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Islands and Idols at the ends of the earth : Exegesis and Conversion in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica

Jennifer O’Reilly
p. 119-145

Résumé

Dans l’Histoire ecclésiastique, Bède met en scène sous une forme narrative les thèmes exégétiques qui lui tiennent à cœur dans ses commentaires bibliques sur la construction et la reconstruction du temple de Jérusalem. Il y abandonne la métaphore biblique architecturale et utilise à la place l’image des îles aux confins du monde en adaptant les lieux communs classiques, bibliques et patristiques du centre et de la périphérie. Son histoire détaillée de la conversion des barbares au bout du monde, qui renoncent au culte des idoles pour se faire baptiser et passent d’une lecture littérale à une compréhension plus complète du message divin, illustre le processus continu de la conversion intérieure nécessaire dans la vie du croyant et de l’Église universelle.

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Texte intégral

1The characterisation of Britain and Ireland as islands ‘at the ends of the earth’ was a commonplace among early Insular writers in a variety of literary genres. In none of them is it simply a geographical description, but in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica the topos is elaborated on a grand scale, both as an exegetical theme and a narrative device, using classical, biblical and patristic concepts of centre and periphery.

  • 1 See D. Scully, ‘Bede, Orosius and Gildas on the early History of Roman Britain’ in this volume.
  • 2 Jerome, Comm. in Hiezechielem, CCSL 75, p. 56, lines 69-80. Adomnán used Jerome’s interpretation of (...)

2Classical antiquity saw the north-westerly group of islands in Ocean as the furthermost edge of the habitable world. Roman historians and panegyrists therefore acclaimed the conquest of Britain and its barbarian people as a symbol of the universal extent of Rome’s dominion and civilizing role1. Christian commentators living in the empire regarded the pax Romana as a providential preparation for the spreading of the Gospel worldwide, but interpreted this image of Rome and the barbarians in the light of the biblical view of the world, which has Jerusalem at the centre, in medio gentium, that is, surrounded by nations or peoples other than the singular chosen people of Israel (Ezek 5 : 5). Commenting on Ezekiel’s phrase, Jerome described Jerusalem as the umbilicus terrae, the place of salvation ‘in the midst of the earth’ (Ps 73 : 12), and in this was followed by Adomnán of Iona and Bede. Jerome further described Jerusalem as surrounded at its four cardinal points by all the peoples of Asia, Europe and Africa2.

  • 3 Bede, De templo II.19.3, CCSL 119A, p. 208. Isidore, Etymologiae IX.2.37 : Haec sunt gentes de stir (...)
  • 4 R. Green (ed.), Augustine, De doctrina christiana, Oxford University Press, 1995, II.8-9, 3126- 128 (...)

3Genesis 10 : 32 describes how, from the three sons of Noah, ‘the nations (gentes) were divided on the earth after the flood’ ; from Japheth ‘were divided the islands of the gentiles in their lands : every one according to his tongue and their families in their nations’ (Gen 10 : 5). Bede, like Isidore, noted that the descendants of Japheth ‘occupied Europe and the islands of the sea’3. Like Augustine, Bede clarified the biblical text to show that the dispersal of peoples throughout the world and the confusion of their single speech into the disharmony of many languages was a divine judgment passed on human pride after the building of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11 : 7-9)4.

  • 5 Ps 113B:4-8 ; Ps 134:15-18 ; cf. 95 : 5 ; 97 : 1,7 ; Isa 40:12-26, 44:9-25.
  • 6 Isa 40:12-26 ; 44:9-25.

4To describe the place of the gentiles in providential salvation history patristic commentators used a chain of texts, particularly from the psalms and the prophets, freely adapting the tenses used by the biblical authors. Gentiles were particularly associated with islands and with the ends of the earth, far from the temple in Jerusalem, which represented the place of God’s presence with his people. The psalmist characterised gentiles as being enslaved to idols which ‘have mouths and speak not : they have eyes and see not. They have ears and hear not’5. Man-made idols were shown to be powerless to help those who served them, in contrast to the God of Israel, the maker of all things, who delivered his people from the yoke of slavery in Egypt6.

  • 7 Isa 49:1-12 ; cf. Isa 11:10-12 ; 42:6, 10 ; 66:19 ; Ps 2:8.
  • 8 G. Henderson, ‘Bede and the visual arts’, Jarrow Lecture, 1980, p. 9-12, on Bede and the imagery of (...)

5All the works of creation, the heavens themselves, were seen to proclaim his divine power : ‘there are no speeches or languages where their voices are not heard [...] Their sound has gone forth into all the earth and their words unto the ends of the world’ (Ps 18 : 4-5). The prophets foretold that distant peoples would also hear of God’s glory through his appointed messengers, ‘Listen, O isles, unto me and hearken ye people from afar, the Lord has called me from the womb [...] And he said, I will give you as a light to the gentiles that you may bring salvation unto the end of the earth (usque ad extremum terrae)’7. The psalmist prophesied that the God of Israel, worshipped in Jerusalem, would be recognized by gentiles throughout ‘the multitude of isles’ (Ps 96 : 1) ; his dominion would extend from east to west : ‘from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the earth [...] before him the Ethiopians shall fall down [...] the islands of the sea will bear him gifts [...] all peoples shall serve him’ (Ps 71 : 8-11)8.
The key texts in this exegetical chain were repeatedly expounded by patristic

  • 9 Augustine, Ep. 185, 3-5 ; Ep. 199, 45-50, CSEL 57, p. 3, 4, 282-288.

  • 10 Eusebius, HE II.3 ; III.8, G. Williamson (tr.), Eusebius, The history of the Church from Christ to (...)
  • 11 Gildas, De excidio, 70 ; M. Winterbottom, Gildas, The Ruin of Britain and other works, Chichester, (...)
  • 12 Rom 9:25-26, quoting Hosea 2:23 ; 2:1 ; cf. 1 Pet 2:10 ; Jerem 16:19. Patrick, Confessio, 34, 38, 4 (...)

6commentators in amplifying the New Testament view that such prophecies were fulfilled at the Incarnation and in the apostles’ work of taking the Gospel of salvation from Jerusalem, the site of the Resurrection, to gentiles as well as Jews, in obedience to Christ’s explicit final command that his disciples should teach and baptise omnes gentes and bear witness to him ‘even to the uttermost part of the earth’ (Mtt 28 : 19-20 ; Acts 1 : 8)9. St Paul applied Isa 49 : 6 and Ps 18 : 5 to the apostolic mission (Acts 13 : 47, Rom 10 : 18) and in this was followed by patristic commentators10. Gildas, like other Insular writers, duly noted that, ‘as the psalmist said of the Apostles, “Their sound went out into every land” (Ps 18 : 5)’11. Orthodox teachers were seen to share in the apostolic mission. Accordingly, St Patrick had presented his own mission to the Irish at ‘the uttermost ends of the earth’, beyond the limits of the Roman empire, as being in obedience to Christ’s command (Mtt 28 : 19-20) and as a fulfillment of the prophecy that the Gospel would be announced to all peoples before the world’s end (Mtt 24 : 14) : ‘Behold, we are the witnesses that the Gospel has been preached to the limit beyond which no-one dwells’. Patrick quoted God’s promises to his chosen people, as attested by the prophet Hosea and re-used by St Paul, and directly applied them to those in Ireland who had always worshipped idols but ‘have lately been made a people of the Lord (plebs Domini)’ and ‘sons of the living God’12.

  • 13 A. Haddan and W. Stubbs (ed.), Councils and ecclesiastical documents relative to Great Britain and (...)
  • 14 Jerome, Ep 46.10 (cf. Virgil, Eclogues I.67) ; Ep. 58.3 ; 60.4, Labourt, Lettres, 2, p. 110 ; 3, p. (...)

7Patristic commentators were well aware that Christianity had reached the islands of Ocean, the Britanniae13. Jerome saw Britain, ‘a place apart’, as the western extremity of the universal faith first established in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2 : 1-11), reversing the divisive confusion of tongues at Babel and harmoniously joining peoples of different languages - Hebrew, Greek, Latin and even savage barbarian tongues. He eloquently linked the biblical image of distant islands with the classical tradition concerning the western islands in the Ocean but showed, as Bede was to do, that their incorporation into the universal Church transformed the remoteness of their geographical location : ‘Access to the courts of heaven is as easy from Britain as it is from Jerusalem, for “the kingdom of God is within you”’14.

  • 15 Augustine, Ep. 199.47, p. 285 ; Enarrationes in psalmos, Ps 71 : 8, CCSL 39, p. 979-980 ; Cassiodor (...)

8Augustine noted that the mission begun by the apostles was prophetic and continuing and that God’s promise of salvation would be taken to all peoples before the Second Coming. For patristic commentators the psalmist’s prophecy ‘he shall have dominion from sea to sea’ (Ps 71 : 8) evoked the classical idea that ‘the land is encircled by a great sea which is called the Ocean’15. Augustine explained that Scripture’s frequent mention that all the islands of the gentiles would one day worship God meant that :

  • 16 Ep. 199. 47, W. Parsons (tr.), Saint Augustine. Letters 4, p. 394-95.


“no part of the earth is excluded from having the Church, since none of the islands is left out, some of which are found in the Ocean [...] Thus, in some single islands there is a fulfillment of the prophecy : “He shall rule from sea to sea” (Ps 71 : 8) : the sea by which every single island is surrounded, as is the case of the whole world which is, in a sense, the greatest island of all because the Ocean girds it about. It is to some of its shores in the West that we know the Church has come, and whatever shores it has not yet reached it will eventually reach”16.

  • 17 Augustine, Ep. 199. 45-50 to Hesychias, Epistolae, CSEL 57, p. 282-88, W. Parsons (tr.), Saint Augu (...)
  • 18 G. Williamson (tr.), Eusebius, The history of the Church, II.14, p. 49 ; cf. II. 22, 25 ; III.1-4.
  • 19 Bede, Expositio Actuum Apostolorum on Acts 28:31, CCSL 121, p. 99, quotes Jerome, De viris illustri (...)
  • 20 Leo, sermon on the feast of Peter and Paul, 441, Tractatus 82, CCSL 138A, p. 508-18, tr. Nicene and (...)
  • 21 Prosper, De uocatione omnium gentium, II.16-17, PL 51. 703-704, P. de Letter (tr.), The call of all (...)
  • 22 B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (ed. and tr.), Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, Oxford, (...)
  • 23 De templo II.20.7.

9Though he was aware that in Africa and elsewhere there were still ‘innumerable barbarian tribes among whom the Gospel has not yet been preached’, Augustine knew that the Church already possessed regions beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire17. Like some earlier patristic writers, including Origen and Tertullian, he stressed the limitations of the nature and extent of Roman power compared with that of Christ’s dominion. Just as Paul taught that salvation was for gentiles as well as Jews (Gal 3 : 28, 29), the fathers showed that the spiritual seed of Abraham included all peoples, barbarians as well as Romans. The crucial link between Jerusalem and Rome was the missionary activity of Peter and Paul, beginning in Jerusalem and culminating in Rome with their martyrdom. Their story, detailed by Irenaeus, elaborated by Eusebius and translated by Rufinus, c. 402-403, told how Peter, having received the foundational commission from Christ (Mtt 16 : 18,19), was providentially brought to Rome, bearing ‘spiritual light from the East to those in the West’18. Similarly, Jerome described Paul as coming to Rome, ‘so that Christ’s Gospel might also be preached in the West’19.
Such ideas were familiar before the writings of Prosper of Aquitaine and Leo the Great in the 440s, promoting the concept of a new centre of the world. Drawing on the traditions of the centrality of imperial Rome and of Judeo- Christian Jerusalem, there developed a third tradition, that of papal Rome. Rome was seen as having been re-founded from Jerusalem as the see of Peter, sanctified by the blood of the two princes of the apostles and by the presence of their tombs and relics and those of other martyrs20. Rome became revered as the centre of Christ’s spiritual realm on earth, a visible image of the heavenly Jerusalem : ‘Rome has become greater as the citadel of religion by her principatus of the apostolic priesthood than it ever was as the seat of power’21. Papal Rome’s influence extended to peoples beyond the imperial Roman frontier : Bede cited Prosper’s report that Palladius had been sent by Pope Celestine ‘to the Irish believers in Christ to be their first bishop’22. In De templo he presented Pope Gregory’s mission to the Germanic peoples settled in post-Roman Britain as a continuation of the apostolic mission23.

