Language, religion and the law: small matters for a Sunday afternoon

People have tried to explain RSS feeds to me but I still don’t get what they are. As a result I tend to come across interesting articles through flitting about on the internet at work or via friends’ Facebook posts (I gave up Twitter well over a year ago having bored myself with what I was writing; that said I’m seriously considering setting up a Surrey Medieval account). Anyway, here are two interesting things I read this week, the aforementioned routes accounting for the discovery of one article apiece, and a whole bunch of thoughts and conclusions arising from them.

First up is a blog post by David Allen Green tying up the loose ends of his reporting of the Julian Assange case. As so often seems to be the way, I’m late to the party in discovering Allen Green’s fantastic body of work and it’s going to take a long time for me to work through it to catch up.  (As a starter I recommend you read the New Statesman article of which the blog post is an offshoot.) I don’t wish to dwell on the background to the case, something that rears its ugly head from time to time – mercifully, its most recent instalment was knocked off the front pages by the Paralympics, another reason to celebrate the Games. I’ll readily admit I have no time for Assange; whatever the successes of Wikileaks over the years, I consider him to be a distasteful character on a number of levels (and the same applies to those who gloss over the sexual molestation allegations as essentially irrelevant – the whole thing smacks of a 21st-century version of Roman Polanski’s flight from the law back in 1978). The sad fact is that this would only impair me still further from writing about it in a way equivalent to the clinical, cogent and beautifully-weighted style of Allen Green. Instead, I simply cite the post as a model of how to construct a compelling argument on any subject matter. I intend to do my best to adapt my approach to writing with an equivalent keenness for factual and semantic accuracy, although I’m sure that the following falls dismally short of this intention…

As Allen Green notes, one of Wikileaks most positive releases has been of a mass of documentation relating to Scientology, the foremost present-day example of the “religion or cult” conundrum (clue: it’s neither, it’s a con). This segues sweetly into the other article I wish to highlight here, a stimulating piece by Andrew Brown on the Guardian website about religion, atheism and rituals. My main comment on it is that its author sets himself up for an inevitable fall, not because his argument is inherently weak from the start (even if many contributors to the associated comment thread are of this opinion), rather on account of the impossibility of setting out in seven paragraphs a definitive case for when the articulation or manifestation of a doctrine or belief becomes analogous to those associated with defined religions. This interests me because recently I have been writing a lot on this site about places where non-Christian religion may have been practiced. In each case the evidence consists of a place-name (always capable of interpretation in multiple ways) and fragmentary, oblique archaeological evidence which cannot be connected directly to its titular sacred status.

Brown’s article has encouraged me to re-read John Hines’ lengthy 1997 essay ‘Religion: The Limits of Knowledge’ (in The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century, 375-401). A quick skim of it this morning showed he not only considered the appropriateness of the term “pagan” (accepting its applicability in certain circumstances) but also of “religion” to the belief systems of the early- to mid-Anglo-Saxon period, leading him to proffer the following definition;

‘Religion…is defined as a human response to a perceived but intangible spirit world that coexists with the real and concrete human world’ (Hines 1997, 377)

I’m not sure I quite understand the connection Brown makes between religion and dancing in his more recent definition but, returning to one of the place-names I have written about in the past few months, it does remind me in a roundabout way of Margaret Gelling’s statement that the first half of Peper Harow could represent “piper(s)” – the leap from music to dancing is a modest one. If it does indeed have a musical connotation then it represents an ephemeral practice or practices that would not be tangible archaeologically, save for the preservation of one or more instrument in the vicinity of the perceived hearg (and the recovery of priestly regalia from the Roman-period temple sites at Wanborough and Farley Heath in Surrey should act as encouragement that it is not absolutely impossible this could happen). The same goes for the collective expressions of atheism given by Brown: the recent anti-papal protest and assassinated Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme’s funeral procession. Similarly, the commemoration of Palme’s death a quarter of a century later was done with flags, flowers and candles. The only permanent monument is his grave, in a churchyard cheek-by-jowl with Christian interments.

Fast forward a millennium and what will this look like? A religious monument in a religious burial ground?

