The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Written AD 731

This book is from my Well-Educated Mind Reading Challenge. It started off well, as Bede described the makeup of the early people of Britain, then mentioned Gaius, Diocletian, Valentinian, Augustine of Canterbury, the Arians, and other names from history I am familiar; but when "the river ran dry in its bed and left [Alban] a way to cross," I became a little skeptical. I noted in the margin: not sure I believe this. When Germanus used relics of saints to restore a young girl's eyesight, I added: I really cannot believe this. 

After that, they were such a distraction -- miracles, spirits, visions, raising people from the dead, healing people by drinking water that touched the relics of dead saints, and incorruptible bodies after death. I could give examples, but why spoil the story?

Look! Here are some samples of my margin notes or exclamations:

I'm not sure what to think about this.
OK, I'm not sure I believe this.
Jesus performed a miracle through Augustine?
What the...?
Peter appears to Laurence! (That's Peter, the Apostle.)
Mellitus put out a fire through faith. (Who needs water?)
Huh, what? Peter isn't her protector. I'm sure of it.
Oh, great. Now he's seeing visions.
But Jesus already saved him when He died on the cross. Why did [King Edwin] have to do more?
Again, I have a hard time believing this stuff.
Incorruptible body?
No, come on!
This is ridiculous!
This is hog wash. 
Healed by fairy dust. This does not glorify Jesus.
No, no, no! So ridiculous.
This is total blasphemy.
This is such a lie.
Not possible. Wrong.
Baptism does not save you.
Oh, this is crazy.
Another weird occurrence.
Another weird idea.
Really, this is lame.
A 3-year old boy has prophetic vision? Seriously?
Why would she need to do this since Jesus paid it all?
The Apostles meet with a boy. They're dead! 
Having a hard time with this.
Again, not believing this.
This doesn't give life; Jesus' death does.
What is going on with this foretelling?
Return from the dead?

Hmmm . . . grunt.

Bede 672-735

I struggle with what more to say about this. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads, though 2.5 would have been more accurate. The fact that it was written in the 8th century carries some weight, especially because Bede recollects emperors, popes, kings, as well as political and historical conflicts.

The obstacle is my lack of sympathies over early or medieval Catholic Church history and my struggle believing mystical and supernatural ideas committed by men. Bede's Ecclesiastical History is full of these wonders, which he claims to have collected from previous ancient sources and by those who declared to have witnessed these events. 

As I understand, these wonders began to slow down or cease by the end of the Apostolic Age, with the end of the Apostles -- men who walked with Jesus and saw Him at his Resurrection -- and shortly after the arrival of the Holy Spirit. In other words, by the 2nd century the abundance of miracles or supernatural occurrences decreased or were unnecessary because the Holy Spirit took its place in the hearts of believers. And frankly, the idea that relics (objects touched by dead saints) have any saving power is just a reckless manmade idea. 

So . . . is this book for you?

If you are interested in early history (through 8th century), particularly early English history, and even more especially the spread of Christianity throughout England, and you are not bothered by mystical ideas, then this is for you. It is not a long book, and it is fairly easy reading. Knock yourself out. I am ready to move on to the next book in TWEM Histories: The Prince, by Machiavelli.


  1. I guess the stories of miracles don't bother me. I think they're interesting even if I don't necessarily think they happened (though I wouldn't say that miracles and visions *cannot* happen in the absence of apostles). I don't see it as my job to figure out whether they happened or not; it's the insight into how the people thought that I'm interested in. This is how they figured the world works; that is interesting to me.

    I'm sorry it got in the way of your enjoyment of Bede. That's a bummer.

    1. Hey, Jean, I'm just trying to figure it out. I suppose I don't know for sure, and that is what drives me crazy. I want to know, but I may never find out. Some of it was outlandish, and that really bothers me. Like, do people really believe this stuff? But other events could have happened -- like who am I to say God did not send someone a vision?? Still seems farfetched to me.

      But anyway, there were a lot of things I found interesting, like that Bede argued that the age of the earth from Creation was 6000 years old, determining the date of Easter, and why the monks wore the shorn head. I also felt like I was reading something from The Lord of the Rings, which says more about Tolkien than Bede.

    2. Well, Tolkien was steeped in all that stuff, so that makes sense! I think my favorite story was the one about receiving the guy from Rome to talk about Easter, and their discussion about how to know whether they should follow Rome or not. It's amazing to me that the date of Easter was such a huge deal for them.

  2. I read this book years ago and while I found it interesting I did realize that one had to look at it in a cultural context, rather like the Greek myths. As Biblical illiteracy became wide spread there was a lot of syncretism between pagan and religious beliefs which culminated into the Roman Catholicism of the middle ages. Hence there is an emphasis on Mary reverence, relics, signs and wonders. Not to mention the pre-eminance of the Catholic church leaders possessing special mediatorial authority over the thoughts and doctrines of the church body.

