Rosslyn Chapel, “the Celts”, and the Christianisation of Europe

My wife and I visited Rosslyn Chapel, a Scottish Episcopal Church in the village of Roslin just outside Edinburgh, the other day. It has been made famous by the infamous Dan Brown and his The Da Vinci Code. Its (probable/possible) connexions to the Knights Templar has made for a wealth of exuberant speculation about the myriad decorations in this Collegiate Church of St. Matthew.

Outside of things directly traceable to the Freemasons, with whom the St. Clairs — the Lords of Rosslyn — have historically-attested connexions, most of this speculation is … silly, in my opinion. The sort of silliness borne of people who hear “Freemason” think “Templar” and then see something ornate and think “Code,” rather than “MEDIAEVAL.”

In this beautiful, ornate chapel there are 110 Green Men. Now, if you don’t know about the Green Man, he’s not a mediaeval proto-extraterrestrial. He is a carven image of a man’s head surrounded by foliage and with foliage coming out of his mouth. Some modern renderings of the Green Man make him entirely out of plants. The Green Men of Rosslyn Chapel, from what I saw, are of the former variety.

Here is what the current Earl of Rosslyn in Rosslyn Chapel says:

Over one hundred [Green Men] have been counted in the interior of the building, a profusion of pagan fertility symbols not unexpected in a place so influenced by the Celtic tradition. … The green man symbolised the capacity for great goodness and the parallel scope for significant evil. (21-22)

The Earl goes on to give us a bit of Robin Hood, connecting him with the Green Man.

What surprised me and provoked this post was the statement that pagan fertility symbols are “not unexpected in a place so influenced by the Celtic tradition.” What Celtic tradition, exactly? That of Freemasonry? Or that of the Irish monks who were virulently anti-pagan and Christianised Scotland? Or that of the … continental … Gothic … architecture of Rosslyn Chapel …??

Facts: The Green Man is not peculiarly Celtic, and Rosslyn Chapel is not especially “Celtic”, and this region of Scotland was settled by Anglo-Saxons in the Early Middle Ages, so it was not really very “Celtic” by 1446 when construction began on the chapel.

I’m not going to argue that the Green Man is something other than a pagan fertility symbol (I reckon that’s exactly where he comes from — as to why he’s on churches, that’s a different question altogether), although I’m curious as to the stuff about goodness and evil — it sounds like romanticised neo-paganism to me.

But I am going to argue that the presence of pagan things has nothing to do with Celtic-ness in these whereabouts, even if the Pictish population of Mid- and East Lothian had not been assimilated by the Germanic invaders. Or, at least, if it’s related to Celtic-ness here, it’s just as related to Italian-ness in Italy, Cypriot-ness in Cyprus, Spanish-ness in Spain, French-ness in France, Germanic-ness in the Holy Roman Empire, and so forth.

Conversion to Christianity took a new turn after Constantine’s conversion in the early 300’s, a turn that was kicked into high gear by Theodosius I in 381 when pagan rites in the Roman Empire were outlawed. Justinian (r. 527-565) sought the forcible conversion of pagans throughout Asia Minor and hunted down idolaters in his Christian capital of Constantinople. With a growing number of Christian rulers and potentates, conversion to Christianity became a matter of more than merely personal conviction.

In some cases, as with Olav in Norway or Charlemagne amongst the mainland Saxons, converting meant that you got to keep your life. In other cases, converting meant you got to keep your land, your titles, your money. In some cases, converting meant that you got a better job at court, or extra land, extra titles, and extra money. There were very compelling reasons to become a “Christian”, and not all of them had to do with the death of a Jewish rabbi c. AD 33.

The Christianisation of Europe is an interesting phenomenon as a result. It is true that there has always been a notable population of sincere, honest, devout, catechised Christians in the cities and towns of Europe. It is also true that paganism often went underground in the Middle Ages — even in an ostensibly “Christian” city such as Constantinople; this is often what “witches” were up to, I suspect — worshipping pre-Christian deities with pre-Christian rites.

Sometimes, paganism was simply syncretised into Christianity. Thus, at the Church built on the site of the Temple of Aphrodite in Paphos, Cyprus, to this day women wishing to conceive wrap threads around the building. There is the possibility that St. Brigid of Kildare (not to be confused with the many other Sts. Brigid) was just the slapping of an ST onto a local deity. A lot of local festivals of fire have been maintained to this day. There are more, but I’m tired.

All of this is to say that the Celtic-speaking peoples of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales were no more keen on paganism than the Germanic-, Romance-, Greek-, and Slavic-speaking peoples of mainland Europe. Any pagan connexion the Green Men of Rosslyn Chapel may have is not due to any so-called “Celtic” connexions the area may have had.

