A Year of Reading Lewis: The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce was first published in the Anglican newspaper The Guardian as a serial in 1944 and 1945, and was published soon afterwards. The title refers to William Blake’s poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Lewis has this to say in his preface, which touches on some of the themes to be found in the book:

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, ‘with backwards mutterings of dissevering power’ – or else not. It is still ‘either-or’. If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.

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The cover of the first edition.

The novel begins with a man (who is never given a name) wandering through a grey and dingy city, ending up in a queue at a bus stop. The people waiting with him are by turns quarrelsome and disagreeable. By and by a bus appears and after more grumbling the passengers alight.

To the man’s astonishment the bus begins to rise up and up, passing between huge cliffs and hours later finally settling on their tops, into the Bright Country, where the truth is revealed that all the passengers are in fact Ghosts, including the man, and that the bus has brought them from Hell and has arrived in Heaven.

It is a difficult country for the Ghosts to navigate, as their insubstantial forms have a hard time coping with the hard reality of Heaven – the grass is too sharp for their feet, and a leaf is heavier than a sack of coal. Far out on the horizon our Ghost sees a High Country, a great range of mountains behind which the sun is starting to rise, throwing long shadows behind everything in the lower country. From the heights of the mountains a procession of bright, solid people come down to meet the Ghosts, and the rest of the novel basically consists of the conversations the Ghosts have with the Bright Spirits, who are there to meet the Ghosts and escort them to the High Country, if they are willing.

And there is the rub. Most are not. The Ghosts give various excuses to the Bright Spirits why they do not wish to accompany the Spirits, and in these conversations Lewis presents to us the choices that we all make every day that lead us towards Heaven or Hell.

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The narrator has his own Bright Spirit come to meet him, who is revealed as the author George MacDonald. If you know anything about C.S. Lewis, you will know that this author had a profound influence on his writing and on his spiritual life. In fact, Lewis himself said, “I don’t think I have ever written a book where I did not quote from him.” MacDonald appears in this book as a type of Virgil to Lewis’ Dante – a guide through the regions of the Afterlife in which the Ghost finds himself.

This is a clever, clever book, at turns funny and tragic, and always thought-provoking. I was uncomfortably aware that some of the Ghosts resemble me. Their prevarications and excuses strike close to home. And I realize that  I have heard one form or another of these conversations all my life. To give you a taste of this, here is part of a conversation between one of the Ghosts and a Bright Spirit, who, while he was alive, murdered a common acquaintance of them both:

“…If they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, that’s their look out ,”[said the Ghost]. “But I don’t see myself going in the same boat as you, see? Why should I?  I don’t’ want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.”

The other shook his head. “You can never do it like that,” he said. “Your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way. You’d be tired out before we got to the mountains. And it isn’t exactly true, you know.” Mirth danced in his eyes as he said it. 

“What isn’t true?”asked the Ghost sulkily. 

“You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter. There is no need to go into it all now.” 

“You!” gasped the Ghost. “You have the face to tell me I wasn’t a decent chap?” 

“Of course. Must I go into all that? I will tell you one thing to begin with. Murdering old Jack wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of a moment and I was half mad when I did it. But I murdered you in my heart, deliberately, for years. I used to lie awake at night thinking what I’d do to you if I ever got the chance. That is why I have been sent to you now: to ask your forgiveness and to be your servant as long as you need one, and longer if it pleases you. I was the worst. But all the men who worked under you felt the same. You made it hard for us, you know. And you made it hard for your wife too and for your children.” 

” You mind your own business, young man,” said the Ghost. “None of your lip, see? Because I’m not taking any impudence from you about my private affairs.” 

“There are no private affairs,” said the other. 

 Ouch.

Besides these conversations, which contain many layers of meanings, the other thing I really love about this book is the picture of the Afterlife Lewis presents here. He is very careful in the preface to state that this is a work of fiction, and that nothing in the book is meant to be an absolute authority on what Heaven or Hell is really like. But the concepts here intrigue me. Hell is the place where all the worst of humanity is found – not so much the violence and evil we might think (although that is there but in a slightly sad and desperate way) but the pure egoistic selfishness that results in the Ghosts continually moving further and further away from each other, so that the ones who arrived first are the furthest out in the fringes of that country, all alone and as far away from the others as they can be.

