Tag Archives: Medieval History

‘Life in the United Kingdom’, a Criticism: Part 1

A friend of mine is undertaking the road to become a British citizen. To do so, they have to pass a test which includes aspects of British history. I took a glance at the book they have to learn from, and it took me aback. The text is called Life  in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents, 3rd Edition, and it proclaims on the cover that it is ‘The ONLY OFFICIAL handbook for the Life in the UK test’ (capitalisation original), and is adorned with the seal of the Home Office (the UK ministerial office responsible for immigration, security, and law and order). I provide all of these details as I wish to underline the fact that what I am about to discuss is endorsed by the government of the UK and is being taught to potential new citizens, and they, as potential new citizens, are expected to learn and repeat some rather curious things. This book encompasses what the UK government wants them to know, it is the minimum bar for entry, and the bar is very, very strange in places.

Onward!

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Stranger Things: The Life of Saint Brigit and Her Astonishing Miracles

A Traditional Irish Upbringing
Growing up in Ireland, you tend to imbibe many tales about Saint Patrick and Saint Brigit, and the odd local favourite like Brendan or Columba. As a kid, I always found Saint Patrick more exciting – after all, he killed druids with magic. Yes, there is a miracle where Saint Patrick gets a druid’s brains dashed out all over the ground. The character of Saint Patrick, as one eminent historian once described, was basically a medieval Dirty Harry. Saint Brigit, well, she was a bit lacklustre by comparison. Her miracles involved taunting kings with tame foxes, making implausible amounts of cheese (which, unless you are a fan of the Elder Scrolls, is not the most enthralling thing), hanging a cloak on a beam of light, and making some ducks change their direction of flight. Hardly thrill a minute stuff. Oh sure, we used to kill a few hours in school on the first day of February making crosses from reeds, but even that lost its escaping-schoolwork glamour after a certain age. It wasn’t until years later, during the course of my PhD, that I discovered that the stories of Brigit are awesome.

The Many Lives of Brigit
This is where things get a bit complicated, dear Reader, but you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t like complicated things. First off, there is some debate about whether or not Brigit was a real person. Some scholars have suggested that the figure we know as Saint Brigit was a Christian appropriation of a pre-Christian Irish goddess of the same name, pointing out that Brigit performs many of the duties of a fertility goddess (remember the cheese?). The contrary argument points to situation of her stories in the real world, the numerous named and identifiable characters she meets, and the unlikely fact that a Christian cult could be founded on top of a pagan one and no rival church exploited such a scandalous origin. I fall broadly into the latter camp (as I think most modern scholars do), while accepting the possibility that some aspects of the goddess were indeed appropriated by later generations and merged with a Christian holy woman called Brigit who lived during the late fifth to early sixth century.

Secondly, the textual tradition is debated. The earliest writings about Brigit are recorded in three saints’ Lives or Vitae. A Life is a genre of medieval religious literature designed to record the miracles of a given saint and extol their virtue, often to suit the political aims of those who control the cult of the saint – this latter point is important, so keep it in mind. Saints often have many Lives written about them, but I shall be concentrating on the earliest Lives of Brigit, of which there are three: two in Latin and one in Old Irish. And here is where we try to avoid the rabbit hole of the great debate on the priority of the Brigitine Lives. In short, it seems that there were three Latin Lives of Brigit written in the mid- to late seventh century, a good century and a half after Brigit would have died. One of these is known as Cogitosus’ Life of Brigit because a chap called Cogitosus wrote it. Now, sometime in the eighth century, someone gathered together these three Latin texts; basically, they made a collected or omnibus edition of the miracles of Brigit. This is known as the Vita Prima, not because it is the first Life written, but because it is the first of the Brigitine Lives in a collection of books called the Acta Sanctorum ‘The Acts of the Saints’. Then, at some later point again, somebody made an Old Irish translation of one of the anonymous Latin texts, except it has stories not found the Vita Prima, which mean someone was leaving things out or adding things in. Sadly, the two anonymous Latin texts have been lost to time, so we have a situation where we have a old text, a newer text which seems to have older material, and a newer text which should have the same material as the second, but doesn’t. And I’ll leave it there, dear Reader, because much ink has been spilled trying to explain the relationship between these texts and I want to get to the good stuff.

