Stafford River Bridge / Wikimedia Commons
Introduction to the British Isles
Northumbria map / Wikimedia Commons
Today, we’re going to talk about Ireland and England, predominantly England, not because Ireland isn’t important, but because we know less about Ireland. The reason we know relatively more about England in its post-Roman period, that is to say after 420, is because of the historian Bede writing in the early eighth century, a monk at Jarrow, which was part of a twin monastery in Northumbria, which you see on the above map on the northeastern part of England before you get to what’s now Scotland.
Bede wrote, among other things, A History of the English Church and People, which is full of miracles and very, very pro-Christian, as much as Gregory of Tours. But it is a much more easy -to-follow narrative, and a narrative with a certain kind of point. It’s about the conversion of England and the establishment of the Church.
The other advantage for England over Ireland in terms of evidence is archaeology. A lot more has been done with excavating sites in England. Now by England, we mean literally England, the part that is not Wales, not Scotland, not Ireland, the part of the British Isles. The ensemble, essentially the two islands, are referred to as the British Isles. Britain is England, Scotland and Wales. Ireland is Ireland.
The Britons, however, are the collective term for the Celtic population. Celtic is both a linguistic group and a somewhat vague ethnic term. It means the people who were there in the British Isles before the Romans came, and who were there afterwards fighting invaders from Europe. These invaders, who come in the 440’s, are known as the Anglo-Saxons. Bede tells us it’s the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. The Angles give their name to England, Angle-land. The Jutes we know nothing about. So a certain kind of medievalist will go on about founding a journal of Jute studies and inviting contributors to something that we really have absolutely no idea of. It would be in that league of smallest, thinnest volumes, at least in terms of three dimensional books.
The Saxons come from– there’s still a very large part of Germany called “Saxony.” What the nature of these peoples are, how they were differentiated among themselves, is a source of a lot of real, or at least looks real, scholarship, as opposed to studying the Jutes, but we don’t have to go into that.
If you need to get the cast of characters: Celts, Anglo-Saxons. And the Anglo-Saxons conquer much of the island, more or less what would become England, but not all. They do not conquer Scotland. They do not conquer Wales. And they don’t really conquer Cornwall. So the western part of Britain remains Celtic. And to this day, Wales and Scotland consider themselves different from England. You can get into a lot of trouble by calling that area “England” with the people there. And particularly in Scotland, there’s a possibility that they may separate from the United Kingdom at some point.
Map of Ireland depicting the early medieval kingdoms of Ulster, Connacht, Meath, Leinster and Munster. / Wikimedia Commons
Ireland was never occupied by the Romans. Ireland was Celtic, was in contact with the Roman Empire, but was not part of it. This makes some difference– and we’ll talk about it when we come to talk about conversion– but it doesn’t make as much difference as it sounds. Because the thing about England, or Britain, is that the Roman impress there would be almost wiped out once the Romans withdrew.
And so, in contrast to what we saw with Gregory of Tours and Merovingian Gaul, Merovingian Frankish kingdom, the Roman influence in Britain is almost wiped out. Recall what we saw as persistence of Roman practices in the Merovingian kingdom: bishops, cities, the Latin language, tax records, written legal codes. That is not to say that the Merovingians weren’t, as I said before, to be described by technical terms like “thugs.” Or that this was a sleek, well-functioning kingdom. You landed at the airport and got the train immediately, and everything was sleek and nice like Amsterdam or someplace like that, as opposed to Kennedy. But that the Roman inheritance was visible and influential.
In Britain, when the Roman troops withdrew to fight the invaders in Gaul, this ended Roman society in Britain. And the reason for this is partly that Britain was a frontier viewed from the point of view of the Mediterranean, the center of gravity of the Roman Empire. The frontier symbolized most dramatically by walls, the most famous of which is Hadrian’s Wall, a wall that separated out the barbarians.
