CHAPTER IV. THE VENERABLE BEDE AND THE SAXON CHRONICLE.
Biography. Ecclesiastical History. The Recorded Miracles. Bede's Latin.
Other Writers. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: its Value. Alfred the Great.
Effect of the Danish Invasions.
Bede was a precocious youth, whose excellent parts commended him to Bishop Benedict. He made rapid progress in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; was a deacon at the unusual age of nineteen, and a priest at thirty. It seems probable that he always remained in his monastery, engaged in literary labor and offices of devotion until his death, which happened while he was dictating to his boy amanuensis, “Dear master,” said the boy, “there is yet one sentence not written.” He answered, “Write quickly.” Soon after, the boy said, “The sentence is now written.” He replied. “It is well; you have said the truth. Receive my head into your hands, for it is a great satisfaction to me to sit facing my holy place where I was wont to pray, that I may also sitting, call upon my Father.” “And thus, on the pavement of his little cell, singing 'Glory be unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost,' when he had named the Holy Ghost he breathed his last, and so departed to the heavenly kingdom.”
HIS ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY.—His ecclesiastical history opens with a description of Britain, including what was known of Scotland and Ireland. With a short preface concerning the Church in the earliest times, he dwells particularly upon the period, from the arrival of St. Augustine, in 597, to the year 731, a space of one hundred and thirty-four years, during nearly one-half of which the author lived. The principal written works from which he drew were the natural history of Pliny, the Hormesta of the Spanish priest Paulus Orosius, and the history of Gildas. His account of the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, “being the traditions of the Kentish people concerning Hengist and Horsa,” has since proved to be fabulous, as the Saxons are now known to have been for a long period, during the Roman occupancy, making predatory incursions into Britain before the time of their reputed settlement.
For the materials of the principal portions of his history, Bede was indebted to correspondence with those parts of England which he did not visit, and to the lives of saints and contemporary documents, which recorded the numerous miracles and wonders with which his pages are filled.
BEDE'S RECORDED MIRACLES.—The subject of these miracles has been considered at some length by Dr. Arnold, in a very liberal spirit; but few readers will agree with him in concluding that with regard to some miracles, “there is no strong a priori improbability in their occurrence, but rather the contrary.” One of the most striking of the historical lessons contained in this work, is the credulity and superstition which mark the age; and we reason justly and conclusively from the denial of the most palpable and absurd, to the repudiation of the lesser demands on our credulity. It is sufficient for us that both were eagerly believed in his day, and thus complete a picture of the age which such a view would only serve to impair, if not destroy. The theology of the age is set forth with wonderful clearness, in the numerous questions propounded by Augustine to Gregory I., the Bishop of Rome, and in the judicious answers of that prelate; in which may also be found the true relation which the Church of Rome bore to her English mission.
We have also the statement of the establishment of the archbishoprics of Canterbury and York, the bishopric of London, and others.
The last chapter but one, the twenty-third, gives an important account “of the present state of the English nation, or of all Britain;” and the twenty-fourth contains a chronological recapitulation, from the beginning of the year 731, and a list of the author's works. Bede produced, besides his history, translations of many books in the Bible, several histories of abbots and saints, books of hymns and epigrams, a treatise on orthography, and one on poetry.
To point the student to Bede's works, and to indicate their historic teachings, is all that can be here accomplished. A careful study of his Latin History, as the great literary monument of the Anglo-Saxon period, will disclose many important truths which lie beneath the surface, and thus escape the cursory reader. Wars and politics, of which the Anglo-Saxon chronicle is full, find comparatively little place in his pages. The Church was then peaceful, and not polemic; the monasteries were sanctuaries in which quiet, devotion, and order reigned. Another phase of the literature shows us how the Gentiles raged and the people were imagining a vain thing; but Bede, from his undisturbed cell, scarcely heard the howlings of the storm, as he wrote of that kingdom which promised peace and good-will.
