One of the events that Bede mentions in the Ecclesiastical History that has always fascinated me is a meeting between Bede and Adomnan in 703. Bede never specifically says that he met Adomnan, but he does report of a visit by Adomnan to Wearmouth-Jarrow in the year before Adomnan’s death. We know that Adomnan died in September of 704, so his visit to Northumbria would have been in the traveling season of 703. There is no reason to think that this visit didn’t take place or is one of the visits to Northumbria that Adomnan mentions in the Life of Columba. Indeed, Adomnan had almost certainly finished the Life of Columba before traveling to Northumbria for his last visit. Bede tells us that Adomnan had an extended visit in Northumbria and then traveled to Ireland where he discussed eucmentical relations between the Irish and Rome and then he returned home where he died before the next Easter.He was about 75 years old and had been abbot of Iona for over 25 years.
Bede tells us that Abbot Adomnan of Iona came to Northumbria to visit with King Aldfrith, who though now also old, is reputed to have been Adomnan’s student on Iona. The ties between Adomnan and Aldfrith probably can hardly be underestimated. During this last visit between the two old friends unity with Rome must have been discussed between them. The opinions and experience of Adomnan’s old friend Aldfrith must have left a big impression on him. Aldfrith would have shown Adomnan that with a king sympathetic to Iona’s concerns, unity would Rome could be okay. (Good might be going to far considering Aldfrith’s run-ins with Wilfrid). Ceolfrith’s letter to King Nechtan tells us that Adomnan wanted to visit Wearmouth-Jarrow and did so, conversing with Abbot Coelfrith (HE.V21 and HE V.15). Abbot Coelfrith believes that this meeting and their convincing Adomnan to accept Rome was important enough to include in his letter to King Nechtan of Pictland about a decade later. This was very much a meeting between two abbots, both who were accustomed to being counselors of kings. Also note that the inclusion of this meeting in a quoted letter from Coelfrith is as close to a contemporary record as we can get for the early 8th century. While Coelfrith may have exaggerated Adomnan’s response and especially the dialogue, we have both Ceolfrith and Bede’s witness that the meeting occurred.
Bede was a freashly annointed priest in 703. He was only 30 years old, less than half the age of Adomnan or Coelfrith. It is very likely that if he was present during their discussions, then he was probably very much on the sidelines observing. If we look at Bede’s writings, this is the point when he moves from basically textbooks for teaching to exegesis. He as now considered old enough and wise enough to write with authority on scriptural matters. Some have suggested that it was Bede’s writing On Time that sent Adomnan to Wearmouth-Jarrow, but I don’t believe that for a minute. First, its unlikely that King Aldfrith knew anything of Bede’s scholarship and second, I think Bede didn’t finish that work until after Adomnan’s visit. The visit may have spurred him on to put some of his thoughts down in writing to be used to further the cause. Between 703 and 716 there must have been high hopes at Wearmouth – Jarrow that Iona’s family would have been brought into the fold through their efforts. (Recall that Iona’s family included most of the monasteries in what is now Scotland and parts of Ireland). Unfortunately there isn’t a modern translation of Bede’s On Time, only his much later and greatly expanded On the Reckoning of Time. It is possible that Abbot Coelfrith used Bede’s On Time as a source when writing his letter in about 710. We also know that one of Bede’s next projects was his abridgement of Adomnan’s On the Holy Places. Adomnan gave King Aldfrith a copy of his book On the Holy Places and he had it copied for the monasteries of his kingdom. Bede considered it important enough to do both an abridgement and include signficant sections of it in his Ecclesiastical History. Indeed in the History he writes that Adomnan’s book on holy places “has proved useful to many readers” (HE V.15). It is time that we consider the influence of Adomnan on Bede. Commenting on, editing and abridging Adomnan’s works and thoughts were among the first of Bede’s works on scriptural topics. We should not be surprised that Bede would be stimulated to write by a contemporary, just as scholars today are influenced by their contemporaries.