AFK future and far future, also more Alcockiana

This coming fortnight is looking rather packed. I now have enough data together to write my Leeds paper, and as you can probably tell from comments made on it elsewhere, am beginning to think it might even be important. However, I do still have to write the thing this week, and I’m also supposed to be working on a chunk of book, so I have to warn you now that the blog may fall by the wayside temporarily, especially since as once it’s written I’ll be, you know, going to Leeds for several days.

Also, and more signally, it seems that I will be also be absent from the blogosphere for a short while in November, as, for the first time since I was five, I shall be in the USA, presenting at the Haskins Society Conference at Georgetown University: I got mail today saying that the relevant session proposal has been accepted. I owe Matt Gabriele a big thankyou for starting this particular wheel a-turning. It should be fun, and a very interesting change of academic environment.

Cover of Leslie Alcock\'s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850

I’ll wrap up for now with another couple of notes on that same Leslie Alcock book, which as I go on into it is looking more and more like a thoroughly commendable attempt to say only what is known or reasonable to suppose, and no more. It is still quite a large book. Today, though, one particular authorial decision struck me: in the preamble to the chapter on religion, he says:

These chapters are written (regardless of the author’s own views) in the context of a post- or sub-Christian society. In consequence they do not take it for granted that conversion to Christianity was, to use a grossly simplified term, a ‘good thing': the confusion and distress which conversion might bring is not ignored.

Finally, until the end of the 20th century, a general but unstated assumption survived that the theology, beliefs and rituals of Christianity were sufficiently well-known to readers as to need no explanation. For a post-Christian 21st-century readership, however, it seems necessary to provide simple definitions and explanations of various elements of Christian belief and liturgy which practising Christians would take for granted.

We have been told not to assume that students can manage Latin for quite a while now, and that’s inarguably realistic; but he’s right, we’ve taken a long time to wake up to this particular lacuna in their education. All the same, a lot of my students have been religious, and sufficiently so that it was clear to me, and some of the ones who were more vocally otherwise were so partly out of reaction to being brought up in a faith they’d then lost. I haven’t had to explain very much Christianity at all in my teaching. Medieval studies seems to me to draw the thoughtful Christians. Have I just been fortunate? Do other people’s experiences match mine?

Also, I think I like the terms ‘post- or sub-Christian’, by nice analogy with ‘sub-Roman’ or so it seems to me, but I haven’t seen them before. Are these current in other parts of academia, or are they Alcock’s own? Also, I wonder how true it is. How many people in the UK could now recite the Lord’s Prayer? Is it that we’re post-Christian, or increasingly non-Christian? If you’re post-Christian, doesn’t that as a term imply considerable knowledge of, and reaction to, Christianity? I might think of my noisy atheist ex-believer students as post-Christians in that case. And meanwhile, doesn’t sub-Christian imply a continuation of decayed practice within a legacy framework of Christianity? Really, I think non-Christian is the only one that works here, but you still couldn’t describe the UK as non-Christian. All the same, his point is not mere ‘political correctness gone mad’. I do wonder, though, if it wasn’t in itself something of an idealistic statement even as he points out the increasing loss of another ideology.


Leslie Alcock, Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 550-850, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph (Edinburgh 2003), quote from p. 60.

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4 responses to “AFK future and far future, also more Alcockiana

  1. I’ve been explaining Christianity, theology and institutions for over 15 years, where necessary; especially as an intro to early modern history.

    My students include a lot of Christians but that doesn’t mean they know any church history.

    Much the same for the few Muslim students I’ve had in Islamic Civ. They took the class because they didn’t know much Islamic history.

  2. In the U.S. there are plenty of students with little knowledge of Christianity, because of a secular, Jewish, Muslim, or other religious upbringing. There are also plenty of students who are Christian, but whose Christianity is so far from medieval norms that some explanation is necessary for them, too. I’ve had such a mix of students with and without knowledge of Christianity in my classes that striking a balance can be tricky.

  3. There’s a very interesting book on Christianity in Britain by Callum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain (Routledge, 2001), which looks at secularisation in Britain from the viewpoint of discourse analysis (His background is in oral history). His main argument is that secularisation was actually a fairly rapid process, in the 1960s. Before that you can see a gradual hollowing out of adhesion to church in the twentieth century, with declines away from frequent attendance and formal membership, but with the church still important for rites of passage and as a cultural symbol. (As he also points out there was considerable church growth in the post World War II period).

    Now, even that has gone. Brown contrasts oral interview with people born in the 1920s and before with those born in the 1960s and after (within the same family). The earlier generations have a clear sense of religious and moral structures (institutions and behaviours) as being part of their life, the latter may literally have nothing to say about religion, even when prompted, because the entire discourse means nothing to them.

    I think Britain is best described today as a non-Christian culture with a sub-Christian institutional structure remaining in place. This is what irks the secularists so much: we still have faith schools in the state sector, for example, not really because there is much demand or support for them as religious institutions, but because it would be too much hassle to change the system. (I’ve similarly heard suggestions that it would take an entire Parliamentary session doing nothing else to disestablish the Church of England, because the law is so complex).

    I think the best working assumptions for teaching medieval history in Britain is that most students will know nothing but hazy outlines of church history, theology, liturgy and the Bible (a handful of stories like Noah’s Ark and the Good Samaritan). Even those who have been brought up as Christians will not have been brought up as medieval Christians: the Catholic church itself has a changed a lot in liturgy and theology, never mind the vast gap between the medieval church and any Protestant denomination. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for students to be expected to know (or be prepared to look up) common terms: it’s not your job to tell them what an abbot is. But if they need to have some kind of understanding about why things like the Mass or celibacy or God as Trinity mattered in the Middle Ages, you’ll have to explain it.

  4. Magistra, thanks as ever for thoughtful comments and guidance. I’m faintly surprised by your perspective on faith schools; one militant atheist contact of mine thinks that they are on the increase, because of newly favourable legislative circumstances, as the government tries to shed the responsibility of education onto bodies with their own funding and citizenship ideas… but, he would say that of course. As to the question of teaching, I may have been lucky or perhaps inattentive, but I guess I have to be ready if I get to start designing my own courses any time soon…

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