Dr Jonathan M. Wooding

title.none: Brown, and Herren, Christ in Celtic Christianity (Dr Jonathan M. Wooding)

identifier.other: baj9928.0509.007 05.09.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr Jonathan M. Wooding, University of Wales Lampeter,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Brown, Shirley Ann, and Michael W. Herren. Christ in Celtic Christianity: Britain and Ireland from the Fifth to the Tenth Century. Series: Studies in Celtic History, vol. 20. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2002. Pp. xii, 319. $75.00 0-85115-889-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.09.07

Brown, Shirley Ann, and Michael W. Herren. Christ in Celtic Christianity: Britain and Ireland from the Fifth to the Tenth Century. Series: Studies in Celtic History, vol. 20. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2002. Pp. xii, 319. $75.00 0-85115-889-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dr Jonathan M. Wooding
University of Wales Lampeter

The study of "Celtic Christianity" is now a matter of wide popular enthusiasm, as well as being a subject which appears on academic curricula. Yet, casting one's eye over the shelves of any large bookseller, one would be forgiven for believing that it is a subject which inspires only the writing of the least substantial kind of book. It is accordingly a great pleasure to read a book that cannot in any respect be accused of lacking intellectual weight. This comprehensive, if controversial, study of the Christology of the late antique and early medieval British church is undoubtedly one of the most learned and substantial contributions to appear in the field of Celtic Christianity. Herren and Brown choose to centre their study upon the ecclesiological function of virginity and penance in the early Christian communities (21-22). These are important themes in the early church and their work is refreshing for eschewing tedious debates over the definition of "monasticism" for the early Insular churches, and of what was "Celtic" about the early British church, to consider more sophisticated questions.

Chapter One is a detailed study of early insular monasticism and its sources (23-46). Those who are familiar with Herren's earlier studies of Patrick, Gildas and Columbanus will find themes in those shorter studies here developed in a wider narrative. The identifiable figures arising out of the fifth- and sixth-century British church, such as Pelagius, Faustus, Patrick, Gildas and Finnian, are surveyed in detail. A balanced and detailed interpretation of the range and character of the types of monastic life identifiable in the Irish church is presented at the outset (32-34). Herren puts emphasis on the basic similarity of the picture of ecclesiastical society presented by a text such as the "First Synod of St Patrick" to that found in Gaul in the fifth century. In his desire to bring this evidence into an evolving model of "Celtic" piety Herren maybe passes too quickly over some of the controversies of the dating of the so-called "Patrician" synods. I also continue to have reservations concerning Herren's confidence that the differences in focus of Gildas's various writings can be identified with different periods of a life which can be seen as so neatly spanning the formative period in British monasticism (27-8). Notwithstanding these concerns regarding the dates and contexts of texts upon which there is admittedly little consensus, the attempt to see the evidence of these sources in terms of their comparative witness to the elements of the early monastic movement in Britain and Ireland presents an admirable historical model for the study of early British and Irish theology. This does not mean that there are not some controversial observations. Herren observes "The path to perfection is paved with the monastic virtues: obedience, silence, temperance in food and drink, poverty, humility, chastity, the choir office(!), discretion, mortification, and finally, the monk's perfection" (34). The force of this exclamation mark is unclear--would any historian of monasticism express surprise at the liturgy of the hours being seen as central in the conception of monastic virtues? Likewise the intent of the comment on the importance of bishops in the Rule of the Celi De (36) is unclear, in that it appears to me to be unexceptional in terms either of the views of the Romani or the Hibernenses--I may, however, be misunderstanding Herren's point here. Similarly, Herren progresses from controversies over monks owning property to the statement that "It is possible, then, that for most of the fifth century the monastic movement in Britain experienced stiff resistance from vested interests, compelling British men and women desirous of the life to find it abroad" (25). This seems something of a leap. Self-evidently some did seek the monastic life abroad; any number of possible causes for such self-exile might be adduced apart from party debates--even possibly a nascent ideal of peregrinatio of the type that would later be seen on a larger scale in the Irish church.

Chapter Two begins by contrasting Pelagius's profession interestingly with the creed in Patrick's Confessio (48-9), in the context of the fact that both were subject to charges of misconduct. Again here Herren sketches a wider context into which both men can be fitted, but one might be wary of the seeming harmony of the picture. Pelagius we know was the recipient of accusations of unorthodoxy; we are less sure in the case of Patrick what were the actual charges faced and we should observe that Patrick's profession is a formulaic creed, embedded in his text, rather than a crafted answer. Such interesting and provocative comparisons typify the subsequent argument. The opening chapters conjure up a vision of a late-antique Britain in which theological debates could be causes of social conflict and change--this is a model similar to the one proposed by J.N.L. Myres for the causes of Britain's rejection of Roman rule in the fifth century. If one has doubts about the representative character of the evidence upon which this model is based, the return of theological causes to a field recently dominated by social and economic models of causation is salutary and perhaps may be seen to parallel some recent polemics in prehistoric studies. The portrait of Britain sketched in these basically historical chapters is the background to the central thesis of the book, which is outlined most fully in chapters V and VI. It is basically this: the early period of British and Irish Christianity was a "common Celtic Church". It was mostly characterised by a "Pelagian" theology. In this early period there was no acceptance of the efficacy of penance; this came later with the appearance of the Romani. This church had a "Judaising" tendency (109-115) which followed Pelagius in focusing in on the law of Moses and was distinguished by a late adherence to Sabbitarianism. The absence of images of Christ in early cross motifs is a feature of the absence of a developed Christology.

