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


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Some conclusions about Anglo-Saxon worldviews

For too long the pre-conversion Anglo-Saxon era has been seen through the 'lenses' of Christian assumptions and doctrines. Once such assumptions are put aside then a consistent and quite distinct worldview appears.

For the sake of brevity I have summarised this worldview under six headings.

1: Gods walked the Earth

Firstly, deities are immanent, not transcendent. This means we should be very cautious about using such terms as 'otherworlds' and 'supernatural' because, from the perspective of an immanent worldview, there is no such thing as an otherworld or the supernatual. Everything is part of this world, although not necessarily always as tangible. The better term is 'preternatural', that which stands 'beside' the natural world. Whether elves or angels, saints or demons, they were all part of the world. Modern materialism, reductionism and 'explanationism' had no part in this worldview.

Immanence and the term preternatural are both discussed in more detail in The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol and Who were the landwights?.

2: The was no body:soul or body:mind distinction

Secondly, Old English authors struggle to find words which express such dualist distinctions as body:soul or even body:breath. This suggests that the pre-conversion worldview was considerably less dualist than Western thinking in recent centuries. So, monism means that our bodies and brains are all part of a single 'reality'. This same monist way of thinking also means that deities – whether major ones or more local 'spirit deities' – are also part of our world, not residents in some 'upperworld', or even 'lower world'.

Monism and dualism are discussed in more detail in Seeing past 'secular' assumptions.

3: Everything was emergent

Thirdly, the world was not seen through the distorting lenses of Greek philosophy. So it was not inherently rational. It was not 'shaped by God' and essentially fixed. Nor were there clear-cut dualisms. Instead there was a sense of continual emergent creation and renewal. Such a view of reality as a 'process' is inherent in traditional animistic cultures.

The sense of a culture being emergent and ever-renewing may seem somewhat alien after many centuries of literate culture, where libraries and such like enable memories and traditions to survive non-corporeally. But in oral societies the entire culture must be passed on orally or by continuity of practice. Not for nothing did the Scottish Travellers refer to this process as 'the carrying stream of memory'.

From the perspective of such a worldview everything was one of continual renewal. The process was 'powered' by a deep-rooted 'potency' which was known in Latin as numina. The same sense seems to be conveyed in Old English by words such as læc and wod. In Old Norse it was óðr. After the conversion the Latin word potentia took over.

This numinous potency was immanent – that is, it did not have a 'supernatural' origin – and manifested through certain trees, rocks, wells, spirit-deities and (after the conversion) local saints. The when the Christian doctrine that potentia was the power of Christ – and thus had a transcendent origin – began to take hold did the pre-conversion notions of an immanent numina begin to fade away.

If there was a sense of reincarnation then it was a full 're-immersion' in the primordial cauldron of creativity. Unlike modern concepts, when the soul in some manner retains its identity, this primordial reincarnation was akin to the molecules and atoms of the body being broken down so they could reappear in an entirely new guise – whether animate or inanimate. Souls, indeed, are seemingly absent from pre-conversion thinking. This may be a limitation of the sources, but further work might reveal more about what a soul was thought to be before Christian doctrines dominated. My initial thoughts are that the pre-conversion worldview was essentially monist, so there was no 'mind:body' dualism (essentially a secular successor to Christian doctrines of the soul being distinct from the 'mortal coil').

Emergent creativity and animism are discussed in more detail in The carrying stream of memory.

Reincarnation is discussed in more detail in Seeing past 'secular' assumptions.

4: The protectors of the tribe

Fourth, people did not principally think of themselves as individuals in the modern manner. Their identity was as a member of a kin-group, lineage or 'clan'. And those senses of blood-line were inextricably bound together with identity with a specific place.

The place and the blood-line were under the protection of local tutelary deities. We know little about them but seemingly they were known in Old English as modra – 'The Mothers'. They seem to be the counterparts to the dísir of northern Europe, the landveitter of Scandinavia sagas, the Deae Matronae and Di Penates of the Roman empire and the Lares of more recent Italy. Almost certainly it is these Mothers who Bede refers to when he states that December was known to the Anglo-Saxon people as Modranech, 'the Mother's Night'.

A substantial number of aelfa and landwights appear in the later Old English literature, as well as sometimes lending their names to places. However few, if any, of these sources shed any clear light on their nature.

