The Golden Age of Learning


The last part of the Seventh Century and the first half of the Eighth Century are sometimes described as the Golden Age of early English learning; but it is to the influence of a certain Cilician Greek known as Theodore of Tarsus and his companion Hadrian, a North-African, that this brilliant era owed its inception.

At the Council of Whitby in 664 A.D., the English clergy agreed, for the sake of unity, to confirm to the calendar and other usages adopted by the ecclesiastical authorities on the Continent; and shortly afterwards “the church of the English nation,” as Bede calls it, chose a certain Englishman named Wighard to be their archbishop, and sent him to Rome to be consecrated; but he died in Italy in 665 A.D., and thereupon this Hadrian, then abbot of a monastery at Naples, was invited to fill the vacancy.

He, however, asked that his friend Theodore, a monk in Rome, might be chosen in his stead, but agreed to accompany him to Britain and to stay there for a certain period. This was arranged, but there were many delays; Hadrian, for instance, insisted on waiting four months for his hair to grow, so that he might have it tonsured in the Roman style agreed upon at Whitby, instead of in the Greek fashion customary at his Neapolitan monastery; and later the travellers were held up for months in France owing to various causes.

At last Theodore was enthroned at Canterbury in 669 A.D., at the age of 67, and held the archbishopric until his death at 88, in 690 A.D. Both he and Hadrian were Greek scholars, and so interested were they in the learning of that people that  their teaching Canterbury soon became famous as a school of Greek literature, at a time when Plato, Aristotle, and all the others went almost unstudied in the rest of western Europe.

In many ways Theodore is to be regarded as the founder of the Church of England, for he recognized its bishopric, and distributed them in much the manner now existing, arranging, too, the order of the services and introducing for the first time proper church music.

In his work he was ably seconded by a certain Englishman named Benedict Biscop, one of the nobles of the court of Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria, son of that King Oswy who had presided at the Council of Whitby. This Biscop had given up his worldly possessions and had become a monk; and in 674 A.D., he founded the monastery of St. Peter at Monkwearmoth, now a crowded and rather depressing suburb of Sunderland on the Durham coast. This monastery, by the way, was destroyed by the Danes in 866 A.D., and nothing of it remains; but amidst the maze of poor streets and houses which now cover this whole area there still stands the church of St. Peter, a large part of it which dates from the time of Biscop. The nave, 63feet/19m long, rises on the original foundations, and the west end with its narrow windows is more or less as he left it. The tower, too, belongs to the Anglo-Saxon age, though somewhat later; and inside the church are various fragments of the first building. Also the gravestone of Bishop Tidfirth, who died here in 821 A.D., which was found in the churchyard and is now in the British Museum.

As an offshoot of Monkwearmouth, Biscop also built the monastery of St. Paul at Jarrow, some 6 miles/9.6km to the north-west, on the south bank of the Tyne, between Newcastle and South Shields; and five times making the long journey to Rome, he brought back to these two monasteries an extraordinary collection of rich vestments, pictures, books, relics, and so forth, which he had gathered on his travels. He also introduced Continental masons, glass-makers, and craftsmen to adorn the new buildings, and Jarrow in particular is said to have been made beautiful by their work.

Biscop lived to see Jarrow recognized with Canterbury and York as one of the great centres of learning in the western world. When he lay paralysed and dying, he chose his beloved and learned friend of his, named Sigfrith, as a fitting successor, but the later fell ill also, and in the end died a few weeks before Biscop. It is related that the two old men, desiring to see one another for the last time, were carried into the same room and were laid side by side with their heads on one pillow, and that they wanted to kiss one another but were too weak to do so. It was agreed between them, however, that the new abbot should bed a certain Ceolfrith, and this man was ultimately so successful in maintaining the fame of Jarrow that by 716 A. D., there were six hundred brethren in residence.

He died in that year at Langres while on his way to Rome, and at the time was carrying an illuminated manuscripts as a present to the Pope; and this fine book, made at Jarrow, and known as the Codex Amiatinus, is still preserved at Florence.

Amongst the above-mentioned brethren was the celebrated Baeda, more commonly known as the Venerable Bede, who was born in 673 A. D., at or near Monkton, a village a mile/1.6km south of Jarrow, where there is still a Wishing Well which used to be called Bede`s Well. He was trained from the age of  seven at Jarrow, and there he lived his whole busy life, becoming in the end the most famous of its scholars and teachers.