  • 24 Roma orbis terrarum caput est ecclesiarum : G.S.M. Walker (ed. and tr.), Sancti Columbani Opera, Sc (...)
  • 25 Columbanus, Ep. 5.11, p. 48-49.

10The classical and biblical association of islands with the ends of the earth, whose conquest symbolised universal dominion, was to take on a new significance for the papacy in its relations with the northern islands of Ocean. Even more strikingly, the recognition of Rome as caput mundi, representing the unity of the faith first preached by the apostles in Jerusalem, was vigorously made by Christian writers from different regions within the remote Ocean archipelago who wished, at various stages of the Easter controversy, to demonstrate their orthodoxy and full membership of the universal Church. Well over a century before Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, for example, Columbanus had appropriated the rhetoric of the fathers and of the Leonine papacy to furnish his credentials in a letter to Pope Boniface IV in 613. He claimed that ‘all we Irish, inhabitants of the world’s edge, are disciples of saints Peter and Paul [...] we accept nothing outside the evangelical and apostolic teaching [...] the catholic faith, as it was delivered by you first, who are the successors of the holy apostles, is maintained unbroken’24. The image of imperial Rome was transformed in his acclamation of the city as ‘nobler and more famed’ through its identification with the chair of Peter. He asserted that Christ’s worldwide dominion had been established, ‘as far as the western regions of earth’s farther strand’, through the apostolic preaching of the Gospel, led by Peter and Paul, whom turbulent seas could not withstand and to whom the psalmist’s words concerning the heavens applied : ‘Their voice is gone out into every land and their words to the ends of the earth’ (Ps 18 : 2). He recognised Rome as ‘the head of the churches of the world, saving the special privilege of [Jerusalem] the place of the Lord’s resurrection’25.

Bede’s use of papal Exegesis on Islands and Idols

  • 26 Gregory, Moralia in Iob, 27,11.21 (CCSL, 143B, p. 1346). Some scholars regard the passage as a late (...)

11The exegetical tradition on islands and the ends of the earth outlined here appears in several papal writings which Bede directly quotes in his Historia Ecclesiastica. In the Moralia, Gregory the Great had interpreted Job 36 : 29-30, ‘he will spread out clouds as his tent [...] he will cover also the ends of the sea’, as a prophecy that the Lord would send out holy preachers to ‘convert to divine love even the farthest boundaries of the world’. Gregory saw the prophecy fulfilled in the conversion of Britain, by which God had ‘joined together in one faith the boundaries of the East and the West’. His panegyric, lauding the peaceful spiritual conquest of ‘proud Ocean’ and its fierce barbarian people, whom earthly military might had never entirely subdued, probably referred to the Roman Britons. It is quoted by Bede and applied to the subsequent conversion of another barbarian people in Britain : ‘In these words St Gregory also declares that St Augustine and his companions led the English race (gentem Anglorum) to the knowledge of the truth’ (II.1)26.

  • 27 De templo II.20.7 (CCSL 119A, p. 218). The Whitby Life of Gregory, 6, notes that Gregory ‘was absen (...)
  • 28 Epistolam ad Ecgbertum, 3, C. Plummer (ed.), Venerabilis Baedae Opera Historica, vol1, Oxford, Cl (...)

12Pope Gregory, the successor of St Peter, is also cast by Bede in the tradition of St Paul. Gregory combined the charisms of Peter and Paul, the preachers to the Jews and gentiles respectively, who share a liturgical feastday and are several times paired in the Historia Ecclesiastica, as in the twin dedications at Canterbury and Wearmouth-Jarrow. He remained in Rome but sent out the mission and sustained it, thereby ministering to those near and far off27. King Aethelbert of Kent ‘attained to the knowledge of heavenly glory by Gregory’s own labour and industry’ (I.32). Gregory’s successors saw themselves as continuing in his tradition. Pope Honorius was to recommend that king Edwin should be frequently employed with readings ‘from the works of Gregory, your apostle and my lord’ and that the metropolitan of Canterbury in preaching the Gospel should follow the rule of Gregory, his master and head (II.17, 18). Gregory was again linked with Paul in the Epistolam ad Ecgbertum, where Bede repeated the customary patristic recommendation that those in spiritual authority should read St Paul’s epistles to Timothy and Titus, but added, ‘also the words of the most holy pope Gregory’, notably his Pastoral Rule and Gospel homilies28.

  • 29 B. Colgrave (ed. and tr.), The earliest Life of Gregory the Great, 6, University of Cambridge Press (...)
  • 30 HE II.1, quoting Acts 26:18 and 1 Cor 9:2.

13An earlier Insular account of Anglo-Saxon conversion, the Whitby Life of Gregory, had already made extensive use of Gregory’s writings and had likened him to the apostles in his role as teacher of the English29. Bede further integrated Gregory’s teachings into the narrative of conversion and inserted the Libellus Responsionum (I.27) and some of Gregory’s letters dealing with the English mission at appropriate points in the chronology. Moreover, he explicitly marked the parallel with Paul’s mission to the idol-worshipping gentiles, noting that Gregory ‘made our nation, till then enslaved to idols, into a Church of Christ’, and echoed the words of Paul’s own converts (1 Cor 9 : 2) to acclaim Gregory as ‘our apostle’30. Like St Paul’s epistles to newly-founded churches and to fellow evangelists, the letters of Gregory and his papal successors which Bede includes in his History contain not only instructions and exhortations to kings and preachers on practical and moral issues, but statements of belief and a whole pastoral theology of conversion. The inclusion of the papal letters has a function beyond that of filling the blanks in Bede’s knowledge of events and satisfying the historian’s desire for dating and documentation. The letters form a more specific, coherent group of documents than those reproduced by Eusebius in his Historia Ecclesiastica. The papal letters demonstrate the importance of Rome in preserving the faith of the apostles and taking it to all the world. They lay down authoritative teaching relevant to establishing and building up the Church, much of which is enacted in Bede’s historical account of events. The following examples also provide a view of providential history which helps unite Bede’s account of particular and local experiences with those of the people of God in other times and places. They supply biblical prophecies and patristic exegesis concerning islands and the ends of the earth which are literally and spiritually fulfilled in Bede’s description of the history of the north-westerly islands of Ocean.

14Pope Boniface V, for example, sent the pallium to Justus of Canterbury, and authorised the consecration of more bishops to assist in preaching the gospel among all those peoples not yet converted. His accompanying letter, quoted by Bede, provides the rationale (II.8). He cites Christ’s promise to be with his disciples who carry out his commandment to teach and baptise all peoples (Mtt 28 : 20) and assures Justus that the promise is especially fulfilled in his ministry in Britain. The papal mission is clearly placed in the apostolic tradition and interpreted as part of the universal mission, prophesied long ago, by which ‘all nations will confess having received the mystery of the Christian faith and will declare in truth that “their sound is gone out into all the earth, and their words unto the end of the world” ’ (Ps 18 : 5 ; Rom 10 : 18).

  • 31 Cf. Acts 17:24-29 and Ps 134:15-18.


15Boniface’s letter to King Edwin of Northumbria, urging him to turn from the worship of idols and be freed from devilish bondage, is based not on knowledge of the practices of Anglo-Saxon paganism but on direct quotations from the chain of Old Testament texts concerning the practices of gentiles, whose association with islands at the ends of the earth made them a particularly suitable image of the Angli (II.10). In the language of the psalms Boniface witnesses to the power of the divine Creator – ‘All the gods of the gentiles are devils ; but the Lord made the heavens’ (Ps 95 : 5) – and to the impotence of man-made idols : ‘Eyes have they but see not ; they have ears but hear not [...] and those who put their trust in them therefore become like them’ (Ps 113 : 5-8)31. Paraphrasing Isaiah 44, the pope notes that idols of inanimate human form are made of perishable materials by human hands ; in contrast, the divine Creator of all things makes man in his own image and likeness (Gen 1 : 26) and is adored throughout his creation, ‘from the rising to the setting sun’ (Mal 1 : 1).

  • 32 In an Easter homily, Bede too followed patristic exegesis in reading Isaiah 11:10 as a prophecy of (...)

16A third example, Pope Vitalian’s letter to King Oswiu (III.29), rejoices in the king’s own conversion and especially his work in bringing his people to ‘the true and apostolic faith’, which the pope interprets as the fulfillment of a whole chain of prophecies, ‘For your race has believed in Christ who is God Almighty, as it is written in Isaiah, “In that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand as a sign for the peoples : him the gentiles shall seek”’ (Isa 11 : 10). In the following verse Isaiah’s naming of the lands of the gentiles who will seek the Lord includes ‘the islands of the sea’32.

17Vitalian’s letter goes on to apply Isa 49 : 1 to Oswiu’s people : ‘Listen, O isles, unto me, and hearken ye people from afar’ and, like St Paul in his justification of taking the gospel to the gentiles, he quotes God’s command from Isa 49 : 6, ‘I have given thee for a light to the gentiles that thou may be my salvation unto the end of the earth,’ as well as its succeeding verses (cf. Acts 13 : 47). Vitalian quotes Isa 42 : 6-7, again describing the light to the gentiles which will release those imprisoned in darkness, referring to the spiritual blindness of those who worship unseeing idols. The quoted text is framed in Isaiah by references to the islands which ‘wait for his law’ and are summoned to join his universal praise : ‘his praise is from the ends of the earth. You that go down to the sea [...] you islands, and you inhabitants of them’.

18The pope uses this exegetical chain to refer not simply to the primary evangelisation of the Northumbrians from paganism, but to their more recent ‘conversion’ to a fuller expression of ‘the true and apostolic faith’ in their acceptance of the Roman Easter dating at the synod of Whitby, summoned by Oswiu in 664. Vitalian exhorts the king : ‘as a member of Christ, always follow the holy rule of the chief of the apostles in all things, both in the celebration of Easter and in everything delivered by the holy apostles, Peter and Paul, who, like two heavenly lights, illuminate the world’. A section of the letter not quoted by Bede contained further remarks ‘about celebrating the true Easter uniformly throughout the whole world’. Referring to his citation of scriptural prophecies Vitalian concludes, ‘Most excellent son, as you see, it is clearer than day that it is here foretold that not only you but also all peoples will believe in Christ the Maker of all things.’ He urges Oswiu to hasten to dedicate the whole island, ‘to gather together a new people for Christ and establish among them the catholic and apostolic faith,’ and he prophesies that all the islands will be made subject to God. The letter suggests a strong connection between exegesis and action. The pope refers to his current search for a suitable candidate for the vacancy at Canterbury : ‘we will send him to your land with full instructions so that he may [...] entirely root out, with God’s blessing, the tares sown by the enemy throughout your island’. The letter, acknowledging gifts sent by Oswiu ‘to the blessed chief of the apostles’, was accompanied by papal gifts of relics of St Peter and St Paul and other Roman saints.

  • 33 Historia abbatum auctore anonymo, 37, C. Plummer (ed.), Baedae opera historica, I, p. 402. On the R (...)
  • 34 Noted by R. Marsden, The text of the Old Testament in Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge University Pre (...)

19In 716, the same year in which the narrative of the Historia Ecclesiastica ends with the final acceptance of the Roman Easter by the Columban monks on the island of Iona (V.22), the abbot and members of Bede’s community of St Peter and St Paul set off on pilgrimage to Rome bearing the Codex Amiatinus, a great Vulgate bible made in Wearmouth-Jarrow to the highest specifications of Romanitas ; it was dedicated as a gift to St Peter, ‘whom ancient faith declares to be head of the Church’, from Ceolfridus, Anglorum extremis de finibus abbas33. The Old Testament part of the Codex Amiatinus has a single liturgical lection marked at the passage beginning : Audite insulae et adtendite populi de longe (Isa 49 : 1)34.

