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The Times of Bede: Studies in Early English Christian Society and Its Historian.

The Times of Bede: Studies in Early English Christian Society and Its Historian. By Patrick Wormald. Edited by Stephen Baxter. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006. xviii + 293. $78.95 cloth.

The untimely death of Patrick Wormald in 2004 deprived the scholarly community of a brilliant historian best known for his magisterial study of the development of English law during the Anglo-Saxon period. As the volume under review here clearly shows, Wormald was also a leading figure in revising our understanding of Bede and his early medieval English cultural milieu.

The Times of Bede comprises four essays in part 1 ("An Early Christian Culture and its Critic") and four in part 2 ("The Impact of Bede's Critique"). In addition to (and often in relation to) Bede, Wormald deals with Bede's abbot Benedict Biscop, Beowulf, the notion of an English imperium allegedly ruled by an overlord known as its Bretwalda, the tenth-century bishop AEthelwold, and the historical circumstances leading to the building and preservation of the Anglo-Saxon churches at Deerhurst and Brixworth. An appendix on "Hilda, Saint and Scholar" unfortunately lacks a scholarly apparatus.

Most of the nine essays in this volume were originally presented in the form of lectures or conference papers given over the course of the thirty years between 1973 and 2003, and all have previously appeared in print. But the value of their reprinting in this format goes beyond convenience and ease of access, since prior to his death the author provided extensive "additional notes" that bring the bibliographical references up to date and in some cases carry the scholarly discussions and debates forward substantively. Moreover, the presentation of the eight major essays in chronological order allows the reader to trace the shape of Wormald's positions as they developed over time.

In a brief foreword, Wormald himself identifies three themes that run consistently through all the essays. First, Bede's passionate commitment to monastic reform (as evidenced in his late letter to Bishop Ecgberht of York) set him at odds with the aristocratic establishment of early English society. As a result, modern scholars who have relied on Bede for both their data and their interpretive frame have often been misled about the depth of that society's conversion to Christianity, the strength of its continuing engagement with the pagan past, and the crucial role (positive as well as negative) that the nobility played in its ecclesiastical affairs. The second theme Wormald highlights is the need to consider early English developments in light of their continental context instead of uncritically adopting Bede's own patriotic insular perspective. Closely related to this is the third theme, which is Bede's "decisive influence on the self-perception of the English Church and people" (viii). This third theme runs throughout the second part but is especially evident in chapter 6 ("Bede and the 'Church of the English'"), in which Wormald argues that both Bede's vision of Anglo-Saxon national unity and his preference for the term "English" (rather than the more commonly used "Saxon") reflected his allegiance to the missionary vision of Gregory the Great.

Wormald's attempts to unmask and correct for Bede's ideological interests can be fruitfully compared with similar efforts by contemporary scholars such as Walter Goffart and N. J. Higham. Emphasizing Bede's involvement in Northumbrian political affairs, both Goffart and Higham see him as collaborating with one or another aristocratic faction, and they often seem to suggest that Bede's religious language and argument is a deceptive (even disingenuous) cover for his political agenda. Wormald also stresses Bede's concern with economic and political issues of the day, but he sees Bede's interests as running contrary to those of the Anglo-Saxon nobility. Moreover, he accepts Bede's monastic idealism at face value and finds much in it to admire: "Very few historians have ultimately changed a society's whole conception of their past and taught them to see its relevance for the present in a new light, as Bede did. His is great history above all because it is great art" (70). Even so, Wormald says, we should not forget that the picture Bede is painting is just one perspective among many, and in his own time a minority view at that, no matter how influential it eventually became.

Perhaps because several of the essays in this volume derived from public lectures to a general audience, they are remarkably accessible even when addressing highly complex and controverted issues. The reader who knows little or nothing about scholarly debates concerning the dating of Beowulf or the authentication of charters will still be able to follow the arguments here, thanks to Wormald's concise summaries of the fine points of method and evidence. The essays cover a wide range of material, from paleography to archaeology, from England to the continent, and from charters to saints' lives. Noticeably underrepresented, however (though not entirely absent), is evidence from Bede's biblical commentaries. The reader of this volume would hardly guess how much the intensive study of Bede's exegesis has advanced our understanding of his historical writings during the past thirty years.

The scholarship offered here owes precious little to "theory" (critical or otherwise), and Wormald's prose is never any more technical than the argument requires. Nevertheless, his work definitely reflects some aspects of what used to be called the "new history" in that he is just as interested in matters of representation as in matters of fact. Few could match, and no one has surpassed, his technical proficiency in charter-study, his command of the continental evidence, his humanistic interest in institutions of church and state, and his generous citation of scholars living and dead. Fellow specialists have long recognized Wormald as a masterful scholar on Bede, his times, and his influence. Thanks to this fine volume of collected essays, his posthumous reputation in this historical subfield will now endure.

doi: 10.1017/S0009640708000097

Arthur Holder

Graduate Theological Union
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Author:Holder, Arthur
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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