14 April, 2007

Land of Angels, by Fay Sampson. Book review

Edition reviewed, Robert Hale, 2006, ISBN 0-7090-8097-2.

Set mainly in Kent in the period 583-604 AD, with scenes in Rome, Frankish Paris, the South of France and southern England, Land of Angels tells the story of St Augustine’s mission to preach Roman Christianity in England. The major characters are historical figures, including King Aethelbert of Kent, his Frankish Christian queen Bertha, their son Eadbald, Pope Gregory the Great, St Augustine and the various abbots and bishops of the mission to England.

Bertha is a Frankish Christian princess who makes a political marriage with the non-Christian English King of Kent, Aethelbert. Freedom of Christian worship for Bertha is a condition of the marriage, but she has to stand up to her husband to enforce the agreement. Meanwhile, in distant Rome, Gregory (not yet Pope) encounters two handsome English boys in the slave market, makes his famous pun “not Angles but angels” (the source of the novel’s title), and vows to convert the English to Christianity. Circumstances intervene and Gregory cannot go himself, but despatches the timid monk Augustine in his stead. Bertha makes Augustine welcome, but Aethelbert is suspicious of this new religion and the English priests and priestesses are actively hostile. Has Gregory picked the right man for the job?

This period of history rarely makes an appearance in fiction, so I’m naturally very pleased to see an author exploring it. I have always been curious about the factors that persuaded the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) and Norse to change to Christianity. Both early English and Norse culture placed a high value on loyalty, so how did they reconcile this with changing their allegiance from their established gods to a new one? Kipling explored it obliquely in his short story The Conversion of St Wilfrid, and Fay Sampson explores it here. The novel illustrates how the image of Christ as hero – as seen in early poetry such as The Dream of the Rood, and therefore a genuine image of the time – could have appealed to a king whose power was earned, maintained, and always at risk of being lost, in battle. The political and status aspects of religious conversion are also mentioned, and the power struggle between king and priesthood. Aethelbert sees Augustine as a way of checking the power of the priests of the English gods and asserting his royal will. Does he recognise that this new religion, with its connections to power-bases across Europe, will challenge the authority of kings to come? I can’t help but feel a shiver of foreboding for the struggle between Henry II and Thomas a Becket that would be played out at Canterbury in Kent more than half a millennium after Aethelbert’s decision.

Land of Angels is narrated in third person, mainly from the viewpoints of Bertha and Augustine. Having two narrators provides some variety of scene and outlook, as Bertha and Augustine have different concerns. Aethelbert is an attractive and interesting character, and I would have liked to see more of him and the political, diplomatic and military concerns he must have had.

The novel makes the conventional assumption that English-British relations were governed by ethnic purity, racial conflict and genocide, and that the English settlements in Britain formed some sort of strategic grand plan. The characters talk of “English conquest” and of the Britons being “driven west” or enslaved, and Aethelbert looks at the hills of what is now Wales and muses that “we” will “take” that too. As I have said before, I think the reality of post-Roman Britain was probably a good deal more complex than this simple ethnic conflict model.

Land of Angels takes an uncritically pro-Roman-Christian line. The non-Christian English treat Augustine and Bertha with courtesy, permitting them freedom of worship and being prepared to listen to and engage with new ideas. Neither Augustine nor Bertha shows a similar open-mindedness. They take the English tolerance as no more than their due, because their Roman Christianity is right. The English religion is referred to as magic, superstition, barbarism, evil and ‘darkness’, for all the world as if one were reading about Sauron. The British bishops who refuse to accept Augustine’s authority over them are shown as obstinate, arrogant and filled with vengeful racial hatred. The episode and Augustine’s subsequent curse is taken from Bede and no doubt reflects the orthodox Roman Christian view – the conservatism and independence of Irish and British clerics was clearly a regular source of annoyance to the Roman Church at Canterbury from the Synod of Whitby to the Welsh bishops of the Middle Ages, and the Church in Wales is an independent entity today. No doubt this one-sided portrayal reflects the devout beliefs of both the primary characters in the novel, Bertha and Augustine, for whom anything other than their own religion is misguided at best. I doubt that it looked quite so clear-cut from the other sides, and I personally would have liked to see alternative views explored.

