Tag Archives: Christianity

Gold and fool’s gold strained from the web

Ordinarily I do links-posts when I have little other content to post, and I save up links against that day so that I’m sure I shall have something interesting to show you all. The way this goes wrong, of course, is the current situation where I have forty-odd posts that I hope will be interesting existing in some state, and also a whole bunch of saved-up links getting increasingly out of date. So, let me clear some decks with some commented things for you to look at and then resume more autocthonous programming.

Digital Treasure

  • Page 185 of the Cartulaire Générale de CíteauxFirst and foremost in this, periodically an update arrives in my INBOX from the Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi project of which I’ve made mention here before, the guys who finally indexed the Cluny charters for the greater good of the world. Though they have fewer big goals now their progress is still considerable and ongoing, and more and more stuff is coming online. For me the most exciting thing in the recent batches is the cartularies of Dijon and Pérrecy, now online as facsimiles both of the manuscripts and of the edition, but for many others, I’m guessing that the star attraction will be the General Cartulary of Cîteaux, and indeed its other cartularies too. All of this, as far as I can see, is also included in the searchable database that was the starting point of the whole project. Really, one just wishes Burgundy had been bigger (though of course `one’ is not the first to do that…)
  • Newly-cleaned sword pommel from the Staffordshire HoardMore locally, although it’s almost old news now, conservation efforts on the Staffordshire Hoard are still continuing and new information about it keeps becoming available. One of the good things about that project is how keen they have been to keep the non-academic population in on the loop, and in this day and age of course that involves social media. An example of this, featuring some pictures that were new when I stored the link, and are still shiny, can be found here along with the input of one of this blog’s more important supporting characters, on whose work more soon.

Physical treasure: notable finds

  • Saxon woman cow buried at Anglo-Saxon Oakington cemeteryObviously we can’t have a Staffordshire hoard every year, it’s not like we’re in Gotland or something, but this was pretty good anyway, a burial from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Oakington in which the remains found were an apparently-wealthy woman and a cow, a weird anti-pairing to the warrior-and-horse combo with which we’re more familiar from Sutton Hoo and Lakenheath. Worth a look even if bodies aren’t your thing; as for me, I have to build this lady into a lecture now…
  • Monastery of BenedkitbeuernThen, across the Channel, and in fact really quite a lot further, about as far as possible really. But we start across the Channel, at the monastery of Benediktbeuern, where in the fifteenth century a rather fancy Bible was made, in four volumes. This we know because it is now in Auckland, New Zealand, where recently investigations have revealed at least eight strips from a much older Bible, from the time of Charlemagne (whom the story calls “the French and German emperor” – better than choosing just one I suppose?), that were reused as binding material. The survival of ancient manuscript material as linings and joints for newer ones is not unusual, but the distance of travel involved here rather is; as the Waikato University researcher who found them is quoted as saying, “these little pieces of manuscript have travelled further than any other piece of Carolingian manuscript as far as we know”. Slightly amazing!
  • Portrait denarius of Charlemagne as Emperor (812x814)Nonetheless, in some ways more amazing is another find from the era of Charlemagne, although this, a portrait denarius of Charlemagne from an unidentified mint and dating from the short space of his reign in which he was acknowledged as Emperor by his counterpart in Constantinople (812-814), is a find made a long time ago; it’s amazing because in March it sold for 160,000 euros, making it one of the highest-price medieval coins ever sold.1 (The estimate had been a mere 30,000…) We all know, of course, that very little if anything is worth more than Charlemagne but evidence of this is usually harder to quantify!
  • I got the first of these from Antiquarian’s Attic and the latter two from News for Medievalists, so hats duly tipped to them.

Finds more controversial

Site of the prehistoric temple at Ranheim, NorwayThere were two stories I wanted to comment on in this kind of category, but I don’t think I’m quite up to doing more with this one, which isn’t medieval in the slightest, than to say, can you imagine how this knowledge would have been used 150 years ago? We have, after all, seen on this blog the kinds of fight that can break out over who was where first… So, more interesting and relevant perhaps is news of the discovery of a pagan temple site at Ranheim in Norway, with a sequence of dates running from a fire pit in the lowest layer whose charcoal radio-carbonned to the fourth or fifth centuries BCE and a last-used date of 895×990 AD, after which the building was apparently carefully dismantled, pulled down and levelled, thus explaining the remarkable preservation. Now, this is an amazing site if that’s all correct, but the story has been presented in a very odd way. Admittedly, I have sourced this information from a site called Free Thought Nation (by way of Archaeology in Europe), so it’s perhaps unsurprising that it is down on Christianity, but it’s the way it’s down, which it supports with alleged quotes from the excavator, that surprises me: they read the site as having been dismantled and levelled to hide it from the forces of Christianization at loose in Norway at the time, probably prior to the faithful emigrating to more tolerant pastures like Iceland. Why, though, should we not suppose that the temple was taken down as part of Christianization? Because it’s not violent enough, or something? More probably, I suppose, because it was not subsequently re-used for a Christian site of worship, implying that no population needing one remained, but it’s still a bit odd, as is the effort the article goes into to establish that this religion, whatever it was, predated Christianity, but does not demonstrate any settlement nearby. So okay, pre-Christian religion, yes! How does that help? and whom?

