Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bede's Brits: Part the First

A while back over at In the Middle, the intellectually redoubtable Karl Steele queried about Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale wherein part of the tale takes place in the kingdom of Bede's Aelle, and a "British gospel book" is mentioned. The discussion was interesting, I think, and covered some good ground.

It was suggested somewhere in the comments that Bede and Chaucer are attempting to "forget" pre-Anglo-Saxon British Christianity, an active process of erasing and overwriting it with "Roman" Anglo-Saxon Christianity. I remarked that Bede and co. are not forgetting, but rather remembering, remembering in order to indict the British (and not the CELTIC!) Christians with failure to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons.

A few weeks later, J. J. Cohen offered a reaction to my statement, though I'm not sure why since he agreed with the veracity of my comments. I offer here then a reaction to the reaction reacting to my reaction to Karl's post posted over a month ago. I will say at the outset that overall, I like the direction Jeffrey has taken, my reaction is mostly regarding how he gets there.

Jeffrey begins his comments that contrast with my own with: "But indicting can be a form of forgetting, especially if the condemnation fundamentally alters the terms of judgment. Moreover, just because Bede and Chaucer state or imply that the Britons did not influence the conversion of the English, should we believe them? Don't both have something at stake in imagining that Northumbrian/Anglian/English Christianity comes not from the Britons but directly from Rome?"

Ok, several things here. While I agree that indicting, especially when done literarily, can be a way of both forgetting and/or altering the terms of judgment. I
By its very nature, such an indictment can never be objective or pure. But I think that there are layers here to uncover about indictment, forgetting, Bede's program, sources, and so on.

First, there's Bede's sources for this indictment. It is well known that Bede is using Gildas the Wise's famous De Excidio Britanniae. In that work, Gildas, a Briton, indicts his own people and blames the Anglo-Saxon invasions on the rebellion and sin of the Britons themselves: sometimes rebellion against God, sometimes against her own citizens, sometimes again foreign kings and rulers.. but rebels all the same. He compares the Britons and the British church to Israel in the Old Testament and says more than once that just as they were tested for their disobedience to God, so the Britons are being tested by the Saxons whom they invited foolishly into their midst.

Gildas describes the supposed depredations inflicted on the Britons by the Saxons. But he nowhere speaks of any kind of evangelism of the Saxons.

Bede takes up Gildas' themes and information into his first book of the history. For this "dark" period of sub-Roman Britain, Bede had three sources: Gildas, the Vita of Germanus of Auxerre, and oral traditions. As regards the British church, Gildas gives us a negative view. The Vita also gives a negative view, presenting Germanus' visits to the island as undertaken to correct heresy that was exploding in the island. Oral traditions it may be safely assumed also presented a fairly negative view since the oral traditions Bede would have known were those of his own people rather than the Britons, and as such, would typically present "the other" in less than positive terms. Thus, all Bede's sources for this period presented the British church in less than a favorable light. As a man of his times, can we really blame Bede then for his image or his indictment, or in other words, do we really have a basis on which to indict Bede for forgetfulness? But before really addressing this question, let's turn to another, related one.

Second, how Christian was Gildas' Britain? Now that is an important question. It is well known that at least since the late second century, there had been Christians on the island. We know they had bishops, churches, dioceses, and there are Christian artifacts etc. And like the rest of the empire, even as late as the fourth century, there were Christians, and there were pagans....mostly pagans. In 382, the emperor Theodosius declared the whole of the empire Christian and began force converting those who weren't (as Augustine would say, and I admittedly paraphrase here, baptize them now, worry about the rest later). But such a program was obviously not thorough, nor completely carried out, and even those who did "convert" did so in pagan fashion--one could and often did observe the rites and beliefs of many gods/religious sects, adding another in the form of the Christian was a political necessity but nothing more. A generation or so later both Jerome and Augustine speak of the pagans amongst the populace of the Empire and write to convince such pagans on various points of truth of the Christian faith. The pagans are still there, in other words, when the Romans withdraw from Britain. That is, the image Gildas gives as a result of his Christian audience is not an accurate image of the religion of sub-Roman Britain.

Now let me be clear here. I'm not saying that there was no British Christianity or that the Christian faith was not well established in Britain by 410. It was. But so was "paganism", or better yet, "pre-Christian religions". Both were there. And interestingly, if Gildas is truly from Strathclyde as the earliest life has it and we compare Patrick also from the Western parts of the island, Ninian traditionally from Cumbrian, Samson of Dol from Gwent in Wales etc. it would seem that the most heavily Christianized area of the island at the time of the Adventus Saxonum was the West, and least Romanized (the Romans were able to only establish one city in Wales, Caerwent).

Thus, when the Saxons began their take over (I've written on a model of it they found a significant population of Romano-Celts only nominally Christian if Christian at all and more open to Germanic, non-Christian religion as being more akin to both their native Celtic as well as Roman polytheism than Christianity. It was very easy for them to make the switch in those areas where German or Germanic tribes were taking over.

