Cynethryth, Queen of Mercia

It’s not very easy to find information about the women of Anglo-Saxon times. But there are a few women we know about, because their names or histories, or both, have been preserved in works such as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But there is only one woman who had coins minted with her name and likeness, in fact she is unique in that aspect for all of Western Europe for that time. She is Queen Cynethryth of Mercia (dates uncertain, possibly died AD 798).

We don’t know a lot about Cynethryth that is certain. It is possible, due to the similarity of her name to the wife and daughters of King Penda of Mercia (Cynewise, Cyneburh, and Cyneswith) that she was Anglo-Saxon and descended from him. There is a 13th century account that she was Frankish, condemned for a crime and set adrift in a boat on the open sea. She landed in Wales and was taken to Offa, where she pleaded that she was of the Carolingian royal house and had been persecuted by Charlemagne. Offa fell in love with her and subsequently married her.

However, this seems a little fanciful, and seeing as it comes from centuries after her life, I’m not sure we can entirely believe it. I prefer the other explanation, myself. At any rate, we don’t have a date for their marriage, but she first shows up in history as being witness to her husband Offa’s charters (documents that set out rights or privileges) after the birth of their first child, Ecgfrith, in AD 770. By AD 780 she is listed on some of the charters as “Cynethryth, by the Grace of God, Queen of the Mercians.”

map-of-england-c-800She appears in some of the correspondence of Alcuin, a cleric who was also a scholar, poet and teacher. He was also somewhat of a diplomat, it seems, who had ties between Offa’s court and the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne. He almost certainly knew Offa and Cynethryth, and likely travelled between the two courts. In fact there are hints in his letters to others that he also had correspondence with Cynethryth, although no such letters have survived, unfortunately. He refers to her as the “controller of the household”, which echoes the role of the Carolingian queens, who were responsible for the management of the royal household.

This reference to the Carolingian Empire is interesting. Charlemagne (AD 768-AD 814) was certainly the  most powerful ruler in western Europe at the time. Offa was similarly one of the more powerful kings in Anglo-Saxon England, and the two kingdoms engaged in trade and other diplomacy together. In fact, in AD 789-90 Alcuin was involved in negotiations regarding the marriage of Offa’s son and heir, Ecgfrith, and Charlemagne’s daughter. There are no other kingdoms of the time that Charlemagne considered marriage alliances with, except for the Byzantine Empire, which shows the status of Offa at the Carolingian court.

However the marriage negotiations, almost certainly aided by Cynethryth, fell apart due to Offa’s insistence that they be tied to another marriage, that of one of Offa’s daughter to Charlemagne’s son. Kind of a package deal, so to speak. Perhaps Offa was getting too big for his britches on that one, however, and neither marriage alliance came to pass.

Alcuin also urges Ecgfrith, in a subsequent letter to the royal prince, to emulate the piety of his parents, Offa and Cynethryth, so it seems she must have had a good reputation. This was important to Offa, as he attempted to bring legitimacy to his reign and his heirs by contrasting it to that of his predecessor, Æthelbald, who was accused by church officials of stealing from the church and fornicating with nuns, among other things.

Cynethryth was also named as co-ruler with Offa by Pope Adrian I when he wrote to them regarding an ecclesiastical matter. So perhaps it is not surprising that Offa struck coins not only with his image, but with Cynethryth’s as well. However, it is also possible that Offa was styling himself as a Roman-type emperor, as the coins are similar in design to coins that Roman emperors had struck in the names of their wives. Whatever the reason, it still remains highly unusual that a queen consort (one who is queen by virtue of being married to the legal king, not because she is queen herself by birth) have a coin struck in her honour.

Coins themselves were not uncommon during Anglo-Saxon times. Mostly they were made of silver, such as the ones that bore Cynethryth’s image.  The coin depicts a bust of Cynethryth in profile, wearing a tunic with round fasteners at the shoulders. Her hair streams back from her head in stylized waves, and she wears a simple diadem on her head. On the front of the coin, beside her image, is the word EOBA, which was the name of the moneyer who struck the coin (typical of the time). On the back is CENEÐRYÐ REGINA (Queen Cynethryth), and there is a stylized M in the middle for Mercia.