But since you didn’t have a river like the Danube or the Rhine, there seemed to be no natural frontier. Remnants of Hadrian’s Wall are the largest souvenir of the Roman era, a wall to keep out the barbarians from the north because in fact, the Romans didn’t conquer the entire island. They conquered the parts they thought were worthwhile. And they did think it was worthwhile, frontier or not. We know that the Romans built villas — They might be a little cold, these somewhat open air Mediterranean-planned things, but mosaic courtyards — drank a lot of wine, much of it imported; built cities, walls, other fortifications; cultivated land.
So it’s not as if there wasn’t a serious Roman province of Britain from its conquest in the late first century until its abandonment in the early fifth century. But here, the invaders tended to obliterate much of what had been there in Roman times. And the Celtic population, who had been Romanized, at least at the elite levels, the Celtic population didn’t really save very much from the Roman Empire.
The Celts might remain Christian, whereas the invaders were pagan. But the Celts tended not to have cities, or at least large centers. And they tended not to have or retain Roman forms of government. The one kind of, if not literally interesting, at least weird aspect of Celtic-Roman resistance is the figure of King Arthur. I’m going to bring him up now, and then I’m going to drop him.
King Arthur belongs properly to the continuation of this course, because his legendary status starts really in the world of romance, of French romance and then of international romance, chivalric literature. By romance, we mean not only love stories, but novels of chivalry, of knights, of battles. He is a figure who is 99.9% legend, whatever the remainder of that, 0.1% real. Insofar as he is real, he may be identified with Celtic resistance to the Anglo-Saxons invaders, Celtic-Roman resistance in the late fifth, early sixth centuries.
But the proportion of art to history in this is, if not 99.9%, at least very, very substantial. So the original setting of the Arthurian stories is that of the resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invaders. The Arthurian romances do have a kind of Celtic beginning. Well, not a “kind of” – they do have a Celtic beginning and then they are appropriated by people in the romance language tradition. French, first of all.
So as Wickham says on page 151, “Nowhere else in the Roman Empire was the collapse of culture, economy and urbanization so complete.” He uses that wonderful phrase again, “radical economic simplification,” i.e., there’s no more plumbing. There’s no more what we would consider to be affluent, civilized society. The ceramics don’t come from Africa anymore. The wine doesn’t come from France anymore. People are reduced to a kind of subsistence. Or at least most people, because as we’ll see, some of these kings actually are able to get some luxury goods from abroad.
If it were just a story of barbarization, it would be less interesting than in fact the peculiar nature of England in this period, which goes from being a contested territory between the Germanic invaders and the Celtic population to a kingdom slowly converted, in the course of the seventh century, to Christianity from paganism, to the leading center of culture in Europe. Bede, who lived from 673 to 735, was the most cultivated scholar in Europe of the early eighth century. And the most cultivated scholar in Europe of the late eighth century was also from England, Alcuin, counselor and adviser to Charlemagne.
How do you go from being a– well, I don’t like to use the word “primitive,” but certainly barbarian enough area, to having the largest libraries, the most cultivated scholars? Now it is true, as I think I’ve said before, that any time you can say that such and such a person was the smartest person in Europe has got to be a fairly bad time. Right? In the 19th century, you have your choice from all sorts of scientific, literary, other kinds of intellectual experts. Who would even dare to say? But we know that Boethius and Cassiodorus are the smartest guys in Europe in the sixth century because they have access to stuff that almost no one else does. Because they’re writing about classical authors that almost no one else has in their libraries.
We know that Isidore of Seville is probably the smartest guy of the early seventh century in Visigothic Spain, because we have his works. We have an idea of what he’s read. We know his sources. And again, he’s got the biggest library. “Biggest library” may mean 100 books, but 100 books in 700 AD is a serious collection of knowledge. Now, this is not easy knowledge. This is not as if everything were– well, I don’t want to say Wikipedia either—if everything were like Wikipedia five years ago, elementary and often wrong.
These are very different kinds of works from what might interest us. Certainly a lot of biblical stuff, but also, for example, a lot of computing of time. Bede would be remembered for The History of the English Church and People, but also for a lot of his works on figuring out time. He is credited, although not uniquely credited, but is an important person in the development of the BC-AD scheme. Believe it or not, people are not born into the world calculating according to BC-AD. Lots of people calculate according to other systems. How did they come up with this? And moreover, how do they then fit the calendar into it?
