On the Worth of Béda’s Witness

Saint Bede the Venerable

Ceiling mosaic from the Chapel of St George and the English Martyrs at Westminster Cathedral

Of the worth of Béda’s witness, one would well remember that his childhood overlapped the end of heathendom as the belief held by Anglo-Saxon kings. Though but a babe or young boy, the witans of Sussex, Wessex and the Isle of Wight would all seem to have sat their last heathen kings within his lifetime.  And, if he was indeed born in 672 CE as is widely held, then Béda would have nearly been a man at fourteen winters when the Isle of Wight, the last heathen stronghold, fell to the Christian sword in 686 CE.  Even within his homeland of Northumbria, Wóden’s holiness was, however quickly quelled, rekindled by heathen kings for some months in 633 CE.  Moreover, such speaks only of heathendom as the king’s heap.  As witnessed in sundry penitential, homily, and lawcode, the leavings of the old belief lingered on for many years thereafter amid the churls of the countryside.

It may well be thought then that Béda knew far more about the old belief than any churchman who followed thereafter.  Unlike Ælfric of Eynsham and Wulfstan II of York, who in their homilies De falsis deis, that is Of False Gods, muddled the godlore of the Danes with that of the Romans and Greeks, Béda wrote of the Anglo-Saxon heathen thew as a thing in and of itself.  Indeed, though fewsome and fleeting, the insights afforded by Béda may well baffle nowtidely readers long used to ready word-wended likenings of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian godlore or at least some Interpretatio romana to atoken an English god or goddess with their Norse namesake.

Yet it is this very lack of likening in Béda’s work that speaks to the worth of his witness.   Béda’s betellings of the old belief are what we now might call “matter of fact.” Offhandedly given and as an afterthought to his reckoning of the Christian Easter, the straightforwardness of Béda’s sidetrack into the Anglo-Saxon year was neither written to trothwend, as the Anglo-Saxon kings were now fully Christian, nor to damn, as was the case with those who later wrote against the thew of the Danes. Indeed, that heathendom was within Béda’s living memory yet no longer thought a threat to Christian kingship sets him in a place uninhabited in history by any other Anglo-Saxon author.  No writer before nor after had such freedom as to speak so frankly of heathen belief.   Thus, whilst it is only shared as an aside to his reckoning of the Christian Easter, the heathen lore betold by Béda in his tallying of the Anglo-Saxon géarmæl should, in nowise, be taken lightly.

Anglish Wordhoard
Atoken – identify
Betell – describe
Betelling – description
Churls – freemen, commoners
Fewsome – rare, uncommon
Géarmæl – calendar
Godlore – mythology
Heap – cultus, religion, following
Holiness – religion
Leavings – remanents, holdovers
Nowtidely – contemporary, present day
Thew – custom, tradition
Trothwend – convert
Word-wended likenings – translated comparisons
Winters – years
Witan – council

About Þórbeorht Línléah

Ealdorblótere (chief priest) at Whitthenge Heall of the Ealdríce, an Anglo-Saxon Théodish fellowship. Author of Of Ghosts and Godpoles: Theodish Essays Pertaining to the Reconstruction of Saxon Heathen Belief, Both Old and Anglo (2014). Author of Þæt Ealdríce’s Hálgungbóc: The Théodish Liturgy of Þæt Ealdríce (2015, 2016). Þórbeorht resides in Richmond, Virginia with his wife Eþelwynn and two daughters.
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