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Cynethyrth’s coin. Image from Wikicommons

Offa died in AD 796 and Cynethryth, like many royal widows of the time, retired into religious life. She became abbess of a monastery of Cookham and also managed the church at nearby Bedford, where her husband was buried. She is still alive two years later, in AD 798, where she is mentioned in a dispute over church land with the Archbishop of Canterbury during a synod that year. But then she disappears from history, and we assume that she died that year, but of course we cannot know for certain.

In the 13th century Cynethryth’s reputation is sullied in a literary history called The Lives of the Two Offas, written by a cleric in the monastery of St. Albans, which had been founded by Offa. In this history, Cynethryth is described as being the evil power behind the throne, urging her husband to kill King Æthelbert of East Anglia, who was a suitor to their daughter. The story recounts that Offa refused to do the deed, so Cynethryth took it upon herself, luring the hapless king to her bedchamber where she and her handmaids suffocated him (or, in another version, thelbert was beheaded).

An entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does briefly mention the murder of King Æthelbert, saying the deed was done on the orders of King Offa in 794. It is possible that the revised history was written by the monks of St. Alban to polish their founder’s reputation and throw the blame on his wife, instead. Easy enough to do when everyone involved was long dead.

Legends aside, I hope you agree with me that Cynethryth was a fascinating figure.  Her coins point to her importance at the time, and give us a little more knowledge about the lives of royal women in Anglo-Saxon times.

Featured image from medievalists.net. Technically this is Queen Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor, but hey, I couldn’t find any images of Cynethryth…


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Iona: Cradle of Celtic Christianity

Hello, dear readers!

It has been quite awhile since I have written any new content for the blog, and I apologize for that. What with one thing and another, including and especially the book launch, I have had little time to devote to my regular posts here.

For new readers, thanks for coming aboard! This is my online home,  a place where I have a chance to share with you my fascination with 7th century England, as well as other topics that might hit my fancy.

I have several series going on here at The Traveller’s Path. I’ve done several posts on various aspects of life in 7th century England, including literature, Anglo-Saxon society, important people, special places, the Celts, and others. One of these days I will group them all under the various topics for easy access on the blog – when I get some time. Heh.

It’s been awhile since I have done a deep dive into one of the important places in 7th century England, so today I will rectify that by doing a deep dive into one of the most important places, that of the island of Iona, and more specifically, the Celtic Christian monastery located there.

Iona is a small island, found in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. This mainly treeless island is about 2 km wide and 6 km long, and is found about 2 km off the coast of Mull, one of the larger islands of the Inner Hebrides. It’s a tiny dot on the map, and it’s hard to imagine how such an inconsequential place could have had the impact on life in the 7th century that it did; an influence that lasts even today.

The reason why this tiny island had such a huge impact is because this is where the great Saint Columba founded his monastery in 563 AD after being exiled from Ireland*. He came there because at the time it was in the Irish Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, and its king, Conall, was a relative of Columba’s. Columba and his monks immediately set to work building the small wattle and daub buildings typical of the time. Eventually the monastery would include the church, a refectory (kitchen/dining hall), scriptorium (library), monks’ cells/dormatories, and a guesthouse. There is also indications today of what is called Columba’s day room, a small building where Columba, as the abbot, worked and wrote. A small ditch encircled the monastery proper, a physical reminder of the set-apartness of this sacred space from that of the world.

The name of the island at the time was Hii, the Latin form of the original Gaelic name that meant something like “yew-holder” or “yew-place”.  That sentence is deliberately vague, because the truth be told this little island had many names stretching back over a long time, and it’s very difficult for modern historians to determine exactly what the locals called it at any given point in time. After all, the Hebrides have been occupied by people who spoke many different languages, from British Gaelic to Irish Gaelic, Pictish, Latin, and many variations of all of those.

