So I’m reading Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland, and I’ve got lots of talking points so to speak. I’m going to bring them up in what ever order I feel like writing about so they may jump around a bit. He has mentioned apostasy twice in ways that really made me think.
First in discussing Patrick’s “apostate Picts” he notes that there is quite a bit of evidence including some archaeological evidence of Christianity among the southern Picts. He notes that when Patrick uses the term apostate he may be using a biblical meaning that just means wicked. It doesn’t necessarily mean someone who has abandoned Christianity much less returned to another religion.
“Professor Dumville has concluded that Patrick implicates the Picts in question in the crimes of the Christian warriors of Coroticos, ‘rebels against Christ’ for having sold fellow Christians into slavery. These Picts, whoever they were, can only have been so implicated, if they, like Coroticus and his men, were Christians….[Fraser concludes] the term does does not require these Picts to have been genuine apostates, any more than Patrick’s words require us to believe that the warriors of Corotocos were genuine rebellatores Christi.” (Fraser, p. 112)
So Patrick’s term apostate is meant as a slur. This makes more sense than Patrick knowing the details of the spiritual life of the Pictish buyers of British slavers. We don’t use the term apostate much any more but we certainly still convey the intent. Churches undergo schisms and each considers the other to be apostate. Then, like now, we don’t really imply that they are no longer Christian, but that we think there is something wrong with their practice of Christianity. (Ok, well some of the most virulent heresy hunters may actually mean that their opponents are no longer Christians, but most of us wouldn’t go that far…)
While all this makes sense for Patrick, it does lead Fraser to push aside Bede’s use of the term apostate (and descriptions of the same) as mere slurs. The apostasy of Eanfrith of Bernicia and Osric of Deira becomes one more piece of evidence in his undermining of Bede’s account of the evangelization of Northumbria. Even though Bede is quite explicit that Eanfrith and Osric returned to idolitry and abandoned Christianity Fraser implies this is all just part of Bede’s paradigm for setting up Oswald’s sainthood.
I’ve been really surprised by the depth that Fraser will go to undermine Bede’s account of the Northumbrian conversion. He practically wipes Aidan away as a mere stereotype for Bede’s ideal bishop. I’m not saying that Bede didn’t put some of his views into Aidan, but Aidan is also a very problematic ideal bishop for Bede. Bede, a lifetime member of the diocese of Hexham, could have easily chosen to make Paulinus of York his ideal bishop or John of Beverly, who had been Bede’s own bishop. He could have made much more of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne in the History as an ideal bishop. There may be reasons for not choosing a bishop from living memory in 731, but surely Paulinus of York would have been safe enough. There has to be more behind Bede’s selection of Aidan for special promotion in the History than a desire to build a paradigm for the ideal bishop and ideal king.
On a side note, when I read the account of Eanfrith’s death I have sometimes wondered if there isn’t Christian symbolism embedded there as well. Eanfrith is executed when he sues for peace accompanied by 12 carefully chosen thegns. It made me wonder today if Oswald had not supported Eanfrith’s decision to parley with Cadwallon and later tried to show his brother’s death as a model of Christian behavior. Does death while suing for peace make him a martyr? Do the 12 chosen thegns represent the 12 disciples? While I think that Bede is sincere in calling Eanfrith apostate, Oswald would have been more familiar with the real politiic of becoming king in 633. It is possible that Eanfrith had taken Rædwald’s choice and allowed the old rites to continue along with the new. It may have been vitally important in gathering an army to be so open minded. It wouldn’t suprise me at all if Oswald had supported Eanfrith and then changed his strategy after Eanfrith’s execution. Oswald’s sincerity at Heavenfield may have been fueled in part from learning the lessons of his brother, that there can be no middle ground in conversion. My perceived christain imagery in Eanfrith’s death may be illusionary, but Bede’s description certainly isn’t part of a paradigm to build up Oswald.