When Bede Met Adomnan…

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.


5 thoughts on “When Bede Met Adomnan…

  1. Interesting post. This is my introduction to Adomnan. I had not heard of him before reading your article. If Adomnan did influence Bede, why do you think Adomnan does not receive as much attention as someone like Bede? His work Vita Columbae provides great insight into the life of Saint Columba and the Picts, and De Locis Sanctis tells us a lot about the Christian holy places and centers of pilgrimage during that period.

    1. I think part of it is that there is less attention given to hagiography in general and Celtic hagiography is often considered too fanciful. Bede is set apart from anyone else of his Age. Not many people know about Bede’s writings other than his History. It could be argued that there is a great deal of hagiography in the History but many people don’t see that either. I think there is also some real reluctance to discuss Bede’s living influences; by that I mean people Bede met and knew. There is a really misleading paradigm that Bede is so far above all his peers that they couldn’t influence him.

  2. “There is a really misleading paradigm that Bede is so far above all his peers that they couldn’t influence him.”

    I agree.

    Good article. I enjoyed it.

  3. Hi

    Check out my book Adomnan and the Holy Places (London 2007) – there is a chapter devoted to the impact of Adomnan on Bede.

    Why was Adomnan forgotten? His work on biblical exegesis did not fit the Reformation paradigm; hence he is now only remembered as the author of the Life of Columba. Bede only survived in the sixteenth century because of his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum: most of his exegetical writings (where he used Adomnan again and again) never leave the shelves of libraries (and many have never been translated into English).

  4. Adomnan and the Holy Places is really good. Like most of O’Loughlin’s recent books, I wish I could afford my own copy. Actually, many of Bede’s commentaries have been translated in recent years. Notable exceptions are the commentaries on Mark and Luke, but the major remaining OT commentaries on the Song of Songs and I Samuel are underway. They are still worth reading, especially if, like me, you find most historical-critical exegesis builds fantasy castles and about as nourishing as egg shells. Bede was also studied in the 16th century for the De temporum ratione and his opinions were invoked on some of the theological issues raised by the religious upheavals of that century and even later.

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