Saturday 9 May 2020

Kingship, Society and Church

I tried to stop her. I really did, but the Estimable Mrs P., when she gets an idea, is an unstoppable force. I mentioned a few weeks ago the new, non-wargaming history project I have conceived revolving around the Norman Conquest and the creation of the Domesday Book. And the said Estimable Mrs P. purchased for me, at eye-watering academic book price the following weighty tome:

Pickles, T. (2018) Kingship, Society, and the Church in Anglo-Saxon Yorkshire, Oxford, OUP.

You might object, as I did, that the book covers nothing about the north of England post-1066. The Estimable Mrs P. is canny enough, and a good enough historian, to disregard my objections and buy it for me, as reduced but still exorbitant cost.

One of the things that is true is that if you start off studying one bit of history, you soon start looking at another period, the one just before. Thus English Civil War studies inevitably lead to studies of the 1620’s, and hence to the ‘Golden Age’ of Elizabeth I. Similarly, studies of the Roman Empire leads back to the Republic, and hence to Ancient Greece. History is annoyingly continuous, and hence you land up placing yourself on a continuous spectrum, rather than a discrete age or period.

Anyway, Pickles’ tome is about what we know and how we can know about the ‘Saxon’ period in medieval history. On a side note, the term ‘medieval’ seems to have shifted since I was a lad. Then, it meant 1066 – 1485. Now it means the fall of the Roman Empire in the West to whenever we deem the Early Modern Period to have sprung into life. The bit before 1066 was called the Dark Ages (satirised on a Usenet group I used to read as ‘The Age of Insufficient Light’), when no-one knew what was going on.

Still, history and historiography move on. Texts are re-analysed for what they might tell us, and archaeology throws some sorts of light on peoples and their thinking. As interdisciplinary studies start to gain a bit of traction in the academy (the academy has been talking about them since the 1980s to my certain knowledge), we get studies like Pickles’. Text, such as Bede’s History, assorted lives of saints and so on, can be melded to archaeology of various different sorts (these days, you do not need to actually dig anything up if you do not wish to) to obtain an idea, of sorts, as to what was going on.

Here, the focus is on the Kingdoms of Deira (roughly, probably, from the Humber to the Tees) with side orders of Northumberland, Elmet, Bernicia (Northumberland before Northumberland), Rheged, and a few places even more exotically further afield, such as Kent. One of the things to be remembered, of course, is that while communications could be slower than today (although anyone waiting for a Microsoft Software Update might wonder about that) Britain was not isolated from the rest of Europe, Ireland or anywhere else people went to. It is only a recent spate of ‘Little Englanders’ who think that it was.

Anyway, proto-rant aside, what interests Pickles is how these post-Roman political entities worked in terms of kingship and nobility, and how Christianity came to spread among them until it was the only game in town. His argument, roughly, so far as I can tell (this is, note, the second book I’ve read on the subject – an amateur would be streets ahead of me) is that social groups found Christianity would fit among their contemporary beliefs and that it had some social advantages. The Roman Empire has, of course, permitted the spread of the faith – if you build roads then ideas will travel along them in a similar way to today’s ideas, both good and bad, travelling via Internet – but successive waves of ‘invaders’, whether they were invited as soldiers, came as pillagers, or somewhere in between, pushed Christianity across the country, broadly speaking westward.

This is a complex and largely unknown process, but due to internal politics in some of the polities, among elite families where succession to the kingship was uncertain (primogenitor had not really been invented and, even if it had, early death and infant heirs would have created problems), a fair number of noble people spent some time abroad, in the more Christian western areas. When they returned they brought these strange ideas with them and some saw the ideas as an opportunity. Hence a ‘Ecclesiastical Aristocracy’ (Pickles’ term) was born in the second generation as families realised that control of some of the key church foundations would give them enhanced social standing and, possibly, control of land gifted to the monasteries.

Hence you get ‘second generation’ Christian leaders, the most obvious of whom was St Hild of Whitby, and also conflict between the missionaries from Ireland and Scotland, and those from Rome via the south of England, the dynasties of which intermarried with the northern kingdoms. These sorts of conflicts were political in nature – if your foe favoured the Celts, then you invited the Romans. Politics was not then, and is not now a zero-sum game –choices are rational.

Anyway, this is a very good book, even for a less than amateur historian of the period, and it has solved some of the mysteries of the north, such as whether and why there was a minster model of church growth, and what happened to the original monasteries such as Whitby, Hartlepool and Lastingham. In fact, the discussion of why these places landed up where they did is fascinating in itself, and rather refutes the idea that ‘the church should keep out of politics’.

Of course, the book asks as many questions as it answers. I am finding that I have to write a glossary of terms as I go along, even looking some of them up in online dictionaries for definitions, although my translation of the Domesday Book itself has a very useful glossary to boot. And so, finally, I leave you with the question: ‘what is soke?’

No comments:

Post a Comment