The Church Defies the Dark Ages

The Church Defies the Dark Ages

The Story of Celtic Christianity

Diana Leatham

Part 1

From The Crucifixion to the Fall Of Rome

(To A.D. 410)

Chapter 1

Introducing the Celts

This book might well be called. The Story Nobody Knows, for here is one chapter in the history of Christianity in our islands that has been almost forgotten. This is a pity, as it is an exciting one, bravely written for us throughout the Dark Ages by our own pioneer saints of the Celtic Church.

Our ignorance is, of course, largely the fault of the history books; but the other day I came up against this same ignorance while I was exploring Buckfast Abbey in Devonshire. Here learned Roman Catholic monks have just finished building their church, following the old plans of a Norman architect. But even they seem to have quite forgotten that those same (French)-Normans planned to build in the place because of St. Petroc, a Celtic saint beloved in Devonshire long, long before the (French)-Normans came.

St. Petroc preached at Buckfast in the sixth century and built on that very spot one of many churches. But though it was he who first made this a holy place by bringing Christ’s rule of love to the local people, the monk never mentioned him but merely repeated to us tourists the well-worn story of how, in 597, Pope Gregory sent St Augustine from Rome to tell the pagan English about Christ. (Pope Gregory the Great was Western Rite Orthodox not Roman Catholic which was brought over by the French-Normans with the Conquest/Crusade of England in 1066 the Church in Rome broke from its own roots of Orthodoxy in 1054 and became the Roman Catholic Church). Like so many history books, he gave the impression that St. Augustine of Canterbury was the first missionary our country ever had; and a missionary so successful that, brought him, the whole land was rapidly converted to the Roman form of Christianity.

The real truth is surprisingly different. St. Aidan, not St. Augustine, was the Apostle of England; and St. Aidan was a Celtic saint trained on the little island of Iona. When he started his great work in Northumbria in 635, St. Augustine’s Roman successors at Canterbury were still trying to convert the people of Kent and Sussex. If the conversion of the pagan Anglo-Saxons who had conquered Christian Britain had been left to such unskilled missionaries, it would have taken hundreds of years. Fortunately, however, St. Aidan had behind him a Church already famous for its mission work. In a startlingly short time, he and his twelve English disciples had succeeded where the men from Rome had failed.

The Celtic Church was a monastic church. That is to say, she spread the gospel by planting communities of men or women wholly dedicated to the worship of God and the service of their fellow men. Though they were monks and nuns, very few of the trained men were ordained priests. They were often blacksmiths, carpenters, or scribes. The Roman Church was differently organized, and quite naturally disapproved of Celtic customs and methods. Bede, the great eighth-century historian, disapproves also, though he cannot resist writing with love and reverence of the Celtic missionaries themselves. Loyal though he is to be the Roman Church, Bede confesses that it was the way the Celtic saints lived the Gospel of Jesus Christ that won the love of the wild Anglo-Saxons and gave to the England he lived in a Golden Age of peace and happiness.

In this book I want to explain to you how it was that the Celtic Church had developed on a rather different lines from the Church of Rome (both churches were Orthodox so both were same only differed in how they celebrated the liturgy). I also want you to understand why some of the missionary methods discovered by the pioneer missionaries of the Celtic Church are being once again used by the most up-to-date missionaries of to-day. The story goes back a long way; and because it concerns the Celts (and nearly all of us have some Celtic blood in us), let us first of all be quite sure we understand what these people were like.

Celts All Over Europe

In pre-Christian times the Celts did not write; so much of what we know about them we learn from writers among the Roman soldiers who fought them wherever they lived on the continent. Gaul and Spain were the last Celtic strongholds to be conquered. But the Romans found these countries hard to pacify while there were still Celts in free Britain to send across the channel soldiers to help their friends. These soldiers sailed in the great war-ships so much admired by Julius Caesar.

Long before the days of the Roman Empire, Celts were living all over Europe from the British Isles to Asia Minor. They were a tall, fair, athletic people whose women could fight as skilfully as their men, both in chariots and on foot. But their Roman enemies disliked the way they despaired when they lost a battle, or loudly boasted when they won. They also complained that Celts showed ‘much folly, conceit and love of finery’. This finery they describe as brilliantly-dyed clothes of many colours, and gold or silver necklets, bracelets and brooches. They observed, however, that Celtic Druids could somehow foretell an eclipse of the sun or the moon. Indeed, Roman writers were often astonished that a people who could not write should know so much. They also admired the way the Celtic Druids of Gaul taught their people ‘to worship God, to do nothing evil, and to practice bravery’.

The Celtic belief in a life after death was shared by other races. So was their belief that spirits, both good and evil, lived in certain trees, stones and fountains, which they therefore treated as sacred. The Romans report much gold in the temples where the Druids led the worship of the God who made the sun. But we can see how much guilt and fear lay at the back of their religion, when we read of human beings being sacrificed in the temples of Gaul.

By the time Julius Caesar attacked the Celts in Britain, they had been wandering across Europe for hundreds of years. Such a life had fitted them to be better soldiers than farmers or builders. But what the Romans never realized was that these people were among the most original and talented artists working in metal that the world has ever produced. We know this because we can still examine a few of the beautifully-shaped and ornamented helmets, shields, swords, spears and chariots they made. Necklets, armlets, chain-belts, rings and brooches made of bronze or gold, have also been found in most parts of Europe. So fine is the work on some of these objects that modern goldsmiths find it hard to copy even with help of a magnifying glass.

From 800 B.C. to 400 B.C., tribe upon tribe of Celts kept crossing the channel into the British Isles. They soon pushed the small dark people they found there up into the windy hills, and started to graze the sheep and cattle they brought with them on the richer soil of the green valleys and plains. Each chief ploughed up so much of his land to grow corn; but though the Celts made such good tools, they never thought of cutting down the huge forests, but divided the naturally open country among their many tribes.

