Monday, July 18, 2011

Anglo-Saxon Christianity

The Anglo-Saxons entered the historical scene in the fifth century CE as pagan Germanic pirates and mercenaries, accompanied by their camp-followers. This was part of a much wider movement of 'barbarian' peoples (those living beyond the frontiers of Roman territory) who forced their way into the empire, stimulated by a variety of motives. By the time of the Norman conquest in 1066, Anglo-Saxon England was one of the most sophisticated states of the medieval West, renowned for its cultural and ecclesiastical achievements and possessing complex administrative, legal and financial structures, many aspects of which were preserved by the new Norman élite. Command of the written word, in addition to a well-developed oral tradition, was of tremendous importance in this transformation.

The Anglo-Saxons were introduced to a full system of literacy as part of the process of conversion to Christianity, an enterprise launched by both the Celtic and Roman churches, with some Gaulish participation, in the late sixth century. Within a century they and their Celtic neighbours had transformed the book into a rich vehicle for their distinctive art and culture, which was to exert an influence throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

The Anglo-Saxon period may perhaps usefully be viewed as a series of phases: first, the sub-Roman and migration period (early fifth to late sixth century); second, the insular period (later sixth to mid-ninth century); third, the Alfredian renewal (late ninth century); fourth, the later Anglo-Saxon period (tenth and eleventh centuries, to 1066).

Each phase brought new developments to the history of the book. The sub-Roman period witnessed a certain level of continuity of the literacy of antiquity, through the agency of the church. In the face of the pagan Germanic onslaught, the indigenous British church largely retreated into the 'highland zone' (modern 'Celtdom'). It participated actively in the conversion of Ireland where a distinctive Christian culture emerged, noted for its learning and influenced by its Celtic and British legacies and those of the eastern Mediterranean, Gaul and Spain. Episcopal and monastic organisations were adopted, Latin was learnt systematically as a new language, and a system of scripts was developed, free from the vulgarisation often experienced in areas of the old empire (of which Ireland never formed a part). The earliest surviving books from these islands (such as Codex Usserianus and the Springmount Bog Tablets) were produced in Ireland, probably during the early seventh century.

In England the resistance to the Germanic advance, associated with Ambrosius Aurelianus and the historically elusive figure of Arthur, had collapsed by the second half of the sixth century (as lamented by the British monk Gildas), and by c.600 a myriad of small Anglo-Saxon political units had been established, out of which several larger kingdoms emerged. Of these Kent, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Northumbria (Deira and Bernicia) and Mercia assumed prominence. Pockets of indigenous British settlement and some kingdoms (notably Strathclyde, Rheged and Elmet) survived, but the bulk of the population was forced into Wales, Cornwall and southern Scotland, whilst many migrated to Brittany.

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