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Anglo-Saxons in Southern India? July 15, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

**Beachcombing dedicates the following to DGM, who has an excellent post on this subject**

For those like Beachcombing who lick their lips at descriptions of long and unlikely journeys in antiquity and the middle ages there are few more exciting sentences than this one-liner in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

In the year 883, Alfred sent Sighelm and Athelstan to Rome, and likewise to the shrine of Saints Thomas and Bartholomew, in India, with the alms which he had vowed

Just think about this and be amazed. In one of the darker generations of the dark ages King Alfred of Wessex, not satisfied with defeating several Viking armies and creating England sends out two of his men to distant India, half way across Eurasia. Sighelm and Athelstan will have passed from Rome across the Mediterranean to Egypt, where they will, like other European pilgrims in the ninth-century, have seen the pyramids ‘the grain barns of Joseph’. And from there they will have passed down the Red Sea – nodding to Yemen on their left – and to southern India where  Thomas Christians, an early and forgotten sect of Christianity, would have marvelled at the pale-skinned English pilgrims from the far corners of the earth. They would presumably have made the journey on one of the spice vessels that ran the Indian Ocean in those years (see image above).

This voyage would have been extraordinary in the eighteenth century, almost unbelievable in the thirteenth century and stretches credibility to breaking point for the ninth century. And not surprisingly a number of objections have been put forward by academics to the seemingly impossible fact of little Englanders in India eight centuries before the Raj.

These academics try and get rid of our Anglo-Saxons in India with a fairly reasonable strategy.  There is a textual problem here, they argue: something that is always possible with the ghastly confusion that is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. (We still lack a proper, complete edition). India is not India but – and in paleographic terms this is all too credible – Iudea. The city of Edessa had a collection of Thomas relics and we also know that Alfred sent messengers to Jerusalem, possibly the same party.

Beach, however, has faith that the chronicles are talking about India. After all, to any Anglo-Saxon St Thomas was India, the land Eusebius claimed the apostle had converted: if anything there is more the problem of what ‘India’ meant to western Europeans.

And the eighth and ninth century saw a boom of trade between east and west, most, if we are to believe Arabic sources, mediated by Jewish merchants through the Mediterranean: including, of course, spices from southern Indian ports.

We also know that in the late eighth century, an Indian Christian made his way to the Copt Christian community in Alexandria to find the Patriarch. So there were lines of contact open between the Christian heartlands in Europe and the outer reaches of the Christian world in southern India: albeit lines of contact like sagging telegraph wires caught up in the trees.

No, there is nothing intrinsically impossible about a trip to India in the ninth century, though Beachcombing wouldn’t have personally liked to have attempted it. If the spoil sport wants to have his fun at the expense of this text then he would be advised to note that the entry above does not claim that Sighelm and Athelstan ever made it back! Anglo-Saxon slaves in Outer Mongolia anyone?

There are some later, to Beachcombing, fairly generic sounding texts (Florence of Worcester etc) that claim that they did get home: Florence even claims that Sighelm became bishop of Sherbiton, imagine the contrast between ninth-century Dorset and the parched lands around Kerala! However, Sighelm is not a particularly rare name. This could all be later and all too medieval guess work.

Beachcombing is always on the look out for wrong-place travellers: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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16 July 2011: Virginia writes in to make the point that the Romans were regularly riding the monsoons to bring spice to and fro from southern India. Of course, the foundation of St Thomas Christians there may owe a great deal to that trade. The trade dried up with the collapse of Roman infrastructure at the end of the Empire. Viriginia references a recent book that sounds like fun S.E. Sideotham Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route. Thanks Virginia!

21 July 2011: Jonathan from A Corner of Tenth Century Europe writes in with some considerations that may just have swung Beach. ‘Your post about Anglo-Saxons in India is about a piece of evidence I’ve met myself. I should say that most of the current scholarship appears to be fairly happy with India not Judea, and we do have reason that there were Christians in Kerala so early, but all the same, I know where my money is and it’s no further east than Jerusalem. Doug Moncur who blogs at Thoughts of a Knowledge Geek has also done some sifting of Sighelm. He is fairly happy with India-not-Judea but as you’ll see thinks it likely that Judea must have been en route. This, to me, seems a bizarre decision for an alms-giver: ‘Well, here I am in the land of Jesus! Give all the money to the Holy Sepulchre, first shrine of Christendom? Eh, maybe I’ll go on a bit’. But who knows: perhaps the very extremity of the target was the point‘. Thanks Jonathan!!