He is often spoken of as “The Father of English Learning,” and he is known to have written no less than 45 books, dealing with religious matters, history, philosophy, astronomy, physics, medicine, grammar, mathematics, music, and other subjects. His greatest work, however, was his Ecclesiastical history of the English Nation, in five “Books,” which is the source of most of our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon age down to 731 A.D., when it was completed.

This wonderful history, a modern English translation of which may be found in the cheap Everyman`s Library, is of fascinating interest; and though it is full of tales of miraculous occurrences at which we can now smile, it records a mass of events and picturesque anecdote of unquestionable authenticity, and these throw a flood of light upon the manners of the time.

Herein we may fully study the childhood of the English nation, and it may well be a matter of deep satisfaction to us that, thanks to this great old Englishman, our country is far ahead of any other in Western Europe in the knowledge of its early history. Through Bede`s labours it may be said that the English race makes it appearance on the world`s stage in both a more vivid and a more reputable manner than does any other western nation; and at a bound, so to speak, we thus take our place in front of all other peoples.

The story of Bede`s death in the year 735 A.D., is most moving. For some time, although he was not much over 60 years of age, he had been ailing and had suffered from loss of breath; but though he was very weak, and at nights could get little sleep, he would not give in until the book upon which he was engaged had been completed.

He knew that his end was near, and to his pupils he panted: “Learn as fast as you can, for I do not know how long I can last.” Then on 26th May, when he had turned from his teaching to finish the dictation of his book, he said to his young secretary: “take your pen and write quickly,” for his hours were numbered.

The secretary, with tears running down his face, did as he was told, and towards evening the final chapter of the book was all but completed, so that at last the young man was able to say: “Only one sentence remains unwritten, dear master,” to which Bede gasped, “Write it quickly.”

“It is finished now,” said the secretary. “Yes,” the dying man replied, “all is finished now,” and he sank back upon the ground.

The sun was setting, and the hour of the evening prayer had arrived. Bede therefore told those around him to support him, and, raising himself a little, he recited the “Glory to God.” As he reached the last word of the beautiful chant, he passed away.

Today if you go to Jarrow you will find streets of an industrial town where once stood the famous monastery; but in the midst of these streets, there rises the parish Church of St. Paul, originally built by Ceolfrith, the above-mentioned abbot of the monastery. In this church the Latin dedicatory inscription is still preserved, reading: “The dedication of the basilica-church of St. Paul on the 9th of the Kalends of May in the 15th year of King Ecgfrith and in the 4th year of the Abbot  Ceolfrith, the founder, under God, of the said church,” This date, according to our reckoning, is 23rd April, 685 A. D., when Bede would have been a boy of about 12 years of age.

The church has been much restored, and this inscription is now fixed in the wall at the west end of the nave, above the arch of the tower, where it is hard to decipher; but a cast of it is kept in the vestry. In the north porch you may stillsee more than a score of turned baluster shafts, probably from the original screen before the high altar; and in the porch also are some pieces of carved crosses dating from this period.

The walls of the Chancel stand practically as they were in the Seventh Century. The two upright slabs of stone built into the east wall, marking the site of the altar, remain just where they were placed by King Ecgfrith himself at the foundation of the church; and the three windows on the south side, and other features, are of that age.

Near the altar stands a high-backed chair, said to be the actual chair used by Bede; but unfortunately little chips from it were considered in old days to be of service to expectant mothers, and large parts of the arms have gradually been whittled away for this reason.

Bede`s body was buried at Jarrow, but in 1022 A.D., the bones which were thought to be his were carried off the Durham Cathedral where they were reinterred in that part of the building called the Galilee Chapel; and there his tomb is still to be seen. In the Cathedral Library a ring found with the bones is exhibited; and there is also in the Library a manuscript volume of the Gospels which is said in a Fourteenth Century catalogue to have belonged to this great scholar of early England`s Golden Age.

But though these few remaining-his chair, his Bible, his ring, and part of the church wherin he worshipped-are almost the sole relics of his lifetime left to us, his famous history brings his personality vividly before us, and the enthralling tale he tells of the birth of the English nation will be read with pride by innumerable generations to come.