BRITAIN, AFRICA, AND THE END OF ANCIENT CHRISTIANITY

BRITAIN, AFRICA, AND THE END OF ANCIENT CHRISTIANITY January 25, 2013

I have recently been discussing the destruction of the church that flourished in Roman Britain up through the fifth century. Historians differ greatly on how far they think the fifth and sixth centuries marked a major change of population in the country, or at least the south and east of the island – what became southern and eastern England. In my view, the old society really was devastated, and the best argument for that is the linguistic transformation. Neither Latin nor Celtic British shows the slightest signs of survival in these regions, which spoke Germanic Anglo-Saxon, and later English. If genocide in any modern sense was far beyond the technologies of the time, we are nevertheless thinking of harsh subjection.

I have been trying to find analogies to this situation elsewhere in the Roman world at the time, and I think one region in particular does offer important comparisons, namely North Africa. In particular, it does suggest how a religious structure and system could be utterly destroyed, without necessarily imagining a wholesale annihilation of populations. If any earlier scholar has ever compared the end of Roman Britain with that of Roman Africa, I am not aware of it – but the comparison is useful, especially for the critical role of language as a vehicle of religious belief.

 

To begin with the obvious point, Christianity was well established in Roman Britain by c.400, and it had a solid institutional structure. There were four metropolitans – at London, York, Lincoln and Cirencester – and perhaps twenty or more territorial bishops below them, based in the capitals of each civitas. Judging by the few material goods that survive, this church was wealthy, and it was intellectually lively enough to generate an influential heresy in Pelagianism. There were also substantial Christian landed elites.

Historians can argue at length about the nature of the transformation that occurred after the formal end of Roman rule. Perhaps the catastrophes described by some early authors weren’t so bad as rumored; perhaps there was continuity in this town or that region; perhaps here and there we see ancient British people surviving. What we cannot deny, though, is that the old episcopal structure was definitely not in existence by the end of the sixth century.

Originally, when Pope Gregory the Great in the 590s sent his mission to Anglo-Saxon England under Augustine, he envisioned setting up something like the old imperial Roman structure, with metropolitans at London and York, each presiding over a dozen bishops. However, at no point did Augustine encounter any surviving bishops or episcopal structure in the south and east of the island. (They certainly flourished in Wales and the western parts). If Augustine had met or even heard of bishops in (say) London, Lincoln, Leicester, Canterbury, Winchester, Silchester or Colchester, he might not have enjoyed the encounter, but he assuredly would have mentioned them, as they would have played such an important part in Gregory’s long-term scheme.

The lack of bishops in the south and east demands attention. Noting the low intensity of major Anglo-Saxon remains in some regions, scholars have suggested that enclaves of British population might have continued fairly unmolested in some areas, including London, Lincoln, St. Alban’s and the Chilterns. But if that was the case – and, more important, if these communities were still Christian – where were their bishops? When in 603 Augustine of Canterbury wanted to meet British bishops, he traveled to a conference at Aust near Bristol, a convenient gathering place for Wales and the West Country. He evidently did not hold a similar conference in London or Lincoln, presumably because there was nobody to meet there.

We are not dealing with some kind of Roman-orchestrated conspiracy of silence. British populations might have survived the onset of the Anglo-Saxons in fair numbers, and isolated Christian communities might have continued, but the institutional church – the episcopate – had perished. And that was critical, in a way that might not be appreciated by modern adherents of decentralized or non-hierarchical churches. In the context of early Christianity, the lack of bishops meant that the church itself had ceased to exist. Among other things, it meant the absence of any capacity to ordain clergy, and to maintain the liturgy.

By far the most likely date for the end of the old structure is the mid-late fifth century, following the wars and plagues that began in the 440s, and which may have continued for some decades. Although it is a guess, I suspect that the old roster of bishops and their sees would have ceased to function by, say, 470. At some point in this era, there would have been a cadre of men who would have been the last incumbents of their particular sees.

As I have written elsewhere, these crises would have meant that cities, bishops and the Latin language perished together. Britain’s great sixth century Latin author was Gildas, who would have been born around 500, but we know that he learned his language as an academic subject in a school or monastery, not as a spoken vernacular. The obvious lesson is that British Latin must have been close to extinct by that point.

Very significantly, moreover, we see no effort by surviving Christians to erect any new kind of episcopal structure. Now, the fact that old Roman towns had faded away meant that it made little sense to try and restore an episcopate in fading centers like Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) or Venta Icenorum (near Norwich). But if Christianity survived in southern and eastern England, why did surviving priests and laity not restore the episcopal structure, even if that meant sending envoys to Gaul or Spain for assistance? If they did make any such effort, it failed utterly because, as I have said, Augustine did not report finding bishops in the south and east. Either the surviving British in southern and eastern England were too poor and oppressed to contemplate any such effort; or else the faith no longer functioned.

