Brides of Christ, royal marriage and the conversion of the English in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica

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MacCarron, Máirín
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University College Cork
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This thesis is an attempt to determine the role of marriage and women in the overall context of Bede’s HE. It is not intended to comment on the position of women or the importance of marriage in Anglo-Saxon society, although at times this will be referred to, but will endeavour to read Bede’s text in the light of his scriptural commentaries, based on his biblical and patristic inheritance. Bede’s understanding of marriage is firmly based on the Christian conception of this institution and this underlies everything that he writes about marriage in the HE. Christian marriage is important because the earthly institution is a figure of the relationship between Christ and the Church, and within this the relationship between every Christian soul and Christ can be identified. This thesis will demonstrate that the different levels at which marriage can be understood in a Christian context are at work in Bede’s HE. In reading the book, the proper practice of Christian marriage is revealed in Bede’s descriptions of real marriages (usually royal examples). Marriage as an image of the union between Christ and his Church is also revealed in the book through Bede’s presentation of the conversion of new peoples to Christianity. A third level, that is the spiritual view of marriage, which teaches that every Christian soul is united in holy matrimony to Christ, the true Bridegroom, is also evident in his accounts of people dedicated to the virginal life from love for their heavenly spouse, Christ. These different aspects repeatedly interlink, as without the physical marriages discussed the peoples would not have been brought into the Church and, similarly, as every Christian soul is the Bride of Christ, all these souls together make up the Church, which is the true Bride of Christ and will be joined to him at the end of time. These three levels are at play throughout the book, so that Christian instruction is provided to every reader depending on their capacity to receive it. Chapter One introduces the biblical and patristic understanding of marriage imagery as it relates to Christ’s union with the Church, and the union of the divine and human natures in Christ, and argues that this ecclesiological image underlies Bede’s presentation of Anglo-Saxon conversion in the book. Chapter Two examines the marriage of Edwin and Æthelburh in detail, as Bede’s narrative reveals that this marriage brought the king to Christianity. Within this it suggests that Bede is instructing his audience about the proper practice of Christian marriage, and the role of a Christian wife. Chapter Three considers Bede’s account of the conversion of Northumbria following Edwin’s baptism and examines his use of marriage imagery in presenting Paulinus’ mission. It also discusses Eanflæd’s role in the build-up to the Synod of Whitby and suggests that her marriage to Oswiu helps the reader to understand the division caused by the Easter controversy in the whole kingdom. Chapter Four is concerned with Bede’s account of Æthelthryth, which has received much comment in recent years. It will focus on his description of the former Northumbrian queen as a bride of Christ, assessing what that means in patristic thinking, and the influence of this on Bede’s presentation of her life. These three central chapters recognise the role that queens played in the development of the Church in Northumbria and follow a chronological sequence, as they are successively presented as queens of Northumbria in Bede’s book. Chapter Five considers Bede’s account of Hild and her role in the Northumbrian Church, as her life spanned the most important decades in its early development and she personally knew many of the most significant figures of this period. It will continue to demonstrate that various other holy women, who are introduced (often very briefly) throughout the book, are important in understanding the building up of a Church among a new people. They reveal that Christianity extends to all peoples, in all walks of life, who are simultaneously at very different levels of conversion. It will argue that Bede’s presentation of marriage and women in the HE can tell us much about his view of the Christian life and that an understanding of these women’s lives in the overall context of the book can help us to understand Bede’s view of the importance of Christian salvation in the life of a new people of God.
Brides of Christ , Royal marriage , Bede , Historia Ecclesiastica
MacCarron, M. 2007. Brides of Christ, royal marriage and the conversion of the English in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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