Medieval England: History, Society and the Old English Language #2


Welcome to the second part of this sequel on Medieval England!

In this part I will talk more about about religion on the island after the Anglo-Saxon invasion.

As usual I have received most of the information by my tutors and if I use any other source I will mention it in the text. Whenever I think it is useful (or a good addition to the text), I will put in a link to a website or video.


Historical overview of religion on the island:

  • Religion before the Anglo-Saxon invasion and Anglo-Saxon paganism
  • Anglo-Saxon conversion
  • Benedictine reform

The Anglo-Saxon church

  • Clergy and dioceses
  • Missions and missionaries
  • Saints and Relics
  • Monasteries

Religion before the Anglo-Saxon invasion and Anglo-Saxon Paganism

Before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, Celtic tribes inhabited Britain. If you take a look at the map (situation of 150 CE), you can see that there were a lot of tribes around at the time. The Celts had a polytheistic religion (meaning that they believed in more than one god), before they became Christians. Most of the knowledge about Celtic polytheism come from written sources and most of those sources are Roman. Others were written from the 7th century onwards by monks. If you’re interested in Celtic religion, you can click this link.

When the Anglo-Saxons arrived, they encountered a people that were mostly Christian. With their slow take-over of the island, the Anglo-Saxon paganism was spread and for a time the people were not at all that Christian. This pagan belief has had major influence on what we now use in everyday life: names of the days of the week, place names, and festivals are among those things. The days of the week are named after the pagan gods (Wednesday for example after Wodan, Thursday after Thunor etc) and the pagan festivals were renamed during the Anglo-Saxon conversion.

Anglo-Saxon Conversion

(The BBC has an overview of the Anglo-Saxon history from 410-800. Click here to visit the page).

The conversion was a top down movement, meaning that the kings and nobility were first converted and after that the peasants. Eventually, the Anglo-Saxons converted for multiple reasons. One of those is the practical reasons, like literacy. Another reason was part of the top down movement because there were marriages between the Anglo-Saxon lords and women from Frankia, they were already Christian and so the husband would (possibly) convert to please his wife.
There no planned conversion by just one faction, there were two:

  1. Irish mission:
    565 CE, led by St. Columba. He set out to convert the North (Scotland and Northumbria). He converted King Oswald of Northumbria and was granted the island of Lindisfarne, where he build a monastery. This became the centre of Christianity in the North.
  2. Roman mission:
    597, led by St. Augustine. He was send by the pope (Gregory the Great) in Rome and first converts king Aethelbert of Kent. Augustine build a church and abbey in Canterbury and he established bishoprics in Rochester and London as well. Augustine created the Libellus Responsorium. In this document are the reactions of the pope the questions of the Anglo-Saxons about Christianity. The conversion by St. Augustine was a calm one with barely any violent acts from the missionaries. They even let the Anglo-Saxons keep some of their traditions, but of course they were altered in such a way that they would fit within Christianity.

Because of the two different faction (and relapses back to paganism). One of the causes for conflict among the two factions was the date for Easter (they didn’t quite agree because if the different calendars). Another reason was the haircut of the monks (the Romans had a crown of hair and the top of their head was bold while the Irish did the exact opposite).
This was all remedied at the Synod of Whitby in 664. Here king Oswig of Northumbria (or Oswiu/Oswui, judge during this meeting) sat down together with St. Colman (representing the Irish) and St. Wilfrid (representing the Romans). Here it was decided whether the Christians would follow the Irish or the Roman way, the Romans won.

Benedictine reform

The Benedictine reform, from 960 until +- 1020 CE during the reign of King Edgar (959-975 AD), was one of the most significant events in Anglo-Saxon history. The block quote below give an impression of what inspired and supported the reform, and the effect.

“Its leaders, Dunstan of Canterbury, Aethelwold of Winchester and
Oswald of York and Worcester, infected by contemporary continental
enthusiasm for reformed monasticism and inspired by Carolingian texts
and practices, transformed English religious life, regenerated artistic and
intellectual activities and forged a new relationship between church and
king. The Reform – underpinned by the prosperity of the late Saxon
economy, and sustained by continental contacts generated by trade and
diplomacy as much as by religious needs – touched upon an extraordinary range of Anglo-Saxon life.” Catherine Cubitt: The tenth-century Benedictine Reform in England.

During the reform there was a revival of Benedictine monastic values/rules and the secular bishops were to be replaced with monastic bishops (the secular clergy was often married, and the reformers wished to replace them with celibate monastic monks).

(If you are interested in the Benedictine reform, you can click this link. If you want to know more about Benedict of Nursia and the Benedictine rule, click here.)

More on the effects of the Benedictine reform on society in the next post about society.

The Anglo-Saxon church

  • Clergy and dioceses
    The clergy in Anglo-Saxon England was divided into the regular and secular clergy. The secular (or the worldly) clergy were those who went out into the world, they live among the people and did not live separated from the rest of the population. They were responsible for the organisation and control of the spiritual lives of the laity in the everyday world. These are the pope, archbishops, bishops and the parish priests.
    The regular clergy were spiritual and those who follow a certain rule.

    The Oxford to Family and Local History mentions that a diocese is an ecclesiastical administrative territory under the jurisdiction of a bishop. The book also mentions the following about dioceses:

    For administrative purposes dioceses are divided into archdeaconries, rural deaneries, and parishes. The records of the diocese are available for public consultation at the various diocesan record offices, some of which are amalgamated with county or city
    record offices.

    In Medieval England the dioceses of York and Canterbury were the most important, and most powerful. These two also had an Archbishop.

  • Missions and missionaries
    The Anglo-Saxon church send missionaries abroad to converse the people to Christianity. These missions are now known as the Anglo-Saxon missions, and to us Dutchies there are some familiar faces among these missionaries like Willibrord and Bonifatius (who was in fact murdered in Dokkum, Frisia 754 AD). The map below shows the Anglo-Saxon  missionaries and their missions:
    (Interested in Willibrord? Here is a link to a preview on google books. The book is called Handbook of Dutch Church History and there is some good stuff in there about Willibrord’s days in the Netherlands when it was still a part of the Frankish Kingdom).These missionaries were, however, not as patient with the conversion of the pagans to Christianity, and they acted with force and violence in order to converse the pagans.
  • Saints and Relics
    Saints consist of martyrs, confessors and virgins and some missionaries became a part of this group of saints. Saints were seen as intermediaries between the people and God. Physical parts (primary relics, bones etc.) or personal items (secondary relics, have been in contact with or used by the saint) were very important for the Catholic Church. Through the relics men could, swear an oath upon them, contact saints, had access to God’s miracles, and churches gained riches when they claimed to have an important relic. Unfortunately, most of these relics were fake.
  • Monasteries
    Were the centres of learning, wealth and art. A great example of such a monastery is Lindisfarne. (Click here for a look through the Lindisfarne gospels online! Sometimes, I do like technology). But, more on this later.

Next time:

Anglo-Saxon society and the influence of the Viking legacy on the Anglo-Saxon politics, culture and economy.


One thought on “Medieval England: History, Society and the Old English Language #2

  1. I find it disturbing, even grotesque that the religious conflicts of history more often than not were about trivialities rather than core philosophical beliefs. This is well brought out by your comment on the monks’ hairstyles.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s