Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood (2005)

Michael Wood

This is Wood’s first book. Back in 1979 he burst onto our TV screens as the boyishly enthusiastic presenter of a BBC series about ‘the Dark Ages’, spread across eight episodes, his hippy length hair and flapping flairs striding along castle walls and over Iron Age forts. I remember chatting to a middle-aged woman TV executive who openly lusted after Wood’s big smile and tight, tight trousers.

Since this debut, Wood has gone on to present no fewer than 19 TV series as well as eight one-off documentaries and to write 12 history books. In fact I was surprised and dismayed to read that the former boy wonder of history TV is now nearly 70.

Dated

The first edition of this paperback was published in 1981 and its datedness is confirmed by the short bibliography at the back which recommends a swathe of texts from the 1970s and even some from the 1960s i.e. 50 long years ago.

The very title is dated, as nowadays all the scholars refer to the period from 400 to 1000 as the Early Middle Ages;’ no-one says ‘Dark Ages’ any more – though, credit where credit’s due, maybe this TV series and book helped shed light on the period for a popular audience which helped along the wider recategorisation.

But the book’s age does mean that you are continually wondering how much of it is still true. Wood is keen on archaeological evidence and almost every chapter features sentences like ‘new archaeological evidence / new digs at XXX are just revealing / promise to reveal major new evidence about Offa/Arthur et al…’ The reader is left wondering just what ‘new evidence’ has revealed over the past 40 years and just how much of Wood’s interpretations still hold up.

Investigations

It’s important to emphasise that the book does not provide a continuous and overarching history of the period: the opposite. The key phrase is ‘in search of…’ for each chapter of the book (just like each of the TV programmes) focuses on one particular iconic figure from the period and goes ‘in search of’ them, starting with their current, often mythologised reputation, then going on to examine the documentary texts, contemporary artifacts (coins, tapestries etc) and archaeological evidence to try and get at ‘the truth behind the myth’.

The figures are: Boadicea, King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo Man, Offa, Alfred the Great, King Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, King Ethelred the Unready, William the Conqueror. Each gets a chapter putting them in the context of their day, assessing the sources and material evidence for what we can really know about them, mentioning the usual anecdotes and clichés generally to dismiss them.

Contemporary comparisons

Part of Wood’s popularising approach is to make trendy comparisons to contemporary figures or situations. Some of this has dated a lot – when he mentions a contemporary satirical cartoon comparing the Prime Minister to Boadicea (or Boudica, as she was actually called) he is of course referring to Margaret Thatcher, not Theresa May. When he says that the late-Roman rulers of Britain effectively declared U.D.I. from the Empire, I just about remember what he’s referring to – Rhodesia’s declaration of independence from Britain back in 1965 – and it’s a thought-provoking comparison – but most readers would probably have to look it up. He says that contemporaries remembered the bad winter of 763 ‘just as we do that of 1947’ – do we? He says the Northumbrians felt about Athelstan’s conquest of their kingdom ‘the same way as we feel about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia’ (p.145).

That said, I found many of the comparisons worked well bringing these ancient people to life, in highlighting how their behaviour is comparable to the same kind of things going on in the contemporary world:

For example, he compares the native British merchants getting involved with Roman traders like entrepreneurs in contemporary Third World countries taking out, for example, a Coca Cola franchise – or compares Boudica’s rebellion against the imperial Romans with rebellions against British Imperial rule – the most disastrous of which was probably the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – invigorating my thinking about both.

In the 440s the British King Vortigern invited warbands from Germany, Frisia and Denmark to come and help him fight against the invading Picts and Scots. As we know, a number of them decided they liked this new fertile country and decided to stay. Wood entertainingly compares the situation to modern mercenaries deciding not just to fight in but to settle and take over a modern African country.

The seventh-century English kingdoms were ruled by the descendants of the illiterate condottieri who had seized their chances in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is, let us say, as if Major ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare had founded his own dynasty in the Congo in the early sixties. (p.63)

I understood the reference the more since Hoare is mentioned in the memoirs of both Frederick Forsyth and Don McCullin who covered wars in Africa back in the distant 1960s.

Elsewhere he compares the builders of Offa’s Dyke to modern motorway construction companies, kingly announcements as sounding like modern propaganda by Third World dictators, the lingering influence of Rome on the 7th and 8th century kings comparable to the lingering afterglow of European imperial trappings on African dictators like Idi Amin or Jean-Bédel Bokassa. He compares the partition of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings to the partition of Israel, and the readiness of armed civilians to mobilise against the invader as comparable to the readiness of Israeli reservists (p.124); the burning of Ripon Minster by the southern army of King Eardred marching north to confront Erik Bloodaxe ‘had the same effect that the shelling of Reims had in 1914 (p.181).

Learning that King Athelstan was the first king to definitively rule the entire English nation and in fact to extend his mastery over Wales and Scotland, you might think ‘game over’, it’s all peaceful from now on, but far from it. The decades after Athelstan’s death in 939 saw the ravaging of the north of England by conflicting hordes of Saxons, Vikings, Northumbrians, Scots and Welsh, until it became a kind of ‘Dark Age Vietnam’, despoiled by the Dark Age equivalent of our modern ‘saturation bombing’ (p.165).

Quibbles and kings

Pedants might quibble that Boudicca’s rebellion against the Romans took place in 60AD, quite a long time before the official start date of the Dark Ages/Early Middle Ages, which is generally given as 400. But I can see the logic: a) Boudicca is more or less the first named leader of the Britons that history records and b) the themes of Roman colonialism and British resistance and c) the broader themes of invasion and resistance are set up very neatly by her story. In fact, given that a lot of the book is about invasion and resistance, leaving her out would have been odd.

For invasion is the main theme: the Romans arrived to find the native ‘Britons’ illiterate and so it’s only with the Romans that the written record begins, although archaeology suggests that successive waves of peoples had arrived and spread over Britain before them. But after the Romans there is a well-recorded set of invaders:

  • First the Angles and Saxons under their legendary leaders Hengist and Horsa in the 450s; the legend of King Arthur grew out of stories of native ‘British’ resistance to the Germanic invaders in the late 400s and Wood, like every other serious historian, concludes that there is not a shred of evidence for Arthur’s actual historical existence.
  • It is from the period when the Anglo-Saxon invaders settled into different ‘kingdoms’ – in fact themselves made up of loosely affiliated tribal groups – that dates the stupendous grave at Sutton Hoo with its wonderful Dark Age treasure: Wood goes ‘in search’ of the king who was buried there but, like every other scholar, says we will probably never know, though the name of King Raedwald of the East Angles is most often referred to in the scholarly literature.
  • King Offa of Mercia (757-797) was the most powerful king of his day – he was even deemed worthy of correspondence from the great Charlemagne, king of Francia (768-814) and Wood goes in search of his royal ‘palace’ at Tamworth.
  • It was King Alfred the Great (871-899) who had to deal with the arrival of a massive Viking army and, although pushed back into the marshy maze of the Somerset Levels, eventually emerged to fight the invaders to a truce, in which the Danes held all of England east of a line drawn from London to the Mersey – the so-called Danelaw.
  • It fell to his son, Edward, to successfully continue the fight against the Danes, and it was only in the reign of his son, King Athelstan (927-939) that all of England was for the first time unified under one ruler.
  • In fact, the Danes fought back and the Norse adventurer Eric Haraldsson, nicknamed Eric Bloodaxe, briefly seized and ruled Yorkshire from York. When he was finally overthrown (in 954), that was meant to be the end of Danish rule in England…
  • Except that the Danish King Cnut managed, after a long campaign led by his father, to seize the English throne in 1016 and reigned till his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his son Harthacnut, an unpopular tyrant who reigned for just two years (1040-42). During Cnut’s reign England became part of his North Sea Empire which joined the thrones of Denmark and Sweden.
  • Cnut’s Anglo-Danish kingdom is generally forgotten because it, like a lot of Anglo-Saxon history, is eclipsed by the Norman Conquest of 1066, with which Wood logically concludes his story.

Brutality

Though he conveys infectious excitement at the achievement of an Offa or Athelstan, Wood is well aware of the brutality which was required of a Dark Ages king.

