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! 

 

 

 

The Celts: 7th Century Wales

At the time of the 7th century, the Celtic peoples had been pushed by the Anglo-Saxons in to three main areas of Britain. These correspond roughly to what we call Wales, Ireland, and Scotland today. In the next few posts on my series on the Celts, I will focus on each of these three places in turn.

I’m going to start with Wales, because that lovely little piece of the world holds a special place in my heart, as my mother was Welsh, born in the charming town of Mumbles, on Swansea Bay in the south of Wales.

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Sigh. The rugged beauty of Northern Wales. Image from pixabay

Wales in the 7th century was, of course, not known by that name, although the name “Wales” does originate from this time. It comes from the word, wælas, meaning foreign, strange  in Anglo-Saxon. The word wælisc therefore meant foreigner, or stranger, and it was the word they would use to refer to the Celtic Britons who lived in England at the time. Which is ironic, seeing as the Britons were there first. It gives you a sense of the hostility that simmered between these two groups of people.

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The Welsh flag. The dragon has been used on flags in Wales for centuries. Some suggest it came from the draco military standard brought over by the Roman legions, and was adapted by the prominent Romano-British families thereafter. The green and white stripes were additions of Henry Tudor in the Middle Ages. 

The Welsh called themselves the Cymry (CUM-ree), which loosely translated means, fellow-countrymen. Today the word for Wales in the modern Welsh language is Cymru (also pronounced CUM-ree). But in the 7th century, the place we now call Wales did not have one name.

That is because, like the rest of Britain, Wales was divided up into several kingdoms. These were very much based on tribal and kinship allegiances rather than territory, although of course they did generally correspond to one area or another. The borders were fluid, due to the penchant of the kings’ attempts to expand territory by raids and warfare against other tribes/kings. The history of the various kinship groups and the territories they held are rather murky, and it’s difficult to say for certain a lot about the specifics of Welsh in the Early Middle Ages because of this. Certainly the people of Gwynedd in the north were a prominent group at this time, and we also know some about the kingdoms of Dyfed and Gwent. The kingdom of Powys was not referred to by that name in this time, although it certainly existed, under a different name. The name Powys does not surface until the 9th century.

Wales at this time was very much a rural society, with no large civic centres to speak of. The kings didn’t govern in the way we think of it, they were mainly the chief warriors who expanded the territory of the tribe/kinship group and who doled out the rewards of conquest to his faithful retainers. They might also give judgements on disputes, but only in consultation with the local elders. The local head of the kinship group would be the one to whom people looked to for the day-to-day stuff of making life work.

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The Bodvoc Stone. This dates from the late 6th century-early 7th century, and was originally set on a prehistoric barrow on Margham Mountain in South Wales. The inscription reads “The stone of Bodvoc. He he lies, son of Cattegern, great-grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus.” It’s the earliest known family lineage in Wales. Image from britain express.com

Wales was a Christian society at this time.  There were several monasteries in Wales, the most famous being the one founded by St. David, in the south. The Welsh followed the practices of the Celtic Christian church, which had some differences from the Roman Christian practices, most notably in the style of tonsure and the dating of Easter. There some other, cultural differences, too.

Just as they were never completely subdued by the Romans, the Welsh were never completely subdued by the Anglo-Saxons who followed them. The mountains of the north were a formidable barrier to any invaders, and the fierce independence of the Welsh made them difficult adversaries in any battles. Various of the Welsh tribes/kingdoms did form alliances with certain Anglo-Saxon kings, most notably with Penda of Mercia, in their fights against the Northumbrian kingdoms, and there was some intermarrying that went on as well. They also had some alliances with their neighbouring Celts in Ireland, and would make war with them on the Picts or Anglo-Saxons at times.

For the most part, the Britons who lived in the place we now call Wales were a strong, independent people, well used to defending their territories and their customs against all who encroached upon them. Which is the reason why Wales survives today as a unique part of the United Kingdom.

Cymru Am Byth!* 


For more posts on this series on the Celts, see this introduction to the series.

Are you interested in 7th century England? Do you want to know more about my historical fantasy novel, set in 7th century Northumbria? Do you like getting exclusive bonus material and articles? If you answered YES to any of the above, sign up for my newsletter, and you will get all that and more! 


*”Long Live Wales!” This is the motto of Wales.

 

The Celts: An Introduction

England in the 7th century was made up of diverse groups of people. I’ve been blogging a lot about the Anglo-Saxons, those descendants of the invaders who made their way to Britain after the Roman legions left the island undefended in the 4th century.

The Romans left behind the Romano-British people, including, some speculate, the legendary Arthur, who fought against the Saxon invaders. But the other group of people who were there were the British Celts, the original inhabitants of the British Isles.

