Seminary LXIII: that’s not in the canon, is it?

To my disquiet, I find that I am already going to this term’s seminars without having written up all of last term’s yet. In my defence: editors! Kalamazoo! And, to distract you further, this term’s IHR Earlier Middle Ages Seminar schedule is here. However, if you’re still demanding to know where the missing content is, I suppose I’d better tell you about Roy Flechner‘s presentation to that same seminar last term, on 10th March, when he spoke to the title, “What can canon law tell us about the Gregorian mission to Kent?”

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Ivory carving of Pope Gregory the Great being inspired by the Holy Spirit, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

[Edit: a source I obviously misunderstood Roy’s presentation of is pinned down in comments by the elusive Two-Fingered Typist, which has meant fairly coarse editing of some of what follows; I apologise to the other commentators who responded to the initial version. I’ve enclosed what I’ve changed in square brackets.]

Roy’s basic pitch was that, since we know that Gregory the Great was a dab hand with the Church canons, he must have taken time to think, when he plotted the mission to the English (in response, [Gregory tells us, to a local request after a failure to get religion from unspecified ‘neighbours’]) what the legal implications of it would be. Not least, he had a plan to set up twelve new bishoprics, but Britain had had bishops before, indeed apparently still did as St Augustine met with them to famous failure, and so there were sees notionally there that would have to be over-ruled and replaced. Roy pointed out that good precedents existed for this after the end of the Donatist Schism in Africa, where numerous parallel bishoprics and their properties had to be merged. This was regulated by the Council of Carthage in 418, which would certainly have been known to Gregory. Roy also argued that Gregory’s involvement of as many Frankish bishops as possible through letters showed an attempt to proceed in a quasi-conciliar fashion, to provide a better legal backing for the massive abrogation of existing rights (and rites) he was about to order. This he did rather than do what he might have done and declare the British Church heretical for Quartodecimianism; after all, as Roy pointed out, some of the Frankish bishops of the day thought the Irish missionary saint Columbanus was a heretic for this and other reasons, and the two churches seem to have been of one calendar on this.

Portrait of St Augustine from the St Petersburg manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

Portrait of St Augustine from the St Petersburg manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History (from Wikimedia Commons)

For me this was one of those seminars where I am asked to think about a topic I’ve not really considered deeply before, and then having done so I come away with a very different view from that of the person presenting. I thought there was a substantial elephant in the room here, and it was the Franks. Not only, as Roy admitted, has Ian Wood among others argued that the Franks exercised some kind of hegemony over Southern England at this time, the turn of the fifth to sixth centuries, so that not just the conciliar approach in which many Frankish bishops were involved but also the request from the vicini to assist their ongoing mission in England could be viewed in that context; but most of all, there is the rider of the aforesaid elephant, Bishop Liudhard who is supposed to have come to England with King Æthelberht of Kent’s Frankish wife. Roy didn’t mention him but for me he is a much more plausible explanation of the peculiarities Roy was mentioning. We know [that ‘neighbours’ of the English had been approached to provide Christianity, or at least we know that Gregory claimed this:] Roy favoured the British, but Bede outright denies this, though it has been suggested that he had to for his scheme of Anglian unity through conversion to work. Furthermore, the closest functioning British sees we know of at this time were Bangor and Carlislethere are arguments to be made for Chester too—none of which are exactly ‘neighbours’ to Kent. Meanwhile, there’s an actual Frankish bishop restoring churches [at Canterbury]! Occam’s Razor… Also, this [could help] explain why Gregory planned the southern metropolitan to be London, not Canterbury; there was already a bishop in Canterbury! [Though, as I was forced to admit in comments, the actual chronology of the sources does seem to stop this idea working.] But Æthelberht seems to have had his own reasons for getting rid of Liudhard; we never hear of him again, Augustine moved in on his see [if see it e’er was] and London is never metropolitan, at least not in ecclesiastical terms. Then Gregory had to rearrange the situation, which may explain why, as Roy also admitted, he didn’t actually follow the template of Carthage in dealing with the British Church; things were already out of his hands, and the British may not have been the problem he had most immediately in mind.