For most Dark Age kings had the inclinations of spoilt children and their moral sense was unrefined. (p.221)

We learn that after Offa’s death the men of Kent rose up against Mercian rule and were crushed, their king, Eadberht Praen, taken in chains to Mercia where his hands were cut off and he was blinded (p.107). The Vikings practiced a ritual sacrifice of their fallen opponents to Wodin, the blood eagle, which involved cutting the ribs and lungs out of the living man and arranging them to look like eagle’s wings (p.114). The great Athelstan himself barely survived an attempt apparently organised by  his brother, Edwin, to capture and blind him (p.140). When the invading Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014, his army elected  his son, Cnut, as king to replace him. Ethelred took advantage of the hiatus to raise levies and attack Cnut in Gainsborough, forcing him to go to sea. But the Danes had taken a number of nobles or their sons hostage for good behaviour, and Cnut put them all ashore at Sandwich, after cutting off their noses and hands (p.216).

Ravaging not fighting

There was no shortage of battles during this period (the thousand years from Boudicca’s revolt in 60 to Hastings in 1066) but what I began to realise was the steady drip-drip of ‘campaigns’ which never involved two armies directly confronting each other; instead during which one or more armies rampaged through their opponents’ territory, murdering, raping, destroying crops and burning down villages, in order to terrorise their opponents into ceasing fire and offering a truce. The Romans, the Britons, the Saxons, the Welsh, the Scots and the Picts and the Irish, the Vikings, the Danes and the Normans – all in their time waged ‘military’ campaigns which amounted to little more than systematic murder, rape and plunder of completely unarmed peasants as a deliberate war strategy.

I’ve always wondered why there’s a massive statue of Boudicca opposite the Houses of Parliament given that one of her main achievements was burning London to the ground, after previously ravaging all Roman settlements in her native East Anglia; and a thousand years later William the Bastard, having defeated the main Wessex army at Senlac Ridge, then set about ravaging the countryside in a wide circle to the west and up and around London – then when the English in the north resisted him, William went on a massive campaign of destruction known as the Harrying of the North (1069-70) resulting in huge destruction and widespread famine caused by his army’s looting, burning and slaughtering.

From Boadicea to the Bastard, a thousand years of horrific violence and destruction.

As David Carpenter points out in his history of the Plantagenet kings, direct confrontation in battle is risky; quite often the bigger better-led force loses, for all sorts of reasons. Hugely more controllable, predictable and effective is to ravage your opponents’ land until he sues for peace. You lose no soldiers; in fact the soldiers get all the food they want plus the perks of raping and/or killing helpless civilians, which saves on pay as well; if you do it long enough your opponent will cave in the end.

This is the depressing logic which means that, time after time, king after king and invader after invader found it cheaper, safer and more effective to kill and burn helpless civilians than to engage in a set piece battle. And it is a logic which continues to this day in horribly war-torn parts of the world.

Slavery

I’m well aware that slavery was one of the great trades of this era, that slaves were one of Roman Britain’s main exports and were still a mainstay of the economy even after William the Bastard tried to ban the trade a thousand years later, but Wood himself admits to being astonished by the range of breadth of the Dark Age slave trade (pp. 183-185):

  • The Spanish Arabs engaged in a lucrative slave trade with the Dublin Norse who often planned their attacks on Christian towns to coincide with Christian festivals when they’d be packed e.g. the raid on Kells in 951 in which the Norse took away over 3,000 slaves to sell on.
  • The Church in Britain was economically dependent on its slaves.
  • The Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland served as clearing houses for slaves seized from the interior or Wales or England and then sold on to Arab Spain, to North Africa or via the Baltic via the Russian river routes to the Islamic states of the Middle East.
  • An Arab traveller of Erik Bloodaxe’s time (the 950s) reported from Spain on the great numbers of European slaves in the harems and in the militia. The Emir of Cordoba, in particular, owned many white women.
  • Most British slaves seem to have ended up being sent via the Russian river route to the Middle East. The numerous Icelandic sagas mention the slave trade and even give portraits of individual named slave impresarios.
  • The Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (962 – 973) captured tens of thousands of Slavs in his conquests eastwards, sending them in chains back to be processed by Jewish and Syrian slave merchants in Verdun, and then shipped south into Arab lands, many of them castrated first so as to be fit servants in the harem.
  • An eighth-century pilgrim in Taranto saw nine thousand Italian slaves being loaded aboard boat, just one of countless shipments to Egypt.

Almost everything about the Dark Ages is terrifying, the never-ending warfare, the endless ravaging burning and looting, but I think the vision of an entire continent dominated by the trade in slaves is the most harrowing thing of all.

The inheritance of Rome

Chris Wickham’s book, The Inheritance of Rome (2009), makes the claim that only in recent times have we come to realise the extent to which the legacy of Rome lived on for centuries after the end of the Roman Empire in the West (traditionally dated to the death of the last emperor in 475). So it’s interesting to read Wood making exactly the same point in 1980:

For the so-called barbarians of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Roman empire cast the same sort of afterglow as the British Empire did in post-colonial Africa… The ruins of Rome stood around them in tangible form, of course. But it went deeper than that. The Northumbrian bretwalda, Edwin, unsophisticated but immensely proud, as Bede portrays him, made the point of having the insignia of Roman office carried aloft before him in public. He was baptised by a Roman missionary in the Roman city of York, and for all we know held court in the still standing Roman HQ building there. Such men were setting themselves up as civilised heirs of Rome… (p.108)

Conclusion

All in all this is a popularising and accessible account, dipping into the most dramatic highlights of this long period, a quick entertaining read, with many stimulating thoughts, insights and comparisons thrown in.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

Early Medieval Art by Lawrence Nees (2002)

Part of the Oxford History of Art series, this large-format, glossily-printed book has 244 pages and 138 illustrations, many in colour, of late antique and early medieval art. The text is intended as an overview of the visual arts, excluding architecture, of the Early Middle Ages 300 to 1000. It proceeds in broadly chronological order, but is divided into general topics – The Roman Language of Art, Earliest Christian Art, Conversion, Art for Aristocrats, Endings and Beginnings, and so on.

Challenges

Nees faces a number of problems:

Art books are harder than history books A historian such as Peter Brown can range freely over words and ideas and be as general or specific as he likes. An art historian must be able to show us the works – the evidence – to back up his commentary, ideas, theory. General comments must be backed up by examples from the limited objects which have come down to us. Also, although he is covering (a very large) historical period, he doesn’t have the space to explore historical ideas in any depth – his brief is the art of the period, and so the historical introductions to each section tend to be brief and sketchy.

Patchy evidence Nees is doubly challenged in this respect because what survives of early medieval art is so patchy. He uses the word ‘class’ a lot to refer to a group of works which demonstrate the same style or craftsmanship or subject matter; but then routinely goes on to say that this or that work stands alone, in a class of one. This thing has survived; it’s beautiful but we don’t know who made it or where or what tradition it came out of or any background at all and, so far as we know, nothing really followed it. Frustrating.

Narrative helps us assimilate art Working through the book you begin to appreciate that a lot of art books (and exhibitions) work by making comparisons which allow the construction of interesting narratives. Take the recent massive exhibition at the Royal Academy about garden painting. The curators have gathered several hundred paintings of gardens from a 40 year period and this allows them to analyse the works on show in great detail, distinguishing different themes or ideas or presentation of the garden, showing how the garden was presented in the many late-19th century different styles, showing how the approach changed and evolved over time, specifically in the work of the core artist, Claude Monet, and so on. The garden exhibition is an example of the way that detailed stories – about ‘Monet the genius’ or ‘the garden in symbolist art’ or ‘the garden as personal haven’ etc – help us make sense of, assimilate, and enjoy the works on display. Having a lot of specimens a) makes complex stories possible b) allows comparisons and contrasts c) which then generate insights and so d) allow us to figure out what we like.

Bitty Early medieval art lacks this range; what has survived is fragmentary. So Nees can’t avoid his book often feeling patchy. Maybe this is why he chose chapters based on topics rather than a straight chronological structure, because pure chronology would reveal the big big gaps where we have no examples, whereas an arrangement by topic allows him to bring together the surviving works, no matter how distant in time or space.

Nees goes into great detail about most of the examples featured but this immersion in minutiae made it quite difficult sometimes to remember which topic we were meant to be considering, or to remember if there were any general points I was meant to be bearing in mind, supporting the individual examples (generally, no).

Detailed analysis The great strength of the book is Nees’s detailed analysis of the 120 or so pieces chosen for the book. The text mostly proceeds from close analysis of one artefact to close analysis of the next and time after time Nees brings an eagle eye to the clarification and explication of detail in what we’re looking at, whether it be an ivory carving, funeral stele, triumphal arch, chair, crown, coin or belt buckle. He makes comparisons (where they’re possible) and slowly we accumulate a sense of how Roman topoi were recycled by Christian and non-Roman artists as the centuries passed and European society changed out of all recognition from the days of the Empire.