There is a case for re-opening the question of Pelagianism in late-antique Britain and Ireland; not all historians would go so far as Gerald Bonner in seeing a lack of evidence for an evangelical element in Pelagianism. Nonetheless, I feel this book winds up rehearsing, albeit from some new angles, a number of old chestnuts. The first of these is that what most made the early British and Irish churches distinctive was an early period of isolation, during which unorthodox or heterodox teachings could flourish. The second is that statements of orthodoxy by "Celtic" churchmen can be read as essentially self-justificatory statements in the face of accusations of heterodoxy. The third is that claims of Pelagian outbreaks in Britain and Ireland from later in the first millennium can be taken to indicate that the theology of the British (or maybe Irish) expatriate Pelagius was really representative of a wide-spread pattern of belief in his homeland.

None of these views is advanced uncritically, but the problem is that the historical model of theological development that Herren presents inevitably stretches the available evidence. Herren himself says, for example: "Given the small body of texts that survives from the period of the common Celtic Church, it is difficult to establish with certainty the point at which Christ's resurrection, as well as his other miracles, came to the foreground in either Britain and Ireland. There is no question of their ever having been categorically denied; rather it is a matter of their not being openly promulgated in works of a didactic character" (138). I simply would struggle to identify any such putative shift of emphasis in Insular theology from citation indices based on such a tiny sample. The evidence for when "Christ's resurrection is accorded full recognition" is seen in the commentary on Mark by "Pseudo-Jerome", a mid-seventh century work. I happen to agree with Herren and Bischoff that the commentary is likely to be an Irish work, but its use here to identify a turning-point in Irish theology may require a more detailed refutation of the case against an Irish provenance. A further problem with the thesis of Herren and Brown is that the temptation to see penance as an improving, rather than correcting, discipline is a perennial one, and need not arise from a direct continuation of Pelagius's doctrines into later monasticism. Both Judaising and the error that is known as "semi-Pelagianism" can be held to be inherent in monastic theology; any reader of 1 Corinthians or Romans is aware of the issues that Christianity raised concerning the dietary prescriptions of the Old Testament; these were a continuing basis of debate in early monastic theology. The continued use of Cassian as a source for monastic rules and penitentials would probably account for many such "Pelagian" strains as Herren and Brown trace in this connection. The problem throughout is that much of what is seen as specifically "Pelagian" in Insular theology could, without the prior assumption of a Pelagian Christology, be often explained in other terms.

In this respect, readers need to be aware that Herren and Brown in this book take this argument into paths down which most other scholars would probably not care to follow--especially in their identification of an Arian element (51-2) in Insular Pelagianism. But this is not to say that the book itself is not an important and challenging contribution. All the way through the unfolding of this controversial thesis there is much to enjoy. It is refreshing to find an authority on medieval Latin who is happy to accept that Faustus, Augustinius Hibernicus and "Pseudo-Jerome" are likely to be Insular in origin, not on nationalistic grounds, but on the basis of scholarly reasons for believing that they were. Similarly I have no problem in envisaging a sub-Roman Latin culture in Britain that might not only have produced a world-famous theologian, but which might have nurtured less famous "semi-Pelagian" theologians. A discussion of common theological ideas in the British and Irish churches is a counterbalance to slavish definitions debates concerning the invalidity of the "Celtic" word. Herren's contribution in particular is a magisterial survey by a scholar who has made a lifetime's study of Celtic monastic culture. There is a wealth of critical and trenchant comment here upon primary source evidence which should be more widely used in discussions of Celtic Christianity and which conveniently edited and translated in this volume.

The final two chapters of the book, though they ostensibly develop themes identified in the first section of the book, really form a study in their own right. In this section Shirley Ann Brown stresses the relative absence of developed imagery of Christ from Celtic Britain and Ireland before the mid-seventh century and ascribes this absence to Pelagian strictures against excess--though the absence of so much other cultural evidence for the same period would surely suggest more general causes, and again here one can't help feeling here that absence of evidence is being taken as evidence of absence. Nonetheless, there are some interesting reflections on Christ as the "ideal monk" (236-243) and on such imagery in the Book of Kells that is particularly exemplary of monastic themes (244-250).

In conclusion, one must be grateful that, in a field in which books aimed at an academic audience are increasingly rare, Michael Herren and Shirley Ann Brown have produced such a substantial, research-centered, volume. It is sincerely to be hoped that concern over the obtrusive Pelagian thesis, or pedantic criticism over its use of the phrase "Celtic Church", do not see this book neglected for its many potential contributions to debates concerning Insular theology. For all its slightly glib references to "Professor John Cleese" (x) et al. this is fundamentally a serious monograph for advanced students and educated enthusiasts. The authors state their desire to write in a "reader friendly style" (xii). The readers in their "friendly" sights must be comfortable with aphorisms and tags quoted exclusively in Latin (see e.g. 3). This is probably just as well, for though there is much of outstanding interest in this book for the study of the early Insular churches, the overarching thesis of this book is contentious in ways that may not be obvious to the uninitiated--who should read this book in the light of the studies of Gerald Bonner, on Pelagius, and Thomas O'Loughlin, on early Irish theology, to gain a clear view of its challenges to the orthodoxy of the subject. The assertion of a Pelagian model for late-Antique Britain, like the famous earlier attempt by Myres, may run the risk of only making historians hyper-sceptical as to the impact of Pelagian doctrines in Britain. But if one at times regrets that the authors might not have advanced their case a little more cautiously, one can't but enjoy reading this wide-ranging and learned study.