07 August, 2007

Bede: the Father of the Footnote

Written in 731 in Northumbria, Bede’s history is the most important primary source for the early history of the lands that were eventually to become England.

One of the unusual features of Bede’s work is that he makes some attempt to say where he obtained his material. Not so much the Father of History as the Father of the Footnote. In his Preface he lists the authorities he has consulted, and in many places in the text itself he says things like, “This was testified to by Aldwulf, king of the East Angles, who lived into our own day” where he is quoting a specific source, or, “I have thought fit to include this traditional story” where he is relying on hearsay or folklore. However, he doesn’t always cite his references, and this can generate some interesting puzzles.

Where, for example, did Bede get his information about the Brittonic churchmen (from the lands in the west of Britain that would later become Wales) who refused to accept Archbishop Augustine of Canterbury as their boss in 603 AD and later paid a horrible price? Bede’s account is in Book II Chapter 2.

“There came seven bishops of the Britons, and many most learned men. They repaired first to a holy man, asking whether they should follow Augustine. He answered, "If he is a man of God, follow him." - "How shall we know that?" said they. He replied, "Our Lord saith, Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart. If therefore, Augustine is meek and lowly of heart, it to be believed that he has taken upon him the yoke of Christ; and offers the same to you to take upon you. But if he is stern and haughty, it appears that he is not of God, nor are we to regard his words." They insisted again, "And how shall we discern even this?" - "Do you contrive," said the anchorite, "that he may first arrive with his company at the place where the synod is to be held; and if at your approach he shall rise up to you, hear him submissively, being assured that he is the servant of Christ; but if he shall despise you, and not rise up to you, whereas you are more in number, let him also be despised by you."

They did as he directed; and it happened that when they came, Augustine remained sitting on a chair. They became angry, and charging him with pride, endeavoured to contradict all he said. He said to them, "You act in many particulars contrary to our custom, or rather the custom of the universal church, and yet, if you will comply with me in these three points, viz. to keep Easter at the due time; to administer baptism according to the custom of the holy Roman Apostolic Church; and jointly with us to preach the word of God to the English nation, we will readily tolerate all the other things you do, though contrary to our customs." They answered they would do none of those things, nor receive him as their archbishop; for they alleged among themselves, that "if he would not now rise up to us, how much more will he condemn us, as of no worth, if we shall begin to be under his subjection?" To whom the man of God, Augustine, is said, in a threatening manner, to have foretold, that in case they would not join in unity with their brethren, they should be warred upon by their enemies; and, if they would not preach the way of life to the English nation, they should at their hands undergo the vengeance of death. All which, through the dispensation of the Divine judgment, fell out exactly as he had predicted.

For afterwards the warlike king of the English, Ethelfrid, made a very great slaughter of the faithless Britons, at the City of Legions. Many monks came to pray at the battle, having one Brocmail appointed to defend them. King Ethelfrid, said, "If then they cry to their God against us, in truth, though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers." He, therefore, commanded them to be attacked first, and then destroyed the rest of the impious army, not without considerable loss of his own forces. About twelve hundred of those that came to pray are said to have been killed, and only fifty to have escaped by flight. Brocmail turning his back with his men, at the first approach of the enemy, left those whom he ought to have defended. Thus was fulfilled the prediction of the holy Bishop Augustine, though he himself had been long before taken up into the heavenly kingdom; that those perfidious men should feel the vengeance of temporal death also, because they had despised the offer of eternal salvation.”

The site of the battle is usually placed at Chester (discussed earlier). Ethelfrid is the king of Bernicia, the northern half of Northumbria, and the battle happened about 110-120 years before Bede was writing.

Bede’s dislike of the Brittonic churchmen is evident from the text. I may as well say up front that I think his attitude is unduly harsh. Stiff-necked isolationism, however inconvenient for Augustine, is hardly grounds for massacre. Though as the destruction visited on Northumbria by the Brittonic king Catwallaun had occurred only a century before Bede’s time and Bede may well have known people who had experienced it, his hostility is perhaps understandable.

The main points for the question at hand are these:

• Bede knows that the Brittonic churchmen had consulted a hermit for advice before their second meeting with Augustine.

• Bede claims to know what the British churchmen said “among themselves” at the meeting.

• Bede knows the name of the Brittonic warrior assigned to protect the monks at the battle of Chester, even though he apparently ran away and was not captured.

Bede says that he had extensively consulted records from the church founded by Augustine in Kent, so we may reasonably assume that this was his source for events at the conference. But how would Augustine have known what the Brittonic churchmen were doing before they came to his meeting? Did they tell him about the hermit’s advice?

And how would Augustine know what the Brittonic churchmen were saying among themselves? Bear in mind that Augustine was an Italian missionary preaching in the English kingdom of Kent, and while he would certainly have known his native language and Latin and may well have learned English for ease of conducting his mission, it is not obvious why he would have known Brittonic. The Brittonic bishops would have been able to talk to Augustine and his entourage in Latin, the international lingua franca of the Christian church, but would have been able to retreat behind their language barrier to exclude outsiders if they chose. Did they choose not to do so? Did Augustine have a bilingual eavesdropper?

