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


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One way and other, the illusion of a more-or-less homogenous 'Celtic Christianity' spanning vast geographical territories and equally expansive periods of time which was created by Nora Chadwick's writing (see Imagined Christianity) could not be further from the reality.

To pick on a few examples. In the sixth century south Wales was sending priests to Cornwall. The place-names of Wales and Cornwall still include an exceptional number of names of local saints or references to the church or churchyard compared to other parts of Britain. And yet, while these early contacts can still be discerned, the there are plenty of differences which reflect the different ways Christianity evolved in Cornwall and Wales in subsequent centuries.

For example, after the sixth century south Wales is increasingly influenced by Irish Christianity. This is not surprising as Ireland was the first country outside the former Roman empire to convert, and the emphasis on missionary zeal quickly extended outside its own shores, at a time when Christianity in England was seemingly quite vestigial. By the late ninth century and into the tenth century it is Wales' turn to send out ministers on a mission – this time into neighbouring Wessex. But by then Wessex had been converted by Irish clerics...

These examples of Christianity constantly-evolving in local regions are multiplied in the relevant literature. We get the impression that these 'regions' were in many respects acting almost autonomously. The historian Barbara Yorke has described early Anglo-Saxon religious houses as 'ad hoc' (Yorke 2013). Indeed a number of scholars have adopted the phrase 'micro-Christendoms' to describe them.

Abbots versus bishops

This is a convenient smokescreen because when we ask such questions as 'How big are these regions?' we get some rather woolly answers. Some of the woolliness is simply because the evidence is too fragmentary. But one key reason is that Christianity in the British Isles before the tenth century was being fought over by two powerful hierarchies – the abbots and the bishops. The abbots – along with a smaller number of abbesses – controlled the monasteries and nunneries. The bishops controlled the minsters and, from the tenth century onwards, the emerging parish churches.

The abbots or abbesses who founded early monastic communities devised their own rules for the monks or nuns. This resulted in a ceaselessly proliferating diversity of rules – with the benefit that monastic communities were extraordinarily adaptable. In their early manifestations such monastic settlements were physically indistinguishable from the fortified farms of their secular kinsfolk. This is reflected by so many of these early monasteries leading to place-names which are a personal name followed by '–bury', a corruption of the Old English burh, denoting a fortified earthwork. Within a few miles of where I'm sitting writing this are Alderbury, Amesbury, Heytesbury, Malmesbury, Ramsbury and Tisbury which are all early religious sites which originates as personal names followed by burh. Add to them such places as Avebury, Westbury, Yatesbury and so forth then we can readily imagine that era of Anglo-Saxon Wiltshire as dotted with large fortified farms, with little to distinguish those that were primarily whether religious from those that were not.

Quite independently from the abbots, the bishops were firmly embedded in a much less adaptable hierarchy. They extended their authority over cathedral churches and the subservient minsters which provided pastoral care to typically a few dozen villages.

The Old English word biscop is a borrowing from the Latin episcopus, with the broad sense of 'overseer or supervisor'. Curiously, it also appears in pre-Christian contexts. However we have no clues as to the exact role of such 'overseers' or 'supervisors' in a pagan community so cannot assume their role was primarily religious – though that does seem probable.

The power of abbots and bishops

The frequently-conflicting interests of abbots and bishops were further confused as 'grass roots' Christianity – funded by wealthy landowners – established the parish churches during the tenth century. This led to the demise of minsters. However the complexities of tenth and eleventh century Christianity are not central to this study.

What is important is understanding the spheres of influence of abbots and bishops. These days they are 'men of faith'. Back then they were the sons of the nobility – and to hang on to the job required brothers or other relatives who were prepared to fight and, at times, murder any opposition. Not that abbots and bishops themselves were pacifists – most could give a good account of themselves on the battlefield. Clearly what was at stake was the wealth of the estates they, to all intents and purposes, owned. They were major players in the Establishment. Indeed bishops still form part of the membership of the House of Lords (abbots of course went through a bit of a bad patch while Henry VIII was on the throne).

Before the Dissolution abbots held substantial areas of land, as did bishops. This was as true in pre-Conquest England. And their 'pastoral influence' extended over an even greater area. How great? There's simply no one answer for abbots. Some were well-known and revered over a large region. Others were presumably well-known but instead of being revered were reviled for what was perceived as near-despotic behaviour. Some lived for a long time and had a chance to establish their reputation – for good or for ill – while others met their Maker rather too soon. Most of them were canonised soon after their death – unlike more recent times when making someone into a saint is the culmination of a lengthy process which ultimately requires papal approval, in medieval times this was determined largely by the efforts (and interests) of an abbot's successor.

With bishops we have a clearer idea of their extent of their authority – then as now it was their bishopric or diocese. The number of dioceses has changed at various times and only some of the current ones reflect their former boundaries. One early medieval diocese for which there are good records is Worcester. The historian Della Hooke has looked at these records and a considerable amount of other evidence and concluded that the diocese covered the same area of land – the historic county of Worcestershire and some of adjoining Gloucestershire – as the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Hwicce tribe (Hooke 1985).