Lewis likes to play with the idea of time in his novels, we saw that a bit in the Space Trilogy, and especially in Narnia, where the Pevensie children grow up to adults in that country but when they go through the wardrobe they are back to being the children they were when they first entered the wardrobe. In the Narnia books this is a nod to the idea often seen in fairy tales, that time works differently in fairy-land.

In this novel, George MacDonald tries to help the Ghost understand that time is an altogether different thing in Heaven, and that thinking in temporal terms about spiritual matters is not helpful. As he says,

“Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ : and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”

The Ghost questions MacDonald about the seemingly unfair reality of Hell – why does God send some there and not others? MacDonald helps the Ghost to see that it is not God who sends people to Hell, but the people themselves choose it for themselves (which is made clear in the novel, as most of the Ghosts find Heaven a most disagreeable place for one reason or another and get back on the bus):

“Everyone who wishes it does. Never fear. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

He explains that God is not silent, He is entreating the lost to turn towards Heaven, but they are deaf to it:

“Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.”

As I read this book I found myself remembering little snippets of it, concepts that have stuck with me.  These ideas of Lewis’ –  the backwards-transformative nature of eternity, how we all choose Heaven or Hell as opposed to being “sent” to one place or another, the hard reality of Heaven as opposed to the insubstantial nature of reality as we know it now – these are ideas that I knew I had picked up from Lewis somewhere and was delighted to find all in one place, in The Great Divorce. It shows you the impact this book had on me the first time I read it, when I was a young adult, and I am pleased to say it was just as thought-provoking and spiritually rich this time around as well.

A great read, with profound insights. Highly recommended.


Well, somehow the year has flown by and here we are in December, heading to the close of my series. I do so with a mixture of sadness and satisfaction. Sadness that the series is coming to a close, and yet satisfaction that I had the chance to both revisit books by C.S. Lewis that I had previously read and discover a new one. I thought I would read more of the ones I haven’t read yet…the year slipped by so quickly and I got enthused about re-reading books I had loved in the past, so the only “new” one to me was The Abolition of Man. But that one gave me lots to chew on!

I will do one more post on this series – it will be a reflection on my experience of reading C.S. Lewis, and as well I will introduce my new series for 2016. I hope you will stick with me!

Thank you so much to all of you who have journeyed with me through the works of this marvellous author, I hope in some small way I have encouraged you to pick up some of his books for yourself. I can’t imagine you will be sorry if you do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Year of Reading Lewis: wrap up

It’s been quite the year journeying through old favourites from C.S. Lewis and discovering a new one. I’m wrapping up this series, but before I leave Lewis I wanted to give you my final reflections as I look back over the year.

  1. Profound gratitude that I discovered C.S. Lewis in my early, formative faith years. I did not grow up in the faith. My parents could charitably be described as agnostic. Religion was never discussed in my house, I never set foot in a church service until I did of my own volition when I was in junior high, through a series of events too complicated to describe here. But once I had made that leap of faith, I turned to books to make sense of what Christianity was all about. The Bible, of course, but being a reader, I naturally searched for other voices who could extend a hand to me as I took my first steps in this new country I found myself in. I knew very little about Christianity but I knew enough to know that perhaps the best place to start would be with the classics, the tried-and-true teachers whose works had stood the test of time. So I read Bonhoeffer, J.I. Packer, Watchman Nee, even Bunyan. And in the midst of my reading I stumbled across Mere Christianity, and found my lifelong mentor in C.S. Lewis. His explorations of Christianity felt so much like my own, and it was refreshing to journey with him through the philosophical grounding of the Christian faith. He helped me to see that my faith could interact with reason and intellect and not be left wanting. This was really important to me, as I couldn’t just accept something because someone told me to. It had to make sense to me in a way I could defend to myself and others outside of a religious context. Lewis gave me the permission and the framework to be able to do this. He also helped me to understand that my faith, to be authentic, could not be just something tacked on to my life, but the very ground on which I stood and the lense through which I saw. As he says,“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

