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


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Straddling the supposed divide: carvings and cures

This short article has three aims:

  • To bring together a number of ideas discussed in detail in various other articles.
  • To outline an additional example of carvings which straddle to supposed divide between pre- and post-conversion ideas.
  • To briefly consider how charms might also be seen as further evidence for continuity of worldviews.

With numina, potnentia, óðr, læc and wod (see The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol) and metod (see From fate to God) we seem to be witnessing a carry-over of the underlying pagan worldview into early Christian times. Only after many generations do Christian ideologies sink deep enough to mask this transitional underlying way of thinking. Indeed, if surviving written evidence can be relied upon, then only in the late tenth century onwards – with the extensive writings of Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham (circa 955 to circa 1010) and Bishop Wulfstan (died 1023) – was there a real attempt by senior clergy to influence what the laity believed. This is also the period when lords of the manor are beginning to build churches in each village – the start of the 'parish church' which subsequently becomes the most unmissable aspect of British Christianity.

The changes instigated by Ælfric and Wulfstan continue through until the twelfth century. At that time the Benedictine monasteries (all local institutions with a great deal of autonomy) begin to give way to the more centrally-organised orders of Franciscans and Dominicans – and both orders were well-known for their 'preaching friars'. Only after that does 'popular piety' begin to take on the various sensibilities which we most associate with pre-Reformation faith. In other words, we must be careful not to project fairly well-studied later medieval Christianity back much before the twelfth century.

Carvings straddle the divide

Above all, as discussed in 'Paganism', 'paganisms' or 'pre-conversion', we should not assume there was a clear divide between pre-conversion and Christian worldviews. Indeed such a divide is simply an illusion created by earlier generations of scholars who failed to question their own worldviews and assumptions. The evidence simply does not fit such a supposed divide. For example, as I have previously described, the twelfth century tympanum at Stoney Stanton in Leicestershire seems to be linked to a gold bracteate from Skrydstrup, Denmark (Trubshaw 2010; see also Trubshaw forthcoming Ch.11).


Gold bracteate from Skrydstrup, Denmark, depicting Odin or Tyr with a wolf, stag, intertwined snakes and two birds.
Drawing by Lindsay Kerr (from Pollington 2000: 484).

Stoney Stanton tympanum

Stoney Stanton tympanum showing a bishop with crozier and adopting the gesture of blessing with a dragon, a wingless dragon, a lion, what is probably a wolf and a large, presumably malevolent, bird. The vertical slot is almost certainly not original.

Bracteates were thin gold 'pendants' produced between circa 500 to circa 600 and worn as protective amulets. The Skrydstrup example shows Odin with a wolf, stag, intertwined snakes and two birds. Among the other depictions of this legend is a cross-shaft originally from Andreas, Isle of Man, but now in the Manx Museum. There is a similar merging of Scandinavian paganism with Christian iconography on the Gosforth cross, and also on cross fragments now in Leeds and at Sherburn.

Clearly the Stoney Stanton tympanum does not illustrate a biblical tale – it is not Daniel in the lions' den, for example. And yet the story it depicted must have been familiar to those who saw it in the twelfth century. Art historians refer to this collection of motifs rather blandly as 'the master of the beasts'. Although the original legend has been lost we seem to be seeing the later stage of a process of adopting the pagan legend shown on the bracteate and earlier cross shafts into a Christian exegesis. Several other tympana in Derbyshire and Cambridgeshire seemingly continue the same motifs but with increasingly Christian imagery (see Trubshaw 2010; Trubshaw forthcoming Ch.11).

These tympana are not the only evidence for continuity across the supposed 'pagan':Christian divide. In a separate Twilight article I have discussed in more detail how weohs and stapols seemingly continue as crosses and, maybe, as grotesque gargolyes and the like – see Weohs and stapols )

From triple deities to the Holy Trinity

Leaving carvings and such like to one side, the surviving Old English literature provides numerous examples of 'magical' charms mostly intended to heal various ailments. They were all written down by Christian clerics so, unsurprisingly, many of them call upon the power of Christ or use fragments from Latin liturgy such as the Pater Noster. But some of these charms seem to be adaptations of pre-Christian wording and, without doubt, the whole use of charms as part of healing and such like predates the conversion. Just a few, such as the Land Ceremonies Charm (known from a version written down around 1000 but by then almost certainly regarded as archaic) contains the well-known triple evocation 'Erce, Erce, Erce'. The meaning of this is unclear but is quite plausibly the vestigial survival of the name of a 'earth goddess'. (See The deities of the Anglo-Saxons and Amulets and chants.)

Triple evocations of the pre-Christian deities were commonplace. Oaths were sworn on oath rings in the names of three gods. Female tutelary spirits commonly appeared as threesomes (see The Mothers). Alate eighth-century Old Saxon catechism comes down to us with the line '… and I renounce all the Devil's deeds and words, Thunaer and Woden and Saxnot and all those evil beings which are their companions.'

And it would be something close to this catechism which converts needed to recite before they were baptised into their new faith 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' – the liturgical expression of the complex (and originally competing) ideologies of trinitarianism which, despite appearances, regard God as one.

High-level doctrinal arguments aside, any pre-Christian person who first encountered the various doctrines of the Holy Trinity would feel more comfortable with a triple-aspect deity than a purely monotheistic theology. Indeed, perhaps should we think of the various debates about trinitarianism as a process of 'paganising' Christianity, seeking ways to resolve the syncretic 'collision' of worldviews. For example, in The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol I suggets that the Holy Ghost might be a carry over of pre-conversion notions of numina. Clearly. as discussed in From fate to God, the concept of god evolved from a variety of different sources.

Charms straddle the divide

The Anglo-Saxons charms formed part of a wider study of Anglo-Saxon amulets which Audrey Meaney published back in 1981 (Meaney 1981). They have also been discussed by a number of subsequent scholars, notably Karen Jolly, Bill Griffiths and Stephen Pollington (Jolly 1996; Griffiths 1996; Pollington 2000). Meaney notes that the transition from paganism to Christianity seems to happen surprisingly swiftly, even allowing for the fact that these charms are only known to us from ecclesiastical scribes.

But if for a moment we look at things from the perspective of the contributors to Signals of Belief (Carver et al 2010) then there is no clear distinction between supposed paganism and early Christianity – there is just a steady 'shift of emphasis' which only slowly percolates down to the deeper levels of underlying worldviews. While such a re-interpretation of these charms requires a far more detailed and nuanced discussion than is appropriate here, the evidence which Meaney provides is consistent both with her interpretation of a surprisingly swift transition from paganism to Christianity and also with the viewpoint that there is no clear divide between the two, with the supposed swift transition purely an illusion caused by assuming that there was a clear divide.

There is something almost self-referential about this. If the worldview of scholarship is that there is a substantial gulf between paganism and early Christianity then scholars will interpret the evidence according to this underlying worldview. Once such a worldview is itself included in the debates then the same evidence is open to being seen from different perspectives, and the same evidence can be interpreted in entirely different ways. While Meaney's work on charms provides a clear example, in practice most aspects of Anglo-Saxon scholarship are open to the same re-evaluation once we look from the perspective of there having been no clear distinction between supposed paganism and early Christianity.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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