Brigit, Wonderworker.
So, Brigit has some amazing miracles. Once a man came to ask for her hand in marriage; she wasn’t keen. After asking God to aid her, one of her eyes burst and liquefied in the socket. Liquefied her eye. The young man was less keen, and God helpfully restored her eye. Or how about the time she met some men who had sworn to kill a guy but Brigit caused them to hallucinate hacking him to bits, proudly displaying the gore on their swords to their kinsmen (this type of miracle seems to have been a favourite, as there are three different versions of it recorded in the Lives). On another occasion, some thieves dared to steal Brigit’s cattle, but as they drove the herd across a stream, the river rose up against them, washing them away, because Nature itself wouldn’t allow such a misdeed.

There is a very interesting miracle where Brigit asks a favour of the King of Leinster, and he asks what he will get in return: she offers him eternal life (in heaven) and that his descendents would be kings forever. The king replies that he has no need of a life he can’t see and his sons should make their own way in life (how… pragmatic). No, he wants his current life to be a long one, and he wants to be ever-victorious against his hated enemy: the Uí Néill. She grants him this boon and the king becomes invincible, winning thirty battles and waging nine campaigns in Britain. The moment he dies, the Uí Néill try to take advantage and invade, the Leinstermen tie the body of the king to a chariot ride into battle, routing the attackers like El Cid, but a good few hundred years earlier.

Brigit also performed an abortion. Did that get your attention, dear Reader? Yes indeed, Cogitosus wrote that a pregnant woman came to Brigit and the saint ‘cured’ the woman, miraculously reversing the pregnancy (a version of this miracle is also found in the Vita Prima). I want to underline the significance of this: an Irish Catholic saint, in a text written by a devoutly religious man who was operating at the behest of his brethren and who belonged to one of the most important and influential Irish churches, terminates a pregnancy. The women is not interrogated or condemned, she is not degraded or denounced. She has a problem and it is resolved. One can’t help but wonder if this was an allusion to a service that Kildare offered; medieval handbooks of medicinal recipes suggest that monks were well aware of methods to terminate pregnancies. Or perhaps Cogitosus was, through this tale, extending compassion to women in difficult situations; there is no mention of forgiveness, no sin has occurred. What makes this more surprising is that several other Irish saints performed similar miracles, all of whom were men. We may never know what lies behind these stories, and, in all fairness, I should point out that the medieval religious mind had a very different understanding of when the soul supposedly entered the body, but it is remarkable how popular this miracle was.

 

I have wondered, ever since I learned of this greater corpus of Brigitine miracles, why we were never told them in school. Actually, no I haven’t, it is pretty obvious why. Tales of a saint who goes around the country making cheese, curing the sick, and feeding the poor is one thing, but a woman equal in status to a bishop giving men violent visions of gory murder, aiding kings to bloody victory, and performing miraculous terminations? Yeah, that is not going to make it into the weekly sermon. Even if none of it ever happened, these were stories that inspired and entertained, gave solace and hope. Who knows what a different world we would have lived in if we celebrated St Brigit the Humble Badass instead of the saint that is hidden in the shadow of Patrick?

Still, I get a kick out the idea that, every first of February, kids all around Ireland are making crosses to St Brigit of the Miraculous Termination.

Bamburgh Castle

The Seat of Kings

Not far from Lindisfarne, indeed within sight of it (on a clear day), lies Bamburgh Castle, seat of the kings of Bernicia. Aethelfrith, the pagan Anglo-Saxon king of Bernicia, aggressively expanded into the neighbouring kingdom of Deira, forcibly uniting his own kingdom with it to form Northumbria sometime around AD604, and then proceeded to attack everyone around him, including the kingdom of the Mercians, the various territories of the Britons and Picts, and the Irish kingdom of Dál Riada. By AD616 he was dead, killed in battle against the Mercians, and the rival royal family of Deira seized control of Northumbria, only to lose it to an alliance of Britons and Mericians who broke it in half…

The Return of the King

Aethelfrith’s son, Oswald, was sent into exile among the Irish, where he became a Christian, and married an Irish princess named Fín. At the age of 30 he returned at the head of an army, defeating the British king Cadwallon, whose forces dominated Bernicia, at the Battle of Heavenfield in AD633/4, and re-established the kingdom of Northumbria. He invited Aidan of Iona to establish a Christian mission at Lindisfarne. For the next seventy years or so Northumbria was the dominant kingdom in Britain, and was home to the golden age with produced, among other kings, such material as the Lindisfarne Gospels, works of Bede, and a new wave of architecture.

