Early Christianity In The British Isles

The present name of Whitby attests to links with lands across the North Sea. In Scandinavia many place-names end with "-by" (pronounced bee not bye),meaning "village," in the same way that other English locations often end with "-ton," a diminutive of "town." Just to the south of Whitby lie Scalby and Newby, the meaning of the latter name in particular being obvious. Back in the seventh century, before the Viking marauders began to arrive, Whitby was known as Streanaeshalh. That's an unfamiliar mouthful, so let us keep to the later name of the town and monastery. Rather than looking over the North Sea, the Whitby connection with which we are concerned here causes us to cast our gaze to the Mediterranean and the warmer climes of Italy, Greece, and Turkey. It is from those regions (using their modern names) that Christianity diffused to the British Isles.

Although Julius Caesar had twice ventured into southeastern England, the Roman conquest did not occur until about a hundred years later. Then, the emperor Claudius pacified most of the region we now call England, pushing the Celts, Picts, and other races back into the far corners of the isles, into Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Hibernia (Ireland). Trouble persisted with those peoples, eventually resulting in such steps as the construction of Hadrian's Wall.

In these early centuries of the Roman occupation, the state religion was pagan, based upon various deities associated with the planets (which term included the Sun and the Moon in that era). For example, Mithraism lauded the god of the Sun as being supreme, and the winter solstice—when the Sun stands still in terms of the rising point on its annual oscillatory path up and down the eastern horizon—was the major celebration each year, the festival of the unconquered Sun. The date of Christmas was derived by transfer from that pagan feast to the Christian holiday (literally, holy day) soon after the emperor Constantine the Great became sympathetic to Christianity in the early part of the fourth century.

As Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire during the fourth century, missionaries spread to Britain and began converting the indigents to that faith. At the same time there was a gradual withdrawal after A.D. 350 of Roman influence from Britain, the final tie being cut in about 410. The cause for this withdrawal can also be traced back to the long-dead Constantine. He had shifted the imperial headquarters from Rome to Byzantium, causing its name to be changed to Constantinople, as it remained until the city's name was changed to Istanbul in 1930. With the seat of power removed to the east, the Italian peninsula was left largely unguarded as the Gothic hordes swept west from their homelands at the periphery of the Black Sea. The people still in Rome pleaded for assistance, but their cries fell on the deaf ears of those now largely Hellenized, living happily in Constantinople, and lording it over the Eastern Empire. As a result the Western Empire finally collapsed by 476, Rome having been sacked several times by barbarian tribes during that century.

In consequence Britain was no longer part of the domain of the Roman State. Affairs in those islands, however, could still be influenced by the Roman Church. That Church had other problems to deal with, such as surviving within a city (Rome) and country (what we now call Italy) occupied successively by various non-Christian rulers such as the Goths and the Huns. With the disintegration of order in Britain, the peoples known as the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons invaded from mainland Europe, and anarchy reigned as the Picts and the Scotti rampaged down from the north and the west. In Britain, as well as elsewhere in the west of Europe, famine and disease were rampant, and town life collapsed as the society previously organized as part of the Western Roman Empire simply disintegrated.

That society had previously produced a sufficient economic excess to support scholars, and in addition for the armies to hold back would-be invaders. With the collapse of the Empire, from the late fifth century Europe entered the Dark Ages. That term is commonly applied so as to reflect our scant knowledge of what happened during that era, in the absence of records kept by the learned men who were earlier employed as part of the bureaucratic system. One of the few places anywhere that scholars could work and maintain written records was in the Church and its associated monasteries.

Christianity had hitherto made little progress in the British

Isles, although there were outcrops of believers here and there. One important concentration was in Ireland, where missionaries from Crete and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean had arrived by the early fifth century. We will see later that the origin of those missionaries is significant. This early arrival of Christianity in Ireland led to the establishment of several monasteries, and Irish annals that show records of phenomena such as eclipses, comets, auroras, and volcanic clouds (from eruptions in Iceland) exist, dating back as far as A.D. 442. The Church in Ireland, totally disconnected from the Holy See in Rome, seems to have thrived in this era. Many of the bellicose peoples who had been penned into Ireland rebounded into Britain with the fall of the Roman dominion, and at length church missionaries followed eastwards across the Irish Sea in their wake.

One of these missionaries was Saint Columba (521—597), who traveled to Scotland. The organization that made its presence felt in the north of Britain at this stage is nowadays referred to as the Irish, Celtic, or Columban Church. Various monasteries were founded in northern Britain, and two of the most preeminent centers were those on the tiny island of Iona (in the Inner Hebrides, off the western coast of Scotland) and on another island called Lindisfarne (just off the coast of Northumbria, the northeastern part of England). The locations of these monasteries are shown in the map in Figure 16-1. In remote places such as these the torch of learning was carried forward through the Dark Ages.

To the south, in England, heathenism still reigned in the various kingdoms ruled by the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, and pagan gods were worshipped. This began to change from about A.D. 597 when the first Roman Church missionaries arrived in Kent in the southeastern corner of England a short maritime hop from conti-

FIGURE 16-1. This map indicates the ground track across the northern parts of the British Isles of the total solar eclipse that occurred on the first day of May in A.D. 664. Several early ecclesiastical centers and monasteries are also shown.

nental Europe. At that time the Roman Church, under Pope Gregory the Great, was enjoying some stability after the Eastern Empire under its leader Justinian had reasserted itself in Italy from the middle of the sixth century. The Church had started a concerted effort to spread Christianity through Germany and the countries along the Danube, and Saint Augustine was sent west in an attempt to convert the heathens then occupying most of Brit ain. Augustine established the cathedral at Canterbury and set about his task, although he did not get far because he died in 604, but the changes he initiated were important.

Augustine converted the Jutes of Kent to the Roman Church, and served as the first Archbishop of Canterbury. The next targets for his successors were the constantly warring Angles and Saxons of the other six kingdoms within England (the Essex, Wessex, and Sussex of the Saxons, and the more-northerly East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumberland of the Angles). There was a problem, though, in that the Celtic Church was likewise trying to assert itself, using traditions and practices somewhat different from those of the Roman Church. One of the disputed matters might seem absurd to us now: it was the form of the tonsure, the way in which monks shaved the tops of their heads. The great fighting-ground, though, was the subject of when Easter should be celebrated each year.

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