These two complementary lives of Cuthbert illuminate both the secular history of the golden age of Northumbria and the historic shift from Celtic to Roman ecclesiastical practice which took place after the Synod of Whitby. Born around 634 and brought up at Melrose, Cuthbert himself was very much in the Irish monastic tradition: humble, spiritual, ascetic, and beloved of the poor and of animals. He adopted Roman usages after Whitby, becoming prior and eventually bishop of Lindisfarne, but the essential nature of his commitment changed little and he lived for much of his later life as a hermit on the rocky and windswept island of Farne off the Northumbrian coast. Here, the birds his only companions, he grew his own barley, built a simple hut and oratory and led a life of meditation and extreme austerity, dying in 687. The two lives make an interesting contrast: the earlier, anonymous Life of 698-705 is clear, concise and rich in Lindisfarne tradition but it views Cuthbert as no more than the great saint of his own house.
Bede's prose Life of 721, however, is polished, literary, more than twice as long and altogether more didactic; it treats Cuthbert as a model from which to draw lessons about how to be a perfect bishop and monk. Taken together, the lives vividly evoke the character of a remarkable churchman and provide a compelling picture of early monastic life.