aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Dropping the other scoh

Those who have read any of my posts in various media on the early English church may think me besotted with a fantasy: a never-never land where everybody did everything right. So let me write just a little bit about the darker side of Anglo-Saxon history, including the church. The Seventh and Eighth Centuries were, ecclesiastically speaking, a wonderful moment in time. The conversion of the English is still a model for how peoples should be won to Christ. And the church did blossom and show forth great fruit. The English church was renowned across Europe for its achievements.

Two things, though, changed English society considerably in the Anglo-Saxon period, one from within and one from without. The first great stressor on the Anglo-Saxons came from the outside: the Vikings, and later, the Danes. The Vikings hit just before the turn of the Ninth Century, beginning with the sack of Lindisfarne in 793. Eventually, they conquered half the English kingdoms and threatened the rest. They were halted by Alfred the Great at the Battle of Edington in 878. Thereafter, the slow and difficult process of re-integrating the Norse kingdoms into English society (and with it, the unification of England) was first achieved by Alfred's grandson Athelstan. The integration and unification were only fully achieved under Edgar the Peaceable (d. 975). So, a painful but productive hundred years.

The integration of Norse and English didn't last. The Danes under Sweyn Forkbeard invaded and finally conquered the country in 1016. Sweyn's son Knut ruled England along with Denmark and Norway for a generation. The Danes' victory was helped along by the viciousness and incompetence of the English kings of the time (of which, see more below). After Knut's death, his sons ruled for a few years. Finally, Edward the Confessor was invited back in 1042 to England to re-establish the line of West Saxon kings. After his death in 1066, we got the Normans, who changed the ruling elites of government and church wholesale.

But there was more going on that merely the struggle back and forth with the Scandinavians. For all its legitimate accomplishments, the Church brought to the English -- as it also did to the Franks -- a different model of kingship. Not all the kings of the Germanic north were attracted to the Christian faith just for the good of their souls. The Church tried to "civilize" the barbarians by introducing Roman models of government, including written law codes. Well, so far, so good. But the Roman idea of kingship was modeled on the idea of imperium. A Roman ruler was not restrained by folk custom the way Germanic kings were. Furthermore, after Constantine, a Roman ruler -- an emperor -- was a sacred figure. To contradict him was to contradict God.

The early Christian kings of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy didn't display too much of this stuff, but Charlemagne showed the rest of northern Europe how it could be done. After that, English kings looked on pagan Norsemen and Danes as not like how they used to be, but simply as the Other. And the English kings began to practice all kinds of high-handed and violent practices they thought were their right. Political murders, torture, and oath-breaking became common between Edgar and Knut. The Church often looked the other way.

Knut, for all that he was a Dane, ruled as an English king. The final demolition of the English/Germanic model of kingship came under William the Conqueror. His invasion was blessed by the Pope and covered itself in a borrowed sanctity. And he intended to rule absolutely, as none of his predecessors on the throne ever had before.

So yes, there are some ugly things in the story of Anglo-Saxon England and the early English church. Let's be honest about them. But none of that obscures the dazzling achievements of the early days of the conversion and first fruits of the movement. And many of the early trends in the Old English church that they were known for in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries continued on and were typical of the English Church even down to us Methodists, though not all the history in between is as glorious.

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