Seminar CLXXXVIII: between Offa and Irene, Cœnwulf and Charlemagne

As mentioned a couple of posts ago, on 2nd November last year I was in a little Northamptonshire town called Brixworth, crowded into its rather splendid church of All Saints with about a hundred other medievalists and interested parties for the annual Brixworth Lecture. Attendance at this was mandatory for me for two reasons, firstly that Birmingham were that year employing me largely to impersonate an Anglo-Saxonist and it would therefore have seemed odd for me not to go, and secondly and perhaps more importantly that the lecture was being given by one of our own, Professor Leslie Brubaker. So there I was, thanks to the good offices of Rebecca Darley in driving us there, and thus I got to hear Professor Brubaker speak to the title, “Byzantium at Brixworth”.

All Saints Brixworth

Wikimedia Commons has a better image than any of the ones I took. This is by Alan Simkins [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I do wonder what Professor Brubaker’s reaction was when this was first suggested to her, as one thing that students of either side of the divide represented here can say with reasonable confidence is that there were almost no links between Britain and Byzantium after the sixth century. On the other hand, the ones best-documented are probably artistic ones, so, ask an art historian? In any case, Professor Brubaker’s task was made slightly easier by the very recent publication of the new site report for Brixworth, which she thus ran through very quickly setting up quite how much of what we were in was Saxon and what wasn’t. The church seems to have been quite a project: big enough as it stands now, it was bigger when new by virtue of having aisles that have since been removed, which were crowded with side chapels. It was built on a repeating module of 9 m2, with the fourth one being the apse over the crypt, suggesting a relic deposition as its focus. Some of the stone was Roman spolia, too, but not from the nearby villa site but all the way from Leicester, indicating some fairly long-range patronage.1 Since the date now proposed for the church is c. 800, even Professor Brubaker could not resist the temptation to suggest that an obvious patron would be King Offa of Mercia (757-796). I feel this is unfair on King Cœnwulf (796-821), who repaired a lot of Offa’s damage and was also what we might call ‘kind of a big deal’ (albeit not a Byzantine scale, I admit) but gets largely ignored because he wasn’t as bloodthirsty or earthmoving as his predecessor.2 This also got raised by none other than Nicholas Brooks in questions, however, and Professor Brubaker was able rightly to say that even if it wasn’t Offa her argument would still hold up, so, I should tell you her argument.

1867-drawn ground plan of All Saints Brixworth

Here is a handy plan showing the original layout, apparently from C. F. Watkins, The Basilica and the Basilican Church of Brixworth (1867) so probably to be taken with some caution but, illustrative. “Original Brixworth Plan“. Original uploader was Simon Webb at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by using CommonsHelper. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She proceeded essentially by taking a Byzantinist’s view of the church, marking out what seemed familiar or strange, and then wondering how that might be explained. Among the strange were the marks at the door, which she thought might be connected with the liturgy of baptism in which the family waited there to be admitted and the disconnection of the west-work from the rest of the building’s operations (I confess that I don’t now remember what was said to describe this); among the familiar, the crypt and choir as a focus on a relic deposition and the reuse of Roman material. All of this was backed up with images of sites in the Byzantine world which provided good support for the contentions. In a special category, though, were things that would have been familiar some time before the church was built but that would then have looked odd to any contemporary Byzantine visitor. These were the long-nave plan with side chapels, the current Byzantine fashion by 800 having been for a cross-and-square layout, and, especially, the apparent lack of decoration: it seems that Brixworth ran to a tiled floor, maybe, but that otherwise the walls were as plain as they now are.

Interior of All Saints Brixworth

A good photo of the current state of the interior taken by Frank Burns, whose site duly linked through; he gives no copyright notice so I hope attribution will do because it’s a much better picture than any others I could dig up…

The reason that is a live issue, of course, is that between about 750 and 787 the Byzantine empire was in something of a pother about decorative religious imagery, and perhaps no-one is more expert on this than Professor Brubaker.3 This makes me almost afraid to summarise but the big point is that by 800, for the Byzantines, this was over, and painting and colour and so forth were back in. The message seems to have taken a while to reach England though, as the question was still being settled at the Council of Chelsea in 816 (under, we might note, Cœnwulf). So there is a case to be made that Brixworth was responding to Byzantine fashions in art, but if so, it was doing so rather late.

The characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave in All Saints Brixworth

Very blurry picture of the characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave

The probable reason for that is the route cannot easily have been direct. While there are Byzantine parallels for many of the Brixworth features, there are a much more collected set of them in the form of Charlemagne’s chapel in Aachen. Here, especially, we find the triple-arched separation between nave and west-work that I photographed so badly, in which the patron monarch may have sat and watched his congregation but from which, the tower not then being present, he could also have addressed his people outside the building. (That sounds familiar…) But the inspirations at Aachen, while Byzantine, were largely old Byzantine, in the form of Justinian I’s San Vitale di Ravenna. Justinian, at least, also got imitated in England: there was an Alma Sophia in York modelled after Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, though we know very little about it.4 What we are seeing at Brixworth may reflect this second-hand Justinianism, therefore (although, as Professor Brubaker pointed out, what Charlemagne may have been more interested in imitating was King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, Dietrich of song and story). If so, its ideological response to the current worries over imagery may even be more up-to-date than some of its models. I felt that the case for everything reacting at some remove to Byzantium was maybe a little over-stated here—the Anglo-Saxons presumably didn’t miss the Carolingian end of the worry over images, for example, and Professor Brubaker’s suggestion that the new Caroline minuscule script reflected a recent shift to minuscule in the East seemed to me to miss out all the myriad Western pre-Caroline minuscules that it more or less replaced5—but as a reminder that there was, all the same, a very big empire whose issues resounded westwards in the form of ideas and their expression in art at the other end of the Anglo-Saxons’ world this was salutary and enlightening.

1. This is all apparently in David Parsons & Diana Sutherland, The Anglo-Saxon Church of All Saints, Brixworth, Northamptonshire: Survey, Excavation and Analysis, 1972-2010 (Oxford 2013).

2. For now the best neutral coverage of Cœnwulf is probably Morn Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis (University of Sheffield 2008), pp. 345-413.

3. See Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c.680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011)!

4. It’s described in a poem by Alcuin, translated by Peter Godman as The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York (Oxford 1983).

5. See Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009) and David Ganz, “The Preconditions for Caroline Minuscule” in Viator Vol. 18 (Turnhout 1987), pp. 23–43, respectively.

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