Seminars CXXII-CXXIV: British heresy, pagan burial and Norman profanity

It’s time for another of the catch-up seminar jam posts in which I try to clear the ridiculous backlog that leads me still to be writing about things that happened seven months ago!

British heresy

A thing that happened seven months ago, and which I believe I promised to Magistra that I would write up, was a paper by Alison Bonner at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar in the Institute of Historical Research in London, on 8th February 2012. Its title was “The Manuscript Transmission of Pelagius’s Ad Demetriadem“, and maybe that sounds a bit hardcore as Magistra and I were among the very few people who came out, which is a pity as what we got was an approachable and thorough treatment of one of the late ancient world’s more interesting characters, the British heresiarch Pelagius. He got to be a heretic substantially because he got into argument, about whether one was damned without God’s grace, however well one might behave, or whether one could in fact save oneself by good Christian conduct alone, with future saints Jerome and Augustine whom later ages have come to see as pretty much impeccable (ironic eh?), or at least so it seemed to me when I first learnt about him. (The future saints took the former of the theological views.) On the other hand, he also seemed to have spent much of his time talking doctrine to wealthy women in Rome’s equivalent of society drawing rooms, so I also wound up envisioning him as something like a Roman George Bernard Shaw, annoying principally because he was working the orthodox theologians’ circuit better than they were and claiming a moral high ground they felt dubious to boot, as well as being British, which annoyed the Romans for different reasons than it annoyed Bernard Shaw’s contemporaries but is still a common label. This perspective was probably always going to be inaccurate, but, as even Wikipedia currently tells you, recently opinion has swung towards the idea that Pelagius’s doctrine may not have been fairly represented by his opponents, not just because they were his opponents, but because his disciple Cælestinus seems to have run rather further with Pelagius’s ideas than the man himself and the opponents were attacking him too. Augustine, indeed, accused Pelagius of using Cæstinus as a mouthpiece for that which he dared not say himself but truly thought, so he wasn’t really being attacked for what he actually preached and thus it’s quite hard to know what that was. Whatever it was was not enough to get him condemned in two of his heresy trials in 415 and 418, and though one pope was convinced by Augustine to condemn him the next one was convinced by Pelagius to repeal that, so it’s possible, you know, that he wasn’t actually heretical in the eyes of the wider Church. (Something I raised in questions was that it’s weird that two popes choose the name later if it were so indelibly associated with EVIL.)

Portrait photograph of George Bernard Shaw

Pelagius

Non-contemporary portrait of British heresiarch Pelagius

Shaw

Getting to the bottom of this means closer contact with his actual works, and these are limited in their survival: there is a commentary on Paul’s Letters, and then there is an actual letter to a young lady named Demetrias, who was also being advised by Jerome, so it really was competition for patrons here. This letter was really quite widely copied, which was what Ms Bonner had come to tell us about. Specifically, there are 110 known copies of it, as against 148 of Jerome’s letter to the young lady. Pelagius’s other works survive astonishingly well, too, and while some of this may be because the letter has tended, ironically, to be identified as Jerome’s (what with being addressed to the same lady), there is more going on or so Ms Bonner told us.1 Basically, the picture that she developed (as I understood it or now understand it from my notes) was that even though Augustine came to think that he had the answer about free will, and that his impact was such that eventually everyone else thought he did, there was first a long period in which that doctrine was not clear to many people and it was not clear either that Augustine was right or that Pelagius was wrong, especially since texts existed in such numbers in which he denied saying what Augustine had said he said. There was debate. That said, quite a lot of the preservation calls the author of the text a heretic (though not always with his right name) but obviously had copied it anyway. This might be, theorised Dr Bonner, because the Letter is good ascetic literature aside from the theology, advocating all kinds of humble behaviour, and they cared more about the life examples than the theology, which is confusing. (The problem that God already supposedly knows the outcome of a person’s attempt or not to be saved, because He is outside time and they are not, does after all remain a rather difficult one, and it bothered plenty of people after this.) Possibly they should have cared as, of course, if good works are not what it’s about and faith alone is enough, then the whole practice of locking yourself away in a monastery and living as ascetically as you can loses its basis somewhat, but, the preservation is hard to argue with. He was popular; he had some popular opponents who didn’t believe him about what he claimed to believe and had convinced themselves this man was a danger to society; and they became the principal guides of the medieval Church so the weird Briton became a famous heretic. At the time, however, he was mainly just famous, or so we might now think, and that went on for a while.

Pagan burial

Somehow after that I went 12 days without hearing an academic presentation and then came back to earth, quite literally, when Chris Fern came to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar in Oxford to talk with the title, “The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Tranmer House (Sutton Hoo)”. You could be forgiven for thinking we know all about Sutton Hoo by now, given the size of the site report and supporting literature, but the thing is that though the big site with the mounds on has been pretty much done over, yes, it is cemetery number two on the site, and number one, across the path at Tranmer House, was dug in 2000, but the finds are only now finishing analysis.2 It had previously yielded artefacts that showed there was a cemetery there too, and likely an earlier one, so, what do we know now?

