An Anniversary Survey

While I’m off at Kalamazoo, you all can help me determine the direction of Heavenfield for the near future. You can vote for more than once choice (or more than once).

Thanks for the feedback!

An Anniversary Update

This week is the seventh anniversary of Heavenfield. The emphasis has changed a lot here over those seven years. I am still interested in seventh century Northumbria! I’m just taking the long way around to get back to it. I’ve spent most of the last year reading and writing on modern plague research for a project that will be released this coming fall. I’m ready to get back to the medieval North Atlantic! I’ve got a couple new projects in mind that you will probably see here eventually. In the meantime, I’m heading off to Kalamazoo tomorrow and I plan on tweeting the Congress this year, so watch the twitter feed for news.

Ireland’s First Easter Vigil

This is one of my favorite posts from the Heavenfield archive:

From Muirchu’s Life of Patrick:

“And on the very night that St Patrick was celebrating the Passover, they were partaking of the worship of their great pagan festival. Now there was a custom among the pagans — made clear to all by edict — that it would be death for anyone, wherever they were, to light a fire on the night before the fire was lit in the house of the king (ie the palace of Tara). So when St Patrick celebrating the Passover lit the great bright and blessed divine fire, it shone clearly and was seen by nearly everyone living on the plain of Tara. And those who saw it viewed it with great wonder. All the elders and nobles of the nation were called in the king’s presence and he spoke to them. ‘Who is this man who has dared to commit such a crime in my kingdom? Let him perish by death!” And the answer from those around him was that they did not know. Then the wise men answered: “‘O king, life forever!” This fire, which we see lit this night before the fire of your own house, must be quenched this night. Indeed, if it should not be put out tonight, it will never be extinguished! You should know that it will keep rising up and will supplant all the fires of our own religion. This one who lit it, and the kingdom he bringing upon us this night, will overcome us all — both you and us– by leading away everyone in your kingdom. All the kingdoms will fall down before it, and it will fill the whole country and it ‘shall reign forever and ever.'”

[The king and men confront Patrick to try to kill him but he and his followers escape. The king sees only 8 deer and one fawn in the darkness...]

“The next day, which [for us] was the Day of the Passover [Easter Day], was for the pagans the day of their greatest festival…. While they were eating and drinking in the place of Tara,…Patrick with only five companions appeared among them, having come through ‘closed doors’ in the way we read about Christ. He went there to proclaim and demonstrate the holy faith in Tara in the presence of all nations.” (Davies and O’Loughlin trans, Celtic Spirituality, Paulist press, 1999, p. 99-100, 102)

Theology as narrative at its best. As Thomas O’Loughlin describes it in his Celtic Theology (2000, p. 107):

“Muirchu had a few uncertain traditions about Patrick, but he had one theological certainty: the changing of people from being not-the-people-of-God to being part of Christ was the drama of the Paschal Mystery; the Paschal Mystery was entered through the drama of the liturgy, so the story of his people was the story of Easter Night. From his perspective as theologian/churchman could he have provided a more fitting origin story — a people reborn in the great event of Christian rebirth– for his people’s faith?”

Muirchu never calls Patrick’s fire a bonfire that is our assumption. The divine fire that Patrick lights represents the Paschal candle lit during the Easter vigil symbolizing the light of Christ in the world. Just as Muirchu claims that every fire in the kingdom was to be lit from the king’s pagan fire, every candle used during the easter vigil is lit from the paschal candle. Muirchu wrote for and was read by primarily monastics who would have immediately recognized this divine light as the paschal candle that they light every Easter Vigil. This candle is known to go back to at least the time of Jerome in the 4th century. Paschal means passover, and Muirchu calls Patrick’s Easter Vigil his celebration of Passover. In early medieval literature, including the Historia Brittonum, Patrick is consistently linked with Moses.

Muirchu says that Patrick went to Tara to speak to all the nations this is because the King of Tara was the High King of Ireland and representatives from most of the kingdoms of Ireland would have been present for the greatest pagan festival of the year.

