For much of human history, it is exceedingly difficult to hear the voices of ordinary people, and especially of those whose ideas run contrary to the approved ideologies of the day. Through the long Christian Middle Ages, for instance, it’s hard to reconstruct the mindset of people who did not agree with basic church teachings. Even when courts quote the voices of heretics, we never really know how far judges are putting words into their voices, in accordance with their expectations; or whether the alleged heretics are editing their sentiments to appeal to some audience.
It’s always striking then to find a text that does give us some view into the minds of society’s “outs,” even if that means reading flat contrary to the intentions of the author of a given text.
As a case in point, I look at a saint’s life from a highly obscure part of the Middle Ages, the seventh century in Britain. When the Venerable Bede recounted the conversion, he told a story of heroic missionaries, of noble kings delightedly receiving the word of God, and of evil pagans plotting against the divine truth. Stereotype met stereotype.
With one exception. In Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, written around 725, he tells a remarkable story of the building of a Northumbrian monastery probably around the 650s. Monks sailed up the river Tyne to fetch timber, but as they returned, they were caught in a fearsome storm that seemed likely to wipe them out. Any contemporary reader would have known what to expect at this point, namely that the prayers of a saint would calm the storm (on the best New Testament model) and save the endangered monks, and indeed, this is what occurs.
What we don’t expect, though, is the reaction of the sizable body of onlookers, a multitude of lay people, peasants, who watch the imminent disaster with delight. “The multitude began to deride [the monks’] manner of life, as if they had deserved to suffer this loss, by abandoning the usual modes of life, and framing for themselves new rules by which to guide their conduct.” Let them sink!
Cuthbert denounces their callous disregard for life, and urges them rather to pray for those in peril. But he receives a fascinating reply, as “the rustics, turning on him with angry minds and angry mouths, exclaimed, ‘Nobody shall pray for them: may God spare none of them! For they have taken away from men the ancient rites and customs, and how the new ones are to be attended to, nobody knows’.” Only after the miraculous rescue do they change their minds, as they praise Cuthbert and his amazing powers.
It’s a wonderfully convincing moment. The king has ordered the people to convert and to destroy their temples and shrines, and outlawed pagan worship. At this stage though, it’s a top-down conversion. Neither he nor the new church elite has offered anything new to replace the old order, leaving ordinary people floundering in spiritual confusion. More practically they absolutely lack protection against the forces of spiritual evil that they believe beset them. The picture convinces utterly – but where else do we hear of what must have been such a common response to the arrival of Christianity? I imagine ordinary rural people felt very much the same during the Reformation, after the destruction of medieval Catholic rites and symbols.
What a lesson for all later generations of missionaries!
The sentiments might be obvious – but they are so rare as to be precious historical evidence of social attitudes. All credit to an honest historian for preserving them.