The Geography of Early Christian Ireland and England

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     For nearly four centuries, Britain was Roman Britannia.  This period of imperial rule was a largely peaceful and prosperous time.  It was also a period of the Christianization of the island.  Or, that is, that part under direct Roman rule.  The lands to the north beyond Hadrian’s Wall – known to the Romans as Caledonia – would not become Christian Scotland for another two centuries.  Our knowledge of the how of this christianization is sketchy at best:  the presence of British bishops at ecclesiastical councils in Gaul and elsewhere on the continent, the development of a martyr’s cult at Verulamium (St Albans), archaeological remains and suggestive place-names.  But that Britannia became as Christian as Gaul or Hispania or any of the other lands within the Roman Empire is certain.  Sub-Roman Britannia – the two centuries from the final departure of Roman legionary forces in the early fifth century – is a historiographical dark age.  But, with the development of the English kingdoms from the closing years of the sixth century onwards, historical records return and they speak solely of the inhabitants of Britain as Christian.  There were no residual pagans. Perhaps even more telling of the thoroughness of this British christianization was that Pelagius, the protagonist of the great Augustine of Hippo in the controversy over the role of grace in salvation, was British born.  That the British church, in the final decades of the fourth century, was able to produce a theologian of such sophistication speaks volumes.

     Pelagius may even have been of Irish origin.  Jerome attacks him as ‘a dolt weighed down with Scots porridge’ (Scotus being the early Latin term for an Irishman).  Indeed, there has been considerable scholarly consideration that Pelagianism (the heterodox teachings on grace and salvation as developed by Pelagius and his followers) was particularly indigenous to the British Isles (see Michael Herren, Christ in Celtic Christianity).  How the Irish themselves first became Christian is as dark a historical subject as that of the British, but we do know that in 431 the pope sent a bishop ‘to the Irish believing in Christ’ – evident proof that a substantial Christian community had grown up on the smaller island, presumably as a result of early British visitors, merchants likely.

     Indeed, in these early centuries of Christianity in Ireland, from the fourth into the seventh century, the relationships between the Irish and British churches became so intense and mutually-reinforcing that historians of this period can speak of an Insular Church.  The Irish Sea, rather than a barrier, was a mercantile and cultural highway, with its sea-ways stretching south to southern Gaul and to Visigothic Spain.  It was by these western sea routes that the ascetic values of St Martin of Tours and the encyclopedic writings of St Isidore of Seville and so much more from the accumulated Christian teachings of the Mediterranean world enriched both shores of this inland sea.  The pre-eminent exemplar of this unitary religious culture would, of course, be St Patrick, a Briton, most likely from the West Country, who came to evangelize northern Ireland in the latter half of the fifth century.  The following century, the Irishman Colum Cille (St Columba) returned the compliment by founding a monastery at Iona, an island off the coast of what came to be Scotland, and thereby imparting impetus to the evangelization of the Picts.  Similarly, in the south, the initial influences came from Britain.  Gildas, who so fiercely castigated his fellow Britons in the early sixth-century for their sins and degeneration (in the face of the Germanic settlements encroaching westwards), was, as a reformer, such a revered authority to the early Irish Christians that he was known as Gildas Sapiens (Gildas the Wise).  

     The Angles and Saxons, the Germanic settlers who would turn Britannia into England, came from the continent and penetrated the island from the east, crossing the North Sea and the Channel.  In this, they duplicated the movement, centuries earlier, of the Romans.  Julius Caesar describes for us his punitive incursions across the Channel and landing at Dover; Tacitus provides us with the history of the completion of the conquest of the island begun by the Emperor Claudius, again invading across the Channel.  This too would be the route taken by Augustine of Canterbury (a different St Augustine) when he was sent from Rome by Pope Gregory I to evangelize the English.  Indeed, the English ecclesiastical historian Bede tells us that when Augustine and his accompanying band of fellow monks landed on Thanet (then an island), King Æthelbert of Kent ordered them to remain in place until he had satisfied himself that they were not magicians.  While there would be set-backs in the immediately succeeding decades, this mission from Rome, particularly following the subsequent arrival of Archbishop Theodore in 690, would constitute the southern arm of the great pincer movement of evangelization of the English.   From the north, it was Iona which provided the monks invited by King Oswald to bring Christianity to his great northern English kingdom of Northumbria.  But we must also look westwards, across the Irish Sea.

     As the Angles and the Saxons pushed their encroaching conquests westward, it was the Irish who became the schoolmasters of these nascent Christians, establishing monasteries in the new English kingdoms, as they did throughout the continent.  One of these was on the site of Malmesbury.  From the Irish perspective, the West Country town of Malmesbury, which lies on the Avon River north-east of Bath, is perhaps best known as the site of the untimely death of John Scottus Eriugena.  This ninth-century Irish scholar, the possessor of perhaps the only truly innovative philosophical mind in Western Europe in those long dark centuries between the ending of Late Antiquity and the rise of Scholasticism, pursued his theological and literary career mostly in the West Frankish kingdom of Charles the Bald.  However, according to the twelfth-century English historian William of Malmesbury, Eriugena in his old age was invited by Alfred the Great to teach at the monastery at Malmesbury.  There, his students, perhaps exasperated by the subtlety of his teachings, stabbed him to death with their pens – a fitting, if apocryphal, commentary on the state of English learning of that time.  But it also suggests that, still in the time of William of Malmesbury, his monastery retained a reputation for sophisticated, even cosmopolitan learning sufficient, in William’s mind, to have justified a scholar of Eriugena’s stature accepting such an invitation.

Aldhelm’s England. Map: C. Dempsey

     We find this reputation in this monastery’s Irish origins.  Sometime before the mid-seventh century, the Irish monk Maildubh, most likely from southeast Ireland, perhaps Lismore, and in voluntary exile for the love of God, established a hermitage next to what had been an Iron Age fort, providing it as well with its subsequent name of Malmesbury (Maildubi urbs).  He took in students.  One of these was Aldhelm, kin of the West Saxon royal family.  Born into what was still a largely pagan and illiterate society, Aldhelm would go on to become not just the first of a long succession of English scholars, but one of the most learned men of this time anywhere in the West.  Initially, he owed his scholarship to the Irishman Maildubh.  As the provinces of the Roman Empire in the West declined into barbarian successor kingdoms, Christian Irish scholars had diligently built up an impressive body of knowledge in the fields of Latin grammar, biblical exegesis, and the calculation of the ecclesiastical calendar (a skill known as computus).  The first Western Christians to confront Latin as a learnt language, the Irish were the first to produce grammatical textbooks, and the southern Irish scholars (from Maildubh’s home area) were known as Romani for their devotion to continental ecclesiastical practices.  Both of Maildbuh’s particular attributes – his skill in teaching Latin and his devotion to Rome – proved crucial to Aldhelm as he would go to produce by the time of his death some seventy years later (in 709) a body of work demonstrating broad knowledge of both patristic and classical Latin literature, equally at home with Augustine and Jerome and with Virgil and Lucan.  We can see the route by which this knowledge came to Aldhelm, at least initially, in one of his own letters to an Englishman returning from nearly six years of study in Ireland.  Aldhelm describes his voyage homeward ‘across the blue of the sea and rocky tidal waters into spuming eruptions of fresh water.’  This reads like a description (from Aldhelm’s own experience?) of returning across the Irish Sea to travel up the Bristol Channel to the tidal Severn and on to the fresh water of the Avon.  The seventh-century geography of learning.

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