Toutatis, the 'tribal protector', is discussed in more detail in Romano-British deities and The queen of the valley

The Mothers are discussed in more detail in The Mothers, The Mothers and the Mother of God and The queen of the valley.

The landwights are discussed in more detail in Who were the landwights?.

5: Be careful what you look for

Fifth, the transition from pre-conversion to post-conversion worldviews is slow. Only in the late tenth century is there any real effort by senior clergy to change the beliefs of the laity. It takes until the twelfth century for this transition to be effectively completed. Only then does popular practice and piety begin to fully resemble our assumptions about medieval Christianity.

However we should not look at the earlier phases of this transition as 'pagan survivals'. From the seventh century onwards most English people would have thought of themselves as Christian. However, our ideas of what it is to be Christian are not necessarily reflected in what was practised and believed more than a thousand years ago. If you simply look for later versions of Christianity you will be perplexed by what is happening before the tenth centuries. If you are more careful and open-minded about what 'being Christian' might entail then you may be less perplexed. But you will feel least perplexed if you also abandon Christian concepts of 'pagan' and 'paganism' and, instead, simply acknowledge the immense variations over place and time of what are better termed 'pre-conversion' practices and beliefs.

In the fifth to ninth centuries Christianity followed pre-conversion customs in that each abbot or bishop ruled over what to all intents and purposes was a 'micro-Christendom'. Local traditions and practices were more consequential than hierarchically-imposed doctrines.

The long transition from pre- to post-conversion worldviews and practices is discussed in Rethinking conversion, Imagined Christianity, Micro-Christendoms, Micro-pagandoms and There is no paganism. There is only what we do here.

Evidence for this transition is discussed in Weohs and stapols, From protective dragons to protective saints, The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol, From fate to God, Straddling the supposed divide: carvings and cures and Amulets and chants.

Frankly, almost all the articles in Twilight are either based on this premise or add another piece of evidence.

6: In the beginning were the words…

Sixth, Old English words such as frea, dryhten and the Old Irish word érlam are used before the conversion then 'recycled' into key Christian contexts. The pre-conversion sense of numina is seemingly shared by the Old English words læc and wod, together with the Old Norse word óðr; after the conversion all these words seem to evolve into the slightly different sense of potentia.

The extent to which underlying worldviews are, perhaps unwittingly, sustained by this practice of 'adapting' exisitng words needs to be looked at more closely. Furthermore, such closer study may reveal more examples of words which similarly straddle the conversion.

Frea, dryhten are discussed in more detail in From fate to God.

Érlam is discussed in The Mothers and The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol.

The continuity of numina, læc,wod and potentia is discussed in The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol.

7: Look at the icons

Seventh, in an analogous way to the words which straddle the conversion process, there seem to be a number of images on early Christian crosses – such as dragons and wryms – which have no prior source except pre-conversion weohs and stapols. Furthermore, the grotesque stone corbels of the twelfth century and the gargoyles and other church carvings of the next three centuries may also be the descendants of the woodcarving tradition which produced the weohs and stapols. If so, this raises the possibility that the female exhibitionists – so called 'sheela na gigs' – are descended from weohs and stapols which were erected to 'defend' boundaries.

If the paradigms of archaeologists and art historians were combined with, say, the paradigms of cultural historians then I suspect that the iconography of crosses and other carvings associated with churches could reveal more evidence for continuity from pre-conversion 'icons'.

See Weohs and stapols, The quain tree and the weoh cwen and Straddling the supposed divide: carvings and cures.

8: Regular rites as continuity

Additionally, both the annual cycle of seasonal feasts and the practice of performing rites of worship in churches seem to be continuations of pre-conversion practices. See Regular rites as continuity.

As discussed in the section of Hohs and hlaws entitled 'Were hlaws burial mounds or altars?', the cult of first settlers seems to continue seamlessly into the cults of founding saints of early churches. The location of the cult activity shifts from 'burial mounds' to churches, although pre-conversion 'burial mounds' might better be thought of as 'sacrificial altars' for the same reasons we do not regard churches as primarily places of burial (even though far more people are buried in or near churches than in or near burial mounds!).

Beyond conclusions

Many of the articles which make up Anglo-Saxon Twilight are, in many respects, provisional. Nevertheless these eight broad interim 'conclusions' seem to merit further investigation. Please email me if you can add anything to these suggestions – or detract in an informed way!


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013–14


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