Top critical review
8 people found this helpful
on 25 October 2014
This is certainly an important book, for all the reasons described elsewhere, but is it a good read? Well... it’s quite dry in places, particularly the transcripts of letters to and from the Pope.
It covers the period from Julius Caesars’s invasion of Britain in 60 BC (sic) to Bede’s own time of 731 AD. However, the first 650 of these years are covered briskly, and somewhat disjointedly, in the first 37 pages. The bulk of the book recounts the 135 years immediately prior to its writing.
Secular affairs are covered, particularly those concerning Northumbria. Kings come and go and the kingdoms of Britain squabble amongst themselves. Generally, though, these events form a kind of weather, against which the central drama takes place: the rise of the English Church. Augustine arrives from Rome in 587 AD, after which bishops and monks spread across the land, converting Kings, founding monasteries, and pulling the established Irish clergy into line regarding matters of doctrine that seem entirely trivial today. Some of the tales Bede tells have since become famous; a few are genuinely affecting, such as that of White Hewald and Black Hewald, martyrs for the faith.
There are probably modern accounts of this period that are more comprehensive and more objective. What you get from this contemporary account is a greater immersion in the character of the age. You’re fully exposed to Bede’s enthusiastic pedantry regarding the date of Easter, for example, and the general passion for miracles and relics (Bede describes how soil from the graves of saints is consumed with a glass of water, like antibiotics). There is also a certain irrational thrill from reading such a key text in English history, one that was written before the Vikings arrived. It’s a very subtle thrill, though, and you’ll need some patience.