Friday 25 May 2012

The Venerable Bede and the Blink of an Eye

Pugin's Bede at St Augustine's, Ramsgate

The Venerable Bede, one of medieval Europe's greatest scholars, is commemorated on 25 May. He actually died on the 26th, but as that's the same day as St Augustine of Canterbury (and isn't that a nice coincidence?), he gets his own feast today. Everyone loves Bede and the internet is full of information about him, so I don't have much to contribute; but there's one story of his which never gets tired, however many times you read it.

When King Edwin of Northumbria was considering converting to Christianity in 627, he took council with his men, and one of them told him:

"Þyslic me is gesewen, þu cyning, þis andwearde lif manna on eorðan, to wiðmetenesse þære tide þe us uncuð is, swylc swa þu æt swæsendum sitte mid þinum ealdormannum 7 þegnum on wintertide, 7 sie fyr onælæd 7 þin heall gewyrmed, 7 hit rine 7 sniwe 7 styrme ute; cume an spearwa 7 hrædlice þæt hus þurhfleo, cume þurh oþre duru in, þurh oþre ut gewite. Hwæt he on þa tid, þe he inne bið, ne bið hrinen mid þy storme þæs wintres; ac þæt bið an eagan bryhtm 7 þæt læsste fæc, ac he sona of wintra on þone winter eft cymeð. Swa þonne þis monna lif to medmiclum fæce ætyweð; hwæt þær foregange, oððe hwæt þær æfterfylige, we ne cunnun. Forðon gif þeos lar owiht cuðlicre 7 gerisenlicre brenge, þæs weorþe is þæt we þære fylgen."

"O king, it seems to me that this present life of man on earth, in comparison to that time which is unknown to us, is as if you were sitting at table in the winter with your ealdormen and thegns, and a fire was kindled and the hall warmed, while it rained and snowed and stormed outside. A sparrow came in, and swiftly flew through the hall; it came in at one door, and went out at the other. Now during the time when he is inside, he is not touched by the winter's storms; but that is the twinkling of an eye and the briefest of moments, and at once he comes again from winter into winter. In such a way the life of man appears for a brief moment; what comes before, and what will follow after, we do not know. Therefore if this doctrine [Christianity] offers anything more certain or more fitting, it is right that we follow it."

This is from the Old English translation of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, made in the ninth century; you can read a modern English translation of the Latin original here (II:13). We don't know the name of this counsellor of Edwin, if indeed he ever existed and this is not merely Bede adapting a common homiletic idea which seemed appropriate for the situation. But whether it was Bede or the anonymous ealdorman, he gave voice to an idea which is thoroughly typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry, both Christian and secular - and to a description of the human condition which is no less moving today.

Bede depicted on the ceiling of Westminster Cathedral

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