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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John Wesley on Spiritual Reading

As promised, here are some thoughts on Wesley’s thoughts on spiritual reading.

First, go and read his brief introduction to The Christian’s Pattern, Wesley’s abridgement of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.  A non-copyright edition is available through Google Books.  My thanks to Liam for making me aware of this fact.

In our world of instant, consumable media such as blogging, newspapers, TV, magazines, etc, Wesley’s advice goes somewhat against the grain.  His first piece of advice?  Find an assigned time for reading your spiritual book (in this case, The Christian’s Pattern).  Same time every day.  Don’t give it up unless absolutely necessary, and then reassign your time for reading to time as close to the original as possible.  Most of us tend to read whatever we want whenever we want.  Wesley urges not to do this.

This first piece of advice is actually quite good.  It is sensible for someone who has limited time and a specific book to work through.  The establishment of a routine can be the establishment of a good habit.  By doing our spiritual reading at the same time every day, we are less likely to forget about or let it slide to the wayside.  And if we keep it up for 40 days, it becomes a habit.  Some habits are good and worth keeping.

Second, he encourages the reader to read with purity of intention.  We are supposed to prepare our hearts and minds for reading.  We are to read prayerfully, asking God to enlighten us through the reading, to make us attuned to what he is saying.  Most of us just grab a book/computer/magazine/whatev and plunge in with no preparation or time for self-examination.

I like this second piece of advice.  Clearing your mind of the detritus of the day before engaging in any task that requires mental preparation just makes sense.  You are less likely to be distracted and more likely to follow Kierkegaard: “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.”

Third, we are not simply to burn through our spiritual reading like it’s a thriller by Frank Peretti, Dan Brown, or Daniel Defoe.  We are to read “leisurely, seriously, and with great attention.”  We are reading for our own profit.  We are to read and reread until we thoroughly understand what is being said and have applied to our lives.  If something is of especial profit to us, we should go over it and meditate on it more than once, trying to appropriate the lesson for how we ought to live.  Again, most of us are careless in our reading.  We read quickly and for pleasure, not slowly and with leisure.  If we wish to have our souls scoured and made clean by the spiritual books in our lives, Wesley urges us to slow down.

If we read slowly, carefully, and methodically, our reading is more likely to have a lasting impact upon the way we think and live.  I think we need to engage in this kind of reading more than once a week (if we are readers, that is), and possibly every day.  I have read a lot of stuff about spirituality and the Bible, but very little had truly soaked into me.  Perhaps if I followed John Wesley’s advice on spiritual reading, it will finally soak in and transform who I am, how I live, what I think.  And perhaps I’ll more easily be ready for the movement of the Spirit when He says, “This part here — not such a good idea…”

Fourth, John Wesley exhorts his readers to stir themselves up to “a temper correspondent with what you read.”  The idea is that we are more than mere intellects but are also spirits and bodies, with emotions and passions.  This paragraph is a reminder that John Wesley is the man whose “heart was strangely warmed,” a man who once had an experience that looks suspiciously like “being ‘slain’ in the Spirit” to my eyes, the man who gave Hooker’s three-legged stool a fourth leg, that of experience.

I understand what this fourth piece of advice is driving at.  However, it seems the most suspect to me, to someone of academic training, to someone who, since high school at least, has been told to set aside passions and emotions when approaching a text.  A text is to be studied with the intellect alone.  To bring the bundle of emotions and passions that make me me is to compromise my point of view, to ruin my objectivity.  I am, as a result, not sure how far to go with Wesley on this fourth piece of advice.

Finally, he exhorts the reader to conclude with a prayer.  This is sensible advice.  We are to lead lives soaked in prayer, imbued with the very presence of God in all that we do.  We should begin and end all activities with prayer; we should also pray in the midst of them.

This little introduction also serves as a reminder that John Wesley was a Methodist before he wasn’t an Anglican.