The art

Nees is clearly an immensely knowledgeable enthusiast for the art from this neglected period, and his detailed analyses of the 120 or so artefacts illustrated in the book are always stimulating and insightful. But somehow it left me stone cold. Oddly, I felt much more enthusiasm for the art of this period from reading a book by the historian Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity. Brown was able to set the scene, explaining the big political picture for each distinct period in this long era, and then outlining the social trends and changes affecting it. Against this comprehensive background he could then select a handful of examples of art which embodied each period. A memorable instance was his reference to the rise in importance of eyes in art during the 4th century, giving the reader several illustrations – which then sensitises you to the vividness (or not) of eyes as they appear in all the remaining works.

Nees proceeds at a much more granular level, looking in detail at one painting, or stele, or fibula, before going on to compare it to another, very specific, one. The book amounts to a sequence of very specific exhibits and this eventually gives it an almost random feel, like offerings at a jumble sale: here are some old coins, a belt buckle, a damaged crown, some paintings from a catacomb, the arch over an early church.

There are themes here – the chapters are given thematic titles – but somehow the themes were hard to grasp and remember. Instead, like an exhibition at the British Museum, what you remember is the beauty of individual works. My highlights include:

  • Illustration from the Aachen Gospels made for Otto III about the year 996 – note the white eyes
  • Scene from Column of Marcus Aurelius Beheading prisoners, Rome 170-180 AD –  note the severed heads at the bottom
  • The Velletri sarcophagus – note the ‘figural’ ‘registers’, the main, upper one, showing the labours of Hercules, the pediments above it supported by female caryatids, the entire register supported by crouching Atlases, the lower register showing Bible scenes, starting on the left with Adam and Eve.
  • Ivory diptych of Rufius Probianus – around 400 AD. Nees points out the military standards in the background of each upper image, and the way the scribes are poised ready to take down his words.
  • Projecta casket – late 300s AD. A text engraved into the lid says ‘Secundus and Projecta, live in Christ’, yet all the iconography is pagan, from the winged cherubs or putti, to the scene of Venus rising from the waves.
  • Ivory diptych of Consul Boethius 487 AD – the consul holds the mappa, a kind of bean bag he throws to the ground to begin the Games; note the bags of money at his feet to be distributed to the people and the palm leaves ready to be awarded to victors in the Games.
  • Ivory diptych of Stilicho and Serena 400AD. As usual Nees is excellent at highlighting details like the prominent fibula or pin worn by father and son, the fact that the general, Stilicho, is wearing a military style cloak (a chlamys) covered with small medallions, and the tiny figures of the joint emperors Honorius and Arcadius in a medallion on his shield.
  • Sword and scabbard mounts from the tomb of Childeric AD 482, Childeric being one of the first kings of the Franks. Note the cloisonné work ie the silver-gilt partitions between embedded blood red garnets.
  • Basilica of San Apollinare Nuevo in Ravenna, built at the command of Theoderic king of the Ostrogoths (454-526) Note the three registers, with a parade of women then the three magi bringing gifts to the infant Jesus on the bottom, full length of saints between the clerestory windows, and scenes from Jesus’ life alternating with trompe l’oeil, painted alcoves in the uppermost register.
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore 430-440. Despite many later additions, this is the original impressive size of this huge church, built in the reign of Pope Sixtus III.
  • Icon of the Virgin and Child, Santa Maria in Trastavere 705-7AD. Graceful. The clarity of the eyes looking at you. Compare and contrast with…
  • Virgin and Child from the Book of Kells, the oldest image of Mary in a western manuscript. Bad, isn’t it? What worlds apart were late 7th century Rome and 8th century Ireland.

Anglo-Saxon art

Carefully reading Nees’s commentary, and taking the time to identify all the elements he analyses in each work, I began to develop a feel or taste for what – at first sight – sometimes seemed the rather amateurish-seeming paintings or carvings from the period.

But then these tentative likings were totally eclipsed when I came to the section about the works which seem to me head and shoulders above anything else from the period – the stunning pieces found in the Anglo-Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo. I was blown away by these as a student studying Anglo-Saxon culture and language, and have loved them ever since:

The clasps combine beautiful geometric cloisonné work, with northern pagan-style zoomorphic (ie animal-shaped) patterns. The belt buckle is a brilliant example of the use of interlocking decorated lines which appear to be an abstract pattern until you look closer and see eyes and maybe beaks at the end of some of them: they are highly stylised depictions of animals, turned into threads which can be infinitely interwoven.

Altogether these works seem complete, utterly confident, totally finished, in a way most of the other artefacts in this book don’t. They seem totally professional – they still bear up today in a world super-saturated with crafted objects – and, for me, completely outshine almost all the other, often rather amateurish, works of the period.


Nees’s prose style

Quotation marks

Nees is a great user of speech marks, using them for quotes (fair enough) but also extensively to call into question words and ideas, or to highlight that they are contested or debatable terms, or to emphasise that he is aware that they are debatable terms. The text is littered with the liberal use of quote marks including: ‘limitation’, ‘symbols’, ‘caught’, ‘natural symbolism’, ‘death’, ‘god’, ‘church’, ‘houses’, ‘borders’, ‘putti’, ‘new men’, ‘wedding hoard’, ‘tribe’, ‘age of the saints’, the ‘cult of images’, ‘desire’, ‘icons’, ‘iconic’, ‘portraits’, ‘individuals’, ‘likeness’, ‘true image’, the so-called ‘Shroud of Turin’, a ‘translation’, ‘diverged’, ‘narrative’, ‘innovation’, ‘ornaments’, ‘peoples of the book’, ‘illuminated’, ‘painted’…

After a while you realise that merely putting ‘speech marks’ around a ‘word’ as if to give it a sense of heightened ‘meaning’ or intellectual ‘rigour’ becomes pretty ‘tiresome’ and doesn’t, in the end, add anything at all to your understanding.

Nees is particularly keen to point out that he is not one of the old fuddy-duddies who think it is a ‘fact’ of history that Rome ‘declined’ and then ‘fell’ to the ‘barbarians’. He repeats that we must get away from this terrible old way of thinking in the introduction and regularly throughout the text. But

a) Any serious history of the period stopped thinking that thirty years ago
b) On the other hand, the Western Roman Empire was invaded repeatedly by armies of people who were illiterate and outside Roman civilisation: the Roman Empire did eventually collapse. No amount of fancy speech marks and attitudinising can really hide that fact.

The point comes to a head around page 80 where he refers to barbarians numerous times, sometimes as ‘barbarians’ (emphasising that he is aware that the very term is highly debatable) but lots of other times just as plain old barbarians, without the scare quotes. It is as if there are two texts or two authors at work, one who is highly attuned to the necessity for politically correct phraseology and keen to emphasise his sophisticated scepticism about the shocking old cliches about ‘barbarians’ and so-called ‘tribes’ and so-called ‘northern art’ — and one who just has to get on and describe the actual works of art before him, and discovers there is no adequate alternative terminology to describe the invasions of the Roman Empire by, er, barbarian tribes.

This schizophrenic attitude is, by itself, quite an interesting learning to take from the book.

Art critical jargon

At several points Nees writes dismissively of other authors’ shocking use of art historical jargon, as if it’s a terrible folly which he rises above.

That word ‘iconography’ is entirely appropriate here, and also contains a warning. The term is common art-historical jargon for the subject-matter represented in works of art, derived from the Greek for ‘writing in images’. (p.29)

Tut tut, whoever uses such awful jargon? But it’s an ironic comment because Nees himself uses the jargon of art criticism and, especially, of modish literary theory quite freely. Of a hunting scene on a painted plate:

Space and time are suspended in favour of a heroically signitive image. (p.65)

‘Signitive’? Describing the wonderful hinged clasps from Sutton Hoo, he writes:

The rectangular fields have a continuous over-all pattern that may be seen as interlocking addorsed step-pyramids in two different sizes. (p.112)

‘Addorsed’? He tells us that Theoderic built a ‘domical tomb’ for himself at Ravenna. ‘Domical’? As well as these specialist terms, Nees also uses buzzwords from post-structuralist literary theory, from the theories of Foucault and Barthes and Derrida, which were becoming widespread in the 1980s when I was a student and have gone on to become the common currency of various critical ‘discourses’. For example, pictures rarely show things, they ‘code’ and ‘encode’ messages which the viewer has to ‘decode’ (This refers to the structuralist and narratological theory of how meaning is created by language – but taken out of context, or presented to readers who are not familiar with post-structuralist theory, it just sounds grandiose and, ultimately unnecessary. What does ‘decode’ say that ‘read’ or ‘interpret’ doesn’t – except to emphasise that the priofessor is up on the latest continental theory.)