The peoples of Britain and ‘the multitude of Isles’

20In addition to including papal letters which clearly make use of exegetical traditions on the ends of the earth and specifically apply them to the islands of Ocean, Bede also deploys classical, patristic and papal elements of the composite topos in the different register of his own historical narrative.

  • 35 M. Richter, ‘Bede’s Angli : Angles or English ?’ Peritia, 3, 1984, p. 99-114 ; P. Wormald, ‘Bede, t (...)

21The book is described as Historiam gentis Anglorum ecclesiasticam in the opening lines of the Preface, but encompasses much more than this might seem to imply. Bede identifies the three Germanic tribes – Saxons, Angles and Jutes – who settled in Britain, and the various warring Anglo-Saxon peoples descended from them (I.15) who, through their conversion, received a new identity. As is well known, Bede, following Pope Gregory, refers to these peoples collectively as Angli35 and records the tradition that Gregory had described the Angli as ‘fellow- heirs of the angeli in heaven’ (II.1). But the Angli are not themselves the new chosen people. Rather, they are the latest addition to the people of God, the universal Church, which in the Old Testament was prefigured by the chosen people of one particular race and land. Although the barbarian peoples living in Britain are literally gentiles to whom, in their unconverted state, the biblical image of idol-worshippers on islands at the ends of the earth readily applies, Bede’s account of their conversion also draws on the history of God’s providential revelation to all his chosen people, both of the Old Covenant and the New. The book charts the stages in a particular people’s history, but the account of their movement from idol-worship to baptism, and from a carnal understanding of the faith to a deeper level of belief and a fuller participation in the sacramental life of the universal Church, also operates as an image of the continuing conversion and re-conversion that is the spiritual life.

  • 36 D. Hurst (ed), De tabernaculo, De templo, In Esram et Neemiam, CCSL 119A. Translations quoted here (...)
  • 37 J. O’Reilly, Introduction to S. Connolly (tr.), Bede : On the temple, p. xvii-lv ; H. Mayr- Harting (...)

22In the Historia Ecclesiastica Bede provides a documented historical account of the most recent stages of the Church’s universal mission. He also brings to life in narrative form ideas about the spiritual growth of the Church which preoccupy his commentaries on the biblical accounts of the divine commands for the building of the tabernacle in the desert and the temple in Jerusalem and for the re-building of the temple after the Babylonian Captivity36. In these exegetical works Bede deploys the full rhetorical range of biblical architectural metaphors to reveal the ways in which Christ, his Church, the individual soul and heaven itself may be seen as the new temple of God. In the account of the building up of the Church among the Angli there are a number of the themes from his temple exegesis but very few traces of its architectural metaphor37. He uses instead the extended image of the islands at the ends of the earth which is far more appropriate to the physical location and historical reality he describes.

  • 38 D. Scully, The Atlantic archipelago from antiquity to Bede : the transformation of an image, unpubl (...)

23‘Brittania Oceani insula ’ : so begins Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica and his masterly re-working in Book I of classical and patristic materials concerning the island’s historical geography and the use made of those traditions by Gildas38. Bede here refers to his work as ‘this account of the history of the Church of Britain, and of the English people in particular’ (haec de historia Brittaniarum, et maxime gentis Anglorum) and later as ‘the history of the Church of our island and race’ (historiam ecclesiasticam nostrae insulae ac gentis) (V.24). The Angli, and particularly the Northumbrians, are presented both as one regional member of the universal Church and as a microcosm of the Church and its history, recapitulating features of the early Church founded by the apostles and eventually maturing in knowledge and service of God to participate in the continuation of the apostolic task of preaching the Gospel to all peoples. Their relationship with other peoples on the island of Britain and Britain’s location among other islands are therefore essential parts of their story.

  • 39 C. B. Kendall, ‘Imitation and the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica’, M. H. King and W. M. St (...)

24The book is concerned with the whole island and devotes the first fourteen chapters to the history of Britain, including the arrival of the Britons, Irish and Picts, before the coming of the Germanic peoples, and a further eight chapters to the history of the Britons before the arrival of the Gregorian mission to the Angli. Unlike Gildas’s De excidio Britonum, the Historia Ecclesiastica is also concerned with the surrounding small islands and gives prominence to the Irish who, like the Angli, had never been part of the Roman Empire. The opening chapter describes Ireland, ‘the largest island of all next to Britain,’ not as the haunt of savages as in most classical accounts, but in terms of a spiritual landscape, a metaphor of the heavenly paradisal life anticipated in the spiritually fruitful earthly life of many of the Irish described in the book39.

25Bede’s interest in the entire group of islands in Ocean finds a focus in the four peoples who, over time, had come to inhabit the island of Britain and who, through conversion, are connected with the Roman world. From the perspective of c.731 Bede reflected :

  • 40 The translation offered here differs from that of Colgrave and Mynors, p. 17.

‘At the present time, like the number of books in which the divine law was written, one and the same knowledge of supreme truth and true sublimity is sought and confessed in the languages of five gentes, namely of the Angli, Britons, Scots, Picts and Latins, which [i.e. the last of which] has become common to all the others [i.e. to all the other peoples] through meditation on the Scriptures (I.1)’40.

  • 41 De tabernaculo II.7, p. 68 (tr. Holder, p. 75-76).

  • 42 De tabernaculo I.2, p. 10 (tr. Holder, p. 7).

  • 43 De tabernaculo II.2, p. 48 (tr. Holder, p. 52).

26This compressed passage receives some illumination from Bede’s exegesis. In De tabernaculo the number five occurs several times in the measurements of the tabernacle and the enumeration of its furnishings, and is repeatedly expounded to evoke the five books of the divine law. Spiritually interpreted, they all may be seen to contain the Gospel : ‘the same perpetual brightness and bright perpetuity’ of the heavenly homeland is contained ‘in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy’. The literal letter of the five books of the Mosaic law ‘educated the former people of God in faith and good works, but when spiritually understood [...] in the time of the new covenant, the same letter instructs us in faith and works of virtue also in the present and incites us to the hope of eternal reward in the future’41. The divine wisdom made known through Moses and the law is, by grace, made known through the Gospel to all the races contained in the four parts of the world42. By extension, five is ‘a type of the ancient people of God who fulfilled the decrees of the law according to the letter’, but it also designates ‘those of us born after the coming of the Lord in the flesh, who keep the books and sacraments of the law spiritually’ ; all the faithful in both testaments believed in one and the same God and served him with works of one and the same piety and charity. In De tabernaculo Bede demonstrates how, ‘in the precepts of the law, Moses shows us the pattern of the angelic life’43.

  • 44 O’Reilly, ‘The library of Scripture’, p. 9-11, fig 5.
  • 45 De templo I.13.2, p. 179, (tr. Connolly, p. 48).

27Jerome’s Epistle 53, well known to Bede, surveys all the books of the Bible to show that Christ, the divine Wisdom, is concealed beneath the literal letter. In the Codex Amiatinus an entire page is devoted to a diagram of the Pentateuch : five circles, each containing the name of one of the five books of the divine law and Jerome’s brief exposition of it, are interlinked and arranged in the form of a cross to demonstrate that ‘the law of the Gospel’ is revealed through the spiritual interpretation of the five books44. In De templo the number five is again featured in the measurements of architectural details, including the two golden cherubim placed above the Ark of the Covenant, prompting Bede to observe that human beings are called to be fellow-citizens of heaven with the angels, who ‘keep with untiring devotion the divine law which is written in five books, that is, by loving the Lord their God with all their strength and by loving their neighbours as themselves. For love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13 : 10) ’45. The summary of the Mosaic law as love of God and neighbour is common to the Pentateuch (Deut 6 : 5) and the Gospel (Mtt 22 : 37-39) and is frequently invoked in Bede’s scriptural exegesis ; it is the golden rule exemplified in Aidan (III.25) and articulated in the description of St Cuthbert, who knew ‘that he who said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God”, also said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour”’ (IV.28). In his reference to the five books of the divine law in the opening chapter of the Historia Ecclesiastica, Bede abandoned the architectural metaphor of his biblical commentaries on the tabernacle and temple, but drew on their exegetical and numerological tradition in order to describe the truth and constancy of divine revelation to the chosen people of the Old Covenant and the New, continuing into the post-biblical present.

  • 46 Homiliae evangelii II.17 p. 307 ; L. Martin and D. Hurst (tr.), Bede the Venerable. Homilies on the (...)
  • 47 Bede, Expositio Actuum Apostolorum, CCSL 121, p. 16-17, L.T. Martin (tr.), The Venerable Bede, Comm (...)
  • 48 The HE frequently refers to languages, interpreters and translation, e.g. Augustine arrives with Fr (...)

28In a homily on Pentecost, Bede noted that the observance of the law was given to only one nation, that of the Jews, while the word of the Gospel was to be proclaimed to all nations throughout the world and confessions of the Christian faith were to be made in the languages of all peoples46. In his Expositio Actuum Apostolorum, Bede describes the descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues at Pentecost (Acts 2 : 4) as indicating that the Church, ‘when it had spread to the ends of the earth, was to speak in the languages of all nations’, recovering in humility ‘the unity of languages which the pride of Babel had shattered’. He relates the variety of languages spoken at Pentecost to the Holy Spirit’s original gift of languages to human beings, by which human knowledge is taught and known outwardly, as a sign that the variety of graces given by the Holy Spirit can also make men inwardly wise, through the wisdom of God47. In the Historia Ecclesiastica, the linking of the five books of the divine law with the five languages of the gentes suggests that the four Insular barbarian peoples share access not simply to knowledge of the language of the Latins through the literal text of Scripture, but to the knowledge of ‘supreme truth and true sublimity’ found in the divine law through meditation on the Scriptures (meditatione scripturarum). Already in the opening chapter Bede has sounded the theme of the calling of all the diverse people of God and the ideal of their unity. His ensuing account, in five books, of how the gentes at the world’s edge received the unifying language of Scripture, is resonant with patristic themes of the Church’s apostolic mission to all peoples, their diversity signified by their variety of languages48. He depicts the Christian Northumbrian king Oswald as ruling a whole world : ‘he held under his sway all the peoples and kingdoms of Britain, divided among the speakers of four different languages,British, Pictish, Irish and English’(III.6).

29From early on in the Gregorian mission it is clear that papal interests in the islands of Ocean – like Bede’s – were not confined to the Angli. Augustine of Canterbury, whom Bede describes as Brittaniarum archiepiscopus (II.3), was given charge over ‘all the bishops of Britain’ by Pope Gregory (I.27, 29). Augustine’s successor Laurentius and his two fellow- Roman bishops, Mellitus and Justus, wrote to the bishops and abbots ‘throughout the whole realm of Ireland’, recalling the authoritative papal initiative in the mission to the pagans : ‘The apostolic see, according to its custom in uniuerso orbe terrarum, directed us to preach to the heathen in these western regions, and it was our lot to come to this island of Britain’ (II.4). But Bede makes clear that Laurentius also aimed to ‘bestow his pastoral care upon the older inhabitants of Britain as well as upon the Irish who live in Ireland, which is an island close to Britain’, and that this was connected with the realisation that their life and profession ‘was not in accordance with church practice in many things’, notably in the dating of Easter. Laurentius wrote urging Irish ecclesiastics ‘to keep the unity of peace and of catholic observance with the Church of Christ which is scattered over the whole world’. He also sent a letter, ‘of a sort befitting his rank,’ to British ecclesiastics, ‘striving to bring them into catholic unity’ (II.4).

  • 49 T. M. Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, p. 432-434. G. Tugène, L’image de la nation anglais (...)
  • 50 Also quoted in Vita Wilfridi, 53, B. Colgrave (ed. & tr.), The Life of Bishop Wilfrid, Cambridge, U (...)
  • 51 De templo II.20.1, p. 214.