St Martin's Canterbury, the church restored for use by Bishop Liudhard

St Martin's Canterbury, the church restored for use by Bishop Liudhard, from Stephen Bax's booklet on the church

So although I’m glad Roy asked all these questions, I don’t think I agree with him about many of the answers. That said, he’s perfectly right to make us think about Gregory would have thought about this whole venture, and what groundwork he had to arrange to make it happen, and he’s certainly right to stress that this kind of source material has something to contribute to this question. I guess I just have to be different…

The obvious source material for Gregory’s intents on the mission has always been the letters between him and Augustine that Bede incorporated into his Ecclesiastical History, which is in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook as well as in your edition of choice, but Roy added Gregory’s letters into the mix and much of what he had to tell us that wasn’t widely known came from a close reading of them; they are edited in Dag L. Norberg (ed.), S. Gregorii Magni Registrum epistularum (Turnhout 1982). Ian Wood’s arguments are most fully set out in an annoyingly unobtainable pamphlet, his The Merovingian North Sea, Occasional Papers on Medieval Topics 1 (Alingsås 1983), but there is also some coverage in his The Merovingian Kingdoms 450-751 (London 1994).


14 responses to “Seminary LXIII: that’s not in the canon, is it?

  1. Bishop Liudhard is a big open question isn’t he. Can we really say though that he had a mission or that he was there only for pastoral care of the Franks who accompanied Bertha?

    • Well, can we separate the two? I wish I’d made a better note of Roy’s source for the idea that Augustine’s mission was requested by vicini to aid a mission in progress—perhaps you know it—but, as long as we accept it, Liudhard is to my mind too obvious a candidate to ignore.

      The only problem with the canonistic interpretation of this is that Gregory’s sixth answer in the Libellus responsionum tells Augustine that he is the only bishop in the Church of the English. So either by that point Liudhard had already been sent packing, or Gregory never knew about him. I find both of these difficult, and it makes it impossible to relate Liudhard’s presence to the location of the metropolitan at London I suppose. Bother.

  2. Wow….yeah, I’ve not heard of these vinci before requesting aid in converting the English…news to me. Wonder what his source is?

    Re: Liudhard…I doubt he was gotten rid of so much as left after Augustine’s initial success. There’s a tale if you will bear with me (this is more fun than the grading I should be doing). Ethelberht is not unlike another king of renown: Clovis. Ok, so far as we know not as brutal. *BUT* Clovis was consolidating a big chunk of newly acquired territory, married the big Germanic king’s daughter (Theodric in Ravenna) etc, but instead of accepting the Christian Arian faith of his father-in-law, Clovis becomes Catholic…one less toe hold that Theodric has on him and his allegiance. Similarly, Ethelberht is described as expanding his territory to everything south of the Humber, is married to the big Germanic king’s daughter, but accepts Christianity from Rome, not mediated through the Franks…a stroke for independence from Frankish hegemony methinks. Once Augustine becomes the bishop of the kingdom, there’s little room for Liudhard other than to be Bertha’s personal bishop. Possible, but not terribly probable.

    Gregory does not seem to have been aware of Liudhard, which suggests that the Franks aren’t the ones who invited Gregory to get involved. But I’ve not heard of this invitation by a “neighboring people” before. Easy to forget because never attested? Is it in Gregory’s letters? HMMM.

    Britain may have had bishops before, but how they were organized is something of a mystery, beyond London and York. But we’re still at a period of churches and bishoprics essentially answering to kings, not pope or the church. So Gregory apparently had no contact or control with the British bishops, or the Irish for that matter, and Augustine’s expectation that they would follow him seems rather shocking. We should remember too that the sort of “Christian unity” that Augustine was preaching meant not just forsaking traditions, not just accepting his overlordship, but by extension some kind of recognition of Ethelberht as overlord–something the British kingdoms were undoubtedly unwilling to do without a fight. It is unlikely so far as I can see that the British would ask Rome for help in converting the English so that a Roman bishop could and would supplant them, or issuing that invitation (which I can’t find any source for) that Gregory would then entirely bypass them, write no letters to them, not involve them at all in the process, and rather ask the bishop of Arles in particular to give aid and succor to Augustine and his mission.

    It would seem that Gregory’s notion, or at least Augustine’s was simply to take over–acknowledge the “truth” of Catholic praxis, adhere to it, and remodel the British church on the Roman model. Or perhaps his model only applied to the English, not to the British at all. Hard to say.

    But unlike the Donatist schism or even the Arians where one has competing churches and officials in the same town, sometimes right next to each other, this isn’t the case at all within the island of Britain c. 600. It is often simply assumed, for one thing, that all the British were Christian, but while we know there was Christianity there, it is hard to say how extensive it was, even in the island of Britain. Did every “British” kingdom have a bishop? was Christian? We simply don’t know, so far as I’m aware.

