Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted, are actually Penguin Confections, editorial chimerae cobbled together from fugitive bits and pieces, rather than faithful translations of intact ancient works. This is by no means a criticism: such cobbled-together volumes can be utter delights – depending on the vision and brio of the editors and translators involved. I’ll always take almost as sharp a delight in a good well-chosen “Age of Voltaire”-type volume as I will in well-translated single texts from the same period – there’s a lot to be said for the joys of juxtaposition, expected and otherwise.
Such a volume is certainly Penguin’s 1965 The Age of Bede, in the revised edition of 1998. Here editor D. H. Farmer assembles five ancient Church texts from England and Ireland in the sixth and seventh centuries, when Christianity faced its first major-scale crisis of centralization – Roman episcopal organization against the cellular satellites of the monasteries and monastic orders … and when that crisis itself was located firmly on the spectrum of larger crises that we used to call the Dark Ages.
In the cold and collapsed West during those ages, monasteries were often islands of learning. They had artwork and libraries, they valued erudition (albeit of the straightened Christian variety), and their emissaries travelled dangerous roads in pursuit of books and educated conversation. No matter what a modern agnostic reader may think of Christianity as a belief system or literary subject, respect must be paid to the quarrelling, striving intellect so often found on these old bound pages. The life of the mind for a time survived in the West mainly in such vessels, pursuing such narratives.
Five such narratives are presented together in The Age of Bede: Eddius Stephanus’ Life of Wilfrid, the anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith, one chunk of the boisterous, ongoing adventures of St. Brendan, The Voyage of St. Brendan, and two works by Bede himself: The Life of Cuthbert, and an excerpt from The Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow. As you can tell from those titles, there’s a great deal here of what you might expect: saints’ lives, healed children, praise-songs at all hours of the day and night. But there are also innumerable moments of pure reading fun – for those readers patient and open-minded enough to reach them. Take this story from The Life of Wilfrid:
During the construction of the highest parts of the walls of the church, a young man, one of the bishop’s masons, lost his footing on a high pinnacle, fell headlong, and dashed himself on the stone pavement below. He broke his arms and legs; every joint was put out. There he lay gasping his last. The masons thought he was dead and at the bishop’s command took him outside on a bier. Wilfrid had been praying and weeping but now hastily summoned all the workmen.
‘Let us show how great our faith is by praying together with one accord that God may send back the soul into this lad’s body and hear our prayers for his life, even as he heard the prayers of St. Paul.’
They knelt down and prayed that he who mocks at every good thing might have no victory to gloat over in this building. The bishop prayed after the manner of Elias an Eliseus and gave his blessing. The breath of life returned to the boy. The doctors bound up his arms and legs and he improved steadily day by day. He is still alive to give thanks to God and his name is Bothelm.
Notice all the interesting stuff that’s going on here! Wilfrid is the man in charge of this whole epic undertaking, and as soon as he sees that the masons have given up the fallen boy for dead, he orders the body to be taken outside – away from the other workers, who were no doubt spooked (and perhaps seeing the Devil’s hand in the boy’s fall). Once outside, Wilfrid obviously sends the workmen away (since he has to call them back again) – he doesn’t want a crowd milling around while this poor boy breathes his last. Then something happens – Wilfrid must have examined the boy and detected signs of life despite the grievous injuries. Instantly, he calls everybody back to gather around the body and holds a quick prayer meeting – and notice the angle he works in: that the boy’s revival is linked to the pride of their ongoing building. That would be an unthinkable gamble if Wilfrid hadn’t already been fairly certain the crowd would soon see the fluttering of eyelids and the gasping for air. And when that happens, the miracle is over – the God of infinite power Wilfrid invokes doesn’t see fit to go the extra five feet and actually heal the boy’s broken limbs. Poor young Bothelm (a very neat end-twist, revealing that the boy is still alive, a grown man now and still grateful) takes a horrible fall and is both badly stunned and badly injured. Canny Wilfrid uses the temporary nature of the former to distract his workers from the discouraging nature of the latter – a tense moment when a great deal could have gone wrong, saved by nimble thinking and a bit of con artistry!
Or this touching moment from Bede’s account of the life of Ceolfrith, who’d been friend and mentor to him for all of Bede’s life – Ceolfrith had taught him how to read and write, how to control himself, how to think, and the two had survived plague and plunder together. Now Ceolfrith, sensing that he was dying, organizes one last overland voyage to Rome, where he ostensibly plans to present the Pope with one of his ornate new Bibles. The brothers at Ceolfrith’s abbey are not fooled – they know they’ll never seen this man, their friend and rock, again in the living world, and they lose all composure. As usual, it’s left to Ceolfrith himself to keep things from breaking down:
He bade them his last farewell, urging them to preserve mutual love and to correct offenders, as the Gospel enjoins. He offered his forgiveness and goodwill to any who might have offended and begged any whom he might have rebuked too severely to be reconciled to him and to pray for him. They arrived at the shore; once again he gave them all the kiss of peace amidst their tears. They fell to their knees and, after he had offered a prayer, he and his companions boarded the boat. The deacons of the church embarked with them, carrying the lighted candles and a golden cross. After crossing the river, he venerated the cross, mounted his horse and rode off, leaving behind him in his monasteries brethren to the number of around six hundred.
The Age of Bede offers many dozens of such wonderful moments – some full of life and dialogue and implicit conflict (and, shall we say, questionable veracity, in the case of anything connected with The Life of Brendan), others far more quiet and inward-looking, but all alive with the same narrative energy and drama that would migrate to the secular world in a few centuries, once writing and learning had returned there. There are people in these old Church books, and their stories are every bit as fascinating now as they were when they were the only stories in the world.