30Bede summarises Pope Honorius’ letter to the gens Scottorum, whom he describes as living in extremis terrae finibus, and quotes part of the letter sent by pope-elect John IV to Irish bishops, teachers and abbots, both letters again attempting to establish unity in the dating of Easter (II.19). It has recently been suggested that, following Columban resistance to ‘conversion’ to the Roman Easter at the synod of Whitby, Vitalian’s letter to Oswiu (III.29) may indicate their joint desire to bring, ‘not just Britain, but “islands” into the orthodox fold via Northumbrian hegemony’49. The sense of the Angli and of the island of Britain as one of a number of neighbouring peoples and islands is also evident in Wilfrid’s confession of ‘the true and catholic faith’, ambitiously made at the papal synod in Rome in 680 ‘on behalf of the whole northern part of Britain and Ireland, together with the islands inhabited by the English and British races, as well as the Irish and Picts’ (V.19)50. Bede’s use of the topos of the islands at the ends of the earth, however, serves not simply to present successive phases in the conversion of Insular barbarians from the centre, both at a primary and a secondary level, but to show how their histories providentially overlap and intertwine, developments taking place at different times for different peoples and individuals within the life of the universal Church. This parallels Bede’s approach in biblical exegesis where he repeatedly shows that ‘variously and in many ways the self-same mysteries of our salvation are prefigured’51.

  • 52 Bede here avoids speculation on the details and date of the future consummation : posterior aetas u (...)

31The Historia Ecclesiastica closes with a survey of ‘the state of the whole of Britain at the present time’, 731, including all four Christian peoples inhabiting the island. It itemises the bishoprics established in the prouinciae of the various Anglo-Saxon peoples and refers to their peaceful co-existence with the Irish in Britain and with the Picts who now ‘rejoice to share in the catholic peace and truth of the Church universal’(V.23). The Britons, however, are still unreconciled to the Angli and to the catholic Easter and the eschatological mood and omens of Bede’s final chapter qualify his reference to ‘these favourable times of peace and prosperity’. The story is not over52. Yet there is cause for rejoicing at the end of the Historia Ecclesiastica. The providential growth of the Church at the ends of the earth has been recounted on a truly epic scale. The island of Britain can at last be set, in the words of Ps 96, amongst ‘the multitude of isles’ which rejoice in their salvation. Bede closes by customising a composite quotation from the first and last verses of the psalm : Let the earth rejoice in his perpetual kingdom and let Britain rejoice in his faith and let the multitude of isles be glad and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness. His insertion of the name of Britain is entirely in harmony with the particular application of the Old Testament prophecies concerning islands and the ends of the earth made in the papal letters which he quotes.

  • 53 Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, CCSL 39, p. 1354-1355 ; Jerome has two commentaries on Ps 96 in (...)

32Patristic exegesis of Ps 96 has a number of themes directly relevant to Bede’s work, particularly the overthrow of idols, which is expounded at a literal and spiritual level and directly related to the architectural metaphor of the building up of the living stones of the Church on Christ the corner-stone. The fathers interpreted the opening verse as an acclamation of Christ’s universal dominion. ‘Let the multitude of isles rejoice’, said Augustine, because ‘the word of God has been preached not in the continent alone, but also in those isles which lie in the middle of the sea ; even these are full of the servants of God. For the sea is no barrier to him who made it’. Like Jerome, and later Cassiodorus, he saw that ‘figuratively, the isles may be taken for all the churches’ throughout the world53. Spiritually interpreted, the psalm celebrates the restoration of the whole earth by the resurrection of Christ, the prophesied taking of salvation to the gentiles, the overthrow of idols and the establishment of the Church world-wide. But it also affirms the belief of the faithful in their divine Creator and Saviour and admonishes those who no longer literally serve stone idols but continue to serve earthbound concerns, or who worship their own image of God. Exegesis of the final verse exhorts the faithful to turn from earthly expectations of peace and joy to serve God alone, to sing his praises and prepare themselves for sharing in the joy of his perpetual kingdom.

33Bede demonstrates through his narrative of events in particular times and places the continuing fulfillment of the kind of biblical prophecies cited in the papal letters he quotes and in the standard exegesis of the psalm with which he brings his work to a close. But the prophecies are fulfilled at various levels of interpretation. Most obviously he tells the story of primary conversion from the worship of idols, but much of the book concerns the process of continuing inner conversion of the baptised from the spiritual idolatry of lingering worldly desires, values and pre-occupations which deny God the worship due to him alone.

34Even Bede’s enumerations and physical descriptions of the islands at the ends of the earth, which provide a distinctive composition of place in the telling of local histories, challenge any simplistic model of the centre conquering the periphery. After the introductory chapter on their geography and original settlement, the islands are first described in his account of the Roman conquest, then in the initial evangelisation of the Angli and then again in reporting the consolidation of conversion. The historical account of the successive conversions of the various Insular peoples living in Britain alternates in presenting Britain as a single island among the islands of Ocean, emphasising unity, and as a kind of archipelago containing a diversity of peoples. Seen from different viewing-points, it can seem either utterly remote or an integral part of the contemporary world.

Island and Archipelago, centre and periphery

Roman Britain : conquest and conversion

35Bede records that the emperor Claudius achieved the surrender of the greater part of the island of Britain : ‘He even annexed to the Roman empire the Orkneys, some islands which lie in the Ocean beyond Britain’, and were believed to be the most northerly habitable point of the world. Similarly, Bede notes that the Isle of Wight was brought under Roman rule in Claudius’s reign and records its dimensions and distance from the south coast of Britain (I.3). He emphasises that the Romans ‘possessed suzerainty over the further parts of Britain as well as over the islands which are beyond it’ (I.11).

  • 54 See, respectively, the Hereford mappa mundi and map A of Matthew Paris, both illustrated in P. D. A (...)
  • 55 Referring to Severus’s re-building of Hadrian’s Wall (I.5) and the Antonine Wall (I.12).


36But the limitations of their actual conquest and symbolic claim to the entire archipelago at the ends of the earth, and thus to universal dominion, are evident in Bede’s account of their troubled reign and eventual withdrawal. In this he is consistent with a long patristic tradition which had stressed the universality of divine, not earthly, rule. The Romans left the Britons exposed to the devastating raids of barbarians – first from the Irish and Picts ‘from over the waters,’ meaning, Bede explains, not literally from outside Britain but from the northern areas of the island separated from the Britons by two wide arms of the sea (I.1, 12). The classical perception of the demarcation of the areas north and south of the firths of Forth and Clyde survives in medieval maps where the two areas appear as two separate islands or as joined by only a tiny neck of land54. Bede knew that, although the two arms of the sea do not actually meet, they deeply penetrate the land from east and west and that the Romans had further separated the northern area of unconquered tribes by what he describes as a fortified rampart and ditch ‘from sea to sea’ and by ‘a very wide and high wall’ running across the island, between the two seas55. Also, he reports, ‘the shores of Ocean were infested with Franks and Saxons’ (I.6) ; the Romans were powerless to help when the Britons lamented : ‘the barbarians drive us to the sea : the sea drives us back on the barbarians’(I.13). Britain is shown to be a fragmented island and still very much ‘a world apart’ after four centuries of Roman rule.

  • 56 HE 1. 8, Arianism infected hanc insulam extra orbem tam longe remotam : a possible echo of Virgil, (...)

37Within this time frame there threads the story of another limited conquest of the periphery, the conversion of the Britons. There is brief mention of the invited assistance of the papacy (I.4), the fragile flowering of the faith in Britain during and after the Diocletian persecution (I.6-7), and then the attack on the faith by the spread of heresy ‘which corrupted the whole world and even infected this island, sundered so far from the world ’56. Unlike Eusebius, Bede does not vaunt the power of Constantine in establishing the Church worldwide. Rather, he notes that in Constantine’s time ‘arose the Arian heresy which was exposed by the Council of Nicaea. Nevertheless, the deadly poison of its evil doctrine [...] tainted the churches of the whole world, including our own islands’ (I.8).

38Worse even than the attacks of Irish and Picts on the Britons was ‘the spiritual death’ which their own sins brought upon them (I.14), divinely punished in the ravaging of the country ‘from the east to the western sea’ by Germanic invaders, which reduced the Britons to destitution, exile or slavery (I.15). There was a respite when the hostile raging waters of Ocean, which had twice wrecked part of Caesar’s invading Roman fleet (I.2), were miraculously subdued by St Germanus on his voyage from the continent to lead the British Christians in spiritual warfare against the heresy of Pelagianism and in literal warfare against the Saxons (I.17). The Britons’ belief in heavenly grace was confirmed and they experienced a renewal of their faith, before all but a remnant again succumbed to gross temptations and internal divisions and reverted to a state of barbarism. So, although the Gospel had reached the ends of the earth long ago, as patristic writers well knew, Bede shows that by 597 the process of conversion was far from complete among the Britons and only just beginning among the Anglo-Saxons.

The pagan Angli : primary conversion from Rome

  • 57 A. Angenendt, ‘The conversion of the Anglo-saxons considered against the background of the early me (...)
  • 58 HE II.15, p. 189 ; III.21, p. 281 ; IV.13, p. 375, 377.

  • 59 HE II.5, p. 153 ; II.15, p. 191 ; 3.1, p. 213 ; III.30, p. 323, IV.27, p. 433.


39Bede convincingly describes a barbarian society in which the collective conversion of an Anglo-Saxon people followed that of their king ; conversion involved the king in taking counsel with leading followers, though the heir often remained pagan, and a royal baptism or apostasy could signify the nature of the political relationship between catechumen and baptismal sponsor57. But Bede’s account also provides vivid enactments of biblical precepts and patristic teaching, much of which is enunciated in the papal letters quoted in the Historia Ecclesiastica. Most obviously, the new barbarian islanders are presented as idolators, enslaved to devils. Conversions of the Anglo-Saxons are related to the renunciation of idolatry58, while lapses in the faith of the recently converted are explicitly identified with the restitution of the bondage of idol-worship59. In Bede’s version of a tradition earlier used by the Whitby author of the Life of Gregory, there is the significant additional detail that the fair-skinned Angli who awakened Gregory’s concern ‘for the salvation of our race’ when he saw them in Rome, were not only in the thrall of paganism but were literally slaves (II.1). Like Gregory, Wilfrid and Aidan redeemed pagan slaves, ‘releasing them from the slavery of the devil, at the same time releasing them from the yoke of human slavery by granting them their liberty’ (IV.13).

  • 60 Ex 34:13 ; Deut 7:1, 13:3.

  • 61 New Testament Sermon 12, on Mtt 8:8 and 1 Cor 8:10, translated in St Augustine, Sermon on the Mount (...)

40Gregory’s letter to king Aethelberht in 601 invokes the example of Constantine who, subjecting himself to Christ, converted Rome ‘from the false worship of idols.’ Gregory exhorted Aethelberht similarly to ‘suppress the worship of idols ; overthrow their buildings and shrines’ and to hasten the conversion of the kings and nations subject to him by all the means at his disposal (I.32). Barbarian kings did not have Constantine’s means, however, and Bede notes that Aethelbert’s grandson was the first English king to order idols to be abandoned and destroyed throughout the kingdom (III.8). Gregory’s message to Augustine of Canterbury, through a letter to Mellitus, counsels the missionaries themselves to confine their efforts to cleansing and rededicating pagan holy places so that ‘when this people see that their shrines are not destroyed they will be able to banish error from their heart and be more ready to come to places they are familiar with’ (I.30). The letter is not in direct contradiction to the letter sent to the king : both letters are concerned that idols be destroyed. But Gregory’s account of his ‘long deliberation about the English people’ in his letter to Mellitus suggests reflection on earlier patristic warnings that, although Christians might encourage pagans to overthrow idols on their own lands, they should not be foolhardy and break down pagan abominations in places where God has not yet given them power. St Augustine of Hippo had advised that Christian teachers amongst pagans should resist the zealous urge to ‘destroy their altars and break in pieces their groves and hew down all their images’60, unless invited to do so by the territorial lord. Rather, they should first concentrate on breaking down the idols in the hearts of pagans61. Bede notes that even before the king’s conversion to the faith already held by his queen, the missionaries’ apostolic way of life and practise of what they preached had already won converts (I.26).