Links involving me

More humbly and mundanely, there are two things I could point you at that reflect on my various endeavours, though only one of these involves Vikings I’m afraid.

  • The one that doesn’t is that I lately updated my personal academic webpages, so if you want to be up-to-date with my publications list (on which more here too before long), to see which of my various projects I’m admitting to working on currently or simply to get the latest on my hair, they’re here. Now I just have to get all my institutional ones similar…
  • Dunnyneil Island, Strangford Lough, Ireland, from the airAnd secondly, and more excitingly, back in May I got an e-mail from someone at BBC Ireland asking for comment on the excavations at Dunnyneil Island in Strangford Lough. This is only the second time I’ve been asked to be a media mouth, and the first time I didn’t realise how tight the timescale was and so missed out; this time I answered mail with unparalleled alacrity and as much help as I could be. I was, however, fully expecting this to be cut about, abbreviated and misused and I was completely wrong: quite a lot of what I wrote is now part of this story by Laura Burns, and all the quotes from me, modulo typos, are actually what I sent her. I’m rather pleased with it, and I wish all medievalist journalism was as good. You may like to have a look.

And finally…

Also, for those with problems with Oxford (including simply not being here), there’s this, which the Naked Philologist sent me and which I offer without comment…


1. In this dating I follow the view of Simon Coupland, and before him Philip Grierson, that Charlemagne only began to issue these coins once recognised as emperor by the eastern one (see S. Coupland, “Charlemagne’s Coinage: ideology and economy” in Joanna Story (ed.), Charlemagne: Empire and Society (Manchester 2005), pp. 211-229, repr. in Coupland, Carolingian Coinage and the Vikings: studies on power and trade in the 9th century, Variorum Collected Studies 847 (Aldershot 2006), I, but the auction house in question, Künker’s, have used a more cautious/less precise date.

At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part III

On the third day of the 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies, I appear to have followed almost exactly the same trajectory through sessions as the Medieval History Geek,1 and of course he wrote it up long hence, so you could just read about them at his. Because time is short and space is infinite but this doesn’t mean I should fill all of it, however, I’ll basically just list the papers and give comments where I have anything different to say to what he did, and therefore you may want to read (or re-read) his post first as that will, you know, actually tell you what they were about.

Session 398. Early Medieval History

Antiochene gold solidus of Emperor Maurice Tiberius (584-602)

Obverse and reverse of gold solidus of Antioch in the name of Emperor Maurice Tiberius (584-602), showing (obverse) a bust of the emperor facing with cross on globe and (reverse) Victory standing facing with labarum and cross-on-globe

  • Benjamin Wheaton, “Reasons for Byzantine Support of Gundovald through 584 CE”. What I liked about this paper, which is also common to a lot of late antique history, was that although from the title you’d expect it to be very specific – one year, two polities – of course the reasons for that Byzantine support enmeshed most of the other kingdoms of Europe and what they were doing and one wound up with, not the scheming Byzantine emperor pulling strings all across our map that one sometimes gets from the more `classic’ literature but a picture of Emperor Maurice I receiving the latest unpredictable news from Spain, from Burgundy, from Neustria, wherever, taking stock of it all and rolling out a new plan to try and stay ahead of as much as he knew about developments as best he could. This seems more realistic and more useful as a comparator than the kind of gilded Byzantium-was-always-more-clever paradigm I’ve met in some work.
  • Luigi Andrea Berto, “In Search of the First Venetians: some notes and proposals for a prosopography of early medieval Venice”. I’ve had a kind of bitter interest in the origins of Venice ever since being set an assignment on it that I couldn’t do during my Master’s. The paper here was however more about the sort of problems that one gets trying to database any early medieval dataset than any specific new findings, I thought, and my notes were therefore brief because I’ve met those before.
  • Sebastian Rossignol, “New Perspectives on the Origins of Towns in Early Medieval Central Europe”. This was that slightly dubious thing, a conference paper that is basically cut down from a paper already in publication. This of course means that any feedback the presenter gets cannot profit them at all, so I find it an odd choice to make. I felt, anyway, that although the problems with deciding what is and isn’t a town were well expressed and explained here, they are also something that several people had a decent go at dealing with before I was born, so that it sounded as if Dr Rossignol had laboriously reinvented the wheel.2 Talking to him afterwards I discovered that he did know the Continental side of this literature, but whether it was useful for him to explain it all to us again I am still not sure.