The Romans had never really conquered the Celts, just subdued them and made alliances with them when they could, and put up Hadrian’s Wall in the north to stop the raiding Picts and British Celtic tribes they never did tame. And in the west, the Welsh Celts retreated into their mountain strongholds but were never subdued. The Irish Celts, of course, continued their lives on their remote island much as they ever had.

The Druids were the priestly class of Celtic society. Their place in society gradually diminished until the old religion was pretty much wiped out by the 8th century in Britain, but in the 6th century, St. Patrick still acknowledged the high status of Druids by allowing that oaths could be made in front of them. Image from Harbinger451

Things remained much the same when the invading/colonizing Germanic tribes came along. The people groups we now call the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish did not welcome the newcomers with open arms, but by the time of the 7th century there existed a fair amount of cooperation and even intermarriage between them. The Picts in Northern England also had embraced the Christian faith by this time.

The Celts and the Anglo-Saxons had similar societies, being that they were warrior societies, based around strong kings and familial ties.

But there were definite differences, as well.

  1. 1. Christian vs pagan – by the 7th century, the Irish and Welsh had pretty much been Christianized*, and had begun to set up their monasteries which were centres of learning and innovation. They had access to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans and they were beginning to bring this wisdom and knowledge back to the rest of Europe who had lost it during the chaotic centuries after Rome fell and the barbarians took over. The Anglo-Saxons were beginning to be Christianized by the Irish monks as well, but there were still kings who held onto the pagan ways of their forefathers, most notably, Penda of Mercia. In fact, the 7th century was a time when the future of Christianity in Britain and even in Europe was very much up in the air. Whichever religion won over the society was going to be the religion held by the strongest king. And with the way the power shifted from one king to another over this century, it was far from certain that the Christian faith would come out on top.
  2. Nature gods vs Norse gods – the Irish and Welsh Celts were Christians, but they came from a pagan background of nature worship. Theirs was a religion where trees, water, and the natural world were held sacred. Echoes of this still survived in the practice of their Christian faith. The Saxons held to the worship of Woden, Thunder, and Frig, the Nordic gods of their ancestors. It’s not entirely clear how either of these cultures practiced their religions, exactly, although we have some hints here and there. But the foundations of their worldviews would have been very different. For example, the Saxon idea of Fate, or wyrd, would have been much different from the way the ancient Celts, and most certainly the Christian Celts, saw the world.
  3. Place of women – I have mentioned before that Anglo-Saxon women had more rights and a more powerful place in society than their Middle Ages counterparts who followed them. It was similar for  women in Celtic societies, and maybe even more so. I have heard it said that the Celts practiced matriarchy, but in the research I have done it does not seem that was the case. But certainly women could be warriors and even lead armies, be judges, and otherwise hold a considerable amount of power among the Celts. You see this translate over to the Irish church, where women such as Hild could be leaders of both women and men in the double monasteries.
  4. Tribal Chief vs King – the Celts had a tribal, familial based society, as compared to the Saxons, whose loyalties were centered on the warrior-kings. In practice, this might look similar, but it was nonetheless a subtle inference between them. Family ties were important in Anglo-Saxon life, of course, but not to quite the same extent as the Celts.
  5. Language – the Anglo-Saxons spoke various dialects of what we now call Old English. For example, the Mercians had slight differences from the language the Angles in Bernicia spoke. But it was all the same basic root language, derived from the one spoken by their ancestors who had originally migrate to Britain after the Romans left. The Celts spoke their own language, which also had the same root language called Brythonic but by the 7th century it had diverged from its common root into distinct languages amongst the groups we now call the Welsh, Irish and Scots.

In future posts on the Celts I hope to touch on more of these elements of their society in more detail. Stay tuned!

*When I say “Christianized”, I mean that the faith had gained acceptance among both the ruling class and mainstream society. That’s not to say that there might not have been some hold-outs who clung to the old ways, however.

Featured image from The British Museum

The Celtic Cross: A History

I’ve been spending a lot of time here on the blog giving you a detailed look at life in England in the 7th century, from the various classes that make up that society, to the literature they produced, and to important places such as Bamburgh.

Lately I’ve been focussing mainly on one section of that society, that being the Anglo-Saxons. But of course there were other groups of people living on the British Isles at that time, one of the biggest being the Celts.

I’ve touched on their society here and there, mainly in explaining how the Celtic Christianity of the native Britons differed from the Roman Christianity brought to England by Augustine in 597 AD. But I thought I should spend some time here delving into their culture a little bit more deeply.

Much of it is similar to the Anglo-Saxons. Both were warrior cultures, for example. But just as there are some significant differences in how they practiced their religion, there were significant differences in other aspects of their culture as well.

I will explore some of those societal differences in future posts. But to start with,  I wanted to look a little more closely at one of the symbols of the Celtic Church. The Celtic Cross, with its distinctive circle encompassing the cross-beams, has become an iconic representation of Celtic Christianity, and as such, I wanted to give you some background on how this cross became to be used by the Celtic Christians.