There’s regular use of the word ‘other’, one of the buzzwords of post-structuralist theory, originating, as I understand it, in the structuralist psycho-analytical theory of Jacques Lacan (1901-81). Here is an example of how Lacan uses it:

The analyst must be imbued with the difference between Other and other, so he can situate himself in the place of Other, and not the other.

In the hands of modish Anglo-Saxon academics or journalists, however, it is emptied of its highly specialist psychoanalytical meaning and just becomes a modish way of referring to groups or tribes or people who are outside the power structure or cultural context you’re describing. Instead of saying that so-and-so people, tribes, groups, cultures had different traits or practices or customs, it sound much grander, more ominous and impressive to say that the ‘barbarians’, the pagans (or whatever you like) are ‘the other’ or, grandest of all, ‘the Other’.

Monasteries were constructed as holy places, deliberately ‘other’ rather than normal… (p.129)

The development of what has long been termed ‘barbarian art’ needs to be seen in relation to Rome, not in the Romantic historiographical tradition in which the ‘barbarians’ (especially Germans) were entirely Other, and in some almost mystical way pure, untouched by Rome. (p.74)

You can see how that second sentence would be improved by removing ‘entirely Other, and in some almost mystical way pure’, or recasting the thought to make it clearer that so-called barbarian art, instead of representing a completely alien tradition, was often deeply influenced by Roman art.

Accompanying the tarting-up of really very banal statements goes Nees’s habit of explaining very obvious things – for example, he usefully tells us that Jesus was a Jew, that the area where Jesus was born and preached is known as ‘the Holy Land’, and that the word pope comes from the Latin papa, meaning father. Surely the kind of person who is reading the Oxford History of Early Medieval Art can be expected to know that. So in some places he is extraordinarily patronishing, yet in others leaves highly technical terminology entirely unexplained.

The combination of the art critical jargon, the unexplained technical terms, and his sometimes ponderously old-fashioned style (things aren’t shown, they are ‘put forth’, objects in paintings are never ‘on’ a table or altar, they are always ‘upon’) results in a rather effortful read. A shame, because his insights into all the works on display are always detailed and illuminating.


Terms of art

These are some of the technical terms I learned about:

  • adlocutio: An address by a general (usually the emperor) to his massed army and a general salute from the army to their leader. It is often portrayed in sculpture, either simply as a single, life-size contraposto figure of the general with his arm outstretched, or a relief scene of the general on a podium addressing the army. Such relief scenes also frequently appear on imperial coinage. (Wikipedia)
  • adventus: A ceremony in ancient Rome, in which an emperor was formally welcomed into a city either during a progress or after a military campaign, often (but not always) Rome. The term is also used to refer to artistic depictions (usually in relief sculpture, including coins) of such ceremonies. (Wikipedia)
  • Bracteate: A bracteate (Latin bractea, a thin piece of metal) is a flat, thin, single-sided gold medal worn as jewelry that was produced in Northern Europe predominantly during the Migration Period of the Germanic Iron Age. (Wikipedia)
  • Cloisonné: decorative work in which enamel, glass, or gemstones are separated by strips of flattened wire placed edgeways on a metal backing.
  • Diptych: Any object with two flat plates attached at a hinge. In Late Antiquity, ivory notebook diptychs with covers carved in low relief on the outer faces were a significant art-form. The ‘consular diptych’ was made to celebrate an individual’s becoming Roman consul, when they seem to have been made in sets and distributed by the new consul to friends and followers. Others might celebrate a wedding, and so on. We possess several dozen of these diptychs survive and they are among the most important surviving works of the Late Roman Empire. (Wikipedia)
  • Fastigium: in Architecture, the ridge or gable end of a roof.
  • Fibula: A brooch or pin for fastening garments, in a wide variety of patterns all based on the safety-pin principle
  • Medallion: a round or oval frame (often made of stucco) which contains a plastic or pictorial decoration of a façade, an interior, a piece of furniture or equipment. (Wikipedia)
  • Pyxis: a small round box made by carving the outside of a complete section of an elephant’s tusk.
  • Register: like the different storeys of a building, Nees uses register to refer to different levels of a frieze or painting divided into separate ‘floors’ or compartments.
  • Stele: A stele (Latin) is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected as a monument, very often for funerary or commemorative purposes. (Wikipedia)
  • Strigillation: Repeated closely spaced S-shaped flutes, commonly enriching the sides of Classical or Neo-Classical sarcophagi.
  • Tetrarchy: The Rule of Four; instituted by Roman Emperor Diocletian in 293, marking the end of the Crisis of the Third Century and the recovery of the Roman Empire, the Tetrarchy lasted until 313, when internecine conflict had eliminated most of the claimants to power, leaving Constantine in the East and Licinius in the West. (Wikipedia)

Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 by Richard Fletcher (1997)

Big book, enormous subject. Just as well we’re in the company of such an immensely knowledgeable and charming companion – medieval historian Richard Fletcher. Sadly Dr Fletcher died in 2005 – read the Guardian obituary – but his works live on, and this is his masterpiece.

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 (1997) forms a great companion to Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book about the Vikings, The Hammer and The Cross (2010). The ‘Viking Age’ was roughly 800 to 1100. Ferguson describes in forensic detail the brutal, masculine world of the barbarian raiders from the seas, heathens from beyond the pale of Roman civilisation, law and literacy; only slowly is their bloodlust brought under control as the various Danish kings and warlords are converted and baptised at the end of the 900s and into the 1000s. Ferguson’s thesis is that, shadowy and difficult to pin down as the definition of ‘Viking’ is, there is certainly one constant to all their activities: their super-violent hatred of Christianity. Christian centres are not just attacked, they are destroyed and the inhabitants exterminated.

Fletcher’s book, on the other hand –

  • Covers a much larger period – from the emperor Theodosius banning pagan religion in the 380s to the conversion of the Lithuanians one thousand years later, in the 1380s – and a far wider canvas, from Scotland to Romania.
  • Covers the same story from the other side, examining the administrative and cultural framework of Christianity as it developed inside the Pale of Roman administration, law and literacy, and then slowly extended beyond it.

The main difference is that, compared to the Vikings, we actually have quite a lot of information about individual proselytisers because so many of them became saints (St Martin, St Columba, Patrick, St Augustine, St Wilfrid and so on) and had hagiographies (biographies of saints) written about them, often by followers who had personally known them and witnessed key events in their lives.

By the 7th and 8th centuries, many of these pioneers can be shown either to have come from aristocratic families or to have had aristocratic or royal sponsors. After the obscurity of the 5th and 6th centuries, Fletcher’s book in the 7th and 8th centuries becomes like a tapestry or puzzle, wherein we can see the complex web of relationships between successive kings and their spouses and their missionary monks and priests, the evangelists pushing into new territory, the royals providing the money and material to build them new churches and monasteries, which become engines of education and learning, generating new mission-minded monks who themselves set off further north or south or east to copy the example of their sainted forebears.

Slowly, slowly, by painstaking efforts, the whole continent is converted.

The rise of Christianity

The opening chapters move swiftly over Jesus (‘Christianity traces its historic roots to the ministry of a Jewish preacher and exorcist in a backward province of the Roman empire’, p.13), the missions of St Paul, the letters of the earliest fathers and martyrs, through to the ‘Eusebian accommodation’. The emperor Constantine plays a pivotal role in the history of Christianity because it was he who, in the Edict of Milan in 313, brought all Roman persecution of Christianity to an end and decriminalised Christian belief and practice. The age of persecution and martyrs ends in 313.

Constantine was a practical man who set about establishing peace throughout the Empire, reorganising its taxes and laws, establishing a fundamentally new structure whereby the empire was divided into a western and an eastern half (the latter to be ruled from the new capital he established at the old Greek town of Byzantium which he completely rebuilt and renamed Constantinople). And he brought the same practical thoroughness to the up-and-coming religion which had now established itself throughout the empire, Christianity, calling councils to thrash out its beliefs, to have them set in writing and promulgated under his name, as well as sitting in judgement on the theological and administrative squabbles of the early church.

Eusebius was court theologian to Constantine and, as well as the panegyrics he wrote to Constantine’s wonderfulness, he developed the idea that the empire and Christianity were intertwined: it was their destiny to work together, the wise and good Constantine providing the peaceful framework within which his holy church could save souls, the wise and good Church leaders providing the emperors with spiritual guidance. Now that it had adopted Christianity, the Roman Empire would be protected and supported by a loving God. The two would go hand in hand in peace and power.

