- Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church: From Bede and Stigand Edited by Alexander R. Rumble
Taken as a whole, this is a book that contains rather more and rather less than one expects from a study of the “leaders of the Anglo-Saxon church.” More, in that its ten chapters deal with an unusually diverse collection of sources, from textiles and stone sculpture to manuals for monastic sign language, thereby illustrating a wide range of different phenomena, from the involvement of bishops in succession disputes to the imagery of spiritual motherhood. But one might also hope that a book such as this—which begins with the early-eighth-century writings of the Northumbrian monk Bede and proceeds chronologically as far as the deposition of Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1070—would enable the reader to discern more clearly the role played by particular individuals in the development of the religious life in England during the pre-Conquest period. The disparate nature of its contents, however, makes it difficult to draw any such broad conclusions from the collection as a whole. This inevitably means that although several chapters offer much of value to specific ongoing debates, the entire volume does not quite fulfil the claim made in its preface: “to illustrate the important and various roles played by individual leading ecclesiastics in England, both within the church and in the wider political sphere” (p. ix).
A number of the contributors do nevertheless succeed in illuminating several previously obscure corners of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical history, with great effect. Allan Scott McKinley’s exploration of the early development of the Diocese of Worcester picks its way through difficult source material to provide a compelling [End Page 114] reconstruction of the bishopric’s early history, with an eye to its place in a changing political landscape. New light is offered on texts as well as events, with Martin Ryan’s treatment of Archbishop Ecgberht’s Dialogusg as a source for contemporary conditions in the mid-eighth-century Northumbrian church; and Joyce Hill’s investigation of Ælfric of Eynsham’s Pastoral Letter as a source for the ecclesiastical reforms carried out by its recipient, Bishop Wulfsige of Sherborne. Less conclusive but nevertheless stimulating discussions of episcopal involvement in contested royal successions, and of the individual(s) by whom Cluny’s system of monastic sign language was adapted for use in England, are provided by Dominik Wassenhoven and Debby Banham respectively. Other chapters deal less with the achievements and initiatives of “individual leading ecclesiastics” as with their reputation and treatment at the hands of writers and artists. Alexander Rumble therefore revisits the contrasting reputations of the late Anglo-Saxon archbishops Ælfheah and Stigand; Gale Owen-Crocker surveys the handful of surviving artworks that depict Anglo-Saxon abbots, bishops, and saints; and Cassandra Rhodes ponders the function of maternal imagery in written descriptions of abbesses and abbots alike. Since such literary and artistic depictions do retain some ability to influence our impressions of historical persons, there is undoubtedly a value in understanding the way that written and visual representations of these kinds came to be created; but only in the case of Ælfheah and Stigand are posthumous reputations and contemporary achievements placed alongside each other for direct comparison.
It will be clear from this overview that the “ecclesiastical leaders” singled out for attention in this volume are mostly bishops, and in that respect Nicholas Higham’s opening chapter on the Jarrow monk Bede and his ideas about the contemporary “English” church might appear somewhat out of place. As Alexander Rumble’s introduction states, scholars as influential as Bede “can be seen as leaders of the church but in a less public and more intellectual mode” (p. 2), but the present volume does not quite allow us to know whether intellectuals or diocesans ultimately had the more lasting effect on the direction of “the Anglo-Saxon church.” A variety of ideas, contemporary and...