Deep breath. There are a whole lot of rabbit trails that one can go merrily along when studying this subject. I am going to give you just a brief overview, but if you are interested I encourage you to do some research yourself.

One of the legends about this unique style of cross was that Saint Patrick combined the Christian cross with the sun cross, a pagan symbol, in order to make Christianity more appealing to the pagan Britons. This theory also surmises that putting the cross on top of the symbol was a way for Patrick to show the superiority of Christ over the pagan sun-god.

The sun cross is a circle divided into four quadrants, and this symbol has been found in religious objects from Bronze Age Europe (and in many other times and cultures as well). In the European context, it is speculated that this symbol represents the wheel of the chariot of the sun god.

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The Fahan Mura Slab is an early form of Irish Celtic Cross. Initially they were merely incised upon a stone slab, and then they got a little more intricate. You can see how the carving here is more bas-relief. This eventually resulted in the free-standing stone crosses that became so prolific across Ireland. Even now, after many centuries of wear and sometimes deliberate destruction, there are at least a couple hundred crosses in various states of repair still standing across Ireland, and there are more in Scotland, Wales and Northumbria.

I think this explanation of the origin of the Celtic cross might be stretching things a bit. First of all, it seems to be a little too speculative. There is a lot of uncertainty about what that “sun cross” really represents, so right there we are treading in murky waters.  I do believe that St. Patrick  presented the new faith using language and symbols (and places) that were familiar to the pagan Celts of Ireland, but to definitively say that he “invented” the Celtic cross in order to aid him in this seems a bit of a stretch.

But I don’t discount that theory completely. I’m not a historian, so there may be compelling evidence out there that I don’t know about which would show me wrong. But until I know of it, I’ll stick with my gut feeling on that.

What I think might be more plausible are a couple of other theories I’ve come across. One being that the circle on the Celtic cross originated from an even earlier symbol of Christianity, the chi-ro. 

Let’s back up a bit. The cross was not the preferred symbol of the early Christians. To them, who lived in the Roman Empire, the cross was an instrument of torture and death. They used other symbols, which are another very fascinating rabbit trail to go down, but I’ll stick to the main point here.

One of those early symbols was the Chi-Ro, which was a stylized combination of the first two Greek letters of the word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ  – Christos, or “Christ”.

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The Chi-Ro

The Emperor Constantine, after his conversion to Christianity, made his new faith the official state religion in the fourth century, and he was the one who popularized the chi-ro. Christians began to show this symbol with a laurel wreath superimposed on top, to symbolize the resurrection of Christ as the victory over death (the laurel wreath being worn by Emperors and awarded to victors in the Games).

So you can see how this idea of having a Christian symbol (the Chi-Ro) with a circle on top could explain a Celtic Cross, once the cross became a popular symbol of the faith (which happened after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the end of public crucifixions).

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A chi-ro carved into the rock in the  catacombs at San Callisto, Rome. One of my favourite memories of Rome is going into the catacombs and seeing the evidence of the early Christians there. They used the catacombs as hiding places from the Roman authorities during the time of persecution in the early years after Christ. Image by Dnalor_1 on Wikicommons

Another theory is a much more practical one. It postulates that the stone crosses were modelled after the earlier, wooden ones, which may have had cross beams supporting the horizontal beams of the cross for strength and stability. The stone carvers wanted to have the same support when making the heavy stone crosses, and so used the stone circle for that end.

It’s impossible to know for sure. Likely there is some truth to all of these theories. But no matter the origins of this unique style of cross, by the seventh century large, intricately carved stone crosses began to become a regular feature of the landscape in Anglo-Saxon England and across what later became known and Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The Irish monks who established monasteries began to erect them both at their monasteries and churches but also in public squares. They became teaching tools, with the elaborate carvings a visual representation of important Biblical characters and events.

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This close up shows another feature of many of the Celtic Crosses – that of the notched arms where the two beams meet. Some speculate that this also hearkens back to the original, wooden crosses, which could have been notched right there to allow for the two pieces to be lashed together with a rope. Image from pxhere

They are beautiful to look at now, but would have been even more spectacular to see then, because they originally were painted in bright colours, to draw the eye and attract those who saw them. In a future post I want to examine one of these crosses in more detail, to give you an idea of the intricate work with profound theological significance that adorn them.

The faithful Christians who built them made them to last, and they have certainly done that. But I’m sure even they would be astonished to know that some two thousand years later their work is still on display for all to see and admire, in many cases in the very spots, or very close to it, that they themselves erected them.

 

 

Book review: The Private Lives of the Saints, by Dr. Janina Ramirez

The subtitle of this book, Power, Passion and Politics in Anglo-Saxon England, is a clue to why I was attracted to it. There is not a lot of books on Anglo-Saxons out there, and even fewer on the saints of the period. I was very glad to see that someone had tackled this subject!

