25 January 2009

'Our First English Book-Collector'--St Benedict Biscop

Although it seems that today, 12 January on the Orthodox calendar, we in the Russian Church commemorate St Sava, Archbishop of the Serbs, I will put off posting about him until Tuesday, when the Serbs themselves commemorate their patron. It will be a brief post anyway, as I doubt I will be able to come up with anything very new or more interesting than what’s already out there.

Instead, I’d like to focus on an English Saint, our Venerable Father Benedict Biscop (c. 628-690), Abbot of Wearmouth and Jarrow. I won’t give a blow-by-blow account of his life, most of which can be found in St Bede’s Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, as well as a few details in his The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins (Oxford: Oxford U, 1994) (interestingly, St Bede’s first reference to the Saint in the latter volume contains a puzzling error: he claims that St Benedict ‘has already been mentioned’ [p. 200], and yet, a footnote reads, ‘he has not, and no satisfactory explanation exists for Bede’s error here’ [p. 406]). St Benedict Biscop was an Englishman, for whom St Bede in the opening of the Lives borrowed the words of St Gregory the Great about St Benedict of Nursia (The Life of St Benedict, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé [Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993], p. 3): ‘There was a man whose life was holy. His name was Benedict, and he was blessed both by grace and by name. From his earliest years he had the heart of an old man. Precocious in his way of life beyond his age, he did not give himself up to sensual pleasure.’

St Benedict was for some time a thegn of King Oswy of Northumbria, until he made the first of five pilgrimages to Rome. With each pilgrimage, he would introduce Roman liturgical customs, as well as relics, manuscripts, icons, and church furnishings into England. St Benedict was tonsured at the legendary Monastery of Lérins in 666, and having accompanied St Theodore of Tarsus to his see at Canterbury, served as the abbot of the St Peter Monastery there until the arrival of St Hadrian. St Benedict soon founded another Monastery of St Peter at Wearmouth, in Northumbria, and a sister monastery of St Paul across the river Wear at Jarrow.

I have mentioned his habit of bringing ecclesiastical goods from Rome, and preeminent among these goods were books. Charles and Mary Elton call him ‘our first English book-collector’ (The Great Book-Collectors [London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1893], p. 20), while L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson quote the Latin of St Bede’s Lives: ‘innumerabilem librorum . . . copiam adportavit’ (Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Oxford U, 1974], p. 78). J.A. Giles renders this, ‘he brought back a large quantity of books’ (here), but the Eltons give us, I believe more felicitously, ‘[he brought back] a multitude of books’ (p. 21).

At any rate, on his deathbed, St Benedict exhorted the monks ‘to observe the rule which he had given them’, but furthermore: ‘The large and noble library, which he had brought from Rome, and which was necessary for the edification of his church, he commanded to be kept entire, and neither by neglect to be injured or dispersed’ (St Bede, Lives). Indeed, the monk whom St Benedict had appointed abbot of St Paul at Jarrow, St Ceolfrið, had actually enlarged the libraries of Northumbria. According to Reynolds and Wilson:

A distinguished place in English history is owed to Benedict Biscop and his protégé abbot Ceolfrid, who made it possible for a local boy who had apparently never set foot outside Northumbria, Bede, to acquire a breadth of scholarship unrivalled in the Europe of his day and to leap the seemingly unbridgeable gulf which spearated his world from that of the later Roman empire. (pp. 78-9)

The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica concludes its entry—‘He died on the 12th of January 690, leaving a high reputation for piety and culture. Saxon architecture [including stone construction, Romanesque design, stained glass] owes nearly everything to his initiative, and Bede was one of his pupils.’ Percy Dearmer, in his The Little Lives of Saints, concludes his account of St Benedict Biscop:

All that simple wholesome life of the early Saxon monks has long passed away, and black collieries now cover the ground where the monks of Wearmouth once laboured. It has not been all progress since then. Sixteen hundred feet below the surface, in the dark tunnels of the mines, poor little children were toiling for fourteen hours every day when Queen Victoria came to the throne; were wearing their little lives out in misery under the very spot where Benedict Biscop and his brethren had once gathered the children together so kindly, and taught them with so much care. It has not been all progress, but those horrible things came to an end fifty years ago, and now, let us hope, the gentle spirit of St. Benedict can look down kindly upon the spot where once he laboured so well.

It is a sentiment echoed somewhat too by the Kontakion for the Saint from Reader Isaac Lambertson’s Akolouthia:

Though thy monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow were long ago destroyed by the ungodly, the churches which stand there are yet receptacles of grace, O blessed Benedict; and repairing to them with hope, we beg the healing of our infirmities and forgiveness of the transgressions we have committed in our lives.


The Ochlophobist said...

I assume that you have read the interview with Fr. John Nankivell, Bede's World: Early Christianity in the British Isles in the Summer 2007 Road to Emmaus. In this interview, he argues against the popular line of thought that sees Celtic Church / Roman Church in constant and necessary dialectic. As I am sure you well know, this line of thought is popular amongst Orthodox in the West as well. Anyway, I get the sense from your posts on British saints that you are sympathetic to Fr. John's thesis, thus, for instance, seeing the Synod of Whitby as a good thing.

My family happens to have a devotion to St. Hilda, thus I am quite sympathetic to Fr. John's thesis. Plus, there is so much bad information and dangerous literature associated with "Celtic Spirituality" out there - it seems to attract persons who want to view the Celtic Church as antinomian, earthy in a pop mystic manner, anti-intellectual, and so forth (these same folks often view the Orthodox Church at large in these terms). I appreciate your reminders of the great intellectual patrimony of the Church in the British isles.

aaronandbrighid said...

You assume correctly: I read it and, although I'm no expert, I very much agreed with Fr Nankivell's assessment of the issue. There's also a nice little book called 'Anglo-Saxon Christianity' by Paul Cavill, an Old English professor at Nottingham. Although it's put out by Zondervan and to my knowledge Cavill isn't Orthodox, it's very much in an Orthodox spirit, and his conclusions are similar to Fr Nankivell's.

As for the 'Celtic spirituality' craze, I know exactly what you mean about that. My solution has been to stick to primary sources to learn about it. My favourite book on the subject thus far is a bilingual anthology called 'Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery' by Thomas Owen and Gilbert Markus (pub. U of Edinburgh). The texts themselves are wonderful, but more interestingly, the introductory materials and notes are amazing, and very much against the grain of the typical Celtic spirituality stuff, which they seem to be deliberately combatting. I've been meaning to post something from and about this book for a while!