    I am currently reading a book written by a Catholic apologist who attempts to show the biblical basis for the doctrines of the catholic church. It is quite disturbing.

    1. Cannot wait to see what that book is and read your review (assuming you post a review of it). I am somewhat curious to read it, though it may conjure up some negative emotion in me -- the angry ex-Catholic that I am.

      I think since reading these insightful and gentle comments from readers, I am having a different emotional response already. In other words, the smoke is clearing, and my overall experience is changing. I understand better what I just read. Like I told Jean, I do recall some interesting sections, but now I am also understanding the historical context, and it is fascinating. Like I said, it is practically ancient documentation, which accounts for something. It is still important.

      Thanks for clarity.

  3. I have this on my tbr pile, so it was interesting to read your review. We must remember that virtually all communication at that time was verbal rather than written, and that myths and legends would get mixed up with facts. Bede was one of the first people to try and make a permanent written record of the history of that time, and I think his book should be viewed as a time capsule of the beliefs of that period rather than a totally factual account. I look forward to reading it after your review, but will take some tales with a pinch of salt!

    1. Thank you, Michelle. Your insight helps to clarify what I read. I do recognize the enormity of the work, and it is impressive. It is fascinating and exciting to look upon past history through the eyes of those who lived closer to those times. I am glad that I did not discourage you from reading it, which is not my intention. I hope others do read it and form their own opinions. (I used my own personal experiences, which are cloudy, and I knew not how else to express what I immediately thought.) You are correct when you say we should view it is a record of history of 8th Century England/Europe, like a snapshot. I am just tempted to wonder if it is true, probably because it affects my faith. But I don't think I will ever know those answers. ???

    2. Of course, I'm way behind you Ruth, so I haven't read this book yet. I would only piggyback on this comment and say that even though communication was certainly more verbal during this time, we tend to judge it based on our modern verbal communication which is often woefully inadequate and not always viewed as deserving intellectual or accurate consistency. Historically when verbal communication was relied upon, there was much more emphasis on its accuracy; not to say that Bede was accurate or not, but generally that was the case. The comments on this post bring to mind the excellent book A Canticle for Leibowitz which examines the creation of myths in a very insightful and unique way; perhaps we're living in our own age of a time capsule of beliefs for our own period ..... interesting to thing about .....

    3. Intersting, Cleo.

      See, this is where I struggle: I want to know if these things really occurred. Were these events true? Did people have these experiences: rising from the dead, healing people with relics (???), actually meeting with the dead apostles, doing supernatural things? Really? Are they lies passed on through history or did demons and Satan deceive people, or did these events actually happen? Maybe some did, some were exaggerated, and some were lies. ???

      I'll take a look at your book suggestion. Thanks.

    4. That book sounds interesting Cleo, I've put it on my TBR list.
      I went to some lectures on psychology some time ago, and an interesting thing mentioned was that our interpretation of what we experience is filtered through the culture of the times. Medieval people had few stories apart from the Bible, so if a medieval person saw an inexplicable bright light in a wood, for example, they may assume it was a saintly vision, whereas a Victorian may think it was fairies, and a modern person may think it was an alien spacecraft. Many of us would be 'don't knows', but of course that is less interesting and unlikely to be recorded! I think medieval people sincerely interpreted some events in a way we might interpret differently today, so are not lies as such. As you say, we will probably never know which parts we would consider true today, and they will always be open to personal belief.

    5. Michelle, that is a fascinating way to look at this.

  4. Dear Ruth, what an appealing and intelligent blog you have here. This is my first visit, and I read with interest your post on Ven.Bede, of whom I've often read. I applaud the broadness of your reading! And, especially when your reading takes you out of your Christian tradition. A few scriptures came to mind right away in regard to the miraculous that you encountered in Bede. First of all in Jn. 14 Jesus says that his followers will do "greater things than these..." And an often overlooked gem in Acts chapter 19 is the account of people being healed with even the handkerchief of the apostle Paul. A careful look at Christianity through the centuries reveals that miracles still occur. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I'm looking forward to reading more of this blog!

    1. Hi, Sonja,

      Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your thoughts. Up to this point in my walk, I have come to understand that the need for men to perform miracles in the name of Christ waned after the lives of the apostles. Yes, they were given power to perform in order to prove Christ's power, but it became unnecessary as the early church established itself. The Holy Spirit would be our guide and today we have God's word as well. That is not to say that God is not working miracles every day; we just don't need that proof through men anymore. However, I'm not completely closed off to reading other works which include these ideas or trying to learn more about it. I cannot know everything, and God will show me as much as He wants me to know in His time. So that is just what I understand at this point in my studies.