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


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Local distinctiveness in Anglo-Saxon England

Anglo-Saxon England is often referred to as if it was some more-or-less homogenous entity. England today is deeply divided into regions and more subtly divided into the differing identities of counties and cities. Many of those region distinctions – and some of the accents and dialects – were formed before the Norman Conquest. Regional identities in Anglo-Saxon England were much greater than in recent times, and – initially at least – there were a great many more of them.

Bede tells of how the British people had been displaced by Angles, Saxons and Jutes – all with their homelands in different parts of northern Europe. Each of these societies was distinctive not simply because of where they came from and in which parts of Britain they settled, but in their dress, hairstyles, funeral customs and speech. Bede omits to mention the Frisians; perhaps there really weren't many of them. More importantly, he does not elaborate on the marked regional distinctions among the indigenous British.

Anyone driving along the A5 from London towards Chester is following the route of a road the Romans knew as Watling Street but which must have been well-established in the Iron Age. It follows a ridge or watershed which separates the two major river systems in southern England – rivers draining into the Trent and Humber all arise to the north-east and rivers draining into the Severn, Solent and Thames all arise to the south-west.

Watling Street forms the boundary between Leicestershire and Warwickshire. And as one of these is quintessentially part of the East Midlands and the other inseparable from the West Midlands then it acts as a regional boundary. And the clear difference between these regions is largely a consequence of Watling Street being the frontier of the Danelaw in the ninth and tenth centuries. The modern day regional differences include a major difference between the dialects of the West and East Midlands – one of the steepest dialectical divides to survive into recent times.

Imagine then later Anglo-Saxon England, where East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex each had distinctive cultures and dialects. The differences in speech far exceed any modern day regional differences. And then, if you can, imagine earlier Anglo-Saxon England where up to seventy smaller kingdoms jostle for power. These kingdoms must have been as distinctive to their members by their dress and 'slang' as, say, any inner city gang members are to rival gangs today. Yet these kingdoms formed marriages with adjoining kingdoms so any cultural differences were always going to be fluid and ever-changing.

In one sense Anglo-Saxon England was 'homogenous' in that every kingdom, no matter how small or large, promoted its own 'local distinctiveness' (to borrow a phrase invented by Common Ground in 1983). But that is to stretch the meaning of 'homogenous' too far. All references to Anglo-Saxon England should be regarded as denoting complex and ever-changing heterogenous cultures where dress, jewellery, hairstyles and all other aspects of tangible and intangible culture were a mix of time-honoured traditions with ever-changing accommodation of ideas brought in by contact with neighbouring cultures.

And one of the paramount examples of 'tangible and intangible culture' is of course religion.

Paganism is like local cuisine

The historian Ken Dowden looked in detail at Anglo-Saxon England (Dowden 2000)and concluded that Christian missionaries were unable to comprehend variety and chaos of paganism. They did not respond to actual local activities but, rather, to stereotypes based on what pagans in south-west Germany had been doing around the fifth century.

These ideas evolved into breviaria – briefing notes, or 'crib sheets' if you like – intended as aide-mémoires for missionaries to help ensure they suppress pagan activities. Based on typical examples of breviaria Dowden identifies thirty 'bullet points' of which the first are:

  • feasting at the tombs of the dead
  • singing laments to a corpse
  • sacrificing pigs (either to mark the new year and/or at feasts to the dead)
  • performing rituals in huts
  • performing rituals in woods
  • performing rituals at rocks
  • offering sacrifices to springs
  • creating fire from 'rubbed wood' ('need-fire')
  • performing rituals on Thursdays (and perhaps Wednesdays too); this overlaps with performing ceremonies to Jove or Mercury
  • dancing or sacrificing in churches
  • sacrificing to saints
  • wearing amulets
  • enchantments
  • auguries
  • consulting diviners or casting lots.
Somewhere in Europe, at some time, each of these activities was no doubt a clear trait of paganism. But, as Dowden painstakingly established, local practices varied both within regions and across time. This is a proclamation made during the reign of the Merovingian king Carloman in 742:

We have decreed that in accordance with the canons each and every bishop shall take trouble in his parish, with the assistance of the Count who is the defender of the Church, that the people of God shall not perform pagan acts but shall cast aside and reject all the foul features of paganism, such as sacrifices for the dead, lot-casters or diviners, amulets [phylacteria] and auguries, incantations, sacrificial victims which foolish men sacrifice in the pagan ways next to churches in the name of the holy martyrs or confessors, provoking God and his saints to anger, or those sacrilegious fires which they call nied fyr ['need fire'] – in sum all those practices of the pagans, whatever they are, should be energetically prohibited by them.
Capitulary of Carloman Monumenta Germaniae historica: Leges nationum Germanicarum 1.17 (Dowden 2000: 16)

Even though this reads like an authoritative description of what the clergy despised, we need to be careful. Successive examples of such 'rants' from Continental Europe over the following centuries are rather formulaic, suggesting they owed more to the sermons of Caesarius of Arles (circa 469–542) than to actuality. While Caesarius's remarks presumably have some basis in the pre-Christian practices of sixth century Gaul, we should be careful about assuming that later remarks reflect local practice – just as easily they are derived from Caesarius's sermons, which were frequently copied by the scribes of European monasteries long after his death.

The concern with Wednesdays and Thursday is that these were the days associated with the worship of local deities who the clergy equated to the Classical deities Mercury and Jove – as indeed with 'Woden's Day' and 'Thor's (or Thunor's) Day' which give the English names for these days. The concern seems to be that pagans did indeed honour these deities on the respective days – with Thursday seeming to be the predominant choice in northern Europe. So the idea, promulgated widely by Christians, that Sunday as the day for church services is a simple shift from the Judaic tradition of keeping the Sabbath on Saturdays is perhaps only part of the story. Seemingly there was an indigenous tradition among pagan peasants of keeping Thursdays as 'the day of rest'. As such, the shift from Thursdays (or, in some cases, Wednesdays) to Sundays is not so much an example of change but more an example of continuity of underlying worldview.

Towards the end of his book Dowden offers the helpful analogy that paganism was like local cuisine – it simply varied from place to place while respecting some general overall approaches and some regional preferences. This metaphor also works at another level – traditional cuisine is always seasonal and, so too, what pagans did was in a similar way part of an annual cycle.

We should not however regard every aspect of religious practice as merely local – there are of course many others aspects which are pan-regional too. And, after a food metaphor, perhaps an appropriate example is the way in which fasting was initially adopted by the Church. Forget for a moment that in later medieval times Christians fast largely as a penance. The earliest references, mostly relating to Irish-trained bishops, make clear that fasting was regarded as a way of achieving ritual purity (and so, by extension, an excellent penance). But achieving ritual purity by fasting does not come from Christian practices of the time. We are looking at a continuation of pre-Christian practices.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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