But, you see, this problem is the problem of the mythic “Celts.” Everyone lays claim to the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval Celtic-speaking peoples of these isles, sometimes tossing in some of the continental Gauls for fun. The evangelicals see them as some sort of Church free from Roman influence, while the Catholics see them as good Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox as good Western Orthodox. The Neo-pagans and New Agers get all excited about them, too, and lay claim to these peoples as their own. One article I’ve seen discusses the similarities between “Celtic” thought and St. Maximus the Confessor; another wonders at the great similarities between “Celts” and Buddhists.

Basically, say anything you like about being free-spirited, and earthy, and in touch with nature, and making distinctive art forms, and believing in the closeness of the numinous, and being free from oppressive hierarchies, and about making Christianity real to the culture you’re in — or about resisting subversively the influx of Christian ideas — and attribute it to “the Celts”, and you have a hit. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.

So many of the things people imagine to be distinctively Celtic, such as Green Men or the persistence of pagan images and ideas throughout the Middle Ages, are, quite simply, Mediaeval. But we don’t have enough Mediaevalists to go around, do we?

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Saint of the Week: St. Augustine of Canterbury

For those still curious about the doings of the Classic Christian Reading Group, this past week we read Bede’s account of St. Augustine, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book 1, chh. 23-26, par. 1 of 27, 29, 31, 33, 34; Book 2, Chh. 2, 3.

In the year of Our Lord 596, Pope St. Gregory the Great, Doctor of the Church, sent missionaries to the island of Britain to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxon peoples dwelling there.  At the head of this expedition was the abbot (for the missionaries were monastics) Augustine (not of Hippo).  As these Italian missionaries got closer to the English Channel, they wavered in their commitment.  Why on earth were they going amongst a barbarian people who did not worship the Most Holy Trinity, did not honour the name of Christ, had strange customs, and spoke a language they did not even know?

They sent Augustine back to Gregory in Rome, but Gregory would hear none of it, but instead exhorted them not to turn back having put their hand to the plough, for it would have been better never to have started at all than to have chickened out in Gaul (France) — a common piece of advice to ancient and mediaeval monks and missionaries.

Strengthened by Pope Gregory’s words, they crossed over to the island of Thanet and made their presence known to Ethelbert, King of Kent.  Ethelbert went over and met them, allowing them to stay on the island for a while until he was certain of their motives.  Ethelbert’s wife was a Frankish princess named Bertha and herself a Catholic Christian (this is in distinction to Arian Vandals or Goths), so he had some knowledge of the faith.

Once King Ethelbert was convinced the were of good intent, the missionaries were given an old church in Canterbury to operate from.  Although he did not wish to convert at first, since it is a big deal to turn away from the customs and beliefs of one’s ancestors, Ethelbert saw no harm in allowing the Christians to preach among his people, allowing the people of Kent to believe as they chose.  If we consider the attitude of a good many Christian princes and bishops at this point in time, King Ethelbert’s tolerance is outstanding.

The missionaries lived together in monastic simplicity, sharing everything in common, and providing a stipend to the married missionaries who seem to have been involved in the project.  Their simplicity of life, miraculous signs, and clarity of preaching won many souls from among the English.  Canterbury became the seat of episcopal power in Kent, and remains the see city for the Church of England to this day.  Before long, King Ethelbert converted and was baptised, giving even greater freedom of movement to the missionaries both to preach and to restore old Roman churches that had fallen into disuse during the centuries of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the old province of Britannia.

Augustine was accordingly consecrated bishop in Arles, the nearest major episcopal seat.  Now that he was a bishop and the growth of the Church amongst the English was a more secure reality, he wrote to Pope Gregory about various questions concerning the life and order of the Church as it would become established in its new home, as well as questions surrounding the life and practice of the bishop.  Notable amongst St. Gregory’s replies to St. Augustine’s questions was the following encouragement:

… if you have found customs, whether in the Church of Rome or of Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them, and teach the Church of the English, which is still young in the Faith, whatever you have been able to learn with profit from the various Churches.  For things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.  (Bede, Ecclesiastical History 1.26, trans. Shirley-Price, p. 79)

Such an attitude would seem shocking to people reared on Reformation myths of mediaeval Christianity, or with the knowledge of Charlemagne’s attempts at making all liturgy and practice uniform in the eighth century.  Yet this is not so surprising if we consider the vast world of ancient Christianity which spread from Ireland to Mesopotamia and even India and included various cultures.  There was and is much similarity among the traditional liturgies, be they Roman, Gallican, Byzantine, Coptic, Syrian, and so forth, but with flexibility for local variation.

According to one book I read, this embracing of the good from both the Roman and Celtic practices is what helped shape and form the Use of Sarum, the particular liturgy in use in England until the Reformation.  No doubt it was less florid in St. Augustine’s day.