    Gregory couldn’t have done anything about the British. For one thing, the most that would happen is the Roman communion would go about shouting that the Brits were heretics and vice versa….pretty much what happened in fact. Ok, they didn’t quite go that far until Wilfrid, but….Further, and more importantly, the Irish/British practice wasn’t Quartodeciman. And Gregory knew it. Not only because Gregory was a smart and edumacated sort of chap, but by the time of Augustine’s Oak Columbanus had already written him a long letter explaining the foundation of the Irish Easter (for shorthand)in the third century computistics originating in Alexandria. Gregory is also aware that the church of Byzantium, to which he had been ambassador and had had theological disputes while living in Byzantium, also practiced a different Easter date than that of the West because the church of Rome was following the tables of Victorius of Acquitaine, a contemporary of Prosper, mid 5th century, and other western churches eventually adopted the tables of Dionysius Exiguus. While Bede wants to present the issue as “the church in the whole world” vs. those recalcitrant Insular Celts, that presentation simply isn’t true: different tables (Victorius’ and Dionysius’ for example) were in use at different parts in Western Europe even while Bede was writing. ANYWAY, all that to say that Gregory could have raised this as an issue and excommunicated the Brits, but he would know that he didn’t have a leg to stand on.

    Re: London and York rather than Canterbury, as I recall it is generally assumed that because these two cities were the centers of Roman administration for Britannia Superior (centered on London) and Britannia Inferior (centered on York) and Late Antique Christianity in the island. That would seem to explain Gregory’s choice more than that there were already a “bishop of Canterbury”.

    Gregory’s involvement of Frankish bishops doesn’t seem to me to be “as many as possible.” All those involved are along the route one would walk from Rome to a channel crossing. And if Augustine is successful, he will be made a bishop, and so one has to notify those bishops to be ready to anoint him at the appropriate time. So yes, Gregory did have to lay a lot of groundwork beyond being “inspired by God” as Bede says to make this happen and it is good to explore just what. But like you, I don’t think much of the answers given by the speaker, with the caveat that I’m reading them second hand.

    What are your plans for K’zoo? Arrival? Departure? Direct or layover in Chicago?

    • Wow, that grading must have been wearing you right down :-) Fair point about the choice of Frankish bishops (I also wonder if it’s a matter of what king they served) and with the Quartodecimianism, attributing that to the British is my error rather than Roy’s I think and I should know better. All the same, I’m sure there was plenty of room for theological disagreement, mainly because, as you say, that’s “pretty much what happened”. Also a good point about the possible sparseness of the British episcopacy, though the fact that Bangor or Carlisle could muster a bishop suggests to me that there was probably enough of a flock where the relevant sees hadn’t been in war-zones for the last century.

      London is a subject we could debate for ages, because it basically depends on how much Gregory knew what he was trying. It was indeed the old Roman capital, and Gregory may not have realised it was no longer really a power focus. Or, he may have been better informed than we credit and known perfectly well that, though it was the focus of no one kingdom, at least two kings had halls there (Essex and Kent) and so it might be a good place for either maximum outreach or minimum domination. Or, he have intended to leave the resident Frank in place at Canterbury :-) But although I like it because thought of it, I am going to have to agree that that last is rather less likely.

  3. One of the slippery things here is to define the British kingdoms. What you see in the north is mostly warlords and the territory that they could hold. Its possible that it was very similar in Wales. In the most Romanized areas Roman style admin may have continued for a short time (maybe a generation) but it was long gone by the time of Gregory. There were a couple British bishops in the North – Whithorn (Ninian) and possibly Alt Clut area (reputedly Kentigern), but what kingdoms did they consider to be their diocese? Or were bishops based on the former Roman provincal capitals, so only 4 or 5 – probably London, Lincoln, York, Caerleon, and maybe Carlisle (Whithorn?). Tim Clarkson is starting a series on his blog Senchus to discuss the terminology of early British “kingdoms”.

    By the way, if Gregory wanted information on Britain he surely could have gotten it from Brittany. There were many Britons moving there from Britain in the 500s. Bishops of Tours were surely in contact with Britons in Brittany.

