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The Celtic Church: A Defence of Kinds February 10, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

celtic cross

The ‘Celtic Church’ is the phrase commonly used to describe the version of Christianity that triumphed in much of Britain and Ireland throughout the early Middle Ages, say 400-800. Historians of the calibre of Patrick Wormald (RIP), Wendy Davies and Kathleen Hughes (RIP) have argued or even railed against it. What follows is a half-hearted defence of a much despised term. It has been set out in the form of a number of propositions.

A) Christian Tradition

(ai) A Christian tradition depends on a shared sense of identity among a given group of Christians.

(aii) Typically we would measure a Christian tradition in terms of an institution, a Church but while you cannot have a Church without a Christian tradition you can have a Christian tradition without a Church.

(aiii) Customs may indicate a Christian tradition, but customs are also shared between groups that do not share an identity: if you are a High Anglican and I am a Roman Catholic we will have aspects of ritual in common that a Low Anglican does not have, but it hardly means that we  belong to the same tradition.

(aiv) In the absence of a Church and with necessarily inconclusive customs the only foolproof way of demonstrating a shared identity would be comments from ‘members’ to the effect that they felt they belonged, or clues in their actions that suggested that they believed that they belonged.

B) The Celtic World

(bi) We can be quite certain that there was no Church in the Celtic-speaking world in the institutional sense. The phrase ‘Celtic Church’ is mistaken for this reason. (Though pace many historians the lack of that Church need not mean there was no Celtic Christian tradition).

(bii) We know that there were shared customs throughout the Celtic-speaking world but this is not enough to guarantee a common Christian tradition. (But pace many historians their absence would not be enough to show that there was not one). And sometimes, especially in terms of hierarchy, it is tempting to argue that it was paradoxically the balkanisation and local nature of customs, the sheer variety that bonded these regions together. A lack of national or even regional canonical discipline.

(biii) We can measure shared identity through statements of Britons and Gaels (Scotti), through statements of neighbours and through association of ethnic groups in and out of the Celtic-speaking homelands. This gives us enough early medieval evidence for a Celtic Christian tradition; and when we look at (bii) we have customs that may have helped this sense of a separate Christian identity along. (Of course there is a temporal dimension here that is important and that we’re breezing through here.)

C) Terminology

(ci) If we reject ‘Church’ then how should we refer to this common identity? ‘Churches’, ‘tradition’, ‘communities’ even transmigrated from French ‘Christianities’ should all be acceptable.

(cii) The problem is then with ‘Celtic’. It seems unlikely that a shared Christian tradition between the Celtic-speaking countries in antiquity had anything to do with the Gaels and Britons being Celtic-speakers: it is far more likely to have just been the result of geography, the simple fact that these nations were contiguous and lived in similar landscapes and, similar societies. (If there was anything ‘Celtic’ in this Christianity it will have been the ease of conversion in the fourth and early fifth century when the two language families – Brittonic and Gaelic – were still just mutually intelligible.)

(ciii) As we are speaking about ‘Celtic’ here as a label not a reality a sensible, pragmatic response would be that we should continue to use it. If academics were not so irritated by this word this would make sense. But ‘Celtic’ creates irrational responses not only in the New Age fringe but in academics themselves. Therefore, the word ‘Western’ would serve as an alternative that has early medieval antecedents (Columbanus): so the Celtic Church becomes the Western Churches, capital W capital C plural Churches. There must be better words but this blogger has not found one. Atlantic?

D) The Historiography of the Celtic Church

(di) The churches of the Irish and British were sometimes lumped together by early medieval writers and also by the Irish and British themselves

(dii) Early modern ecclesiastical historians who did not yet have the word ‘Celtic’ to bandy around took as a given that the British and Irish churches were allied.

(diii) In the very early nineteenth century, years before Zimmer was writing or for that matter born, ‘the Celtic church’ started to be used in learned works. The institutional-sounding ‘Church’ arguably grew out of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates about the supposed Catholic (or Protestant) origins of indigenous British and Irish Christianity.

(div) Through the twentieth century there is increasing dissatisfaction with the term ‘Celtic Church’. However, with K. Hughes an influential attack was made on the notion of a common institutional format and with Wendy Davies an attack was made on the idea of common customs.

(dv) From about 1995 we have been in a world where we can no longer safely describe the Christianity of the British Celts and the Irish as a unity, even though the evidence shunts us towards assuming that there was a common sense of identity in the early Middle Ages. A terminological vacuum has emerged that distorts our studies.

(dvi) Various strategies have been employed for dealing with this situation. The Dinosaur Strategy where writers (usually sub-academic) continue to speak of the Celtic Church. The Having-Your-Cake-and-Eating-It writers talk of common Celtic customs, often with other labels, the word Insular, for example, as if getting rid of the Bretons and including the Saxons of Kent and Sussex could help…! The Overkill Strategy that actually denies common customs because the Celtic Church did not exist: though of course customs can straddle neighbouring areas without issues of identity being involved… The Age-of-Saints Strategy: there was a Celtic Church but it was all over by 550 and afterwards we just have residuals.

Other thoughts on the Celtic Church? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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30 April 2013: JJ from a Corner of Tenth-Century Europe writes: Apropos of your defence of the Celtic Church (a curious defence that abandons the citadel and starts looking for a new one, if you’ll  forgive my saying so…), Atlantic might work better than you expect, depending on whether or not you know that as well as the British exodus to what became Brittany in the fifth century, there was also a smaller one to Cantabria on the north coast of (what is now) Spain. For about eighty years there was a `British’ bishop there who operated in a kind of circle of monasteries the exiles had founded or acquired, causing his bemused but more-or-less-welcoming neighbours to recognise a sort of see at Mondonedo. I know all this from the venerable but perhaps dated deductions of the late Jose Orlandis from early Spanish Church council records, if I remember rightly, which mention these characters here and there, and the state of discussion has probably changed, but the evidence at least won’t have too much. How `British’ any of these people were after two generations in exile, of course, especially given that monastics hopefully wouldn’t be reproducing that much, might be wondered, but presumably their institutions lived a little longer than they did! But were they `Celtic’…’ Jonathan refers to Britonia. Thanks! B