This willingness to take what is good from the pre-existing culture is demonstrated in the evidence that remains of Anglo-Saxon Christianity as established by men like Augustine and Cuthbert and as it stood until the coming of the Frenchified Viking Normans in 1066.  For example, the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels demonstrate an artistic aesthetic that stands proudly beside the Celtic art of the Book of Kells.  Many of the considerations and prayers we find from the Saxons resonate with those we find amongst the monks of Iona.

Although there was some clash between the Roman missionary enterprise from the South and East and the Celtic from the North and West, much of what the modern Celtic movement in Christianity treasures existed within Anglo-Saxon Christianity as well.

However, the encounters between St. Augustine and the Celts were not all afternoon tea and crumpets.  The Celtic Church was not following the same date for Easter as the rest of the Church (ie. the Church from Spain and France to Mesopotamia, from Germany to Ethiopia), and they had their own monastic system.  St. Augustine tried to force the Celtic Christians to accept the universal date for Easter and to adopt Roman (ie. Benedictine) monastic practices.  They refused; many were slain by an Anglo-Saxon pagan king years later.  Bede attributes their deaths to their refusal to submit to St. Augustine.

As St. Augustine’s mission grew, he consecrated bishops in London and Rochester.  Many of the English became Christians during this time, and because of King Ethelbert’s conversion, many people with senior positions within the realm adopted Christianity or were promoted because they were Christians.  Ethelbert did not force his people to convert, maintaining his previous openness to people of other beliefs.

In 604, St. Augustine died.  The Church he helped found spread throughout all of England, and those worshipping communities have their successors amongst the worldwide Anglicans as well as English Roman Catholics.  A great harvest has been reaped, to glory of God Almighty.

Saint of the Week: St. Columba

St Columba Yesterday was the feast day of St. Columba.  He was born December 7, 521, at Garten, County Donegal, Ireland.  He fell asleep in the faith of Christ on June 9, 597, on the isle of Iona, Scotland.

Things St. Columba is famous for:

a. Founding the monastery at Iona.

b. Seeing the Loch Ness Monster.

Coupled to his feast being this week is the fact that Iona is the picture on my calendar for the month of June, so I felt St. Columba was an appropriate choice.

My main source is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 3, Chapter 4.  Adamnan’s Life is undoubtedly fuller, but time is short, as I have a lot of reading to do.

We learn from Bede that in Ireland, St. Columba founded a monastery “known in the Irish language as Dearmach, the Field of Oaks.”  This would be modern Durrow.  In the year 565, he crossed over to Alba (Scotland), where he brought the light of the Gospel to the Picts living north of the Grampians.  Undoubtedly I had ancestors amongst these people, although most of my Pictish ancestors would have received the Gospel a century earlier from St. Ninian who preached to those living south of the Grampians.

565 was the ninth year of the reign of King Bride son of Meilochon.  By his preaching and example, Columba established the faith of Christ among the Pictish people.  They gave him the island of Iona on which he founded a monastery.    He  was abbot of the monastery there until his death in 597.  Iona became a great centre for Celtic monasticism as well as of pilgrimage.  Kings of Scotland are buried there.  The abbey is still there today, as the centre for The Iona Community as well as a place of spiritual pilgrimage for many.

During his missionary journeys, the following event of note happened to St. Columba.  From Vita Columbae by Adamnan, fifth abbot of Iona:

ON another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat. The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank. And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream. Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, ‘Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.’ Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians. (trans. William Reeves)

Two things to close, a poem and a prayer.  First, that which, before things went kaput over at Matthew’s Random Ramblings, was the Weekly Poem on September 13th.  This is a poem by St. Columba from Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery, reminds me of Anglo-Saxon poetry.  As with other poetry you’ll find out there, its name comes from the first words.  It is a Latin poem, although other poems in the collection are Gaelic.  The translation is by Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Markus.

Adiutor Laborantium

O helper of workers,
ruler of all the good,
guard on the ramparts
and defender of the faithful,
who lift up the lowly
and crush the proud,
ruler of the faithful,
enemy of the impenitent,
judge of all judges,
who punish those who err,
pure life of the living,
light and Father of lights
shining with great light,
denying to none of the hopeful
your strength and help,
I beg that me, a little man
trembling and most wretched,
rowing through the infinite storm
of this age,
Christ may draw after Him to the lofty
most beautiful haven of life
… an unending
holy hymn forever.
From the envy of enemies you lead me
into the joy of paradise.
Through you, Christ Jesus,
who live and reign . . .

The prayer to close is the Collect for St. Columba, as found on the Daily Office Blog:

O God, by the preaching of your blessed servant Columba you caused the light of the Gospel to shine in Scotland: Grant, we pray, that, having his life and labors in remembrance, we may show our thankfulness to you by following the example of his zeal and patience; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.