2. The enduring relevance of his work. Lewis’ books of  fiction, philosophy, and faith are still popular today, because he speaks to us in a way that we can all understand, using imagery that brings difficult concepts to life in an accessible manner. The Screwtape Letters could have been written as a  non-fiction treatise on temptation, for example, detailing what to avoid and why. Thankfully Lewis gave us Screwtape and the Lower Hierarchy of Hell instead. The same with Perelandra, and its exotic presentation of a pristine world where sin is “crouching at the door”. And there is no debating the impact that Narnia and its great Lion have had on so very many people. In the twelve books I read this year, there was only once where I could see that people could dismiss his words as being old-fashioned or out of touch, and that was the section in Mere Christianity on marriage. However, in reading A Grief Observed I suspect that the reality of his marriage to Joy Davidman tempered those theoretical words he wrote some years before.

The sheer volume and diversity of his body of work. C.S. Lewis was one of those rare authors who could write academic works, non-fiction, and fiction and make it all interesting and compelling. This is no small feat.  He had a busy life outside of writing – he was an academic who was furthering his career, teaching and writing academic papers, mentoring students, etc and yet he also managed to write an astonishing 74 books (some published after his death).

4. The bright ring of truth. C.S. Lewis is popular not only because he can write so very well about topics that are difficult for us to understand in the hands of lesser writers, but because you can hardly go two or three sentences before something he writes strikes you, whether as an affirmation of something you knew but could hardly articulate, or as a challenge to an assumption you didn’t know you had, or as a fresh new truth that you had no idea was there but was so very obvious once he presented it. Lewis presents to us a God who is very much a lover of mankind, one who gave us His only Son to woo us, and yet one whose love for us demands nothing but the best from us in response, because ultimately that is for our good.  As he says,“The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that  God will make us good because He loves us.” This is the God of the Bible, difficult and mysterious at times, yet always the God who can be found for those who seek for Him. Lewis doesn’t let us get away with platitudes, he forces us to examine what we really believe and why. He brings us to truth, and makes us realize that truth for its own sake is all very well and good, but it is worth nothing until it becomes a truth that changes your life.

I am not done with C.S. Lewis. There were too many books of his that I didn’t get to read this year. I foresee a Year of Reading Lewis, Part 2, probably in 2017. But for this year I am taking on a new series….tune in next week for the Great Reveal!


All the posts in the series are linked below:

A Year of Reading Lewis

A Year of Reading Lewis: Out of The Silent Planet

A Year of Reading Lewis: Perelandra

A Year of Reading Lewis: That Hideous Strength

A Year of Reading Lewis: The Abolition of Man

A Year of Reading Lewis: The Screwtape Letters

Year of Reading Lewis: The Problem of Pain

A Year of Reading Lewis: A Grief Observed

A Year of Reading Lewis: Mere Christianity

A Year of Reading Lewis: The Great Divorce


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A Year of Reading Lewis: Mere Christianity

During World War II, the people of Britain were glued to their radio not only to catch the latest news of the war, but also to escape for a time from the daily stress of wartime by listening to various radio programs for entertainment.

In the midst of all this came the voice of C.S. Lewis, then an Oxford professor, giving a series of radio talks explaining Christianity, which eventually were compiled together and adapted by Lewis for print to become the book Mere Christianity, published in 1952.

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Lewis had been invited to do these talks by Rev. James Welch, BBC Director of Religious Programming, who had read The Problem of Pain in 1940. The talks were very popular, so much so that the first set of talks were expanded into two, and then to three, and then four. The book itself followed this same format, more or less, and was divided into the following sections: Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe; What Christians Believe; Christian Behaviour; and Beyond Personality, or, First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity. 

(Just as a treat, here is the only audio recording of the original talks that still survives. I had no idea this existed (isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?). I have to admit I was slightly taken aback …I had imagined him to have a deeper, more hearty voice!).

The book is now going into its seventh decade of publishing, and that alone should give you a hint as to its popularity and staying power.

As you can tell from the titles of the sections of the book, Lewis covers a lot of ground here. But in his trademark highly intellectual yet easily accessible style, he makes it all so very fascinating, and if you are a Christian, gives you much to meditate upon. I have underlined and starred so many quotes it’s hard to pick from them all, but just for one example, this is what Lewis says in the chapter on “Charity”:

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. 