Then lunch and a return to battle, or at least, opposition, with:

Session 455. Early Medieval Europe I

  • Walter Goffart, “An Experimental Introduction to Christianity for Today’s Students of Medieval History”. This, which has been gone into in detail by the Medieval History Geek so do have a look there, was another rather odd thing, since it was a pedogogical paper not a research one, unusual in this context. Also, because he is now free of undergraduate teaching, Professor Goffart was able to be fairly uninterested in suggestions about how he might modify it, because he himself would not need it. This made for a rather odd back-and-forth in questions where he basically implied that interpretation was our problem not his, leaving me with the impression that Holy Writ had just been handed down.
  • Glenn McDorman, “Diplomacy in the Post-Imperial West and the Gallic War of 507-510″. I was not convinced by the central contention of this, which was statedly that there was an agreed set of rules for conducting royal politics in the sixth century and that we can prove it—as with any system based on norms, I want some consideration of the incentives and disincentives not to play and of how the norms are communicated before I am ready to believe—but I thought it did have some value as an analysis of the way that King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths conducted his foreign relations, which might be described roughly as, “everything possible to avoid war but then go in with overwhelming force and without hesitation”. In that light, this paper was about the tipping point between these two states and that way I found it quite enlightening.
  • Gold solidus of King Theodoric of Italy

    Obverse of the gold solidus of King Theodoric of Italy that shows the "invincible" moustache

  • Jonathan J. Arnold, “Theodoric’s Invincible Mustache”. I absolutely loved this paper, not just because it managed to sneak some genuine historical import about unchecked assumptions by historians, fluidity of early medieval ethnicity and so on, past us but because it made really good use of a slideshow and graphics and was thoroughly entertaining. Dr Arnold is a presenter to seek out. How many people have you seen give a paper in which they said, “OK: get ready to have your mind blown” and then not delivered anything exciting? Not this time, and he had an extra slide ready to anticipate the most obvious question; I give him maximum points for preparation and style that Congress.

I think that the coffee in the more modern part of the West Michigan campus come Congress time is a little too hard to reach. The spaces between sessions are generous, but this year as last year I would be talking to people after sessions, go to seek out coffee, get slightly lost, and either only just get the vital caffeine or actually have to give up and run back. Thus, somehow, the sessions I was most likely to be late for this year appeared to be the ones where I didn’t have to change rooms. I seem to have a full set of notes on this next one so I assume that I wasn’t late; however, my notes seem sufficiently grouchy that I suspect I didn’t get the coffee. I apologise in advance to the speakers in this panel, therefore, for what may be a less generous appraisal than they deserved.

Session 511. Early Medieval Europe II

The so-called Tassilo Chalice, preserved at Tassilo III's foundation of Kremsmünster

The so-called Tassilo Chalice, preserved at Tassilo III's foundation of Kremsmünster

  • Jennifer Davis, “Charlemagne and Tassilo in 794: a final encounter”, arguing that Charlemagne’s final display of the deposed Duke Tassilo of Bavaria at court was more a display of power and confidence than a response to any real threat from him or his old duchy.3
  • Courtney Booker, “The fama ambigua of Ebbo, Bishop of Reims and Hildesheim”, arguing that we should consider Ebbo‘s choices and decisions when trying to weigh up his involvement in the deposition of his old master and patron, Emperor Louis the Pious, more than has been done. I would be inclined to agree and found the interpretations persuasive but I thought it was odd that, in a paper that urged us to hear Ebbo’s voice, none of his actual writings got quoted. I’m sure they will be in the print version.
  • Phyllis Jestice, “Constructing a Queen: Adelheid’s Great Escape and the Ottonian Image”. This was another great presentation, full of humour and irony but without ever letting go of the subject, the way that this somewhat unlucky but prestigious Queen of Italy and then Germany was presented and, well, used, by those who attacked her, captured her, married her or wrote about her (the first three groups sometimes being the same people). Even her history was worth claiming, it seems, and Professor Jestice certainly made it worth hearing about.

