I know I’ve talked before about how neat research can be, but recently, I’ve hit on a rather specific vein, and since I find it so cool, I needed to share it. This will not be organized. It is an enthusiastic rant.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been diving into the British Dark Ages--specifically, the period of Anglo-Saxon Britain.
To properly understand this time, there’s a good bit of important background information to lay out. In the simplest terms, Anglo-Saxon Britain is Britain as it existed after the Romans imperially annexed the indigenous Celts and then abandoned the island after a few centuries of culture-blending, during the immigration and settlement of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in the 500-600’s-ish, and before the Norman conquest in 1066 AD.
The thing is, when people move so much, you get some really interesting stuff happening.
For starters, religion.
Christianity had been imported to Britain by the Romans after Constantine, but there was still a healthy cultural stew of both Roman paganism and pre-Roman paganism blended in even after the Romans left. This period of sub-Roman Britain is known as the Age of Arthur because, if the legendary king was in fact real, the period of time between the fifth and sixth centuries would have been his era. In fact, Tintagel, a ruin on the western coast of Britain, was referenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the medieval period as Arthur’s birthplace. Interestingly, at the site, a relic was found carved with the name ‘Artognou’... while many are skeptical, there has been debate over whether or not this could be counted as evidence toward the existence of the legendary warrior king.
Religion, of course, varied by region, since the highland areas of the island were much less culturally Roman during that period of occupation. Christianity made it to Ireland with Patrick and Palladius in the sixth century--notably different from Britain, since the Emerald Isle was never conquered by Roman influence. If Patrick’s own Confessio, along with the Life of Saint Patrick by the Irish monk Muirchú are to be believed, some pretty wild miracles had something to do with it. That flavor of spirituality is something we’re going to revisit later.
Now let’s take a pause, because a lot is happening at once. For starters, the mainland is having a Time. The Huns have already invaded, bringing with them central Asian culture, which left a distinct and materially evident mark on the high class all around the area that is now France and a large part of Western Europe (which was then an ever-shifting stew of peoples--Franks, Visigoths and other dudes, and before them, Gauls). But trade between the mainland and the British Isles has been evidenced for thousands of years (check out the Dover Bronze Age boat, it’s super cool), and that evolving culture, like all culture, was destined to blend, be adopted, and spread in its own adapted forms. So when peoples started moving into Britain after the Romans rolled out, they were bringing a culture that was distinctly unique from the culture that’s existed in Britain for centuries.
So now, kingdoms are rising.
The most powerful of these kingdoms is Kent. Remember, at this point Britain is not England. It’s Mercia, Hwicce, East Anglia, Deira, Northumbria, Bernicia… overall, there’s a lot happening. By the archaeological record, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes settled on the eastern coast, and Kent, a largely Saxon place, became immensely developed. The Kentish laws, written in Old English (by which I mean the language that preceded Chaucer and Malory’s Middle English and Shakespeare’s Early Modern English--for an example, the original first line of the Kentish laws reads, “Þis syndon þa domas, þe Æðelbiht cyning asette on Augustinus dæge.”), is the first legal code that has been preserved in the English language. They set out complicated rules regarding injury, marriage, social order and the caste system thereof, the role of the king, and the role of religion. And this resource is fascinating. The Dark Ages, which lasted from the 400s AD to the Norman conquest in 1066 AD, are so named due to the obscurity that historians encounter when they attempt to study it. Precious little written matter has survived, and other than the odd archeological site turning up under highway construction, there’s a lot that researchers wish they knew. The Kentish laws are some of the clearest indicators of how society worked.
The religious aspect of them is also interesting. Æðelbiht (modernized as Æthelberht) was a Christian. And this marks the beginning of a truly incredible progression of events, as Christianity was instated, then rescinded, then reinstated--and has anyone been keeping an eye on Ireland? Because while Æthelberht was marrying a Frankish princess, a Christan woman named Bertha, but only converting himself after Pope Gregory sent a missionary movement (there are a lot of political moving parts to this conversion, it isn’t quite so simple but we’ll leave it at this for now), Irish Christianity was… vibing. After all, the Irish had been doing their own thing since Patrick, and after a few hundred years, had essentially evolved Irish Christianity into an independent sect. Which means that while Kent is making up its mind about Jesus, Irish Christianity--which has made its way to Iona, off the coast of Scotland--is reseeding Christianity into the island of Britain from the northwest.
Nobody can agree on the date of Easter.
It’s a problem.
And that, my friends, is where I will now leave off. I wish I could offer some kind of resolution for this absolutely riveting cliffhanger, but the truth is, this stuff takes a long time to get through. And this is the point in history that I have, at this moment, reached. There’s a lot ahead of me! I’m getting so many absolutely incredible ideas, and I’ll only get more as I go.
But you know what?
I’ll keep you updated.
The Life of Saint Patrick--Muirchú
The Ecclesiastical History of the English People--the Venerable Bede
On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain--Gildas
The Kentish laws--Æthelberht, Eadric and Hlothere, and Wihtred (there are a number of translations available, but I used the one by Frederick L. Attenborough)
Sub-Roman Britain: An Introduction--Christopher Snyder
The Anglo-Saxon World--Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan
The expertise of one Paul J. E. Kershaw
If you’re really intrigued, go ahead and reach out to me--I have a lot more research material which didn’t make it into this post, but which is absolutely fascinating. I’d be more than happy to share!
E.G. RADCLIFF IS A PART-TIME pooka and native of the Unseelie Court. She collects acorns, glass beads, and pretty rocks, and the crows outside her house know her as She Who Has Bread. Her fantasy novels are crafted in the dead of night after offering sacrifices of almonds and red wine to the writing-block deities.
You can reach her by scrying bowl, carrier pigeon, or @egradcliff on social media.