Session 8 – Imagining the holy
Moderator: Alessandro Gnasso
A: Austin Mason
The Early English Cult of Saints in Long-Term Perspective
This paper explores the seventh-century conversion of England through the lens of the cult of saints by examining the documentary and archaeological evidence for the treatment of the dead in long-term perspective. Taking inspiration from recent studies of Scandinavia that have envisioned Old Norse religion as a number of different and changing religious customs that constantly incorporated and reinterpreted foreign models, I argue that England witnessed a generations-long transitional phase c.400–900ce, during which links to the ancestral past were actively renegotiated within the new political and religious environments brought on by the rise of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the gradual conversion of their peoples to Christianity.
Our major extant historical account of these centuries, Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (written c.731 CE), suggests a major discontinuity between the pagan ways of the early Anglo-Saxons and the adoption of Christianity beginning in the late-sixth century. The veneration of saints at their tombs in seventh-century England is thus usually seen as an entirely new phenomenon. Yet Christianity was neither the first nor the only religion in Britain to have encouraged engagement with the physical remains of the special dead. Indeed, each of the key material elements of the medieval cult of saints (primary relics, translation, secondary relics, and depositio ad sanctos) had local, and often very ancient antecedents. Excavated cemeteries in Britain have produced evidence for the curation of body parts, reopening and manipulation of graves, preservation of heirloom objects, and burial in close proximity to the tombs of revered individuals stretching as far back as the Neolithic. This paper therefore argues for a considerable degree of continuity in the treatment of the “special dead” in seventh-century England, during which pre-Christian hero cults and practices of ancestor veneration fused with the imported cult of the saints to create a new Christian synthesis.
Mirror, mirror on the wall: the King, the Antichrist and the Last Emperor
One of the great literary genre that acquired its big fortune in the 7th century is the apocalypse: in a world that was ravaged by new opponents, new ideas, new wars, the need for the knowledge of a world that, although passing through terrible times, could end in a righteous and just way, with the ultimate triumph of Christ, was very important for the popular culture. Thus, we witness to a huge number of apocalyptic texts that have little to do with the traditional Revelations of John, but rather give hints of the present and future world that in the 7th century was lived, thought, imagined. The apocalypses of the 7th century are not just a representation of terrible times, signed by the arrival of the tribes of Gog and Magog and of the Antichrist: they show positive characters, righteous kings, good rulers, mainly the Last Emperor of the Romans. This paper focuses on the physical and psychological description of two central figures, the Antichrist as final enemy, and the Last Emperor as its winner: it will try to find parallelisms between these fictive characters and real, existing and existed people, notably in the imperial court. The point will not be to identify the Last Emperor or the Antichrist with this or another king, rather to understand how the physical description of these fictive and real characters influenced each other. Was the Last Emperor a mirror of princes, or were the princes a mirror for the Last Emperor?
Response: James Palmer
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