When, during the lifetime of Christ, the Romans began in earnest to conquer Britain, the Celtic tribes, though they had long ceased to wander, were still inclined to fight among themselves for the best land. By that time, the Scots in Ireland could hardly understand the Picts in Scotland; and the Britons in England and Wales spoke yet another dialect. But all these people followed the same pattern of living, hundreds of years old. They loved music, and not only did every chief keep his own bard to sing to him of the bravery of his ancestors, but the people themselves sang in parts and played their small harps.

Camplike Villages

In those days there were no real towns in our Far Western Islands. Nor were there any real roads before the coming of the Romans. As you can imagine, the weaker chiefs did not feel their people or their flocks to be safe unless they spent the night in large enclosures surrounded by a deep ditch and a high turf wall. They themselves lived in the middle of these enclosures (called llans in Wales and duns in Scotland and Ireland) in a round fortress, their people’s little round huts grouped about it. Outside this camp-like village lay the tribe’s pastures, gardens and ploughed land – all coveted by stronger tribes – and beyond again lay uncultivated country, in which the girls gathered nuts and berries and the boys hunted, fished and shot with bows and arrows.

To-day the small boys of well-to-do parents are often sent to boarding schools. Though there were no real schools on our Far Western Islands until the Romans came, very much the same thing happened to the sons of the Celtic chiefs. According as to whether they were clever, artistic or strong, they were packed off to study under a learned Druid, to work under a famous metal-worker, to learn the arts of poetry and music from a teacher among the bards, or to be brought up by foster-parents who taught them to ride, to swim, to manage a boat, to stalk wild beasts, to fight with sword or spear and, generally, to fend for themselves out of doors. The parents paid the teacher with a cow or a pig a year, bringing the lively school fees with them when they went to see how their son was progressing.

As everything in the home was home-made, the girls learnt to spin, to weave, to dye, to sew and to cook. They helped the boys to scare the birds from the crops and to bring in the harvest; and if the chief held a council, they sat and listened with their brothers. The Romans were surprised to find that Celtic chiefs – long before they became Christians – often asked their wives for advice in important matters.

The number of customs, beliefs and stories shared by the Celtic-speaking countries in the Far West shows how often the Irish Channel was crossed and re-crossed by boat. It was far quicker to travel by sea than through thick forest; and the Celtic-speaking peoples loved an excuse for a journey. Girls and boys alike rejoiced at the great seasonal feasts of the year when tribes would gather together from far and near, their quarrel forgotten, to hold a mixture of a fair and a festival. Each year on 25th March, all Ireland went to Tara for the lighting by the Druids of the sacred Spring Fire. In Britain and among the Picts of Scotland, there would be much the same ceremony, attended by all who could take a holiday from the duties of farming and herding. They put on their best clothes and travelled to the meeting-place by sea, or along rough tracks by chariot, on horseback and on foot, taking with them food enough for many picnics.

What sort of weather did they have on these expeditions? With so many trees you would expect even more rain in the spring than we have to-day. But Americans scientists have recently discovered (through studying the annual rings of growth in their oldest trees) that, from the time of Christ to about 650, drought haunted the great continents while, in the British Isles, instead of the wet, westerly winds we know, there blew dry east winds. So the people of those days enjoyed far hotter, dryer summers than we do. Corn ripened early in Scotland and Ireland, and among the fruits and vegetables introduced by the Roman was the vine, which to-day will only ripen in greenhouses.

A Picturesque People

So the Scots of Ireland and the Picts of Scotland, who continued to travel to their gatherings unconquered by the Romans, had wonderful weather for camping. In the damper times before the Romans, however, we may be sure the Celts sang on their journeys despite the spring rain. For who could feel anything but gay, dressed in such bright colours and wearing all the family jewellery? The chiefs, princes and kings prided themselves on their long, thick hair. Their ponies too were well groomed and wore gleaming harness. Next in importance to the chiefs came the bards, the Druids, and the workers in bronze, gold, iron and enamel.

At the gatherings, much trade was done by pedlars who had come from distant countries to profit by the people’s good spirits. Some lucky girls went home with colourful beads made in far-off Egypt. Competitions of all kinds were held, for which each tribe had been practising at home – athletic contests for the young men and boys, and musical and poetic contests such as ate still held in Wales.

New patterns to be woven were observed by the girls; and the best of the songs were remembered by the musicians. Home again, an ambitious boy would practise the fierce songs for warriors, or sometimes the sad, romantic songs, while he took his turn at minding the flocks in the lonely, fenceless pastures. Sometimes, emboldened by the respectful admiration of his dogs, a boy would compose a song of his own and sing it as he drove his flock home at night.

As you see, young Celts were brought up to practice self-control, courage, and honesty. In their law-courts the Celts maintained a rough kind of justice. We only realize how great a part hate, fear and the rule of force played in their lives when we see how joyfully and eagerly they received the Good News of God’s great love for the world, which they found so beautiful. The joy of discovery shines through the marvellously written books and carved stones crosses produced by what Professor Toynbee grandly calls, the Far Western Christian Civilization of the Celts. It shines like the sun, which is the ring of glory surrounding and completing every Celtic cross.

Celtic lives, like Celtic art, were transformed by the rule of love. Britons, Picts and Scots behaved like people who have found the missing piece of a jig-saw, the piece that makes of the puzzle a complete picture. Behind the life-giving sun that had come face to face with God. In other words, the story of the life of Christ came as a revelation to the Celts. How then did they learn about it? We shall study this question in the next chapter.