BEDE'S LATIN.—To the classical student, the language of Bede offers an interesting study. The Latin had already been corrupted, and a nice discrimination will show the causes of this corruption—the effects of the other living languages, the ignorance of the clergy, and the new subjects and ideas to which it was applied.
Bede was in the main more correct than his age, and his vocabulary has few words of barbarian origin. He arose like a luminary, and when the light of his learning disappeared, but one other star appeared to irradiate the gloom which followed his setting; and that was in the person and the reign of Alfred.
OTHER WRITERS OF THIS AGE.—Among names which must pass with the mere mention, the following are, after Bede, the most illustrious in this time. Aldhelm, Abbot of Malmesbury, who died in the year 709, is noted for his scientific computations, and for his poetry: he is said to have translated the Psalms into Anglo-Saxon poetry.
Alcuin, the pride of two countries, England and France, was born in the year of Bede's death: renowned as an Englishman for his great learning, he was invited by Charlemagne to his court, and aided that distinguished sovereign in the scholastic and literary efforts which render his reign so illustrious. Alcuin died in 804.
The works of Alcuin are chiefly theological treatises, but he wrote a life of Charlemagne, which has unfortunately been lost, and which would have been invaluable to history in the dearth of memorials of that emperor and his age.
Alfric, surnamed Grammaticus, (died 1006,) was an Archbishop of Canterbury, in the tenth century, who wrote eighty homilies, and was, in his opposition to Romish doctrine, one of the earliest English reformers.
John Scotus Erigena, who flourished at the beginning of the ninth century, in the brightest age of Irish learning, settled in France, and is known as a subtle and learned scholastic philosopher. His principal work is a treatise “On the Division of Nature,” Both names, Scotus and Erigena, indicate his Irish origin; the original Scoti being inhabitants of the North of Ireland.
Dunstan, (925-988,) commonly called Saint Dunstan, was a powerful and dictatorial Archbishop of Canterbury, who used the superstitions of monarch and people to enable him to exercise a marvellous supremacy in the realm. He wrote commentaries on the Benedictine rule.
These writers had but a remote and indirect bearing upon the progress of literature in England, and are mentioned rather as contemporary, than as distinct subjects of our study.
THE ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE.—We now reach the valuable and purely historical compilation known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is a chronological arrangement of events in English history, from the birth of Christ to the year 1154, in the reign of Henry the Second. It is the most valuable epitome of English history during that long period.
It is written in Anglo-Saxon, and was begun soon after the time of Alfred, at least as a distinct work. In it we may trace the changes in the language from year to year, and from century to century, as it passed from unmixed Saxon until, as the last records are by contemporary hands, it almost melted into modern English, which would hardly trouble an Englishman of the present day to read.
The first part of the Chronicle is a table of events, many of them fabulous, which had been originally jotted down by Saxon monks, abbots, and bishops. To these partial records, King Alfred furnished additional information, as did also, in all probability, Alfric and Dunstan. These were collected into permanent form by Plegmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, who brought the annals up to the year 891; from that date they were continued in the monasteries. Of the Saxon Chronicle there are no less than seven accredited ancient copies, of which the shortest extends to the year 977, and the longest to 1154; the others extend to intermediate dates.
ITS VALUE.—The value of the Chronicle as a statistic record of English history cannot be over-estimated; it moves before the student of English literature like a diorama, picturing the events in succession, not without glimpses of their attendant philosophy. We learn much of the nation's thoughts, troubles, mental, moral, and physical conditions, social laws, and manners. As illustrations we may refer to the romantic adventures of King Alfred; and to the conquest of Saxon England by William of Normandy—“all as God granted them,” says the pious chronicler, “for the people's sins.” And he afterward adds, “Bishop Odo and William the Earl built castles wide throughout the nation, and poor people distressed; and ever after it greatly grew in evil: may the end be good when God will.” Although for the most part written in prose, the annals of several years are given in the alliterative Saxon verse.
