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


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Imagined Christianity

Trying to understand the conversion of the English in more detail – and the prior conversion of other parts of the British Isles – has understandably intrigued historians for many centuries. Sadly some of the earlier ecclesiastical historians were as inaccurate in their assumptions and conclusions as their contemporaries looking at the history of paganism. One of the most influential of these 'blunders' appeared in 1962 called The Age of Saints in the Celtic Church. The author was Nora Chadwick. Chadwick's thesis was that Ireland, Scotland and Wales (along with Cornwall and Brittany if you want to be completist) not only shared a language, Celtic, but also a cultural identity. And, she supposed, they shared an early Christian culture until the Roman Catholic hierarchy staged a take-over bid at the Synod of Whitby in 664.

Chadwick's thesis contrasts sharply with current academic thinking. For example, the Reformation historian Alexandra Walsham considers that the idea of a Celtic church – predating the Augustinian mission, so thereby 'free from Popish corruption' – should be regarded as a Protestant myth. (Walsham 2011: 489).

The notion of a 'Celtic Christianity' which linked the far north of the British Isles with the far south-west is seductive. Many practising Christians have been seduced by a version of this imaginative take on history which is still actively promulgated, most notably by a retreat centre on Iona. Ian Bradley, who initially embraced Chadwickls notions of a supposed Celtic Christianity, wrote:

Celtic Christianity is less an actual phenomenon defined in historical and geographical terms than an artificial construct created out of wishful thinking, romantic nostalgia and the projection of all kind of dreams about what should and might have been.
(Bradley 1999: vii)

While 'all kind of dreams' about a supposed Celtic Christianity have become a part of modern Christian faith, the historical evidence tells of a very different story. There were close cultural contacts between Scotland and Ireland – indeed, the eponymous Scotii originated in Ireland – but there was no love to be lost between, say, the Irish and the Welsh.

Imagined Celts

The whole idea of those parts of the British Isles which are not England having a shared identity goes back a mere three hundred years to the Act of Union of 1704 – when 'Celtic' came to mean 'British but not bloody English', as the historian Simon Jones put it in lectures promoting his book The Atlantic Celts (Jones 1999).

Yes there is a common origin for the non-Germanic languages we know as Irish, Scottish, Manx, Cornish, Breton and the dialects of north and south Wales. But these are not mutually intelligible. The Gaelic of Ireland and Scotland have a common origin but evolved into two distinct languages when Irish Gaelic-speakers settled in the Dál Riata or Dalriada region of western Scotland. But there are much greater differences between the Irish and Scots Gaelic and the languages spoken in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.

In the early eighteenth century it was a reasonable mistake to assume that a common origin for the languages implied a common origin for other aspects of culture. But as our understanding of the traditional cultures in the Celtic-speaking countries has improved we can see far more differences than similarities. Just as the languages have evolved into distinct variants so too the cultures should be regarded as essentially different, even if, as always, there are some overlaps with near neighbours.

Imagined Celtic art

The use of the term 'Celtic' to describe a non-existent shared culture is also misleading as it implies – erroneously – that the style of Iron Age art known to scholars as La Tène and more popularly since the 1960s as 'Celtic Art' was part of this British culture. What is often referred to as 'Celtic art' – interlace patterns and such like – is often based on Anglo-Scandinavian carvings, so has no connections with Celtic culture except that some of the carvings are found in supposedly Celtic countries when Scandinavians settled there (the various tenth century Christian cross-shafts on the Isle of Man are a good example, although far from the only ones).

Debunking Celtic Christianity

Simon Jones in his book The Atlantic Celts, published in 1999, offers a thorough debunking of the myth of shared Celtic identity, while acknowledging that this invented myth is very much alive and well in places such as Ireland and Scotland. The debunking of the notion of a shared 'Celtic Christianity' had begun long before Jones' book appeared. Back in 1982 a collection of papers appeared under the title The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland (Pearce 1982). In this eminent historians such as Wendy Davies and Charles Thomas noted that the evidence did not fit the theory – the earliest Christianity in Wales and Cornwall was quite distinct from what was happening in Ireland at that time, although there was contact.

As just a single example, Welsh and Cornish saints were associated with specific places – and their names are fossilised in settlement names to this day, especially in Cornwall. In contrast Irish saints were forever wandering to convert yet another king and his subjects, or setting off for pilgrimages to remote islands. Not for nothing are they described in Latin texts as peregrines which has the narrower sense of 'to travel abroad, be alien', but was used figuratively with the sense 'to wander, roam, travel about'.

Ten years later another collection of academic papers (Edwards and Lane 1992) added more detail. Together these papers – and substantial a number of others dispersed through the relevant academic literature – reveal that in each of these countries there was considerable change even before the Roman church provided a major influence. To again take one example from a great many, the belief that the Synod of Whitby was a pivotal moment between this supposed deeply-rooted 'Celtic Union' and the upstarts from Rome should be seen as an over-simplification of a much more complex and protracted process of merger. For example, the Irish ecclesiastical leaders had already adopted the Roman date for Easter before 664 while some Welsh churches retained the old calendar until 768, over a hundred years after the Synod of Whitby. What happened at Whitby at one synod was just one part of a much more extended process which was already underway, but would not be completed for many generations.

For those seeking an up-to-date overview of what can sensibly be said of Britain during the early phases of conversion to Christianity then Barbara Yorke's book published in 2006 (Yorke 2006) covers all the relevant sources and topics. While it is academically sound sadly her style of writing is dry-as-tinder. This is in part because Yorke is strong on individuals and events – the nuts and bolts – and more reticent about exploring the 'whys' and 'hows'. Indeed, without reliable 'nuts and bolts' there can only be fanciful narratives.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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