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


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Putting the Dark Ages in the spotlight

Only a few decades ago the whole era between the early fifth century – when the Roman administration and army packed its bags and went home – until the Norman Conquest in 1066 seemed difficult to fathom. Not for nothing was it known as the 'Dark Ages'. A few writers published books in the 1950s and '60s which tried to make sense of this era. In the absence of any alternatives these books became very popular and remain influential outside academe.

More recent scholarship suggests that in the parts of the British Isles which had been under Roman administration up to three-quarters of the population 'disappeared' in the decades after the Roman withdrawal. Some no doubt found a new life on the Continent. But all the evidence is that in most parts of what we now think of as England there was a dramatic collapse of society.

While the direct evidence is lacking – and the absence of evidence is itself one of the clues – the most reasonable scenario is of a population who were either themselves starving or suffering the depredations of other people desperate to steal food. Those that didn't die would risk being enslaved and shipped abroad to be sold.

In eastern England little of the Romano-British way of life survived into the sixth century. Maybe the indigenous population died of starvation, were killed defending their land, sold into slavery, or sought refuge further west. Or maybe they simply quickly adapted to the Anglo-Saxon way of doing things. Most probably 'all of the above' to some extent. The consequence for religion is that there is no evidence for Romano-British 'paganisms' nor for any survival of pioneering Christainty. In this part of Britian religious activity became, so far as we can tell from the limited evidence, a continuity of north German practices and beliefs.

On the margins of the former Roman empire – notably the Welsh Marches – a few local 'war lords' managed to sustain a semblance of the old order. They looked back to the days of the Roman Empire fondly and attempted, so much as they could, to sustain that lifestyle. Like all 'Golden Ages' the Roman era was probably better in selective memories – legends and such like – than it had been in reality. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of this post-Roman lifestyle – dubbed romanitas (Latin for 'Roman-ness') – at the Roman town of Wroxter and elsewhere. And, if archaeologists ever discover evidence for someone akin to King Arthur, then in all probability those remains will share the same traits of romanitas.

While the period immediately after the Romans went is still, by and large, something of a puzzle, from the sixth century onwards archaeologists and historians have been shining an increasingly bright spotlight on what was once deemed the Dark Ages. We now have an increasingly clear view of where people were living and what they doing. There's only one problem. Most of these new insights contradict, to a greater or lesser extent, what was written in the 1950s and '60s. So, outside the relevant academic departments, most of what people think they know about Anglo-Saxons is – to a greater or lesser extent – wrong.

One of the bigger problems is the legacy of the popular writers of the 1950s and '60s. They drew upon the sagas and archaeology of Scandinavia at this time and assumed that, because both Scandinavian and Britain were both settled by tribes which originated in Germany, this shed light on what was happening in Anglo-Saxon England. True, the Vikings did come from Scandinavia to settle in Britain from the late ninth century onwards. Indeed the Danelaw ruled the north and east of England for a number of years, and in the eleventh century a Danish king, Cnut, also gained the English monarchy and successfully ruled England for thirty years.

But there had been over four hundred years of Anglo-Saxon England before the Vikings started settling. What happened between, say, 450 and around 900? Were people worshipping English versions of Óðinn and Þórr? (See pronounciation guide.) As Stephen Pollington has described in his book (The Elder Gods), there is a complex relationship between the English deities Woden and Thor and their Scandinavian counterparts Óðinn and Þórr. Simplest to say that one pair is not the 'ancestor' of the other pair but rather that all four are the result of complex cultural interchange during the ninth to eleventh centuries.

Place-names certainly confirm that Woden and Thor were well-known in some parts of England – Wansdyke, Wednesbury, Thundersley , Thurstable, etc. But we don't know for certain when those places acquired those names. Indeed, because we only ever know the more recent name for a place and rarely any older names – at least until the eleventh century when records begin to survive – then it is safer to assume that these may be fairly late names, not early ones.

This is consistent with the historical evidence that Woden does not feature very much at all before the process of conversion to Christianity was underway in the seventh century. As David Parsons has succinctly noted, we simply cannot assume that Woden place-names bear witness to pagan practices or even beliefs, any more than the various Devil's Dykes and Devil's Punchbowls bear witness to devil worshipping in recent centuries. Woden and Thor in surviving place-names may be every much as legendary as the Devil of the dykes, ditches and punchbowls. (Parsons 2013: 48–9)

While Woden and Thor are the pagan deities who survive in place-names, they were not the only deities being worshipped. This seems to be a compelling reason to regard the place-name evidence as being 'distorted' by the conversion.

We know what the missionaries converting people to. But what were they converting people from? And if it wasn't worshipping Woden, then which deities were being venerated? The best answer is Ing and The Mothers. And if neither of those two names means much to you then it reveals just how big a gap there is between popular understanding – perhaps better described as 'popular misunderstanding' – and what seems to have been going on in the centuries before the Christian missionaries began to get the upper hand.

See also The deities of the Anglo-Saxons and The Mothers.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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