And then, I believe, the dance, and I also believe that I had failed to make any sensible plans for dinner and that Michael Fletcher, again, obligingly drove us out to town to get something as part of a general mess of collapsing plans that had been made somewhere around the beginning of the mead tasting and fallen apart by the end, can’t imagine why. I do remember that somewhere in that press of mead-bibbers I met, at last, the inimitable and now-unlinkable Jennifer Lynn Jordan, which was of course a delight, but mainly I have to thank Michael for making sure I got fed at the expense of his time and gasoline. By that generosity I was set up for the dance, which was loads of fun even if this time I didn’t have as much freedom (or indeed cause—no Sex Pistols this time) to let my hair down and fling it around as I had last year, because of presenting the next day. Michael and I did clear a reasonable area around us when we undertook to give `Bohemian Rhapsody’ the full Wayne’s World treatment towards close of play, however.4 I was there at the end, but not for long after, and then it was sleep before the last day of the whole shebang.


1. This nomenclature feels awkward, since I have met him and know his name and I don’t think he’s even keeping it secret; but I learnt netiquette in the old days and one of the tenets of the old school was and probably is, “you use the name that someone gives you, because identity on the Internet is meant to be different if someone wants it to be and anyway to do otherwise is kind of like calling someone a liar about their name”. Lacking instruction to the contrary, I’ll stand by that.

2. Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953) non vidi, cit. Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David M. Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150 at p. 100 n. 4, that Biddle chapter being the basic starting point for this whole deal even now I reckon.

3. Cf. Stuart Airlie, “Narratives of Triumph and Rituals of Submission: Charlemagne’s mastery of Bavaria” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 93-119.

4. Except that we did not pause to recover someone from another party because we were all the party already.

Conversion can be a bit of a lottery

The martyrdom of St Adalbert at the hands of the Prussians, from the doors of Gniezno Cathedral

An unsuccessful Baltic conversion attempt: the Prussians martyr St Adalbert, as depicted on the doors of Gniezno Cathedral, from Wikimedia Commons

Though no Christian I, I was still firmly schooled in a Christian tradition and every now and then I realise that my preconceptions of religion are kind of Christian unless shaken otherwise. For the early medievalist this can sometimes be an obstacle to understanding: the lord God I heard about most when I was a schoolboy was a jealous god, but many of his rivals maybe not so much, and when we deal with conversion from paganism this becomes relevant. The classic story for most of us is probably Bede’s report of King Rædwald of East Anglia, one of those in the Ecclesiastical History who got it wrong, in his case by being converted only so far as to install an altar to Christ in his multi-denominational pagan temple,1 but there are others, and even where the cults are probably not similar at all the ready acceptance that Christ might certainly be a valid and powerful god, but not the only one, shows up quite a lot.

Map of the Baltic tribal zones, c. 1200

Map of the Baltic tribal zones, c. 1200, from Wikimedia Commons

I am currently reading something about Eastern Europe for review (no, I agree, I don’t know why either) and this came up again in a particularly charming case.2 In the context of the Baltic Crusades, circa 1208, one particular group, the Latgalians, apparently found themselves caught between two sets of missionaries, one from the Germans and one from the Orthodox Rus’. Rather than decide their brand of Christianity, as the Rus’ themselves are alleged to have done, on the basis of which looked like more fun,3 they decided that only one source of guidance was appropriate for such a decision and cast lots before their own gods to decide which of these versions of Christ they should adopt. That’s not the best bit: they got an answer, and it was pro-German (or I doubt we’d hear of it). Given the immediate military circumstances that seems to be a politically switched-on god that answered, and he, she or it presumably continued to be on call in the future, though our source, Henry of Livonia, preferred to omit this implication.4 I need to remember about other world-views like this.


1. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, transl. Roger Collins & Judith McClure as “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” in eidem (edd.), Bede: the Ecclesiastical History of the English People – the Greater Chronicle – Bede’s Letter to Egbert, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford nd), II.15. I’m beginning to think there is more to be said about teleology in the HEGA, you know; does anyone know if there’s work on this out there somewhere?

2. Alvydas Nikžentaitas, A., “Die Möglichkeiten der alternativen Geschichte. Das Alltagsleben im Baltikum des 13. und 14. Jahrhunderts” in Jörn Staecker (ed.), The Reception of Medieval Europe in the Baltic Sea Region. Papers of the XIIth Visby Symposium held at Gotland University, Visby, Acta Visbyensia XII (Visby 2009), pp. 397-419 at p. 399.

