Our book today is a lovely volume called The Illustrated Bede, produced by John Marsden, translated by John Gregory, and featuring dozens and dozens of gorgeous full-color photographs by Geoff Green. The thing was put out by Floris Books in 1989, and it features chunks of translations from Bede’s various eighth-century Latin bestsellers, interspersed with editorial scene-settings designed to orient modern-day readers to the world of the gentle scholar our authors rightly refer to as “one of Northumbria’s greatest sons.”
The bulk of the book is devoted to Bede’s best-known work, his great Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, that nerdy, magnificent, eye-popping concordium of saints’ lives, gossip, and local color that possesses as its base-note the steady rhythms of Bede’s monastic world, which Marsden captures perfectly:
There is little reason to imagine that Bede’s early years at Wearmouth and Jarrow were greatly different from those of any other boy in a monastic community of the time. The monastic life was dominated by discipline and order. The daily round of communal prayer began with matins – sometimes as early as two in the morning – and ended with compline in the late afternoon or early evening. The remaining hours of the day were passed in study, contemplation and manual labour. There was corn to be threshed and winnowed, livestock to be fed and fish to be caught. The brewing of mead and growing of herbs were activities of especial importance at Jarrow, while the kitchens and bakehouse provided their own round of daily tasks. A contemporary source tells us that simple but wholesome food was served in the monastic refectory. Fish – always a prominent item on the menu at Jarrow – and flesh meats, kitchen herbs and beans, butter and cheese were washed down with ale when it was available and water when it wasn’t.
In addition to those excerpts, however, the book also boasts a real treat: additional experts from some of Bede’s other works, like his fantastic Life of Cuthbert or his wonderfully colorful Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, where he summons one magnificent pen-portrait after another of the great secular and religious figures looming over his mental landscape – and almost always piping up himself in defense of his own extensive scholarship, as in a typical passage from his account of Bishop Aidan, founder the abbey at Lindisfarne:
I have written this account of Aidan’s character and life without in any way commending or approving his inaccurate knowledge of the observance of Easter. On the contrary, this is something that I abhor, as I have shown very clearly in my book on chronology; but as a truthful historian I have given a straightforward account of his deeds and of events associated with him, giving praise where due to his way of life and setting it on record for the benefit of my readers. He cultivated peace and love, self-discipline and humility. His heart had the mastery over anger and avarice, and was contemptuous of pride and vainglory.
But the best part of The Illustrated Bede is the “illustrated” part; all those gorgeous color photos on almost every page, showing cold coasts and candlelit stone abbey walls and hardy ducks and, lastly, Bede’s own black-stoned tomb in Durham Cathedral. They do something even the great Penguin Classics paperback can’t manage: they viscerally remind readers that Bede was real and lived in a real world, a world bursting with color and brightened by dawn every day, a world bordered by whitecapped inlets and nodding fennel and primrose. I’d like to think Bede’s lively prose makes that world speak in living tones to modern readers who can scarcely imagine it today, but I’m not naïve enough to ignore the thousand words each of these pictures represents. It’s nice to know such a thing as The Illustrated Bede exists; it’s hard to imagine a bookseller or a book critic who would feel otherwise.
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