In order to examine the perspective and purpose of Bede’s account of Augustine’s mission as described in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, it is imperative to critically consider the motives and cognitive framework working to inform the Historia’s author Bede. However, this task in itself proves challenging, as nearly everything that is known of Bede’s life is given in a limited amount of conscientiously crafted autobiographical remarks in the last chapter of the Historia.
From this information it can be gathered that Bede was born in 673 and had lived at a monastery in Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, in Northumbria, from the age of seven. In his Historia, Bede is notorious for being impartial and even-handed with his recounts of English history, mentioning almost everyone positively and with compliments liberally dispersed throughout.
When read in light of his monastic background, it becomes enticing to write Bede off as a secluded monk, recording his Historia aloof and distant from political involvement and ambitions outside the walls of his monastery. However, to assume that Bede was in some way a disinterested observer of the events he describes would be to misjudge Bede’s role as an active participant in the conversion process of non-Christian English peoples- a process that Bede writes about while disguising his involvement through measured neutrality and reserve.
Though Bede wrote on the conversion process as it had begun from Augustine’s mission some 130 years before the time of his writing, Bede never offers the reality that the mission of conversion was continuous into his own day, and that he as a devout Christian monk took active part in, albeit in written word. Therefore, in consideration of the ways that Bede had chosen to depict the Augustinian mission, the Historia can be taken not only as a record of the conversion of English peoples, but also as “a crucial part of the conversion process, showing by example the rectitude of the Christian message. ”
Speaking in broader terms of the Historia and its ecclesiastical nature, Bede was motivated to write about the ways in which the order and unity of the English Church had been achieved, simultaneously interweaving British and Anglo-Saxon history with that of the church to create the effect of the two being definitively bound in the same identity. To these ends Bede relies heavily on intentional omission and inventional rhetoric, as he would have employed these tactics with a utilitarian perspective of his purpose, allowing him to morally justify distorting truths as long as it was done in the name of furthering Christian objectives. To Bede, the end in view was the conversion of the English and the banishment of English paganism from those shores, a process which was still ongoing in his own day. ” As a result of his preexisting perspectives as a Christian theologian, Bede largely ignores the non-Christian past as well as the characteristics of pagan religions despite the frequent reference to non-Christian Britons and Anglo-Saxons throughout the Historia.
The treatment of non-Christian peoples and their religion within Bede’s account of the Augustinian mission, (and especially of Augustine’s meeting of Anglo-Saxon king ? thelbert, which will be discussed later on), is therefore fitting considering that it would be counteractive to Bede’s purpose if he were to “inform readers of the religion(s) [he was] certain were in error and which [the Church was] determined to destroy.
Likewise, because Bede had viewed Britons as erroneous peoples, his depreciation of their role within the context of an ecclesiastical telling of English history suggests that Bede “expected his English, Northumbrian audience to share in his own low regard, and to be comfortable with a history that accorded them little moral value and marginalized their role. ” Perhaps if the threat that paganism had for Christianity had been eliminated by the time of Bede’s writing, the Historia might not have treated non-Christian peoples and their past with such deliberate silence.
However, the fact that these descriptions are withheld throughout the Historia’s account of Augustine’s mission and the subsequent conversion process is indicative itself of contemporary anxieties of Bede’s time in regard to the danger that pagan religions had posed against the greater purpose of Christian conversion and the salvation of English souls. Upon close reading of Augustine’s mission in the Historia ecclesiastica, one may notice that Bede is not just interested in relating to his audience an English history underpinned by Christian identity, but in fashioning a coherent English history underpinned by a particular Christian identity.
Though Bede portrays the English peoples’ history as “a national history of salvation organized around the triumph of Christianity and its beneficent effects,” he nevertheless overlooks the existence of Romano-British Christianity already present in England prior to the Augustinian mission, albeit acknowledging its existence in the short mention of King ? thelbert’s Christian wife, her bishop Liudhard, and the Christian church of St. Martin. Though Bede admits that ? helbert had some knowledge about the Christian religion due to his wife, he nevertheless depicts ? thelbert as ignorant and superstitious upon his meeting with Augustine once the mission had arrived in Kent. The Historia tells that ? thelbert “took care that they should not meet in any building, for he held the traditional superstition that, if they practiced any magic art, they might deceive him and get the better of him as soon as he entered. Considering that ? thelbert had already been living with his Christian wife and her bishop, his fear of Christian magic seems questionable.
