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Bede and Anglo-Saxon Paganism The Venerable Bede appears to have been born near Jarrow about 612. He himself tells us (Historia Ecclesiastica, Il.xiv) that the first conversion of Northumbria, by Roman missionaries under Paulinus, took place during the reign of Edwin. According to the most recent investigation of Northumbrian chronology by Kirby, it would have begun about 619; however, it seems unlikely that the change to Christianity would have gained much momentum before the conversion of Edwin himself about 627. There was a pagan reaction in 633 or 634 when Edwin was killed, which lasted until 635 or 636 when his nephew Oswald obtained the help of Aidan as a missionary from the Scots, so establishing the Irish style of Christianity in Northumbria for the next generation until the Roman triumph in 664 at the Synod of Whitby. In spite of the fact that Bede's parents placed him in Benedict Biscop's monastery at the age of seven, it is likely that he would have learnt quite a considerable amount about the paganism of the Anglo-Saxons from his elders, and from oral tradition. It has often been regretted that he did not pass on to his readers a great deal of what he must have known about Anglo-Saxon heathenism; and perhaps almost as often it has been retorted that this was not his concern, and that he would have certainly regarded it as tending towards evil to describe heathen practices. Nevertheless, what he does tell us, in his Historia Ecclesiastica, his De Temporum Ratione and his Vita Cuthberti is consistent with what we can learn from other sources. In particular, there are a couple of other references to pagan practices in the Saints' Lives, written in Latin in Northumbria in the early years of the eighth century, which amplify slightly what Bede has to say. All these sources differ from any other writings which we can use in a study of Anglo-Saxon heathenism in one important respect: that whereas the laws, penitentials and ecclesiastical decrees are all directed to the current situation, against survivals and superstitions, Bede's writing (except where he is quoting original documents) and the Saints' Lives describe past events, as they imagine paganism to have been. Since this is so, it seems a useful exercise to gather these references together, meagre though they may be. In assessing these references to past paganism, we need to keep two or three things in mind. One is that Bede and the hagiographers were writing about beliefs held and practices current within living memory, and therefore, though they may distort them somewhat, they are unlikely to be reporting anything which is substantially untrue. As John Morris pertinently remarked in 1967: If our historical record was entirely oral, if we lacked history books and records, a writer or a lecturer might...explain the Martello Towers of the south coast as defences erected (not against Napoleon but) against the Spanish Armada, without meeting protest or denial; but if he congratulated his readers on 2 A.L. Meaney our freedom from war in our generation, or praised the long unbroken democratic tradition of modern Germany, he would be treated as a humorist or a lunatic. Such distortion as Bede might give his English evidence, however, would have come about for one or two reasons, which we also have to keep in mind. The first is that we cannot suppose him to have been giving anything like a balanced picture. He tells us nothing about heathenism unless honesty forces him to do so. His work provides merely some highlights against a dim and dark background; the hagiographers give us only two further minute patches of illumination. So for a picture of Anglo-Saxon heathenism which has its most important aspects in the foreground we must look elsewhere. The other distortion which we may suspect in the Northumbrian writers is from the Christian literature which was available to them. Where the Great Fathers mentioned paganism, it belonged to the Mediterranean world, not the Anglo-Saxon. To cloistered monks there must have been a great temptation to take over some references from what they read, not from what they had...


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