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Book review: Bede and the Theory of Everything by Michelle P. Brown

22 December 2023

Katherine Harvey reads a biography of a great monastic polymath

AROUND the year 680, a seven-year-old boy entered the Northumbrian monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow. Fifty-five years later, he died there — having never left the kingdom of his birth, but having produced at least 40 written works, including the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The reputation of the Venerable Bede, as this monastic polymath soon came to be known, grew rapidly after his death. Today, he is acknowledged as a saint by the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican Churches, and considered to be one of the foremost scholars of the early Middle Ages.

In this scholarly but readable new study, Michelle Brown (a Professor Emerita of Medieval Manuscript Studies at the University of London) provides a comprehensive portrait of this unique mind, and the world that produced it. Wearmouth-Jarrow, a newly founded monastery located in an isolated part of a country that had only recently been reconverted to Christianity, may sound like an unlikely place to produce one of the greatest scholars of his age, but, in the eighth century, it was an intellectual powerhouse, and home to several hundred monks. Many of them (including, Brown compellingly argues, Bede himself) worked in a thriving scriptorium producing lavishly illuminated manuscripts such as the Codex Amiatinus. It also housed one of the best libraries of the day, of about 300 volumes. This collection proved an invaluable resource for Bede, who once wrote that “I always took delight in learning, or teaching, or writing.”

Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence (MS Amiato 1, f. 796v), photo World Digital LibraryChrist in Majesty at the Second Coming, from the Codex Amiatinus. One of the illustrations in the book

Alongside his influential Ecclesiastical History, Bede was the author of numerous religious works, including the famous hagiography of St Cuthbert in which the saint’s feet are dried by a pair of sea otters. He also translated key texts (including the Lord’s Prayer and St John’s Gospel) into Old English, believing that the instruction of the people was best conducted in their own tongue. Such instruction was seemingly much needed: when a group of Wearmouth-Jarrow monks were swept out to sea, the local peasants called for them to be drowned; “for they have robbed people of their old ways of worship, and how the new worship is to be conducted, nobody knows.”

Bede’s desire to create a theory of everything (Brown compares his intellectual ambition to that of Einstein, or Stephen Hawking) led him to study a surprising range of subjects: he was fascinated by eclipses, drew up the first tide-tables, and proved that the earth was round. He also wrote a treatise in which he used scientific reasoning to establish when Easter should be celebrated, a subject of considerable debate at the time. Such advanced thinking led to criticism from some contemporaries (dismissed by Bede as “lewd rustics”), but only enhances his appeal to modern readers, who will surely find much to admire about this remarkable man.


Dr Katherine Harvey is Research Fellow in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London.


Bede and the Theory of Everything
Michelle P. Brown
Reaktion Books £16.95
Church Times Bookshop £15.25

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