By Sally Shockro
PhD Dissertation, Boston College, 2008
Abstract: Early medieval readers read texts differently than their modern scholarly counterparts. Their expectations were different, but so, too, were their perceptions of the purpose and function of the text. Early medieval historians have long thought that because they were reading the same words as their early medieval subjects they were sharing in the same knowledge. But it is the contention of my thesis that until historians learn to read as early medieval people read, the meanings texts held for their original readers will remain unknown.
Early medieval readers maintained that important texts functioned on many levels, with deeper levels possessing more layers of meaning for the reader equipped to grasp them. A good text was able, with the use of a phrase or an image, to trigger the recall of other seemingly distant, yet related, knowledge which would elucidate the final spiritual message of the story. For an early medieval reader, the ultimate example of the multi-layered text was the Bible. But less exalted texts also aspired to this ideal, and the source of the trigger phrases and images most often used to achieve this was the Bible itself, a text that became both the early medieval writer’s model and reserve of references. For an early medieval reader, who would have been a monk or a nun, the Bible was more than a document of faith. In the closed and often isolated world of an early medieval monastery, the words of the Bible would have constantly been in the minds of monastic readers, and also would have been the entryway into the world of eternal truth, with each phrase or image in itself a key to the meaning of sacred history.
In the intellectual climate of this world, a monk named Bede, living in a remote monastery in northern England, wrote what is arguably the most important text of the early Middle Ages. This text, the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) (hereafter HE), traces English history from the period of the Roman invasion through the creation of a handful of united, Christian, English kingdoms. Yet this text is in no way a chronicle. Instead it is the story of kings and saints; of the pious and their rewards and the impious and their punishment. For Bede this was a deeply Christian story in which a pagan land was given the gift of faith and of good missionaries ready to establish what became a thriving, living Church.
For many historians, Bede’s HE first and foremost is studied as an early text of history: a description of “what happened” and little else. Medieval exegetes, though, like Bede and his contemporaries, thought this first layer of literal meaning was followed by three others: the moral, allegorical, and anagogical levels. To access these levels we must read as Bede did, with the Bible in mind and with an awareness of the presence of many levels of meaning at almost every point in the text. When read this way, the HE is a minefield of biblical allusions that conflate Bede’s story of kings and saints with the story of Creation and Judgment. When we view the HE through the filter of Bede’s biblical allusions, we can see the English become the new Chosen People of God, and England emerge as the new Holy Land. It is in this reading that I have discovered Bede’s Apocalypticism and his explanations for the way events of his own world were connected to the world to come. Bede wrote the HE, so I argue, to make such a reading possible, and yet modern scholars, despite their knowledge of the power and prevalence of early medieval reading culture, have failed to read it in this way—a way that recasts the early medieval intellectual world as a highly mature and literate culture. It is reading Bede as an exegete would, as Bede himself would, that allows us to reconstruct the rarified and sophisticated religious, cultural, and intellectual worlds of early medieval monasteries.