Adoman, Abbot of the abbey from  AD 679-704, wrote the first hagiography of Columba. His attempt at changing the Gaelic name of the island to Latin resulted in the name Ioua, which morphed into Iona in the 13th century due to a transcription mistake, as the “u” and “n” look very similar in the insular uncial writing used by Adoman in the 7th century. Hii comes from Bede’s Latin name for the island in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in AD 731. Hii was the Latin translation of the Gaelic word I (pronounced “ee”)which was one of the names for Iona at the time. Clear as mud, right?

Once Columba and the monks had the buildings they needed for the monastery, they wasted no time on their missionary pursuits. They were incredibly successful in sharing the Gospel with the Picts and the Gaels of Dál Riada, and spreading out from there into the territory of the Picts in northeast England and further south, into the Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira.

St-Martins-Cross-and-Iona-Abbey

St. Martin’s Cross, which is the original cross still standing where it was installed, sometime between AD 750-800. The arms look short as they originally would have had wooden or metal extensions attached on the ends to make them longer. Amazing that this cross survives after all those years! It sits just outside the entrance of today’s Iona Abbey. Image from Seaview Bed & Breakfast

As the monks’ influence grew, and as the distances between Iona and the places where they worked grew ever more distant, the monks started setting up satellite monasteries in the territories where they ministered. Soon there was a growing network of these monasteries scattered all over the north, all looking to Iona as their spiritual “head”. Iona continued to grow in influence and prestige, and by the time the seventh century rolled around, it was an important centre of learning, with a highly esteemed school. The monks at Iona were kept busy in part with copying important manuscripts housed in their scriptorium, which would then be sent out to the satellite monasteries, which over time were found not only in England, but over on the Continent as well, in Gaul.

It is this process of the re-seeding of important works of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and teachers back into the Continent after the chaos and destruction of the fall of Rome that author Thomas Cahill describes in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. Far-off Iona was sheltered from the storms of looting and destruction that occurred when the barbarian hordes finally conquered Rome and the Dark Ages descended upon the Continent. Cahill’s premise is that without these Irish monks, who valued learning and knowledge and preserved the ancient wisdom even though it clashed with their faith in some ways, all of that knowledge could easily have been lost. And where would we be today without it?

But the monks on Iona not only copied books such as the Bible, or Homer’s Iliad. They also created some beautiful illustrated manuscripts, the foremost of those being the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Gospel book, similar to the Lindisfarne Gospels, consisting of the four Gospels in Latin, and accompanied by marvellous illustrations. I am going to do a separate post about this stunning work of art at another time, but suffice it to say, it is one of the treasures of British art.

Of course, the monks at Iona were practitioners of the uniquely Celtic brand of Christianity that developed in Britain after the Roman legions left the island. Once the Roman Christians returned during the mission of Augustine in AD 596, these two “flavours” of Christianity began to clash, and kept an uneasy peace, until the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, when the tide definitely swung in favour of the Roman Christians (also an upcoming post, stay tuned!). Many of the Ionian monasteries accepted the decision of the Synod and began to follow the Roman ways. But a few monasteries held out, including Lindisfarne and the mother house, Iona. In fact Iona continued in the practice of Celtic Christianity until the eighth century, in AD 715, when it finally adopted the Roman practices.

Iona’s influence was further diminished with the arrival of the Vikings. The first attack on Iona happened in AD 795, and many other attacks occurred over the next 30 years, resulting in the death of many monks and the plundering of treasure. Somehow the monks managed to protect both their beautiful Gospel book and important relics, including Columba’s bones, throughout this time, but in AD 878 the remaining monks had had enough, and they left, taking the illuminated Gospels and Columba’s reliquary with them, ending up in Kells Abbey, in Ireland. Which is how the Book of Kells got its name.

Today Iona is home to around 120 people, but it is still a place of pilgrimage for people the world over. The original Early Middle Ages buildings are long gone, but in the 1920s the ruins of the old Benedictine monastery on the island were restored and the buildings are now used by the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community who are, according to their website, “a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.”

