Sunday, 14 April 2013

in The Catholic Herald, April 12, 2013

The Anglo-Saxon bishop who fought slave masters

Time's Anvil, by Richard Norris, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £25
by Patrick West

As every schoolboy knows, St Patrick became apostle of Ireland after having been kidnapped by pirates. What they don’t teach you in school is that the Irish had a fearsome reputation for piracy in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages – and most slaves in Europe in those times were Romano-British or Anglo-Saxon. 

The tale of Pope Gregory being stirred to send a mission to England, after seeing English boys for sale in a Roman market, is probably legend. But in 595 Gregory did write to his agent in Gaul asking that income from papal estates be used to purchase Anglo-Saxon boys, then to be placed in monasteries. Still five centuries later, the last Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Worcester, Wulfstan (1062-95), confronted shipmasters at Bristol to protest against the export of English boys and girls to Ireland. 

So, to invert that silly phrase from The Commitments, it was the English who were once “the blacks of Europe”, exploited by the Irish. I don’t expect the Taoiseach to apologise to the English people for this “deeply traumatic” episode, but being half-Irish I have already apologised to myself profusely.

The truth is that most cultures have practised slavery. In Wulfstan’s time it wasn’t considered immoral, which made his stance against slave merchants particularly brave. Like the new Pope, Wulfstan was a robust figure who spoke up for the poor and washed their feet in public. Such was his authority that he was the only Anglo-Saxon bishop not removed after the Norman Conquest. If Pope Francis is a first, Wulfstan was the last of his kind.

History is a messy affair. Later it was the English who, after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, transported hundreds of Scottish prisoners to Virginia and sold them as slaves. Yet, under one flag, the English and the Scots together became among the first European powers to abolish the slave trade. And it was Britain that later let Ireland starve in the 1840s. History has no good guys and bad guys.

If all of this doesn’t sound much to do with archaeology, that’s because Time’s Anvil’s subtitle, England, Archaeology and The Imagination, is deceptive, as the work is part-history, part-archeology, part-autobiography. Morris is avowedly multi-disciplinary, in that he believes the classification of the past into different areas, and indeed the past into separate epochs, has been to the detriment of all. This approach is this book’s strength and its failing.

Although most well-read Catholics will have heard of the Lollards, many don’t believe that England in the Middle Ages was inherently destined to become Protestant. England was renowned as a Marian country, and the Province of Maryland was later established as a haven for Catholics. Yet we read here that in the spring of 1303, the Bishop of London reprimanded the people of Barking for dancing, wrestling and holding athletic contests in the church’s courtyard, and in the parish and abbey churches. It seems a Protestant mindset was already in place. Up until the late Middle Ages, it was common to have in churches devotional dramas on biblical subjects, the lives of saints and miracles of the Virgin. Dancing in circles conducted by one person in the centre – from where we get the word “ring-leader” – was also popular. Prohibitions on all these activities well predated the Reformation. 

Protestants disapproved of athletics in sacred areas because of its association with gambling. It didn’t help that such activities reflected the popular cult of saints. As such, gaming often took place on public holy days. Thus, Morris writes, “by cutting the link between games and God, the Reformation outlawed things which had previously been at the heart of the community ... religion and recreation, the spiritual and the carnal, life and death, things which nowadays are normally considered separately or as opposites were until the Reformation aspects of each other”.

Morris suggests that separating things into categories is lamentable in all aspects of life. I’m not so sure. Parts of Time’s Anvil are certainly fascinating. The Neanderthals arrived in Eurasia 500,000 years ago and settled in a space of land from the Atlantic to modern-day Uzbekistan. 

Homo Sapiens followed into Europe only in around 43,000 BC, and as soon as 30,000BC the Neanderthals had disappeared. The fate of the Neanderthals remains a tale of “fascination tinged by alarm, a pang of horror, even pity”.
Elsewhere, we learn that cathedrals were only built over centuries when there was political disruption or irregular funding. They weren’t inherently badly designed, as popular myth has it. The cathedral begun in Canterbury by Archbishop Lanfranc in 1070 took only seven years from start to finish – faster than the planning decision for Heathrow Terminal 5. By 1875 Birmingham was making over 10 thousand billion nails a year. 

While all of this is intriguing, one is left with the nagging impression: what is this meandering book actually about? “The hankering after framework is fairly recent.” No, it isn’t. Like music and language, placing things into categories is a universal human instinct. A totem pole, a ying-yang symbol and a layout of a supermarket are manifestations of this. Most people are also aware of the fluidity of categories. History students don’t think the Industrial Revolution was launched on January 1, 1760 and was completed on the last day of 1840. Yet thanks to the belief that teaching history by era is “dogmatic”, many school children today think Shakespeare and Dickens were contemporaries. History is indeed messy and fascinating, and so is this book.

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