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Bède le Vénérable

 | 
Stéphane Lebecq
, 
Michel Perrin
, 
Olivier Szerwiniak

Bède et ses sources

Bede, Orosius and Gildas on the early history of Britain

Diarmuid Scully

Résumé

Dans cet article j’étudie les objectifs et les techniques de Bède l’historien en examinant sa façon de présenter la Bretagne romaine. J’analyse comment il utilise et interprète les sources antérieures, spécialement Orose et Gildas. Selon Orose, la conquête de la Bretagne par Rome prouve que Dieu est favorable à l’empire universel de cette dernière. Gildas fait écho à Orose et date la conversion de l’île des débuts du christianisme parmi les Gentils. Bède rejette la vision d’Orose et Gildas d’un empire romain global mais relie la Bretagne romaine au début de l’histoire de l’évangélisation des Gentils. Il dépeint l’archipel atlantique comme une partie de l’empire spirituel du Christ, dont le centre est la Rome des papes et non des empereurs.

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Arts Faculty Research Fund of University College Cork provided research funding for this paper.
  • 2 B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (ed. and trans.), Bede : Ecclesiastical history of the English peop (...)
  • 3 C. Zangmeister (ed.), Pauli Orosi Historiarum adversum paganos libri vii, CSEL 5, Vienna, 1882. Tex (...)
  • 4 M. Winterbottom (ed. and trans.), Gildas : The ruin of Britain and other works, London and Chichest (...)

1This paper explores Bede’s account of Britain’s spiritual and political history under the Roman empire from the time of the island’s conquest to the Britons’conversion1. Bede’s approach to this subject in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (HE) provides an insight into his objectives and techniques as a providential historian2. The paper will consider his selection, interpretation and omission of information and ideas from earlier sources, and in particular the writings of Orosius and Gildas. Orosius’Historiarum adversum paganos libri vii (Hist.), written in the early fifth century, is one of Bede’s most important sources for Romano-British history3. Bede, however, was not the first Insular authority to make use of Orosius. In the mid-sixth century, the British prophet-historian Gildas made extensive use of the Historiae in his De excidio Britanniae (DEB)4. Since Gildas’work is another vital source for Bede’s account of early British history, we will also consider Bede’s response to his reading of Orosius.

Orosius

2God’s extraordinary and continuing favour toward Rome is one of Orosius’principal themes in the Historiae. Writing after the Gothic sack of the city in 410 and attacking those who blame the Barbarians’success on the empire’s abandonment of its traditional gods in favour of Christianity, he claims that since Christ’s incarnation Rome and the world have enjoyed the happiest times in human history. Orosius announces Christ’s continuing patronage of an empire that he honoured by his birth within its borders and enrolment in its Augustan census, indicating his acceptance of Roman citizenship ; “from the foundation of the world and from the beginning of the human race, an honour of this nature had never been granted in this manner [to any other state] [...] our Lord Jesus Christ brought forward this city to this pinnacle of power, prosperous and protected by his will” (Hist. 6 : 22). Orosius surveys a world where Romania – also incorporating Romanised Barbarians - and the Church are coterminous and universal in extent : “The breadth of the East, the vastness of the North, the extensiveness of the South and the very large and secure seats of the great islands are of my law and name because I, as a Roman and Christian, approach Romans and Christians” (Hist. 5 : 2).

  • 5 Y. Janvier, La géographie d’Orose, Paris, 1982.
  • 6 E. de Saint-Denis, Le rôle de la mer dans la poésie Latine, Paris, 1935 ; A. Paulian, “Le thème lit (...)
  • 7 A. Mandouze, “Présence de la mer et ambivalence de la Méditerranée dans la conscience chrétienne et (...)
  • 8 On Graeco-Roman secular and patristic representations of the archipelago and inhabitants, see J. (D (...)
  • 9 Isidore, Etymologiae 9 : 2,103, quoting Eclogues 1 : 67. On Graeco-Roman representation of Britain, (...)

3Orosius introduces this world in the opening pages of the Historiae. He prefaces his narrative of world-history with a description of the known world, the orbis terrarum (Hist. 1 : 2). Building on earlier accounts, he describes the three continents of the known world, Europe, Asia and Africa, and their islands encircled by the waters of Ocean5. The Ancients regard Ocean as a vast, holy, mysterious and threatening element6. Patristic and early medieval authorities identify it with the waters that God “gathered together into one place” and separated from the dry land at the creation of the world (Gen. 1 : 9-10) ; they often view it as a chaotic theatre of spiritual warfare between good and evil7. Orosius locates Britain within an archipelago in north-western Ocean. The Orkneys (Orcades) lie above Britain facing “limitless Ocean”, with Thule “an indefinite space” beyond them. Ireland (Hibernia) lies between Britain and Spain, and the Isle of Man (Mevania) between Britain and Ireland8. Orosius displays considerable interest in Britain and most likely numbers it among the “great islands” mentioned above. The island’s prominence in his narrative reflects Classical and Late Antique writers’fascination with a place they regard as one of the world’s largest and most remote islands and often describe as another world (alter orbis) ; thus Isidore depicts the Britons as “a people situated in Ocean with the sea between as if outside the world. Concerning whom Virgil wrote : ‘the Britons divided from the world’”9.

  • 10 Exameron 3 : 3,16 in C. Shenkl (ed.), CSEL 32 : 1, Vienna, 1896.
  • 11 L. G. de Anna, Thule : le fonti et le tradizione, Rimini, 1998.
  • 12 On imperial Roman proclamations of the defeat of barbarous Britain, the wider archipelago and Ocean (...)
  • 13 Panegyricus de quarto consulatu Honorii Augusti, 24-40. The sources also boast of global Roman rule (...)

