Beyond empire II Christianities of the Celtic peoples


For this chapter, the Celtic peoples are those which still, in 600 CE, spoke a Celtic language. The continental Celts of antiquity are thus excluded, leaving only the Britons, who inherited their Christianity from Roman Britain, the Irish, who received theirs mainly from the Britons in the fifth and early sixth centuries, and the Picts. By 600 the initial constructive phase of Irish Christianity was over. It was three years since Columba died on Iona; Columbanus had already left Bangor for Burgundy. The great churches of the Irish were nearly all founded in the sixth century. There remained, however, many traces of that earlier period when, because of Irish settlements in Britain and British missionaries in Ireland, the church ofthe smaller island had been formed in the image of the church of the Britons. The insular scripts, shared by Britons and Irish, are only one especially obvious sign of the connection. The years about 600 were also, however, the time at which the younger Irish Church began to overshadow its British foster-parent. On the one hand, the British Church was suffering territorial loss and impoverishment from the English advance.1 On the other hand, Columbanus's letters to the papacy betray a pride in the flourishing Christianity of his homeland.

Not only had the British Church suffered from English advance, it was also threatened by the implications of the Gregorian mission to the English. Moreover, its Breton offshoot had, by 600, been instrumental in driving a wedge between the Christianity of "the Romans" of Gaul, those whom we call Gallo-Romans, and the Christianity of the Britons. In principle, Brittany was only part of the province of Lugdunensis Tertia and should therefore have been subject to the metropolitan bishop of Tours. Yet, as the works of one such metropolitan bishop, Gregory of Tours (d. 594), make evident, Brittany was as unruly a member of the Gallic Church as it was of the dominion of the

1 Pryce, "Ecclesiastical Wealth," 22-25.

Franks.2 There were slowly evolving cultural changes driving the Britons and the Gallo-Romans apart. By 600 Gallo-Romans were speakers of a Latin on the road to Romance; and, whereas in 400 there were many Britons whose first language was Latin, their numbers decreased in the period 400 to 700, and by the end of that period British Romance was probably extinct. Since the native Celtic language of the Britons established itself so strongly in the western half of Brittany, the politically and culturally dominant element among the settlers from across the Channel must have been British-speaking. This explains the paradox of the Britons: for the English and initially also for the Franks, they were Walas (Wealas), namely "foreigners who had been part of the Roman Empire";3 and yet, for Venantius Fortunatus (c. 530-c. 610), priest and poet, and later bishop of Poitiers, they were barbarians, non-Roman foreigners, as were Saxons, Franks, and Alamans.4 The cultural community bequeathed by the Latin-speaking west of the Roman Empire had gradually extruded those unassimilated elements, Britons and Basques, and now considered them as foreign as "the tribes from across the Rhine" and thus to be feared by all right-thinking Gallo-Romans.5 The Britons themselves, however, still thought of themselves in 600 as fellow-citizens of the Romans.6

In Britain, as in Brittany, post-Roman epigraphy long continued, largely in the Roman manner, with letter-forms descended from Roman capitals. But, in the seventh century, the distinction between epigraphic letter-forms and those appropriate for book scripts collapsed. In the late-seventh century, on the other hand, the English adopted epigraphy in the Roman tradition, as illustrated by the dedication inscription of Bede's monastery, Jarrow, put up by Ceolfrith in 685.7 As one culture abandoned Roman traditions, so the neighboring culture adopted them. For the Britons, the seventh century was a watershed between a post-Roman world and one in which the Roman Empire and all its works had receded into the past. Forthe English, it was a period in which they reconnected with the Roman past of the island which they had made their home. After the Synod of Whitby in 664, the contrast acquired a new sharpness.

2 Gregory of Tours, Libri historiarum X, IV.4; IX.18, 20.

3 PactusLegis Salicae, Title xli or see Laws of the Salian and Ripuarian Franks, 86-87. The best witness to the Malberg glosses, Eckhardt's A 2, is defective for xli. 8, but its exemplar may well have had uualaleodi as in xli. 9-10.

4 Venantius Fortunatus, OperaPoetica, Appendix 2. Adlustinum etSophiamAugustos, ll.31-32, 83-84.

5 Epistolac Austrasicac no. 9 (Germanus of Paris, "Letter to Queen Brunhild"); Gregory of Tours, Libri historiarum X, IV.49.

6 Canones Wallici, Version A, ยง 61 in Irish Penitentials, 148-49.

7 Higgitt, "Dedication Inscription."

The watershed of the seventh century was, however, crossed by many paths. One reason why it has been possible to assert (falsely) that British Christianity was not an inheritance from the Christianity oflate Roman Britain is that later Welsh and Breton writers were concerned to recall sixth-century churchmen but only fourth-century emperors.8 Most saints who came to be the vehicles of remembrance for their churches were dated to the sixth century: thus St. David, patron saint of the premier church of Wales, was believed to have died either in 589 or 601.9 They all tended to be made into contemporaries, because what mattered later was the relationship between their churches, and that relationship was expressed as a relationship between the patron saints, who therefore had to be portrayed as living at the same time. The occasional exceptions, such as Patrick, were unusual and were linked with the main "Age of the Saints" by other means, mainly by prophecy.

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