This is not that Castle

This vibrant kingdom, ruled from Bamburgh, was not actually ruled from this particular castle. The Anglo-Saxon castle was destroyed in AD993 by the Vikings, with the Normans later founding a new castle on the site, which itself became the basis for the castle as it stands today. It was added to and expanded over time, fell into a deteriorated state, before a very wealthy man embarked on a sustained restoration effort in the 19th century. Even if it isn’t the original Anglo-Saxon castle, it’s still a very cool place… even if the tour-guides claim that the original inhabitants of the region were cannibals…

Lindisfarne

An Island in the North

First off, Lindisfarne isn’t very good at being an island; at low tides it reaches out to Britain, such that one can drive across a slightly anxious, regularly submerged road. This makes it an ideal location for a monastery, both removed from, yet still in contact with, the world. Layers of meaning in that one. Or, perhaps it was just a convenient place for the monks of Iona to set up shop within sight of Bamburgh, where the king was.

The Irish in the North

The monastery was founded around 635 by Aidan, a monk of Iona, which was a very important Irish monastic centre off the west coast of Scotland, founded by the redoubtable Columba (Colum Cille).  It is no mere coincidence that someone from arguably the most important ecclesiastical site north of Kildare was involved in the evangelisation of the north of Britain; the king who gave the island to Aidan, Oswald, lived in exile and was baptised among the Irish, even fought for them and married and Irish princess, and won his father’s kingdom back with the aid of Irish warriors. It’s safe to say he was rather fond of the Irish.  Lindisfarne was home to Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, and many Northumbrian kings retired and were buried there. They also produced some really beautiful manuscripts, such as the eponymous gospel-book. It was also the first place in Britain that the vikings attacked, in 793, beginning the ‘Viking Age’ (though this is, of course, debatable). In any case, the monks upped sticks and left, taking the bones of their saints with them, eventually settling at Durham, though some were returned to the island.

Not my Lindisfarne

Sadly, the ruins of the abbey of Lindisfarne are not the ruins of Aidan’s abbey. They are much newer, dating from the 11th century, and there is a new castle, and a new church.  All still very interesting, but it is not the Lindisfarne that I read about, that I see in my mind, an island full of monks speaking Irish, Northumbrian, and Latin, preparing calf-skins and inks for the production of manuscripts, building libraries, educating. Yet it was fun to think that there where I stood, once too, perhaps, did Aidan, Adomnán, Cuthbert, and Oswald, and listen to the North Sea tumble onto shore. It’s a beautiful place, reaching back into the earliest periods of British and Irish history, when Angles and Irish did great things together.

The Shadow Line. Part 2 – Still Annoyed at That Damn Graph.

Meanwhile, in Rome…

Following from the previous post, there is an exception to the relative lack of any major cultural and scientific force in the Antique West: Rome. While Gaul, Britain, and Spain were comparative backwaters, Italy was, however, another matter. There we could find major cities, such as Ravenna, Milan, and, of course, Rome itself, which did suffer a massive decline in the Medieval period. This was mostly due the Goths, Vandals, Lombards, and Byzantines coming in and pretty much ruining the place. For hundreds of years the Italian peninsula was ravaged by competing would-be conquerors seeking to hold on to the last embers of Roman glory. Their desire to grasp what remained of Rome is what killed it in the end, and for the next few hundred years, whenever anything important happened, it didn’t happen in Rome, or by Rome’s will. Notice how this was not the fault of the Church. The Papacy did hold on to some power, but by and large the barely ‘civilised’ ‘barbarian’ kings rarely did what the pope told them to do, or cared that he even existed. In the early middle ages, the Church in the West was not as powerful as a unified organisation as many people (including the creator of the graph) seem to think it was. It was actually far more decentralised, with archbishops and bishops largely left to do as they wish, sometime in flagrant opposition to the papacy. This changed later in the ‘high’ middle ages, as the papacy sought greater control over its own constituents and independence from monarchs, and this is when the dogmatism of the Church became an entrenched feature, which would become a full-blown panic attack when an alternative world-perspective arose in the fourteenth century.

It’s a matter of priority.

In a certain fashion, this graph also assumes some level of predictability, that history is progressive unless some external force acts upon it, a notion which may be plausible in theory, but not in practice. In the first place, scientific advancement requires a certain level of stability and organisation; essentially there needs to be enough time to do the science, and the will and the money to do it. The Greeks became wealthy through trade and could afford to pursue more philosophical endeavours, and the Romans jumped on their coat-tails. While the Empire was stable everything was hunky-dory, but then if you introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, everything becomes chaos, as the scarred philosopher once said. The priorities of the Germanic kings was not to learn, but to conquer, not to admire great works of art, but to accumulate power. They judged a man on his sword-arm, which the Romans also did, but they also expected a man to appreciate and recite complex poetry (and trust me, all poetry in Classical Latin is complex). The latter outlook survived in the Eastern Empire in a secular sense, and in the West it fell on the shoulders of the Church, the priority of which had never been education in a Classical sense, but of revelation.

