The Role Of The Venerable Bede

Earlier a brief account was given of how Dionysius Exiguus developed a year numbering system, counting from March 25, 1 B.C., which was later taken up and developed into the era defini tion we use, the familiar Anno Domini scheme. The person whose actions led to this adoption was the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk born a decade after the eclipse and synod of A.D. 664. It was also he who transmitted the false record to us although, as we will see, there were extenuating circumstances. We need to look at the interconnections between the characters in this story to learn more.

Saint Wilfrid we have already met, as one of the two men (along with Benedict Biscop) responsible for bringing back various documents, including Easter tables, to Northumbria from Rome, having been convinced by the Pope that the Easter computus set out by Dionysius was the method ordained by God. At the Synod of Whitby it was Wilfrid who was the main proponent of this winning cause. A protégé of Wilfrid was a man named Coelfrid, who at the time of the eclipse was a monk at Gilling, also within the path of totality. In 673 Biscop provided the wherewithal for the foundation of a new abbey at Monkwearmouth (or simply Wearmouth), and Coelfrid was seconded to assist, taking with him copies of annals recording what had occurred in 664, including the falsified date of the eclipse. In 681 Coelfrid moved up the coast a few miles to become the abbot of another monastery being built at Jarrow, and again took with him copies of the annals. From the age of seven, Bede lived with Biscop at Wearmouth, but then moved with Coelfrid to Jarrow, where he spent the rest of his life surrounded by the rich library of church documents collected by Wilfrid and Biscop.

Our knowledge of the early church history of England stems practically in its entirety from Bede's various accounts, written between 703 and 725 (he died in 735). Although his writings cannot be claimed to be perfect, he did a remarkably good job, resulting in "Venerable" usually being inserted before his name. Whenever he did find a mistake in some earlier record, he normally did his best to ferret out its cause and then put it to right. In the case of the eclipse, though, his account is quite peculiar. It is mentioned several times in his annals, and emphasized in various ways, Bede writing that it was an event "which our age remembers." The implication seems to be that he was distancing himself from the record and insinuating that there was something wrong with it.

Why, then, did he not correct it? Bede was quite capable of working out when the eclipse actually occurred. The answer seems to be that it was such a sensitive issue. Bede was writing only a few decades after the event, while the Celtic Church was still powerful in Scotland and Ireland and the hold of the Roman Church over England was tenuous. There were good reasons involved with church power and politics to cover the matter up then. Bede also had personal reasons: the misstatement of the eclipse date seems likely to have come from Wilfrid, who was still alive when Bede was first writing, and Wilfrid was a close colleague of Bede's spiritual father and mentor, Coelfrid.

It seems probable that Bede recognized that something was amiss, but did not feel able in his own lifetime to remedy it. Rather, he left a clear indication of the problem in the confident expectation that some later scholar would rectify matters. Perhaps the time has come.

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