Romano-Brits of the Christian persuasion continued the depopulation movements that had already been underway in Britain since the late 3rd century, probably now accelerated by the pull out of Rome and moved to more comfortable areas such as Brittany and Gaul. Others who remained carved out kingdoms like other Romano-Celts and early Anglo-Saxons, based on villas or Roman era towns that over time either were swallowed or coalesced into other kingdoms...and either converted, were killed, or fled westward or across the channel.

In short, when the Anglo-Saxons, both those who came as Roman mercenaries, and those who came later, entered Britain they found a religiously diverse populace, and the results of their kingdoms over the course of two centuries was to attract the pagan and repel the Christian.

Third, did the British church evangelize the incoming Saxons? That's a good question, and to some degree unanswerable on the evidence. But some generalizations might be able to be made. If we look at the world of the Western Roman Empire as a whole, we find very little missionary activity. Rodney Stark's model of the spread of Christianity through familial and social networks is the most likely explanation of the growth of the Christian church rather than a great deal of preaching and missions. Even so, missionary activity after the Great Persecution under Diocletian shows a remarkable drop off, Christianity's energies being focused elsewhere in the Empire during the fourth and fifth centuries rather than evangelizing those outside. Even the Germanic tribes had by this time become Christian, at least those that had been in contact with Rome, such as the Goths who became Christianized in the latter half of the third century. Thus, by the time we get to the Roman pull out from Britain etc, there isn't a strong missionary impulse in Late Antique Christianity. Even the mission of Palladius to Ireland was, if the sources are to be believed, not a mission undertaken specifically to convert, but to bolster an already Christian community in Ireland, probably Christianized through contacts with Christians in Britain via trade or even like Patrick through slaves and captives. And Patrick himself is an exception: it would seem to be his own special mission to the Irish, and the church in Gaul reluctantly sent him out, rather than an impulse of British, or even Roman Christianity.

Thus, a) there was likely very little Christianity surviving in Anglo-Saxon areas due to people dieing, fleeing, and being a small part of the population anyway and b) Christianity in general didn't have a strong impulse to evangelize at the time and so we can't really have expected the British Christians to have done so, and c) if Christianity truly spread largely through associations, networks, and family, it would take a strong Christian network in Anglo-Saxon controlled areas to make strong enough inroads to effect Christianization: otherwise there was no benefit by the Anglo-Saxons to entertain the idea. There don't seem to have been such Christian networks in Anglo-Saxon areas of the early period.

Fourth, related to this is the issue of ethnography and religion. Ok, I'm not expressing that well. But this is a tribal culture. Conversions of the various Germanic peoples largely took place en masse....the leadership converts and so did everyone else who was in the tribe...whether by "ethnicity" or by allegiance. And when they did, they did so for multiple reasons that seemed advantageous to them, not just because they suddenly thought the message was better. If there were missionary efforts by the Celts in Britain or Gaul to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons (and there is no known evidence that there were), those efforts seem to have made no inroads and are lost to history. But if there were, what possible reason could the Anglo-Saxons have for converting? They were successfully setting up kingdoms and the Celtic population coming over to their side. They had no need to convert to gain entry to the Empire or to trade with the empire; and later in the late fifth and sixth centuries when the Merovingians rose, they obviously had no problems being allies with the Christian Merovingians. There was simply no advantage to conversion. So any attempts to evangelize would likely have failed anyway.

It isn't until St. Augustine's mission, which gives Æthelberht a reason to convert. He's allied with the Franks. He's married one of their house, Bertha, daughter of f Charibert I. Frankish influence at this point was high: cultural, political, and economic. The Franks, Burgundians, and other Germanic tribes including the Goths were all Christian at this period, and across the Irish Sea, the Irish were embracing the faith as well. Already on Britain's northern shores, Columba had founded Iona. So there is a great deal of pressure, economic, social, cultural, territorial that hadn't existed before. But this mission direct from Rome offers an advantage: Æthelberht can convert and become a Christian WITHOUT in any way, shape, or form, giving the Franks any claim to hegemony over him. It is evident from Bede's recording of Gregory's letter accompanying Augustine and his gaggle of monks that some in Frankia felt that they did have a claim of overlordship over the SE British kingdoms, of which Æthelberht was the chief (himself being according to Bede the overlord south of the Humber). And a Frankish bishop officiating at a conversion of a Saxon king would surely enforce that claim from across the channel. BUT, even with the help of the Franks, the presence of an Italian monk sent from the Bishop of Rome offers an advantage of being to convert without acknowledging or even implying Frankish overlordship: Æthelberht becomes a Christian equal, not a Christian subservient king. Never before from what we know had this confluence of forces offered an opportunity for an Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity: they certainly weren't going to convert to a religion of only a small portion of the people they conquered.