100 years later this line of argument got into trouble when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths (410). Surviving pagan philosophers used this disaster to refute the argument that the Empire had been blessed and protected by Christianity: it looked very much the opposite, that abandoning the old pagan gods had led to disaster.

Far away in North Africa, the great theologian Augustine was prompted the fall of Rome to write his huge masterpiece City of God (426). This completely rejected the idea of an accommodation between Rome and Christianity, and asserted a complete separation between the earthly city with its corruption and imperfection, and the divine City of God. The Eastern, Greek empire, stuck with the Eusebian ideal; the West with Augustine’s separation, with huge consequences. Augustine’s insistence on the separation of Church and State sowed the seeds of the long-running feud between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, and between individual rulers and their archbishops and the Pope, a tendency which led to the rejection of central Church authority in the Reformation. All this was in sharp contrast to the Greek Eastern Orthodox tradition which followed Constantine’s wish of uniting church and state – leading to the arguably more authoritarian regimes of Orthodox countries, epitomised by Russia.

If in the East church and state were nearly identical, in the West they were often at odds. Harmony was characteristic of the east, tension of the west. It was to be a critically important constituent of western culture that church and state should be perceived as distinct and indeed often competing institutions. Built into western Christian traditions there was a potential rarely encountered in the east for explosion, for radicalism, for non-conformity, for confrontation. (page 28)

Augustine’s pessimistic vision seemed to be confirmed when the Empire in the West collapsed and the last emperor was killed in 476. The slow decay of Imperial law and institutions eventually left the archbishops and bishops and abbots and monasteries – the papacy and the Church bureaucracy – as the only thing left standing to embody the literacy, legality and civilisation of the Roman Empire as the barbarians swarm across Europe.

Why convert anyone to Christianity?

Because Jesus told them to. The key passage is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16–20:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

In later years this would become known as ‘the Great Commission’ and was used in the era of European expansion and colonisation (1500 to 2000) to justify missionising to all the native peoples Europeans encountered.

Fletcher’s book shows:

a) How very slowly it came about that the Church hierarchy even considered missionising beyond the urban centres – for a long time it was thought that you only needed a few converts in each of the ‘nations’ – and those mostly among the urban rich. ‘Surely that’s enough, isn’t it?’ Fletcher brilliantly describes how slow the notion of conversion and mission was to emerge. For centuries the authorities concerned themselves only with bringing the pagans within the Empire into the Church; that was challenge enough. He shows how Christianity was above all an urban phenomenon, and identified entirely with the wealthy and – once Constantine adopted it – with the extremely wealthy. These oligarchs fell over themselves to lavish land and bequests on the Church. In its earliest period Christian evangelisation was restricted to urban centres – St Paul’s epistles are to congregations in cities. Christian authorities followed the Roman prejudice that country dwellers were illiterate beasts. Only slowly did the idea develop that bishops should stamp out paganism in the countryside.

b) And this extending of the faith beyond urban centres itself turned out to be a chalenging and slow business – such that popes and bishops are still writing about the scandal of pagan worship clinging on among the peasants well into the 600s and 700s. And not on the periphery, but right in the heart of the ‘Christian’ empire, in Italy itself, 20 miles from Rome – let alone in the further lands of Francia and Spain, or out in the wild frontiers like England.

c) Only slowly, in the work of isolated writers and a few brave experimenters, did the notion of going beyond the borders of Romanitas to convert the heathen become even thinkable – the notion of sending Christian officials outside the boundaries of the former Roman Empire into hard-core, non-Latin, barbarian territory to ‘spread the Word’. The first half of the book tells the story of just such hardy souls, St Martin, St Patrick, St Boniface, and the wonderful miracles they did and hordes they converted. (The bishop was the standard rank of mission leader – a bishop could establish a ‘diocese’, set up a centre for ecclesiastical administration, appoint and manage priests, organise church-building etc, all the while corresponding with the Head of the Organisation back in Rome.)

What were the converters up against?

Fletcher builds the text by taking examples of figures both famous and obscure from across Latin Europe (Italy, France, Spain, England) and using the written records we have of them to investigate and compare their various motives, procedures, what they were up against (pagan resistance) and how much they succeeded.

The great frustration of this subject is that we know so little about what so-called ‘pagans’ actually believed or did. A central part of the ‘conversion’ process was to destroy every single shrine, statue, holy tree and so on, a scorched earth policy as regards buildings and objects, and it’s the same with texts – not a single text survives anywhere which records the nature of pagan belief, compared to the thousands and thousands we have which record the holy sayings and wonderful deeds and pious activities of Christian martyrs, saints and teachers.

In practical terms, this is because the Christians – of course – controlled the only means of storing and transmitting information i.e. writing. It appears that the pagans had no writing (apart, in some places, from primitive runes carved into stone) and certainly didn’t have the means of recording, replicating and storing writing which Christians established in the shape of monasteries full of educated, literate, text-copying monks.

But various church officials did, in scattered letters, sermons and theological works, make scattered references to the ongoing pagan practices, and from them we can piece together – if not the content of the beliefs or even the names of the pagan gods (pitifully rare) – at least some of the more superstitious practices of rural people. The De Correctione Rusticorum of Martin of Braga (now northern Portugal), written at the end of the 6th century, is a letter written to a fellow bishop, Polemius of Astorga, which laments the ongoing bad behaviour of his pagan flock who:

  • celebrate new year with the pagan Roman festival of Kalends
  • burn candles at stones and trees and springs and where three roads meet
  • observe divinations and auguries and days of idols
  • observe the Day of Vulcan (23 August) and the first days of each month
  • adorn tables and hang up laurels and ‘watch the foot’
  • pour wine and fruit over the hearth and put bread in a spring
  • women invoke Minerva in their weaving
  • keep weddings for the day of Venus (Friday)
  • mutter spells over herbs and invoke the name of demons in incantations
  • find special meaning in the behaviour of little birds and in sneezing (p.53)

The Christian authorities decried the existence of arioli (singular: ariolus), holy men who uttered impious words at altars and offered sacrifices, who tied ligatures on the bodies of the sick and applied medicines. In 598 Pope Gregory wrote to the bishop of Terracina just 50 miles from Rome lamenting that local inhabits continued to worship sacred trees, in the pagan manner.

And it wasn’t just the peasants who continued with heathen superstitions. A council of bishops at Toledo in 633 thought it necessary to forbid bishops, priests, deacons or any other clerical orders from consulting magicians, augurs, diviners or soothsayers (p.55). The power of these superstitious practices lingered on for centuries. In fact, in the final pages Fletcher gives records of Church authorities still trying to stamp out rural pagan practice in the 1600s!

How did the converters convert pagans?

This is simple and startling. Contrary to modern practice of converting through reading, teaching and discussion, medieval missionaries performed miracles and magic. ‘My God is more powerful than your gods – watch! Told you so!’

While the Church elite was writing and arguing about high points of theology – which is what many histories of Christianity tend to focus on – down on the ground, among the peasants of the Touraine or Galicia or Mercia, individual evangelists were going head to head with the local deities to show that only the Christian God could end a drought, guarantee safe childbirth, prevent a flood and so on.

The point is not only that the Christians could perform miracles – it’s that the pagan gods could too. High level theologians could dismiss pagan power as empty superstition but down on the ground, missionaries knew the pagan idols had power but they reinterpreted this power as coming from the Devil and his legion of demons – something they had good warrant for in the Gospel stories.

Early medieval Europe was a world in which persons of every level of intellectual cultivation accepted without question that the miraculous could weave  like a shuttle in and out of everyday reality. (p.10)

All these people lived in a world dominated by cruel and capricious forces – incurable diseases, natural disasters, plague and famine, not to mention the unexpected attacks from rampaging armies which killed, raped and dragged survivors off into slavery. Traditional beliefs were the only science and the only technology they had to try and order and control and give meaning to their lives. It took a lot to dislodge these time-honoured traditions.

In a European countryside where over hundreds of years diverse rituals had evolved for coping with the forces of nature, Christian holy men had to show that they had access to more efficacious power. (p.64)

Only by going head to head with the powers of the traditional gods could Christian missionaries hope to make even the slightest impact. Thus the records we have of missionaries throughout the period (300 to 1400, and beyond) tend to dwell on their miraculous works.