Dr. Ramirez is an Oxford lecturer, BBC broadcaster, researcher, and author. Her aim in this book is to widen the stories of the Anglo-Saxon saints to encompass the times in which they lived, and to show how their influence in that tumultuous time gives us clues about the culture and society of the Anglo-Saxons themselves. The book was published in 2015 by WH Allen.

Needless to say, this is a subject near and dear to my heart, so it was with great eagerness that I opened the book. I was a little afraid that Dr. Ramirez would start from the seemingly more and more popular societal view that the Christians were the source of all that is wrong in our world (ok, maybe an exaggeration but you know what i mean, don’t you?), but thankfully I did not see that bias in this book. I found it to be a fair, balanced, and ultimately fascinating view of these real people who lived so very long ago.

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I will admit to knowing nothing about Dr. Ramirez before reading this book, but I was delighted to find she is has many BBC TV specials to her name (including one on The Treasures of the Anglo Saxons) , as well as print publications both academic and mainstream. She has her PhD thesis, The Symbolic Life of Birds in Anglo-Saxon England available at her website. Cool! Plus, she does many lectures and hosts a podcast, Art Detective. Phew! Busy lady! Image from her Facebook page. 

The book begins with a short but succinct description of Anglo-Saxon England. as well as an important explanation of the word, “saint”.  Too often we take our modern definition of “saint” – an extra-holy person officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church – to frame our understanding of these early saints. However, in the Anglo-Saxon period, a person was declared a saint by the common consensus of the people, which meant that pretty much anyone with influence and high status could earn this title. And even some without those qualifiers.

The lines between secular and sacred, the worldly and the otherworldly, are incredibly hard to define in the early medieval period. A king could be a saint, and a bishop could rule like a king. The idea that someone could be declared a saint simply due to popularity is something that is hard to grasp from our twenty-first century perspective. 

Ramirez gives us a good example from modern times to help us understand how this worked. Princess Diana was a royal figure, who lived in the public eye, and who was known for her good deeds and kindness. Her death sparked worldwide mourning on an heretofore unseen scale. In Anglo-Saxon England, Diana would likely have beeen heralded as a saint (with the caveat that of course, a saint in the early medieval period would also have the added mantle of Christian piety attached). But her example gives us an understanding of the mixture of public status, power, and virtuous living that seized the imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons and prompted them to confer the title of “saint” on various people in their society.

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Princess Di, a modern-day saint? Image by John McIntyre on Flickr

The book looks at the important Anglo-Saxon saints in chronological order, starting with Alban, Britain’s first Christian martyr in the 3rd or 4th century,  and ending with Alfred the Great (died 899 AD). Along the way she covers many of the saints that I have discussed on the blog, such as Brigid, Patrick, Columba, Cuthbert, Hilda, and Bede; plus a few others that I haven’t got to  yet: Alban, Gregory, Wilfrid, and Alfred.

In each chapter Dr. Ramirez gives us a thorough understanding of the times in which the person lived, and attempts to go beyond the official hagiographic account of the saint to explore what this person was really like, as well as their impact on their society. Along the way we learn fascinating details about the Anglo-Saxons and the incredible diversity of people, religion and culture that made up the mix of life at that time.

Dr. Ramirez gives us a really good principle to follow when studying the past, and it’s one that resonated with me. It is exactly this principle that has made it easier for me, as a novelist, to tackle the sometimes daunting task of bringing an era that is so far removed from our own to life:

…it is a central premise when studying the past to remember that humanity never changes beyond recognition, and regardless of the seeming differences between people past and present, basic human interests remain largely the same. 

It is this connection to the humanity of these sometime plastic and daunting figures that makes The Private Lives of the Saints so interesting.

I was happy to see that my own ramblings on these subjects on the blog lined up fairly well with what Dr. Ramirez presents in her book. As I have said before, I am very much an amateur on these subjects – I’m a novelist, not an academic historian – but I have done careful research on the times and people of the Early Medieval period in order to present that era as accurately as I can in my novel.

Dr. Ramirez does take a different view of Brigid than I did, which is fair. She come down on the side of the theory that Brigid was not a real person, but her cult grew out of a Christianizing of the goddess Brigantia. I won’t quibble with her. I think there are compelling cases to be made for either view. And I would certainly not recommend you skip that chapter if you disagree with her on that, because if you did you would miss one of the highlights of the book for me. The chapter on Brigid contains a wonderful explanation of the history of monasticism and how the Celts looked to the early Desert Fathers for inspiration as they established their monasteries in extreme, harsh locations. This chapter is well-worth reading, even if you might not agree with her ultimate conclusion about Brigid.

