Monday 3 September 2012

RW Chambers on the Venerable Bede


I have been reading a wonderful book of literary history by RW Chambers called Man's Unconquerable Mind, published in 1939.

I came to Chambers via Tolkien. Chambers was an older contemporary and friend of Tolkien, a philologist (one of the best Old English English philologists), a Professor at University College London, and a Roman Catholic+ (best remembered for a wonderful biography of Thomas More).

[+Note added - This is a mistake. Chambers was an Anglo Catholic - that is a member of the Catholic wing of the Church of England.]

(Indeed, it was Chambers late withdrawal from the shortlist for Professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford that gave Tolkien that Chair at an unusually early age - and despite being, on paper at least, inferior to the other remaining shortlisted candidate, Tolkien's ex-Tutor, Kenneth Sisam.)


I would count Chambers as a considerable discovery in my reading, although I have so far only read two and a half of his books: he is wise, creative, a fine writer and a true scholar who immediately won my trust.


Man's UM begins with The Venerable Bede, who is a 'local hero' in these parts, and I often visit the museum on the site of his old monastery, with a re-created Saxon farm. 

And Bede is a towering figure in the history of the West. But how important?

Chambers (agreeing with George Sarton) states :

During a period of 500 years, from AD 600 to AD 1100, Bede is the only master mind of Christendom...



dearieme said...

Bede was, I assume, a propagandist for the Rome-obedient church which suppressed the more conservative form, often referred to as Celtic Christianity, which had been dominant in Northumbria, Scotland and Ireland. Still, Catholics of Bede's day didn't (as far as I know) burn anyone as a heretic. In fact, that raises a thought. Did heretic-burning start only after Rome had flounced out from the bulk of Christianity in 1054?

Though that does take us some distance from the V Bede, I confess.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Lindisfarne in the north of Northumbria was the centre of Irish Christianity (which was Byzantine in type), while Jarrow-Monkwearmouth in the south of Northumbria (only a matter of about 50 miles distant) was the centre of Roman Christianity - in this brief period when Northumbria was the intellectual centre of the West.

Bede was the first generation of Roman educated Northumbrian monks, but was not hostile to the Irish - far from it, he was St Cuthbert's biographer and visited Lindisfarne (perhaps the only time he travelled).

However, as primarily an intellectual (rather than, like Cuthbert, primarily holy) Bede preferred the Roman - not least in relation to the calculation of Easter which Bede himself more or less solved (it was an extraordinarily difficult scientific/ mathematical problem, which took hundreds of years to sort out).

Josiah said...

Christian heretics were burned under the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian according to his imperial decree (Codex Justinianus).