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FW: TMR 99.01.08, Higham, Convert Kings (Harris)

Poster: "Garrett, William" <WGarrett@sierrahealth.com>

> N. J. Higham.  <i>The Convert Kings: Power and Religious 
> Affiliation in early Anglo-Saxon England</i>.  Manchester: 
> Manchester University Press, 1997.  Pp. 293.  $69.95 (hb), 
> $24.95 (pb).  ISBN 0719048273 (hb), 0719048281 (pb).  
>    Reviewed by Stephen J. Harris
>         Loyola University Chicago
>         sharris@orion.it.luc.edu
> This is the third book of N. J. Higham's trilogy which begins 
> with <i>The English Conquest: Gildas and Britain in the Fifth 
> Century</i> (Manchester, 1994) and continues with <i>An English 
> Empire: Bede and the early Anglo-Saxon Kings</i> (Manchester, 
> 1995).  In this work, which in parts builds on the other two, 
> H. asks what exactly Anglo-Saxon kings gained by conversion to 
> Christianity.  His interest lies not in the "psychological or 
> intellectual processes" (10) of conversion, by which readers 
> are to understand faith, but with the tantalizing material and 
> political benefits which helped kings realize their wider 
> dynastic objectives.  Christianity offered an attractive 
> hierarchical model of authority, as well as willing clerics who 
> could report on the activity of client kings and "subvert 
> separatist local identities" (277).  The book is divided into 
> four chapters.  There is an introductory chapter in which H. 
> sketches his concerns and methods, and three chapters which 
> focus on (a) King Aethelbert of Kent, (b) King Edwin of 
> Northumbria, and (c) Kings Osric, Oswald, Oswiu, and Oswine of 
> Northumbria.  There is also a brief introduction (6pp.), an 
> epilogue (7pp.), and an index (10pp.). There is no 
> bibliography, but each chapter does conclude with notes.
> This study is occasioned by new perspectives on religious 
> conversion offered by social anthropologists.  An especially 
> attractive aspect of these perspectives is a shared view that 
> religious affiliation is considered "integral to the wider 
> concerns of opinion-forming sections of society--primarily the 
> royal courts" (4).  H. sees these wider concerns exclusively as 
> political objectives, and he explains that it is his 
> description of this fundamental "sylloge" between religion and 
> political interests which marks his study off from those by 
> Henry Mayr-Harting, Peter Hunter Blair, Peter Brown, and Judith 
> Herrin.  Although H. does not define "politics" or explain what 
> it might mean in a seventh-century context, general political 
> issues regarding conversion are not unknown to the authors he 
> cites.  Mayr-Harting, in his preface to the third edition of 
> <i>The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England</i> 
> (Pennsylvania, 1991), notes that religious questions (such as 
> those raised at the Synod of Whitby in 664 A.D.) are also 
> political, and dedicates much of the second part of this 
> monumental work to a discussion of politics.  Judith Herrin 
> also speaks to the political and material force of Christianity 
> in her <i>The Formation of Christendom</i> (Princeton, 1987).  
> And neither Hunter Blair nor Brown are ignorant of the relation 
> between Christianity and political power in the early medieval 
> and late antique world.  Instead, H. does not so much 
> concentrate on politics as he does avoid religion.  In this 
> sense, <i>The Convert Kings</i> is unique among Anglo-Saxon 
> conversion studies.  There is much merit to his approach, and 
> H.'s study offers a radically new perspective on Augustine's 
> mission to the English and later efforts at conversion.  In 
> another sense, his avoidance of religion and subsequent 
> denigration of the discourse of Christian interpretation (as 
> "mission-centred") permits little critical leverage against the 
> scant and often obscure records of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon 
> society.  His antipathy to Christian evidence, the Venerable 
> Bede in particular, leads H. into long, speculative passages 
> with little factual basis which caused Patrick Sims-Williams to 
> remark in a 1995 review of <i>The English Conquest</i> that H. 
> tends to overstep his evidence.  This is also the case with 
> <i>The Convert Kings</i>.  His style is often difficult to 
> follow, as the speculations depend each upon the last, and one 
> is never quite sure which possibility he is advancing.  
> Numerous parenthetical directions to "see below" and "see 
> above," virtually all unpaginated, link these speculations.  
> The argument is inundated with terms such as "arguably," 
> "possibly," "may be," "likely," "implies," "probably," "if," 
> and "perhaps"-producing what might be called history in the 
> conditional mode.  H. is a sensitive reader of difficult 
> evidence, and his methodological foray into uncorroborated 
> speculation is, in my opinion, an unfortunate if sometimes 
> exciting aspect of this book.
> H. looks to social anthropology, to the work of Martin 
> Southwold, and to a more holistic view of conversion based on 
> the theories of Robert Horton.  H. quietly dismisses the 
> pioneering work of James C.  Russell in a brief endnote, 
> claiming Russell's <i>The Germanization of Early Medieval 
> Christianity</i> (Oxford, 1994) "is charged with a wide range 
> of sociological theory but far less social anthropology" (45, 
> n. 18). The apparently debilitating distinction between 
> sociological theory and social anthropology is left 
> unexplained.  H. recognizes a wider definition of Christianity, 
> proposing a less spiritual and more nominal notion, and 
> supposes English converts largely ignorant of theology, 
> incapable of what he terms a "psychological grasp of the 
> religion into which they had been initiated" (39).  