As Aethelferth (Ethelfrid) was King of Northumbria, his words and actions at the important battle of Chester would very likely have been preserved in Northumbria, either in written form or (perhaps more likely) in the form of oral tales or sagas. So it’s no surprise that Bede knows the details from the Northumbrian side of the battle. But why would a Northumbrian soldier remember the name of the Brittonic warrior who failed to protect the monks? It doesn’t seem an obviously important detail to preserve.

I wonder if Bede had access to a Brittonic tradition about the clash between their bishops and Archbishop Augustine, and about the Battle of Chester from the Brittonic side, which he then combined with his material from Kent and Northumbria to produce this account? If Bede really thought the Brittonic monks deserved wholesale slaughter it’s perhaps unlikely that he was on speaking terms with any Briton, but he may have had a written record. Another possibility is that such a tradition might have been transmitted via Irish priests, who were active and widely admired in Northumbria in Bede’s time. Bede regards the Irish favourably in all matters except their calculation of Easter, and might have collected information from a visiting Irishman for use in his book.

It may also be possible that some of the “countless faithful witnesses” from Northumbria who gave Bede information had access to Brittonic traditions. At least two members of the Northumbrian royal family had lived in Brittonic kingdoms at around the time of the Battle of Chester, and information may well have come back with them and/or their companions.

Any thoughts?


Gabriele Campbell said...

That reminds me of Arminius' speeches which Tacitus quotes about hundred years later. Ok, the quarrel between Arminius and his brother at Idistaviso happened in Latin (says Tacitus), but the speeches in front of the German host surely didn't.

And even though Calgacus' speech at Mons Graupius took place at Tacitus' time, it follows Roman rhethoric patterns in a suspicious way. ;)

Those guys made things up left and right, and invented sources to support their stories. If they could mix their invented footnotes with real ones, the better. *grin*

Carla said...

Adding direct speech is certainly a convention in narrative, and indeed it's a possibility that Bede made the whole incident up (which possibility also applies to everything else in his history that isn't corroborated elsewhere).

What made me curious about this is: what does Bede's narrative gain from making up the story about the hermit or the odd detail of Brocmail's name? Brocmail is a bit-part player who only appears in these few lines, so why bother to invent a name for him? And the hermit story doesn't seem to show the Britons in a particularly bad or good light, so what would Bede have gained by making it up? He could have got a more dramatic effect by having the Brittonic bishops being rude to Augustine out of arrogance/racism/insert vice of choice and duly getting their comeuppance. Or by having their own holy hermit tell them to knuckle under to Augustine, thereby underlining the point that they were wrong to refuse. Why invent a story that leaves a slight hint that they might have had a reason (however misguided) to mistrust Augustine?

Gabriele Campbell said...

To me, the hermit is the catalyst for the quarrel, because it's him who comes up with that 'if Augustine remains sitting he's haughty and you can give him back'-thing. An odd role for a hermit, I admit. But then, it's probably a Briton hermit, so what's to expect? :)

Carla said...

Maybe the point of the story, if it has one, is to illustrate the general perversity of the Britons and their deservingness of punishment by showing that even their holy hermit gave bad advice?

The hermit isn't the catalyst for the quarrel, because Bede recounts an earlier meeting between Augustine and the Brittonic bishops at which they didn't reach agreement either (Same chapter, so you can find it in the link, I just didn't have space to quote the whole lot). Augustine performs a miracle but the Britons still won't accept him as boss. They ask for a second meeting after they have had time to consult their people. Then they go and consult the hermit. So he comes in the middle of the quarrel. He could perhaps have fixed it (by telling them to obey Augustine) and didn't, but he didn't start it.

Actually, my reading of the whole thing is that the Britons were prepared to consider accepting Augustine's authority, but took a dislike to him and/or his ideas and decided not to. They came to two meetings with him and seem to have at least thought about his proposals, rather than refusing to meet him at all or telling him to get lost immediately. I don't think it puts them in an especially bad light if they wanted to stick to their own traditions and run their own affairs. Now, I'm not Bede's intended audience, but surely if he wanted to make up a Briton-bashing message wholesale he could have come up with a more black-and-white one than that. It's either very subtle (which is entirely possible) or sufficiently messy to be a tradition Bede had acquired from somewhere other than his own creative imagination.

Rick said...

Certainly making up speeches was convention - even Thucydides did that - but this whole episode, as a work of history, reminds me more of Herodotus. Herodotus put in an awful lot of stuff simply because he thought it was interesting, and would help illuminate the overall story he was telling. Sometimes he more or less identifies a source (an priest outlined Egypt's past for him); other times he just says something like "the Persians say ..." Or says nothing about how he came by the story.

My sense is that Bede didn't make this up (supposed speeches aside), but rather that it was a story that went around. Perhaps the business with the praying monks and Brocmail was odd or dramatic enough that the English learned and retold the story (or had made one up well before Bede recorded it).

Carla said...

