17.05.11, Flechner and Ní Mhaonaigh, eds., The Introduction of Christianity into the Early Medieval Insular World

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Alban Gautier

The Medieval Review 17.05.11

Flechner, Roy, and Máire Ní Mhaonaigh . The Introduction of Christianity into the Early Medieval Insular World: Converting the Isles I. Cultural Encounters in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, 19. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. 510. ISBN: 978-2-503-55462-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Alban Gautier
Université du Littoral Côte d'Opale (Boulogne-sur-Mer, France)

This book is the first in a series of two volumes representing the proceedings of several events (conferences, lectures, seminars) organized between 2011 and 2014 by the "Converting the Isles" network (University of Cambridge and University College, Dublin) supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. It means that the coherence and relevance of the 22 contributions included in this volume should be assessed while keeping in mind the fact that a companion volume is due in the near future. Tantalizing announcements are made here and there about papers to be published in the forthcoming book, and one has to be patient. It should also be stressed that the title of the book is somewhat misleading. On the one hand the "Isles" refer not only to Britain, Ireland and the smaller islands around them, but also to Scandinavia and the islands of the northern Atlantic Ocean. On the other hand, the phrase "introduction of Christianity" is a misnomer, qualified by mention of the "Early Middle Ages": of course, Christianity was already present in the Isles (particularly in Western Britain, as made clear by all papers concerning that area) under late Roman rule. But once the reader has understood that the papers concern the spread of Christianity and its adoption and adaptation in Britain, Ireland, mainland Scandinavia and Iceland, from the fifth to the twelfth century (depending on the regions), the book makes very rewarding reading.

After a short introduction, Chris Wickham's opening paper (13-37) contains a very thoughtful reflection on comparative methods in history. He stresses the importance of anthropological literature for the study of conversion, but warns us against hasty enthusiasms. Modern anthropology provides its readers with "thicker" descriptions than any medieval source: it concerns societies where conversion to Christianity often went hand in hand with colonization and a perceived "modernization," and where the cultural distance between missionaries and converts was much more important than in early medieval northwestern Europe. He also advocates a prudent and progressive approach to the question of change. Conversion did not change everything at once in convert societies, and different rhythms and intensities of change can (and should) be identified: for example, rapid change for public rituals, slow and halting change for burial practices, little change for "the traditional values that are most crucial to the reproduction of the society (and its hierarchy)" (33). Wickham's paper finds an echo in the one contribution which does not concern the early Middle Ages, and which is included for the sake of comparison: Tomas Sundnes Drønen's paper on missions to modern Africa (209-21). The author stresses the fact that aspects which seem very marginal to the missionary can be crucial for the converts: the fact that a Mr Fløttum--a Norwegian protestant minister in Cameroon in the 1930s--was able to carry people and goods in his truck was both instrumental in their conversion and central in their memory of the event. Here is a very good reminder for medievalists of the one-sidedness of most of our sources!

The book is divided into five thematic sections, each containing three to five contributions, and I will not be able to describe in great detail the rich contents of all articles. Section I, "The Historiography of Conversion," consists of four useful state-of-the-art reports on four regions: Ireland by Roy Flechner (41-59); Anglo-Saxon England by Thomas Pickles (61-91); Wales by Nancy Edwards (93-107); Scandinavia by Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide (109-32). Some questions recur in all these contributions, outlining older and current debates, some of them addressed again in the other sections: the relative importance of archaeology and written sources; the validity of archaeological interpretations of conversion; its top-down or bottom-up nature; its characterization as acculturation or as integration; and the exact place of religion within a larger cultural "package."

Section II, "Missions," includes three articles along with the paper on Cameroon in the mid-twentieth century. Ian Wood (135-56) continues earlier reflections on Christian missions over a wide geography and chronology, with a more specific interest in the size of missionary groups: he stresses the fact that great variety in that respect (from dozens of clerics to tiny enterprises by two or three individuals) makes it impossible to put all undertakings in the same basket. James Palmer's paper on martyrdom and missionaries in the late Merovingian period (157-80) shows that people like Boniface had been nourished with stories of apostolic missionary martyrs like St Denis or St Benignus, and chose to conform to the role models they provided: the "missionary turn" of the eighth century was deeply rooted in ideas already present in Frankia since the sixth century. Colmán Etchingham (181-207) returns to the protracted debate on Palladius and Patrick, and reminds us that there must have been several other unnamed transmitters of Christianity in the long fifth century: the agents and the stages of the conversion of Ireland remain blurred for the historian.

