Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries

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Modern scholarship versus popular understanding of the 'Dark Ages'

So far as I am aware there has been no previous attempt to look in 'breadth and depth' at the religion of England during the period from the end of Roman occupation until the large-scale arrival of Viking settlers, in other words the fifth and ninth centuries. Although the historical and archaeological evidence for this period is sparse, ongoing research is shedding increasing light on this era. However most of these academics have looked at the process of conversion to Christianity. Only a smaller number have offered insights into what the Christian clergy were converting people from.

The Anglo-Scandinavian culture which develops from the ninth century onwards has left much more evidence and, rightly, has been more widely studied. However while there is undoubtedly continuity between, say, seventh century Anglo-Saxon culture and, say, tenth century Anglo-Scandinavian culture, there are also many differences. If we add a thousand years to the previous sentence then we would be looking at the similarities and dissimilarities of British society in the seventeenth and twentieth centuries.

Clearly England in the fifth to ninth centuries was influenced by what was going on in nearby countries, and what had been going on during previous centuries. Also, historians are – rightly and, sometimes, wrongly – influenced by what happened in the centuries after. So I will be looking at religion in Britain during the Roman era, make occasional references to other parts of the British Isles during the Anglo-Saxon era and – because more evidence survives – also look at what Angles and Saxons would have been doing in northern Europe before they migrated to England. The much later medieval literature from Ireland and Wales sometimes seems to be shedding relevant light on an earlier era – although we must always bear in mind that such evidence may simply be telling us more about the imagination of the medieval authors than anything which was really happening a few hundred years before they were born.

The available evidence has been chewed over in great detail by relevant academics. The results of these scholarly endeavours are published in obscure books and journals, usually written in a dense idiom. People outside academe are unlikely to be aware of this work, find it difficult to get hold of, or to make full sense of it if they do. This is not a criticism of academics – they are addressing difficult issues which require the use of technical terms which are not known, still less understood, outside the relevant disciplines. Their publications are for fellow specialists, not the public.

So, excellent as all this current academic thinking often is, it remains largely unknown outside relevant university departments. Which is a great shame as collectively much light has been shed on an era which, understandably, was once known as the Dark Ages. The detail shown up by this recent research is spectacular. More importantly, it has also revealed that the 'foundations' – the assumptions – of previous generations of scholars were deeply flawed.

So there are two huge problems for anyone who is not an academic to address. Firstly, getting hold of the literature and getting up to speed with the technical terminology. Secondly – and perhaps even more difficult – is getting to grips with realising that just about everything they think they know about this era of history is at best misleading and mostly erroneous.

This is because previous generations of writers – ones whose books are still influential outside of academe – simply got so much wrong. They looked for evidence for what they assumed had happened. They did not ask the sort of questions which would have tested whether their assumptions were valid. Predictably enough, if you don't ask the right sort of questions then you have little chance of getting the right sort of answers.

The current generation of archaeologists and historians are much more aware of the right sort of questions. And so they are steadily shedding light on specific aspects of the fifth to ninth centuries – although there is less material culture and far fewer surviving documents from this period than for the centuries before and after. The only downside of modern scholarship is that any one person is only a specialist in a specific aspect of this period – and few are brave enough to attempt any sort of overview which links their specialist knowledge with the work of other specialists. So academic literature is a bit like a bag-full of pieces from any number of incomplete jigsaws – but without any idea of how the pieces might be fitted together.

An additional problem for historians is that the limited amount of documentation we have was all written by Christian clerks and clerics, so only offers an indirect or downright biased view of pre-Christian beliefs and practices. But, as some of the articles in this website will reveal, if instead of simply translating what they were overtly writing about we look instead at the history of the meaning of some of the key words (see for example The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol and From fate to God) then we can shed light on underlying beliefs which go back before the conversion.

 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013

 


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