For this reason, this episode within Bede’s account of Augustine’s mission is most likely embellished, and better serves as an example of Bede’s inventional rhetoric and underlying motives rather than a true factual account of Augustine’s meeting with ? thelbert. The uestions that remain, however, are why Bede had intentionally downplayed the Anglo-Saxon king’s knowledge of Christianity, and why had Bede not spent more time explaining the matter and nature of the Romano-British Christianity that had predated Augustine’s mission? What may be indicated by the little attention the Historia devotes to preexisting Christianity in England is that, “[Bede] saw the English church as a whole deriving initially and in its entirety from Rome via the Augustinian mission of 597, then sustained and reinforced by later contacts.
What this means in terms of Bede’s purpose and perspective then is that acknowledging pre-Augustinian Christianity would have conflicted with his intentions to narrate a unified English history that hinged upon the divine arrival of Christianity directly from Rome, with Augustine and Pope Gregory as the heroes of that narrative. Expanding upon Christianity in England before 597 would have disrupted Bede’s narrative, and perhaps even more crucial to Bede, it would have discredited the myth of Pope Gregory’s divinely preordained mission to evangelize the English people.
As a devout Christian monk who wished to portray the history of the English people and the English church as owing its salvation directly from Rome, Bede’s perspective was most definitely informed by his reverence for Pope Gregory, the pope who had commissioned the Augustinian mission. Bede knew that Gregory was a doctor of the Church, (a title Bede would later earn himself), and would have studied Gregory’s life and works extensively from the well-endowed library at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow.
Not surprisingly, when relating the narrative of the Augustinian mission in his Historia, Bede recounts the mythic episode of Gregory’s decision to send a mission to evangelize the English, as told in the The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great. The Life tells that after meeting some English boys in Rome and being inspired by their appearance, Gregory, “through the Spirit of God and with the incomparable discernment of his inward eye, foresaw and made provision for our [the English] conversion to God. Due to Gregory’s conviction to bring England into the Christian fold, by the 8th century, Gregory had attained the status of the Anglo-Saxon’s ‘own’ pope.
This appreciation of Gregory would have no doubt led Bede to treat him with special esteem regarding the first mission to England in the Historia, as Bede also repeats in chapter xxiii, “the myth that England, or even Northumbria, occupied a special place in Gregory’s consciousness and in the history of his papacy, preordained and miraculously foretold. Given the magnitude of being the Father of the English church, it is hardly likely that Bede would contradict Gregory’s convictions in any shape or form. For example, as shown in his correspondence with Augustine, Gregory derives his understanding of Paganism from how it was depicted in the Bible and in writings from the ancient world. In fact, living in Rome in 597, Gregory would have known very little about the actual state of religion in England when he sent Augustine on his mission.
Bede on the other hand, as an Anglo-Saxon historian living and writing in the early 8th century, would have had additional knowledge on the characteristics of Anglo-Saxon nonChristian religions that Gregory would not have known about. Though regardless of his greater historical knowledge on the religious and political situation in England on the eve of Augustine’s arrival, Bede declines to correct Gregory’s misconceptions, allowing an inaccurate historical portrait to be painted.
However, what can be gathered from this discrepancy is a glimpse of Bede’s well-disguised purpose in writing on the Augustinian mission. Namely, that the Pope in Rome had solely been the uniting force bringing Christianity to England, and the forgoing of the whole truth on the basis of papal authority and strengthening the power behind English conversion. The purpose and perspective in Bede’s account of Augustine’s mission is far from straightforward and can often be obscured by his crafty use of unassuming neutrality and inventional probability, as well as by our lack of supporting early medieval ources.
Ultimately, what was of most concern to Bede as a reverent 8th century Christian monk was the infallible authority of the papal seat in Rome, and the ends to which non-Christian English religions would be eradicated from the shores of a divinely chosen England. What was of most concern to Bede as a historian, dovetailing with his monastic dispositions, was the unification of English history under a single Christian narrative, but a specific narrative that works for the cause of bolstering the legitimacy of papal paramouncy and Christian sanctity in the face of a present pagan threat.