Curiously, there is no reference to Byzantine links with Britain, although luxury goods from the Mediterranean have been identified from archaeological excavations on sites of the mid-to-late sixth century in many of the kingdoms in western Britain. The British bishops who met Augustine in the novel may have been isolated from Rome, but not because of geography. It would be surprising if the trade links that brought a jewelled Byzantine seal ring to North Wales, Spanish glass to Tintagel and Mediterranean wine jars to Dinas Powys near Cardiff did not also carry letters, people and ideas. It’s interesting to wonder whether the British bishops may have been in touch with contacts in the other Churches of the Eastern Mediterranean and whether doctrinal disputes may have contributed to their opposition to Augustine's authority.

A retelling of St Augustine’s mission to preach Roman Christianity to the English Kingdom of Kent.

Has anyone else read it?

13 comments:

Marg said...

This does sound interesting! Thanks!

Rick said...

You must be delighted to find a book set in this period!

Both early English and Norse culture placed a high value on loyalty, so how did they reconcile this with changing their allegiance from their established gods to a new one?

Interesting question, because on the whole Christianity gained ground without much effective pagan resistance, and - with a few conspicuous exceptions like the Saxons - without much recourse to conversion by the sword.

I wonder if Northern paganism, like Roman, wasn't really much more about ritual than about the gods as personalities. Although Wotan = Odin, etc., my impression is that the gods were pretty shadowy until late on - maybe when the Icelandic sagas were composed. Before that they were perhaps just vague personifications of nature - would people be loyal to the power of thunder the way they would be to their chieftain and ring-giver?

That's not really much to compete against the Lord of Hosts, or a Jesus whose time on the cross is seen not as the suffering image we're accustomed to (primarily from post-Tridentine Catholic imagery, I would guess), but as a heroic warrior's ordeal - I remember that that concept fascinated me when introduced to it in History of English class.

And to the degree that the old religion was mainly about ritual, the Mass can look just about any ritual in the eye and make the other guy blink.

Moreover, Christianity had the grandeur of Rome behind it. The Empire was gone, but surely not forgotten. Even the English must have had some sense that there were men who once ruled the world and built mighty works, and these Christians were somehow connected with them - which reinforces that whole Lord of Hosts thing.

My guess about the Byzantine connection is that merchant skippers - even Greek merchant skippers - weren't much given to theological discussions with their customers. Although the Eastern and Western churches were drifting apart, it probably wasn't enough at the time for eastern patriarchs to feel they should poach on western mission territory, especially at the extreme edge of the known world.

I've read about the archeology, though, and there were distinct Byzantine ties later. Didn't some of the Bretwaldas actually put "Basileus" on their coins? Much later still, after 1066 a good many English fighting men ended up in the Varangian guard, and Englishmen or their descendents were still there 138 years later. When the Venetians and French stormed the harbor walls of Constantinople in 1204, they got their stiffest resistance from "English and Danes."

Even though it's off topic, this is as good a place as any to make a terrible confession: I am a fan of the Fourth Crusade. Yeah, yeah, grotesquely without justification - why weren't they butchering Muslims, like decent and honorable crusaders? But my God, what a brilliant amphibious operation!

Bernita said...

No, I haven't read it.
Strikes me as one of those books that has one pausing to say "yeah..but, what about...?" every few pages.

Alianore said...

Haven't read it, but I wouldn't mind giving it a try. I read The Dream of the Rood at university and loved it, so I'd definitely be interested in reading a novel about early Christianity in England. The simplistic-sounding portrayal of English/British relations is a little off-putting, though.

Carla said...

Marg - hope you enjoy it, if you find time to read it!

