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Let’s have done with the ‘Dark Ages’
The glint of gold in some long buried treasure is shedding new light on the culture of ancient Britain.
A great hoard of treasure uncovered in an English field by an amateur with a metal-detector is about to revise our whole idea of the Anglo-Saxon era. Historians have actually long grown suspicious about the notion of the "Dark Ages", which were variously said to run from the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West (5th century) to, oh, about the eighth or ninth or eleventh centuries. Or thereabouts.
Were they really dark? No books, no music, no learning, no good works of any kind? Just dark misery and gloom, weird superstitions, everyone fearful of everyone else and of strange dark gods and goddesses? Was it really like that? The treasure tells us otherwise. It consists of beautifully worked items showing great skill and artistry, and great wealth too in the form of gold and precious jewels.
We know quite a lot about the great and good things that were going on in Anglo-Saxon Britain. It was, for example, the era when Boniface -- born Wynfrith at Crediton in Devon, where he is still honoured as a local hero -- travelled to Germany as a Christian missionary, establishing his diocese at Mainz. There he founded schools and churches and wrote back home for funds and prayer support just as missionaries have done down the centuries. It was the era when Etheldreda founded her double-monastery at Ely in the fens; when Hilda lived at Whitby and encouraged the poet Caedmon to sing, giving us the first known poems in the English language.
Boniface -- a name he took when he became a monk and meaning "one who does good" -- banished superstition and encouraged learning. It is he who should receive our thanks for the tradition of the Christmas tree. The heathens in the German lands where he ministered worshiped trees, especially the great dark conifers which alone did not shed their leaves in winter. They saw these trees as somehow connected with eternity and chose the tallest and finest to be worshiped it as a god. But it was also a symbol of fear and terror -- their gods were not gods of love and there was no warmth or justice or comfort to be found in them. Boniface chopped down the great tree and taught that they could know and love a real God, a God who so loved the world that he had chosen to come and dwell among men, sharing their sufferings and their joys and ultimately dying for sinful humanity and rising again, triumphant over the grave. A tree can be a glorious thing, but it is only a tree: bring it into the house at Christmas time, decorate it with lights and let it play its part in celebrating the birth of the Light of the World.
Dark ages? No indeed. It was an era of growth and of new beginnings. The Anglo-Saxons wrote, sang, built and taught. They built churches and taught the Christian faith, and knew what truth was. They worked in metal and precious jewels. They told of their saints and heroes. They gave us our greatest historian, Bede, who wrote the first history of "the English Church and nation". He was a monk at Jarrow, and you can visit his tomb today in Durham Cathedral.
The Anglo-Saxon era was a long one, stretching over several hundred years. It is true that many of their simple churches were rebuilt under Norman rule after the Conquest in the 11th century. The tall rounded Norman arches, and the later great Medieval windows and towers make the humble squat Saxon buildings look simple and homely. But the Saxon churches that remain have stood the test of time, and their stones still speak to us of prayer and Mass and sermon, of children baptised and taught the faith and adults receiving word and sacrament, and faithful dead laid to rest with prayers and assurances of a God who deals justly and with mercy.
It is true that the first Anglo-Saxons here were not Christian. It was a hard-fought thing to bring the Christian faith to an entire island. Battles were fought, literally and verbally. The early Angles, Saxons and Jutes who settled here as the Roman empire collapsed and Roman order retreated were certainly pagan. They gave us the names we still use for the days of the week - named for their various gods, such as Mars (war), Thor (thunder) and Freia (springtime).
However, the Christian faith had arrived in Britain under the Romans. The invading Angles and Saxons needed their own evangelisation - and got it via Augustine who landed at Canterbury in 595 after urgent pleadings from the Christian queen Bertha (from Gaul) who was married to the pagan Ethelbert of Kent. Augustine had the blessing of Pope Gregory -- the one we call Gregory the Great -- who had seen Anglo-Saxon child slaves in the Trajan market in Rome and famously said that they should be called not Angles but angels.
The evangelisation that began at Canterbury overlapped with -- and had some tensions with -- the Romano-British or Celtic Christianity that was still thriving among the native British. Things were not resolved until the Synod of Whitby in the seventh century. Which brings us back to the treasure that has just been discovered in Staffordshire, because that is thought to date from that century, too. St Boniface the Saxon missionary was born in 672, as was St Bede the great historian, probably in the same year or in 673.
Of course Christianity doesn't always mean that people behaved well; alas not. So much so that it's now fashionable to suggest the reverse -- that Christianity only means wars and persecution and general nastiness. But then you would have to deny that it was also responsible for schools and hospitals and universities, knowledge of science and medicine, the writing of great poetry and literature, the relief of poverty, and the creation of some of the world's most sublime art, music, sculpture and architecture.
What we do have to recognise is that the Anglo-Saxon era, a period which saw the arrival of Christianity and its inculturation among the people living in what we today call England, was an era when a civilisation was being brought into being, when much that was large and lasting and worthwhile was being done.
It's time we stopped thinking in cliches. The Anglo-Saxon era is waiting to be rediscovered. This treasure haul will not only provide historians with much rich treasure to examine and explore and discuss and analyse. By all of us and not just historians.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.
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