Bede on the Plague

In John Maddicott’s article “Plague in Seventh Century England” reprinted with slight modification in Plague and the End of Antiquity (2007), he discusses how Bede alone of the writers of the Justinian plague did not see the plague as a curse or punishment from God.

Northumbria’s Golden Age

Maddicott points to Bede’s recognition that the plague occurred during the height of the Northumbrian kingdom and the Golden Age of the Church. He stresses that the plague brought Archbishop Theodore to Britain and that Bede believed that it was Theodore who put the church of England to order and set it on a proper path. During the plague’s reappearance in the 680s, it was a time of great maturity in the church, when Cuthbert was bishop and the dioceses of Northumbria were being created. Whatever effect the plague had on Northumbria, it didn’t stop the development of the church along lines that Bede approved.

Bede also recognized that the plague didn’t have a role in the decrease of Northumbrian power that coincided with the 680s wave of plague. Northumbrian power really began to ebb in 679 when King Ælwine of Deira was killed, the same year the plague struck Ely and took King Ecgfrith’s first wife Æthelthryth. The major loss occurred a few years later at the battle of Dunnichen in 685. The plague didn’t restrict Northumbrian power, losses in battle perhaps brought on by unwarrented, sinful actions like King Ecgfrith’s attack on Ireland in 684 caused Northumbria’s diminished status. The Northumbrian royal family retained its holiness, as Bede shows us, when he recounts that saintly King Oswald was an effective intercessor for the plague in Sussex. Divine favor on the lineage was still intact, even though that lineage had died out by Bede’s time (and he thought present kings did not measure up to the Æthelfrithings).

Bede’s Heroes and Role Model

I think Bede’s impression of the plague was much more personal. It was the divine will of God sent to have a direct impact on the lives of the faithful. Let us look at four of Bede’s heroes and his probable role model.

  • St. Cuthbert and St Boisil: Kirby has made a good case that Boisil was a role model for Bede. (Is is coincidence that Bede also had a student named Cuthbert?) For Boisil the plague was the end of the good life, but he mastered the plague long enough to predict his death, Cuthbert’s future and to teach Cuthbert on the Gospel of John. St Cuthbert himself survived and triumphed over his trial with the plague and when on to preach in the countryside, strengthening the faith of the people in their time of trial.
  • St Egbert of Iona: St Egbert of Iona is, I think, one of Bede’s most under-appreciated heroes. Of course, the plague makes Egbert’s long stay in Ireland possible. He pledges to God that he will never return home in thanksgiving for surviving the plague that killed his friend. Egbert’s eventual conversion of Iona to the Roman rite was of paramount importance to Bede.
  • Abbot Ceolfrith: We know that Ceolfrith survived the plague twice, once at Gilling in 664 and again in the founding years of Jarrow. Ceolfrith was both hero, role model, and father to Bede. It is quite possible that Coelfrith contracted the plague in 664 giving him immunity to the later wave of plague at the founding of Jarrow.
  • St Æthelthryth (Audrey) of Ely: We know that Bede had great respect and love for St Audrey, such that he composed a hymn in her honor. For Audrey the plague was a positive thing. It allowed her to do penance for her very last sin, vanity in her childhood, and after prophesying how many lives the plague would take, she dies after a full life (in her seventh year as a nun). We know that the number seven symbolizes completeness or fullness in the bible, as Bede knew full well. The miraculous healing of her wound in the grave is also the only miracle that Bede credits to her.

The plague left many monasteries at least temporarily derelict including Bede’s own, but it was also was a hardship for the saints to triumph over. For others like Boisil and Audrey, it was merely the means to carry them off to their reward at the appointed time. To Bede the plague was a trial but not a curse.

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