Rick - Unfortunately there's not very much known about the pagan English religion. The names of the main gods are clearly related to the Norse gods (Woden-Odin, Thunor-Thor, Frija-Freyja - though Tiw is a bit of a puzzle as Tyr is something of a shadowy figure in the Norse pantheon and not obviously associated with war), so it's usually assumed that the rest of the religion was related as well. That's quite an assumption (and Tyr/Tiw implies to me that there wasn't an exact correspondence), but it's the best we've got, so we all use it (including me) - though it's as well to bear in mind that there's a lot more assumption and speculation than there is fact. I get the impression from the Icelandic sagas that people treated the Norse gods a bit like medieval saints; you picked a god and 'made friends' with him/her by offerings etc and hoped that he/she would grant you favours in return. It seems to be not so very far from the concept of giving an oath to a chieftain, or doing him service, and hoping for gifts/rewards in return. How far back that went I have no idea, but I think it's likely to be older rather than later - I don't think the Icelandic writers could have invented the gods and their vivid personalities to that degree of sophistication from scratch out of vague natural forces. Clearly the Norse gods, like the Greco-Roman gods, originated in natural forces, but I think the gods as personalities had probably been evolving for a very long time by the time the saga-writers came on the scene.

'Conversion by the sword' and the Saxons as conspicuous exceptions - could you expand on that, please?

I've no doubt that the Norse and English knew perfectly well that Rome had once ruled most of Europe, and that the Empire still existed in Byzantium. In the later 6th century it may have seemed a real possibility that the Byzantine Emperor might reclaim most or all of the old territories, with Justinian's successful campaigns in Italy etc. Roman Christianity deliberately played on its associations with Empire, adopting Roman titles and Roman language. There's a theory, which I think has some merit, that kings liked the idea of the Roman church because it supported hierarchy and the concept of a central power, as opposed to the much more individualistic and anarchic pagan approach. Hence the attraction for Frankish rulers like Clovis in the 5th century, and arguably the English kings in the 6th and 7th are an extension of the same process - a desire to emulate and/or recreate the power of the empire (each seeing himself as Emperor, no doubt). Hence the use of Roman regalia, Roman-style coins, even Roman-style titles (Aethelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, calls himself 'Basileus', though that may have been more to do with the contemporary titles in use in Byzantium than a distant memory of the Roman past). I think there was a definite sense that the Romans had once ruled the world and still ruled a large part of it, and that Roman rule was therefore A Good Role Model when casting about looking for ways to proclaim your authority as a king.

The trappings of power don't apply to Iceland in 1000 AD, though, when the decision to convert was taken by more-or-less democratic vote, so there was more than politics behind Christianity's success. It's a fascinating question to wonder why Christianity was so successful. My guess is that there wasn't much, if any, 'pagan resistance' as such because the 'pagan religion' wasn't organised into structures and institutions with a vested interest in resisting outsiders. People who followed it were used to the idea that there were lots of gods, and that if they chose to follow one that didn't mean they rejected their neighbour's favourite deity, so they had no difficulty in adding another god to the list. Some may have seen the Christian god, saints, etc as alternative names for figures they could already recognise. Later Christian manuscripts sometimes refer to the Christian god as 'The Thunderer', for example, which sounds like a title borrowed straight from Thor/Thunor, and 'Our Lady' is not so very far removed from Freyja's name, which means 'Lady'. Arguably Pope Gregory's famous letter recognises the value of a sliding transition, not changing too much too fast. Christianity also offers heaven to anybody, not just to the military elite, and that might have been a lot more attractive to the average joe than ending up in Hel :-) Though I should say here that we have no idea what the pagan English expected in the afterlife - Valhalla and Hel are Norse concepts and may or may not have been shared with the English a couple of centuries earlier.

I think Europe was a lot more connected than we tend to give it credit for, at least among the upper echelons of society. Perhaps especially for the military class, who could seek wealth and status wherever they could find it. You can argue that Beowulf is an international mercenary - and whether his story is true or not, it was obviously considered acceptable and admirable. Seen in this sense, the Varangian Guard is a continuation of a long tradition.

