Bede’s De natura rerum

Reference: Peniarth MS 540B

This Latin manuscript is a rare example of a 12th century manuscript, thought to originate from Wales. It contains part of Bede’s scientific treatise, De natura rerum.

The Venerable Bede

Bede (673-735) was a Northumbrian theologian, philosopher and historian. He spent most of his life at the monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow, where he was influenced by the vigorous new Christian culture of England. Bede was ordained deacon in 692 and priest in 703.

He wrote many theological, historical and scientific texts, including Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’) which provides the history of England from the time of Julius Caesar to 731, and which gained him the title ‘the father of English history’. Soon after his death he became known as the Venerable Bede and his tomb is located in Durham Cathedral.

De natura rerum

Because of his religious beliefs Bede was very interested in the natural world as God's creation, and his formal scientific treatise on natural phenomena, De natura rerum, is an encyclopaedia of the sciences as then known. The text draws on the work of Pliny, St. Isidore of Seville and others to give an account of contemporary scientific theory in the fields of, amongst other things, cosmology, time and arithmetic. The complete work contains 51 chapters and the full text has been copied into many manuscripts located in repositories throughout the world.

Description and decoration

This is a leather-bound manuscript of two bifolia fragments from the middle four leaves of a quire. The roughly shaped parchment is stiff and has many holes. The text is adorned with decorative initials, 3 of which (‘F’, ‘N’ and ‘M’) have ribbon-like animal forms and heads similar to those found in Irish manuscripts of the time.

History of the manuscript

The early history of the manuscript is unknown, although it is likely to originate from Llanbadarn Fawr during the first half of the 12th century. At the bottom of folio 4v. of the manuscript is the word ‘phia’ thought to be in the handwriting of the antiquary Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt (c.1592-1667). It is therefore thought that the manuscript was part of the Hengwrt collection until it was bequeathed in 1859 to W W E Wynne of Peniarth, who sold the manuscripts in 1904 to Sir John Williams.

Another note dated 1931, this time in the hand of the Professor of Latin Edward Bensly, suggests the fragment became separated from another manuscript, possibly Peniarth MS 326.

Further reading

  • Daniel Huws, Medieval Welsh Manuscripts, (Cardiff, 2000)
  • Benedicta Ward SLG, The Venerable Bede, (London, 2002)
  • Geoffrey Chapman, The Venerable Bede, (1990)
  • Gerald Bonner, Gol., Famulus: Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede (London, 1976)
  • M. L. W. Laistner & H. H. King, A Hand-List of Bede Manuscripts (New York, 1943)
  • Terry Deary, All about Bede: The life and times of the Venerable Bede 672-735 AD, (Sunderland, 1996)

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