How do you keep time when you don’t have electric or battery operated clocks? How do you know what the seasonal changes are? But in fact, the most troublesome problem, which had been particularly controversial to the conversion of England in the generation before Bede in the early seventh and mid-seventh century, was the calculation of Easter. Easter is a real problem. Now naturally, it’s not a problem if someone else tells you. If in 1970, you open up a little pocket book calendar, and it says, “OK, Easter is this day,” you trust them. Or now, if you have some feature on your iPhone that gives you Easter for the next 3,000 years in case you want to know when Easter is in 3500 AD, no problem.
But if you’re out there in Northumbria, or anywhere for that matter, in a monastery somewhere where it’s really crucial to celebrate it on the right day. Remember what I said about dogma and religious observation? God doesn’t want you to say something like, “Dude, I don’t really know when Easter is, but I think I’m going to celebrate it now.” You can’t do that. You can’t just decide, “I know it’s sort of in the spring. Nobody around here for miles and miles and miles knows how to calculate it. So what the heck, we’ll do it on a Tuesday because I’m busy on what I think is Easter Sunday.” That’s not the way monasticism works, and we’ll talk about that next week.
The schedule is really, really important, but it’s also difficult to figure out. And people disagree about it. To this day, the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate a different date for Easter than the Western because they operate according to a different calendar. All right, well, so I’m not saying that this is the kind of knowledge that you ought to drop everything else to pursue, but it is a kind of knowledge that requires a sort of observation that in fact, we do not have.
Most of us, unless we’re astronomy majors, have no idea what the sky looks like at night. A) because we can’t see it because of artificial light, and B) because we’re not very curious. We cannot track animals, most of us, and those of you can, I’m interested in your knowledge. Most of us haven’t the faintest idea how things grow except because we’ve been to the Yale farm, and “Oh my gosh, look at this stuff.” That’s part of the reason for it because we are not very close to nature. I think that environmental concerns notwithstanding, most of us have a huge investment in not being too close to nature. But the observation of phenomena is something that is much superior in so-called indigenous, primitive, traditional or historical society.
Depiction of the Venerable Bede (on CLVIIIv) from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493 / Public Domain
So the story of England and Ireland centers on conversion. And the reason this is so is because conversion represents a change in orientation, a change in orientation towards a larger world. Instead of a tribal and fragmented identity– I’m not making a statement about the truth or non-truth of Christianity but about the sense of belonging to a larger world whose purposes encompass not only your group, but a larger group of people out there.
And I think we can get a feeling for this from a famous passage of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in 731. And he is describing events of about a century earlier, when King Edwin of Northumbria summoned a council to decide whether or not to accept the Christian God. And the chief of the pagan priests speaks in favor of embracing Christianity. Even though you would think that he would be the defender of the old faith, he in fact speaks to this assembly, according to Bede, in favor of Christianity on the grounds that it tells us what went before us and what will come after us.
And the passage goes like this, “And one of the King’s chief men presently said, ‘Thus seems it to me, oh King. The present life of man on earth, against that time which is unknown to us, is as if you were sitting at a feast with your chief men and your thanes'”– your nobles– “‘in winter time.'”– T-H-A-N-E-S.– “‘The fire burns, and the hall is warm. And outside, it rains and snows and storms. There comes a sparrow and swiftly flies through the house.'” The insulation is not great in these halls, right?
“It comes through one door, and it goes out another. Lo, in the time in which he is within, he is not touched by the winter storm. But that time is the flash of an eye and the least of times. And he soon passes from winter out to winter again. So is the life of man revealed for a brief space, but what went before, and what follows after, we do not know. Therefore, if this teaching can reveal any more certain knowledge, it seems only right we should follow it.”
Now this is not why people necessarily converted because not everybody’s really bothered by that. Most people figure, “Wow, I’m in the hall. It’s warm. It’s great. I’m having such a good time. And when I have to leave, brief though it will be, I’ll deal with that.” But it does explain some of the appeal of Christianity and why the invaders who were quote “pagan” converted. And indeed why people tend to convert to world religions like Christianity and Islam to this day.
