Should history tell of good men and their good estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful and perverse, and himself with greater care pursue those things which he has learned to be good and pleasing in the sight of God.
—Bede’s preface to The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (3)
One of the most interesting aspect, for me, of Bede’s history was the amount of enjoyment I got from reading it despite its rather obvious propagandist leanings. There is something very likable in the man. His effort to make such an early historical record of England is, really, immeasurably worthy. And anyone who begins two out the five parts with an exhortation of “good luck to the reader!” is a friend of mine. That said…
But I neither praise nor approve of him in so far as he did not observe Easter at the proper time (137).
There were aspects that sent me deep into thought and bemused contemplation over the extent to which ‘rules’ and arbitrary customs take over in the determination of someone’s worth or belonging. I had no idea for instance that the question of Easter’s ‘proper’ date was so controversial. The preceding sentences to the one I quote above outlined Bishop Aidan’s copious recommendations. The man could not have been a finer human being as far as Bede tells us, and yet, and yet, Bede will withhold praise of his character over the agreement of a moveable feast?! That seems incomprehensibly pedantic. Worse still because at this time there was open discussion regarding the co-opting of pagan festivals as a way to ease heathens into the ways of the church. Perhaps this merely exposes my own discomfort with the ‘letter’ over the ‘spirit’ that prevails in so many dogmas. But this is the stuff of strife. Viewed objectively, it’s ridiculous, yet deadly.
Nevertheless, Bede spends so much time on this argument that I became fascinated by it. The problem seems to turn on the confusion of calendars (Julian v Gregorian) further complicated by astronomical science which makes following the stars too precise to rely (as the Jews apparently did) on the full moon to mark things properly. Some factions wanted to stick with the Jewish method, but again, this was explained as a temporary device by John the Baptist to ease potential followers of Christ (who were of course mostly Jewish at that time and place) into the fold gently. Wikipedia has a very handy chart that helpfully displays the resulting discrepancies:
|2001||8 April||15 April||15 April||15 April||8 April|
|2002||28 March||31 March||31 March||5 May||28 March|
|2003||16 April||20 April||20 April||27 April||17 April|
|2004||5 April||11 April||11 April||11 April||6 April|
|2005||25 March||27 March||27 March||1 May||24 April|
|2006||13 April||16 April||16 April||23 April||13 April|
|2007||2 April||8 April||8 April||8 April||3 April|
|2008||21 March||23 March||23 March||27 April||20 April|
|2009||9 April||12 April||12 April||19 April||9 April|
|2010||30 March||4 April||4 April||4 April||30 March|
|2011||18 April||24 April||24 April||24 April||19 April|
|2012||6 April||8 April||8 April||15 April||7 April|
|2013||27 March||31 March||31 March||5 May||26 March|
|2014||15 April||20 April||20 April||20 April||15 April|
|2015||4 April||5 April||5 April||12 April||4 April|
|2016||23 March||27 March||27 March||1 May||23 April|
|2017||11 April||16 April||16 April||16 April||11 April|
|2018||31 March||1 April||1 April||8 April||31 March|
|2019||21 March||24 March||21 April||28 April||20 April|
|2020||8 April||12 April||12 April||19 April||9 April|
|2021||28 March||4 April||4 April||2 May||28 March|
At any rate, after much debate and detailed, repetitious explanation of the errors of everyone’s ways but the Church (as defined by St. Paul’s Rome) they come to agreement and can get onto other important matters such as the proper shape of a tonsure. I had to suppress many an urge to exclaim, “ah, come on fellas!” But my ire rose when matters moved to women…oh lord how it does gets old. I’m not even going to get started, but I will say this: I simply don’t understand the obsession with virgins. I also gave up trying to figure out if this bit from Chapter X. On marriage (182) means what I think it means:
Let none be guilty of incest, and let none leave his wife except for fornication
Huh. Okay then. I decided to re-direct. Yes, focus on the good. The notes by Judith McClure and Roger Collins are wonderfully droll in their polite but insisting correction. Something in the tone of their consul to “resist the temptation” to draw such-and-such a conclusion, or correct an “erroneous interpretation,” or “false impressions” given by Bede, left me smiling. My favorite may be when Bede’s phrase “an adequate number of followers” was dismissed with, “that’s a little weak.” It actually became fun to guess whether or not an endnote would be a benign expansion of information or a hilariously understated correction of a gaping error.
Errors aside, the greater difficulty is always in dealing with those who are assured they possess certainty. This week (and it is hardly a unique week in human history) the events in Paris rear the ugly head of doctrine. It doesn’t matter to me that one can argue some are better than others. So long as one is fixed in their precious beliefs, real communication and peace are in serious doubt. Without the intellectual freedom to agree, disagree, or metanoia, we are all in danger. Perhaps that is why I was most deeply moved by this short speech by AEthelbert, king of Kent to Augustine and St. Gregory upon their efforts to convert him:
“The words and the promises you bring are fair enough, but because they are new to us and doubtful, I cannot consent to accept them and forsake those beliefs which I and the whole English race have held so long. But as you have come on a long pilgrimage and are anxious, I perceive, to share with us things which you believe to be true and good, we do not wish to do you harm; on the contrary, we will receive you hospitably and provide what is necessary for your support; nor do we forbid you to win all you can to your faith and religion by your preaching” (40).
Reasonableness itself. Would all of humankind were so civilized.
*photo of purse cover from Sutton Hoo