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Outlines of English and American Literature
by Long, William J.

The good work of the monks is finely exemplified in the life of the Venerable Bede, or Będa (cir. 673-735), who is well called the father of English learning. As a boy he entered the Benedictine monastery at Jarrow; the temper of his manhood may be judged from a single sentence of his own record:

    "While attentive to the discipline of mine order and the daily care
    of singing in the church, my constant delight was in learning or
    teaching or writing."

It is hardly too much to say that this gentle scholar was for half a century the teacher of Europe. He collected a large library of manuscripts; he was the author of some forty works, covering the whole field of human knowledge in his day; and to his school at Jarrow came hundreds of pupils from all parts of the British Isles, and hundreds more from the Continent. Of all his works the most notable is the so-called "Ecclesiastical History" (Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum) which should be named the "History of the Race of Angles." This book marks the beginning of our literature of knowledge, and to it we are largely indebted for what we know of English history from the time of Cęsar's invasion to the early part of the eighth century.

All the extant works of Bede are in Latin, but we are told by his pupil Cuthbert that he was "skilled in our English songs," that he made poems and translated the Gospel of John into English. These works, which would now be of priceless value, were all destroyed by the plundering Danes.

As an example of Bede's style, we translate a typical passage from his History. The scene is the Saxon Witenagemōt, or council of wise men, called by King Edward (625) to consider the doctrine of Paulinus, who had been sent from Rome by Pope Gregory. The first speaker is Coifi, a priest of the old religion:

    "Consider well, O king, this new doctrine which is preached to us;
    for I now declare, what I have learned for certain, that the old
    religion has no virtue in it. For none of your people has been more
    diligent than I in the worship of our gods; yet many receive more
    favors from you, and are preferred above me, and are more
    prosperous in their affairs. If the old gods had any discernment,
    they would surely favor me, since I have been most diligent in
    their service. It is expedient, therefore, if this new faith that
    is preached is any more profitable than the old, that we accept it
    without delay."

Whereupon Coifi, who as a priest has hitherto been obliged to ride upon an ass with wagging ears, calls loudly for a horse, a prancing horse, a stallion, and cavorts off, a crowd running at his heels, to hurl a spear into the shrine where he lately worshiped. He is a good type of the political demagogue, who clamors for progress when he wants an office, and whose spear is more likely to be hurled at the back of a friend than at the breast of an enemy.

Then a pagan chief rises to speak, and we bow to a nobler motive. His allegory of the mystery of life is like a strain of Anglo-Saxon poetry; it moves us deeply, as it moved his hearers ten centuries ago:

    "This present life of man, O king, in comparison with the time that
    is hidden from us, is as the flight of a sparrow through the room
    where you sit at supper, with companions around you and a good fire
    on the hearth. Outside are the storms of wintry rain and snow. The
    sparrow flies in at one opening, and instantly out at another:
    whilst he is within he is sheltered from the winter storms, but
    after a moment of pleasant weather he speeds from winter back to
    winter again, and vanishes from your sight into the darkness whence
    he came. Even so the life of man appears for a little time; but of
    what went before and of what comes after we are wholly ignorant. If
    this new religion can teach us anything of greater certainty, it
    surely deserves to be followed." [Footnote: Bede, Historia,
    Book II, chap xiii, a free translation]


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