Benedict Biscop

Benedict Biscop
(d. 689)
   Founder of the two great Northumbrian monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, Benedict Biscop was a leading intellectual and monastic leader of the later seventh century, who laid the foundation for the so-called Northumbrian Renaissance. A frequent pilgrim to Rome, where he collected relics and other treasures and, most importantly, books, Benedict, known as Biscop Baducing before his monastic conversion, left an important legacy for Anglo-Saxon learning. The libraries he established at the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow provided the books necessary for the work of numerous scholars, including Alcuin, who transferred this great learning - and the desire for books - to the empire of Charlemagne and created the basis for the Carolingian Renaissance.
   A Northumbrian noble in the service of King Oswy, Benedict Biscop received numerous estates appropriate to his rank and service, estates that were of great importance later in his life. The kingdom of Northumbria was a meeting place of Celtic and Roman Christianity and the site of the important Synod of Whitby in 664, at which Roman Christianity triumphed. Benedict's experience in Northumbria exposed him to important influences from both forms of Christianity. He was a lifelong supporter of Roman Christianity, as witnessed by his numerous trips to Rome, and he looked to Rome for books, relics, and the proper rule of religious life. But he also was probably influenced by elements of Celtic Christianity, especially the tradition of peregrinatio, the tradition of pilgrimage or missionary activity far from home. This influence would help to explain his numerous trips to the Continent, the first of which was a trip to Rome with Wilfrid of Ripon in 652-653, when Benedict was roughly twenty-five years old.
   Although the first trip was not without significance - or controversy, as Wilfrid and Benedict separated at Lyons - Benedict's second trip to Rome was even more critical for the life of Benedict. Sometime after 657, in the company of Alchfirth, son of King Oswy and friend of Wilfrid, Benedict journeyed to the Continent. From Rome he went to the important monastery of Lérins, where he received the tonsure and learned the monastic life. When Benedict later founded his own monasteries, he drew from his experience at Lérins, a place where many of the great ancient and early medieval Irish monastic leaders had stayed and shaped the monastic life. But as important and influential as Lérins was, it could not hold Benedict permanently; he again heard the call of Rome, after probably two years at the monastery. While in Rome, Benedict was sent back to England. He accompanied the new archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus. Departing Rome in the spring of 668 and arriving about a year later, Theodore and Benedict took up residence in Canterbury. Benedict resided in the monastery founded by Augustine of Canterbury in the early years of the century for the next two years, until the arrival of the community's new abbot.
   In 671-672 Benedict made another trip to Rome, but this trip may have been taken with the purpose of acquiring the materials necessary to found a new monastic community. Earlier trips to Rome had been taken so that Benedict could improve his understanding of the faith at its capital. But in the early 670s Benedict had absorbed a great deal from his earlier trips and had also had extensive monastic experience at Lérins and Canterbury. While in Rome Benedict collected books of all sorts that would be useful for the monastic library, and also collected books at Vienne and in the Rhone Valley. The books, along with relics and other materials collected, provided the foundation for his first great monastic community, Wearmouth.
   The foundation at Wearmouth was the first of two important monasteries Benedict established. He founded the monastery on land he had received from his old friend King Ecgfrith, who had succeeded Oswy in 671, and with the collaboration of Ceolfrith, a Northumbrian noble who like Benedict had left the secular life for the monastic. Benedict's many trips and connections on the continent continued to serve him in the construction of the monastery, which began in the year 674. Leaving Ceolfrith in charge, Benedict returned to the continent, where he hired builders and masons from a friend in Francia. He also recruited glassmakers to put windows in the church and other monastic buildings at Wearmouth. When the buildings of the monastery were completed or well on their way, Benedict, joined by Ceolfrith and most likely a large group, returned to Rome yet again to acquire even greater learning in the faith so that he could better prepare a rule for his new community. He also accumulated more books for the library at Wearmouth and received an exemption from the pope that allowed the monks to elect their abbots without outside interference. He was joined on his return to the monastery by Abbot John, the archcantor of the church of St. Peter in Rome, who taught the monks of Wearmouth the Roman method of singing and, possibly, the Roman style of handwriting.
   The success of Wearmouth inspired Ecgfrith to grant Benedict more territory at Jarrow, which was some seven miles distant from the original foundation; the new house was established in 681. It was colonized by a group of monks from Wearmouth, possibly including the great historian and scholar Bede, which was led by Ceolfrith, who became the abbot of the new community. Benedict again went to Rome and appointed a relative as abbot of Wearmouth, but Ceolfrith assumed the superior position in Benedict's absence and oversaw the election of a new abbot for Wearmouth when Benedict's relative died. The two communities were ruled separately at first, but they remained very closely connected. After the second abbot of Wearmouth died, Ceolfrith was elected as abbot and thus ruled both houses, and Benedict declared that the two communities should be ruled by one abbot.
   Benedict took one final trip to Rome in the mid-680s to acquire still more books for the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow. He died on January 12, 689, sometime after returning from his final Roman pilgrimage. His legacy in England was a great one. He strengthened English ties to Rome and the continent and passed his devotion to Rome on to his many disciples. He established two of the great monastic communities of medieval England and created a library at Wearmouth and Jarrow that inspired generations of Anglo-Saxons scholars, including the greatest of all, Bede. Benedict's monastic foundations influenced cultural developments in England and, through Alcuin, on the continent for generations to come and contributed to renaissances in Northumbria and the Carolingian kingdom.
   See also
 ♦ Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1991.
 ♦ Blair, Peter Hunter. The World of Bede. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
 ♦ Laistner, Max L. W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe, a.d. 500 to 900, 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth through the Eighth Century. Trans. John Contreni. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976.
 ♦ Stenton, Frank M. Anglo-Saxon England. 3d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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