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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

history of #christianity in 15 #objects no. 6: gold strip with inscription found in the #staffordshire hoard

presented by Canon Professor Sarah Foot
Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History and the Chairman of the Theology Faculty Board in Oxford.

in summary

- this 6th object is a gold alloy strip, part of a find made in July 2009.  it is the only object in the find with an inscription. as found it was folded over.  but when straight it would have been 7 inches long by about 1/2 an inch wide.  one end has a decorated gem setting.  the other has an animal head drawn onto the metal from a plan perspective.

- the inscription is scripture from the latin vulgate bible - st jerome's translation - either from psalm 68 or more plausibly from the book of numbers 10 chapter, 35th verse

"And when the ark was lifted up, Moses said: Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered, and let them that hate thee, flee from before thy face" 
(Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition DRA)

- the object is chosen for this series because of the paradox it presents. that is, the appearance of an object closely associated with the christian religion (most likely a cross) on which has been inscribed a prayer to the christian god versus the paradox of the object being found in close proximity to objects associated with weapons of war

- this one item encapsulates one of the most significant features of the conversion of the anglo-saxons from their germanic polytheistic paganism to the christian religion.  it illustrates how the process of christianisation left neither english society nor christianity unchanged.

- christianity was known in roman britain but it appears to have declined rapidly in the decades after the withdrawal of roman troops from britain in 410.  as germanic war bands attached the southern and eastern coastline of an undefended britain churches would have been particularly vulnerable. once large numbers of people from northern europe and scandinavia began to settle in britain the church struggled to survive.  the new migrants brought with them different religious traditions and associated cultural practices.

- by the middle years of the 6th century the remnants of the romano british christian tradition had withdrawn to the northern and western fringes of the former roman province.  the rest of england was occupied by different german tribes now beginning to coalesce into different kingdoms.

- pope gregory the great (died 604) took it upon himself to fulfil the gospel imperative to share the good news of salvation in christ jesus to the ends of the then know earth, and to send missionaries to the english.  augustine (and his companions) landed at thanet in kent in 597 to preach to the local king. their success meant that in a short time large numbers of the local population had been baptised into the new faith.  in due course further missions were sent to the other kingdoms  - essex, east anglia and northumbria - and in the middle years of the 7th century irish monks from iona worked to convert the people of northern britain.

- the earliest historian of the english - bede - telling of how the english were brought to christ - reveals much of the appeal of the new religion to the anglo-saxons

- edwin - king of northumbria - having enjoyed some military success (due to the support of the christian god) sought to persuade his nobles to join him in the new faith.  amongst those who spoke at a kings counsel in favour of a move to christianity was (most influentially) the high priest of the pagan cult of the northumbrians who had come to see the vanity of his old beliefs.  also one nobleman spoke movingly  comparing the experience of human existence on earth to the swift flight of a single sparrow through a banqueting hall.  the birds brief encounter with warmth and light compares with the experience of humans on earth.  the nobleman argued that of what went before this life or what follows we know nothing.

- adoption of the new christian religion changed all aspects of the lifestyle of the anglo-saxons.  the introduction of writing to a people formerly illiterate brought them into contact with the knowledge and learning contained in books.  it also provided kings and rulers with a new technology for disseminating their own ideas.  

- as missionaries, priests and monks brought books, vestments and liturgical objects into england to furnish churches and to provide for the service of the altar they brought new artistic styles of decoration.  gradually we see in the material culture of the anglo-saxons a fusion of their own germanic and celtic motifs with those of the christian mediterranean world.

- in the literature of the english we find a similar assimilation of christian ideas with some of the older traditions of germanic warrior society.  thus the lives of saints often depict their subjects as heroes cast in a germanic mode (e.g. saint guthlac who lived in the world as a soldier before he became a soldier of christ. he carried into his life as a fenland solitary some of the muscularity of his former life in the world).

- interestingly the text that is inscribed on our strip - praying that god would arise and disperse his enemies and that those who hate him would flee from his face - that text is quoted twice in the 8th century life of st. guthlac.  once when guthlack meets a young prince (later to become king of the mercians) and guthlac prophesizes that in the future "those that hate you will flee from your face" and then at a later point when guthlac is wrestling alone with devils he suddenly sang the 1st verse of the 68th psalm as if prophetically - "let god arise and disperse my enemies" and the demons were dispersed.

- one of the best known examples of the fusion between christian and germanic ideals occurs in the poem "the dream of the rood" - which tells the story of the crucifiction from the point of view of the cross that bore our saviour.  an early version of that poem is inscribed in runes on the side of the ruthwell cross.  in the poem the wood of the cross describes christ in terms that make him an archetypal germanic warrior . "then speaks the cross, the young warrior, god almighty, strips himself, firm and unflinching, he climbed upon the cross, brave before many, to redeem mankind.  i quivered when the hero clasped me yet i dare not bow to the ground".

- when the poem reflects on the value of the cross as a symbol, and explains the meaning of christ's death and resurrection for the sake of all humanity, it again uses military images to do so.

- both the literary and material culture of anglo-saxon england demonstrate how christianity was absorbed and incorporated into early english society.  we see how, by the 2nd half of the 7th century (when the staffordshire hoard was probably gathered together) christianity was already fully integrated within the anglo-saxons conception of themselves.

- but we also need to note that that christianity did not go unchanged itself from this process either.  it incorporated into itself elements of the culture of the anglo-saxon peoples.  at the time when the staffordshire hoard was collected and deposited warfare remained one of the central activities of the english.  this find - the inscribed strip from the hoard - suggests that christianity had come to play a role in that warfare.  we might imagine clerics and monks and bishops standing at the side of the battlefield, holding christian symbols (including crosses) aloft as they prayed for the victory of their own side .

- "rise up oh lord, and let thy enemies be scattered, and let them that hate thee, flee from before thy face" 

- this one object - the inscribed gold strip - probably designed for the arms of a cross - serves to remind us of the extent to which the success of christianity as a global religion owes much to its capacity to adapt itself to different places and cultures with the central promise of salvation for all - symbolised in the cross

- or as the dream of the rood poem puts it .....

"no one need be numbed by fear who has carried the best of all signs in his breast.  each soul which has longings to live with the lord must search for a kingdom far beyond the frontiers of this world, god's kingdom, where christ rules with joy amongst the angels and all the saints in heavenly glory"

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