It is a matter of some disappointment to me that what are arguable the greatest pre-Coppernican scientific writings of the western world remain stubbornly locked away in early medieval Latin. I refer of course, to the writings of the Venerable Bede. Historical and theological scholars seem uninterested or ill-equipped for the technical vocabulary involved, and my own pre-school boy Latin sadly isn’t up to the task. The Latin scientific works are here if you’d like to have a go yourself.*
Today is St Bede’s day in the western calendar, so to celebrate, I’ll attempt to summarise his scientific writings mixed in with some photos of places he knew. Most have changed a lot since Bede’s time. Those of an Orthodox persuasion may chose to read this the day after tomorrow instead when he is celebrated in the Orthodox calendar.
Bede used observational science, much like the seventeenth century scientist philosophers, as a way to understand the creator by understanding the creation. He saw the Bible as largely allegorical and saw no conflict between religion and science.
His first scientific work, De temporibus, or On Time, was written in about 703 and provides an introduction to the principles of Easter computus, with tables for the dates of Easter from AD 1 to 1253. It was well received and he followed with a larger volume De temporum ratione, On the Reckoning of Time.
It is in this later work that he expounds the nature of the cosmos, starting with a method of counting and calculating using just the fingers, he proceeds from small intervals of time to large, the text explains the division of days, weeks and months before describing lunar movements and the seasons; solar movements, solstices, equinoxes and years. Bede explores the motion of the sun and moon and how that influences the new moon and how it occurs at sunset. He wrote about the spherical shape of the world and inclination lead to the changing length of daylight and variation of shadow lengths cast on the earth’s surface at different times during the year, and described a quantitative relation between the changes of the tides (or as he calls it, the harmony of the moon and the sea) at a given place and the daily motion of the moon. He also speculates the same tidal effect on the atmosphere.
He then proceeds to the Six Ages of the world. It ends with a discussion of eternity (the largest unit of time) which apparently happens in the Eighth Age.
Looking from Holy isle towards Bamburgh Castle, this is one of the places where Bede
is known to have done some of his tide observations
The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, early 12th century
Lindisfarne Priory main door.
Lindisfarne Priory – base of 8th century Saxon cross. It was broken up and reused in the building in the 12th century.
Bread oven in the priory’s kitchen, early 12th century
Bede’s Epistle to Withedus about the Vernal Equinox, probably written some time between 725 and 731 explains how the circle of the sun moves through the heavens, tilting 23 ½ degrees to the north and 23 ½ degrees to the south of the celestial equator, twice annually passing an equinox at which the hours of light and darkness are the same anywhere on the face of the earth.
The Venerable Bede died on May 25, 735, and was canonised by Pope Leo XIII in 1899. His tomb was originally at Jarrow, but his remains were moved to Durham Cathedral in the 11th century.
Remains of the 11th century monastery at Jarrow
The stone slab recording the dedication of the original church on 23 April AD 685.
The chancel is original 7th century, the rest of the church is 11th century or later. The inscription reads:
SCI PAUL VIIII KL MAI
ANNO XV EFRIDI REG
CEOLFRIDI ABB EIUSDEM
Q ECCLES DO AVCTORE
CONDITORIS ANNO IIII
In modern English:
The dedication of the basilica of
St. Paul on the 9th day before the Kalens of May
in the 15th year of King Ecgfrith
and in the fourth year of Abbot Ceolfrith founder,
by God’s guidance, of the same church.’
Saxon window glass – late seventh century window glass excavated from the original site at St Paul’s.
So-called “Bede’s chair”, 14th century with later inscriptions and graffiti.
Another view of “Bede’s chair”, detail of the later inscriptions and graffiti.
The graffiti could be as late as the middle of the seventeenth century.
Note the mark-up lines around the mortice for the seat.
Medieval choir stalls dating from the 1490 in St Paul’s.
Medieval choir stalls dating from the 1490 in St Paul’s.
Bede’s World had an excellent display of his scientific achievements, it’s well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Jarrow.
Reproduction Stonyhurst Gospel
Leather bound Gospel of St John. The original was made by the monks of Wearmouth-Jarrow and
found in the coffin of St Cuthbert. Probably AD698. Bede’s World, Jarrow.
Reproduction portable wooden altar, 7th century, copied from the one buried with St Cuthbert.
The five crosses represent the wounds of Christ. Bede’s World, Jarrow.
Reproduction reliquary with figures of Christ and archangels Michael and Gabriel
with Anglo-Saxon runic inscription. Bede’s World, Jarrow.
Bede’s World Farm seen from the surrounding embankment. Bede’s World Farm, Jarrow.
Reproduction Anglo-Saxon Hall House based on finds at Thirling, North Northumberland.
Oak posts and frame, wattle and daub infill. Bede’s World Farm, Jarrow.
Interior of the reproduction Anglo-Saxon Hall House. Bede’s World Farm, Jarrow.
Reproduction Grubenhaus, based on finds at New Berwick, North Northumberland.
Set over a pit, oak walls, ash and hazel roof frame, heather thatch. Bede’s World Farm, Jarrow.
Interior of the reproduction Grubenhaus. Bede’s World Farm, Jarrow.
Wow! What a totally amazing, excellent discovery!
* I lie, I found a translation of De temporum ratione after I wrote this but can’t afford it.