  • 62 Eusebius, Vita Constantini, II.45, III.54, 57 ; Bede, De temporum ratione 66, F.Wallis (tr.), Bede  (...)

41Elsewhere, progress was much slower. Bede shows that although Paulinus ‘toiled hard and long in preaching the word’ in Northumbria, at first he made little headway because, ‘as the apostle says, “the god of this world blinded the minds of them that believed not, lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ should shine on them (2 Cor 4 : 4)” ’ (II.9). Unlike Eusebius’ account of Constantine taking the initiative in destroying idols or Bede’s own report from Orosius in his Greater Chronicle of Constantine’s closure of the pagan temples, king Edwin’s public renunciation of idolatry occurred at last only when the chief pagan priest, Coifi, recognised the powerlessness of idols to help those who serve them. He listened again, more carefully, to Paulinus and in the royal council proclaimed that ‘the truth shines out’ from his teaching62. Coifi then counselled the king that the pagan temples and altars be destroyed and, in a memorable scene, he initiated the destruction of idols and profaned their shrine (II.13).

  • 63 Augustine on Ps 95:5 quotes St Paul : ‘The things which the gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice unto (...)
  • 64 In De temporum ratione, 15, Bede gives thanks that his people have been turned from blood sacrifice (...)

42The association of the pagan Angli with the biblical image of idolatrous gentiles is made particularly clear in Pope Boniface’s letter to Edwin (II.10), already discussed. Among his chain of biblical citations are two psalm texts earlier used by Augustine of Hippo in his commentary on Ps 96 when he characterised pagan idols, ‘Eyes have they, but they see not, they have ears but they hear not’ (Ps 113 : 5,6) and ‘All the gods of the gentiles are devils’ (Ps 95 : 5)63. Augustine contrasted the sacrifices made to such gods and the sacrifices made by the children of Israel to the living God. Pope Gregory similarly recalled the time when ‘the Lord made himself known to the Israelites in Egypt’ and allowed them to preserve the custom of blood sacrifice but to redirect it ‘to the true God and not to idols’. Although the outward form of the sacrifice remained familiar, the intention was different and therefore the Hebrew sacrifices were not the same as pagan offerings (I.30). The lesson Gregory drew was not the sanctioning of continued blood sacrifice among recently converted pagans, but the need to preserve some element of familiarity in their religious practices, such as the Christian dedication of their former shrines and the slaughtering of animals, not as sacrifices, but for use as food to celebrate the Christian feasts of martyrs. In this way, Gregory reasoned, the people would turn more readily ‘from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.’ Stubborn minds would be changed by degrees, as a climber ascends by steps and not by leaps64.

  • 65 1 Cor 10:20, 21, 28 ; cf. 2 Cor 6:16, ‘What agreement has the temple of God with idols ?’. Wilfrid (...)

43Similarly, the apostles had agreed on the need for a gradual approach in converting pagans, but had insisted that, as part of a minimum commitment, converts should ‘abstain from things sacrificed to idols’ (Acts 15 : 29). Redwald’s post-baptismal syncretism demonstrates complete misunderstanding of the change of heart involved in even this basic requirement, so that his last state was worse than his first : he ‘seemed to be serving both Christ and the gods whom he had previously served ; in the same temple he had one altar for the Christian sacrifice and another small altar on which to offer victims for devils’ (II.15). The episode gives voice to St Paul’s warning to the Corinthians, underlying Gregory’s letter, that gentile converts might receive the grace of God in vain : ‘You cannot be partakers of the table of the Lord and the table of devils’65.

  • 66 L.T. Martin (tr.), Bede. Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Kalamazoo, Cistercian Publications (...)

44The East Saxons had early rejected the faith they had received and returned to the worship of idols (II.5). In the next generation, the Northumbrian king Oswui is shown in the remarkable role of evangelist, persuading Sigeberht of the East Saxons that ‘objects made by the hands of men could not be gods’ because gods could not be created from materials such as wood and stone, whose remnants decayed or were burned, thrown away, put to profane use. Similarly, he argued that God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of humankind, its ruler and judge, ‘incomprehensible in his majesty, invisible to human eyes’, does not dwell in something made of base and perishable material (III.22). Though the conversion is set in the political reality of the relations between a royal sponsor and a client king and his followers, Oswiu is here closely summarising the Old Testament argument against idolatry (particularly Isa 44 : 9-19), used by St Paul in teaching gentiles (Acts 17 : 24, 29) and by Pope Boniface in writing to king Edwin (II.10). Bede leaves the language of formal exegesis to the papal letters, but notes that Oswiu reasoned with his fellow-barbarian ‘in friendly and brotherly counsel’ and over a period of time to bring him to baptism. When commenting on Paul’s evangelising tactics (Acts 17 : 24) in his Expositio Actuum Apostolorum, Bede, following Gregory, had emphasised, ‘The order of the apostle’s argument deserves careful examination. Among gentiles the treatment of his subject takes the form of a series of steps [...] Now if he had chosen to begin by destroying the idolatrous rites, the ears of the gentiles would have rejected him’66.

45Bede’s exegetical interests also speak through his descriptions of the physical landscape. His account of the prolonged primary conversion of the gens Anglorum from the worship of idols emphasises the island nature of Britain, noting details of coastal places and tides, the names of many coastal and riverside sites and the island’s division by internal waterways, separating peoples and leaving some kingdoms almost bounded by water. The northern firth ‘divides the lands of the Angli from that of the Picts’ (IV.26), the lands of the north and south Angles are divided by the great river Humber (I.25, II.5), Mercia is divided by the river Trent (III.24), the province of the East Saxons ‘is divided from Kent by the river Thames and borders on the sea to the east’ (II.3), Lindsey is ‘the first land on the south bank of the river Humber, bordering on the sea’ (II.15). Royal women are given safe escort between Northumbria and Kent by sea (II.20, III.15).

  • 67 R. Cramp, ‘Whithorn and the Northumbrian expansion westwards’, Third Whithorn Lecture, Whithorn, 19 (...)

46There are also brief geographical descriptions in the Roman manner of several off-shore islands and the narrative of the conversion recalls elements of the Roman image of suzerainty over the whole barbarian Ocean archipelago. Pope Gregory’s missionaries sent from Rome, who dreaded going to ‘a barbarous, fierce and unbelieving people whose language they did not understand’ (I.23), first landed on the island of Thanet ; its dimensions and separation from the Kentish mainland by the river Wantsum, with details of the crossing places and outlets to the sea, are duly noted (II.1, I.25). Edwin’s conquest of the Mevanian islands (Anglesey and Man), ‘which lie between England and Ireland and belong to the Britons’ (II.5), and which, like the Orkneys, formed part of Roman geographical descriptions of the islands of Ocean, is reported twice. The islands’ dimensions and relative fertility are appended as part of the claim that Edwin, as an augury of his future membership of the kingdom of heaven, ‘held under his sway the whole realm of Britain, not only English kingdoms but those ruled by the Britons as well’(II.9)67. Finally, ‘after all the kingdoms of Britain had received the faith of Christ, the Isle of Wight (Vecta insula) received it too’. It had ‘until then been entirely given up to idolatry’ (IV.16).

47The precise size and location of the Isle of Wight were given when Bede described its conquest by the Romans (I.3). It is now graphically characterised as an island in Ocean, distinct from the lands of neighbouring named peoples. The Solent, the narrow sea which separates the island from the borders of the South Saxons and Gewisse on the mainland by three miles, is the meeting place of the waters that encircle the whole island of Britain :

  • 68 For Bede’s scientific interest in tides and islands, his classical and Irish sources and probable u (...)

‘In this sea the two Ocean tides which break upon Britain from the boundless northern Ocean meet daily in conflict beyond the mouth of the river Hamble, which enters the same sea (the Solent), flowing through those Jutish lands which belong to the kingdom of the Gewisse. When their conflict is over they flow back into the Ocean whence they came (IV.16)’68.

  • 69 Eusebius, Laus Constantini, 16, Vita Constantini, 2.28, trans. NPNF, 2nd series, 1, p. 606, 507. Cf (...)
  • 70 S. Bassett, The origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Leicester University Press, 1989, p. 78, 89.

48The faith brought from Rome has gone full circle since its arrival in the island of Thanet in the south-east and extension northwards to Edwin’s kingdom, which reached west to the Mevanian Isles. And yet this further conquest of the ends of the earth is, like that in the time of the Romans, very incomplete. Eusebius had boasted that the Roman Empire under Constantine was co- terminous with Christianity, uniting all peoples and reaching to the farthest end of the earth ; it was so peaceful and well-ordered that people could travel safely from west to east and east to west, thus fulfilling the prophecy, ‘He shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth’ (Ps 71 : 8)69. Similarly, Bede records ‘there was so great a peace in Britain, wherever the dominion of king Edwin reached, that, as the proverb runs, a woman with a new-born child could walk unharmed throughout the island from sea to sea (a mari ad mare)’ (II.16). But he goes on to show that Edwin’s imperium collapsed with his violent death at the hands of a pagan Anglo-Saxon king and a British king, Caedwalla who, though a Christian, was still ‘a barbarian in heart’ and brutally attempted to destroy the whole English people in Britain (II.20). Bede states that, before the reign of Oswald, ‘as far as we know, no symbol of the Christian faith, no church and no altar had been erected in the whole of Bernicia’ (III.2). Edwin’s immediate successors ‘reverted to the filth of their former idolatry’ and were also killed by Caedwalla (III.1) and the next Christian king, Oswald, was killed in battle and his body mutilated by the heathen (III.6, 9). The context of the later conversion of the Isle of Wight in a time of plague and famine is similarly barbarous : its savage military conquest in the 680s by another merciless king called Caedwalla, this time the pagan king of the West Saxons, and the scenes of slavery and execution of the newly baptised, starkly reveal continuing divisions between the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the elementary nature of the primary conversion (IV.15, 16)70.

49What is striking is that the story of the faith at last reaching the idolatrous Isle of Wight is immediately followed in Bede’s narrative by his account of the council of Hatfield in 679, which provides a most sophisticated image of the church in Britain as part of the universal Church whose larger unity it emulates (IV.17). Long before there was a single royal authority, an assembly of ‘the bishops of the island of Britain’ was summoned by Theodore of Tarsus, ‘archbishop of the island of Briton and of the city of Canterbury,’ and earlier described as ‘the first archbishop whom the whole English Church consented to obey’ (IV.2). Bede cites the council’s written record :

‘We united in declaring the true and orthodox faith as our Lord Jesus Christ delivered it in the flesh to the disciples who saw him face to face and heard his words, and as it was handed down in the creed of the holy fathers and by all the holy and universal councils in general and the whole body of the accredited fathers of the catholic church’ (IV.17).

50The assembly was concerned not with the literal idolatry of pagans but with Christians who made God in their own image. It formally recognised the decrees of the five universal councils from Nicaea in 325 to Constantinople in 553 and the Lateran council of 649, all of which had anathematised various Christological heresies, and it subscribed to a Trinitarian confession of the faith, witnessed by a visiting papal emissary, John the archcantor of St Peter’s, Rome (IV.17,18).