This makes perfect sense as the chronicles of the Christian conversion make it clear that this was top down – the relevant cleric baptised a king and his whole kingdom henceforth was deemed to be Christian. Yes, it does suggest that closer to the 'grass roots' the conversion might not have been so well understood. Be that as it may, the newly-converted king would need a newly-appointed bishop to look after the newly-changed spiritual needs of his kingdom. Who better to appoint than the cleric who had just converted and baptised him? Almost by definition newly-created bishops would start off the dioceses the size of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

One slight problem. Anglo-Saxon kings were continually being compelled to form allegiances with other kings to avoid being taken over by yet other kings. So kingdoms were an ever-shifting entity. Before the era of active conversion kingdoms were the size of Rutland – indeed Rutland is the only surviving land-unit in Britain which preserves such a kingdom (Phythian-Adams 1980). We even know the name of the king – Rota, hence 'Rota's land' which contracts to Rutland (forget all the spurious suggestions about raddling sheep). If you really want to follow up on this then I have argued elsewhere that to the west of Rutland is another land unit of almost the same area, centred on Melton Mowbray and extending to the line of the Fosse Way to the west, and to two prominent ridges of hills to the north and south (Trubshaw 2012a: 47–50).

To be pedantic Rutland seems to start out as a Bronze Age land unit. This begs a number of questions about whether the earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms reflect Roman administrative territories known as regios – which do sometimes seem to 'resurface' in later Anglo-Saxon times as groups of parishes which are royal estates. And that in turn raises the possibility that at least some regios are successors to Iron Age or even Bronze Age land units and evolve into early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. There is little evidence yet considerable scope for speculation! I raise this topic not to seek – or even suggest – any sort of answers but simply because at the end of this section I will make some different generalised remarks about these early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

Whatever their origins, most of these very early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms soon merged. We should think less of 'kingdoms' at this time than of 'kindreds' – shifting loyalties between local leaders which lasted only until the death of the leader, without the sense of continuity to a 'rightful heir' that we now associate with kingship. That notion of a lineage of kings only comes in with conversion – indeed, the expectation of greater security for the king and his family and retinue may well have influenced the reason for him converting, as much as any change in spiritual attitudes. Even in the eighth and ninth centuries when this notion of lineage is well-established, the surviving documents which list various rulers' supposed genealogies go back to deities such as Woden. This is, presumably, less a case of thinking of themselves as a descendant of the god but more a continuation of a belief that the god was the mythical founder-father of the tribe.

How big were micro-Christendoms?

By the time of the conversion kingdoms more typically are the size of later counties or a little larger. As time moved on they got bigger and bigger until England, with the exception of the south-west, was under the influence of four major players – East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. Dioceses were subject to some changes as a result, although most of the significant changes comes about later as a direct response to Viking raiding and intimidation, culminating with the loss of some of the traditional dioceses by the time the Danelaw was formed in 886.

Throughout this era we seem to be dealing with a system whereby each bishop answered primarily to the relevant king – and was probably related to him. Despite the church's hierarchy extending to archbishops and the papacy, in Anglo-Saxon England each bishop seems to have been pretty much a law unto himself. As with abbots, some were more benign and spiritual than others.

This near-autonomy extended to liturgical practices. The Protestant Book of Common Prayer was largely modelled on the pre-Reformation rites of Sarum (strictly the 'Use of Sarum'), devised by Salisbury Cathedral and its precursor at Sarum. However this was only one of a number of distinct liturgies – the Book of Common Prayer could, in principle, have been compiled from the Use of Hereford, or of York, Aberdeen or wherever – even the Use of Bangor has partially survived. By the Reformation each of these sets of rites had evolved over many centuries.

If we find this idea of a less than homogenous pre-Reformation Christianity a little more surprising then cast your mind back to the first centuries of Christianity. Historical evidence, backed up by archaeological evidence from the catacombs, reveals that in Rome during the first three centuries of Christianity – while it was still condemned by the authorities – there were at least twenty quite distinct ways of being Christian. Some of these were closer to what we know think of a 'mystery cults' and others were strongly influenced by religious practices from places further east. At the core was the ritual meal emulating the Last Supper – although seemingly far more akin to Bacchanalian feasts than in later Christianity. This rich mixture of 'local diversity' was all within one city, where followers of one group were likely to be aware of the practices of some of the other groups.

A few centuries later and Christianity was still heterodox. Among the more influential options were Arianism, Pelagianism and Monophysitism. These were all more-or-less repressed by the Latin Church, although some of these ideas influenced Byzantine Orthodox Christianity.

Despite all attempts to impose 'top down' uniformity, when missionary activities dispersed over wide geographical expanses there was scope for considerable diversity of practice and belief.

This diversity is neatly summaried by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in the opening chapter of his book about giants:

Yet to speak of Latin, northern, and Celtic culture is to pretend that these were monolithic and discrete, when each was composed of often competing ideologies, dialects, mythologies – like 'Anglo-Saxon England' itself. These various languages and discourses combined into fragmentary epistemes, as unstable and amalgamative as the many little kingdoms that formed and were absorbed into larger ones. The history of Anglo-Saxon England is a narrative of resistant hybridity, of small groups ingested into larger bodies without full assimilation, without cultural homogeneity: thus the realms of Hwicce, Sussex, Kent, Lindsey, Surrey, Essex, East Anglia, Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex were sutured over time into progressively larger kingdoms, but although they were eventually unified in political hegemony, these areas retained enough force of heterogenity to remain dialect regions that persist to the present day.
(Cohen 1999: 4)

Kingdoms and micro-Christendoms

Bishops and kingdoms might have been a close fit at the time of conversion. However these kingdoms evolved. And the abbots were seemingly never so closely tied to pre-existing administrative units. The recent thinking of Martin Carver (Carver 2009; 2012) is that the 'micro-Christendoms' reflect deeply-rooted communities sharing religious practices which are much more stable than the ever-shifting political kingdoms. The implication is that these micro-Christendoms predate conversion – perhaps by many centuries – although the direct evidence is lacking.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013–2014


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