4The Ancients believed that the human life was unsustainable beyond the Atlantic archipelago. From Ireland in the west, Ocean stretches into poetic if not literal infinity. Ambrose asks how far that great sea enclosing the Britannic islands pours its waters, which reach places hidden and unknown even in fables10. Beyond the Orkneys to the north, there is only an uninhabitable frozen zone. Furthest Thule - Ultima Thule - lies on the edges of that zone and in the writings of poets and mythographers represents the utterly remote and unattainable11. The Orkneys and Britain and Ireland below them are therefore the last habitable places in the north-west of the known world, a location that invests them with immense symbolic importance in the literature of Roman imperialism. The sources proclaim Rome’s dominion over these islands, their savage inhabitants and wild Ocean – often personified as an enemy of Roman order – and link this dominion with victories over the other edges of the earth in order to demonstrate the empire’s global hegemony12. Thus Claudian boasts of the elder Theodosius’victories from the freezing wastes of Thule, the Orkneys, Britain, Ireland and their seas to the burning deserts of Ethiopia at the southernmost ends of the habitable earth13.

5Orosius too employs victory over Britain to demonstrate Rome’s greatness. He introduces the island into the historical narrative with an account of Julius Caesar’s two British expeditions undertaken some four decades before the birth of Christ. He uses these expeditions to illustrate the violence of human history before the incarnation, dating them to a period when the whole Roman world and its borders were engulfed in war (Hist. 6 : 1-19). Orosius emphasises their bloodiness, the ferocity of British resistance and the hostility of the elements themselves, for storms assailed the Roman fleet ; moreover, he makes it clear that although Caesar eventually defeated the Britons in battle, he did not conquer Britain (Hist. 6 : 9 ; 7 : 6).

  • 14 Cf. Suetonius, Caligula 44 : 2.
  • 15 Hist. 7 : 6, 9 quoting selectively from Suetonius, Claudius 17 : 2. Orosius omits Suetonius’belittl (...)

6In contrast, events in Britain after the incarnation demonstrate the providential tranquillity of the Christian era. Even the depraved Caligula was limited in his ability to do harm ; his “extensive and incredible preparation” to invade the island came to nothing ; “in Christian times, not even an inimical Caesar can break the peace” (Hist. 7 : 5)14. Orosius identifies Claudius, Caligula’s successor, as Britain’s conqueror in the 40s AD. He uses Claudius’reign to illustrate the blessings that the earliest Christian times brought to the world. He points out that St Peter came to Rome at the beginning of the emperor’s reign and from that time there were Christians in the city. Because of the presence of the apostle and other believers, divine grace protected Rome from internal and external violence (Hist. 7 : 6). Orosius says that Claudius’conquest of Britain did not disturb the peacefulness of the times ; “to speak with the words of Suetonius... ‘without any battle or shedding of blood... [Claudius] received the greater part of the island in surrender’”15. He contrasts Claudius’conquest with Julius Caesar’s expeditions :

Let anyone who so pleases today make comparisons regarding this one island, period with period, war with war, Caesar with Caesar. For I say nothing about the outcome, since in this case it was a most fortunate victory, in that case a most bitter disaster. So, finally, let Rome realise that she had part of her good fortune formerly through [God’s] hidden providence in carrying on her undertakings, and by accepting this recognition she enjoys the fullest success, insofar as, on the other hand, she is not corrupted by the obstacles of her blasphemies. (Hist. 7 : 6)

  • 16 On the Roman sources’interest in the Orkneys and their annexation, see Scully 2000, p. 24- 26.
  • 17 Contemporary accounts of Claudius’conquest accord it the same symbolic significance : see the studi (...)

7Orosius, then, uses Claudius’conquest of Britain to demonstrate God’s providential care for the empire. He also uses the conquest obliquely to demonstrate the empire’s universality. He tells us - on the authority of Eutropius’Breviarium - that Claudius not only conquered Britain but also annexed the Orkney islands ; Roman imperium now stretches to the absolute ends of habitable reality in north-western Ocean16. Following his declaration in Hist. 6 : 21 of Augustan Rome’s dominion over the ends of the earth in the North, South, East and continental European West, (Scythia, Africa, India, Spain and Gaul), Orosius’account of Claudius’extension of Roman imperium beyond Ocean to Britain and the Orkneys symbolises the empire’s conquest of the entire known world17.

Gildas

  • 18 N. Wright, “Gildas’geographical perspective : some problems” in M. Lapidge and D. Dumville (ed.), G (...)

8Ideas of universal Roman power and the Atlantic archipelago’s location at the edges of the earth were transmitted to Insular authorities at an early date. They are immediately apparent in the Gildas’De Excidio, the first national historical narrative written in Britain and Ireland. Gildas introduces his narrative with a geographical description that owes much to Orosius and Graeco-Roman ideas about Britain generally18. He describes Britain as an oceanic island situated “virtually at the end of the world” (DEB 3 : 1). And he alludes to ideas concerning its relative proximity to the northern frozen zone by describing it as “an island stiff with icy cold and in a distant part of the earth, removed from the visible sun” (DEB 8). Gildas follows Orosius and others in linking the Roman conquest of Britain with its achievements at the other limits of the earth, thus demonstrating its status as a universal empire. He writes :

The Roman kings, having won the imperium of the world and subjugated all the neighbouring regions and islands towards the east, were able, thanks to their superior prestige, to impose peace for the first time on the Parthians, who border on India : whereupon wars ceased almost everywhere. (DEB 6 : 2)

  • 19 C. E. Stevens, “Gildas Sapiens”, English Historical Review, 56, 1941, p. 353-73 at p. 355 ; Kerloué (...)
  • 20 Historia ecclesiastica 2 : 2-3 (which also inspired Orosius’account of Tiberius in Hist. 7 : 4,7), (...)

