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The Ecclesiastical History of the English People

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People - Bede

So first of all: did you know  there used to be an English king in the  4th century by the name of Sexwulfe?  SEXWULFE?!  That’s probably the coolest name ever.  How did I get so far in life, not knowing this was a real name?  And why aren’t more people (David Bowie, specifically) changing their names to SEXWULFE?


Putting that aside, this book was an interesting mix of history and fiction. Written by the monk Bede in the 7th century, it gives readers a general feel for what was going on in Great Britain at the time.  I say “general feel” because you really can’t go by the letter of what Bede is saying here, because he sprinkles the narration with accounts of miracles designed to impress and astound pagans with the power of the Christian God.


The dubious history of some of these chronicles doesn’t spoil anything for me. As long as I’m clear that I’m not reading straight-up history, I don’t mind reading about holy daggers that cure illness, magical wooden posts which don’t burn, and holy men who drive out demons. That Bede wrote any of this down (and maybe even believed it) is just part of the picture of England in 600’s A.D.  Christianity was still competing with assorted pagan religions for the hearts and minds of …well, mostly of the regional rulers. Once you had them in pocket, it seems the public was compelled to follow. That’s why so there are so many tales in here of pagan kings who embraced Christianity, and whom Heaven rewarded with drastically improved fortunes (usually on the battlefield). About half of these stories show the king then lapsing back into paganism and suffering for it, only to save the day by re-embracing Christianity –this time permanently. It does get a bit repetitive.


As far as actual history goes, the book faithfully describes a lot of bloody warfare between English, Angles (immigrants from Denmark), Picts in the North (modern day Scotland), the Irish, British, and assorted lesser others. I assume the names of kings, and the lineages described are accurate, but I’m not sure why I think that, given the other liberties Bede has taken.  


There are quite a lot of people named Egbert, and Cuthbert, and Ekelbert other things that sound like that. It can be confusing, trying to keep track of them all.


If you’re trying to develop a broad view of British history, this book does a nice job picking up where John Morris’ Londinium leaves off.  Julius Caesar first set foot on British soil in 55 B.C. From that date on, Roman power grew in fits and starts, with London a center of first military and eventually economic power. While Rome suffered repeated humiliation in wars with the Huns and Vandals, Britain remained safely remote from these, and in fact benefitted economically as a reliable supplier of materiel for Roman armies in Gaul and Germania. The gravy train ended, of course, with the complete destruction of the Western Empire in the 5th century.  England might have been on its own after that, but it was really the Christian church which maintained cultural ties between Britain and Rome. That’s what this book illuminates so well. Although Roman soldiers could no longer be relied on to defend the Northumbrians from the Picts, the Vatican still had spiritual authority over monks like Bede, and through the many active and robust monasteries, members of the British congregation could learn Latin, and become versed in the classics of history and literature. The church even had an active hand in shaping politics in the British Isles (see above). Thus, the picture which emerges is that the Catholic Church seamlessly supplanted the Romans as the framework on which England was now (loosely) integrated with other components of the former empire in language, architecture, political thought, religion, science, history, and philosophy.  Good stuff.