Judgement Day is on the way: Leicester historian on Medieval ‘end of days’ research

Posted by mjs76 at Feb 21, 2012 09:53 AM |
Extensive examination of eschatological exegesis in a valuable volume on the Venerable Bede.

The English scholar Bede (c.673-735) is often regarded as the father of English history, principally because of his five-volume epic Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. But a new volume by Dr Peter Darby from our School of Historical Studies concentrates on a less well known aspect of Bede’s multi-faceted career.

Using his extensive Biblical knowledge and the impressive library of the monastery at Wearmouth-Jarrow where he spent his life, Bede wrote many works of theology and exegesis (the interpretation of biblical texts). Within these volumes Bede dealt at length with eschatology, the study of the end of days, and this is the subject of Dr Darby’s new book, Bede and the End of Time.

At this point, the Bible (still in Latin and copied by hand of course) was regarded as the definitive, literal work of God which, as well as describing history – the Old Testament period (from the Garden of Eden onwards) and the New Testament accounts of Christ’s life and times – also provided a framework for what was going to happen before, during and after Judgement Day. Bede was able to use his detailed memory of scripture to pick references to future events from throughout the Old and New Testaments and then sought to correlate them into a workable whole, including resolutions of the contradictions and paradoxes which he encountered.

Dr Darby demonstrates how Bede’s eschatological research into the future balanced his historical research into the past:

Both roles required Bede to determine frameworks for the passing of time: in his historical works Bede painstakingly organised the events of the biblical and post-biblical past into a coherent sequence; in his eschatological writings he constructed a coherent vision of the future from prophetic accounts of the last days. Bede’s writings on the past and the future are not the products of two separate enterprises; they are parts of a single whole and it is difficult to fully understand the former without an appreciation of the latter.
Peter Darby: Bede and the End of Time

Dr Peter Darby

Bede and the End of Time is divided into three sections. In ‘The World Ages Framework’ Dr Darby examines Bede’s understanding of chronological periods (he was a noted expert on computus, the Medieval science of determining time, and devised a ‘Paschal table’ showing Easter and other important dates for 532 years into the future). Part II ‘Bede's Eschatological Vision’ reconstruct’s Bede’s theories and beliefs about what would happen at the end of time; then the final section, ‘Bede's Eschatological Perspective’, considers where Bede believed he himself was sitting on the timeline of past/future.

It might seem that more than 1,200 years after Bede’s death there could be little left to write about the man. However Dr Darby not only draws on 21st century resources which make the writings of Bede and his contemporaries more accessible, he also makes the point that a burst of interest in eschatological history (or historical eschatology, if you prefer) around the end of the second millennium led to a concentration on the end of the first millennium and a consequent general disregard or dismissal of matters prior to that point.

Peter Darby is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in our School of Historical Studies currently researching the topic ‘Heresy and Orthodoxy in the works of Bede’. Writing with a full awareness of previous study in this area, Dr Darby’s book opens up new areas of Bedan understanding and looks set to be an essential volume for anyone with an interest in the Venerable Bede himself or Medieval theology in general.

Bede and the End of Time is published in hardback by Ashgate and is available to order from the University Bookshop.

Bede's Tomb in Durham Cathedral. The text on the wall is a quote from his commentary on the Apocalypse. (image: Wikipedia)