9Then, he says, Rome crossed “the blue torrent of Ocean” to Britain. Here, Gildas ignores Orosius’chronology of the coming of Rome to Britain under Julius Caesar and Claudius. Nevertheless, his account of the conquest depends upon the Historiae. According to Orosius’reckoning, Christ was born at the time of Augustus’establishment of the first Parthian peace, which for Orosius marks the beginning of the Pax Romana, the culmination of Rome’s rise to universal dominion and thus the ultimate proof of God’s favour toward the empire19. Orosius explains that one reason for God’s synchronisation of his son’s birth with the establishment of the Pax Romana was his wish to facilitate the rapid expansion of Christianity. Under the universal Roman peace, Christ’s disciples spread the Word quickly, “as they went through different nations... [enjoying] safety and liberty among Roman citizens in speaking and conversing as Roman citizens” (Hist. 6 : 1). Gildas says that Britain became Christian after its incorporation into the Roman empire, writing that Britain received Christianity in the reign of Augustus’successor Tiberius, who defended Christians from persecution (DEB 8). His source for the expansion of Christianity throughout the world in this period is Rufinus’version of Eusebius’Ecclesiastical history, which does not, however, mention Britain20.

10By synchronising the Roman conquest of Britain with Augustus’achievement of world-rule at the time of Christ’s birth, Gildas indicates both his Orosian conception of Rome as a universal empire and connects Britain with the most important moment in salvation history. It is no coincidence that Britain entered the empire at the moment when Christ was born in order to save the world. Reading Gildas in the light of Orosius and Rufinus, we see that God favours the empire, gives it global rule in order to expedite the work of salvation, and allows it to conquer Britain so that the Britons would receive the Gospel immediately once it became available to the Gentiles.

Bede

  • 21 J. O’Reilly, “Gospel harmony and the names of Christ : Insular images of a patristic theme”, in J. (...)
  • 22 Tacitus, Germania 2 : 1.
  • 23 J. O’Reilly, “Introduction” to S. Connolly (trans.), Bede : On the Temple, Liverpool, 1995, p. xvii (...)

11The extension of salvation to the Gentiles is one of Bede’s great exegetical and historical themes. In the Historia ecclesiastica, he traces the conversion of the Gentiles of Britain and Ireland : the English, Britons, Irish and Picts. His opening description of Britain and the wider archipelago (HE 1 : 1) is based upon Orosius, Gildas and other Antique sources, and throughout the work and other writings he emphasises the islands’utterly remote oceanic status21. He also describes the English mission to their continental relations, the so-called Garmani (HE 5 : 9-11). The Ancients considered Germania - like Britain - to be an alter orbis beyond Ocean22. Bede, then, is tracing the conversion of the oceanic ends of the earth, a process that the Fathers, missionaries to the archipelago and Insular authorities including Bede himself believed was foretold by Scripture23.

12Bede dates the conversion of the Britons to the Roman period. He rejects Gildas’dating of the Roman conquest and follows Orosius in describing Julius Caesar as the first Roman to encounter Britain (HE 1 : 2) and Claudius as its conqueror (HE 1 : 3). Bede’s account of the coming of Rome to Britain is largely based on direct quotations from Orosius. Bede omits any reference to Caligula’s abortive British expedition and in HE 1 : 3 repeats in part Orosius’account of Claudius’bloodless victory over the greater part of Britain and his annexation of the Orkneys. Bede provides some further information too. From Eutropius’Breviarium 7 : 19, he adds the fact that Vespasian, in Claudius’service, captured the Isle of Wight. As Bede says, the Isle of Wight is located immediately to the south of Britain. Viewed in the context of Roman imperialist propaganda, Bede’s account of the empire’s victories over the Orkneys, the greater part of Britain itself and the Isle of Wight is an assertion of Roman imperium over the entire Britannic sector of Ocean and the archipelago from north to south ; imperium, but not actual conquest and occupation. Bede never says that Rome actually took physical possession of all Britain : an important qualification.

  • 24 Differing interpretations of Bede’s account of English imperium and its implications may be seen in (...)
  • 25 De Principis Instructione 1 : 1.

13Later in the Historia ecclesiastica, Bede presents the English – and in particular, Edwin, Oswald and Oswy of Northumbria – as the inheritors of Roman suzerainty over the archipelago24. His ideas were to influence later English imperialist thought ; in the twelfth century, Giraldus Cambrensis, a careful reader of Bede and the Classical sources, depicts the king of England, Henry II, rivalling Rome’s imperium over the archipelago by the subjugation of Ireland, Scotland and the Orkneys and command of Britain from its northern to southern Ocean, adding that no-one else is known to have achieved this since Claudius’time25. But Bede’s own purpose is not the glorification of Roman or English imperium. He rejects Orosius’and Gildas’conception of Rome as a literally universal power and their use of British history to demonstrate God’s favour toward the empire. His account of the conquest omits Orosius’contrast between Julius Caesar’s and Claudius’British campaigns, with its assertion of providential care for Claudius’victory. In Bede’s eyes there is only one institution on earth that combines universality and divine favour : the Christian Church, centred in papal and not imperial Rome.

  • 26 Adversus Iudaeos 7 : 7-9, A. Kraymann (ed.), CCSL 2, p. 1355-56.
  • 27 Other patristic writers also use Britain’s conversion to demonstrate the universality of the Church (...)