  • 71 Heresies and heretics refuted in Bede’s works are listed by C. Plummer (ed.), Bedae opera historica (...)
  • 72 De templo, I.11.3 ; see O’Reilly, Introduction to S. Connolly (tr.), Bede : On the temple, p. xxxii (...)
  • 73 De templo, I.11.2, 14.3, 18.9, 19.8


51The events are part of the process Bede closely documents by which spiritual dominion over the islands by petrine Rome, the pre-eminent guardian of the faith, is extended, fortifying both the papal role as earthly head of Christ’s universal body and Insular claims to be full members of that body. The preservation of the faith through the overthrow of heresy is a recurring theme throughout the Church’s mission in the Historia Ecclesiastica71. Bede, however, is concerned to show that full membership of the universal Church does not simply consist in receiving instruction and baptism, doctrinal statements, law and episcopal structures from ‘the centre’, but in interiorising and practising what such visible signs of the unity of Christ’s body represent, a process which is continuous and life-long, occurring at different rates among different peoples and individuals. By the end of the book the spiritual life is highly advanced for some, for others scarcely begun, illustrating the claim Bede makes in De templo that some living before the age of the Gospel lived the life of the Gospel, whereas many at the present time are content with just observing the precepts of the Law72. The same kingdom of heaven receives both, but Bede several times repeats Christ’s words, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’ (Jn 14 : 2) and cites St Paul (Gal 5 : 6, Col 3 : 11) to show that, although there is one house of the Lord, it will be variously experienced, not according to differences of ethnic background, rank, age, learning or gender, but according to the capacity for spiritual perfection73.

Islands and inner conversion : ‘a world apart’

52One of the ways in which Bede depicts post-baptismal conversion at a deeper spiritual level in the Historia Ecclesiastica is through his adaptation of the Roman topographical tradition of the islands at the ends of the earth for the third time. Though he continues to note physical features such as their size, type, location and tides in the manner of a gazetteer, the islands he highlights in Books III-V had not appeared either in Roman geographical descriptions of Ocean or in his own accounts of the Roman conquest of Britain and the primary conversion of the Anglo-Saxons from Rome. The effect of his description of the inhabitants of these other islands is to subvert too literal an understanding of Rome’s centrality and to give a new meaning to the topos of ‘a world apart’.

  • 74 HE III.3 ; A. O. Anderson and M. O. Anderson (ed. and tr.), Adomnán’s Life of Columba, rev. ed., Ox (...)
  • 75 The Isle of Wight is 1200 hides (HE IV.16), Anglesey is 960, Isle of Man is 300 (HE II.9).
  • 76 A. O. Anderson and M. O. Anderson (ed. and tr.), Adomnán’s Life of Columba, III.23, p. 233.

53Bede’s list begins and ends with Iona, an island beyond the limes of Roman imperial rule and north-west of the division of Britain marked by the firths of Clyde and Forth. Like Adomnán, abbot of Iona, Bede described the island as belonging to Britain, ‘separated from the mainland by a narrow strait’74. It is only five hides in extent (III.4) which, compared with the Isle of Wight and the Mevanian isles, is very small75. Adomnán, who in De locis sanctis had taken Insular readers in imagination on a journey to the holy places of Jerusalem at the centre of the earth, had in the Vita Columbae memorialised Iona as a holy place whose peripheral location was a foil to its spiritual significance. Although St Columba ‘lived in this small and remote island of the Britannic Ocean, he merited that his name should not only be illustriously renowned throughout our Ireland, and throughout Britain, the greatest of all the islands of the whole world, but that it should reach even as far as Spain and Gaul and Italy [...] also the Roman city itself, which is the chief of all cities’76. But it was Bede who acclaimed this island on the world’s edge as a major centre of the Church’s universal mission. He shows that over thirty years before the arrival of Pope Gregory’s Roman missionaries on the island of Thanet in 597, Columba, ‘a monk in life no less than habit’, had come from Ireland to Britain, turning the northern Picts beyond the Grampians to Christ ‘by his words and example’. Columba established a monastery on Iona where his successors were renowned for ‘their great abstinence, their love of God and their observance of the Rule’ and, from the 630s, were instrumental in the conversion of the Northumbrian Angli and their extensive areas of influence (III.4).

  • 77 ‘qui uidelicet locus accedente ac recedente reumate bis cotidie instar insulae maris circumluitur u (...)

54The work of bishop Aidan and the community of Lindisfarne, the Northumbrian coastal base of the Columban mission to the Angles, is the subject of some of Bede’s most sublime descriptions of the Christian life in its active and contemplative aspects (III.5, 17, 26). Although he refers to ‘insula Lindisfarnensi’ (V.19), he notes it is not quite an island : ‘As the tide ebbs and flows, this place is surrounded twice daily by the waves of the sea like an island and twice, when the shore is left dry, it becomes again attached to the mainland.’ (III.3)77. In the outer precincts of Lindisfarne there was a place of retreat which was also ‘surrounded on every side by the sea at flood tide’. One of Aidan’s successors, Eadberht, used to withdraw there in Advent and Lent ‘in deep devotion, with abstinence, prayers and tears’(IV.30).

  • 78 For Cuthbert’s embodiment of the Gregorian ideal of monk and pastor see A. Thacker, ‘Bede’s ideal o (...)
  • 79 B. Colgrave (ed.and tr.), Two Lives of St Cuthbert, Cambridge University Press, 1940, 17, p. 214.
  • 80 Jerome, Tractatus sive homiliae in psalmos, CCSL 78, p. 156, 440.


55Columban traditions lived on in Cuthbert, who also resorted to this secluded island within an island. When he ‘attained to the silence and secrecy of the hermit’s life of contemplation’ he withdrew from Lindisfarne and went further out into the fathomless Ocean to the tiny isle of Farne78. Bede had already applied the classical distinction between a tidal half-island and an island in the deep and boundless Ocean when describing Lindisfarne and Farne in the Vita Cuthberti79. In the Historia Ecclesiastica he describes the island of Farne as a savage place ‘utterly lacking in water, corn and trees, and as it was frequented by evil spirits, it was ill-suited for human habitation’. Cuthbert subdued and transformed it by his spiritual fruitfulness, so that its rocky hardness yielded life-giving water and barley. Jerome’s commentary on the image of ‘the multitude of isles’ in Ps 96 : 1, with which Bede closes his book, shows that islands, though once subject to the dominion of the devil and idols, rejoice on seeing the reign of the Lord. Spiritually interpreted, the islands may refer not only to all churches, set in the turbulent sea of this world, but to individual souls which are battered daily by various thoughts and temptations. These islands cannot be broken. Rather, they break the advancing waves. Their foundation is Christ : ‘behold, the isles stand fixed, and at last the sea is calmed’80.

  • 81 Cassian, Conlationes, 10.7, translation quoted from NPNF, 2nd series, 11, p. 404. Jerome’s ‘true st (...)

56Cuthbert served God in solitude for many years on Farne ‘and so high was the rampart that surrounded his dwelling that he could see nothing else but the heavens which he longed to enter’ (IV.28). Bede’s account of the topography of Farne functions as an image of the saint himself. The separation from worldly concerns exemplified in the life of the desert fathers is here renewed on an island in the northern Ocean : ‘This is the end of all perfection, that the mind purged from all carnal desires may daily be lifted towards spiritual things, until the whole of life and all the thoughts of the heart become one continuous prayer’81.

  • 82 ‘Selaeseu, quod dicitur Latine Insula uituli marini. Est enim locus undique mari circumdatus praete (...)

57In the land of the South Saxons Bishop Wilfrid founded a monastery and established a rule of life at Selsey where, Bede says, the tyranny of the devil was overthrown and the reign of Christ begun (IV.14). He explains that the name Selsey means ‘the island of the seal. This place is surrounded on all sides by the sea except on the west where it is approached by a piece of land about a sling’s throw in width. Such a place is called in Latin paeninsula (almost an island) and in Greek cherronesos’82. Bede twice notes that Ely, founded by Aethelthryth, ‘resembles an island in that it is surrounded by marshes or by water (in similitudinem insulae uel paludibus, ut diximus, circumdata uel aquis). Aethelthryth, having renounced the royal and married status of her earthly life, there became ‘by the example of her heavenly life and teaching, the virgin mother of many virgins dedicated to God’ (IV.19). In contrast, the holy priest Hereberct lived the solitary life ‘on an island in that large mere from which spring the sources of the river Derwent’ (IV.29). Bede notes that ‘if in any way he had less merit than the blessed Cuthbert’, the manner in which he bore a long illness made him equal in grace and ‘worthy to be received into one and the same dwelling of perpetual bliss’.

  • 83 Chertsey’s island-like nature is confirmed in what John Blair has identified as the oldest extant b (...)
  • 84 It is not known where exactly on the headland peninsula the monastery was located, R. Daniels, ‘The (...)

58The enclosed nature and even the etymology of some other inland sites also suggest ‘islands’ of holiness in the landscape. The Irish monk Dicuil served the Lord among the South Saxons in humility and poverty in the small monastery of Bosham, which was ‘surrounded by woods and sea’ (siluis et mari circumdatum) (IV.13). Bishop John of Hexham and a few followers used to withdraw for prayer and reading, especially in Lent, to ‘a remote dwelling, enclosed by a rampart (uallo circumdata) and amid scattered trees’, separated from the church at Hexham by the river Tyne (V.2). Drythelm became something of a living island. He renounced the world and entered the monastery of Melrose, ‘which is almost encircled by a bend in the river Tweed’ (quod Tuidi fluminis circumflexu maxima ex parte clauditur). He was given a secret retreat on the river bank where he could ‘devote himself to the service of his Maker in constant prayer’ and often stood motionless, immersed in the water in all weathers (V.12). Eorcenwold established ‘an excellent form of monastic Rule and discipline’ near the river Thames ‘at a place called Chertsey, that is the island of Ceorot’ (IV.6)83. Hild of Whitby, disciple of Aidan and famed for her wisdom and devotion to the service of God (IV.23), was founder of the Rule in Hartlepool, which Bede calls Heruteu, ‘that is, the island of the hart’ (Insula Cerui), (III.24)84.

59Britain is thus portrayed as a multitude of isles. Topographically very different from each other, these ‘islands’ of diverse monastic communities and eremitical individuals, men and women, of various dates, of both Irish and Anglo-Saxon origin, of Columban or Roman formation, scattered from north to south of the island of Britain, are all distinguished by their purity of life and detachment from the carnal preoccupations of this world. All are geographically remote from Rome and Jerusalem but close to heaven.

60Such figures of sanctity are far removed from the state of gentiles newly converted from the service of idols, but the charge of spiritual idolatry is tacitly made in the Historia Ecclesiastica against islanders of various ethnic backgrounds who had been long years in the Christian faith. Bede draws on Pauline and patristic models to show how various earthly preoccupations among the faithful are, in effect, man-made idols and deny God his due service. Bede illustrates the variety of types and degree of such Christian idol-worship in various individuals, communities and peoples and in the process reveals more of the nature of the true service of God.

61The presentation of the example of the Columban monks in particular is closely integrated into the book’s extended topos of the islands. Bede’s images of Iona and Lindisfarne as islands of sanctity appear to offer a very different view from the stereotypical image of islands at the ends of earth applied by papal reformers and fellow-islanders to the Columbans in the context of the Easter controversy. In that context they are at first described as rustic barbarians living ‘so far away at the ends of the earth that there was none to bring them the decrees of the synods concerning the observance of Easter’ (III.4) and later, more critically, as a handful of people ‘living in the remotest corner of the world (in extremo mundi angulo)’, inhabiting only some parts ‘of the two remotest islands of the Ocean’, whose veneration of their own local traditions on Easter made them at odds with the practice of the universal Church (V.15, III.25).

62By such apparently opposed views in his presentation of the Columbans, Bede constantly shifts the reader’s perspective. The geographical remoteness of the island of Iona highlights the community’s providential role as a centre of the Church’s mission, in the tradition of the apostles taking the Gospel out from Jerusalem to the gentiles. But it is also used to evoke classical images of barbarians beyond the frontier of Roman civilization and biblical images of gentile islanders worshipping idols of their own making at the ends of the earth. Though Aidan is presented as a model of holiness and the Columbans are strongly contrasted with the Britons in their profound understanding and practice of the love of God and neighbour, the Columban attitude at Whitby to their man-made local traditions to some degree also recalls New Testament images of zealous Jewish converts in Jerusalem whose understanding of the universal nature of the Christian faith was limited by their excessive veneration of their own local religious customs. The Columbans’ eventual reception of the Roman Easter is told in terms reminiscent of the taking of the Gospel itself to the ends of the earth, not directly from Rome, but from a neighbouring island, just as the Columbans had once journeyed from Iona to evangelise the pagan Angli (V.9, 22).

