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18 April 2011
To what extent had Anglo-Saxon lay society become Christianised by c. 700 AD?
'Christianisation' is neither an easy term to define nor a concept that is simple to quantify, especially in the context of a society as culturally and politically heterogeneous as Anglo-Saxon Britain. However, we can look to the three stages of conversion outlined by Ludo Milis for some guidance on the matter. In particular, Milis' conclusion that conversion should culminate with the control of 'internal individual behaviour and consciousness' by religious authorities provides a useful benchmark against which to judge English Christianity of the early eighth century, and perhaps to defend it from those who would label it as little more than a superficial recasting of Saxon paganism. For an examination of the spread of Christianity through the AngloSaxon kingdoms, both before and after the papal mission of 597 and across all ranks of society, tends to support the conclusion that the Christianity of c. 700 was far from being merely a royal or nominal religion, although it may have been almost equally as far, by either modern or contemporary standards, from being perfect. It is worth taking a moment to discuss the primary sources available to us. An obvious danger of a period when the written word was the exclusive purview of the clergy is that the literary evidence left to us is, at best, coloured by a Christian perspective and at worst a conscious effort to propagandise the process of conversion. The most substantial and famous source for the period, Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica, has been criticised by historians, J. Campbell prominent among them, for lacking information (due in part, no doubt, to Bede's relative geographical remoteness at Jarrow) and for withholding it when it was deemed inappropriate by the author. In particular, Campbell points to silence from Bede about the wealth of the early Church, something that the monastic ascetic found embarrassing. Similar criticisms could be levelled against practically every contemporary writer. None of this is to say that the works of Bede, Aldhelm or Egbert are not immensely valuable (perhaps in some cases more is to be inferred from what we are not told by these men than what we are) but we must accept that the extent to which they will expose the failures of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon Britain is limited. This said, the 'dependence on Bede' bemoaned by Campbell has undoubtedly been reduced in the half-century since Stenton's seminal work on the period. Access to nonliterary written evidence such as law codes and charters has done a great deal to broaden our perspective, particularly as it is the nature of laws to define shortcomings in society. Furthermore, and perhaps most crucially, the ever-expanding body of evidence uncovered by archaeologists has made it possible to examine the lives and customs of the ordinary population to an unprecedented degree. Before we come to 700, we must attempt to answer the fundamental question of when the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons was begun. Augustine's Gregorian mission of 597 was undoubtedly the point at which royal households began to adopt Christianity and the institutional Church made its presence felt, but Anglo-Saxons had been familiar with the religion for much longer. Had some conversions taken place earlier than 597, and indeed had they taken place without the force of royal power, then it would be reasonable to assume that the later state of the faith would be stronger, its roots going deeper. Anglo-Saxon rulers had had Christian subjects since their arrival in southern Britain, with at least some British Christian communities surviving the conquest, especially in Northumbria and Wessex. Campbell calls Bede's assertion that British
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