A local religion, which I’m calling “tribal” only because by that I mean confined to a people whose identity is caught up in their religion. A tribal people or a tribal religion has trouble surviving extensive contact with other people, because its uniqueness is threatened by the realization that there’s a huge world out there of lots of other people. And when you start interacting with them, that is when you’re no longer isolated, you will tend to seek an explanation for things that is grander than just: These gods protect my spear. This god protects my hearth. This god protects against accidents in childbirth.
There are exceptions. Judaism is one of the most obvious. Here is a religion of a small group of people that survives over the centuries. But it is not exactly a tribal religion in the sense that it’s monotheistic and historical sense is very strong. And this is what the priest means, or at least this is what I mean in interpreting the priest’s words as reported by Bede, by “historical sense.” A sense that God rules of the world even if I’m not in it. That there is something to come, not necessarily that there is an afterlife, although that obviously is part of the teachings of Christianity, but that there is a purpose to life.
The Conversion of England
St. Augustine of Canterbury’s grave site, at St. Augustine Abbey ruins. / Photo by Boccachete, Wikimedia Commons
The conversions of Ireland and England are different. The process of converting England begins in 597 with a missionary known– unfortunately whose name is Augustine. This is Augustine of Canterbury, not Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions Augustine.
He is sent by the Roman pope, Gregory I, Gregory the Great. Bede tells us that he was motivated to do this– this is a very strange thing to do. There had not been missionaries sent by the pope before– that he was motivated to do this by seeing British boys for sale in the slave market in Rome. And asking who they were, he was told that they were Angles, Angles as in Anglo-Saxon, A-N-G-L-E-S. And he is reputed to have said, “We should make them angels, not Angles.” Angeli, non angli, or angels not Angles.
Whatever the story, Augustine arrived around 597 at an island that had some remnants of Celtic Christianity, but is basically pagan and barbarian. He landed in Kent in the southeast corner of the island closest to the continent. And on this map, what I’d like you to know particularly are Kent, with Canterbury as its capital in the southeast; Wessex in the west, which I think I’ve helpfully underlined; Mercia, towards the center; Northumbria, umbrella, northeast. The most important kingdoms in England– and Wickham has emphasized how fragmented this territory was– the most important kingdoms would be, at different times, Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex.
But the first place to convert is Kent. It faces the continent. The pagan ruler of Kent had actually married a Christian princess from Merovingian Gaul. And Augustine established the first bishopric in Kent at Canterbury, which would be henceforth the major ecclesiastical center of Britain, its archbishopric. Bede tells us about this, but he also tells us a lot more about Northumbria, which is where he lived.
And here you can see the off-again, on-again pace of conversion. The pious King Edwin, who had that council that we just described, converted his people after a vision. But after his death in 633, his successor went back to the old, traditional religion, renouncing Christianity. And then, the successor to that king, a man named Oswald, reestablished Christianity. But he was killed in battle by the pagan King of Mercia in 642. Only in 660’s, 670’s is England pretty definitively converted to Christianity.
We can see this kind of transition in two of the most famous sources of information about this world, the poem Beowulf— how many people have read this? Yeah, everybody’s read this at one time another. Beowulf does have some little Christian themes, and there is some debate as to what extent the poem is to be understood in Christian terms. But in its atmosphere, its rituals– the burial in the ship, the burning of the body, the devotion not only to war, but to feasting and to gold, ring giving– it evokes– not merely evokes– it is a description of a warrior society in which although it is written in Old English, remember that it actually takes place in Denmark. This is a North Sea world in which the communications patterns are such that you could write an English poem about someone who goes over to the mainland for adventure.
The other source is one of the great archaeological triumphs of the last hundred years, the so-called Sutton Hoo treasure, which is in the British Museum. In East Anglia, close to the water actually, close to the sea, a burial ship was found in 1939. Probably the king buried here was Raedwald, king of East Anglia who died in 627.
