One of the most remarkable survivals in St Paul’s Church in Jarrow – itself a remarkable survivor of Anglo-Saxon architecture – is a dedication stone inscribed on April 23 685, which was laid by the first Abbot of Jarrow, Ceolfrith. Among the monks who witnessed the consecration of the new monastery that day was a 13-year-old oblate named Bede, whose parents had offered him to the monastery of Monkwearmouth at the age of seven.
Yet in the months after the foundation of Jarrow, disaster struck as plague ravaged the monastery. By the next year, all of the monks were dead – all, that is, apart from Abbot Ceolfrith and the teenage Bede. The old man and the novice pressed on; they sang the entire office together, alternating verses of the Psalms across an empty choir, and Bede served Ceolfrith’s Masses through the dark days of plague while the two monks waited for better times.
Better times did come. The plague abated, more men came to be monks at Jarrow, the great Irish Abbot Adomnán of Iona came to visit Jarrow, and Bede was ordained to the diaconate at the early age of 19 – a sign, perhaps, that clergy were in short supply after the ravages of the plague. Bede, who would become the father of English Church history, never wrote about the plague of 686, which we know about only from other sources.
Throughout his life, however, Bede seems to have been imbued with a sense of scholarly and scientific urgency. He wrote more than 60 books, advanced knowledge of measuring time and predicting tides, and even invented a water clock. He is perhaps best known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the pre-eminent source for the early history of the Anglo-Saxon Church. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII declared St Bede a Doctor of the Church – so far the sole Englishman to have received that honour.
It is only speculation to suppose that the experience of narrowly escaping the plague in the early days of Jarrow motivated Bede to make the best use of his life thereafter. But it would certainly help to explain his extraordinary productivity.
We know very little about the plague which killed the other monks of Jarrow in 686. It may have been the bubonic plague. Historians used to believe that bubonic plague first arrived in Europe in the “Black Death” of 1348, but scientific analysis has shown it appeared more than 800 years earlier: archaeologists have recently discovered that the so-called “Plague of Justinian”, which first broke out in the year 541 and recurred sporadically until the 750s, was bubonic.
Some of the evidence comes from England, where in July 2019 archaeologists excavating a 6th-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Edix Hill in Cambridgeshire found evidence of the bacterium Yersinia pestis (which causes bubonic plague). These people probably died in the original outbreak of 541–3.
We cannot be certain that all subsequent outbreaks of “plague” in the 7th and 8th centuries were bubonic plague (since the term was used broadly to cover many kinds of epidemic infectious diseases). Yet whatever infectious diseases were circulating in Anglo-Saxon England, one serious outbreak of “plague” which began in 664 would end up changing the destiny of the English Church.
It was in that year that Archbishop Deusdedit of Canterbury succumbed to the plague, and his elected successor Wighard suddenly died in Rome (perhaps also from the plague) before he could be consecrated or receive the pallium. Pope Vitalian then made an unusual choice of successor to the see of Canterbury, appointing the learned Cilician monk Theodore of Tarsus to lead the English Church.
In 673, the year of Bede’s birth, Archbishop Theodore convened the Synod of Hertford, which reformed the English Church and established for the first time the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury over a hitherto fragmented Anglo-Saxon Church. He would be leader of the Church in England. Although the Archbishops of Canterbury had enjoyed a symbolic pre-eminence since the consecration of St Augustine in the 6th century, St Theodore of Tarsus (as he would later be known) made the English Church a functioning national Church for the first time.
The plague disappeared from England in around 750 – why, we do not know. It was replaced by a different scourge: the Vikings. But the fact that plague ravaged the sparsely populated landscape of Anglo-Saxon England shows that it was not solely the growth of urban life in the 14th century that favoured the spread of pandemics.
Perhaps St Bede’s greatness as a historian owed something to a grasp of the shortness of life, and the importance of recording events, that he gained while a teenager in the plague-stricken monastery of Jarrow. Certainly, having survived the plague, Bede was serene as he lay dying in May 735: “Before setting forth on that inevitable journey,” sang the dying monk, “none is wiser than the man who considers, before his soul departs hence, what good or evil he has done, and what judgment his soul will receive after its passing.”
Francis Young is a historian and folklorist
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