There's a theory, which again I think has some merit, that Justinian may have had some idea of using the British kingdoms in western Britain as allies in his campaign to reconquer the western empire. This theory explains the posh imports in western British capitals as diplomatic gifts. But whether diplomacy or just luxury trade, they do demonstrate that Britain might have been at the edge of the known world but it hadn't fallen off the map. If the British bishops wanted to find out what was going on in the Med, they had channels they could use.

I shall have to go and look up the Fourth Crusade now - an event I know very little about!

Bernita - the novel has a very close focus, and I tend to like to see the wider picture, but that's a personal taste.

Alianore - the whole ethnic conflict thing is something of a bugbear of mine. I can't prove it's wrong, but I really don't find it convincing. But it's a small part of the novel, whose main focus is on the Christian conversion (and if Aethelbert hasn't read The Dream of the Rood he's certainly thinking of something very like it). So if that's your main interest, you'll probably enjoy it.

Gabriele C. said...

The Icelanders weren't good pagans to begin with and they never became good Christians, either, as Prof. Kurt Schier, Munich, put it. :)

I love the decree of the Allthing in 1000 AD that basically says, ok, let's become Christians because it's better that the king in Norway isn't pissed at us because we need the trade connections; and those who still want to sacrify to the old gods should do so in secret (blotta i lönn). Only on Iceland authors could write price poems about bishops, ripe with heathen kenningar. And since it was the old goda elite that sent their sons to France and Germany to get an education, there was no cultural break like we often find in countries with a strong missionary movement and 'foreign', Latin speaking church officials. It also accounts for a higher degree of literacy in the Icelandic population than anywhere else in 12th/13th century Europe. They did it their way. :)

I'm not sure about the book, it sounds a too focussed on Christian religion.

Gabriele C. said...

Rick,
I think much of the Saxon resistance against Christianity was not so much about religion as about the fact that they didn't want to be ruled by a Frenchman. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - the Icelanders do seem to have had a wonderfully pragmatic approach to religion, don't they? I'm reminded of Laxdaela Saga where it's said of Kjartan that he had more faith in his own strength and weapons than in Thor and Odin.

And yes, I do think that Frankish domination was a concern in accepting conversion - I wonder how Aethelbert of Kent dealt with that? Did his conversion make him the Frankish king's vassal? It's not covered in the novel, which is very focused on religion and very pro-Christian and doesn't go very far into the political side.

Rick said...

Carla --

I don't think the Icelandic writers could have invented the gods and their vivid personalities to that degree of sophistication from scratch out of vague natural forces.

Perhaps "the tale grew in the telling" over a long period of time - c. 600 is centuries before the familiar Norse stories, and the common sources must have been older still. Mainly, though, I'm working backward from what seems like a lack of resilience in paganism. Which leads to

Conversion by the sword' and the Saxons as conspicuous exceptions - could you expand on that, please?

Proviso that I may be factually wrong; this whole period is not my strength area. (Is it really anyone's, given how little we know? :)

But my impression is that while individual kings might be anti-Christian, many of them went over pretty easily (especially after marrying a Christian wife). And when they did, their people followed the line as readily as the Vicar of Bray. No doubt the christianization was pretty superficial and remained so for centuries, and any amount of paganism remained just below the surface. But formal paganism went down mostly without much of a fight, both on the continent and in England. I don't think there was much of forcible conversion.

The Saxons are an exception, because Charlemagne came down really hard on them. Though in that case perhaps the real issue was submission to Frankish rule, with the Saxons fighting more for their independence than for their gods.

-- Rick

elena maria vidal said...

Sounds like a great book! Thanks, Carla, for the balanced review!

Carla said...

Rick - I think Gabriele has the rights of it in the Saxons vs Charlemagne case, it was at least as much about independence as religion. Though Charlemagne's era isn't my field.

The English conversions seem to a follow a pattern of: king converts; aristocracy (sort of) follows; king dies and his successor goes back to the old ways; successor (or successor's successor) gets converted; conversion stays permanent second time round. How much of it for how many people was lip-service and change of ritual rather than deep theology is anyone's guess - though my feeling is that if one was asking a supernatural power for some practical help, like a safe childbirth, or victory in battle, or a good harvest, it wouldn't much matter what name or title the supernatural power went by.