I also loved that Ramirez included a couple of favourites of mine who are not officially names “saints” but whose influence cannot be denied, that being the Venerable Bede and Alfred the Great (I haven’t done a post on him yet, but I definitely will!).  They were highly important figures not only in their day but also in our own. We owe a lot to them both, and in this book you will find out why.

I highly recommend The Private Lives of the Saints. I learned a lot, but never get bogged down in dry history. Dr. Ramirez has brought these people and the era in which they lived into bright relief. I really appreciate her careful and thorough scholarship throughout, as well as her knack of making it all so very interesting.

I give this one 5 stars. Perfect for lovers of history, especially of the Anglo-Saxon era, but really for anyone who wants to understand more about these fascinating people who have shaped the world we live in today.


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Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

I have really been enjoying the non-fiction books I have read so far in my Year of Reading Buechner, but this month I turned my eye to one of Buechner’s fiction books. I have been eager to read Brendan: A Novel, for a couple of reasons. One, because a few years ago I read and really enjoyed Son of Laughter, his fictional account of the life of the Biblical patriarch, Jacob; and secondly, because this book was all about one of my favourite people from the Early Middle Ages: Brendan the Navigator.

Brendan

Brendan was published in 1987, and won the Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize that year. As I mentioned, it is the fictional account of the life of the 6th century Irish saint, Brendan the Navigator, whose story of adventures and miracles encountered during a sea voyage with fellow monks was one of the most popular stories in medieval times.

The tale is told from the point of view of Finn, Brendan’s companion and best friend, and is set in a realistically dark and dirty sixth century Ireland. Brendan is no polished saint in this book, in fact far from it. Finn is a nominal Christian at best, and he casts a skeptical eye on some of Brendan’s tales, because he knows how much Brendan loves to embellish the truth. But there are times when Finn sees Bren performing a miracle himself, and is unable to explain away the occurrence except as a miracle.

There is a great tension in this book between truth and lies; faith and doubt. Brendan himself struggles between these dichotomies. He makes his way with great self-confidence at times, but at others he is racked by doubts. This novel does not allow you to think of him as a saint in the way we normally think of them, as people who are so advanced in holiness that they have left us behind in the dust.

I love the way Buechner portrays the people of sixth century Ireland in this book. They feel like real people. And I appreciate they way he shows how Christianity met and mixed with the old religions that the Irish Celts practiced.  Even Brendan himself, when sent to pray in a cave overnight as penance by the Abbot Jarlath, also turns to the Celtic god Dagda.

He knew it was the one and only true God he was supposed to call on for mercy but he thought it would do no harm to call on the Dagda as well. He only whispered his name in his heart instead of speaking it out loud though. The last thing in the world he wanted was for the Dagda to turn up there in the cave lugging his terrible great club and his brass cauldron. All the boy was after from him was a bit of luck. 

And when Brendan sets off on his voyage, he does so in order to reach Tir-na-nog, a kind of earthly Paradise, the land of the young, where the gods of the Irish Celts lived. It eventually morphed into the idea of the Otherworld, the land of the Elves. These tales  abounded in Celtic folklore, but it is not exactly a kosher concept from a Christian point of view.

But this was an age where the old beliefs were meeting head-on with the new, so this juxtaposition of pagan and Christian is very realistic for the times.The Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, says that Brendan was trying to reach the Promised Land of the Saints. The idea is of an earthly Paradise, such as the Garden of Eden. The stories of Tir-na-nog could certainly have been meshed with that idea, in the minds of Celts who are new to the faith. So I like this insertion into the book, although it is not strictly true to the stories of Brendan.

There is also quite a bit of comedy in this book. The “holy fool” is a theme you find often in Buechner’s writings, and in this book Brendan takes on that role. He is a braggart, full of wild tales and exaggerations; and odd-looking, with his mis-matched teeth, pointy head, and large derrière. He stumbles through this book, at times serenely performing miracles and at others cowering in unbelief and doubt. And so in this way Buechner makes a larger-than-life saint a person we can relate to.

Other characters also have their comedic moments. Finn himself is cheated out of going on Brendan’s first voyage because as they set sail a sudden squall comes up and he falls out of the boat, the others not noticing in the dark.

In the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, the saint only takes one voyage, but in Buechner’s book, he divides it into two. Finn accompanies Brendan on the second voyage, and finds both miracles and heartache along the way. In the end, we are again left with uncertainty about exactly what they encountered, and where, and how much was truth, and how much exaggeration.

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An illustration from the Navigatio from a 14th century manuscript. It shows one of the stories in the tale, of Brendan and his monks staying on an island which they later discover is actually the great whale Jasconius. Image from Wikicommons.


Many of the other famous people from this time appear in this book, such as Saint Brigid, and Saint Malo. I particularly like the appearance of Gildas in this book, near the end, after Brendan is back from his voyages and goes away to Wales to escape his fame.  Gildas is a sour and bitter monk, which actually kind of fits the work for which he is best known today, called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), in which he details the many sins and failing of kings and churchmen alike.