The first part of the book contains Lewis’ philosophical arguments for the truth of Christianity, covering some of the ground he explored in The Abolition of Man (which was published in 1943, in the midst of these radio talks), explaining how all of mankind have a common set of values (called the Tao in Abolition, here referred to as the Law of Nature) and that therefore must mean that those values came from somewhere outside of mankind. He also explains why understanding this is central to our understanding of Christianity. For, as he says,

It is after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the Law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong with that Power–it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk.

Section II, What Christians Believe, delves into the core beliefs of Christianity, including the nature of God, and the Incarnation. It is in this section that one of the most famous quotes of the book is found:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus]: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. 

Section III, Christian Behaviour, covers topics such as The Cardinal Virtues, Social Morality, Sexual Morality, and The Christian Marriage. It is in this last chapter on marriage that Lewis has been roundly criticized by some, as they claim that in it he presents a sexist and insulting view of women, in the midst of his explanation of the headship of the man in marriage. While I have some sympathy for this, for myself I am not much bothered by what he writes in this chapter.  He states at the beginning of the chapter that he is writing it as a bachelor, but says that in all honesty he feels he must tackle the subject of marriage in covering Christian morals. And he doesn’t shirk from the controversy of the teachings on the headship of the man in marriage, but gives his explanation of why it should be so. His views are of course coloured by the time he lived and the society he kept.  One wonders if his comments on this would have been different if he wrote it after his marriage to Joy Davidson, who by all accounts had an intellect equal to his and was nobody’s pushover. But suffice it to say, as a woman I take those comments with a grain of salt and don’t let them negatively colour my impressions of the book.

Section IV, Beyond Personality, covers Lewis’ explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity and contains his thoughts on how the process of maturing in Christ as a Christian as described in Scripture really works. The best thing to do to explain this would be to include this final quote, which concludes the book:

The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else. 

I really enjoyed re-reading this book. It was foundational to my understanding of the Christian life when I first read it when I was in high school, and it still has much to say to me now.

I love the image of people gathered around the radio in wartime, perhaps fresh from a bombing raid, worried about their loved ones both near and far, and listening to Lewis explain in his clear and engaging style the great tenets of the faith in a way that is understandable to all. Lewis provides many simple illustrations of these sometimes complex topics and in so doing gives us a way to begin to see what they really mean. I can only imagine how many conversations were began after the radio turned off.

How wonderful a gift this book has been to so many people, myself included. I highly recommend it to all, for those seeking to know more about the faith, and for those who are walking a little further down the road. You will find Lewis a wise and helpful guide.


 

If you want to know more about C.S. Lewis and the making of Mere Christianity, have a look at this post from the Pilgrim in Narnia:

C.S. Lewis at the BBC

It’s hard to believe, but my Year of Reading Lewis is almost up! And there are so many more of his books I wanted to read. Sigh. Well, I would have liked to have read a few more of the ones I haven’t yet read, but I just can’t let the year go without revisiting one of my favourite Lewis books: The Great Divorce. This delightful and thought-provoking book will wrap up my series, and then…well, yes, I do have another “Year of” series planned for next year. I am eager to get started, as much as I hate to leave Lewis behind. I hope those of you who have joined me for this series will continue on with me for the next!

 

The Celts: 7th Century Ireland

I have several series going on here on The Traveller’s Path, in which I delve into one topic a little more deeply over many posts.

This post is the third one on the Celts. The first was an introduction to the series, and the second featured 7th century Wales.

Today I’m going to feature the Irish, who in the seventh century, were a force to be reckoned with, indeed. It seems appropriate, as next week is St. Patrick’s Day!

(Just as an aside, you might wonder why the narrow focus on the seventh century. It’s because that is the era I have researched most deeply for my novel, Wilding, and so I feel somewhat more comfortable writing about it. Plus, this is only a blog post. There’s only so much I can fit in!)