  • 85 Bede’s exposition of the meaning of the service of idols and the service of God in his account of t (...)

63Cumulatively, these different views of a church in a particular time and place, which is also a glimpse of the Church in all times and places, reveal that the service of God on earth, even among its most holy practioners, is a process of continuing inner conversion from the service of idols. Drawing on Pauline and exegetical traditions, Bede uses the debate about the date of Easter to expound the meaning of the event it celebrates. His account of Iona’s joyful celebration of ‘the greatest of all festivals’ in unity with the universal Church in 716, the climax of the book, reveals that the process of finding this ‘more perfect way’ is dependent on the mercy of God and only completed in heaven (V.22). Iona’s celebration of Christ’s resurrection is shown to be a participation in its eternal celebration by the heavenly host, a foretaste (not just a symbol) of the heavenly kingdom and the unending sabbath of God’s perpetual praise85.

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Notes

1 See D. Scully, ‘Bede, Orosius and Gildas on the early History of Roman Britain’ in this volume.

2 Jerome, Comm. in Hiezechielem, CCSL 75, p. 56, lines 69-80. Adomnán used Jerome’s interpretation of Ps 73:12 in describing the centrality of Jerusalem, the place of the passion and resurrection ; a column erected there cast no shadow at the summer solstice : D. Meehan (ed. and tr.), Adamnán’s De locis sanctis I.11, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 3, Dublin, 1958, p. 56. Bede, in his own version of Adomnán’s work, cited Ps 73:12 and the detail of the column, adding the testimony of Victorinus of Poitiers, ‘There is a place that we believe to be the centre of the whole world [...]’ : W. Trent Foley and A. Holder (tr.), Bede : a biblical miscellany, Liverpool University Press, 1999, p. 10.

3 Bede, De templo II.19.3, CCSL 119A, p. 208. Isidore, Etymologiae IX.2.37 : Haec sunt gentes de stirpe Iaphet, quae a Tauro monte ad aquilonem mediam partem Asiae et omnem Europam usque ad Oceanum Brittanicum possident, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos 433, p. 746 ; Etymologiae XIV.6.2- 6, BAC 434, p. 192.

4 R. Green (ed.), Augustine, De doctrina christiana, Oxford University Press, 1995, II.8-9, 3126- 128, p. 61, 189-91 ; Augustine, De civitate Dei XVI.3-4, CCSL 48, p. 503-504 ; Bede, Expositio Apocalypseos, Praefatio, CCSL 121A, p. 229 ; Bede, In Principium Genesim, III, CCSL 118A, p. 143, 155-56.

5 Ps 113B:4-8 ; Ps 134:15-18 ; cf. 95 : 5 ; 97 : 1,7 ; Isa 40:12-26, 44:9-25.

6 Isa 40:12-26 ; 44:9-25.

7 Isa 49:1-12 ; cf. Isa 11:10-12 ; 42:6, 10 ; 66:19 ; Ps 2:8.

8 G. Henderson, ‘Bede and the visual arts’, Jarrow Lecture, 1980, p. 9-12, on Bede and the imagery of ethnic stereotypes in the panegyrics and the psalms. For patristic exegesis of Ps 71 see T. Mommsen, ‘Aponius and Orosius on the significance of the Epiphany’ in K. Weitzmann (ed.), Late classical and medieval studies in honour of A. M. Friend, Princeton, 1955, p. 97-104.

9 Augustine, Ep. 185, 3-5 ; Ep. 199, 45-50, CSEL 57, p. 3, 4, 282-288.


10 Eusebius, HE II.3 ; III.8, G. Williamson (tr.), Eusebius, The history of the Church from Christ to Constantine, rev. ed. London, 1989, p. 39, p. 77 ; W. J. Farrar (tr.), The proof of the Gospel. The Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Caesarea London. 1930, 3.5, p. 112 ; Jerome, Ep. 58.3, J. Labourt, Jérôme, Lettres, Paris, 1953, 3, p. 76 ; Augustine, Ep. 199. 50, CSEL 57, p. 288 ; Leo the Great, Ep. 10.1, P.L. 54, 629, W. J. Farrar (tr), The proof of the Gospel, being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Caesarea, London and New York, SPCK and Macmillan, 1920, p. 129-30, 152-57.

11 Gildas, De excidio, 70 ; M. Winterbottom, Gildas, The Ruin of Britain and other works, Chichester, Philimore, 1978, p. 56, 121.

12 Rom 9:25-26, quoting Hosea 2:23 ; 2:1 ; cf. 1 Pet 2:10 ; Jerem 16:19. Patrick, Confessio, 34, 38, 40, 41, D. Conneely, The letters of St Patrick, Maynooth, An Sagart, 1993, p. 40-43, 70-72.

13 A. Haddan and W. Stubbs (ed.), Councils and ecclesiastical documents relative to Great Britain and Ireland, 3 vols. Oxford, 1867-1878, I, 3-26 for patristic references ; H. Williams, Christianity in Early Britain, Oxford, 1912, p. 96-100 ; C. W. Jones, ‘Some introductory remarks on Bede’s Commentary on Genesis’, Sacris Erudiri 19, 1969, p. 121.

14 Jerome, Ep 46.10 (cf. Virgil, Eclogues I.67) ; Ep. 58.3 ; 60.4, Labourt, Lettres, 2, p. 110 ; 3, p. 77, 93 ; Jerome, In Esaiam 4.11, CCSL 73, p. 154-55 ; Tractatus de Psalmos, Ps 95 : 10, CCSL 78. Cf. Eusebius, Vita Constantini III.19 ; Demonstratio Evangelica 3.5 – 7, W. J. Farrar (tr), op. cit.

15 Augustine, Ep. 199.47, p. 285 ; Enarrationes in psalmos, Ps 71 : 8, CCSL 39, p. 979-980 ; Cassiodorus, Expositio in psalmorum, Ps 71 : 8, CCSL 98, p. 652-653.

16 Ep. 199. 47, W. Parsons (tr.), Saint Augustine. Letters 4, p. 394-95.


17 Augustine, Ep. 199. 45-50 to Hesychias, Epistolae, CSEL 57, p. 282-88, W. Parsons (tr.), Saint Augustine. Letters, Fathers of the Church, New York, 1955, 4, p. 392-98 ; cf. Ep. 119.47 ; Enarrationes in psalmos, Ps 95:2, CCSL 39, p. 471.


18 G. Williamson (tr.), Eusebius, The history of the Church, II.14, p. 49 ; cf. II. 22, 25 ; III.1-4.

19 Bede, Expositio Actuum Apostolorum on Acts 28:31, CCSL 121, p. 99, quotes Jerome, De viris illustribus, 5.

20 Leo, sermon on the feast of Peter and Paul, 441, Tractatus 82, CCSL 138A, p. 508-18, tr. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series, vol. 12, p. 194-96. Peter and Paul were ‘equal in the election, alike in their toils, undivided in their death’, p. 517.

21 Prosper, De uocatione omnium gentium, II.16-17, PL 51. 703-704, P. de Letter (tr.), The call of all nations, Ancient Christian Writers 14, 1952 ; Leo, Tr. 82. 1, 3 : Rome ‘through St Peter’s see established here, the head of the world (caput orbis), ruling more widely now by means of divine religion than it ever did by worldly dominion’ ; ‘the most blessed Peter, chief of the Apostolic band, was appointed to the citadel of the Roman Empire’. See R. Markus, ‘Chronicle and theology : Prosper of Aquitaine’ in C. Holdsworth and T. P. Wiseman (ed.), The inheritance of historiography 350-900, Exeter, 1986, p. 31-43 at p. 38-39 ; T. M. Charles-Edwards, ‘Palladius, Prosper, and Leo the Great : mission and primatial authority’ in D. Dumville (ed), Saint Patrick, A.D. 493-1993, Woodbridge, Boydell & Brewer, 1993, p. 1-12 ; Id., Early Christian Ireland, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 202-214.

22 B. Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors (ed. and tr.), Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969, repr. 1991, I.13, hereafter cited by book and chapter in parenthesis in the text. Prosper, Epitoma Chronicon, MGH, AA 9, 473 ; Contra Collatorem, 21, PL 51 ?271.

23 De templo II.20.7.

24 Roma orbis terrarum caput est ecclesiarum : G.S.M. Walker (ed. and tr.), Sancti Columbani Opera, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae, Dublin, 1957, Ep. 5.3, p. 39 ; Ep. 5.11, p. 48. D. Bracken, ‘Authority and duty : Columbanus and the primacy of Rome’, Peritia, 16, 2002, p. 168-213 at p. 172-198 ; J. O’Reilly, ‘The art of authority’ in T. M. Charles-Edwards (ed.), After Rome. Short Oxford history of the British Isles, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 141-189, discusses the topos and Insular art.

25 Columbanus, Ep. 5.11, p. 48-49.

26 Gregory, Moralia in Iob, 27,11.21 (CCSL, 143B, p. 1346). Some scholars regard the passage as a later addition by Gregory, referring to his own recent mission to the Anglo-Saxons rather than to the conversion of the Roman Britons. However, the Moralia passage recalls details of the Britons in Constantius’ Life of Germanus, quoted by Bede, HE I. 17-21, as noted by C. Stancliffe, ‘The British church and the mission of St Augustine’ in R. Gameson (ed.), St Augustine and the conversion of England, Stroud, 1999, p. 107-151 at p. 112.

27 De templo II.20.7 (CCSL 119A, p. 218). The Whitby Life of Gregory, 6, notes that Gregory ‘was absent in the body yet present in the spirit’ (1 Cor 5:3).

28 Epistolam ad Ecgbertum, 3, C. Plummer (ed.), Venerabilis Baedae Opera Historica, vol1, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1896, p. 406.

29 B. Colgrave (ed. and tr.), The earliest Life of Gregory the Great, 6, University of Cambridge Press, 1985.

30 HE II.1, quoting Acts 26:18 and 1 Cor 9:2.

31 Cf. Acts 17:24-29 and Ps 134:15-18.


32 In an Easter homily, Bede too followed patristic exegesis in reading Isaiah 11:10 as a prophecy of universal salvation and gave it a local application, saying that the Lord ‘has not summoned the Jews alone, but us too, who are able to cry out to him from the ends of the earth’ : Homiliae Evangelii, CCSL 122, Hom.II.10, p. 252, L. Martin and D. Hurst (tr), Bede. Homilies on the Gospels, 2 vols., Kalamazoo, Cistercian Publications, 1991, 2, p. 96.

33 Historia abbatum auctore anonymo, 37, C. Plummer (ed.), Baedae opera historica, I, p. 402. On the Romanitas of the Codex Amiatinus and the parallels of its conception and illustrations with Bede’s exegesis, especially In Esram et Neemiam, see J. O’Reilly, ‘The library of Scripture : views from Vivarium and Wearmouth-Jarrow’, P. Binski and W. Noel (ed.), New offerings, ancient treasures. Studies in medieval art for George Henderson, Stroud, Sutton Publishing, 2001, p. 3- 39. In HE V.7 Bede records the epitaph in St Peter’s, Rome, of Caedwalla, another pilgrim who had come from Britain, ‘earth’s remotest end’, bearing gifts for the shrine of St Peter.

34 Noted by R. Marsden, The text of the Old Testament in Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 189.

35 M. Richter, ‘Bede’s Angli : Angles or English ?’ Peritia, 3, 1984, p. 99-114 ; P. Wormald, ‘Bede, the Bretwaldas and the origins of the Gens Anglorum’ in P. Wormald, D. Bullough, R. Collins (ed.), Ideal and reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon society. Studies presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Oxford University Press, 1983, 99-129 ; N. Brooks, ‘Bede and the English’, Jarrow Lecture 1999 ; G. Tugène, L’image de la nation anglaise dans l’Histoire Ecclésiastique de Bède le Vénérable, Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg, 2001, p. 86-88.

