The Venerable Bede isn’t generally someone you hear about in our Kardashian-crazed world, despite his being a prolific writer. Over 40 separate original works and translations bear his name—some of which are the sole sources remaining from his time. Writing in the 21st century and looking back into the 7th, it’s interesting to see where writing and creative practices overlap.
If you compare his work with a modern content creator or writer, then Bede’s work may seem even more insignificant, if not downright outdated. He was only actively writing for 29 years and none of his works were bestsellers or even widely read at the time. Bede became great long afterwards when successive generations discovered his works and found no other histories of England available.
Bede is still relevant for reasons other than ones of history or religion. For writers and content creators alike, Bede is someone to look up to as an early example of what is possible when you are true to your own creativity.
Sometimes writing what’s important to you ends up being important to lots of people.
Bede would no doubt be shocked if he knew that his writings were now considered the best sources for what is still a murky period of English history.
And we should be greatly encouraged. How many times are we told that what’s important to us isn’t what’s important to other people? For someone who loves literature and history, I’ve been told this more times than I care to remember.
But what if, like Bede, what isn’t important to anyone other than a small audience today ends up being important to a lot of people down the road? Anne Frank’s diary is the more traditional testament to this, but there are more recent examples too. If you read any of the entertainment blogs out there, box office bombs have suddenly picked up steam on streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix.
This begs the question of what meaningful writing and creation looks like and it calls into question how we measure success. If a 7th century monk can make a difference well after his lifetime, then what does that say for any of us who are struggling in our own creative journeys?
Until Bede’s History of the English Church and People, there was little to nothing left of any sort of history of England. To this day, there are few sources who have the same breadth of information he does. As if that wasn’t enough, Bede’s writings are some of the only sources about Anglo-Saxon England which survived the Danelaw, Norman Conquest, Wars of the Roses, and the Reformation.
Nearly everything else was lost.
Now how’s that to put things into perspective? How many of our own writings will endure half as long?
Well, we won’t know, will we? Which means you might as well write and create in ways which fulfill you instead of worrying about whether it will be anything significant.
Distinguish the tradition from the facts, but don’t completely discount the tradition.
My principal authority and advisor in this work has been the most reverend Abbot Albinus, and eminent scholar educated in the church of Canterbury by Archbishop Theodore and Abbot Hadrian, both of them respected and learned men.
There is something we can learn in the 21st century from Bede’s treatment of fact vs tradition. Creative work is built upon tradition and imagination—not just cold hard facts. How we present the information is what matters.
We’re all familiar with “fake news” at this point and “disinformation” but they’re nothing truly new. Disinformation was alive and well long before the internet and took several different forms. The 7th century was full of disinformation as well. Which is why Bede takes great pains to distinguish between fact and “tradition” (i.e., folklore) in his History.
For instance, when he refers to how the Britons, Scots and Picts came to the British Isles, he largely refers to tradition. He doesn’t stray too far into myth—that would be Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century. But he doesn’t just discount anything that could be considered “tradition” either.
There is truth in tradition, as Bede well knew. And if there’s truth in tradition, then the truth needs to be told. However, Bede is careful to tell us that it is tradition.
Know your audience and don’t dismiss it because of its size.
The first piece of advice anyone receives when they decide to start writing seriously for a living is “niche down,” decide your specific audience. Bede had already done that—if not by choice, then at least by recognizing who would most likely be reading his works. It’s a mark of his own greatness as a writer that his works have become significant independent for secular historians interested in British history.
Bede had a very limited audience during his lifetime—more limited than what most of us today would prefer. We want the social media following, the fan base, the loyal customers from all over the world, and the connection which the Internet can bring us. But, as Bede’s example shows us, what is a limited audience today could be worldwide tomorrow.
So, when you pick an audience, know what they like and dislike. And don’t be afraid to narrow your scope to fit their preferences. Bede concentrated on Northumbria—his audience, after all, was Northumbrian.
On that same token, don’t be afraid to push your audience to consider other things. Bede’s History does this by going all the way back to England during Roman occupation. He also goes into the works of the Celtic missionaries from Iona and Ireland. But always, it comes back to Northumbria and to the Saxons.
Writing like a 7th century monk doesn’t always mean getting up at the crack of dawn.
Sometimes writing like a monk means making use of the advice we’ve already been given. If you break down Bede’s writing, then his methods and practices don’t differ all that much from any of the hundreds of writing blogs out there. And without the crowded timetable medieval monks generally keep.
But what it does perhaps do is show that writing is a timeless skill and that practices supersede time and language. Bede wrote in Latin and spoke Anglo-Saxon, after all. Yet, he followed the same practices you and I read about almost daily.
The practice of writing hasn’t changed since Bede’s day, even if the times, audience, language, and style have. Far from making Bede obsolete, he is an example for a completely different segment in society: the writers and creators.
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