VIEWPOINT: Venerable Bede: The Brilliant Scholar Instrumental in Reviving Western Civilization After the Fall of Rome

by EditorK

Venerable Bede: The Brilliant Scholar Instrumental in Reviving Western Civilization After the Fall of Rome The Venerable Bede in J. Doyle Penrose’s “The Last Chapter.” (Public Domain)

Michael Bonner
By Michael Bonner 


The impetus for the revival of Western civilization after the fall of Rome can largely be ascribed to one man.

In the 7th and 8th centuries, after the fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, the old Roman culture was extinct. The light of learning had almost gone out. Scholarship was rare, and books were not widely circulated. Schools and scholarship were confined to monasteries.

If you were looking for the world’s greatest scholar during that “Dark Age,” you would find him in the remotest corner of the old Roman world: northern England, right on the eastern edge of Hadrian’s Wall. There you find a man with the unusual name of Bede (AD 672–735), the “Venerable Bede” as he came to be known.

Bede never travelled. He remained in his rain-drenched monastery for his whole life, working away at his books, compiling and synthesizing practically all knowledge that was then available to him. The world around him was grim and disorderly amidst the post-Roman chaos of battling tribes and rival warlords. Finding the most brilliant scholar of the age in such an environment would be like finding him now on the outskirts of Brownsville, Texas, near the eastern terminus of the American border wall with Mexico.

In the post-Roman Britain of Bede’s day, the old order was long gone. There was no common culture or language, much less a shared sense of identity. Indigenous Britons, the Irish, Picts, and more recent Scandinavian and Saxon immigrants and invaders all jostled for position and clashed, often violently. The result was a welter of languages and belief-systems, including different forms of Christianity and paganism. National legend remembers this time as the age of King Arthur, who probably never existed. It was more likely the age of epic hero Beowulf, or not long after it; a time of warriors with flashing swords and shining mead-horns, of night-stalking monsters like Grendel, and treasure hoards guarded by dragons. Or so the poets remembered much later.

Bede’s great achievements were to give intelligible shape to the disorder and to give his contemporaries a place in history. His scholarship is a bridge across time, spanning that dimly remembered age of mythical kings and monsters, and reconnecting his own era with the old Roman world that had disappeared. Bede does this in a text called ”The Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” which he wrote in Latin.


Depiction of the Venerable Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. (Public Domain)

It is a short work, written for a lay audience in an engaging style that still makes for good reading nowadays in translation. But at the time, Bede’s goal was not so much to entertain his readers as to show them where they belonged in space and time. He established a single, coherent story interweaving various Christian, pagan, Irish, Saxon, and Roman traditions, and holding them together in the dynamic tension of the Latin learning of Roman Christianity.

Bede’s work was influential abroad and came to inspire intellectual and social reforms on the European continent, which rekindled interest in ancient literature as elites came to feel a greater connection with the past. We are still the almost bankrupt heirs of the Venerable Bede, too, since it was he who popularized the use of dating events after the birth of Christ—the origin of the AD/BC system that we still use.

Our own time is obviously not a “dark age” like the post-Roman chaos, but it is one of increasing instability and confusion. Old certainties are fading away, or have vanished altogether. The new order that arose after the two world wars seems to be tottering. Globalization since the end of the Cold War has brought many people closer together through trade and migration. But contrary to what it promised, globalization has not made the world into a single community. Nor have the individual nations of the West become more unified and culturally rich. The opposite has happened, alas. We are divided and atomized, and we have neglected or destroyed local culture and tradition.

It has been said of Canada that it has “no core identity.” But we cannot long remain a healthy and prosperous community if this is true, and we cannot expect anything good to come of promoting only difference and division. Like the age of Bede, our own time calls for a new narrative. We need a story that tells us who we are and where we came from—but not as mere individuals or groups vying for ascendancy. More than ever within recent memory we need to know who we are in general, and how we all fit together as a single community.

Perhaps the example of Bede may one day point the way.


Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times. 

Michael Bonner is a communications and public policy consultant at Atlas Strategic Advisors. He holds a doctorate in Iranian history from the University of Oxford, and is also an author. His latest book is “In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present.” 

You may also like