As Finn says,

He spent his days in his hut with a quill in his hand scratching out on his parchment the nastiness of his times. 

But through Gildas, Brendan gets to meet the great king, Artor, an old man now, still serving as king at Caerlon. Brendan and Finn go to meet him, as Brendan wants to bring him God’s peace after he hears the tale of the betrayal of his queen Gwenhwyfar and the child Artor had with his half-sister. Finn doesn’t hear what Brendan says to Artor, but Artor is grateful for his visit. As they leave Caerlon, the small, wizened figure of the king stands at the battlements, his hands raised over his head in farewell.

Finn says,

I pictured him standing there all the rest of the day and the night as well with his arms in the air and his beard blowing. If I went back in a thousand years it wouldn’t surprise me to find him standing there yet if there’s anything left standing by then in the world. 

I love this picture of King Arthur, watching over Britain throughout the ages.

During a conversation with Gildas, as Brendan reflects on this voyages and expresses the fear that perhaps he had missed the point of what God had called him to do, it comes out in the conversation that the old monk only has one leg.

“I’m crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said.

“If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?” Brendan said.

Gildas with but one leg.  Brendan sure he’d misspent his whole life entirely.  Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy.  The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths.  We was cripples all of us.  For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said.  “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”

This book comes at you sideways. It is a window into the life and times of Brendan, well-researched and imaginative. But it’s more than that, too. Brendan’s voyages, both physical and spiritual, mirror our own voyages through life, with their ups and downs, their triumphs and tragedies. The book contains many treasures, but not all of them are ones that you find along the surface. It forces you to dig deep and ponder a little bit. Not a bad thing, nowadays.

The New York Times Book Review called Brendan: A Novel, “Strikingly convincing…sinewy and lyrical.” I agree.  There is a lot that is earthy in this novel, but at times it will take your breath away. It reminds me a lot of Son of Laughter in that way.  It  took me a few chapters to get into it, but by the end I knew it was one I would have to read again.


Other posts in my Year of Reading Buechner series can be found here:

 2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

 

 

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Pt. 1

I’m a little overwhelmed with busy, busy, busy at the moment and so seeing as today, March 20th, is the feast of St. Cuthbert, I thought it would be a great time to repost this, which appeared on the blog last year. I hope you enjoy it, and I’ll be back with new content next week! 


I realized a few weeks back when I wrote a post about clothing in the 7th century, that I have yet to write a post about one of the most influential figures of the Early Middle Ages, that being Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne (634 AD – March 20, 687 AD).

It’s time to rectify that!

Cuthbert is a fascinating figure whose life echoes throughout the centuries until even today. After his death he became possibly the most popular saint in England, eclipsed only by Thomas à Beckett who died in 1170 AD. In fact there is so much to say about Cuthbert that I am going to present his story to you in two parts. I will follow up with Part II next week.

Most of what we know about Cuthbert comes from the hand of Bede, the famous Early Medieval historian, sometimes called the Venerable Bede.  Bede actually wrote three accounts of Cuthbert’s life. One was a  poem, one was a work of prose, commissioned by the brethren of Lindisfarne, and one which was included in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. 

What fascinates me about this is that Bede was actually a contemporary of Cuthbert. Bede was fourteen when Cuthbert died and, although he never met him, in writing his Life of Cuthbert he spoke with many who knew Cuthbert well. As he puts it in the introduction to the Life (addressed to the Lindisfarne community which has commissioned the work):

…I have not presumed without minute investigation to write any of the deeds of so great a man, nor without the most accurate examination of credible witnesses to hand over what I had written to be transcribed. Moreover, when I learnt from those who knew the beginning, the middle, and the end of his glorious life and conversation, I sometimes inserted the names of these my authors, to establish the truth of my narrative, and thus ventured to put my pen to paper and to write. But when my work was arranged, but still kept back from publication, I frequently submitted it for perusal and for correction to our reverend brother Herefrid the priest, and others, who for a long time had well known the life and conversation of that man of God. Some faults were, at their suggestion, carefully amended, and thus every scruple being utterly removed, I have taken care to commit to writing what I clearly ascertained to be the truth, and to bring it into your presence also, my brethren, in order that by the judgment of your authority, what I have written might be either corrected, if false, or certified to be true.

After he had completed the task the book was read by the Lindisfarne elders and teachers for final approval before it was allowed to be copied for wider distribution.

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This is the earliest surviving copy of Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert. It dates from the 9th century and was found in France, which shows you how far-reaching Cuthbert’s popularity was, even at that early date. Image from the British Library.

Now let’s remember that these hagiographies (biographies of saints), are always meant to popularize the said saint in order to attract people to the monasteries that saint was associated with. In other words, nothing negative was going to be included in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert. Hagiographies were a kind of medieval one-up-man-ship: “Yo, my saint’s better than your saint, dog!” .  So we do need to keep that in mind as we read these accounts.