No great centres of learning were established in the West by the Roman state to compete with those of the East. The great monastic schools preserved as much as they could, especially in Visigothic Spain and pre-Norman Ireland, but their priorities were different to that of the Roman state. They were not educating a class of civil-servants to administrate an Empire, but rather trying to develop a stratum of society with a deeper appreciation of their God so as to better teach the masses. It is not the fault of the Church or of early Christians that they did not appreciate the industry or science of bygone empires, it was simply not the point of their organisation. The Western Church was a religious organisation which took over the role of administration, healthcare, and education with the collapsed of the Empire.  This was not what the Church had been designed for, the world perspective that it extolled was not conducive to perpetuating the ideals of the collapsing Empire. But they did pretty well, in retrospect.

A viable alternative.

We also must be at pains to remember that a scientific world perspective didn’t really exist, and, in many cases, religion answered the same questions just as convincingly (to the the people of the time). They had no notion of microbes, so a plague could easily be interpreted as a curse from God. There was no Theory of Relativity, or of Gravity, no Evolution, no understanding of the formation of galaxies, of the vastness of time, nothing electronic to help do the difficult sums. While Greek philosophers may have pondered the atom, ‘God did it’ was, at that time, a viable answer, because there was no other paradigm. You might think that these people were stupid for thinking this way, and after a certain fashion, they were; education was the privilege of an extreme minority, as it has been, and remains to be, throughout history. While the upper ranks may have scoffed at the religious notions of the lower orders, religion was still a powerful force in the pre-Christian world, and it remained so when Christians rebranded the game. Of course the Western Church did cause a certain level of what we would call intellectual stagnation, largely because they spent a great deal of time wondering about myths and fantasies, but then again, what religion doesn’t?

An illuminated manuscript from the ‘Dark Ages’ – I am sure there is a pun to made from that juxtaposition (via Wikipedia)

They also spent a good deal of time trying to rebuild the Empire, copying and discussing ancient works. Had the Church not stepped in to the void left by the decline of the Empire in the West the Renaissance may never have happened, or at least it would have been greatly delayed. Had the Merovingians and Carolingians not recognised the value of a Classical or ecclesiastical education they might not have been so keen to let highly educated Irish and Anatolian monks wander around their territories,  monks who brought different world-views, and, most especially, Greek knowledge with them. The Carolingian Renevatio was born in Irish- and Near Eastern-influenced monasteries (the former, though neither native Latin- nor Greek-speaking, were enthralled by those languages and learned them to an impressively high standard, and for the latter, Greek was the language of education), a movement which laid the groundwork for the Renaissance.

It does not mean what you think it means.

A product of the ‘Dark Ages’; the very way we write today – 10th century Vulgate (via Wikipedia)

The greatest factor in the decline of science in the West was the fact that most works on the subject were written in Greek, a language few in the West ever bothered to learn, even in Roman times. Indeed, not only was science almost literally a Greek subject, but so was philosophy and the Bible. The Church in the West did its best with what little Latin resources it had, preserving  what may have been little more than snippets and quotations from Greek texts, or brief accounts of such documents found in Latin translation. The ‘Christian Dark Age’ did not happen; the stagnation of the West was due to the traditional priority of Latin over Greek in the western half of the Empire, and because the region was never (outside of Rome itself) home to great centres of learning like Alexandria, Antioch, or Athens. The West was a bit of a cultural backwater, in comparison to the East, during the Empire, and, yes, things did become worse with its decline, but it was not the fault of Christianity, and it did not lead to a universal dark age.  Indeed science was undertaken throughout the Middles Ages; an early text survives from Ireland which describes the motions of tides and what might cause them, the whole Church was obsessed with the calculation of time. Mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy remained important subjects of study, as did law and engineering, giving rise to what were known as cathedral and palace schools, the well from which universities sprang.

Technically speaking, there are ‘dark ages’, periods of paucity of sources, such as during the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain or the collapse of Bronze Age civilisation, but there were not a ‘Dark Age’, not even one which can be blamed on Christianity (unless the religious right in the US continue on their draconian crusade against women, minorities, and education). We might more accurately describe the ‘gap’ the graph suggests as “the inevitable result of a mass invasion by pagans into a region which received very little investment into its educational infrastructure, while other regions, while they did suffer some incursions from the aforementioned pagans, remained educationally vibrant, though this graph has curiously chosen to omit these cultures”. Maybe I’m being pedantic, but at the very least, the ‘Dark Age’ of Western Europe, if you still want to believe in such a myth, was not the fault of Christians, they just happened to be living there at the time.