So where does all this leave vis a vis Jeffery's comments? Well, first, indictment can be a method of forgetting, especially if that indictment changes the terms of judgment. Jeffery's absolutely correct. But in the case of Bede, he's not forgetting or changing the terms of judgment. Rather, he's reporting what he's inherited from a representative of the British Church: Gildas. Beyond Gildas, there is no evidence for Celtic attempts or even Gaulish/Frankish attempts to Christianize the Anglo-Saxons. Bede is kinder in some ways to the Frankish Liudbrand, but then he's presented as attempting to convert the king, even if he failed. Nor are Bede and Gildas lying: there would have been little impetus to evangelize. What either author makes of that fact is a bit different than the fact itself. Jeffrey asks whether we should believe Bede (and Chaucer), and leaving Chaucer out of it for the moment, yes, we should. While the spin Bede puts on the historical facts and his sources is obviously driven by something other than "pure" history, the facts he reports seem borne out by modern historical research and archeology.

Now admittedly, Jeffrey continues and quotes from his book Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles that at least on the surface would seem to respond to some of what I've written here. But this post is already quite long and I want to deal with another issue in the brief quote cited above. So I will table that discussion for a follow up post; this one has been 3 weeks in the making with other posts backing up behind it. Thus, I'll finish this one, post the others, and return to this topic (and to Karl's Man of Law bit on which I have further thoughts too) in the near future, probably whilst you all are in K'zoo. All 2 of you who've read this far.

So, the other issue Jeffrey raises is that Bede and Chaucer, lumped together in his comment, have "something at stake" in "imagining" that Christianity in the island came from Rome. So let's deal with Bede first.

What does Bede have at stake? On the one hand, not much at all. While the Bishop of Rome is probably the most important of those in the West and certainly has influence, he is nowhere at the time of Bede as central as he will be in the age of Chaucer. By the time Bede dies in 735, it is still some 20 years from the beginning of the Franco-Papal alliance that will help shape political events in Europe for 1100 years; and almost 50 years from Charlemagne's direct involvement in papal affairs. So, Bede and the Anglo-Saxons on this view have little to gain from such an association with Rome.

Culturally and intellectually, however, the story is a bit different. Once they adopted Christianity, they more or less went "neutral" you could say. Bede tells us that Northumbrian Christianity came from Ireland, Southumbrian from Rome and that eventually on certain matters of doctrine (Easter calculation, monastic tonsure), the North aligned itself with Rome (though Bede and other Northumbrian writers record a large number of practices and interpretations of the Bible, world etc. that very obviously have Irish and/or British roots). But, there was a great deal to gain in cultural, Christian economy by having the Anglo-Saxon church beholden to Rome rather than Frankia or Ireland much less British Christians. As already stated with Æthelberht, it gave the Anglo-Saxon churches freedom: they were not under the aegis of Merovingian or Carolingian bishops, however much the continentals influenced the Anglo-Saxons culturally. Likewise, in the North, it meant that the Nortumbrians would be able to keep independence not only from the Continentals but from the Irish, since many a king and nobleman went to Ireland to be fostered, as monks, or to escape negative, political climes. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, a topic I hope to return to. But yes, Bede has a stake in presenting the English church as aligned with Rome.

But does it then follow that Bede is "imagining"? Imaging, ok, that is probably more accurate. But as we've seen above, there was little if any evangelization coming from the British church or the Gaulish/Frankish church. And Bede is quite explicitly clear that in Northumbria, Christianity was *successfully* planted by the Irish and King Oswald--the mission of Paulinus is presented by Bede as having failed (another topic I intend to return to). And we know that the so-called Council of Whitby changed orientation of the Northumbrian church somewhat (not completely: while there was embrasure of Roman Easter dating and tonsure styles, there is still a great deal that is "Irish" in Northumbrian Christianity). We see the results in the manuscripts and archeology. It isn't merely a view dependent on Bede. So is Bede "imagining" this? I'd have to say no. He is certainly using history to construct an image and put a certain spin, to emphasize and embellish even, but not imagine.

Now what about Chaucer? Does he have a stake? Sure. By the 14th century, Bede's history is taken as "gospel". Bede has become in the intervening 7 centuries an "auctoritas" of the distant past that educated readers in Chaucer's day read, respect, and who passes down to them what they need to know. And of course in those centuries, the Roman pontiff had risen to become the head of *the* international superpower of the day. Does Chaucer really "imagine" that the English church has roots in the Augustinian mission from Rome? Of course not. Why should he? From his point of view, its history, and in the gaps in the history, he's able to compose a story that isn't really based in history but takes what he knows of as historical elements. And of course, it isn't really Chaucer at all....Chaucer himself is dependent on Trevet's Anglo-Norman world history from the 1330s and on Gower who also tells a version of the tale; all the sources however see the "Roman mission" to England as historical fact. So yes, Chaucer too has something at stake.