  • St Martin of Tours, according to the written records we have of him, frequently encountered supernatural beings: the Devil several times, angels, demons, St Mary, St Agnes, Saints Peter and Paul, he had telepathic powers, could predict the future, could exorcise evil spirits from men or animals, and could raise the dead, as well as performing numerous miracles such as halting a hailstorm in the region of Sens. A letter he wrote cured the daughter of a Roman official just by being placed on her body. He cured a girl of 12 who had been dumb from birth. On one occasion he was cutting down a sacred tree and the pagans dared him to stand where it would fall so Martin did so and as the tree began to fall towards him he made the sign of the cross and it miraculously veered in another direction. The pagans cried with one voice that Christ was king and implored to be baptised.
  • Bishop Simplicius encountered an idol being trundled about on a cart to bless fields and vineyards: he made the sign of the cross and the idol crashed to the ground while the oxen pulling the cart were rooted to the spot. Simplicius made 400 converts.
  • Emilian was a shepherd in the Rioja district of Spain who was called to the Holy Life and built up a powerful network of clients for his wonder-working. He cured the blindness of a slave girl of the senator Sicorius. He exorcised one of the slaves of Count Eugenius. He exorcised the evil spirits which had possessed the senator Nepotian and and his wife Proseria. He cured a woman named Barbara from her paralysis. He made the sign of the cross over the belly of the monk Armentarius and cured him. (p.58)
  • Eugendus wrote a letter to a demon who was possessing a girl in eastern Gaul; the demon left her before the letter was even delivered. The lady Syagria, member of a leading aristocratic family of Lyons, was cured of a grave illness by eating a letter from Eugendus.
  • Samson, grandson of the king of Gwent, was a native of Demetia in South Wales who made his way to England, received clerical training, and sailed across to Armorica in Gaul where he had a career as a miracle-worker, converting the pagan locals, and founding a monastery to preserve his name and build on his good work. In Trigg in north Cornwall he came across people who traditionally worshiped an idol. A boy was killed out riding. Samson told the people their idol couldn’t revive the boy but his God could and, if He did, they should abandon their idol forever. the people agreed. Samson prayed for two hours. The boy came back to life. The people destroyed their idol and agreed to be baptised.

The centrality of miracle working

Again and again and again, in countless accounts of saints’ lives, it is clear that the chief tool in the armoury Christians seeking to convert both aristocrats and peasants to Christianity was their wonder-working, miracles, cures and exorcisms.

These aren’t embarrassing details to be downplayed by modern believers – they are absolutely central to the success of the conversion effort. What’s more, they have their roots in the original gospels, where Jesus is nothing if not a wonder-worker, a miracle-maker, a curer, healer and exorciser, often pitched in direct conflict with the Devil and his demons.

And Jesus’ powers themselves have their roots in the old Jewish scriptures in which heroes as far back as Moses have to fight against the power of the pagan gods, and prove – even to the sceptical Israelites – that Jehovah is Boss. As Fletcher points out, the Book of Psalms was the most widely read book of the Bible in the early medieval period, and its songs repeatedly stress the direct link between piety and worldly success, stressing ‘the causal relationship of correct cult with victory, prosperity and progeny’ (p.244). And he cites the story of Elijah who, in the first Book of Kings, chapter 18, goes head to head with the prophets of Baal and Asherah for an extended competition to see whose god is more powerful and can end the three years of drought. With predictable results, but results taken literally by two thousand years of Christian believers.

Thus medieval superstition isn’t eccentric, it is part of a thousand-years-old tradition, and is intimately linked to the kind of folk beliefs which continued in the West until very recently, and continue to this day in many parts of the world.

It is the post-Enlightenment despiritualising of nature and the world around us, it is the modern Western denial of magic powers and miracles, which is the historical oddity.

Fighting pagan gods/demons

Thus pagan shrines, idols and objects had to be destroyed, pagan practices quashed – and even descriptions of pagan practices suppressed and ignored – not in the name of a secular ideology, but because they had power. They weren’t just empty errors, they were the Devil’s work, they were the activities of the opposition – they represented a real and ongoing threat to the survival, and to the salvation, of the Christian community.

Thus Martin and the hosts of other convertors like him didn’t just smash pagan shrines and buildings – they built over them. There was power in them which couldn’t be ignored – it had to be incorporated into the True Belief and redirected into the holy cause.

Converting from heresy to orthodoxy

It’s easy to forget how central Heresy was and is to Christianity – the history of early Christianity is mostly the history of heresies and, of course, Christianity is itself a heretical deviation from orthodox Judaism.

The most disruptive among a host of types of ‘wrong thinking’ was Arianism, one of the countless deviations thrown up as clever men agonised over the mystery of the Trinity: if God is all-powerful, what is the relationship with the Holy Spirit mentioned throughout the holy texts, let alone with his Son? Is the Son equal in power to the Father? Are they the same entity? How much of Jesus was man and how much God? Did God give birth to the Son who is therefore less than the Father?

Arius (c. AD 250–336) was a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt and he became associated with the belief that Jesus was begotten by the Father. Arius’s aim was not to dilute the power of the Father, to assert the absolute primacy and omnipotence of the One God. However, this had the effect of downgrading the Son and, by extension, of downgrading Jesus’s sacrifice: if he isn’t fully equal with God then maybe his sacrifice on the cross wasn’t fully earth-redeeming.

Difficult though the philosophical niceties are to follow, the practical consequences are simple. For most of the 4th century the battle lines between Arianism and Orthodoxy hardened and embittered. Arius was anathematised during his lifetime and the newly Christian emperor Constantine (ruled 306-37) called the Council of Nicaea in 325 precisely to try and thrash out a form of words which would please all sides – resulting in the text which became referred to as ‘the Nicene Creed’.

But so powerful was Arianism that the emperor’s own son, Constantius II (337–361) and his successor Valens (364–378), both in fact supported the Arian heresy, with the result that patriarchs and archbishops, bishops and priests were inducted into Arian Christianity – and that initial contacts with Gothic tribes and barbarians was with Arian missionaries.

It was only with the advent of the zealously Catholic emperor Theodosius the Great (ruled 379-95) that Arianism was decisively defeated within the Church: Theodosius ordered all Arian writings to be destroyed and their authors vilified. But from the point of view of a history of Christian conversion, an important element of the early Middle Ages was not just converting the pagans, it was converting those who had mistakenly adopted the Christianity of Arius, back into the fold of Orthodoxy.

Slavery

We need to remember that the slave trade was probably the most widespread business activity of the early medieval world. (page 113)

Reading this book reminds the reader, yet again, that slavery has been an almost universal feature of human societies. Ancient Egypt was a slave society. The ancient Greek cities were slave societies, Athens was a slave state. The Roman Empire was built on slave labour. The Parthenon, the Forum, all that poetry and maths and drama – based on slavery.

One of the major Roman exports from Roman Britain was slaves: we have written evidence and slave manacles and chains have survived. According to Bede’s story the official Roman mission to England was sent, in 597, because Pope Gregory the Great encountered some English slaves in the slave market in Rome. They were so attractive that the pope asked who they were. ‘Angles’, came the reply. ‘Not Angles, but angels,’ the pope quipped. Fletcher’s account of early missionaries to the Franks mentions ‘slaves from across the water’ i.e. the Channel, working for the French aristocracy. St Patrick was six years a slave.

The Goths had slaves. The Huns had slaves. The Vikings took slaves wherever they went to sell in Europe’s slave markets. It is a recurring feature of missionaries that they are recorded as buying and liberating slaves in pagan societies, where possible. Every few pages in this 500-page-long book Fletcher mentions slaves. In one form or another (as serfs, as bonded labour) Europeans carried on enslaving other Europeans until the late medieval era.

The shift North

The later part of the book divides into long chapters dealing with Big Themes: the Greek missionary push into the Balkans and up into Eastern Europe (chapter 10), trying to convert the Vikings (Chapter 11), North-Eastern Europe and the Baltic (chapter 12). All of them are fascinating, tell gripping stories and shed light on the religious and cultural patterns of contemporary Europe.

But one of the biggest ideas to emerge is in chapter 9 which assesses the early Medieval relationship with Judaism, and then with the sweeping military successes of Islam, which rampaged along the North African shore and up into Spain (completely conquered in the years 711 to 718), over the Alps and only being stopped in southern France at the Battle of Tours (10 October 732), where the Frankish King Charles Martel decisively defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. Charles went on to push Frankish domain south to the Pyrenees thus pinning the Moors inside the Iberian Peninsula, where they created the often stunning culture of Al-Andalus.