36 D. Hurst (ed), De tabernaculo, De templo, In Esram et Neemiam, CCSL 119A. Translations quoted here are from A. G. Holder (tr.), Bede : On the tabernacle, Liverpool University Press, 1994 and S. Connolly (tr.), Bede : on the temple, Liverpool University Press, 1995.

37 J. O’Reilly, Introduction to S. Connolly (tr.), Bede : On the temple, p. xvii-lv ; H. Mayr- Harting, ‘The Venerable Bede, the Rule of St Benedict and social class’, Jarrow Lecture, 1976, p. 13.

38 D. Scully, The Atlantic archipelago from antiquity to Bede : the transformation of an image, unpublished doctoral thesis, University College Cork, 2000.

39 C. B. Kendall, ‘Imitation and the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica’, M. H. King and W. M. Stevens (eds.), Saints, scholars and heroes, Collegeville 1979, p. 161-190 at 81-2 ; J. O’Reilly ‘Reading the Scriptures in the Life of Columba’, C. Bourke (ed), Studies in the cult of St Columba, Dublin, 1997, p. 80-106 at 95-7.

40 The translation offered here differs from that of Colgrave and Mynors, p. 17.

41 De tabernaculo II.7, p. 68 (tr. Holder, p. 75-76).


42 De tabernaculo I.2, p. 10 (tr. Holder, p. 7).


43 De tabernaculo II.2, p. 48 (tr. Holder, p. 52).

44 O’Reilly, ‘The library of Scripture’, p. 9-11, fig 5.

45 De templo I.13.2, p. 179, (tr. Connolly, p. 48).

46 Homiliae evangelii II.17 p. 307 ; L. Martin and D. Hurst (tr.), Bede the Venerable. Homilies on the gospels, 2 vols, Kalamazoo, Cistercian Studies, 1991, 2, p. 172-73.

47 Bede, Expositio Actuum Apostolorum, CCSL 121, p. 16-17, L.T. Martin (tr.), The Venerable Bede, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Cistercian Studies, Kalamazoo, 1989, p. 29, 38 n. 5. The idea is elaborated in Bede’s later Retractiones, (CCSL 121, p. 126) to describe the unity of the multitude of believers of many languages at Pentecost who served the Lord with ‘but one heart and soul’ (Acts 4 : 32). Cf. Gregory, Homiliae in Evangelia, 30 (CCSL 141, p. 259-260).

48 The HE frequently refers to languages, interpreters and translation, e.g. Augustine arrives with Frankish interpreters (I.25), Oswald interprets for Aidan (III.3), Wilfrid and Chad interpret at the synod of Whitby (III.25), Theodore and Hadrian teach Greek as well as Latin (IV.2), Caedmon versifies the Latin scriptures in the vernacular (IV.24), John of Hexham heals a dumb man and teaches him the rudiments of English speech (V.2), Ceolfrith’s letter to Nechtan is translated (V.21).

49 T. M. Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, p. 432-434. G. Tugène, L’image de la nation anglaise dans l’Histoire Ecclésiastique de Bède le Vénérable, p. 88 for convergence of royal and papal interests.

50 Also quoted in Vita Wilfridi, 53, B. Colgrave (ed. & tr.), The Life of Bishop Wilfrid, Cambridge, University Press, 1927, p. 115.

51 De templo II.20.1, p. 214.

52 Bede here avoids speculation on the details and date of the future consummation : posterior aetas uidebit. R. Markus, ‘Bede and the tradition of ecclesiastical historiography’, Jarrow Lecture 1975, p. 15, notes the similarity with the close of Bede’s shorter Chronicle : the remainder of the sixth age ‘is clear only in the sight of God’. Cf. Greater Chronicle, ch. 68, p. 240, ‘they behave dangerously if any of them presumes to speculate or to teach that this [hour] is near at hand or far off.’

53 Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, CCSL 39, p. 1354-1355 ; Jerome has two commentaries on Ps 96 in his Tractatus sive homiliae in psalmos, CCSL 78, p. 156-161, 440-446 ; Cassiodorus, Expositio in psalmos, CCSL 98, p. 873.

54 See, respectively, the Hereford mappa mundi and map A of Matthew Paris, both illustrated in P. D. A. Hervey, Mappa Mundi. The Hereford world map, Hereford Cathedral, second ed., 2002, p. 52, 36.

55 Referring to Severus’s re-building of Hadrian’s Wall (I.5) and the Antonine Wall (I.12).


56 HE 1. 8, Arianism infected hanc insulam extra orbem tam longe remotam : a possible echo of Virgil, Eclogue I.66, toto divisos orbe Britannos, used by Jerome, Ep. 46.10 : Diuisus ab orbe nostro Britannus and preserved in Isidore, Etymologiae 9.2, 102.

57 A. Angenendt, ‘The conversion of the Anglo-saxons considered against the background of the early medieval mission’, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di studi sull’alto medioevo 32.2, Spoleto, 1986, p. 747-781.

58 HE II.15, p. 189 ; III.21, p. 281 ; IV.13, p. 375, 377.


59 HE II.5, p. 153 ; II.15, p. 191 ; 3.1, p. 213 ; III.30, p. 323, IV.27, p. 433.


60 Ex 34:13 ; Deut 7:1, 13:3.


61 New Testament Sermon 12, on Mtt 8:8 and 1 Cor 8:10, translated in St Augustine, Sermon on the Mount. Homilies on the Gospels, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF), first series, 6, p. 301-303.

62 Eusebius, Vita Constantini, II.45, III.54, 57 ; Bede, De temporum ratione 66, F.Wallis (tr.), Bede : The Reckoning of Time, Liverpool University Press 1999, p. 213.

63 Augustine on Ps 95:5 quotes St Paul : ‘The things which the gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice unto devils and not to God ; we know that an idol is nothing (1 Cor 8:4) and that what the gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice unto devils and not to God, and I would not have that you should have fellowship with devils’ (1 Cor 10:20) ; his commentary on Ps 96:7, ‘Confounded be all they that worship carved images’, also quotes 1 Cor 8:4, 10:20,21.

64 In De temporum ratione, 15, Bede gives thanks that his people have been turned from blood sacrifice ‘to offer thee the sacrifice of praise’, F. Wallis (tr.), Bede : On the reckoning of time, p. 54.

65 1 Cor 10:20, 21, 28 ; cf. 2 Cor 6:16, ‘What agreement has the temple of God with idols ?’. Wilfrid was to recall Acts 15:29 at the synod of Whitby (III.25).

66 L.T. Martin (tr.), Bede. Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Kalamazoo, Cistercian Publications, 1989, p. 142-143.

67 R. Cramp, ‘Whithorn and the Northumbrian expansion westwards’, Third Whithorn Lecture, Whithorn, 1995.

68 For Bede’s scientific interest in tides and islands, his classical and Irish sources and probable use of eye-witness information received from correspondents, see W. Stevens, Bede’s scientific achievement, Jarrow Lecture, 1985, p. 11-18.

69 Eusebius, Laus Constantini, 16, Vita Constantini, 2.28, trans. NPNF, 2nd series, 1, p. 606, 507. Cf. Eusebius, Demonstratio Evangelica 7.3 ; 9.17, W. J. Farrar (tr.), The proof of the Gospel, being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Caesarea, p. 94, p. 187-188.

70 S. Bassett, The origins of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Leicester University Press, 1989, p. 78, 89.

71 Heresies and heretics refuted in Bede’s works are listed by C. Plummer (ed.), Bedae opera historica I, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1896, p. lxii -lxiii.

72 De templo, I.11.3 ; see O’Reilly, Introduction to S. Connolly (tr.), Bede : On the temple, p. xxxiii, xxxviii.

73 De templo, I.11.2, 14.3, 18.9, 19.8


74 HE III.3 ; A. O. Anderson and M. O. Anderson (ed. and tr.), Adomnán’s Life of Columba, rev. ed., Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991, second Preface, p. 7.


75 The Isle of Wight is 1200 hides (HE IV.16), Anglesey is 960, Isle of Man is 300 (HE II.9).

76 A. O. Anderson and M. O. Anderson (ed. and tr.), Adomnán’s Life of Columba, III.23, p. 233.

77 ‘qui uidelicet locus accedente ac recedente reumate bis cotidie instar insulae maris circumluitur undis, bis renudato litore contiguus terrae redditur’.


78 For Cuthbert’s embodiment of the Gregorian ideal of monk and pastor see A. Thacker, ‘Bede’s ideal of reform’ in P. Wormald (ed.), Ideal and reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon society, Oxford, 1983, p. 130-53 at p. 138-42 ; C. Stancliffe, ‘Cuthbert and the polarity between pastor and solitary’ in G. Bonner, D. Rollason and C. Stancliffe (ed.), St Cuthbert, his cult and his community to AD 1200, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 1989, p. 21-44.

79 B. Colgrave (ed.and tr.), Two Lives of St Cuthbert, Cambridge University Press, 1940, 17, p. 214.

80 Jerome, Tractatus sive homiliae in psalmos, CCSL 78, p. 156, 440.


81 Cassian, Conlationes, 10.7, translation quoted from NPNF, 2nd series, 11, p. 404. Jerome’s ‘true story’ of a hermit exiled on an island in the Adriatic anticipates several features in Adomnan’s account of Columba on Hinbar and Bede’s account of Cuthbert on Farne (Jerome, Ep. 3, J. Labourt (ed.), Lettres III.8-25) and the Lérins monastic tradition of Mediterranean island saints too had presented the holy man Honoratus as ‘a locus of sanctity’ : C. Leyser, ‘“This sainted Isle” : panegyric, nostalgia and the invention of Lérins monasticism’, W. Klingshirn and M. Vessey (ed.), The Limits of Ancient Christianity, Michigan, 1999, p. 188-206.

82 ‘Selaeseu, quod dicitur Latine Insula uituli marini. Est enim locus undique mari circumdatus praeter ab occidente, unde habet ingressum amplitudinis quasi iactus fundae ; qualis locus a Latinis paeninsula, a Grecis solet cherronesos uocari’.

83 Chertsey’s island-like nature is confirmed in what John Blair has identified as the oldest extant boundary clause in a charter which describes Chertsey’s bounds in the 670s as including the Thames and ‘the ancient ditch Fullingadic’ : see M. Lapidge (ed.), The Blackwell encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford, 1999, p. 102.

84 It is not known where exactly on the headland peninsula the monastery was located, R. Daniels, ‘The Anglo-Saxon monastery at Hartlepool’ in J. Hawkes and S. Mills (ed.), Northumbria’s golden age, Stroud, Sutton Publishing, 1999, p. 105-112.

85 Bede’s exposition of the meaning of the service of idols and the service of God in his account of the Britons and especially the Columban monks of Iona is the subject of the second part of this study, to appear in Peritia.

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Jennifer O’Reilly, « Islands and Idols at the ends of the earth : Exegesis and Conversion in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica », in Stéphane Lebecq, Michel Perrin et Olivier Szerwiniak (dir.), Bède le Vénérable, Villeneuve d'Ascq, IRHiS-Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion (« Histoire et littérature de l'Europe du Nord-Ouest », no 34), 2005, p. 119-145.

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Jennifer O’Reilly, « Islands and Idols at the ends of the earth : Exegesis and Conversion in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica », in Stéphane Lebecq, Michel Perrin et Olivier Szerwiniak (dir.), Bède le Vénérable, Villeneuve d'Ascq, IRHiS-Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion (« Histoire et littérature de l'Europe du Nord-Ouest », no 34), 2005 [En ligne], mis en ligne le 13 octobre 2012, consulté le 18 août 2017. URL : http://hleno.revues.org/330

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Jennifer O’Reilly

Department of History, University College Cork

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