14Bede’s rejection of imperial Roman claims to global rule is apparent from the opening of his account of Caesar’s expeditions. Most of Bede’s narrative comes directly from Orosius. But his opening lines contain an allusion to Tertullian’s Adversus Iudaeos : “Verum eadem Brittania Romanis usque ad Gaium Iulium Caesarem inaccessa atque incognita fuit” [“Now Britain had been inaccessible and unknown to the Romans until the time of Gaius Julius Caesar”] (HE 1 : 2). What are the implications of this allusion ? In Adversus Iudaeos, Tertullian attacks the universalist pretensions of the Roman empire, points out that there are unconquered nations beyond its borders and declares that only Christ is acknowledged and obeyed across the world. He lists the diverse peoples who acknowledge Christ’s lordship, beginning with Acts 2 : 9-11’s enumeration of the peoples present in Jerusalem at the first Pentecost (a prefiguring of the eventual conversion and spiritual unity of all peoples) and continuing with a catalogue of other nations and territories including “the Britons’places, inaccessible to the Romans but subjugated to Christ”26. By pointing out that Rome has not conquered the entire island, Tertullian refutes its claims to global rule and emphasises the unparalleled triumph of Christianity. Having reached the ends of the earth, Christ’s empire knows no limits : it alone is truly universal27. Reading Bede’s opening sentence on imperial Rome’s first encounter with Britain in the light of his allusion to Tertullian, the meaning of his narrative is transformed. Even as he announces the coming of Rome to the island, Bede limits its power and indicates that Christ and not Caesar will be Britain’s ultimate conqueror.

  • 28 On Bede’s use of Roman dating systems, see M. Miller, “Bede’s Roman dates”, Classica et Medievalia, (...)
  • 29 De temporum ratione 47 quoting Dionysius, Ep. ad Petronium, in F. Wallis (trans.), Bede : the recko (...)

15Bede also exalts the power of Christ at the expense of the power of Rome through his narrative’s chronological framework. He dates Julius Caesar’s consulship to “the year of Rome 693, that is in the year 60 before our Lord” (HE􏰀1 : 2)28. These are the first dates mentioned in the Historia ecclesiastica, and Bede’s use of Dionysius Exiguus’incarnational dating system marks the first use of that system in a major work of history. Bede takes the Ab Vrbe Condita (A.V.C.) dating system, reckoning time from Rome’s foundation, from Orosius. In Historia ecclesiastica 1 : 3 he again uses the year of Rome in parallel with the incarnational year, but subsequently makes the Anno Domini system his principal method of time-reckoning for the rest of the work. Bede’s use of the Dionysian system is more than a matter of convenience, of adopting one clear, straightforward means of calculating time ; it is a demonstration that Christ is the lord of time as well as space. By making Christ’s incarnation his starting point for time-reckoning, Bede demonstrates that his historical narrative is a narrative of salvation history. As Bede observes in De Temporum Ratione 47, Dionysius Exiguus himself devised the A.D. system in order to emphasise Christ’s intervention in history to save humanity. Dionysius, he says, rejected a dating system based on the regnal years of the persecutor Diocletian and chose “to designate the years from the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that the source of our hope might be the more evident to us, and that the cause of man’s restoration, that is, our Redeemer’s Passion, might be more clearly manifest”29.

  • 30 Davidse 1982, p. 691-93 ; Scully 2000, p. 186-98.
  • 31 He states that the divinely ordained Roman peace protected Christ’s disciples from violence as they (...)
  • 32 Chronica maiora 283-86 (following Jerome, Chronicon 179 ; Orosius, Hist. 7 : 6), c. 66 of De tempor (...)

16But a review of Bede’s attitude to the Roman empire in his writings as a whole suggests that he is not hostile to the empire as an institution ; his hostility is reserved for persecuting emperors and those who claim authority properly belonging to God alone30. He believes that God ordained the Pax Romana in order to help spread Christianity31. Like Gildas, he believes that Rome’s conquest of Britain facilitated its conversion. Bede ends his chapter on Claudius’conquest with these words : “He brought the war to an end in the fourth year of his reign, that is in the year of our Lord 46 [43], the year in which occurred the very severe famine throughout Syria, which, as is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, was foretold by the prophet Agabus” (HE 1 : 3 ; Acts 11 : 27-29). Why does Bede insert this reference to scriptural history into his account of the Roman conquest of Britain ? What is its connection with the place of Roman Britain in salvation history ? A glance at his Chronica maiora’s entry for the reign of Claudius helps to explain. Relying on material from Jerome’s Chronicle and Orosius, Bede provides the following information : during Claudius’reign, St Peter went to Rome and held the episcopal throne there, having first established the Church in Antioch ; Mark, who wrote his Gospel in Rome, preached it in Egypt, having been sent there by Peter ; in Claudius’fourth year there was a severe famine, which Luke records (the famine foretold by Agabus in Tiberius’reign) ; in the same year, Claudius invaded Britain32.

  • 33 For example, Origen on Britain in Hom. 6 : 9 on Luke.

