Historical Works of Venerable Bede/Volume 2/Life of Bede/Chapter 9

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The tranquillity of Bede's life, passed, as we have seen, entirely in the Monastery of Jarrow, has left it a difficult task for his biographers to extend their accounts of him to that length which might seem suitable to his reputation and the value of his works. It has been truly remarked that scholars and persons of sedentary habits, though liable to frequent petty illnesses from want of bodily exercise and too great mental exertion, are nevertheless on the whole rather a long-lived race. This rule was not exemplified in the case of Bede. He seems to have contracted at a somewhat early period a complaint in his stomach, accompanied with shortness of breath: "Ita ut," says Malmesbury, "stomacho laboraret ægroque et angusto suspirio anhelitum duceret."[1] An attack of this disorder had lately prevented him from visiting his friend Archbishop Egbert, and led to his writing him the valuable letter on the duties of a bishop, which we have still extant. We are not informed whether the disorder left him at that time, and came on afresh, when it at last killed him; but it is most probable that he enjoyed general ill health during the last few years of his existence. He was ill some weeks before he died, and was attended by Cuthbert, who had been one of his pupils, and after Huetbert became abbot of the monastery. The Christian piety with which he suffered the dispensation which awaited him, has been the universal theme of panegyric. The whole scene of his increasing malady, his devout resignation, and fervent prayers for all his friends, together with his paternal admonitions for the regulation of their lives, and his uncontrollable anxiety to dictate to the boy who was his amanuensis, even to his last moments, are so beautifully recorded in the letter of his pupil Cuthbert, that we shall not attempt here to describe it in other terms.[2]


cuthbert's letter on the death of venerable bede.


"To his fellow-reader Cuthwin, beloved in Christ, Cuthbert, his school-fellow; Health for ever in the Lord. I have received with much pleasure the small present which you sent me, and with much satisfaction read the letters of your devout erudition; wherein I found that masses and holy prayers are diligently celebrated by you for our father and master, Bede, whom God loved: this was what I principally desired, and therefore it is more pleasing, for the love of him (according to my capacity), in a few words to relate in what manner he departed this world, understanding that you also desire and ask the same. He was much troubled with shortness of breath, yet without pain, before the day of our Lord's resurrection, that is, about a fortnight; and thus he afterwards passed his life, cheerful and rejoicing, giving thanks to Almighty God every day and night, nay, every hour, till the day of our Lord's Ascension, that is, the seventh of the Calends of June [twenty-sixth of May] and daily read lessons to us his disciples, and whatever remained of the day, he spent in singing psalms; he also passed all the night awake, in joy and thanksgiving, unless a short sleep prevented it; in which case he no sooner awoke than he presently repeated his wonted exercises, and ceased not to give thanks to God with uplifted hands. I declare with truth, that I have never seen with my eyes, nor heard with my ears, any man so earnest in giving thanks to the Living God.

"O truly happy man! He chanted the sentence of St. Paul the Apostle, It is dreadful to fall into the hands of the Living God, and much more out of Holy Writ; wherein also he admonished us to think of our last hour, and to shake off the sleep of the soul; and being learned in our poetry, he said some things also in our tongue, for he said, putting the same into English,

"For tham neod-fere
Nenig wyrtheth
Thances snottra
Thonne him thearf sy
To gehiggene

Ær his heonen-gange
Hwet his gaste
Godes oththe yveles
Æfter deathe heonen
Demed vvurthe."

which means this:— "'No man is wiser than is requisite, before the necessary departure; that is, to consider, before the soul departs hence, what good or evil it hath done, and how it is to be judged after its departure.'