3. Samuel Hazzard Cross & Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (edd./transl.), The Russian Primary Chronicle, Medieval Academy of America Publication 60 (Cambridge MA 1953), s. a. 988.

4. Heinrici Chronicon Livoniae, ed. †Leonid Arbusow & Albert Bauer as Heinrichs Livländische Chronik: zweite auflage, Monumenta Germanae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXXI (Hannover 1955), online here, XI.7, at p. 55 rather than the p. 59 cit. Nikžentaitis. Hmph. There is an English translation by James Brundage as Henricus Lettus, The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, Records of Civilisation (New York 1961, repr. 2004).

Christianization and State Formation in Central Europe website

A very short and much-delayed blowing of my own trumpet, if you don’t mind. Back in 2004, before this blog was even a glint in my eye, I briefly sustained myself by working for Dr Nora Berend of the Faculty of History in Cambridge on a project then called Christianization and State Formation in Central Europe and Scandinavia. The basis of the project was that the team agreed on a uniform set of questions they would like to ask for each of the countries they were surveying, and then got an author or number of authors, largely archaeologists but some historians, to try and answer them. This was supposed to give as close to comparability as possible. The language of operation was English, but the language of many of the authors wasn’t. This could give rise to problems, which was where I came in, Englishing the English.1 This did in fact take a bit of specialist knowledge: for example, when I was faced with one particular pagan prince of legend who had, according to the text I had before me, been “beaten with mousses to death”, it was only the vague recollection of the story of Bishop Hatto of Mainz that led me to wonder if the real answer might have been “eaten by mouses to death”, or as it wound up, “chewed to death by mice”, because that did indeed transpire to be what was meant. Much of it, however, was not that much fun. And it was all due for urgent publication and therefore had to be rushed. That was 2004.

Cover of Nora Berend (ed.), <u>Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy. Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus' <i>c. </i>900–1200</u>

Cover of Nora Berend (ed.), Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy. Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus' c. 900–1200

Now, I don’t blame them. I’m by now certain it’s me, somehow, because apart from my first paper every single publication I’ve been involved with has had this year or more of inexplicable delay. (Sometimes rather more than a year…) I don’t know what’s holding up Medieval European Coinage 6 or the Lay Archives books or indeed the publication of our own Leeds papers, or the volume of Papers from the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar that’s going to have me in it. They are just stuck and my CV grows stale. It’s hard to have more in print when there’s an infinite delay in the process. I’m only sure that the hold-up is not lack of my own work, because everything I have been asked to do is done. It seems to just be my luck that nothing I write or edit comes out for years. Anyway. By 2007 I’d given up waiting for notice when I saw the above book in Foyles in London and was mildly outraged, because I’d hoped to at least be told, if not indeed to actually get a copy.2 But I was still more perplexed when I examined it and found that it didn’t appear to resemble what I’d done at all.

Detail of the portal at Urnes church

Detail of the portal at Urnes church

This perplexity has now been slightly resolved by Dr Berend who has pointed me at the parallel website. I had been under the impression that book and web were to share text, but this seems to have been wrong. In fact, although it apparently only went up in December 2007, I’m not at all sure that this site retains all the editing I did, as it still reads rather oddly. Nonetheless, it is there, and it’s really quite interesting. We don’t know a great deal about Slavic paganism, and we know precious little about the Christianization (a longue-durée word for a long process, we mean more than just conversion here) of these areas, but what we do know, except possibly about Sweden where I’m not sure that we really had the newest perspectives sadly, is now available at this underpublicized resource. For some reason Google doesn’t really know it’s there, and if you try Googling for the project all the links point to pages at CRASSH that are no longer there, but in fact it does exist, it covers Bohemia, Denmark, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Rus’ and Sweden, and it does so in a way that makes them very easy to quickly compare. It also has extensive bibliographies for further research and a few choice images. And, in as much as it’s readable English, I helped make it so. I humbly commend it to the readership.


1. I know I’ve said this before, but I don’t know whom to credit for this phrase; it’s not mine, however, as I get it merely from a footnote I think I read on Usenet. However, although I can turn it up on Google Groups more or less as I remember it, that’s in a post from alt.english.usage, which I never read, so I am still mystified. Well, for now, ‘Harvey’ can have the credit for writing in 2002 that “the very concept of having an anglicised form of the word ‘anglicised’ is somehow very pleasing”. Thankyou sir. You were quite right.