Have a blessed Easter Sunday!


Celebrating St Cuthbert’s Day

Evensong and Procession at the Shrine of St Cuthbert

Evensong and Procession at the Shrine of St Cuthbert

Durham Cathedral posted a few pictures of their celebration of St Cuthbert’s feast day this year (yesterday) on facebook. I thought I would share this one. This is from the evensong service after the procession at Cuthbert’s shrine in the Cathedral.

A picture of the shrine below comes from their facebook page. I wish I could see the banner on the wall better. I think its St Oswald on horseback with his raven. Oswald’s skull is still in the casket with St Cuthbert. The pre-Reformation status of Cuthbert holding Oswald’s head is along the wall near the top of the grave. It was damaged during the Reformation.

Shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

Shrine of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral

The shrine is an enclosed chapel behind the main alter but also near the back center of the cathedral. There are more alters along the back wall behind the chapel. It seems to be a pretty unusual plan, or better yet a survival of a pre-Reformation floor plan. It’s possible only because of the huge size of Cathedral. The only one I saw remotely similar was the tomb of the Black Prince and kings in Canterbury cathedral but those were much smaller. (I have to say that the sight of all the Black Prince’s war gear displayed in church really put me off.) I saw lots of large coffins/sculptures in the middle of the floor in many English churches, but not walled off like this one.

Post-Roman Reforestation in Britain

This post is just really just a little brain storming….

It is generally known that major agricultural and landscape usage changes occurred in post-Roman Britain. Former agricultural land becomes reforested and naturally, Roman water management projects eventually fail.   Roman withdrawal from the island in the early fifth century is the usual explanation. Romans leave and the poor hapless Britons can’t manage without them. While there were surely major sociocultural changes going on, it never really made sense for the landscape change on such a massive scale. I expect the roads and bridges not to be kept up,  defensive clearances around fortifications to be partially reforested, and large estates would have broken up. This really doesn’t explain to me the loss of agricultural land to reforestation that occurred in parts of the island that lacked dense Roman estates. Afterall, most peasants would not have been able to evacuate the land and would have turned large estates into smaller farmsteads. New local leaders would have still been interested in food stuffs even if trade routes were drastically changes. So if most people could not have evacuated, where did they go? And is this tied to the Romano-British being able to hold Anglo-Saxon advance for over a century until a fairly rapid collapse in the sixth century? Other the settlement of Brittany in the 5th-6th century, there are no known large-scale migrations of Britons to the continent to account for the abrupt collapse after over 150 years since the Roman withdrawal. The Britons held their own very well considering how fast the Franks and Goths got control of their former Roman provinces.

So now jumping to some of my reading on plague studies…. large scale land use and agricultural change occurs in Britain after the Black Death. This is a product of not just the Black Death but also a century of ecological change that resulted in livestock murrains, famines, and culminated in the Black Death. Economists like to point out all the benefits of the fall in demographics on economics and eroding the social structures that kept the masses poor and tied to the land. After the Black Death, landscape changes begin resulting from changing agricultural styles, more pasture is available and less under cultivation. There is also an abrupt stop in building because the population has shrunk to the point where new structures are not needed. A stoppage in building also makes changes in building style more pronounced when building begins again at a slower pace after a couple of decades. It could be argued that the post-Roman period is one of the few eras in British history where land change occurred as drastically as after the Black Death. Ecologically should these periods be studied together? (Are there other periods in British history with similar amounts of change?)

Has too much of the post-Roman Britain change been credited to the Anglo-Saxons? What is the role of the plague of Justinian, from 541 and returning to Ireland in a couple more ‘waves’ before 664, in creating the right demographics for political change? Yes, plague would have effected the Anglo-Saxons also but they did not have the trade networks of the western Britons and Ireland to facilitate rapid transmission. There are also other ecological changes going on that may have precipitated the plague of Justinian. Social isolation (even incomplete) is a blessing in times of plague. All food for thought. As always looking for comments and suggestions….