A good English translation of Bede's history, and one of the Chronicle, edited by Dr. Giles, have been issued together by Bohn in one volume of his Antiquarian library. To the student of English history and of English literature, the careful perusal of both, in conjunction, is an imperative necessity.
ALFRED THE GREAT.—Among the best specimens of Saxon prose are the translations and paraphrases of King Alfred, justly called the Great and the Truth-teller, the noblest monarch of the Saxon period. The kingdoms of the heptarchy, or octarchy, had been united under the dominion of Egbert, the King of Wessex, in the year 827, and thus formed the kingdom of England. But this union of the kingdoms was in many respects nominal rather than really complete; as Alfred frequently subscribes himself King of the West Saxons. It was a confederation to gain strength against their enemies. On the one hand, the inhabitants of North, South, and West Wales were constantly rising against Wessex and Mercia; and on the other, until the accession of Alfred upon the death of his brother Ethelred, in 871, every year of the Chronicle is marked by fierce battles with the troops and fleets of the Danes on the eastern and southern coasts.
It redounds greatly to the fame of Alfred that he could find time and inclination in his troubled and busy reign, so harassed with wars by land and sea, for the establishment of wise laws, the building or rebuilding of large cities, the pursuit of letters, and the interest of education. To give his subjects, grown-up nobles as well as children, the benefits of historical examples, he translated the work of Orosius, a compendious history of the world, a work of great repute; and to enlighten the ecclesiastics, he made versions of parts of Bede; of the Pastorale of Gregory the First; of the Soliloquies of St. Augustine, and of the work of Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae. Beside these principal works are other minor efforts. In all his writings, he says he “sometimes interprets word for word, and sometimes meaning for meaning.” With Alfred went down the last gleams of Saxon literature. Troubles were to accumulate steadily and irresistibly upon the soil of England, and the sword took the place of the pen.
THE DANES.—The Danes thronged into the realm in new incursions, until 850,000 of them were settled in the North and East of England. The Danegelt or tribute, displaying at once the power of the invaders and the cowardice and effeminacy of the Saxon monarchs, rose to a large sum, and two millions of Saxons were powerless to drive the invaders away. In the year 1016, after the weak and wicked reign of the besotted Ethelred, justly surnamed the Unready, who to his cowardice in paying tribute added the cruelty of a wholesale massacre on St. Brice's Eve—since called the Danish St. Bartholomew—the heroic Edmund Ironsides could not stay the storm, but was content to divide the kingdom with Knud (Canute) the Great. Literary efforts were at an end. For twenty-two years the Danish kings sat upon the throne of all England; and when the Saxon line was restored in the person of Edward the Confessor, a monarch not calculated to restore order and impart strength, in addition to the internal sources of disaster, a new element of evil had sprung up in the power and cupidity of the Normans.
Upon the death of Edward the Confessor, the claimants to the throne were Harold, the son of Godwin, and William of Normandy, both ignoring the claims of the Saxon heir apparent, Edgar Atheling. Harold, as has been already said, fell a victim to the dissensions in his own ranks, as well as to the courage and strength of William, and thus Saxon England fell under Norman rule.
THE LITERARY PHILOSOPHY.—The literary philosophy of this period does not lie far beneath the surface of the historic record. Saxon literature was expiring by limitation. During the twelfth century, the Saxon language was completely transformed into English. The intercourse of many previous years had introduced a host of Norman French words; inflections had been lost; new ideas, facts, and objects had sprung up, requiring new names. The dying Saxon literature was overshadowed by the strength and growth of the Norman, and it had no royal patron and protector since Alfred. The superior art-culture and literary attainments of the South, had long been silently making their impression in England; and it had been the custom to send many of the English youth of noble families to France to be educated.
Saxon chivalry was rude and unattractive in comparison with the splendid armor, the gay tournaments, and the witching minstrelsy which signalized French chivalry; and thus the peaceful elements of conquest were as seductive as the force of arms was potent. A dynasty which had ruled for more than six hundred years was overthrown; a great chapter in English history was closed. A new order was established, and a new chapter in England's annals was begun.