The fate of Romano-British Christianity in England

Philip Jenkins has written some compelling blog posts on how the Anglo-Saxon invasions affected the Christianity of the Romanized Celts in what would become England. In the first two (here and here), he discusses the devastation wrought by the invaders, to the point that missionaries later had to be sent to convert the Anglo-Saxons.

In today’s post, he looks at the controversy over the interpretation of the historical record. Some argue that the ancient sources overstate the devastation, but he believes that the fact that English has so little Celtic or pre-invasion Latin influence supports his interpretation:

To put this in context, look at four major regions of the Western Roman Empire as it existed in the fourth century: Gaul, Spain, Italy and Britain. All to differing degrees fell under barbarian rule, and all experienced significant Germanic immigration. In three of the countries, Latin ultimately triumphed, in the form of the modern languages we now call French, Spanish and Italian, not to mention tongues like Portuguese, Catalan and Provençal. The glaring exception is Britain, which mainly speaks English, with Celtic outliers.

Why the difference? Partly it’s a matter of who the barbarians actually were. The tribes who invaded mainland Western Europe had long contact with the Roman world, and had borrowed some of their ways and attitudes: the Anglo-Saxons had not.

Also, the native British/Roman people fought in a more determined way against the invaders, leading to some extraordinarily violent and destructive wars that peaked between 440 and, say, the 470s. Vastly aggravating the effects of warfare was severe and recurrent plague, likely accompanied by famine as economic structures collapsed. These disasters utterly destroyed the old urban structure, and with it, the Latin of Roman times. Latin-speaking elites were eliminated or fled, including, most significantly, the church. The British church that was quite well established in, say, 420, pretty much vanished without trace by the time Roman missionaries appear in the 590s. The diocesan structure was wholly uprooted, and an entire new structure put in its place. (Again, British bishops survived in the north and west).

Again, let’s contrast Western Europe, where Latin survived as the language of the cities, however reduced those were, and of the bishops who effectively ruled them. In Britain, in contrast, cities, bishops and Latin perished together.

He also wrote about Welsh Christianity here.

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2 Responses

  1. [...] I noted Philip Jenkins’ series on the decline of the ancient British church. His latest installment compares the near [...]

  2. [...] while back, I posted twice (here and here) about Philip Jenkins’ ongoing series about the near-disappearance of the ancient [...]

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