"He also sang Antiphons according to our custom and his own, one of which is, 'O glorious King, Lord of all Power, who, triumphing this day, didst ascend above all the Heavens; do not forsake us orphans; but send down upon us the Spirit of Truth which was promised to us by the Father. Hallelujah!' And when he came to that word, 'do not forsake us,' he burst into tears, and wept much, and an hour after he began to repeat what he had commenced, and we, hearing it, mourned with him. By turns we read, and by turns we wept, nay, we wept always whilst we read. In such joy we passed the days of Lent, till the aforesaid day; and he rejoiced much, and gave God thanks, because he had been thought worthy to be so weakened. He often repeated, 'That God scourgeth every son whom he receiveth;' and much more out of Holy Scripture; as also this sentence from St. Ambrose, 'I have not lived so as to be ashamed to live among you; nor do I fear to die, because we have a gracious God.' During these days he laboured to compose two works well worthy to be remembered, besides the lessons we had from him, and singing of Psalms; viz. he translated the Gospel of St. John as far as the words: 'But what are these among so many, etc. [St. John, ch. vi. v. 9.] into our own tongue, for the benefit of the Church; and some collections out of the Book of Notes of Bishop Isidorus, saying: 'I will not have my pupils read a falsehood, nor labour therein without profit after my death.' When the Tuesday before the Ascension of our Lord came, he began to suffer still more in his breath, and a small swelling appeared in his feet; but he passed all that day and dictated cheerfully, and now and then among other things, said, 'Go on quickly, I know not how long I shall hold out, and whether my Maker will not soon take me away.' But to us he seemed very well to know the time of his departure; and so he spent the night, awake, in thanksgiving; and when the morning appeared, that is, Wednesday, he ordered us to write with all speed what he had begun; and this done, we walked till the third hour with the relics of saints, according to the custom of that day. There was one of us with him, who said to him, 'Most dear master, there is still one chapter wanting: do you think it troublesome to be asked any more questions?' He answered, 'It is no trouble. Take your pen, and make ready, and write fast.' Which he did, but at the ninth hour he said to me, 'I have some little articles of value in my chest, such as pepper, napkins and incense: run quickly, and bring the priests of our monastery to me, that I may distribute among them the gifts which God has bestowed on me. The rich in this world are bent on giving gold and silver and other precious things. But I, in charity, will joyfully give my brothers what God has given unto me.' He spoke to every one of them, admonishing and entreating them that they would carefully say masses and prayers for him, which they readily promised; but they all mourned and wept, especially because he said, 'They should no more see his face in this world.' They rejoiced for that he said, 'It is time that I return to Him who formed me out of nothing: I have lived long; my merciful Judge well foresaw my life for me; the time of my dissolution draws nigh; for I desire to die and to be with Christ.' Having said much more, he passed the day joyfully till the evening; and the boy, above-mentioned, said: 'Dear master, there is yet one sentence not written.' He answered, 'Write quickly.' Soon after, the boy said, 'The sentence is now written.' He replied, 'It is well, you have said the truth. It is ended. Receive my head into your hands, for it is a great satisfaction to me to sit facing my holy place, where I was wont to pray, that I may also sitting call upon my Father.' And thus on the pavement of his little cell, singing: 'Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,' when he had named the Holy Ghost, he breathed his last, and so departed to the Kingdom of Heaven. All those who beheld the blessed father's death, said they had never seen any other person expire with so much devotion, and in so tranquil a frame of mind. For, as you have heard, so long as the soul animated his body, did he never cease to give thanks to the true and living God, with expanded hands exclaiming: 'Glory be to the Father,' and other spiritual ejaculations. But know this, my dear brother, that I could say much concerning him, though my want of erudition abridges this discourse. Nevertheless, by the Grace of God, I purpose shortly to write more concerning him, particularly those things which I saw with mine own eyes, and heard with mine own ears."

In conclusion, we may remark that this letter of his pupil Cuthbert, by fixing the day of his death on Ascension day, on the seventh of the Calends of June, has enabled us to assign the true year to this event. The 26th of May, (the vii. Calend. Junii,) by reference to Astronomical Tables, will be found to have been Ascension day, in the year of our Lord 735. Immediately after his spirit had departed, the whole room is said to have been filled with a most fragrant odour,—a circumstance recorded on the death of so many of the early fathers of our faith, that we are inclined to attribute it rather to the pious imagination of his companions, than, as some have done, to the agency of open fraud on the part of those who were present.

  1. Gesta Regum Anglorum, I. 2, 23.
  2. See Simeon. Dunelm. de Ecc. Dun. ap. Twysdeni Scrip. X. I. 15, p. 8. Leland, Collect. Hearne, IV. III. 77. Mabilloni Act. Bened. Sec . III.