It’s interesting Brown should choose to characterise them ‘atheist rituals’, since ritual is a term deployed habitually by some archaeologists as often as it is derided by others in the same field for its ambiguity and indistinctness. I don’t want to stray too far from the subject of sites of religion, real or perceived, for the articulation of religious practices and beliefs in Anglo-Saxon burials is a topic that has been and is being covered with great insight by writers like Howard Williams. Instead I wish to go off-road with the present line of argument in order to come at it from a different angle, as writing this has brought to mind something that I came across in Zürich last weekend when visiting the girlfriend. During a walk down the Üetliberg mountain we spotted an orange balloon with a message tied to it stuck in a tree. In the process of gathering sticks and stones in order to try and dislodge it (resulting in the bursting of the balloon and the message staying beyond our reach), I came across the carefully arranged collection of flowers, painted stones and a fish pendant shown in the picture below.

On the Üetliberg

The significance of the elements of this arrangement, both individually and collectively, is entirely unknown to me beyond very simplistic statements like it does not look like an expression of Christian or Jewish faith. Background research would begin to give me an idea of some of the ideas expressed through the various items; the painted stones, for example, look as if they might be influenced by Aboriginal dot paintings. But many questions can only be answered – or at least considered – by means of a consideration of the site itself. What follows is an outline analysis of a religious-looking site that to an extent could be repeated for the considerably different circumstances of a place of sacred significance in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The first question must be why it was located where it was? The Üetliberg is Zürich’s own mountain and so has a particular place in the hearts and minds of its citizens. (We made an abortive search to try and find a supposedly-medieval ruined building thereabouts occasionally used as a meeting point for members of a far-right nationalist party.) This recommends but does not prove that the creator(s) of the site live in the city or its hinterland. The attraction of the precise location over any other spot on the tree-covered mountainside, on the other hand, are much less evident to English eyes at least. The tree cover was perhaps slightly less dense than its surroundings (there was a pile of rotting tree branches not so far away) in a way that might be analogous to the new understanding of Old English leah, but did this characteristic have real bearing, or was it coincidence? More generally, was the choice of location governed by a meticulous assessment of cosmological considerations, or because it’s within easy walking distance of a nearby car park at the edge of the city?

Other keys considerations are the age and purpose of the site. When I saw it, the place had clearly been visited not too many days or weeks before: the flowers were withered and brown but some of the stems remained green, the paint on the stones was bright (and looked to have been painted by the same hand), and the pendant did not look corroded from the top at least. Were the flowers and so forth the one and only deposition to be made here or the replacements for older items removed after a period of time? In the case of the latter, what would initiate this? The lunar calendar, particular dates of other significance (anniversaries, birthdays etc.), or entirely personal reasons completely divorced from any recurrent chronological rationale, i.e. whenever the person or persons can spare the time? The two dark rocks were sufficiently sizeable to lead to me to think at first that they came from the immediate vicinity of the site, but looking at the photo they bear a striking resemblance to lava and not the limestone-like rocks at the top of the mountain (you can tell that I have virtually no knowledge of Swiss petrology). If so, this could mean that all of the elements were imported from elsewhere, revealing a tension between the evident thought and effort that has gone into the site and the items placed there on the one hand, and the unremarkable, far-from-inaccessible character of its location on the other.

For a while when writing this I intended to say that this humble site on the slopes of the Üetliberg could be viewed as an encapsulation of contemporary Western religious culture: heterogenous, individualistic and prioritising convenience. However, I came to realise much the same can be said of medieval piety as displayed at parochial level. Patronage, whether it took the form of attending services, processions etc. or paying for additions to the physical fabric of the religion (church buildings, well houses, crosses), had to be negotiated through the practical considerations and limitations of secular life – there was no jumping in the car to travel to a distant favourite church. What is more, the limitations imposed by the illiteracy of the majority must have led to wide variations in individual perceptions of a supposedly common set of beliefs and rituals (the frequently-encountered references to church wall paintings as substitutes for the written word/mnemonics for the spoken word are most apt). As both Brown’s and Hines’ definitions imply, religion must be understood as a personal response to one or more idea that is often – but not necessarily always – known to and accepted by others.

