Bede on the Life of St. Felix

Life of St. FelixIf the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon writer Bede had the chance to rework a Saint’s life, what changes would he make and how would he make it more relevant for his audience?

This topic was dealt with by  Sally Shockro of Merrimack College in her paper, “Sanctity and Authority in Bede’s Saints’ Lives“, which was given at the 32nd Meeting of the Haskins Society. She focuses her talk on how Bede rewrote the hagiographic Life of St.Felix, a work which was done in his younger days as a monk in northern England.

The original Life of St. Felix was written by Paulinus of Nola in the fifth century and tells the story of Felix of Nola, a third century Christian. Felix is portrayed as a devout when he was young, but when his local bishop Maximus fled to the mountains to escape the persecution of the Roman emperor Decius, Felix was arrested and beaten instead. With the help of an angel, Felix escaped prison, and searched for Maximus.  After finding and saving the bishop, Felix waited out the persecution and returned to Nola where he served the local Christian community.

Bede was fond of the poems about St. Felix, and decided to rewrite Paulinus’ Life. While Bede’s version mostly follows Paulinus, he does make several changes that present Felix as a more pro-active agent of Christ. First of all, while Paulinus depicts Christ as having chosen Felix, in Bede’s version Felix is the one who chooses a holy life. When Felix is imprisoned, Paulinus shows that Felix already possessed the strength of Jesus, while Bede has Felix feeling pain and fear but looks to the Holy Spirit for comfort.

As Shockro explains Paulinus’ Felix “did this through God’s help” while Bede’s Felix “did this himself.” In the older Life, Felix even needs God’s help to feed Bishop Maximus some grapes, while Bede just has Felix feeding the grapes himself to the bishop. Bede does portray Felix as being assisted by miracles, but only when an action is needed that is beyond Felix’s ability.

Meanwhile the Felix of Paulinus will begin by calling upon God for help during adversity, but Bede’s Felix will look for his own solution first. Paulinus’ Felix comes across as a “divine puppet” according to Shockro, while in Bede’s version he is “a far more commendable Holy Man.”

Shockro adds that some of the ideas behind these changes to the text were greatly influenced by the writings of Pope Gregory the Great on how people, once they have gained the grace of God, are free to make their own judgments. According to Gregory, people can work with God and Jesus to do good works. The Felix of Bede serves as an excellent example of this notion, and Bede’s version of the Life of this saint would be a far more relatable figure to his audience than Paulinus’ account.

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