Hanging bowl used to hold a sixth-century female cremation burial at Tranmer House cemetery, Sutton Hoo

Hanging bowl used to hold a sixth-century female cremation burial at Tranmer House cemetery, Sutton Hoo

Well, paraphrasing from my notes, the site goes back to the Neolithic, and there was a Bronze Age barrow detectable under the cemetery, though there was also an Iron Age enclosure (as would be expected from similar signs under the mounds to the south) and the cemetery may actually have been limited by that, not focused on the mound. The burials found are both inhumations and cremations, the former often with weapons and one or two of the latter with detectable pyre arrangements and in one case a whole cow and whole horse and at least some of a sheep and a pig burnt with them and the remains distributed between a bronze bowl and four pots for the animals. The cremations may be the later but inhumations go on afterwards, if you see what I mean. A number of cremations contain both cow and horse bones too and they seem to have been female burials; also, they focus on the Bronze Age barrow. There’s some showing-off here, in short, and power signalling, and in the late sixth century that seems to have led to a large burial mound being put up at the edge, so looking very much like the prequel to the move across the wall and into what is now the next field for the really big guys in what had obviously by then got to being a well-stratified society, whether it was before or not. It seems likely that burial had begun at the other end of the site, and may have carried on there for many but that we have here a generation or two of warband members and their bosses, who eventually had to have their importance stressed so much that they needed to be fully separate from the ‘folk’. (Though the female presence in the fancy cremations does raise questions about exactly who the bosses were, what with these women surrounded by dead warriors…) Martin Carver will be pleased with some of these findings as the increase in hierarchy and shift of site is pretty much what he guessed in the report on the newer site, and the radiocarbon dates might so easily have made them contemporary, but he will be less pleased with the fact that the dates push back a change in burial rite he likes to see as being carried out in opposition to Christian conversion’s success to a point when that is less plausible. One now wants to know quite a lot who got buried in the rest of that enclosure, how, and how long for, of course. Hopefully we will get to find out.

Norman profanity

Castle surrounded by fighting knights on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari

Castle surrounded by fighting knights on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari

Then lastly, that same day, Timothy Hunter addressed the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “‘They Made No Difference Between Sacred and Profane’: images of Norman knighthood in Romanesque art”, which obviously as a member of Team Romanesque I had to see. What this was about was essentially one piece of artwork, a battle scene on the north portal of San Nicola di Bari showing knights on horseback attacking armed men on foot who surround a castle with two men in it. This has been read as a record of the Norman capture of Bari or as a Crusade scene but neither side look to be differentiated by their wargear so as to be Muslims or even Greeks (I mean Romans); a small clutch of sort-of-similar scenes are identified as being Arthurian but the late 1080s, when the church was rebuilt, seems awfully early for that in Italy. Consequently, there has been argument about whether this portal belongs to the rebuild or if it was put on later, and it’s all circular. Dr Hunter argued that the other parts of the church look likely to have been done by the same masons, so it’s probably early, that it’s therefore not Arthurian or even a depiction of Guillaume d’Orange whom he would identify in similar carvings at Angoulême cathedral, and so he suggested that it might, just, be the Normans coming to rescue Gregory the Great from would-be-Emperor Henry IV in 1084. One of the men in the castle does appear to be a ‘civilian’, it was a famous Norman deed at the time and Pope Urban II, opponent-in-succession to Henry, came here a lot… Now, this caused some argument because it’s very nice and clever but if a mason wanted to depict a pope you’d expect him to identify him with headgear, surely, and this shouldn’t be a thing about which one could be confused, but still, it fitted better than any of the other answers. I’m still not sure myself, and of course I haven’t given you the full arguments here anyway, but I wonder what you think?


1. New interest in Pelagius in recent years has led to his works being substantially translated, should you care, in Brinley Roderick Rees (transl.), The Letters of Pelagius and his Followers (Woodbridge 1991) and Theodore de Bruyn (ed./transl.), Pelagius’s commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Oxford 1993).

2. A very preliminary analysis in C. Fern, “New Dates for Early Sutton Hoo” in Saxon no. 52 (Woodbridge 2011), online in PDF here, pp. 1-3. The full site report of the better-known cemetery is Martin Carver (ed.), Sutton Hoo: a seventh-century princely burial ground and its context (London 2005), and that contains preliminary data on Tranmer House in J. Newman, “Survey in the Deben Valley” in Carver, Sutton Hoo, pp. 477-487 at pp. 483-486 and in Carver, “Sutton Hoo in Context”, ibid. pp. 489-503 at pp. 489-490. A more accessible introduction to the more famous site and its finds is Carver’s Sutton Hoo: burial ground of kings? (London 1998) but the full report does update that somewhat.

4 responses to “Seminars CXXII-CXXIV: British heresy, pagan burial and Norman profanity

  1. Regarding the Norman Profanity part:
    I believe I’ve said this before somewhere, but I’ll say it again: Unless the protagonists are identified by inscriptions or heraldry, it is virtually impossible to determine who’s fighting who in medieval depictions of battles.

    As for Dr. Hunter’s theory, I have to say that not only do I not see a pope in the castle, I don’t even see a ‘civilian’. Of the two figures in the castle, the one to the right is holding a shield (clearly visible over the battlements) which qualifies him as a warrior, while the one to the left is blowing a horn which identifies him as some sort of guard or gate-keeper. So apparently, both are military figures. Admittedly, neither of them seems to be wearing a helmet, but the same can be said for three of the four defenders outside the castle. (To prove that I’m not making this up, you can look at more detailed images of the relief here and here)

    • I was hoping to draw you in to this, [c], and I’m especially glad that you could find better images, thankyou. While it could certainly be said of Gregory VII that he was happy to blow his own trumpet, I doubt that that would be depicted in sculpture… So I’d be inclined to take your view, I suppose, though that leaves us no closer to decoding the artwork. (One of the more surprising views that came up in the discussion was that it might in fact be the Norman conquest of London or Dover being shown, because no less a person than Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William the Conqueror’s half-brother, is buried in San Nicola! So perhaps all we have done is opened the field still wider, though I do find that one quite unlikely…)

  2. Facey Romford

    Have you seen an article, perhaps relevant to this, in the new (vol. 92, 2012) ‘Antiquaries Journal’? By Christopher Barrett, it is ‘Roland and Crusade Imagery in an English Royal Chapel: Early 13th Century Wall Paintings in Claverley Church, Shropshire’.

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