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Bits of Bede. Or: Why Bede deserves his own museum

The news of the closure of Jarrow’s visitor attraction Bede’s World was disheartening. It was one of England’s very few museums solely devoted to the Anglo-Saxon past and I fondly remember visiting the place several years back (one of the highlights of my visit was adopting Hilda the pig via the animal adoption then still in place). I have always promoted Bede’s World in my lectures and I am happy to say some of my Dutch students visited the place (at their own initiative!) in early 2016. (update: In August 2016, it was announced that Bede’s World will be relaunched as Jarrow Hall (more info here) and rightly so!). With this blog I just want to share one of the many reasons why the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Bede (672/673-735) deserves his own museum: the man’s theological, exegetical and mathematical works are filled with interesting tidbits!

Bede had a wild side!

In a commentary on Matthew 3:4 (“John [ the Baptists]’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.”), Bede reveals that he knew how to cook insects and eat leaves:

“The smallest species of locusts, the kind that John the Baptist ate, appears even today. Having slender and short bodies, about the size of a finger, they are easily caught in the grass and, when cooked in oil, supply meagre nourishment. In that same desert are trees having broad round leaves of milky colour and a honey taste. Naturally fragile, the leaves are rubbed in the hand and eaten. This is said to be the wild honey.” (trans. Trent Foley and Holder 1999, p. 21)

BedeGrylls

The Venerable Bede [left] and Bear Grylls [right].

We don’t know his stance about drinking his own urine, but we may consider calling him ‘Bede Grylls’ from now on.

Bede compared teachers to dogs!

In his commentary on the book of Tobias, Bede noted that teachers are like dogs “because they defend their Master’s spiritual household, wealth, and sheep from thieves and beasts, that is from unclean spirits and heretical persons. … This figure aptly fits them since dogs naturally show gratitude to those who are kind to them and keep a restless watch for the sake of their masters” (trans. Trent Foley and Holder 1999, pp. 64, 74). Bede continues that, just as a dog rejoices “with the adoring wag of its tail … the limit or extremity of the body”, so too teachers rejoice with “the extremity of good work, which is perfection” (trans. Trent Foley and Holder 1999, p. 74). As a teacher (and dog owner), I couldn’t agree more!

Bede.Dogs

Breca the pug (right) reads Kathleen Walker-Meikle’s Medieval dogs (and finding Bede [left] not mentioned!).

Bede knew the right questions to ask!

In his commentary on the book of Genesis, Bede discusses the miracles involved in the Ark of Noah. After discussing the size of the Ark and the duration of the Flood (a full year), Bede notes “that all the things that were done in it [the Ark] or in connection with it [the Ark] were full of miracles of divine power” (trans. Kendall 2008, p. 183). How else, he asks, could eight men feed all of those animals for a year’s time? Where did they store the food? If all those animals had to stay in the same place for one year, how did they keep their health? Surely those were all divine miracles.

Interestingly, one of the questions Bede came up with regarding the Ark dealt with its (seemingly absent) waste disposal system:

“How could the dung and urine of so many living creatures not have made the place unbearable by its stench to the animals themselves, and how could it not rot out the bottom of the ark even though it were very well pitched?” (trans. Kendall 2008, p. 183)

Bede.Ark

Bede and the Ark of Noah © The British Library, Cotton Claudius B iv, fol. 14r

A valid question, mister Bede: what about the poo!?

The things Bede could do with his fingers!

Most of us will be able to count to ten with our ten fingers; Bede, however, could reach 9999, as he explains in the first chapter of his De Temporum Ratione [On the Reckoning of Time]: De computo vel loquela digitorum [On computing and speaking with fingers]. With the pinkie, ring finger and middle finger of his left hand, he could count to 9 (see the ninth-century manuscript image below for instructions), with his index finger and thumb he could make 10, 20, 30, etc. Then, using his right hand, he could make the hundreds, using his pinkie, ring finger and middle finger. With the index finger and thumb he could make the thousands.

Bede.FingerTalk

Bede’s guide to counting to 99. Manuscript image adapted from Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. lat. 1449, fol. 118v (source)

Bede was pretty cool. Rock on, mister Bede, or rather: 5454!

Works referred to:

  • Bede, A Biblical Miscellany, trans. W. Trent Foley and A. G. Holder (Liverpool, 1999)
  • Bede, On Genesis, trans. C. B. Kendall (Liverpool, 2008)
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