First of all, I’ve explained before that the Irish in seventh century England were not actually called “Irish”. The Romans had called them the Scotti, and that name still stuck here and there, but the Irish people themselves did not seem to have a name that they collectively called themselves, or at least not as far as I can see. I think they identified more closely with their clan groupings, such as the Ui Neill, rather than as a people group as a whole.  For clarity’s sake, however, I will refer to them as the Irish, and the island as Ireland, even though it was not called that then.

Ireland in the seventh century was distinctly rural. There were no cities, or towns. People lived dispersed among farms, in kinship groupings.  The society was very much a tribal one, with clans warring with one another for land and especially, cattle, which represented wealth. Individual families would live in circular dwellings, their land ringed by an earthen or even stone barrier to discourage raiders. These hillforts could be small or more elaborate, depending on who lived there.

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A typical Irish ringfort, showing the circular wattle and daub houses, plus the underground souterrain commonly found in structures from this time. Historians believe these were either used for storage or for hiding or escape during war or raids, as many of them were connected by tunnels as well. Image from The Áed. 

There were no roads to speak of. The Romans, with their impressive engineering and road-making skills, had never conquered this part of Britain. Which means Ireland was left without the benefits of their nice, straight roads. People would either walk or ride horses along the cow paths, or travel by boat to get where they wanted to go.

The main source of wealth was cattle, and cattle-raiding was a fierce contest between rival clans. There were some rules around it, such as no man could take more cattle on a raid than he could drive away successfully, and they were not allowed to take so many (or all!) of another’s cattle such that the person would be left destitute. Cattle were too valuable to be used as meat, however. They were a source of milk and dairy products. Other livestock, such as sheep or pigs would be used for meat. Game such as deer or wild boar could also supplement the diet, as well as fish or seafood, of course.

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The green, rugged beauty of Ireland. Image from Pixnio

The society was made up of the túath, a kinship group which lived in a defined area, about the size of a town. These túatha were ruled over by a petty king or chief, who in turn were ruled over by slightly more powerful overlords, who were in charge of their own túath, plus several neighbouring ones. Finally, at the top there were the five most powerful kings, who each ruled over one of the traditional five kingdoms of Ireland.

The practice of fosterage was very common in Ireland at this time. Children were often sent to other families (or monasteries/nunneries) to be raised and educated, only coming home when they had reached adolescence. It served to bind kinship groups or political allies closer together. But it could also have a detriment on the family of origin, as siblings could therefore be virtual strangers to each other, making it easier for rivalries to spill over into feuds and violence.

Irish society was organized similarly to that of the Anglo-Saxons, with the kings on top, followed by the nobles (professional warriors like the Anglo-Saxon thegns) on top, the various ranks of freemen made up of farmers of differing levels of wealth, churchmen and women, and slaves on the bottom. Slavery was big business in Ireland. Irish raiders frequently prowled the coasts of Britain and would swoop down and gather up slaves. St. Patrick was one such victim, a son of a wealthy Romano-British family who was taken by the Irish in a raid. Slaves could also be taken from a conquered enemy.

Additionally, there were a couple of important hereditary castes in Ireland at this time, the filid (poets) and the brehon (judges). Brehon law had been handed down over the centuries, a system of common law, and was learned and interpreted by the brehon. These laws covered all aspects of society, including inheritance or divorce, for example, as well as the more serious crimes such as theft or murder. There were no penal laws, however, in terms of capital punishment or imprisonment. People found guilty of a crime had to pay compensation to the victims in terms of land, or livestock. But not coins, as they were not used at this time in Ireland. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon kings at this time, the Iris kings had no part in making or interpreting laws. All of the legal aspects of Irish life were handled by the brehon, every king would rely on their judgements and interpretations of the brehon law. The brehon could be either male or female.

In the seventh century, Ireland was mainly a Christian society, although it is possible that there were still people who followed the old ways of the druids. But for the most part, the unique brand of Christianity we now call Celtic Christianity was reaching its zenith in the seventh century, responsible for establishing great centres of learning in the monastic schools and creating beautiful works of art, particularly in the form of illuminated manuscripts. The monks were also taking their culture and scholarly mindset with them on their missionary journeys into Anglo-Saxon England and the continent, where they were had a big part in re-converting Europe after the fall of Rome had decimated the Church and society there.