However, with all that being said, I love the fact that Bede’s Life of Cuthbert was written in consultation with people who actually knew the man and who had seen themselves the stories they recounted to Bede. And I love that Bede tried to make his account as accurate as possible, using many witnesses and checking and rechecking the stories. We have so few credible accounts of people’s lives from this era. It’s wonderful having this window into one person’s life, even though that window may be squeaky clean indeed.

What is also interesting is that Bede’s Life of Cuthbert was not the first one to be written. Bede completed his work around 721 AD, but the earlier one was completed around 700 AD. This earlier work, like Bede’s, was commissioned by Bishop Eadfrith* of Lindisfarne, which is the monastery most associated with Cuthbert. The earlier Life of Cuthbert is often called the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, because we are not sure who the author was, although it most certainly was one of the monks at Lindisfarne.

Although you wouldn’t know it from his introduction quoted above, Bede draws heavily from the anonymous Life in his work. In fact you might accuse Bede of being a little disingenuous in his introduction, but I guess I can forgive him seeing as Eadfrith and the other monks certainly knew all about the other anonymous Life, and possibly the author of the previous version may still have been at Lindisfarne. The Latin of Bede’s Life is apparently much more classical and stylized than the earlier one, which is perhaps one of the reasons why Bede was asked to do another one. The other reason we will discuss in Part II, so come back next week to find out!

So, now that we know the source(s) of our information, let’s get to Cuthbert himself.

He was  born in 634 or 635 AD, just as Aidan was invited by King  Oswald to found the monastery at Lindisfarne and become its Bishop. He was born in Dunbar, located on the east coast of Britain at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. At the time this was part of Northumbria, but now it is in Scotland.

There are indications that Cuthbert came from noble birth, perhaps even son of a king, but other historians discount this, and say that he was more likely born to a poor family. Either way, he grew up near Melrose Abbey (at the time called Mailros)  on the banks of the river Tweed.  He was by all accounts a devout youngster, and one night in 651 AD, when he was seventeen, he had a vision while he was watching the sheep. In the distance he saw angels coming down to earth and escorting a soul to Heaven. The next day he discovered that Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne had died, and decided then that he would also join a monastery and devote his life to God.

However, the real world interfered with this plan. At the time Oswy, King of Northumbria, was engaged in an epic struggle with Penda of Mercia over who would eventually have control over Northumbria. Like most of the men of fighting age at the time, Cuthbert became a soldier and fought with the Northumbrians against the Mercians until the decisive battle of Winwidfield in 654 AD. While we don’t have the exact date of his entrance into Melrose as a monk (Bede let us down there) it seems that some time after 654 AD he arrived at the monastery with a spear, and on horseback–one of the reasons some say he came from nobility, as only the wealthy had horses.

oldmelrose-2013b

Unfortunately, there is nothing left of the original Mailros Abbey, founded by Aidan and the monks from Lindisfarne around 650 AD. This is the little interpretive centre built on the site associated with the monastery. Image from saintsandstones.net

Along with the epic political struggle between Penda and Oswy for control of Northumbria that was occurring at this time, there was also an epic struggle in the ecclesiastical world. On side was the Celtic British monks of the north-west, nurtured under Columba‘s Rule at Iona, whose influence had spread across northern Britain, and on the other, the southern Roman Christians, whose practices of the faith stemmed from Rome (this is a very simple explanation…one day I will do a more detailed post on this).

Us moderns have a hard time understanding the nature of this conflict between two “styles” of Christianity, for it seems to us to revolve mainly around what style of tonsure the monks should wear, and, most importantly, how one should calculate the date of Easter. Indeed, these are the outward expressions of this conflict, but it goes much deeper than that.

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Two styles of tonsure: Roman, on the left, and Celtic, on the right. Or is it? Technically we are not entirely sure of the Celtic tonsure. We know that the hair was cut from ear to ear, but some suggest that the opposite of this look, in other words the hair at front is kept and all the hair from the ear back is shaved off! Image from Church History for Everyday Folks.

As a Celtic Christian monk who learned the monastic rule from the community at Lindisfarne, Cuthbert was by no means unaware of this conflict, and it shaped his life in significant ways. He quickly distinguished himself at Melrose, and when a new monastery was founded in Deira at Ripon,  he was sent there as guest-master along with Eata, who became Bishop.  But in 661 AD Cuthbert and Eata returned to Melrose, ousted from Ripon by King Alhfrith of Deira (son of Oswy) who had put the ambitious monk Wilfrid in Eata’s place. Alhfrith and Wilfrid were proponents of the Roman practices, and Ripon was thus changed from a Celtic Christian monastery to a Roman one.

StWilfrid

St. Wilfrid. Oh, he was a wily one. Soon I will be doing a post on him…stay tuned.

