Changing the World Through Medieval Humanities

Down to his dying hours, Bede was teaching, writing, and advancing the Kingdom of God.

I have read and used quite a few good histories of Britain.  Britain as a nation has produced some of the world’s greatest literature, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Lewis and Eliot.  It has also produced some of the world’s greatest historians.  The history of the British Isles is a rich, multilayered, and powerful wealth of stories.  Whether one reads from Macauley’s classic History of England, or Winston Churchill’s magisterial History of the English Speaking Peoples, or Simon Schama’s richly inviting History of Britain (either in the print or video version) or Peter Ackroyd’s recent Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors, the story is grand and full.

But all the various histories of England all are rooted in the work of a monk named Bede, who lived from the late 600s to early 700s.  A prolific scholar and writer, Bede’s activities were confined to a monastery at a place called Jarrow. From there, he collected and compiled the stories that were conveyed to him of church life in England.

Bede’s accounts are uneven, unusual, and often unorthodox.  A founding father of Anglicanism, he would be seen as an extreme charismatic in our day.  Bede believed in miracles, and the miracles he heard of were often related to saints, or believers, of his time. The accounts were nothing short of fantastic and not easily believed.

Did God use extraordinary means to convert the British?  Were those Roman Catholic Christians of the early 700s clear on the doctrines highlighted in the Reformation?  Was the battle over the date of celebrating Easter really that important? Were the Celtic Christians more or less orthodox?

Bede raises questions we cannot easily answer.  But he is the only source for much of what was happening in Britain at that time.  There were multiple kingdoms and multiple kings.  Some were converted, and some needed to be converted.  Christianity was not the established religion, but was in its ascendancy.  Irish Christians, following in the footsteps of Patrick and Columba, were spreading the Gospel from the Isle of Iona southward.  Monks sent from Rome were spreading Christianity from south northward.

I wish the rulings at the Synod of Whitby had gone differently.  I prefer the excess baggage of Celtic Christianity over that of Roman Christianity.  But the Gospel is salt and light, and as such, it works slowly in a culture.  Little by little, kingdoms were converted, sacred writings were copied, translated, and taught, and England, the land of the Angles, was Christianized.

My class recently finished laboring through Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  This is not an easy read.  Bede is not a page-turner.  But he is the Father of English History, or you might say, the Father of English Church History.  He collected bits and pieces of a story that continues to this day.  It crossed the oceans of the world and it impacted the world I live in.  I am the heir of Bede’s labors in more ways than one.

We read the Oxford World Classics edition of Bede’s History. It has appeared in countless other editions.

In our Humanites class, we also just finished reading Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.

Boethius, awaiting trial and execution, is visited by Lady Philosophy.

Boethius’ book was second only to the Bible in its popularity, influence, and use during the Middle Ages.  It is thought that King Alfred the Great, among others,  translated it.  Scholars, theologians, philosophers, and rulers read, studied, and meditated on this work.  No education was complete without reading, studying, and maybe translating and writing a commentary on The Consolation of Philosophy.

It is a rich read that deals with some of life’s most troubling questions.  Why do bad things happen to good or innocent people?  What is truly true, good, and lasting?  How do we reconcile God’s foreknowledge and human freedom?

Puzzling to many through the years, Boethius pondered and debated the questions with Lady Philosophy and not with Scripture.  At many points in the reading (and we read it together in class), I was making mental notes of pertinent Bible passages, but Boethius never mentioned even one.  He references Homer and Greek mythology, borrows from Plato and Aristotle, and often refers to God.

But like the Book of Esther, Boethius’s Consolation makes no sense without presupposing God.  None is this is to say that every answer he gives is good or convincing.  But he did ask many of the right questions.

Another Oxford World Classic.

This was the first time that I actually read Consolation of Philosophy.  C. S. Lewis put Boethius’ Consolation on his personal list of the ten books that most influenced him. (  That alone is justification for time well spent reading and discussing this book.

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