Coincidentally, this week’s reading has been Richard North’s 1997 monograph Heathen Gods in Old English Literature. The majority of the book is taken up with esoteric arguments that I don’t think I will ever read in full, but it does provide a couple of observations germane to the purposes of this discussion. At one point reference is made to ‘a number of pre-Christian religions in Anglo-Saxon England’ (North 1997, 271), which is quite an exciting statement in itself and certainly a corrective to the notion that what Christianity replaced was Paganism with a capital P. However, it derives from an even more thought-provoking contention made much earlier in the book:

‘Anglo-Saxon heathendom…was a shifting top surface, beneath which various non-Indo-European, Celtic, Roman, Mediterranean and oriental cults, including Christianity, had sedimented in slow layers.’ (North 1997, 18)

This is a nuanced reading of the evidence, the like of which I have rarely if ever encountered in archaeological or onomastic literature. It admits that religious belief and practice in the post-Roman period was no less diverse to what had been the case in the preceding centuries and so, even through exercises such as North’s own synthesis of a number of so-called numina above and beyond ones like Tiw/Tig, Thunor and Frig familiar to a degree from place-names, we cannot hope to reconstruct the entirety of such things. In some ways this makes it comparable to non-Protestant Christianity (and other religions elsewhere in the world, about which I regret to say I know much less), an umbrella beneath which the cults of innumerable Biblical and non-Biblical saints operate at various levels, e.g. dedications of churches/shrines/wells/images. (Reflecting on Scientology, it is evident that the term cult has now strayed from its sense of being a branch of a pre-existing religion; that said I just looked up the Branch Davidians to find they are categorised as a Protestant sect, but since the scope of this piece has already grown out of all recognition I shall leave that question for another day). Of course what North doesn’t state in the quotes above (but does touch upon elsewhere) is that it may have been possible/permissible for people to pick and choose elements from multiple sources, e.g. Christianity but with elements of other religions, as seems to be embodied in the extraordinary late Anglo-Saxon Æcerbot ritual.

Such myriad permutations on the same or similar sets of beliefs should not be seen as an insuperable barrier to developing a more sophisticated understanding of early medieval religious practices, be they Christian or non-Christian, at a local level. Careful reading of the existing forms of evidence – such as I have tried to do in the case of Thursley before, during and after the Anglo-Saxon period – can lead to the establishment of frameworks that not only accommodate new evidence as and when it emerges, but also will proactively seek it out if needs be. At the present time, no example of an Old English non-Christian religious place-name I can think of has been investigated and interpreted in a thoroughly inter-disciplinary manner, making it all the more important that carefully-designed and targeted research is carried out in the future. To use some Surrey examples, are the names of Tuesley and Peper Harow partly the result of unknown Roman or pre-Roman religious sites in their environs? Inverting the argument, did the temple sites at Wanborough and Farley Heath have post-Roman afterlives of which we know nothing at present? Without this knowledge, we can understand the translation(s) of a place-names or the archaeology of a temple’s rise and fall but not their place within a wider physical or mental-cum-spiritual landscape.

What I have come to realise in the course of writing this (and with any luck have been able to impart to you reading the foregoing) is that the words one uses, whether to describe something or to argue a point must be carefully considered so as not to risk unwitting prejudice or ambiguity. Part of the joy of researching and writing about religious subjects is the way that the interpretation and implementation of a set of beliefs can take on such as multiplicity of forms, but it is imperative for authors to ensure that all accounts of this diversity are even-handed and do not unduly distort the evidence for other who read and use them in the present time and in the future. Everything may be perception and many things, whether done, said or written, are quickly forgotten. What endures should be the things which are of a quality and rigour that means, as well as not incurring the misdirected wrath of Wikileaks and its supporters, they account for the subject matter in a way that is as factually accurate and inclusive of possibilities as possible.

About Robert J S Briggs

Back to being a part-time early medievalist; Surrey born, London based, been known to travel
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