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The Development of Christian Society
in Early England


Part 3

Celtic Christianity developed differently than Roman Christianity. Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire and remained somewhat isolated from the continent, even after Patrick's mass conversions. Catholic structure had been based on a model of Roman government that was unknown in Ireland. Monasteries, rather than bishoprics, became the fundamental unit of Celtic Christianity, with abbots exerting far more influence than bishops. By the sixth century, Irish monasticism exhibited outward signs of these differences. Celtic monks were ascetics, practicing strenuous fasts and meditation under severe privation. Confession of sin became common, so much that Irish monks wrote manuals dedicated to dispatching appropriate penitentials for various sins. Remaining isolated from the continent prevented the corruption of the Latin language that occurred in European monasteries. The Irish fervor for learning encouraged writing, and Celtic monks provided beautiful manuscripts illustrated with geometric patterns, Celtic images, and Oriental elements passed down from the original monasteries in the east. The most profound difference between Celtic and Roman monasticism, however, was found in the very nature of each community. Continental monasteries were refuges from the world, and by the mid-fifth century, under rules established by Saint Benedict of Nursia; such Benedictine monasteries favored moderation over asceticism, the absolute authority of the abbot, and communal living and worship among brethren.

Celtic Christianity, like Welsh Christianity, was shaped much more by local concerns and compromise with the natives. Ireland had few walls and divided pastures, war was the sport of kings, Celtic women fought like Amazons, and marriage, as an institution, was largely ignored. Irish monasticism employed select Druidic elements: monastic communities petitioned clans for land grants in return for educating the clan's youth in the priestly arts. Authority became hereditary, as bishops and priests were allowed to administer sacraments, but were recruited and directed by powerful abbots and abbesses. Celtic monks shaved their heads in the Druidic tradition, and the Roman date for Easter was slightly altered to coincide with local fertility festivals. Irish monasticism, however, possessed one feature which was lacking, up to the sixth century, in both Welsh and Roman Christianity: Celtic Christianity encouraged missionary work throughout the world.

The first new wave of Christianity since the conversions of Roman British citizens in the fourth century began with the founding of a new Celtic monastery on the island of Iona, just off the western coast of Scotland. Established in 563 by Saint Columba, a Celtic monk, Iona proved to be pivotal in christianizing Scotland and northern England. Columba himself was almost single-handedly responsible for the conversion of the Picts, with nine successive abbots of his clan converting virtually all of Scotland and nearly two-thirds of England. Continental missionary work also sprang from Columba's monastery in Iona: Saint Columbanus, a young monk, took twelve disciple monks to northern Italy and founded a monastery in Bobbio. As the Irish monks converted the north, a second wave of missionary work, Roman in nature, commenced in the south in 597.

Gregory the Great, the highly influential pope of 590-604, dispatched Augustine (later to gain sainthood) to England with the express purpose of converting the Saxon kings of south England. Augustine landed in Thanet, immediately targeting the Kentish king, Ethelbert, whose wife was a Frankish Christian. Ethelbert's baptism inspired the conversion of a sizable majority of subjects: the trend of subjects following a king's conversion became a common thread of the spread of Christianity in southern England (the same trend resurfaced during the English reformation, under the reigns of Tudor monarchs). Augustine established a monastery in Canterbury, from which the southern conversions flourished, and which was to become the most powerful seat of Christianity in Britain. Paulinus, of Augustine's original party, became a member of King Edwin's Northumbrian court, through connection's with Edwin's Christian wife. Edwin and his subjects converted, but pressures from Mercia provided the impetus for still another trend in the Christianization of England.

The kingdom of Mercia, ruled by Penda, practiced Norse pagan religions, but sought an alliance with Welsh Christians in its struggle for supremacy over Northumbria. Mercia triumphed, with two Northumbrian kings, Edwin and Oswald, losing their lives in the struggle. Mercian paganism became the official religion of the kingdom. This trend continued throughout the seventh century, as pagan and Christian kingdoms fought for dominance, several kingdoms vacillated between paganism and Christianity as power shifted among the Saxon kingdoms. Of special note, however, is the leniency which the pagan kings showed to Christians: Christians were allowed to worship as they pleased, a courtesy which was not extended to pagans when Christian kingdoms triumphed.

