George Hardin Brown, the noted Stanford University medievalist and expert on Bede the Venerable, died at the age of 90 in 2021.  He had spent his entire adult life studying the English monk, polymath, scholar and historian and knew so much about the man that he was jokingly called the Bedemeister.

Brown wrote two major books on Bede, a quarter of a century apart. He was in his late 70s when he published one of them, A Companion to Bede, in 2010.

Like Bede, Brown had been an ordained member of a Catholic religious order, serving as an Jesuit priest from 1962 to 1971 when he came to Stanford. He married in 1979, and, when he published his first major book, Bede the Venerable, in 1987, he was 56 and helping to raise a young family.

Indeed, at the end of his third-person author’s biography in that book, Brown noted: “In his neighborhood he is known simply as Austin and Malcolm’s dad.”


Facts about Bede few and far between

Much is known about Brown and available at the touch of a few keys on the internet.  The facts about Bede, by contrast, are few and far between.

Some information is contained in a letter by his disciple Cuthbert reporting Bede’s death in 735 at the age of 61 or 62.  But the main source, thin as it is, is paragraph of six sentences in the last chapter of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed about four years before he died.  Written in Latin, the Ecclesiastical History is his masterwork and the basis of his renown down the centuries as one of the world’s great historians.

Brown writes the Bede “was one of the first and greatest of English writers” who, in modern times, has been called the “father of English scholarship, of English history, of English literature, indeed, of the Middle Ages.”

One measure of this, Brown mentions in passing, is that Bede was influential in what became the widespread use of the birth of Jesus as the dividing time of history, into BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini, the year of the Lord).


The Ecclesiastical History

Without the last chapter of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, we would know virtually nothing about the author.  And without the book itself, we would know very little about the people of the British Isles in the period from the invasion of Julius Caesar in 55 BC up to Bede’s own time.

The work is such an important English cultural artifact that, Brown writes, “When Prince Charles and Lady Diana visited Pope John Paul II in 1984, they presented him with a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.”

Since his time, Bede has been a figure respected and revered by both sides of the religious disputes that have divided British Anglicans and Catholics.

In the 16th century, Catholic priest Thomas Stapleton translated the Ecclesiastical History for the first time into English and, Brown writes, “dedicated it to Queen Elizabeth in hopes of converting her to orthodoxy.”  Meanwhile, John Foxe, the Protestant martyrologist, praised Bede for his knowledge of the Scriptures and his holiness.

Within a hundred years or so of his death, Bede was called the Venerable because of his reputation for sanctity. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII declared him a Doctor of the Church, the only native of Great Britain so designated.  He is considered a saint by the Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal and Eastern Orthodox churches. And he is the only Englishman mentioned in Dante’s Paradiso.


Interpreting the Bible

Although esteemed today as a historian, Bede was also an educator, an exegete, a homilist, poet and biographer, and it was for those roles that he was best known in the Middle Ages.

Among Bede’s nearly forty major works, “the greatest portion…are literary interpretations of Bible books,” writes Brown.  These include commentaries on such Old Testament books as Genesis, the First Book of Samuel, Proverbs and the Song of Songs and such New Testament books as Mark, Luke, the Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse (the Book of Revelation).


“Got so much right”

Nonetheless, Bede’s importance over more than a millennium has been his Ecclesiastical History, his last major work.  Brown writes:

Medieval Biblical exegesis would have survived intact without Bede, but without Bede medieval English history would not have.

His histories not only provide us with data now known only because of him; they also mark momentous advances in the science of historiography….All his education, training, and talent culminate in that History.

Brown writes that the five books of the History trace the history of England and the English people over the previous eight centuries, “deftly” inserting short biographies into the chronological narrative.

Although Bede, the most reliable and practiced chronographer of his age, strives for accuracy about dates, times, and events, he sometimes makes a mistake.  He had to work with a vast quantity of unmanageable, lacunal, and discordant oral and written records, variously dated by memory and disparate regnal and indictional records.  The marvel is that he got so much right and set so much straight.

The marvel, as well, is how a monk, living in a monastery at the farthest edge of Roman civilization, was able to bring together in one place the full scope and huge arc of eight hundred years of a people’s history in a single document.

For Brown, it was the summation of Bede’s career as a writer and thinker.


“Sublime recluse!”

For William Wordsworth, who wrote his own ecclesiastical history of his nation, The Ecclesial Sonnets, published in 1822, Bede was his pathfinder — the author of his roadmap, his model and his inspiration.   “Sonnet XXIII” reads in part:

…… O venerable Bede!

The saint, the scholar, from a circle freed

Of toil stupendous, in a hallowed seat

Of learning, where thou heard’st the billows beat

On a wild coast, rough monitors to feed

Perpetual industry. Sublime Recluse!

Bede certainly was a “sublime recluse,” a history-recording and history-making monk who lived his life in monastic seclusion.


Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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