuality has been a feature of modern Bede studies for some time, Darby’s approach fits with Scott DeGregorio’s idea of a ‘new Bede’: Bede as an original scholar and thinker, not solely an exegete and not solely an historian. Darby considers each text in isolation and as part of a whole, so that his analysis traces the development of Bede’s ideas throughout his scholarly career.

The breadth of Bede’s writings is sometimes underrated, but not so here. While Bede’s biblical commentaries and his textbooks on time contain much of Bede’s eschatological thought, Darby also addresses relevant sections of Bede’s homilies, letters, hymns, poetry, and, of course, the Historia ecclesiastica. In building a narrative of changes in Bede’s thinking, Darby is able to make some new suggestions about the unknown chronology of some texts. He also examines the historical context of Bede’s works, how Bede used his sources, and how Bede’s own work was used, as well as the contemporary events that prompted developments in Bede’s thought.

One of these events was the accusation of heresy that occasioned Bede’s writing of the Epistola ad Pleguinam in his own defense. Darby devotes a whole chapter to this event, although because the repercussions informed Bede’s future work, he refers to the letter throughout the book. Darby discusses the misreading of Bede’s De temporibus that may have led to the anonymous charge. It is clear that Bede was greatly upset by the accusation, and modified his ideas in direct response: ‘Relatively soon after the accusation of heresy, Bede clarified his thoughts about the structure of time and established a new orthodoxy grounded in Augustinian language. Such clarification was necessary in light of some of his contemporaries’ apparent inability to understand crucial scriptural passages and associated eschatological concepts’ (p. 82). One such clarification was the expansion of the traditional model of six world ages into eight ages, in which the seventh age runs parallel with the first six, while the eighth age will be one of eternal rest. This concept became crucial to Bede’s eschatological thought, and he ‘mentioned the eight-age scheme so often that, in time, his expertise on such matters could hardly have been questioned by anybody who had regular access to his works’ (p. 86).

The book’s eight chapters are arranged into three parts, covering the world ages framework discussed above, Bede’s eschatological vision, and Bede’s eschatological perspective. Bede’s eschatological vision included a clear sequence of the end-time in which the first sign would be the conversion of the Jews, the second the persecution of Antichrist, and the third the death of Antichrist followed by a test of patience. Here Darby again proves that Bede modified his thoughts on the topic between his early Expositio Apocalypseos and later works, although Bede always maintained that only God knows the time of the end, and no Christian should dare to speculate. The contexts for Bede’s eschatological writings include his relationship with the works of Gregory the Great and the events of his era, in particular the political instability in Northumbria and the departure of Ceolfrith from Wearmouth–Jarrow in 716.

Although one does not have be a Bedan expert to appreciate this book, a basic familiarity with the main titles is useful. Bede and the End of Time is a necessary and valuable contribution to studies of Bede and of medieval eschatology. In...



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