As you say, any amount of paganism survived for centuries, either as superstition or as rituals that acqrired a Christian patina. Things like the well-dressing ceremonies in the Peak look so much like pre-Christian water deity rituals, for example.

There is also the possibility, which I rarely see mentioned, that English settlers/federates who'd originally come in to work for the Roman army might have come across Roman religions like Mithras and Christianity long before Augustine arrived, so Christianity might not have been entirely strange to everybody. I know of no evidence either for or against this, but it's an intriguing possibility. Not to mention the theory that the British may not all have been quite as isolationist as Bede depicts them, and may have had a hand in converting some of the English, possibly via monks (like the Irish) rather than via the Church hierarchy.

Elena - thanks, and hope you enjoy it!

Rick said...

Gabriele - that would always be sufficient reason for the English!

Carla - Second time's a charm, I guess, when it comes to converting kings! Didn't their queens often play a significant role? In spite of modern popular imagination, perhaps Christianity had more appeal to women than the old religion did.

if one was asking a supernatural power for some practical help, like a safe childbirth, or victory in battle, or a good harvest, it wouldn't much matter what name or title the supernatural power went by

And if the supernatural power got a reputation for giving victories to its adherants, so much the better. Here the Church had an advantage in PR. Pagan kings also won victories, but the scops would sing their praises mainly in their own courts, or among their supporters. The victories of Christian rulers, in contrast, would be publicized everywhere, and for a long time - I'll bet that kings c. 600 were still hearing plenty about Constantine and the flaming cross before the battle of Milvian Bridge. Not to mention the Book of Kings. So Christian rulers' victories were repeated far and wide, while pagan victories remained "local news."

I've always thought it was a hoot that Ulfilas left the Book of Kings out of his Gothic translation, on the premise that the Goths didn't need to hear more about hacking & hewing. I suspect that orthodox missionaries were less squeamish.

Regarding the English and Britons, there was a fascinating item on Language Log a few weeks ago - I should have mentioned it here. In a nutshell, even though very few Celtic words got into English, there are apparently a number of grammatical peculiarities in English, not seen in other Germanic languages, but paralleled by Welsh and other Celtic constructions. Just what you would expect of Germanic dialects that spreading among large numbers of Celtic speakers.

Carla said...

Rick - Some English kings converted after marrying Christian queens - without trying I can think of Edwin of Northumbria (though there's a theory, which I like, that the British got there first with him) and Aethelbert of Kent. On the other hand, it was Raedwald of East Anglia's queen who un-converted him, so at least one woman definitely did not find Christianity preferable! Oswald and Oswy of Bernicia/Northumbria were converted by Irish monks while in exile in Dal Riada, no queens involved. Eorpwald of East Anglia (son of Raedwald) was converted by the king of Northumbria, probably reflecting political pressure or subservience, and at least one East Saxon king ditto under pressure from the king of Kent. So it looks to me as if a Christian queen (very possibly in her political/diplomatic role) could contribute, but was by no means the commonest factor. I'd read the second time lucky pattern as evidence that there was pagan resistance, or cultural conservatism, or a desire for independence or all of them, which didn't evaporate overnight.

Many of the conversion stories feature the Christian god handing out victory in battle - that's probably the commonest element by a long shot, though I haven't tried to do any statistics. The Church also had a neat weasel trick for explaining victories won by a pagan king who converted later - the victories won while he was pagan were a sign that he was going to be converted. Right.

Your point about international PR is a good one! Certainly Constantine was trumpeted all over the (ex) Empire for centuries. It's probably not a coincidence that his name was popular among the Pictish kings until the middle ages (it turns up in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Arthur legends too).

I've heard of that grammatical oddity in English before. Not being a linguist I can't assess its accuracy or judge whether there are alternative explanations. It sounds plausible to me. There's also a (controversial) theory that an ancestor of English may have been being spoken by some people in lowland Britain from way back, even before the Romans showed up, which would also be consistent with grammatical differences between English and the rest of the Germanic languages. As usual, I'm not sure that either is really testable.