By Caitlin Callaghan
PhD Dissertation, Cornell University, 2009
Abstract: This dissertation concerns the following question: why and how does Bede minimize conflict in his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum? As this thesis will attempt to demonstrate, the answer to this question lies in what might be described as Bede’s “rhetoric of reticence”.
In the course of the Historia, Bede articulates an overall message of Christian unity, in that he implicitly argues that if the Christian Anglo- Saxons want salvation in the eternal world, then they must be committed to a solid Christian faith and unity with the universal Church in the temporal world. The term “implicit” denotes the key to Bede’s comprehensive narrative approach—he never expressly states that a commitment to faith and unification are paramount to his Anglo-Saxon audience, yet the signa that reveal this essential argument lie throughout his text.
In order to prove that this message and argument exist, I will first explore Bede’s use of parable-like vignettes, which provide one narrative example of how Bede employs discretion throughout his text, and thus how he places the onus of interpretation on his readers. Second, I will consider Bede’s avoidance of ethnic divisiveness through his narrative treatment of non-English “others”, in particular how this mode of narrative informs his message of Christian unity.
Third, I will examine Bede’s discretion in depicting Christian and pagan violence, and the ways in which these depictions underscore his “rhetoric of reticence” when he describes incidents of conflict. Fourth, I will observe how Bede emphasizes a Christian way of living that promotes unity in the secular world while looking ahead to the eternal one; more specifically, I will compare this Bedan emphasis to Augustine’s concept of the “tranquility of order”.
The dissertation concludes with two appendices, the first of which offers roughly contemporaneous Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse texts as narrative counterpoints to the Historia with regard to depictions of conflict, terminology, and supernatural foes. The second appendix examines some of the Anglo-Saxon kings’ law-codes and the ways in which those texts also differ from the Historia in terms of language and narrative emphasis, as well as their articulation, if any, of Christian unity.