I think Columba would be pleased by that, and to know that even today, every year hundreds of pilgrims go to Iona for spiritual retreats, prayer, and worship, and to seek to encounter the living Christ whom Columba followed.


*If you want the whole story behind Columba’s exile, have a look at my previous post linked to above. It’s a fascinating tale.

Featured image from Wikipedia

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The Celtic Cross: A History

What with book launch and all the assorted tasks that has come with it, my blog has been sadly neglected. I have some great ideas for new content, and you will be seeing that over the next couple months. But for this week I’ve reached back into the archives from last year to bring you this post that I really liked, about the Celtic cross. It didn’t get too many views the first time around, as it was posted in the dog days of August, so I’m hoping more people get to see it this time. Hope you enjoy! 


 

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.

cross_celtic_religious_ancient_church_christian_celtic_cross_christianity-804858.jpg!d

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.


Don’t forget….WILDING:BOOK ONE OF THE TRAVELLER’S PATH, is NOW available. A historical fantasy set in 7th century England, WILDING introduces a long-ago world, and a young man whose choices could have disastrous ramifications for it—and ours.

Here’s the links for all the places WILDING is available. PLEASE NOTE: Outside of Amazon, there is only the ebook format available. Apparently it takes a little while (up to a month) for the paperback to be available on the rest of the retailers sites. So if you are wanting to get a paperback immediately, Amazon is the only place it is available for now. By the end of the month you should be able to get the paperback through all the channels. It will also be available for libraries and bookstores to purchase at that time. 

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To Lent, or not to Lent….

I’m in the midst of a crazy time right now and writing time has dwindled to pretty much zilch. But I thought that seeing as we are in the midst of the Lenten season, I could re-post this post which appeared here on The Traveller’s Path back in my first year (2016). Hope you enjoy, and I’ll be back with fresh content at the end of April! 

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Believe it or not, this was a vitally important question back in 7th Century Britain. Not so much whether or not to celebrate Lent, but when. The whole question of when Easter began, and thus, when to start celebrating Lent, was the source of great division and controversy.*

It may seem silly to us now, but it was a serious problem for the Church. It’s a difficult one to encapsulate in one blog post, but I’ll give it a shot.

Christianity first arrived in Britain with the Romans, who conquered the island (or parts of it, anyway) in the early parts of the 1st century. By the time the legions withdrew somewhere near the end of the 4th century, the Church had established a presence in the island, but it was not a major presence, just a religion among the other pagan religions that people followed, and it likely might have died out as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invaded and brought their own pagan religions with them. But the Celts in the South-west and North resisted those invasions as they had resisted the Romans, and Christianity survived and indeed began to flourish in those corners of the island.

However, they were cut off from Rome, and their practice of the faith began to take on a decidedly Celtic feel. The Irish and British priests and Bishops still venerated the Roman pope, but in all practicality their allegiances were much more tribal, and the Abbots of the monastery  had more sway in spiritual matters than the Bishops of the dioceses. In some cases, the Abbot was both Abbot and Bishop.  The Abbots were often descended from ruling Irish families, and held great influence over their people.  The practice of the faith was very much centred around the monasteries, as opposed to the dioscean, urban model developed in Rome.  Due to their influence, the monastic lifestyle was held up as the ideal of Christian living in the Celtic church.

Unbeknownst to the Celts in Britain, the Roman church had abandoned the original method for dating Easter, making some changes based on astronomical calculations (and other considerations, such as wanting to distance the resurrection of Christ from the Jewish passover) which are too complicated to get into here. Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain in 597 AD to convert the southern Saxon kings of England, which gave the Roman Church a firm hold on the southern parts of the island. But the it quickly came into conflict with the established “Celtic” church in the north as their differences in practice came to light.

All this brings us to the date of my  novel, set in 642 AD, and the situation in of the northern kingdom of Bernicia, which illustrates some of the difficulties in having two sets of practices. King Oswy of Bernicia, who, although a Saxon, had been brought to the Church through his exile in Dál Raita, and the influence of the monks at Iona, the island monastery off the west coast of what is now Scotland. For political reasons he married Eanflead, a princess of Kent, who was a Roman Christian. Therefore, at Easter, one spouse could be celebrating Christ’s resurrection while the other was still practicing Lent. It was all very awkward and, I imagine, confusing for the lay people.