The first half of the seventh century is one of the most important periods in British ecclesiastic history. Gregory and his disciples acknowledged the wisdom of incorporating native fertility and harvest rituals into the list of Christian holidays; Roman Christianity established a firm hold on southern England. With Canterbury as its base, Roman Christianity quickly spread northward to confront Celtic Christianity. Aidan of Iona founded a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in 635, and two of his monks, Benedict Biscop and Wilfrid, were instrumental in winning Northumbria to Celtic Christianity. Lindisfarne, even more than Iona, became a center for training and education: the most famous illuminated manuscript of Celtic monasticism, the Lindisfarne Gospels, was completed in 700. Paganism was in the final stages of its vitality as religious controversy moved from the basis of paganism versus Christianity to Roman versus Celtic Christianity.

Arguments over the proper calendar dates for feasts and differences in discipline raged throughout England during the mid-seventh century. Welsh and Roman Christians addressed the issues without resolution on the banks of the Severn in the 640's, but Roman and Celtic Christians lacked the motivation and flexibility to resolve the conflict until the Synod of Whitby in 664. Held in Northumbria at the behest of King Oswy, the meeting carried political, as well as religious, overtones.

Wilfrid traveled to Italy after the establishment of the monastery at Lindisfarne and became a firm proponent of uniting Rome and England. At Whitby, Wilfrid spoke on behalf of Roman Christianity, maintained that all of Christendom, with the exception of the two small islands, agreed on doctrine as espoused by Rome. Oswy, under the influence of a new generation of fervent Roman Christian princes, ruled in favor of Roman Christianity. His decision, in large part, must be attributed to an effort to solidify alliances with the kingdoms of Wessex, Essex, and Kent, against Mercia. A gradual fusion of Celtic and Roman Christianity ensued: the Archbishop of Canterbury was made the highest ranking ecclesiastic in Britain, with the various bishops and monasteries subordinated to his authority, and Roman dates were employed to delineate holidays. The missionary and intellectual work of Celtic monasticism, however, was allowed to thrive.

The Whitby decision was irrevocable, but not irrefutable. The Welsh church, for example, failed to come to terms until 738, and pockets of resistance lasted until the ninth century. England under a united Christianity, however, was a powerful component of the medieval church. Theodore of Tarsus was appointed to carry out the successful parish reorganization of England. English monasticism was saved as an important training institution for further missionary work and remained the main depository of intellectual activities throughout the Middle Ages. Three monks from monasteries established by Benedict Biscop became highly influential members of Christendom: the previously mentioned Bede; Saint Boniface, whose work included conversion of the Frisians and Swabians in Germany; and Alcuin of York, who carried Christianity and intellectualism into the illiterate court of the Frankish king, Charlemagne. England was to remain an essential part of Roman Catholicism until the marital antics of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.

Several comparisons can be made between the development of Christianity in both the Roman Empire and England. In most instances, Christianity took root in the peasant classes (as was the case in Roman Britain), filtering up into higher social orders as it became more acceptable. After the mass conversions of the second and third centuries, the aristocracy saw Christianity as fashionable, and such superficial conversions had an influence on the development of monasticism. Prior to the flowering of Christianity in the Empire, social changes were initiated by the upper echelons of society and traveled downward through the lower castes, the majority of the Anglo-Saxon conversions occurred as subjects followed the lead of their kings. Cultural clashes developed different interpretations of scripture in both civilizations, and the subsequent disparity of doctrine, as well as compromise with native peoples in the course of the conversion process, created conflicts and controversies. The largest difference between Roman and English Christianity occurred in the development of monasticism, and this contrast remained throughout the entire medieval period: British monasticism remained dedicated to classical thought while continental monasticism was corrupted through increasing contact with native civilizations and migrant Germanic tribes. England proved to be a microcosm of Christendom as a whole.


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