Now it’s a pagan burial because of all the grave goods. All the stuff is in there, or so it would seem. But it’s hard to tell– just as in Beowulf, is it pagan, is it Christian?– it’s hard to tell about this burial scene because he’s got a lot of stuff from what might be called foreign gifts or maybe plunder. Foreign gifts: he’s got two Byzantine silver spoons. So two silver spoons made in Constantinople or thereabouts. He’s got gold coins. They are mostly from the Merovingian kingdom, and they’re different. They’re all different.
This is not an economic thing. This is a treasure thing. The difference between economy and treasure is that treasure is just for hoarding and economy is fluid and transactional. The hoarding, of course, we see in Beowulf, most obviously with the dragon. The dragon is not accumulating the treasure in order to safeguard his retirement or trade up in caves. He just sleeps on this treasure. And the point of that is, of course, that people accumulate treasure for non-economic reasons, for reasons that have to do with their own satisfaction or their own anxieties. And the utility of treasure is generally overestimated. Nevertheless of course, at the same time this is a world in which gold, treasure accumulation is what men do.
So what else is at Sutton Hoo? A wonderful helmet, unique because these things tend to disintegrate. A sword, a mail shirt, and then all sorts of little paraphernalia, some of it with Christian symbols like crosses, some of it very much in the pagan kind of world. Beowulf and Sutton Hoo go together. They both show us a world of treasure, of weapons, of drinking halls, of palaces, sort of isolated.
The drinking hall is important, as you know from Beowulf. It is the manifestation of civilization. It is that protection from outside that Bede describes in the little sparrow anecdote. But it is also the center of government. We’re back to the ruler and his entourage or comitatus, his gang, if you want to put a more cynical coloration on it.
The Conversion of Ireland and the Irish Church
This is the Christian saint Aidan in stained glass form. He was born in Ireland and helped spread Christianity in Great Britain, especially in Northumbria. / Holy Cross Monastery
So the conversion of England is completed by the late seventh century, but it is a more complicated story than just monolithic Christianity versus monolithic paganism because there are two kinds of Christianity that seek to convert England. One from Ireland and one from Rome.
Ireland, let’s just pause over Ireland. Never part of the Roman Empire, as I said. But, it’s also the first place outside the Roman world to been converted to Christianity, the first place in Europe actually. The first place period is Ethiopia. Ethiopia, of course in northeastern Africa, would be converted to Christianity very early, fourth century AD probably.
But within Europe, Ireland was converted to Christianity by the British or English missionary Saint Patrick. This is a little embarrassing, but in fact, the apostle to Ireland is one of those British, Celtic, Roman, fourth-century figures, Patrick. So in 600 AD, Ireland was largely Catholic, while England was mostly pagan. Irish Christianity had certain peculiarities, some of them related to its lack of a Roman past. Thus, for example, it did not have bishops really, or the bishops were weak because there had not been cities in Ireland on the Roman model. And therefore, Christianity didn’t have an urban background, but rather a very decentralized and rural background.
The most powerful institutions in Ireland were monasteries because these were great rural centers. And so the monks ruled over the bishops generally. Irish monasticism was very austere. The Irish monks were more ascetic than the monks we’ll be meeting next week from the Benedictine tradition started in Italy. And they also were less fixed in one place. In Benedictine monasticism, you’re not supposed to move. You’re supposed to be stable. You’re supposed to go through the same routine every day. The Irish favored a more wandering existence and the establishment of little communities or colonies far away.
The Irish form of piety emphasizes exile, and it might be exile to a scary, an almost unimaginable kind of environment. There are, for example, lots of little islands in the Irish Sea that seem to be uninhabitable. That is if you look at them from the tour boat, you see a lot of birds, and it’s a birders paradise. But in the middle of July, it’s overcast, raining, and the sea is pounding. And then you notice there a little remnants of houses.
There are little caves where people in the sixth and seventh century lived. Or the island is tiny, smaller than this building, and it looks like twenty people were living there. What are they living on? Well, poultry I guess, but this is a very severe form of asceticism. And the wandering also can mean just holing up on some island or wandering around the European continent and converting people. The Irish were great missionaries, both to England and to the continent. And we’ll be talking about that some more.