17Bede here synchronises the history of Rome and Britain with a critical period in salvation history. According to Tertullian’s Apologeticum 5 : 2, Tiberius accepted Christ’s divinity and forbade the persecution of Christians. Following Eusebius, Rufinus’Historia ecclesiastica 2 : 2-3 quotes Tertullian when discussing the growth of the Church at that time and connects his story with the Acts of the Apostles’narrative of the earliest days of Gentile Christianity. Acts 10 tells how Peter was commanded in a vision to preach the Gospel not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles. Rufinus summarises Acts’record of the events that followed Peter’s vision, having first mentioned Tertullian’s account of Tiberius. He writes that the sunshine of the saving Word illuminated the whole world (a phrase that Gildas uses in the De excidio’s account of Britain’s conversion) and in accordance with scripture, “the voice of its inspired evangelists and apostles went forth into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world [Ps 18 : 5 ; Rom 10 : 18]”. A number of patristic authorities apply this scriptural text specifically to the conversion of Britain and Ireland33. Rufinus himself goes on to describe the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles for the first time, culminating in its preaching in Antioch, where the name “Christian” first appeared (Acts 11 : 22,26) and the prophet Agabus foretold a coming famine (Acts 11 : 28-30).

  • 34 L. T. Martin (trans.), The Venerable Bede : commentary on the Acts of the apostles, Kalamazoo, 1989 (...)
  • 35 On the topos of freezing Britain and its implications, see Scully 2000, p. 167-75.

18When the scripturally aware reader encounters Bede’s reference to Agabus, that reference triggers a whole series of associations for him. It associates the Roman conquest of Britain with the period when Christianity first became available to the Gentile world of which the island is a constituent part. In his own commentary on Acts, Bede points out the fundamental importance of Agabus’time in the history of salvation. Commenting on Acts 11 : 18 – “Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” – he writes : “Here is what we read in the book of the blessed Job : Gold will come from the north, and fearful praise to God [Job 37 : 22], since the splendour of faith first sprang to life in the cold heart of the Gentile world”34. Bede’s words, based on Gregory’s Moralia 27 : 43,71, have a particular resonance for Britain, an island that a number of classical, patristic, papal and Insular texts – including Gildas’De excidio, as we have seen – rhetorically depict as frozen with the cold because of its location in the furthest North-West35. Bede’s entry for the reign of Claudius in the Chronica maiora demonstrates that the preconditions for Britain’s conversion were being consolidated in this period, building on the foundations laid down in Tiberius’reign, in Agabus’time. God’s command to Peter to convert the Gentiles ultimately led Peter to establish the papacy in Claudius’Rome, and it was Peter’s second century successor Eleutherius, Bede says, who granted Christianity to the Britons.

  • 36 “Hic accepit epistula a Lucio, Brittanio rege, ut christianus efficeretur per eius mandatum”, L. Du (...)
  • 37 Hom. 1 : 20, D. Hurst (ed.), Homiliae Evangelii, CCSL 122, p. 145-46. On Bede and papal primacy, se (...)

19In an apocryphal story inspired by the Liber pontificalis, Bede writes that a British king, Lucius, wrote to Pope Eleutherius asking to be made a Christian and that his request led to the conversion of the Britons as a whole (HE 1 : 4)36. Lucius takes the trouble to learn the truth directly from the pope, the successor of St Peter to whom Christ entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt 16 : 15-19). On the basis of this commission, Bede in his homily on the Chair of St Peter follows patristic tradition in regarding the apostle as the symbol and guarantor of orthodoxy and Christian unity37. Peter and his successors in Rome symbolise and guarantee unity and orthodoxy in the Historia ecclesiastica too, where the Lucius story serves to introduce another of the work’s vital themes, namely the link between the papacy and Britain and Ireland, and in particular the papacy’s role in promoting and affirming orthodox Christianity in the archipelago. Bede depicts the Insular peoples either receiving their faith from papal Rome or else having it directed and strengthened from there. His narrative of the initial phase of their conversion shows Pope Celestine sending Palladius to the Irish believing in Christ as their first bishop (HE 1 : 13). An Irishman, Columba, in turn brought Christianity to the northern Picts (HE 3 : 4) while the southern Picts received their faith from Ninian, who “received orthodox instruction at Rome in the faith and the mysteries of the truth” (HE 3 : 4). The English themselves have Pope Gregory the Great as their apostle ; in the language of St Paul, apostolic missionary to the Gentiles, Bede writes that “we are the seal of his apostleship in the Lord” (HE 2 : 1 ; 1 Cor. 9 : 2). And after the conversion of all the Insular peoples, the Englishman Willibrord, an exile for Christ in Ireland, began his mission to the Frisians – one of the nations of the Garmani “from whom the Angles and Saxons, who live in Britain, derive their origin (HE 5 : 9) – with a visit to Rome for Pope Sergius’“permission and approval” (HE 5 : 11).

  • 38 On Bede’s response to Gildas, see M. Miller, “Bede’s use of Gildas”, English Historical Review, 90, (...)
  • 39 On this theme in Bede’s writings, see Davidse 1982 ; G. Tugène, “L’Histoire ‘ecclésiastique’du peup (...)

20Bede’s synchronisation of Britain’s conquest with the famine foretold by Agabus, then, evoking as it does Acts’narrative of the extension of salvation to the Gentiles, prepares the way for his account of the Britons’conversion in Lucius’time and ultimately the Historia ecclesiastica’s theme of the divinely ordained evangelisation of the entire archipelago and the transoceanic Garmani under petrine Roman guidance. But Gildas, as we have seen, precedes Bede in connecting the Britons’conversion with the earliest days of the Gentiles’evangelisation when he writes that Britain became Christian during Tiberius’reign. Linking Britain’s history with the wider history of salvation recorded in scriptural and post-scriptural histories, Gildas wishes his reader to understand that the island’s evangelisation was part of the apostolic enterprise begun in Acts. And this is Bede’s objective too ; Gildas had an immense influence on Bede’s interpretation of Britain’s history, even if Bede did not always think his work was factually or chronologically reliable38. Bede’s objective, in the course of his narrative of conquest and conversion examined here, is to show that the history of Britain is part of the universal and still unfolding history of salvation. By drawing together British, Roman and scriptural history, Bede uses his own historical narrative to illustrate one of the central themes of his scriptural exegesis : the unity of believers across time and space and all other divisions39.

