The Gospel Versus the Anglo-Saxons

[This was one of the earliest posts I ever made on this blog, three years ago, back when I was still on blogspot.com. Somehow or another it "fell off" and I only just today realized it was gone. So here it is again, for your edification.]

The following account is from Gustav Schnurer’s Church and Culture in the Middle Ages, Vol. 1: 350-814, trans. George J. Undreiner (Paterson, New Jersey: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1956), pp. 352-354. The context is a discussion of the tolerance toward native customs that the Benedictine missionaries, sent to England by Rome, exhibited in their work with the Anglo-Saxon tribes in the seventh century.

…Many a time, no doubt, the need of patient, deliberate slowness taxed the zeal of the missionaries to the utmost, but it had this result: that those who had become uncertain in their pagan beliefs finally pushed toward a decision themselves, and the new teaching was much more firmly professed by the converts from the very beginning because they had freely accepted it.

We have a striking example of this in the account of the evangelization of Northumbria [an English kingdom]: an account which reveals, incidentally, what type of argument impressed the pagans the most. For one, thing it was the consideration of the impotence of their own gods, which they demanded should be tested by an ordeal; next, it was their own reflections upon the great mystery of life, upon the purpose of man’s existence and the possibility of a life hereafter. Here is excellent testimony to the seriousness of these barbarians and the quality of their intelligence, and proof that not all of them, by any means, were absorbed in the pleasures of this life.

The king appearing as the central figure in the account is Edwin, who had gained the throne of Northumbria in 617, and, proceeding from York, had brought all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms save Kent under his rule. With a view to establishing connections with Kent also, he sought the hand of Ethelbert’s daughter, Ethelburga, now destined to assume a role similar to her mother’s. Like Bertha, she accepted her royal suitor only after he promised to let her live according to her faith; hwe was, moreover, to allow Paulinus, one of the Roman monks, now consecrated a bishop, to reside near York.

Paulinus labored a long while to convert the king. Finally Edwin convoked a witenagemot [a council of the local lords subject to himself] and asked the attendant nobles for their opinion, beginning with the pagan high priest Coifi. With unprecedented frankness the fiery Coifi renounced the ancient gods: “If the gods had any power, they would have better supported me, who have served them with extraordinary zeal. If that which is now preached to us is better and proves itself more powerful upon being tested, we will accept it without hesitation.” Next, one of the ealdormen gave his opinion:

When thou, O king, art seated at table about the hearth in a comfortably heated hall in winter time with thy earls and thanes, when the storms howl without and the snow and rain come lashing, it may possibly happen that a sparrow files rapidly through the hall; it comes in through one door and goes out by another. For the short time that it is in the room the harsh weather does not touch it, but when it disappears from thy gaze, it soon returns to the dark winter. This seems to me to be the case with the life of man. We know not what has gone before it nor what will follow it. If the new teaching furnishes us with something certain about that, it deserves to be followed.

Upon Paulinus’ then expounding his doctrine, Coifi openly declared himself for it. The king followed him.

In addition, however, Coifi wanted to prove conclusively to all present the powerlessness of the pagan gods. Since a pagan priest was forbidden to touch arms and might ride only a mare, Coifi besought the king that weapons and a stallion should be brought to him. When the dismayed multitude beheld the priest riding toward them thus armed and mounted in deliberate defiance of the ancient gods, they believed he had suddenly gone mad. But Coifi galloped straight up to the pagan temple, and before the eyes of all hurled his lance against it without suffering any injury. No one then prevented the temple from being fired and destroyed.

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