But does that mean that Bede should not be believed? Did the British church influence the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons? If it did, it's lost to history, not simply because Bede forgot, but his sources forgot to...and his source, Gildas let us remember, is a British Christian leader and is in a position to know. So did Gildas forget? That's another question altogether. But given the considerations briefly outlined above, I don't think so.

But clearly Bede is up to something that does skew the view a bit. He indicts the British church. BUt a) he does not so indict the Irish church which did not evangelize apparently until invited to do so and b) nor the Gaulish church who seemingly only sent a bishop over with Bertha and not a mission team. Clearly then, Bede's indictment is a skewing of the picture, but Bede is uneven in his treatment of the Britons and the British church which complicates the view even more.

23 days since I first began this post, I think its time to post it already. Having said that, let me mention that in the course of composing this a paragraph at a time, that there are some subjects worth returning to in the future.

1) Jeffrey as mentioned cites from his book some material that seems to go to addressing some of the points I've raised here. A hopefully near future post will address that citation and its contents

2) We have to ask what Bede is up to and what is he influenced by in the "Roman centric" picture he gives

3) Medieval Ethnography

4) I'd like to return to Karl Steele's original query about the British gospel in the story; I've had some additional thoughts there.

SO that's it.


tenthmedieval said...

Larry, this is excellent stuff to have on the web. It's a little weird to see current scholars rehashing a 1958 argument about Bede's anti-Britishness (Margaret Pepperdene in Celtica 4) because it suffers from all the weaknesses that you point out; however I think there is good grounds for considering Bede as pro-Roman in a great many ways, not least because it's crucial for his purpose in the HE to join England to the universal chronology of Christianity which is centred on Rome. This is a man who is very very concerned with time... But I think you're quite right that there is no need for imagination here, or at least, that if the sources were generated by actual knowledge and sincere intent this would not be distinguishable from the way Professor Cohen sees the texts from the texts themselves.

Just one thing I wanted to query. You say: "If we look at the world of the Western Roman Empire as a whole, we find very little missionary activity,", but while this is true in some sources, there's quite a lot of hagiography from only slightly later in which the featured saint goes into these wild countries and makes converts more or less by example—Severinus springs to mind—and that seems to me to be something that should be in this analysis, even it's only to say it's not true. What do you think?

theswain said...

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks much for the comments! As you know, I'm sure, a very great deal has been written about Bede and the Britons from all kinds of perspectives. And let me be clear: Bede is doing quite a bit of imagining and reimaging. Its just that I don't think he's doing so regarding the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons from Rome. Gregory the Great's letters to Brunhild in Frankia for example also mention a lack of evangelistic zeal...though whether Gregory is referring to the Frankish bishops or the British is unknown and somewhat contested...I prefer to think he's referring to both since I doubt either he or his audience would make much of a distinction.

Where I'd really like to see Jeffrey comment is on Bede's recasting of the British vs. Anglo-Saxons is in Bede's use of the Jewish synagogue vs. Christian church dichotomy to apply to his own world. Taking a cue from Gildas again, Bede imagines, and I think that word appropriate in this context, the Brits, once a chosen, orthodox people, as recalcitrant Jews who've rejected the fellowship of the whole church to adhere to their own ways in contrast to the "Gentile" Anglo-Saxons who have embraced the true, catholic faith. Given Jeffrey's research and commentary in other contexts, I think his remarks on this topic would be perspicacious.

Regarding your query, we could point to Patrick and even Bede's account of Ninian among the Picts. Severinus is another example. I think each case needs to be examined though rather than make blanket statements about whether or not there was an historical Ninian or Severinus with a mission emphasis. I'm not up on Severine scholarship by any means, but in my view he's probably a composite of Christians living and working in the Danube region who did the things Christians were supposed to do.

This brings me to something that I'm sure someone out there has worked on, but I've often thought might be a connection. Greco-Roman ethnography generally saw each "ethne", each ethnic group as stemming from a "founder" who somewhere back in history did something and now there's a people. SO if we read Pliny or one of the others we consistently encounter these founder myths. I have to wonder similarly about "foundation" hagiography re: Christianity among certain ethnicities in the Greco-Roman world even as we move into the medieval period: the need to posit a single, important founder of the faith: Patrick, Ninian, Severinus, Augustine and gang, etc that may or may not be grounded in history or an historical figure. It has always seemed to me to a very similar construction.

tenthmedieval said...

Good point with the group saints. I feel sure there must be ethnogenesis work on that hagiographical topos you highlight there; if there isn't, there's surely a book in it. I don't know that part of the field, but I know someone who does who owes me favours for photocopies, I'll see if she can offer any thoughts.

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Thanks very much, very kind of you to say so.