Dr. Richard Shaw, introducing his new book on the history of Christianity in England The Gregorian Mission to Kent in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History: Methodology and Sources (Photo submitted)
On the evening of April 9, 2018 the Madawaska Valley Public Library was packed. This was a little surprising as the scheduled talk was The Gregorian Mission to Kent in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History: Methodology and Sources. It might be supposed that few in Barry’s Bay had previously paid much attention to the Gregorian Mission to Kent, it having taken place in 596 in a corner of England. Similarly Bede, a venerable monk who lived in the northeast of England from 672-735 might not have caught their attention since he wrote in Anglo-Saxon and Latin. And the fearsome word “Methodology” has been known to freeze the heart of even the most assiduous academic. But here, on a blustery, cold evening was the chatter of many excited voices. Why? Well, the speaker was the well respected local author Dr. Richard Shaw and this brought out the crowds.
Dr. Shaw is Chairman of the History Department at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College, a graduate of Oxford University and the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto. His recent publication, from which the lecture took its name, was the subject of this talk and, although the events took place over a millennium ago, Dr. Shaw made his subject relevant.
Dr. Shaw started with a brief introduction to Bede who was born in England on land owned by the Abbeys of St Peter and St Paul in the Kingdom of Northumbria, now Tyne and Wear. At the age of seven, in 679, Bede became a monk. He survived a terrible plague in 687 and went on to become the foremost scholar of his era in Europe, well respected at home and abroad. Amongst other things Bede computated the date of that ever wandering festival, Easter, and helped establish the practice of dating from Christ’s birth, which we now refer to as A.D. and B.C. As teacher, scholar and author he contributed significantly to English Christianity and historical study. He is England’s only Doctor of the Church.
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People has made him the starting point for most people studying English Ecclesiastical History but Dr. Shaw has dug beneath this assumption and identified many sources used by Bede – both extant and destroyed. How has he done this? How can a destroyed document be identified? Dr. Shaw selected the section of the History dealing with the Gregorian Mission to Kent, so named because it was initiated by Pope Gregory the Great, and with great attention to detail gone through the paragraphs line by line, all the time asking questions. Where had Bede got that information? How did he know that fact? Where did that opinion come from? It should be noted, as an aside, that this required Dr. Shaw to be fluent in Latin and Anglo-Saxon.
Eventually Dr. Shaw identified Bede’s sources and built a patchwork of works referenced by Bede that can still be found in libraries and museums around the world. These include charters, kinglists, epitaphs, genealogies and laws. But even more interesting, Dr. Shaw has reconstructed works which must have existed such as kinglists and genealogies which have since been destroyed. These virtual works are of particular interest as they can be utilized and added to by subsequent scholars and form a reference body for the future.
And what is the contemporary application of this rigorous analysis and attention to detail? Hands up all those who haven’t heard of ‘Fake News’, or anyone who hasn’t been confused by recent conflicting stories. Exactly. Only by very careful analysis of what we read can we know what is true and what has been deliberately disseminated to obfuscate. Without the help of such modern conveniences as snopes.com, Dr. Shaw crawled through Bede’s work line by line, word by word to give us the Venerable’s sources and original works and thereby showed us how to know what is true, where the information has come from and what may have been omitted to mold an incomplete impression.
While answering numerous questions, Dr. Shaw noted that archaeology may have more to add to our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon era than written sources at the moment. Exciting finds such as the Sutton Hoo Burial and the Staffordshire Hoard add greatly to our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England and this can only add to the exegesis of Bede and contemporary writers.
Dr. Shaw’s speaking style is clear, lucid and entertaining and he explained how he, his archeologist wife and their five children come to be in the Valley. Born in England, Dr. Shaw spent many happy holidays in the Lake District and was therefore delighted to join the staff of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Canada’s lake district. He and his family are very much at home in the beautiful rivers and forests of the Madawaska Valley and happily participate in the culture offered by the library programs, the art opportunities offered at the Railway Station, skating lessons and many other activities in the local area.
Dr. Shaw generously donated a copy of his book The Gregorian Mission to Kent in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History: Methodology and Sources to the Madawaska Valley Public Library so come and look at this fascinating book in the comfort of your library.
About the author: Frances Mawson lives in Hopefield as sustainably as the modern world, a wood stove and a Zone 3a garden will allow. She has volunteered for many Valley organizations and currently chairs the Madawaska Valley Public Library Board.