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The Abbey of Iona today. These buildings were built in 1938, part of a general restoration of the fifteenth century monastery buildings. Of course, in the seventh century, the buildings would have been small, wattle and daub buildings, which have not survived. Image from Wikicommons 

 

In the seventh century the Irish were not just confined to Ireland. They held territory on the mainland as well, in the kingdom of Dál Riata. This kingdom seems to have been Irish on the east side of the mountains and Scottish on the west, but the lines are a little blurry from this far away in time. At any rate, there was a definite Irish part of Dál Riata, that much we know for sure, even if we don’t know exactly where the boundaries were and how long the kingdom itself lasted. The famous monastery of Hii, now called Iona, was part of Irish Dál Riata, and it was the heart of the Celtic Christian Church.

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This is a handy little map! It shows you the various kingdoms, languages, and people-groups in the British Isles at the beginning of the seventh century. Note Dál Riata, which encompasses part of Ireland and the mainland. 

The common practice of fosterage allowed the Anglo-Saxon æthelings, including four-year-old Oswy, to come to Dal Riata and be sheltered there after the death of their father, Æthelthrith. Æthelthrith had conquered part of Dál Riata during his time as king of Northumbria, and obviously had some ties in that kingdom, as his sons (and wife? I assume?) were sent there after his death, safely out of the clutches of Edwin, who had taken Æthelthrith’s throne. Therefore Oswy grew up in the Irish Christian culture, which he then brought back to Bernicia when he became king. He requested an Irish Christian monk from Iona to come and establish a monastery to begin the work of converting the Angles of his new kingdom. This resulted in the establishment of Lindisfarne, with St. Aidan at its head as abbot.

Ireland has a rich and fascinating history. The seventh century is but one small part of it, but it is an important part. At that time it was a small country with relatively few people situated on the far edge of the known world, but its influence loomed large, creating echoes that still resound today.


Note: If you want to know more about Ireland in the seventh century, check out this fascinating article by Eamon O’Kelly, on Quora. It’s a good summary which gave me quite a lot of information.


My historical fantasy novel, Wilding, set in seventh century Northumbria, will be published in spring of 2019 (hopefully May!). To keep up to date on publication news, and to learn more about my writing in general, subscribe to my monthly newsletter. As a thanks you will get the first chapter of Wilding for free! 

 

 

 

Society News: Women

In this series on Anglo-Saxon society, I have covered various parts of Anglo-Saxon society during the Early Middle Ages in England, including Kings (and Queens), The Upper Crust, The Church, Weregild, and Coerls.

In this post I’m tackling another group of people: the women. What were the roles and status of women in Anglo-Saxon England?

As it turns out, our female Anglo-Saxon counterparts had much more power and status than you might think. We tend to think of medieval women in general as being dominated by men, with little rights and power. That is certainly true of the women after the Norman Conquest in 1066, but before that, women had more rights and status than they would until the modern age.

However, Anglo-Saxon England from the 5th to 10th centuries was definitely a patriarchal society. It was a culture of warriors and kings, strong men who had a huge influence on their society on both the local and larger levels. But that doesn’t mean that the women of the day were stripped of all rights and responsibilities.

Once again, a small caveat is needed before we go any further. As with all things Anglo-Saxon, there is some debate about all this. It’s tricky to determine exactly what the roles of women are from the existing literature, as it mainly is about aristocratic men (kings and warriors, or priests and bishops) and the women are more often than not shadowy figures, mentioned here and there without much substance. One exception, of course, is the poem, The Wife’s Lament, covered here on the blog earlier this month. If you missed that post I would urge you to read it, as you will get the opportunity to hear one woman’s voice speaking to you from long ago.

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Amazing! This is a facial reconstruction from the skull of a 6th high-status Anglo-Saxon woman, aged 25-30 years old,  whose grave was found in Gloucestershire, England. Her grave is one of the richest Anglo-Saxon era graves found in Britain. She was buried with over 500 objects, including a lot of jewellery. A reconstruction of her grave with her grave goods is found in the Corinium Museum, in Cirencester. Image from messagetoeagle.com

Women’s roles in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England included the making and repairing of clothing, along with related tasks such as spinning wool, weaving, and embroidery. Baking or cooking did not seem to be a particularly female task, as there are records of both women and men involved in the preparing of food. It is possible that there were some women who were involved in entertainment such as singing or otherwise participating in travelling groups of entertainers.