Soon after their return, some type of plague strikes Melrose, and many of the brethren there are afflicted, including Cuthbert, but he recovers.

However, by 664 AD Cuthbert must have seen the writing on the wall, for he has a change of heart. In the hugely important Synod of Whitby that year, King Oswy decrees that henceforth the Roman practices would be the ones followed in the Northumbrian monasteries. Some of the Northumbrian monks balk at this, but Eata accepts the ruling, and Cuthbert follows his mentor’s lead.

Back at Melrose, the abbot, Boisil, dies of the pestilence, and Eata is named Abbot/Bishop (these offices were somewhat fluid at the time).  Cuthbert becomes prior (second in rank to the Abbot). While there he became a great evangelist, travelling around the country and up into the mountains to preach the gospel to the pagan people where others feared to go. He also encouraged those Christians who had given up the faith in the face of the plague and had resorted back to their pagan practices to rid themselves of the sickness.

It is during this time at Melrose that one of the most famous stories of Cuthbert occurs. Cuthbert often left the monastery to spend the night in prayer. One night one of the monks follows him to see where he goes. He follows him down to the sea, and watches as Cuthbert wades out into the waves, until the water is up to his arms, and begins to pray.

As dawn breaks he comes back on to the beach, falls on his knees, and continues to pray. The monk watching is astonished to see two otters come out of the ocean, breathe upon Cuthbert’s feet, and lay down upon them to dry his feet with their fur. Cuthbert blesses them for their duty and the otters scamper back to the waves. The astonished monk confesses his spying to Cuthbert and the Bishop forgives him, but asks him to tell no one of it until his death, a promise the monk keeps.

Eata is in charge of both Ripon and Lindisfarne, and sometime in the 670s  he assigns Cuthbert to Lindisfarne as prior. Cuthbert is given the task of reforming the monastery from the Celtic practices to the Roman ones. This would not have been easy, and it seems it caused some bitterness among the brethren there. But he was a perfect one to do it, seeing as he was raised in Northumbria and trained in the Celtic practices himself as a monk.

Let’s hear Bede’s explanation of this:

There were some brethren in the monastery who preferred their ancient customs to the new regular discipline. But he got the better of these by his patience and modest virtues, and by daily practice at length brought them to the better system which he had in view. Moreover, in his discussions with the brethren, when he was fatigued by the bitter taunts of those who opposed him, he would rise from his seat with a placid look, and dismiss the meeting until the following day, when, as if he had suffered no repulse, he would use the same exhortations as before, until he converted them, as I have said before, to his own views. For his patience was most exemplary, and in enduring the opposition which was heaped equally upon his mind and body he was most resolute, and, amid the asperities which he encountered, he always exhibited such placidity of countenance, as made it evident to all that his outward vexations were compensated for by the internal consolations of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes retreat is a good offence, it seems. I can think of a few meetings I have endured where this strategy could well have been employed!

At any rate, it is after the reforms are completed, in 676 AD, when he is 42 years old, that Cuthbert decides he wants to withdraw even more from the world and become a hermit. I suppose after the harrowing work he had to do to change the monastery’s practices and dealing with the difficulties that caused I can’t blame him for having enough of people and wanting to renew his spirit by time alone in prayer!

He first finds an isolated spot on the outskirts of the monastery, but finding even that not quite isolated enough (too easy for the other brothers to get to him, I imagine) he sets himself up on Inner Farne Island, a deserted island some miles east of Lindisfarne.

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Eider ducks are known as Cuddy Ducks in Northumbria, after Cuthbert. While on the Inner Farne Cuthbert became enamoured of these ducks, and instituted laws to protect them as people often would harvest both the eggs and the birds. So aside from his religious accomplishments, Cuthbert thus became the world’s first conservationist! Image from wikicommons

Thus ends the first part of Cuthbert’s fascinating life. But there is much more to come. I hope you join me next week as we learn more about Cuthbert the hermit and the influence he continued to have, even after separating himself completely from the world.  And even after his death, as we shall see.


*Fun fact: Eadfrith is also the man responsible for the Lindisfarne Gospels. And by “responsible”, I mean he is one who actually designed, drew, and painted them, as historians have determined that the Gospels were the work of one man alone.  What wonderful treasures he gave us!

Featured image is an icon of Cuthbert, from Aidan Hart Sacred Icons. Note the otter at his feet, and also the raven. Ravens are associated with Cuthbert because, as he was building a shelter on Inner Farne for visiting brethren, three ravens came and pulled out the thatch on the roof. Cuthbert banishes them from the island, but they return, and in a penitent manner bowed their heads and showed signs of asking forgiveness. Cuthbert does so, and they bring him a piece of hog’s lard, which he uses to grease the visiting monk’s shoes.


You can find Part II of Cuthbert’s story here