Tribute to a venerable polymath and man of the people
The Times, 2/6/2012
It is hard to imagine a historical character more universally revered than the Venerable Bede. Born in about 673AD he was a polymath who, despite never straying further than York from the Benedictine community at Jarrow and Wearmouth on the Tyne estuary, spoke several languages, apart from Greek, Hebrew and Latin, and amassed a library that was the envy of the medieval world.
As well as being the foremost theologian of his age he was a scientist who calculated time, established that the earth was round and realised that the tides were controlled by the moon. From this he was able to devise a calculation of the date of Easter, a major international issue in the century before Charlemagne’s. He invented a sign language that was also a method of calculating from 0 to a million. He taught several generations of scholars attracted to Jarrow to sit at his knee.
What he wrote has stayed in continuous use for more than a millennium. There were 70 books which brought him worldwide veneration, and the best known is his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in about 731. In 1899 he became the only Briton to be made a Doctor of the Church by the Pope.
All of which makes the decision by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)) not to accord the site world heritage status baffling. “We’re very disappointed,” said the Bishop of Jarrow, Mark Bryant. “We feel that Wearmouth-Jarrow deserves international recognition”. Dame Rosemary Cramp of Durham University, the archaeologist who worked on the site, has written widely on Bede and Anglo-Saxon England and is on the board of the museum at the site, Bede’s World, was blunter: “There is no doubt that Bede is a world story and should be appreciated as such”.
Bede’s World is a fairly modest attempt to evoke the England of the 7th and 8th centuries. “Our story is about Bede, but from the point of view of people and how they lived,” said Mike Benson, who became director at the end of 20ll after a quick turnover of predecessors. He intends to adopt the co-operative principles of a medieval monastery and rebuild the museum as a centre of learning – of history but also of traditional crafts providing work opportunities. He is establishing allotments where a car park once was for local people to cultivate.
Benson’s arrival, from success at reviving the Ryedale Museum in the North York Moors, coincided with a new determination by the museum’s board to pay Bede and the community from which he came their historical due. “The truth is that before Bede and the Ecclesiastica there was no concept of the English,” said Professor Camp. “You could say he invented us”.
In Bede’s time two churches were built one at Wearmouth and the other at Jarrow, St Peter’s and St Paul’s. Next to the latter the museum was established in the 1970s. Some of the church’s original foundations survive, and some walls of the monastery where Bede lived and worked still stand.
However, the basis of the bid for World Heritage Site status was more the potential of the museum site nearby, but the ICOMOS criterion, the museum’s board have been told, is the standing heritage rather than intellectual interpretation.
In 1974 the original museum was established in a Georgian villa on the site, Jarrow Hall. Twenty years later a Saxon farm – called Gyrwe, the Saxon Jarrow – was established, with animals that would have been husbanded at Bede’s time, growing herbs and plants the monastery would have used. farm buildings based on designs seen in medieval manuscripts, such as the 11th century Harley Psalter, have been built. In 1995 a new museum, designed as an evocation of the post-Roman villas that were common at that time, was opened to tell Bede’s story and that of the early Northumbrians, along with objects found by archaeologists on the monastery site.
World Heritage Site designation would have helped with the essential fundraising that must be done to develop the museum, but the priority for Benson and his chair Michael Smith, a recently retired Northern Rock executive who was born locally, is to make Bede’s World as much a part of the local community as the monastery had been 1,300 years ago. A new, more focussed, board has been constituted with historians, entrepreneurs and business people, such as a Marks & Spencer’s executive and the chief executive of Durham County Cricket Club. It has had the steadfast support of South Tyne Borough Council that has maintained its grant despite its own budget cuts, and a growing army of volunteers have been enrolled.
There are now 43, ranging from “The Nanas”, retired ladies who stitch and bake to raise funds, to young offenders who had been sent here for community service and remained. The Heritage Lottery Fund has given them a grant to build an amphitheatre on the site, using volunteers, and another team of young craftsmen are making a river-going 12-seater Saxon boat. Benson and Smith also hope to establish an annual English Festival demonstrating crafts, cooking and music of the Middle Ages.
The museum is also appealing for short-term but frequent loans of important items from the British Library, the British Museum and other major institutions to augment the displays.
“Bede transcended his age, but he was also a man of his people and we want to present his story in a way that people can identify with, and local people can feel a personal connection with,” Benson said. “He lived here all his long life but gave himself to the world, and we aim to reflect that for today’s audience, with or without being called a World Heritage Site”.