    • Is Whithorn up and running at that stage, in the Clancy dispensation? I haven’t really take on board all the ramifications of Thomas’s abolition of St Ninian…

      • Whithorn was there. Clancy-Fraser’s theory makes him Columba’s teacher. Clancy pushes him up to about 550 and Fraser links him with Columba’s teacher, if I remember right. So it would be about a generation before Augustine. The question still is which kingdom(s) did Whithorn serve? It doesn’t seem to have been Alt Clut and none of the Ninian hagiography links him with any other kingdom. I guess its possible that it evolved as a Christian center independent of a kingdom – just getting along with who ever the local power was? If they had any continuity with Roman times that could have given them a patina of authority that was respected by all the local peoples. Its easy to see why they would embrace Martin as a patron saint and monasticism as a way forward in such an uncertain political climate.

        I have to say I am leaning more and more for the Rhinns of Galloway being the location of Rheged.

        • Does it have to serve a kingdom? It’s a coastal hermitage, not a mission centre, surely. I mean, sea connections and everything, yes, but for centrality Iona’s no great shakes either. Both become mission centres but I wonder if that’s what they were chosen for, rather than refuge.

          I have to say I am leaning more and more for the Rhinns of Galloway being the location of Rheged.

          A part of the world I know quite well! The obvious thing that strikes me about that idea is that it means that Rheged’s rulers would have to come through several of the traditional locations to meet the Anglians in battle. Also, if there, what would have ended Rheged? Do we suppose Anglo-Saxon rule reached there so early? If at all? It just seems strategically far less likely than Carlisle to me.

          • Given all the evidence of trade at the site I don’t think it was located there for hermitage! I think it was position on the sea-road with trade and communication in mind. Perhaps far enough away from the Roman city of Carlisle for a little peace, but clearing on the trade route.

            I think for much of Rheged’s time their power could have extended out from Galloway to Carlisle. Besides a king and his dynasty can fall in a battle far from home. As far as we know Rheged could have limped along for a long time after Oswiu, we just don’t know. They don’t have to have gone out in a blaze of doomed glory. :-)

            • Good point with Whithorn’s trade, it’s much too long since I was focussed on this stuff.

              I think Rheged must have been in a position to face off against Bernicia or the length of the apparent opposition is hard to explain. Also, I think that Bishop Rhun makes Carlisle plausibly Rhegedian and I kind of start from there as the only fixed point. I suppose I would accept that such a territory, particularly if it was created in unified resistance (which is what Urien’s rôle in the Triads seem to imply, to me, a parallel with Arthur or Ambrosius), could have included Galloway too. And, also, it is certain that the Norse completely mess up Galloway’s identity for us. All the same, I do wonder if a Rheged that has shrunk to Galloway is really actually Rheged by any meaningful appellation. I don’t think its heartland was there or any of its major sites (not even Whithorn, after all, is in the Rhinns). But, well, it’s all opinion isn’t it. Yours may well be better founded than mine, you’re certainly more up to date with the scholarship.

              • I didn’t mean to imply the Rhinns only. I would say most of Galloway. Most kingdoms have their main site on the sea but control lots of territory inland (like Bamburgh vs. Bernicia). I would include Whithorn in the realm of a king based on the Rhinns.

                • Ah! sorry, I misunderstood you. I find that a lot more plausible. In that case, though, is it possible that actually the Anglian threat helped Rheged expand, as leader of the resistance?

                  (The designer of tjis theme did not foresee comment threading.)

  4. keystrokes2backspaces

    I’ve been racking my brains trying to figure out where Flechner got the idea about help being requested from some unidentified neighbor, but Larry Swain pretty much nailed what I was going to say, and said it better. It’s possible Flechner’s source is Gregory’s letter to Theoderic and Theudebert (VI.49 in the online MGH), where he says that the English desperately wanted to convert but the “sacerdotes e vicino” were ignoring them. Perhaps Gregory received a plea for help, but I don’t recall any specific mention, and suspect he more likely manufactured it as a pretext for sending Augustine.

    I’m also inclined to agree with Larry’s argument that Ethelbert may have been trying to circumvent Frankish influence, though he probably couldn’t openly reach out to Rome without bringing down the wrath of his in-laws. As I recall, St. Martin’s was outside the city walls, which surely sent a strong message to Bertha and Liudhard and their retinue: Worship your god as you wish, but you do so outside the king’s protection. In contrast, once Augustine was able to meet with the king, one of the first things he did was ensure Ethelbert’s protection and support for his mission, and a church *inside* the city.

    • Your cite for the source minus my confusion is almost certainly what Roy was talking about, thankyou. I think you’re also right about the location of St Martin’s, which would seem to make the “Bishop of Canterbury” idea still less likely. Pah! You people with your facts! I shall edit accordingly and obviously.

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