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


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Regular rites as continuity

Sometimes the evidence for continuity is so obvious that it's just taken for granted. And sometimes, as Joseph Hansen wrote in his book Zauberwahn, Inquisition und Hexenprozess im Mittelalter und die Entstehung der Grossen Hexenverfolgung, published in 1900, such continuity flows both ways:

Christianity's own ceremonies differed little from those of the heathen. They only had a different object of worship; therefore, in the fourth century, Christian ceremonies were used by the magician for his own purposes.
translation by Eugene Dukes (Dukes 1996: 196)

However, thanks to some perceptive remarks by Ronald Hutton (Hutton 2013) I am able to add offer some more substantial evidence for continuity across the conversion period.

Before the Reformation, religion is mostly about what people do, not what people believe. Indeed, not until the late tenth century and the preaching of Ælfric of Eynsham (circa 955 – circa 1010) and Wulfstan II (died 1023), did the clergy seem to make any active attempts to influence what lay people believed. Prior to that the best that we can say is that Christianity is what people who say they are Christians actually do (Petts 2011: 34).

Seasonal festivals

So trying to recognise what people did – rather than 'why' they did it – is fundamental. When we look at what medieval Christians did there are two broad, though overlapping, aspects.

Firstly, a '… familiar feature of ancient religion which was reproduced in medieval Christianity was that seasonal festivals were the most important forms of ritual observance.' (Hutton 2013: 337) While regular church attendance on a Sunday now seems the norm for Christians, this practice only starts around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Prior to that people went to church for a succession of spectacular feast days which were timed to form an annual cycle.

Over the last fifty or more years there have been various suggestions about how many – or how few – of the Christian feast days are continuations of pagan precursors. Professor Hutton has been researching this topic for about twenty-five years. He considers that by the later Middle Ages the Christian seasonal customs which had some sort of pre-conversion origin included:

  • a dawn service on Christmas Day
  • blessing candles at the beginning of February
  • consecration of spring foliage on Palm Sunday
  • a ritual drama of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday
  • Rogation processions to bless the crops in May
  • Whitsun parades to celebrate Pentecost, with a white dove released to symbolise the Holy Ghost prayers for the dead on All Hallows and All Souls.

Just doing it

A second aspect of what medieval Christians did is identified by Hutton:

For most of the time the church was regarded as a house of the deity, in which a priest or priests kept regular worship going without the need for a congregation; although the personally devout, and those in need, were of course welcome. This seems to have been very much the pagan pattern.

(Hutton 2013: 337)

In other words, 'just doing it' – or, more specifically, 'just doing it in the same old ways' – is a key part of the continuity. After the Reformation, and especially when preaching took over from the Mass or communion as the main focus of services, a congregation became more essential. While churches still remained 'the house of God' the regular acts of veneration atrophied, while the veneration of saints was vigorously suppressed by the Reformation clergy.

Missing the obvious

From the perspective of modern Christian practices it is easy to miss the 'obvious' continuity with pre-conversion practices. This is because both post-Reformation Protestant denominations and post-Counter-Reformation Catholicism from early modern times onwards all differ greatly from previous medieval Christian practice.

In Protestant Christian worship out went celebration of the Mass, the cult of saints, and most of the seasonal rituals. In other words, anything which was thought – rightly or otherwise – to perpetuate pagan precursors. In came 'a more male-centred concept of the divine order' and compulsory weekly attendance at church services dominated preaching (Hutton 2013: 339). The Oxford Movement of the early nineteenth century reinstated the Mass to the Church of England. But little else of the original way of doing things was brought back. Medieval Christianity differed far more from modern practices than we commonly acknowledge – but differed much less from pre-conversion practices than is commonly assumed.

Only in the early nineteenth century, with the re-introduction of 'High Church' liturgy – sometimes derided as 'Anglo-Catholicism' or 'smells and bells' – was something of the regular worship by clergy in a sometimes otherwise empty church reinstated within the Church of England.

Attending the 'unattended'

This photo, snaffled from Google Maps, shows one of the side altars of St Mary de Castro and gives some idea of how a liturgy involving two clergy is mostly hidden from someone walking around in the main part of the building.

The stone chancel screen at Eastwell, Leicestershire. This gives some idea about how effectively pre-Reformation screens blocked visibility of the Mass for the laity standing in the nave. (The modern-day communion table in front of the screen is, of course, a post-Reformation concept.)

The trilithons at Stonehenge also function as just such a screen, blocking sight – and sound – of the 'mysteries' within.

As an aside, there is something rather moving about walking into an Anglican church to discover such an 'unattended' rite taking place. In the early 1990s I had arranged to meet the verger of St Mary de Castro church one lunchtime to drop off some booklets. I was a good few minutes early for our appointment but went in any way to look around this historic church. I seemed to be the only person there.

But after a few moments I realised the verger was assisting the vicar at one of the side altars. Both were dressed in sumptuous vestments and, as I fairly quickly realised, just about to 'elevate the host' and consecrate the bread and wine. There was no music, and only some candles on the altar. They had no need to raise their voices as they were standing close enough to hear each other when speaking in muted tones. Although at first seeming a little grandiose, I quickly realised that I was witnessing something of the 'mystery' of medieval Christian worship. If this rite had been taking place behind an all-but-opaque chancel screen then the time-shift of nearly half a millennia would have been almost complete.

A little later, when I spoke to the verger after he had changed into his everyday clothes, I'm afraid I forgot to ask whether this was a regular mid-week ritual, or whether there was a different reason.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2014


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