I wonder if Bede had access to Herodotus' histories and took them as a model? He certainly made use of some classical texts, like Pliny's Natural History. Or it may just be a logical way to organise a lot of information acquired from disparate sources and present it in a reasonably coherent narrative.

I have the same sense that this had been around before Bede wrote it down, though of course that can't be proved unless the same story turns up in a demonstrably independent and earlier source (dream on).

The English would have known about the massacred monks (assuming it happened) since they did it, and one can easily imagine them inventing Aethelferth's justification either at the time or afterwards. Why they'd have invented the cowardly warrior who ran away, and his name, is less obvious; but I can easily imagine an indignant Brittonic story in circulation naming and shaming Brocmail (later Welsh tradition named cowards as well as heroes, like the Three Faithless Warbands and Three Passive Princes triads, and a couple of generations on from Chester you get poor Cadafel Battle-Shirker). Ditto with the hermit and Augustine's quarrel; I can imagine the English making up a story that Augustine extended an olive branch to the Britons and they rejected him, cue fire and brimstone, and I can imagine the Britons making up a story that claimed Augustine was an arrogant twat and they were quite right to refuse him. I have a harder time imagining either side making up all the elements, so I'm inclined to see it as a composite story with bits taken from several sources. But, as ever, other interpretations are possible.

Rick said...

I wouldn't be surprised if Bede had access to Herodotus - his reputation has always been a bit spotty ("Father of lies"), but he was also the Father of History and one of the most important classical authors.

Didn't you mention that Bede used Welsh annals among his sources? He wouldn't need a translator if they were in Latin, but he must have had contacts who made the mss available to him - I doubt he was checking them out of the Lindisfarne library. Whoever gave him the books might well provide oral accounts as well.

Kathryn Warner said...

Interesting discussion! I just had a question, Carla: was the title An Ecclestiastical History of the English People given to the work later, or is that what Bede called it? (Assuming I'm thinking of the right work! ;)

Carla said...

Rick - I use the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), but it's doubtful whether Bede did. He says that for the period up to 597 AD he used material from "earlier writers gathered from various sources", and that catch-all may have included some British/Welsh/Brittonic sources (e.g. he does seem to have had a copy of Gildas), but he doesn't specifically list any by name. The Annales Cambriae as it stands is usually reckoned to date from well after Bede's time, though obviously it could have been drawing on earlier sources that could also have been available to Bede. The Annales record information that's different from Bede, e.g. they say of the Battle of Chester "The battle of Caer Legion. And there died Selyf son of Cynan. And Iago son of Beli slept", whereas Bede mentioning the same battle only mentions Brocmail who ran away and the English victor Aethelferth and doesn't mention the two Brittonic casualties. If Bede had listed a Brittonic source that would clearly be a likely place for him to have found Brocmail and the hermit, and I wouldn't have a puzzle! My suspicion is that he had a Brittonic source(s) of some kind, possibly oral rather than written, that he didn't list by name.

The library at Jarrow in Bede's day is reckoned to have been among the biggest in England, so it might have had all manner of things in it. Pity the catalogue hasn't survived :-)

Alianore - you're thinking of the right work, and Bede gave it that name, more or less. In his Author's Preface he describes it to King Ceolwulf using the Latin phrase "Historiam gentis Anglorum ecclesiasticam". This phrase can be translated as "History of the English Church and People", or as the conventional title "Ecclesiastical History of the English People". In true academic style Bede puts his CV and publication list at the end of the work, and it appears there as "Historiam ecclesiasticam nostrae insulae ac gentis" or "Ecclesiastical History of our island and people". I don't know if there's a title page on the original manuscript(s); there's a picture of the front cover online here but I can't read the Latin script to pick out the title.

Bernita said...

In some ways the story seems an illustration of the inevitable conflict between authority, represented by Augustine, and the more collegial approach to decision.
Bede may simply been trying to understand.

Rick said...

Carla - thanks for the clarifications. I agree with your guess that he had Brittonic sources.

Bernita - Bede passes a basic test of honest reportage: He gives us information that cuts against his own likely bias. Presumably he considered Augustine the good guy overall - the apostle to the English and all that - but in this passage he is not going out of his way to paint the British bishops in a bad light.

True, Bede is from a different culture, far more hierarchical, and he sees Augustine as doing God's work. We're not his expected readership! But surely he was not utterly unaware that some reader might think that the British holy man had a point about humility. Even in the 8th century, I don't think a propagandist would have included that passage. Bede does, and lets us draw our own conclusions.

Carla said...

Yes, exactly. It's this sort of thing that gives Bede his high reputation as a historian and scholar, and why he got my vote as the Patron Saint of Historians. He was no doubt working with imperfect sources and doing a certain amount of selection and interpretation, just as anyone does if they're not merely copying wholesale, but he doesn't read like a propagandist.

I may perhaps have been unfair to Bede in the original post when I said his dislike of the Brittonic clergy was evident. He may have got that serves-them-right tone straight out of his Kentish source and put it in without comment. Either way, it can only be to his credit that he included the hermit part of the story.