There were other differences as well, including the style of tonsure worn by monks. The Roman monks shaved the top of their heads, leaving a ring of hair, echoing Christ’s crown of thorns. The Celts shaved the front of their heads from ear to ear, in what some surmise was the same haircut that the Druidic priests once wore.

This conflict between the two approaches to the faith continued until the Synod of Whitby, in 664 AD, instigated, interestingly enough, by King Oswy. He wanted to determine once and for all which practices would be the ones to follow for the Church in Britain as a whole (one wonders how much pressure his wife put on him to get it all sorted out!). Based in part on the influence of the charismatic Bishop Wilfred, Oswy ruled in favour of the Roman practices and the Celtic style began to be phased out, although the Church in Britain retained a couple of hold-overs from its Celtic monastic past, including the emphasis on missionary work and its dedication to intellectual pursuits. Pockets of resistance to this change lasted until the 9th century.

It may seem a tempest in a teapot to us, but at the time it was a vitally important matter as power, politics, and religion were all stakeholders in this conflict. The upshot of the whole thing was that the Church in England remained staunchly Roman until the marital shenanigans of Henry the VIII brought a whole new religious controversy to Britain.

*Interestingly, there is still a difference today between the Eastern Orthodox church calendar and the Western (Roman) one, but for different reasons than the ones delineated in this post.

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What do you think? How important is the dating of Lent to you? Does this seem a silly thing to disagree about? What are some practices that the Church disagrees about today that might be equally as silly?

Photo credit: Celtic Cross at Ballinskellig Priory by Ulrich Hartman

 

Star Wars and 7th Century Monks

If you start a conversation about the Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you are likely going to get some conflicting opinions on whether or not it was a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. Or maybe you won’t. Does anyone think it was? Heh. I digress.

I will admit that I was less than impressed by the movie. Could they not show some originality in the screenplay? How many times must we see the same battle scenarios over and over again? And don’t get me started on Kylo Ren. Ugh.

But there was one part of the movie that had me absolutely giddy with delight. That was when Rey and Luke are together on the ancient Jedi temple on Ahch-To. We saw a glimpse of this at the end of the previous movie, The Force Awakens, but in The Last Jedi we are treated to more of the scenery and buildings that make up the old temple as Rey tries to convince Luke to join her in the fight against the First Order.

Trust me, it wasn’t because of the plot or acting that made me so happy at this part of the film, although both actors handed their scenes well enough. No, it was the setting that gave me such delight.

That is because this part of the movie was not made up of CGI enhanced buildings or scenery. This was filmed in a real place, the beautiful little island of Skellig Michael situated off the south-west tip of Ireland, and it has a place in the story of seventh century Ireland.

In real life, this wasn’t a temple, but it was a religious site, a monastery built in the Early Medieval period. The little “beehive” building that Luke lives in and the stone steps that Rey climbs are all real features, built by the monks themselves.

Skellig Michael is a small island (54 acres), consisting of two rugged vertical peaks, with a couple of flatter spots in-between peaks where the structures are located. There are three bays on the island where the monks could land, depending on the time of year and the weather, and there are stone stairs leading up to the buildings from each of them. Today only one of them is safe (ish) for use. The island is named after the archangel Michael. The word skellig comes from the Old Irish Gaelic word sceillec which means small or steep area of rock.

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This is a daunting place to live. Howling, near-hurricane force winds are common, and the seas around the island are often rough. Modern visitors are only allowed on this World Heritage Site in the summer. No children are allowed, as the stairs are too steep and dangerous for them. Visits are limited to six hours, and only 180 people are allowed at one time, to protect the structures.