What about the Irish as the saviors of civilization, a book published about eight, nine years ago? How the Irish Saved Civilization is like all such– well, most such popular books– kind of overdone and reductionist. It’s not literally exactly true, but here again, as with England, we have a society that had no Roman influence, and yet had a highly developed tradition of learning, preservation of Latin.
In part, very good knowledge of Latin because they didn’t think they spoke it. Remember we said of people in the former Roman empire? It’s hard to date the point at which someone in Spain is no longer speaking Latin but is speaking something that we can start to call Spanish. And in Ireland, the distinction was quite clear. You had to learn Latin in lessons. You had to go to class. You had to be taught Latin. And so the Latin that was taught was bookish, but for that in many respects, correct.
Finally, the Irish celebrated Easter according to a different calendar. And so when we refer to the Irish or the Celtic Church, we mean this more decentralized Church, this somewhat more wandering missionary Church, a Church that was less hierarchical and less organized around bishops than that of its rival Rome. The story of the seventh century in England is therefore partly the story of competition between paganism and Christianity and flip flopping between them. And competition between Irish Christianity, represented by, for example, the monastery of Iona in what’s now Scotland, the missions of St. Aidan, whom Bede describes with great sympathy even though he doesn’t agree with him.
But the controversy really centered, ultimately, or at least in an immediate sense, over Easter. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, it was decided to embrace the Roman calculation of Easter. And with that, bishops, hierarchy, a more organized Church.
I have a lot of trouble with this Easter problem. You will have noticed that I have evaded telling you exactly what the calculations are. Some of you may know much better than me. But the Jewish Passover is established by lunar months. Christians wanted to break with Jewish tradition in celebrating Easter according to a somewhat different calendar. So it combined lunar and solar methods of calculation, a very complex operation therefore.
In the year 455, Rome, that is to say the Papacy under our friend Leo I– mission to the Huns, definition of the two natures of Christ– Leo I and Rome opted for a nineteen-year cycle of calculating Easter. But the Celtic churches, cut off from the continent– remember, we’re in this post-Roman world of very little contact– kept an eighty-four-year cycle. So in the seventh century, when the Roman missionaries had arrived again, you have two conflicting dates for Easter every year. I mean occasionally, just as with the Orthodox and Catholic Easters, they come together. So every so often, they will actually be the same Sunday, but generally speaking, different.
And so you get these ludicrous scenes like I’m King Oswiu of Northumbria celebrating Easter according to the Celtic tradition, and his wife, who was from Kent, celebrated it according to the Roman tradition. So one Sunday was Celtic Easter, and then the next Sunday was Roman Easter. So it’s not so much that Easter is so important intrinsically, but it is a symbol of the embrace of the Roman form of Christianity, and the bringing of England into an orientation more towards the continent than towards the Celtic West.
The Codex Amiatinus at Cluny / Wikimedia Commons
What is amazing, as I said before, is how quickly, once the conversion takes place, England becomes not only integrated into the continent, but a place of great cultural accomplishment. The great archbishop of Canterbury of this post-Whitby era, Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury, 669-690, established bishoprics, monasteries, an endowed them with books. Theodore was an interesting character. He’s actually from Syria. And how somebody from Syria becomes archbishop of Canterbury, something that would be very unlikely now, in the seventh century AD is an aspect of some preservation of the outlines of the cosmopolitan Roman world that we began the course with. There are a lot of Syrian popes at this time too, Syrian and Greek popes from the Eastern Mediterranean.
The first manuscript we have of the Bible as a single manuscript– in other words where all of the books of the Bible are contained in the same volume– is from this place and this era, the so-called Codex Amiatinus. A magnificently decorated Bible, sent to the pope in 716, written at Bede’s monastery of Jarrow, now in Florence at the Medici Laurentian Library of Florence. It is decorated in this very distinctive style that you all know, if not from courses, from Christmas cards and stuff. The Book of Kells is the most famous example of this.
This is the so-called Insular style because it’s shared by both Celtic Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. Lots of intricate curlicues, complicated animals, magnificent contrasts of color, a kind of abstraction when you first look at it. It looks like an oriental carpet. But in fact, if you look at it a little more closely, you can see that there all sorts of little intertwined animals or fantastic shapes and colors within it.