But although the Christians held their own against Muslim assaults in southern France, in Sicily (threatening Italy) and in the East, where Islam swept through the Middle East to confront the Byzantine Empire – the net effect of the loss of the North African littoral to Christianity was to push the cultural and political focus of Europe north. Towards the end of this fascinating chapter, Fletcher describes a further seismic process, the slow partition of Christendom itself between Greek East and Roman West. It took centuries of disagreement, misunderstanding, occasional conflict, and a drift apart of theological and cultural practices – but Fletcher brings out another important element.

For centuries after the collapse the Roman Empire in the West, Rome (and the pope) still came under the nominal protection of the Emperor in the East. But as early as 800 the papacy had recognised the power and protection of the Franks, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. And the diversion of the Emperor’s resources East to hold the Muslims at bay tended to make the papacy continue to look West, and North. A key moment in the breach came when the armies of the Fourth Crusade were diverted from the Holy Land and attacked Constantinople itself – theoretically to restore a pro-Western Emperor, but in reality the army ran riot and sacked the place, killing many of the inhabitants.

The Muslim Conquests and loss of North Africa of the 700s – the triumphant creation of a huge Frankish Empire by Charlemagne in the 800s – the conversion of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the 6th and 7th centuries, then of the Germans, Danes and Poles in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries – alongside the collapse of Byzantine power which was crystallised in 1204 — all these factors ensured that Roman Catholicism, though based in Rome, would gravitational pull towards the North, around the court of France for a long time, and then the long stormy relationship with the various Holy Roman Emperors of Germany.

So that in the twentieth century Poland could be one of the most fiercely and devoutly Roman Catholic countries. Poland! The heroes of early Christianity – Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen – they wouldn’t even have known where Poland was. In the really big scheme of things, it is this shift of the Christian world towards the north of Europe which I found one of the most interesting ideas to emerge from this endlessly fascinating book

Random notes

– I’ve always liked the fact that the Emperor Constantine, the man who legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire, thus guaranteeing that Europe would become Christian with all that meant for future world history, was first acclaimed emperor when still a general by his troops in Britain – and in York!

– The most distinctive feature of early medieval Christendom was the explosion of the monastic movement in the 300s-500s – possibly as a response to Christianity becoming decriminalised in the early 300s, and then becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire by 380. There was no more scope for martyrdom. But you could still mortify your own worldly ambitions (and those of your parents) by chucking in a promising career as a lawyer, or even as a bishop, and disappearing into the obscurity of a world-denying enclosed religious order. The establishment of monasteries went hand in hand with the more orthodox spread of dioceses across Western Europe, a movement associated with men like St Martin, bishop of Tours from 371 until 397.

– It was fascinating to learn how much this activity was associated with wealth; often the bishops came from very rich families, or they performed miracles which converted the very rich and powerful, who  themselves went on to commission churches and monasteries. Despite Christian propaganda, the Church from the early medieval period was associated not with the poor and slaves, but with money and power. This is emphasised by the string of textbooks, sermons and papal letters Fletcher quotes in the middle of the book which were aimed at trying to bring a very worldly clergy under control – no attending communion drunk! Cut down on the hawking and hunting!

– Only when the internal colonisation of the Empire by Christian networks of church and monastery was reaching completion, did it occur to anyone to go beyond the pale of Roman administration to spread Christianity to peoples outside the borders of the empire. Pioneers included:

– Ulfilas (311-83), the apostle of the Goths, who translated the Bible into a Gothic script which he invented for the purpose. Except that his translation of the Bible notoriously excluded the Books of Kings, which are mostly a record of ancient Israel’s wars. The Goths didn’t need any encouragement in that direction.

Palladius, sent as bishop to the pagan Irish in 431, much overshadowed by his successor St Patrick, 540-60(?). Fletcher spends a long passage describing and analysing the work of Patrick but the main thing about him is that:

As far as our evidence goes, [Patrick] was the first person in Christian history to take the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire. (p.86)

– The Latin word peregrinatio began life as a definition of a type of citizen, an alien or exile from their homeland living within the Roman Empire. In the early parts of his book Fletcher shows how it was taken over to describe the new idea of an ‘exile from Christ’, a person who devoted their lives to travelling and preaching and which became applied to what we would now call ‘missionaries’, men like St Patrick or the Englishman Winfrid, born in Wessex in the 7th century, who took the Latin name Boniface and travelled across North Europe to take a leading role in the conversion of the pagan Saxons, earning himself the title of the Apostle of the Germans. He was ‘martyred’ in the 750s. But towards the end of this long book, Fletcher pauses to consider how the word peregrinatio continued to change its meaning so that by the 11th century it was being applied to planned journeys by groups of people to sites of veneration, churches and shrines erected to the martyrs and saints of what was by now a mostly settled, Christian Europe. These journeys began to be called peregrinatios, translated into Middle English as pilgrimages.

What had once been wild journeys into the unknown had become package holidays.

Crusading violence

The final part of Europe to be converted to Christianity was up in the north-east, in northern Poland, in Livonia, along the Baltic and into the big and successful Duchy of Lithuania. Fletcher’s final chapter paints a rather grim picture of how this final proselytising effort was darker and more violent than what had come before, mainly under the influence of the Crusades. He has to take a detour to explain how the rhetoric of anti-Muslim Crusade came to be redirected towards the last pagan kingdoms – and also how the Crusades witnessed the birth of a new phenomenon, bands or ‘orders’ of knights banding together to either fight in the Holy Land or, like the Knights Templars, to protect pilgrims and other travellers to Palestine. Thus military orders grew up in the north-east devoted to converting the pagan, by fierce military means if necessary, the most notable examples being the Sword of the Brethren and the Teutonic Order. This Wikipedia map gives a good picture of the geographical territories involved and the way ‘conversion’ had been reduced to a military campaign.

Astonishingly, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania held on to its pagan status and religion until as late as 1386 when the Grand Duke seized the purely contingent opportunity of marrying the ten-year-old girl who’d inherited the throne of Poland and had to submit to baptism as part of the political deal.

But these last few centuries of the story are redolent of war, conquest, seizure of territory, rebellions by the conquered put down with brutality. As Fletcher points out, the castles built by these orders in their conquered territories bespeak imperial colonisation, like the contemporary Plantagenet colonisation of Wales. It is a long long way from the heroic solo missions of St Patrick or St Martin, or the better resourced but still peaceful missions of St Augustine or St Boniface. The licensing of military violence by the pope and Church hierarchy is ugly, and sets the scene for the lamentable invasions of the New World which began barely a hundred years later.

All of which, paradoxically, makes the Christianity of the so-called Dark Ages (400 to 1000) seem much sweeter and gentler by comparison. With a few notable exceptions (like Charlemagne’s genocidal ‘conversion’ of the Saxons in the 780s) the converters of the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries were more likely to be solitary holy men impressing pagan mobs by raising the dead or averting hail storms or stopping floods or bringing good weather. Although their miracles may be doubted, the bravery and faith of these early apostles can’t be, and there is something very admirable about it and them, which is worthy of respect.

Some early medieval dates

  • 406-7 the Rhine freezes and barbarian pagan Germanic tribes swarm across it into Gaul.
  • 410 The emperor Honorius withdraws the Roman armies from Britain to defend Rome from the barbarians.
  • 410 Rome is sacked by the the Visigoths under Alaric.
  • 451 The Battle of Châlons in 451 – one of the last major military operations of the Western Roman Empire when Romans under general Flavius Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric I fought against the Huns and their vassals commanded by Attila. The battle stopped the Huns seizing complete control of Gaul and installed the Frankish king, Merovech, as king of the Franks, from whom later Frankish claimed descent (and called themselves the Merovingians).
  • 476 The last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus Augustus, dies.
  • 481-509 Clovis king of the Franks, pressurised by his Christian wife Clotilde, is baptised on Christmas Day 496 and – crucially – into orthodox Catholic Christianity, not the Arian heresy espoused by almost all the surrounding barbarian nations. This single decision helped to ensure that Europe became a Catholic continent. Clovis founded a new capital at Paris, and called a Church Council to bolster Catholic orthodoxy in his realm.
  • 510s the Burgundians under King Sigismund convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • St Columba (520-97) regarding himself as an exile and pilgrim, established monasteries in Ireland and at Iona, which was to become an important religious centre and shrine off the west coast of Scotland.
  • 530s the Vandals convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 560s the Sueves convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 570s the Saxons of the Loire valley are converted to Catholicism by bishop Félix of Nantes.
  • 580s the Visigoths of Spain convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • Angle and Saxon kings:
    • 597 Pope Gregory the Great despatched St Augustine of Canterbury to Kent to convert King Ethelbert, at the bidding of his Frankish wife Bertha.
    • 604 King Saebehrt of the East Saxons accepts Christianity and builds a church in London.
    • Sometime before 605 King Redwald of the East Angles converts – though he later backslides and is in fact thought to be the pagan king buried at the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial.
    • 627 King Edwin of Northumbria is baptised, again under influence of his Christian wife.
  • St Columbanus (543-615) ‘an exemplar of Irish missionary activity in early medieval Europe’.
  • St Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne monastery (active 635-651) ‘Apostle to the English’, friend of the Northumbrian kings Oswald and Oswine, who overthrew Edwin in 633.
  • Benedict Biscop (628-90) founder of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Priory in Northumberland.
  • The Venerable Bede (672-735) the Northumbrian monk, historian and author of the vital Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (732). Although the book’s purpose is didactic, nonetheless Bede was unusually scrupulous in his weighing of the evidence before him.
  • Saint Boniface (c. 675 – 5 June 754) an influential figure in North European history, who reorganised the Frankish Church, missionised into north Germany, and brought the Frankish dynasty and the papacy closer together, paving the way for the triumph of Charlemagne (747-814).