The monastery itself consists of two oratories (places where the monks could pray) a cemetery, crosses, cross-slabs and six domed beehive cells, given that name because of their resemblance to beehives. There is also the remains of a later medieval church.The cells and oratories are all of dry-built construction and the church is of mortared stone. There is also a hermitage on another part of the island, possibly built in the 9th century. This would have been a  place for visitors to stay who might have come there for retreat, or for the abbot or another monk to withdraw even more from the world.

It is thought that there would have been maximum twelve monks and one abbot on the island at one time. The monks would likely have shared their beehive cells. The cells  vary in size, and some may have had an upper loft. It’s hard to know exactly when the first monks came there to establish the monastery, called St. Michael’s. The monastery could have been founded in the 5th century, as I mentioned earlier, but the first historically reliable reference to it comes from the 8th century, in the recording of the death of “Suibhini of Skelig”. I imagine he was likely a monk or an abbot of the monastery.

One wonders how the monks survived in this remote, wild, harsh environment. There is some evidence of gardens on the small areas that allowed for growing. Of course fish, birds, and eggs were plentiful. Making their way up and down those steps would have been a challenge, but it was a journey the monks would have to make any time they went on/off island or down to the spots where they could fish.

The cleverly constructed dry-stone cells are good shelter against the harsh winds and rain, but it must have been a cold, miserable place when the freezing winds howled and the sleety rain lashed against their walls. The monks were made of sterner stuff than I, but this place suited the aesthetic bent of these Celtic Christians very well. It was isolated, harsh, and difficult. A perfect place to stretch one’s dependence on God.

It’s not an easy place to visit, even now, but I sure would like to try. Another place to add to my places of pilgrimage for the next time I get to Great Britain.

I’ll leave you with a bonus clip of Mark Hamill discussing the filming of Star Wars on Skellig Michael.


Publication of my first novel, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path, is coming soon! To be kept up to date on all the news on it and the rest of my writing, sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get the first chapter of Wilding as a thank-you!

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! 

 

 

 

Year of Reading Buechner: Wrap-up

I know it’s now been a couple months since 2018 wrapped up (how did that happen?) but I have just now realized that I never did a wrap-up post on my reading series from last year, The Year of Reading Buechner.

Last year I took on the challenge of reading one Frederick Buechner book a month. The books I read are as follows (all linked to the posts about them):

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Year of Reading Buechner: Telling Secrets: A Memoir

Year of Reading Buechner: A Room Called Remember

Year of Reading Buechner: Lion Country

Year Of Reading Buechner: Eyes of the Heart

Year of Reading Buechner: Crazy, Holy Grace

Highlights and (not really) Lowlights

I am so glad that I spent a year with Frederick Buechner, an author I had heard much about before but had never got around to reading. His books were challenging, beautiful, layered, and impactful. It’s hard to summarize exactly how I feel about his books, but here’s some of the highlights of the year for me, anyway.

  1. Favourite book of the year (nonfiction) – this is tough. But if I have to pick just one as a favourite, it would have to be A Sacred Journey, his first memoir, which I read way back in February 2018. This is an astonishing book. It is short, but packed full of insights and sentences that make you want to stop and ponder your own life. Probably one of the best memoirs I have read. It’s so wonderful how he can take the tale of his life, a very ordinary life in many ways, and make it into a profound meditation on life, death, and faith. I don’t want to give too much away. I want you to read it for yourself and discover its treasures as well.
  2. Favourite book of the year (fiction) – see how clever I am? I can get two favourites this way! But I should really say, look how clever Buechner is, that he can write both nonfiction and fiction with such skill. I will admit that his fiction was harder for me to get through than his nonfiction. But that says more about me than about him. My favourite that I read this year was Brendan, the tale about the Dark Ages monk who set out with some other monks to find the land of the saints. This book featured a saint whom I am particularly fond of, and I loved seeing him brought to life in Buechner’s tale. Buechner is such a clever writer, and he’s not afraid to tackle life as it is in his novels, not life as we wish it would be. So he presents us a very human saint, which is not a bad thing at all. But don’t read this book if you are expecting a sanitized view of life in the Early Middle Ages, or a “typical” Christian fiction book.
  3. Favourite book I didn’t read this year – Son of Laughter. It’s perhaps cheating a bit to include this book on my list of favourites seeing as I didn’t read it this year, but I don’t want you to miss this one. The story of Jacob, the scheming son of Isaac (whose name means “laughter”, as his mother Sarah laughed when the angel of the Lord told Abraham he would have an heir), was my first introduction to Buechner. I read it a few years ago, but it has stayed with me ever since. Jacob is no sanitized saint in Buechner’s hands. But it is in his very real and flawed humanity that the grace of God shines so brightly. A brilliant book, and I loved it very much!