2. Nora Berend (ed.), Christianization and the Rise of Christian Monarchy.
Scandinavia, Central Europe and Rus’ c. 900–1200
(Cambridge 2007).

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.

The amoral compass

At the beginning of the year the cartoon strip Shortpacked had this instalment, which has set me musing.

I’m not going to see the film in question, but I’m not going to see it principally because a colleague of mine has assured me that as entertainment it’s not worth spending two hours of your life on it, and I have plenty to do with two hours of evening. (Book to write, for a start…)

But I do find myself niggling about the reaction to it in the Christian media. Do I understand it correctly that the problem is that the film involves the killing of a worn-out ‘god’ by the child protagonists? And that this is being construed as a threat to organised religion? Even though the god that is killed is not the Christian god…

Being a medievalist, I can’t help but wonder how this would have been seen from a medieval perspective. Think of Saint Boniface felling the oak of Eismar, or Charlemagne ordering the destruction of the Saxon Irminsul, both presumably living respresentations of divinity to their worshippers; or else, more subtly, of the monks of Armagh reworking the Celtic legends to gently but inevitably end them with the death of magic and its pagan archetypes, leaving the field free for the true revelation of God. Mind you it’s produced some fabulous spin-offs: how many fantasy authors can you think of who end their cycles with the magical beings leaving the world for men to mess up? Tolkien, Moorcock (dozens of times), the list goes on. And yes, it’s all terribly Celtic I’m sure, but it’s not how the stories originally went, is it, however powerful it is as a motif.

Christianity’s been killing gods for centuries, as far as that’s possible; in fact possibly only Zoroastrianism has been anything like as hostile to rival faiths. And that didn’t use to be a problem (for Christianity) because way back then, the enemy of Christianity was other faiths, but now of course it’s not; now the kinds of Christian who want to make a fuss about things seem to think that the main enemy is disinterest, which they read as atheism. Boniface or the redactors of the Táin would have thought Mr Pullman’s work to be serving their agenda, even if that wasn’t his intention. They wouldn’t have approved of course, but i don’t think they would have found it theologically objectionable, because it’s about a different, ultimately mortal and therefore not truly divine, deity.

But for the modern and protesting (small `p’) Christian, believing in anything is better than not to believe, apparently. So is ‘godless’ now worse than ‘infidel’ to the religious right, or just rarer? Or, perhaps more importantly, closer to home?

(It is necessary to mention the other side of the coin, of course, because in the time this post has been in draft, Matthew Gabriele has reminded us that medieval religion at the blunt end was often as pragmatically tolerant as we might wish for. The danger, again, comes from the theorists :-) They may be locked up in ivory towers with only quill pens as weapons; but apparently when it comes to deicide (no, not Deicide), the pen is mightier than the sword.)

Seminary VII (digging in a church with a Pict)

On Wednesday 17th October, the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar was given by Thomas Owen Clancy, who was asking, “The churches of the Picts: when, where and what were they for?” Which is fair enough really. As he said, the simple answer was, ‘during the Pictish period’, ‘in Pictland’, and, ‘for the Picts to worship in’ but actually pinning it down beyond that was tricky. Thomas is very cautious, as anyone in that field has to be to avoid getting stuck into heavy politics and stupid anthropology comparisons, or just being mistaken for a blue-rinse loony. He did however have some new input on the place-names that filled out the picture of the early Scottish Church a bit, which otherwise looks terribly western-focussed and therefore Gaelic. He found good evidence to suppose that a widespread pastoral network existed in genuinely Pictish territory (where we agreed to define Pictish as ‘not Gaelic’, except maybe in Atholl but that’s my own personal bee in the bonnet) before the Gaelic takeover of the ninth century, although some at least of that probably had to be blamed on the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century. As a counter to that, however, he also opened up the suggestion that Gaelic was always a privileged language for those in charge of the cult, because writing and Christianity both seem to have been imported in it (except where a rival Anglian import was preferred) and that the Pictish Church may therefore have had little use for Pictish.

By and large, it was a paper full of interesting ideas not pushed too far, and though no-one was very much the wiser at the end in some ways, Thomas is very good at leaving us feeling better about how little we know in this area, because he always has some hopes that we might some day work it out and ideas to follow up.

Happy to answer further questions about this should anyone be interested, but for now that’s as good as you get because I had to move house and prepare a lecture the week I drafted this and my brain is mostly elsewhere…