One role of women that is quite clear from the ballads and heroic poetry from the time is that of cup-bearer. In these you see women, including queens and other female relatives of kings or other high-status men, serving mead at the mead-hall to the victorious men at their victory feasts. In other words, it wasn’t just the female slaves or lower-class women who served the mead, although they would have done this, too.

Women were also known as “peace weavers”, perhaps a reference to marriages that often brought peace to warring tribes or kingdoms. Perhaps it is also a nod to the diplomatic skills women brought to her marriage and family, a balance to her warrior husband.

Another place where the roles and rights of women are specifically mentioned are in the law charters and the surviving wills from the time. Here we can see that the weregild for a woman was the same as that for a man in the same social class, whether coerl or aetheling. Gender did not determine your worth in a legal sense, class did. The Old English word mann referred to “adult human being”, with no reference to sex. Men were called weras and women, wif, Both had equal legal status in the community.*

We can see from these wills and charters that women could inherit land from their

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This magnificent embroidered stole, found in Cuthbert’s grave, is the work of talented women. Interestingly, this was ordered made by Æthelfæd, Queen of the Mercians 

fathers or their husbands, if he died. Women could also run the estates that they owned. Property was distributed equally among sons and daughters, according to age rather than sex. This is an important distinction from the medieval women who lived after the Norman invasion, where they lost all property rights and in a sense became the property of her husband herself.

There are hints that a woman’s wishes were taken into consideration in choosing a husband. In other words, she did not necessarily have to marry someone of whom she disapproved. When she married, the groom was obliged to pay her the morgengifu, or “morning-gift”. This was given directly to the woman, and was could consist of a considerable amount of money, and/or land. The woman had complete control over this and could use it or bequeath it as she saw fit. A famous example of this was the fortress (and land around it) of Bebbanburg. In 600 AD, Æthelfrith, King of Bernicia, gave the fortress to his wife, Bebba, and it subsequently was known as Bebbanburg.  This replaced the original Celtic Britonic name of Din Guarie. 

Divorce was allowed in Anglo-Saxon society, particularly in the case of adultery or abuse. And in a divorce the household goods were divided equally among the partners, with the children being put in the care of their mother. Any goods the woman brought to the marriage she was allowed to keep.

Certainly the Anglo-Saxon Christian church, under the influence of its Celtic Christian roots, held women in high esteem and gave them much more power and authority than later church women were to enjoy. I have previously mentioned the double monasteries, which housed both women and men in separate living quarters but who came together for worship. These were run by strong and capable women such as Hild of Whitby, the famous saint of early Medieval Britain. Nuns were educated in these monasteries just as the men were, and also participated in the creation of manuscripts.

There is even an intriguing hint that women, like their Viking counterparts to come, could also take part in battles. King Alfred’s daughter, Æthelflæd, became Queen of the

Æthelflæd_as_depicted_in_the_cartulary_of_Abingdon_Abbey

A 13th century depiction of Æthelflæd. 

Mercians in 911 AD, and it is reported that she led her army in battle against the Vikings and was a great military strategist. She is quite an unusual woman of the times, however, in that she is the only female ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom that we know of, and she also passed the throne down to her daughter. But that’s not to say she was the only woman of the times who participated in battles. She’s just the only one we know about!

Anglo-Saxon women had a considerable amount of status and rights in their society. It’s just one more way in which the so-called “Dark Ages” are not as dark as one might think.

 


*The word wif  is of course where our word wife comes from, denoting a married woman. The Old English word wif is related to words that connote weaving, referring perhaps to the women’s role of making cloth.

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My first novel, Wilding, a historic fantasy set in 7th century Northumbria, is due to be published in January of 2019. To keep up with publication news, get exclusive bonus material, and find out more tidbits about the Early Middle Ages or whatever else strikes my fancy, sign up for my newsletter! I send one out about once a month, and I won’t spam you, I promise! If you sign up now, you will get the first chapter of Wilding as a thank-you!