  • 40 Chronica maiora 493, quoting Marcellinus Comes, Chronicon 454 : 2 (cf. Bede, HE 1 : 21) ; trans. in (...)
  • 41 HE 2 : 1, quoting Moralia In Iob 27 : 11,21, M. Adriaen (ed.), CCSL 143B, p. 1346.

21Bede acknowledges that imperial Rome played a vital part in the island’s initial conversion, but he is careful not to give the empire glory that more properly belongs to God. Orosius too mentions the fulfilment of Agabus’prophecy in the year that Claudius conquered Britain and Peter’s presence in Rome during the emperor’s reign (Hist. 7 : 6). But for Orosius the chief significance of Peter’s presence lay in the divine favour it secured for the empire. Not so for Bede. For him, Peter’s establishment of the papacy in Rome secured the spiritual future of the Gentiles and in particular the Gentiles of the Isles, rather than the earthly security of the Roman empire. Bede knows that the western empire has long since collapsed under Barbarian pressure, “and to this day it has not had the strength to be revived”40. He locates Rome’s greatness not in its imperial past but in its petrine present as the capital of Christ’s empire on earth. Compare Columbanus, who tells Pope Boniface IV that the Irish are bound to St Peter’s chair, “for though Rome be great and famous, among us it is only on that chair that her greatness and her fame depend”41.

  • 42 Ep. 5 in G. S. M. Walker (ed. and trans.), Sancti Columbani opera, Dublin, 1957 ; D. Bracken, “Auth (...)

22Bede himself uses the words of a pope, the very pope who initiated the evangelisation of the English, to emphasise that Britain is part of Christ’s universal spiritual empire now established even at the most barbarous and hitherto unconquered ends of the earth. From the Moralia, Bede quotes Gregory the Great’s celebration of Britain’s conversion immediately following the pope’s announcement that God has joined the boundaries of East and West in one faith. Like Tertullian before him, Gregory appropriates and subverts the language of Roman imperialism. He proclaims that Britannia no longer gnashes her barbarous teeth but sings the Hebrews’alleluia, while Ocean has been enslaved and its “barbarous motions, which earthly princes could not subdue with the sword, are now, through the fear of God, repressed with a simple word form the lips of priests ; and he who, as an unbeliever, did not flinch before troops of warriors, now, as a believer, fears the words of the humble”42.

Notes

1 The Arts Faculty Research Fund of University College Cork provided research funding for this paper.

2 B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (ed. and trans.), Bede : Ecclesiastical history of the English people, Oxford, 1969.

3 C. Zangmeister (ed.), Pauli Orosi Historiarum adversum paganos libri vii, CSEL 5, Vienna, 1882. Text and French translation in M. P. Arnaud-Lindet (ed. and trans.), Orose : Histoires contre les païens, 3 vols., Paris, 1990-91 ; English translation in R. J. Deferrari (trans.), Paulus Orosius : The seven books of history against the pagans, Washington, D. C. 1964, from which quotations in the present article are taken.

4 M. Winterbottom (ed. and trans.), Gildas : The ruin of Britain and other works, London and Chichester, 1978.

5 Y. Janvier, La géographie d’Orose, Paris, 1982.

6 E. de Saint-Denis, Le rôle de la mer dans la poésie Latine, Paris, 1935 ; A. Paulian, “Le thème littéraire de l’océan”, Caesarodonum, 10, 1975, p. 53-58 ; A. Paulian, “Paysages oceaniques dans la littérature latine”, Caesarodonum, 13, 1978, p. 23-29 ; J. Ramin, Mythologie et géographie, Paris, 1979, p. 2-26 ; P. G. Dalché, “Comment penser l’océan ? Modes de connaissances des fines orbis terrarum du nord-ouest (de l’Antiquité au XIIIe siècle)”, in L’Europe et l’océan au Moyen Âge : contribution à l’histoire de la navigation, Nantes, 1988, p. 217-33 ; J. S. Romm, The edges of the earth in Ancient thought, Princeton, 1992, p. 9-44.

7 A. Mandouze, “Présence de la mer et ambivalence de la Méditerranée dans la conscience chrétienne et dans les relations ecclésiales à l’époque patristique”, in L’homme Méditerranéen et la mer, Tunis, 1985, p. 507-13 ; J. Borsje, From chaos to enemy : encounters with monsters in early Irish texts : an investigation related to the process of Christianisation and the concept of evil, Turnhout, 1996 ; T. O’Loughlin, “Living in the ocean” in C. Bourke (ed.), Studies in the cult of St Columba, Dublin, 1997, p. 11-23 ; D. Scully, “The third voyage of Cormac in Adomnán’s Vita Columbae and the legacy of Graeco-Roman conceptions of ocean in the North”, in D. Bracken and D. Ó Ríain-Raedel (ed.), Peregrinatio : pilgrimage in the Medieval world, Turnhout, forthcoming.

8 On Graeco-Roman secular and patristic representations of the archipelago and inhabitants, see J. (D.) A. Scully, “The Atlantic archipelago from Antiquity to Bede : the transformation of an image”, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University College Cork, National University of Ireland, 2000, p. 1-83.

