A study of Bede’s Historiae

A study of Bede’s Historiae

By Victoria A. Gunn

PhD Dissertation, University of Glasgow, 1999

Abstract: This thesis examines the historia works of Bede in the light of the influence of genre and rhetoric on the construction of their narratives. To do this it reflects upon the importance of understanding and differentiating between Bede’s immediate monastic audience and the wider Anglo-Saxon one. It also proposes that the motivation behind Bede’s writing was multifaceted and included monastic competition as well as a desire to present Late Antique and Patristic models in a manner readily accessible to his Northumbrian compatriots.

To show the extent of influence of genre boundaries and rhetorical devices this thesis examines his well known historia texts, such as the Historia Ecclesiastica, as well as those which have received relatively less attention from historians, particularly the Historia Abbatum, the Chronica Maiora and the Martyrologium.

The thesis also illustrates the extent of the use of rhetorical devices and textual constructions through the discussion of two case studies. The first looks at Bede’s Northumbrian Saintly Kings; the second, at his Northumbrian Holy Women. The case studies indicate that historical accuracy was of secondary importance to Bede. Rather, they suggest that the dissemination of Christian convention (at the expense of historical accuracy) within an apparently Anglo-Saxon historical framework was Bede’s primary aim.

Introduction: A decade ago Walter Goffart’s writing on Bede as a narrator of Barbarian history forced historians to reconsider their understanding of Bede’s historiae. The comfort with which one might have read Bede’s historiographical writings as those of a consummate and fastidious, if at times quaint, Anglo-Saxon historian was effectively stripped away. Goffart left us with evidence of a hidden agenda and a distinctly uncomfortable feeling that Bede was more of a historical manipulator than we wished to see. Subsequent attempts have been made to challenge parts of Goffart’s hypothesis, but the overall assumption of innocence with which we may have approached and appreciated Bede’s works has been all but lost. The important contributions of James Campbell, Henry Mayr-Harting and Patrick Wormald are products of a learning environment quite different to the post-modern, sceptical University of the 1990’s in which Goffart’s thesis seems incredibly plausible.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Glasgow

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