For me, this lack of bishops is decisive evidence that Christianity no longer functioned in southern and eastern Britain by the late sixth century, or if it did, it was at the most rudimentary level, with vague memories of some shrines and martyr-sites, such as St. Alban’s. What we have here is a classic example of the destruction of a church. The process would have taken around a century, from c.450 to c.550.

 

And that brings me to the experience of Roman Africa, the region that we would call Tunisia and coastal Algeria, where a thriving Christianity also ceased to exist. (I base the following on my 2008 book The Lost History of Christianity).

In its day, the African church had been one of the wonders of the Christian world. Latin Christian traditions developed in Carthage rather than Rome, and Africa was the home of such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. By the late fifth century, North Africa had an astonishing five or six hundred bishoprics, while monasteries were a familiar part of the local social landscape. Even after long struggles between rival Christian sects, North Africa in the century after 560 was a potent center of spiritual, literary and cultural activity.

Yet within fifty years of the completion of the Arab conquest in 698, local Muslim rulers were apologizing to the Caliphs that they could no longer supply Christian slaves, since Christians were now so scarce. Most sequences of bishops end suddenly, and even in the few surviving sees, we find gaps of decades or centuries at a time. Long centuries of darkness are illuminated only briefly, as when a tenth century pope consecrated a new Archbishop of Carthage, but it is far from clear how many bishops survived within his province. And although isolated Christian communities of African Christians (Afariqa) do appear in the eleventh or twelfth centuries, there little evidence of a semi-tolerated Christian presence continuing little noticed, away in the boondocks. For all intents and purposes, though, North African Christianity had largely perished centuries before – mainly between 650 and 750.

African Latin also faded fast, and eventually disappeared as thoroughly as it did in England.

Some of the reasons that a modern observer might identify as causes of the African church’s decline need not necessarily have been fatal. In the fifth and sixth centuries, African Christians had suffered appalling sectarian divisions between various groups, each denouncing the others as heretics. Orthodox Catholics faced puritanical Donatists, Vandal Arians, and insurgent peasant Circumcelliones, and dominant factions were not shy about enforcing their rule through blood and terror. Yet such a statement could equally well be made about most other regions of the late Roman world, including Syria and Mesopotamia, where some churches at least took the coming of Islam in their stride. Indeed, we might take the depth of partisanship as a measure of the passion that believers felt about their religion, making it all the more unlikely that they would renounce it overnight. And the Muslim conquerors had no interest whatever in persecuting Christians as such.

Where the African church failed was in not carrying Christianity beyond the Romanized inhabitants of the cities and the great estates, and not sinking roots into the world of the native peoples. Like most regions of the western empire, such as Gaul and Spain, Africa was divided between Latin-speaking provincials and old-stock natives, who spoke their ancient languages, in this case, varieties of Berber. Unlike these other provinces, though, the African church had made next to no progress in taking the faith to the villages and the neighboring tribes, and nor, critically, had they tried to evangelize in local languages. Evidence of the neglect of the countryside can be found in the letters of St. Augustine, by far the best known of African bishops, whose vision was sharply focused on the cities of Rome and Carthage, and he expressed little interest in the rural areas or peoples of his diocese. (In contrast, the Egyptian church did make such efforts, and it rode out the Arab conquest without too much difficulty).

If Africa’s Christian elites had remained in place long enough, then ultimately their faith, and their language, would have permeated the cultures of the lower classes. But the lack of deep roots meant that Christianity was vulnerable to a sudden decapitation, which would remove the Christian upper classes while leaving no infrastructure. In that case, nothing would be left.

Christianity in this region remained as much a colonists’ religion as it would be once again during the French empire of the twentieth century, and just as in that later period, when the colonists left, so did the religion. Long wars during the sixth and seventh centuries forced many Romanized Africans to flee to other parts of the Mediterranean, and the Arab conquest virtually completed this process. As a Victorian scholar noted, ”the African churches were destroyed not because they were corrupt but because they failed to reach the hearts of the true natives of the province… They fell because they were the churches of a party and not of a people.” Muslims did not have to eradicate African Christianity, because the believers had already fled.

 

I wonder whether similar remarks apply to Roman Britain, especially the point about decapitation. In the western regions, like Wales and Dumnonia (Devon and Cornwall) Christian kings and secular elites survived long enough for their faith to penetrate the lower orders, particularly through the influence of monasteries and local shrines. These parts therefore entered the early Middle Ages with a thoroughly rooted Christian culture – albeit with plenty of pagan survivals.

In southern and eastern Britain, though, the crises of the fifth century came at too early a stage, when the faith had not yet traveled far outside the cities and the villas, and when as yet monasticism was still at a very rudimentary stage. As W.H.C. Frend pointed out many years ago, the British church seems not to have developed a serious parochial structure – although it is always hard to argue from silence. Assume, though, that this view is correct.

With the head struck off, then, the church’s roots withered quickly. Christianity would therefore have faded at roughly the same stage as British Latin, by the start of the sixth century

So yes, I do think the experiences of these two very distant parts of the Roman Empire do illuminate each other quite powerfully.

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