9 Isidore, Etymologiae 9 : 2,103, quoting Eclogues 1 : 67. On Graeco-Roman representation of Britain, see V. Santoro, “Sul concetta di Britannia tra Antichità e Medioevo”, Romanobarbarica, 11, 1992, p. 321-34 ; P. C. N. Stewart, “Inventing Britain : the Roman adaptation and creation of an image”, Britannia, 26, 1995, p. 1-10 ; D. Braund, Ruling Roman Britain, London and New York, 1996 ; Scully 2000, p. 7-20, 30-41 et 278-92 ; K. Clarke, “An island nation : re-reading Tacitus’Agricola”, Journal of Roman Studies, 91, 2001, p. 94-112 ; D. Scully, “At world’s end : Scotland and Ireland in the Graeco-Roman imagination”, in E. Longley, E. Hughes, and D. O’Rawe (eds.), Ireland (Ulster), Scotland : concepts, contexts, comparisons, Belfast, 2003, p. 164-70.

10 Exameron 3 : 3,16 in C. Shenkl (ed.), CSEL 32 : 1, Vienna, 1896.

11 L. G. de Anna, Thule : le fonti et le tradizione, Rimini, 1998.

12 On imperial Roman proclamations of the defeat of barbarous Britain, the wider archipelago and Ocean see D. R. Dudley, “The celebration of Claudius’British victories”, University of Birmingham Historical Journal, 11, 1959, p. 6-17 ; V. Tandoi, “Il trionfo di Claudio sulla Britannia et il suo cantore”, Studi Italiani di Filologia Classica, 34, 1962, p. 83-129 ; Y. Roman, “Auguste, l’océan Atlantique et l’impérialisme Romain”, Ktema, 8, 1983, p. 261-68 ; A. A. Barrett, “Claudius’British victory arch in Rome”, Britannia 22, 1991, p. 1-19 ; F. Richard, “Un thème impérial romain : la victoire sur l’océan”, in L’idéologie du pouvoir monarchique dans l’Antiquité, Paris, 1991, p. 91-104 ; C. Adams, “Hibernia Romana ? Ireland and the Roman empire”, History Ireland, 4, p. 21-25 ; Braund 1996 ; A. Ballard, “Quelques aspects de l’imaginaire Romain de l’océan de César aux Flaviens”, Revue des Études Latines, 76, 1998, p. 177-91 ; Scully 2000, p. 7-21 ; Clarke 2001.

13 Panegyricus de quarto consulatu Honorii Augusti, 24-40. The sources also boast of global Roman rule on an east/west axis from India to Britain : Scully 2000, p. 14-15.

14 Cf. Suetonius, Caligula 44 : 2.

15 Hist. 7 : 6, 9 quoting selectively from Suetonius, Claudius 17 : 2. Orosius omits Suetonius’belittling comments on Claudius’victory and account of his near-shipwreck in the Mediterranean en route to Britain.

16 On the Roman sources’interest in the Orkneys and their annexation, see Scully 2000, p. 24- 26.

17 Contemporary accounts of Claudius’conquest accord it the same symbolic significance : see the studies cited in footnote 12 above.

18 N. Wright, “Gildas’geographical perspective : some problems” in M. Lapidge and D. Dumville (ed.), Gildas : new approaches, Woodbridge, 1984, p. 85-105 at p. 111 ; reprinted in Wright, History and Literature in Late Antiquity and the Early Medieval West, Aldershot, 1995, paper i ; N. Wright, “Did Gildas read Orosius ?”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 9, 1985, p. 31-42, reprinted in Wright 1995, paper iv ; N. Wright, “Gildas’reading : a survey”, Sacris Erudiri, 32, 1991, p. 121-62 at p. 144-45, reprinted in Wright 1995, paper v ; F. Kerlouégan, Le De Excidio Britanniae de Gildas : les destinées de la culture latine dans l’île de Bretagne au VIe siècle, Paris, 1987, p. 81-82 ; Scully 2000, p. 102-06.

19 C. E. Stevens, “Gildas Sapiens”, English Historical Review, 56, 1941, p. 353-73 at p. 355 ; Kerlouégan 1987, p. 82-83 ; Scully 2000, p. 114-21. The first Parthian peace was of great significance to Orosius, who saw it as the divinely ordained harbinger of universal peace : he refers to it in Hist. 1 : 1,6, 3 : 8,5 and 6 : 21,29.

20 Historia ecclesiastica 2 : 2-3 (which also inspired Orosius’account of Tiberius in Hist. 7 : 4,7), ed. T. Mommsen, in E. Schwartz (ed.), Eusebius Werke, vol. 2, part 2, Die griechisch-christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderten, Leipzig, 1903-09, p. 109-15.

21 J. O’Reilly, “Gospel harmony and the names of Christ : Insular images of a patristic theme”, in J. L. Sharpe III and K. Van Kempen (eds.), The bible as book : the manuscript tradition, London, 1998, p. 73-88 at p. 73 ; Scully 2000, p. 154-56 ; J. O’Reilly, “Art of authority” in T. M. Charles Edwards (ed.) After Rome : from Rome to the Vikings, Oxford, forthcoming ; O’Reilly, article in present volume.

22 Tacitus, Germania 2 : 1.

23 J. O’Reilly, “Introduction” to S. Connolly (trans.), Bede : On the Temple, Liverpool, 1995, p. xvii-lv at p. xxxiv-li ; O’Reilly, article in present volume.

