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.
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.