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5.0 out of 5 stars The Only Reliable AND BEST History for the Origins of the English People and Language, October 8, 2011
This review is from: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; The Greater Chronicle; Bede's Letter to Egbert (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
What is it about this book that makes it so fascinating and has made it enduringly popular ever since it was first written? I'm not sure. It must have some kind of magical qualities to it. I can only speak for myself - it chronicles the origin of the language and culture that I am part of and live in - English. Actually, it is the only book that does this with any reliability. Bede is the only substantial source for early (pre-8th Century) England - i.e. England, not Britain - in other words, the English and not the British (i.e. Welsh, Cornish, etc.) The die of English culture and language was cast in the "Dark" Ages that have only Bede as their historian (unless you want to give a nod to the British rhetorician Gildas.) It is utterly fascinating to me, and has been to partakers of English civilization all through the years, as to where the English come from and where the pillars of our civilization, character and customs come from. (By English, I include all English-speaking lands, like Canada, NZ, etc.) In spite of there having always been and there always will be doubt and dispute over the origins of the English, there is only one reliable witness, and he is Bede. So, what does he say about our origins? What he himself says is much more rich and refined than what we often come across in the modern history books. I think, given that the English were predominately an oral culture, and there having been only 300 years between the Anglo-Saxon (etc) invasion and the time of Bede's writing, that the main outlines of the event were most definitely well remembered. Just think about the colonization of the United States for a minute. Do you really think that if there were no writing until around 1800 that the colonists would have forgotten how their ancestors came to America, or from where? To be sure the specifics would be mostly (but not utterly) forgotten, but the main outlines would be preserved wonderfully. The story is pretty clear. The Roman legions leave. Following late Roman practice, the Romano-Britons hire Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to defend them from their Pitcish foes. The mercenaries stay (as they often do in history! Take France for example!) The Anglo-Saxons were given land on the South-East shores of Britain to live in. They, being the armed military force of the land, naturally take power from the impotent civilian leaders, and impose their language and pagan religion on the British-Christian people. More Angles and Saxons (etc) speaking the same Germanic language come over to Britain to find employment under the Saxon Kings of Britain and land expropriated from the Waels (Welsh - i.e. British.) Local British people find that taking on an Anglo-Saxon identity, including language, dress, customs and religion, is the obvious thing to do (just as in Egypt it wasn't long before the Arabic language and Arab ways overcame local Egyptian Coptic ones.) Then, after about 150 years of this, aping their Frankish co-linguistic (Germanic speaking) brothers over in the continent, English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) kings take an interest in Christianity, the Latin language and the more advanced continental (Roman-civilization based) customs and ways. Thus, they invite literate, scholarly continental and Irish (i.e. from the pan-Celtic, British [but Latin-using] church) missionaries to come and teach them the civilized, Christian - Roman literature and ways of life. So, just as was the case for the Romans themselves, the conquerors (in this case the English) were conquered (in terms of culture, civilization and literature) by those they had conquered. To me the story makes plenty of sense, and was written by Bede at a time when lots was remembered orally, in documents, and in place-references.
It is really quite fascinating to read about ANYTHING at all that was happening in ancient England, and to have so much information at our disposal, even if much of it is about the peaceful happenings of life amongst clerics and it is rather superstitious. To hear anything from that time is amazing, and actually the stories are highly entertaining and teach us about the character and ways of our English forebears (regardless of our genetic ancestry, since few English speakers proportionally today are Anglo-Saxon by ancestry.) The motif of putting small bits of some holy object touched by a dead good person having healing qualities is come back to often by Bede. There are plenty of battles. Christianity was not something allergic to war at this time. To Bede, Christianity is far more triumphal and brave than his people's traditional paganism. We can even see back through Bede to pagan customs and ways. The fact that pagan high priests could not carry arms or ride horses is interesting, for instance, whereas Christian priests and bishops could ride chargers and fight in wars, and did so do! Priests and bishops married, had children, ruled large tracts of land in some cases, and were highly educated in Latin literature, and often quite brave in the wars. They were the secular clergy. It wasn't until the later Cluniac reforms that priests and bishops had to become celibate, world-renouncing monks. The philosophical debates he includes regarding church issues are quite interesting and entertaining in terms of their rhetorical and logical style if not for any practical interest, and they show us that the Old English were doing plenty more than walking around thumping each other with swords and battle-axes. In fact, one gets the impression that life was relatively peaceful at the time. There are so many interesting people we get to meet through Bede's book. I am particularly impressed with how long many of them lived. We think that people long ago lived short nasty, brutish lives, but then how do all those people living into their 80s and 90s in his book fit into this paradigm?
Bede's book was translated into Old English in his own day, and has been read ever since with eager eyes by every generation of English people fascinated to learn about their ancestors/forebears who founded their language, culture and civilization. I guess the term for this is atavism. So, if you are catching any of that atavistic bug, this book is absolutely a requirement, and a wonderful remedy! It is not to be missed by anyone with any kind of interest in English heritage. In fact, it is the primary fountainhead of this heritage. Enjoy it! I hope you are enthralled by Bede's book as much as I was when I read it! Actually, I think it is pretty much a must read for every intellectual English speaker. Our concepts of good and bad, right and wrong, and our bent for bookishness and education, as partakers of Anglic civilization, seem to all be present in the highest degree in this English proto-civilization Bede describes. There is plenty of mystery and supernatural lore here, and you can see the influence the book had on Tolkien's world. There is even one section lifted right out of Bede and put into chapter II of Lord of the Rings, which the translator of this book has identified for us in the notes. Bede's main purpose is didactic, to teach virtue to the reader, particularly to people in leadership positions. I think in this respect it is just as valid today as it has ever been. It is a highly civilized education in management, diplomacy, rhetoric, philosophy, story-telling, ethics, and even metaphysics. While Bede never intended to compete with The Book (The Bible) he did apparently want to write a sequel to the Bible - carrying on the story of the Bible into England, and up to his times. That's pretty darn ambitious! And, in spite of my stomach turning at the idea of monasticism, and his obsession with the date of Easter making me laugh - really laugh, like out loud laugh! - I have to hand it to him that he has created a magical world of the highest order, full of good and evil warriors and kings, chanting monks and abbesses, and holy men of great power. Why people read mere modern fantasy fiction and not this stuff is far beyond me! Maybe they just need to give this stuff a chance, especially when they learn that modern fantasy is basically based on this stuff! I could go on and on in my praises, but just buy the darn book, and let it speak for itself. What a book! Good job on the translator's part too, I might add - clear, bright prose! Like Bede's beautiful Latin style! I think it compares very favourably with any other Latin classic. Even Alfred the Great considered it one of the four books most needed to be known.
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Initial post: Sep 28, 2013 6:12:28 PM PDT
B.A. Green says:
My lord, you certainly said a mouth full! Thanks, as you truly sold the work to me. It is satisfying to see another individual that thinks the way I do, at least concerning knowledge, appreciation of the past, of ancestors, and so on. Funny about your comments concerning what some read today as entertainment. I never buy fiction because the truth of our western heritage is so very much more fulfilling; especially since there exists much truth in the historical record of humankind. I would have used the word 'mankind,' yet someone might cry that I am not being politically correct. Now who's laughing hard?
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