Section III, "Perceptions of Conversion," appears less coherent than the other ones, even if the papers echo one another in several respects. Alex Woolf (225-36) explores the fortunes of the Latin word plebs in Brittonic areas, both continental and insular: its use for naming local Christian communities goes back to Late Antique usage. Barbara Yorke (237-57) gives a nuanced overview of the transition from paganism to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England, echoing Wickham's opening paper: the replacement of one religious system by another must be studied in its varied temporalities. Thomas Charles-Edwards (259-78) looks at the writings of three major authors of the period--Patrick, Gildas and Gregory the Great--and at their conceptions of "pagans." He claims that changes in the use of Latin vocabulary from Patrick (fifth century) to Gregory (late sixth century) reflect profound changes in world view: for Patrick, a gens was essentially a non-Roman and non-Christian population, as opposed to a Roman/Christian populus or plebs; for Gregory, there were many gentes, some of them pagan, others Christian, and the Romans were one of them.

Section IV, "Society and Economy," is doubtless the most original and most challenging section of the book, and arguably the best one. Its five articles explore the relationship between religious and economic change, trying to avoid chicken-and-egg arguments. Martin Carver (305-20) provides prime information on two recently excavated sites in Pictland, Portmahomack and Rhynie. Orri Véstéinsson (321-47) uses an original methodology in order to question the "cost" of change: in a situation of conversion, groups and individuals will adopt new ways if they are not too "costly" for their perceived security and prosperity; in other words, the greater the cost, the slower the change. The seemingly rapid shift of funerary spaces in Iceland in the course of the conversion period could be interpreted as a sign of the low cost, or even the benefits, of that particular change: disposing of corpses in communal cemeteries close to settlements may have been seen as more efficient (against the dangerous dead, against the perils of nature, etc.) than earlier pagan practice. Still, one should stress the fact that his thought-provoking reflections are based on a very limited number of burials. Gabor Thomas's article (349-76) builds on the example of a monastic site excavated in Lyminge (Kent). The long eighth century is both the "golden age" of English monasticism and a time of profound agricultural transformation: how much are the two connected? Rory Naismith (281-304) gives a superb synthesis on a difficult and surprising subject: the often (but not always) observed correlation between the introduction of Christianity and the development of coinage. These two phenomena seem to have been roughly concomitant in England and in parts of Scandinavia (but not in Western Britain), and in many ways reinforced each other, sometimes along with the power of kings and urbanization. This brings us to the question of the Western (or Latin, or Christian) "civilization package," of which religion could have been only one aspect. It is addressed even more directly in the last article of this section, which is in fact a dialogue between Wendy Davies and Roy Flechner, mainly concentrating on Ireland and "Celtic" Britain, with a very telling title: "Conversion to Christianity and Economic Change: Consequence or Coincidence?" (377-96). The authors emphasize the problems encountered by historians, beginning with the fact that we know very little about the economy of those regions before Christianity became dominant. It seems that conversion had an impact in three areas: the accumulation of landed wealth by religious houses; an intensification in the exploitation of resources (through watermills, fish-weirs, etc.); and growing volumes of exchanges goods over longer distances. But were those changes brought about as a side effect of conversion and clericalization, or did the clergy have an "economic agenda" of sorts? The authors admit that the existing sources make it very difficult to answer the question, even if they incline to think that if the Church took part in change, it did not necessarily frame it.

Section V, "Saints and Hagiography," contains three papers concerned with narratives about saintly figures. Alan Thacker (399-429) reopens the case of the successive and related versions of the Life of St Cuthbert, and thinks that the earlier anonymous Life and the later versions by Bede reflect rival claims to the memory of the saint within the complex monastic and clerical community of Lindisfarne. Barry Lewis (431-56) shows that in hagiographical narratives of miraculous conversion from Wales and Brittany (as in the Life of St Samson, or stories about St Germanus), the saints are not concerned with preaching the Gospel to pagans, but aim to improve the moral and religious life of already baptized groups and individuals. This is perfectly normal for British elites, who represented their own history as essentially Christian, with a strong continuity between Roman and medieval times; it is also consonant with a deeply entrenched (and internalized) vision of the Britons as "bad Christians." Finally, Siân Grønlie (457-82) concentrates on "Viking hagiography," that is, twelfth- and thirteenth-century Icelandic narratives of paradoxical quasi-sainthood. In sagas and related literature, the people who contribute to the conversion of the island do not conform to the ideal portrait of the missionary: Óláfr Tryggvason, Þorvalrd or Þangbrandr are all described as violent and even debauched, and yet they are put forward as "apostles" of Iceland. For the author, this is the sign that the Icelanders were not comfortable with classic European narratives of sainthood because they did not conform with their own traditional forms of oral description of heroism. The result is a series of hybrid, ambivalent figures.

In conclusion, this is a rich, varied and well-designed volume, which stresses the necessity of fine distinctions between different regions, temporalities and aspects in the study of the process of conversion. We can only look forward to the publication of its forthcoming companion.

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