24 Differing interpretations of Bede’s account of English imperium and its implications may be seen in E. John, Orbis Britanniae and other studies, Leicester, 1966, p. 5-13 ; P. Wormald, “Bede, the Bretwaldas and the origins of the gens Anglorum”, P. Wormald (ed.), with D. Bullough and R. Collins, Ideal and reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon society, Oxford, 1983, p. 99-129 ; S. Fanning, “Bede, imperium and the Bretwaldas”, Speculum 66, 1991, p. 1-26 ; H. Mayr-Harting, “Bede’s patristic thinking as an historian”, in A. Scharer and G. Scheibelreiter (ed.), Historiographie im frühen Mittelalter, Vienna and Munich, 1994, p. 367-74 at p. 369-71 ; N. J. Higham, An English empire : Bede and the early Anglo-Saxon kings, Manchester, 1995, p. 9-73 ; G. Tugène, L’Image de la nation anglaise dans l’Histoire ecclésiastique de Bède le Vénérable, Strasbourg, 2001, p. 70-78 ; O’Reilly, article in present volume.

25 De Principis Instructione 1 : 1.

26 Adversus Iudaeos 7 : 7-9, A. Kraymann (ed.), CCSL 2, p. 1355-56.

27 Other patristic writers also use Britain’s conversion to demonstrate the universality of the Church and the limitations of secular Roman power ; see Scully 2000, p. 68-79. Bede himself is greatly interested in the meaning of Pentecost and he too connects Britain with the universal spiritual unity that its ethnic and linguistic represents ; G. Tugène, L’idée de la nation chez Bède le Vénérable, Paris, 2001, p. 313-29, cf. p. 55-57.

28 On Bede’s use of Roman dating systems, see M. Miller, “Bede’s Roman dates”, Classica et Medievalia, 31, 1970, p. 239-52.

29 De temporum ratione 47 quoting Dionysius, Ep. ad Petronium, in F. Wallis (trans.), Bede : the reckoning of time, Liverpool, 1999, p. 126 ; Latin text in C. W. Jones (ed.), CCSL 123B, Turnhout, 1977, p. 427. On Bede’s spiritual understanding of time, see J. Davidse, “The sense of history in the works of the Venerable Bede”, Studi Medievali, 23, 1982, p. 647-95 at 652-73.

30 Davidse 1982, p. 691-93 ; Scully 2000, p. 186-98.

31 He states that the divinely ordained Roman peace protected Christ’s disciples from violence as they were about to preach wherever in the world they wished to go for the sake of the Word, D. Hurst (ed.), In Lucam I, ii, 1, CCSL 120, Turnhout, 1960, p. 45.

32 Chronica maiora 283-86 (following Jerome, Chronicon 179 ; Orosius, Hist. 7 : 6), c. 66 of De temporum ratione, C. W. Jones (ed.), CCSL 123B, Turnhout, 1977.

33 For example, Origen on Britain in Hom. 6 : 9 on Luke.

34 L. T. Martin (trans.), The Venerable Bede : commentary on the Acts of the apostles, Kalamazoo, 1989, p. 107-08 ; Latin text in M. W. L. Laistner (ed.), CCSL 121, Turnhout, 1983, p. 56.

35 On the topos of freezing Britain and its implications, see Scully 2000, p. 167-75.

36 “Hic accepit epistula a Lucio, Brittanio rege, ut christianus efficeretur per eius mandatum”, L. Duchesne (ed.), Le Liber Pontificalis : texte, introduction et commentaire, Paris, 1886, t. 1, p. 136. Little is known about the origins of British Christianity ; W. H. C. Frend, “The christianisation of Roman Britain”, in M. W. Barley and R. P. C. Hanson (ed.), Christianity in Britain, 300-700, Leicester, 1968, p. 37-49 ; A. C. Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to A. D. 500, London, 1981.

37 Hom. 1 : 20, D. Hurst (ed.), Homiliae Evangelii, CCSL 122, p. 145-46. On Bede and papal primacy, see J. M. Sarabia, “La romanidad de S. Beda el Venerable”, Estudios Ecclesiasticos, 14, 1935, p. 51-74 ; M. T. A. Carroll, The Venerable Bede : his spiritual teachings, Washington, D.C., 1946, p. 84-94.

38 On Bede’s response to Gildas, see M. Miller, “Bede’s use of Gildas”, English Historical Review, 90, 1975, p. 241-61 ; W. Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History, A.D. 550-800, Princeton, 1988, p. 299-303 ; Scully 2000, p. 176-225.

39 On this theme in Bede’s writings, see Davidse 1982 ; G. Tugène, “L’Histoire ‘ecclésiastique’du peuple anglais : réflexions sur le particularisme et l’universalisme chez Bède”, Recherches Augustinennes, 17, 1982, p. 129-72 ; O’Reilly 1995, p. xxxviii-ix ; Tugène 2001.

40 Chronica maiora 493, quoting Marcellinus Comes, Chronicon 454 : 2 (cf. Bede, HE 1 : 21) ; trans. in Wallis 1999, p. 222.

41 HE 2 : 1, quoting Moralia In Iob 27 : 11,21, M. Adriaen (ed.), CCSL 143B, p. 1346.

42 Ep. 5 in G. S. M. Walker (ed. and trans.), Sancti Columbani opera, Dublin, 1957 ; D. Bracken, “Authority and duty : Columbanus and the primacy of Rome”, Peritia, forthcoming. The comments of Pope Leo and Prosper of Aquitaine (who records the papal connection with the origins of Irish Christianity) on the extension of the Church beyond the empire are also apposite ; T. M. Charles-Edwards, “Palladius, Prosper and Leo the Great : mission and primatial authority”, in D. Dumville (ed.), Saint Patrick, A.D. 493-1993, Woodbridge, 1993, p. 1-12 ; T. M. Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, Cambridge, 2000, p. 202-214.

Auteur

Department of History, University College Cork

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