What medieval history teaches us

Why bother reading books like this? Well, studying pre-modern history teaches lots of things:

1. For a start, it gives a deeper sense of the importance of Christianity and why it spread to become the religion of Europe. It gives you a deeper sense of Christianity’s multi-faceted appeal – in providing a coherent narrative of the world to the illiterate and educated alike, assuring them of salvation and the help of God, Jesus and the Saints; giving rules to guide believers through the many problems of life, protocols and ritual to accompany all the way stations of life, from birth to death; assuring magic and miracle-working for those in need, suffering or pain – in numberless ways Christianity offered hope and solace and explanations and technologies (books, relics, crosses) for understanding and managing human life. Moreover, for pagan rulers, Christianity was the gateway into the legacy of Roman civilisation, into fabulous wealth, literacy, laws, coins and better ways of managing your realm, as well as access to the extensive trading networks of Christendom which eventually stretched from Iceland to the Black Sea. At a personal psychological level, at a social level in terms of law and order, and at the royal level of providing an entrée into the ‘club’ of European royalty,  Christianity as belief system, legal system, cultural heritage and power network was infinitely richer, more complex and sophisticated than the pagan alternatives.

2. It is so easy to ridicule the wonder-working saints and monks and the endlessly squabbling kings and the gullible peasants, but are we any better? Study of the past should make us realise that ‘we’ will also soon be ‘the past’, and that our great grandchildren will look back in wonder at how we wasted our resources, destroyed our environment and ruined the world, while fussing about there not being enough black actors in the Oscars or ‘freeing the nipple’. Our ability to stress over trivial cultural issues while ignoring the extermination of the environment and all the life forms in it will make medieval peasants believing in miracles seem as reasonable as Einstein. They were credulous and astonishingly ignorant by our standards – but at least they left us an inhabitable planet, which is more than we are doing for our descendants:

3. Since Europe went on to colonise the world and, in the last 70 years Europe’s child, America, has gone on to be the world’s dominant military and cultural force – studying early medieval Europe gives a deeper understanding of where it all came from, and why and how.

4. Study of this period teaches doubt and hesitation and respect for the profound uncertainty of human knowledge. Our sources are so limited; our ignorance of human activity through entire centuries so profound; the slightest discovery can so easily shed light on blank eras or overthrow widely-held views – that study of this period encourages what I take to be an appropriate attitude to human knowledge, which is one of deep scepticism. There is so much we don’t know and will never know.

5. We live amid the wreckage of all these centuries of ancestors and predecessors. We should respect their achievements, their cathedrals and statues and jewellery, their saints’ lives and often bizarre theology, because they are the heroic products of the human mind struggling in dark times. To my eye, their often primitive and unnerving artefacts have a haunting and mysterious beauty. These obscure messages from the remote past offer a strange and powerful hope for mankind’s survival.

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

The pleasures of Anglo-Saxon poetry

Anglo-Saxon poetry offers a range of pleasures which can, perhaps, be arranged in a hierarchy.

The pleasure of the sounds

First, there is the pure pleasure of the sounds – the tremendous compacting of meaning into abrupt gutteral syllables compressed into short alliterative lines which sound great when recited aloud. They nakedly convey the pagan energy from the origin of our speech which usually lies hidden beneath layers of mellifluous Norman French, Latin and all the other languages we’ve rifled and pillaged. There is a sonic purity which is reinforced, the more you understand the history and subject matter, by a kind of ideological or historical sense of primalness.

Art and style

There is the art and style: as you practice you gain a deeper understanding of the skilled use of alliteration, the division of sentences into compact semantic units or stock phrases (“hard under helmet”), the laconic understatement (“the blow was not welcome”), the pleasure of deciphering riddles or kennings.

Subject matter

There is the the “sweet sorrow” of the subject matter, broadly dividing into:

  • elegies of profound loss, to the passing of great men, great times, great buildings – Durham, The Ruin, Deor, The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Wive’s Lament
  • overtly Christian poetry, but tinged with the same pagan sense of loss and sadness – The Dream of the Rood
  • warrior legends and epics: Beowulf, the Fight at Finnsburg, The Battle of Maldon – always with the same dying fall, Beowulf’s fate, Finn’s defeat, Byrhtnoth’s ofermode

Virility

Poetry which manages to convey sensitivity to the sad plight of fallen humanity with tremendous energy and virility. It assumes a very masculine worldview, one of continual physical competition, bravery and strength in contests and fights.

Our heritage

William Morris crystallised the plaint why tens of millions of English people know the story of the Odyssey or the wooden horse of Troy who have never heard of Beowulf, Maldon or Finnsburg. These are the myths and legends of our forebears, of the Germanic tribesmen who invaded and settled our country 1500 years ago, giving their name to our country and to our language. Their word-hoard, their myth-kitty, their songs and lays are intrinsic to our language and heritage. Almost nobody knows or studies them. (This Amazon book review claims in 99% of schools Old English isn’t taught at all, and only appears in 10% of university departments.)

The pathos of survival

Because so little survives – only 30,000 lines of poetry, of which Beowulf comprises 10% – and most of which has survived by the slenderest of threads, there is a strong sense of the preciousness and uniqueness of what we have. There is a close analogy with the Sutton Hoo treasure, enormously rich in itself but indicating by its very richness – like Beowulf – the enormity of what has been lost.

Dead language

Then there is the very academic pleasure of studying and trying to understand a dead language. But not one like Latin or ancient Greek which were kept alive by scholars through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and then widely studied as a sign of culture in the Victorian period and beyond. Anglo Saxon has always been a tiny minority pursuit (oddly, since it is the origin of the most successful language on the planet). Yet the more you study, the more you enter the treasure house of a lost world.

Philology

Not only does so little survive but what we have was written in different places in different dialects  which themselves changed and evolved over some 600 years, so it’s not even one language but a range of quite distinct sub-languages we are dealing with. Trying to piece together all the scattered fragments of text – and the scattered dialects in which they’re written – to create a consistent understanding of the Anglo Saxon languages has been the work of two centuries of philologists and sooner or later even the casual reader finds themselves drawn into speculation about the meaning of this or that word, and then into the long history of debates about it…

For example, the precise meaning of ofermode in the battle of Maldon is debated to this day and has large ideological and historical overtones – is the poet criticising or praising Byrhtnoth? is the entire poem a critique of the craven policy of King Aethelred? – but all these depend on the most technical of philological interpretations which requires a detailed knowledge, training and understanding in the Anglo Saxon languages…

Beowulf lines 1127-37

Hengest ða gyt
wælfagne winter | wunode mid Finne
eal unhlitme. | Eard gemunde,
þeah þe he ne meahte | on mere drifan
hringedstefnan; | holm storme weol,
won wið winde, | winter yþe beleac
isgebinde, | oþðæt oþer com
gear in geardas, | swa nu gyt deð,
þa ðe syngales | sele bewitiað,
wuldortorhtan weder. | ða wæs winter scacen,
fæger foldan bearm.

Hengest there yet
the woeheavy winter | waited with Finn
all unhappy. | His home-earth beminded
though there he might not | on the mere drive
his ring-prowed ship; | whelm storm swelled
waged with wind, | winter waves belocked
ice be-bounden, | until another came
year in the homeyards | such now yet does
those which continually | observe the seasons,
world-wondrous weather. | Then was winter scampered
fair felt the earth.

Related links

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

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