Although I really enjoyed most of the books I read this year, there were a couple that were my least favourites. Which means out of a scale of 1-10, they would get a 6 or 7, instead of the 9-10 the others got. In other words, they are still excellent books.

  1. Least favourite nonfiction – if I had to pick one, I would choose the last one I read, Crazy, Holy, Grace. And that is only because it is a compilation of essays and pieces of some of his other books, some of which I had already read during the year. But for someone who was looking to get an introduction to Buechner’s works, you wouldn’t go too far wrong with this book.

   2. Least favourite fiction – Lion Country. So many people love the tetraology of books    called The Book of Bebb, of which this is the first book, that I hate to put it down as my least favourite. It’s very well written, and I like the way Buechner presents the tensions in the book between doubt and faith, dark and light.. But the whole insinuation of Bebb possibly being a pedophile was just a little too much for me. That being said, I do have the other three books on my Kindle. I will read them, because I love Buechner so much that I am willing to go a little further into the story just to see where he goes with it.

What I learned as a writer. 

I would be foolish not to take some tips from Buechner, the writer, to carry with me from my reading series this year. He is a master of the craft, hailed by many as one of America’s best writers. So, what have I learned from Buechner?

First of all, be honest. In both his fiction and non-fiction books, Buechner is not afraid to explore all aspects of what it means to be human. His memoirs are painfully honest at times, and in his his fiction he is not afraid to use a lamp that throws into stark relief both the best and worst of humanity.

This is terribly important for all writers, but especially, I think, for those of us who write either about faith or about people of faith. It’s so tempting to gloss over the character flaws and hard times, and to just show the sunny side of life. Buechner’s writings are a good reminder that as writers we need to show the truth, both good and bad, in order for our readers to come to terms with that truth in their own lives.

Secondly, make your words sing. Buechner is a beautiful writer. I’ve said before that he is probably the most quotable writer I have read (C.S. Lewis and he vie for this honour in my mind). He hones his words well, polishing them until they shine. The quote that I have had as the featured picture for each of the posts of the series is a good example.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. 

Three phrases, each of them short and to the point. But all together they give us truth and hope in equal measure, stiffening our spine for our forays down the paths life gives us.

And what about another one of his most famous quotes?

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. 

– From

These are words that speak to the hidden springs within us, that make us stop, give us eyes to see things we may not have seen before. It’s not just the thought, which is profound, but the way he expresses it, which brings the thought to life in our minds.

He does this in his fiction, too:

What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup. (from Godric)

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

I could go on and on. Pretty much each page I have read has some kind of underlining or note on it. He is just that good.

What I learned about life.

You can’t come away from a year immersed in Frederick Buechner’s words and not learn something. In my case, his words were a reminder of the importance of paying attention, to listen and see all the ways that God speaks to us every day, and to look back and see the ways in which He has been present all along.

Buechner reminded me that everything is important. Even the most mundane encounters or events holds layers of mystery that we would do well to examine.

His flawed characters gave me hope. If God could use them, and He does, then surely He can use me, too. The bumbling steps of faith these characters make, sometimes stubborn, sometimes naive, sometimes clueless, are a picture of all of our journeys. It’s always comforting to know we are not alone, right?

It’s been a marvellous year reading through a few of the works of Frederick Buechner. I heartily recommend him to anyone who loves good writing and is not afraid to slow down a bit to catch a glimpse of the glory of our lives.