> Christianity instead offered the English "attractive solutions 
> to political problems," and the English elite wanted "ideas 
> about organization, hierarchy and authority which were on 
> offer" (27).  This radical notion is buttressed by a dismissal 
> of popular religion as "a red-herring in the context of 
> seventh-century England" (28), unable to tell us anything 
> meaningful about conversion, and declares that royal and 
> popular conversion was almost always a political act.  H. 
> concludes (rather circularly) that since the Anglo-Saxons did 
> not convert due to popular disenchantment with the native 
> religion, they must have converted for political reasons.  Yet 
> we have virtually no information about early popular religion, 
> nor are we always capable of distinguishing it from popular 
> culture, as Karen Jolly has recently shown in <i>Popular 
> Religion in Late Saxon England</i> (Chapel Hill, 1996).  
> Furthermore, H. confuses faith with doctrinal proficiency (few 
> Christians today could adequately explain the Trinity, but this 
> doesn't make them any less Christian).  H. (to my mind wrongly) 
> assumes throughout this work that Christianity has an essential 
> existence outside of a person's capacity to understand and 
> practice it. There is enough in H.'s unique approach to 
> intrigue Anglo-Saxonists, but there is little cause for him to 
> dismiss religion outright as an inappropriate context in which 
> to understand conversion (39).  In the end, H. protests that 
> faith is irrelevant to his argument, but he does not explain 
> how faith is irrelevant to conversion.
> His second chapter looks to Aethelberht, the king in Kent to 
> whom Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine in 597.  The 
> question to which this chapter is dedicated concerns 
> Aethelberht's motives in accepting baptism. Although he raises 
> the stunning possibility that Aethelberht may have been 
> converted before Augustine's arrival (62), he does not pursue 
> its implications.  Considering Aethelberht's spiritual motives 
> beyond recovery, he turns exclusively to political motives and 
> declares that "the acceptance of baptism was a matter of 
> strategy rather than conviction" (53).  Having dismissed the 
> possibility of spiritual motives, H. permits his reader no 
> other conclusion.  But it is not the setting of the question as 
> much as the choice of evidence which mars this chapter. From 
> the first, H. dismisses the evidence of Bede, whose <i>Historia 
> Ecclesiastica gens Anglorum</i> is the most important narrative 
> of Aethelberht's reign and conversion.  H.'s antipathy towards 
> the <i>HE</i> is founded on a rabid mistrust of Bede's motives 
> which he says are polluted by implicit "value judgments" (60) 
> marshalled in pursuit of "Bernician-centered historical 
> imperatives" (57).  A general concern with Bede's accuracy is 
> not new to Anglo-Saxon studies, but even its stronger 
> proponents--Rob Meens and Walter Goffart, for example--will not 
> ignore Bede entirely.  (In fact, H. returns unwillingly to Bede 
> in his third chapter.) Looking to other sources of information, 
> of which there are remarkably few, he introduces his reader to 
> general trends in Frankish and Merovingian politics, Pope 
> Gregory's letters, and Aethelberht's apparent involvement in 
> Continental struggles for power.  He suggests that Gregory's 
> mission to the English developed from a conflict between Kings 
> Chilperic and Childebert II--the latter of whom controlled the 
> vast majority of Merovingian Gaul.  H. speculates that Gregory 
> and Childebert conspired to ally themselves "in mutual self-
> interest" in order "to take greater control of the church in 
> Kent." This begs the question, What church in Kent? But rather 
> than asking it, though, H. speculates on why Gregory saw an 
> opportunity to secure control--whatever that might mean with 
> respect to a sixth-century Pope--of an embryonic if 
> hypothetical church.  The reason turns on the role of Bishop 
> Liudhard, who accompanied the princess Bertha, Chilperic's 
> niece, to her new home in Kent as Aethelberht's queen.  With no 
> evidence to support him (in fact, not much more than Liudhard's 
> name is known), H. calls the bishop "Chilperic's agent."  He 
> claims Liudhard headed "a church of sorts" at Canterbury (73).  
> And here is perhaps the most imaginative moment of this 
> chapter: H. invents some "highly placed Kentish travellers" 
> who, in the midst of other business in Gaul, take a moment to 
> speak with Bishop Candidus about a replacement for Liudhard.  A 
> Papal agent somehow gets wind of the meeting and sprints to 
> Rome to report to Gregory (81).  Gregory then sends "shock-
> troops of papal intervention" (118) seeking "the colonization 
> of pagan space" and the "use of the coercive powers of local 
> rulers" (119).  Thus is Augustine's mission conceived as a 
> Papal attempt to wrest ecclesiastical control away from 
> Chilperic's agent (probably) then in Aethelberht's court.
> H. does a very good job of introducing the reader to the 
> various political currents apparently affecting the Kentish 
> king, especially the political intrigues of the Merovingian 
> courts.  It is within the context of these Continental 
> political currents that H. places Aethelberht's conversion.  He 
> sees Kent, or rather the "Kentings," as a Frankish satellite.  
> He posits an ethnic identity for the "Kentings" exclusive of 
> Saxon or Anglian identity, and it is upon this identity that he 
> predicates his description of Aethelberht's political 
> intrigues.  Yet it all turns on the assumed death of Bishop 
> Liudhard in 596 (and news of it almost immediately reaching 
> Rome), which H. supposes is the immediate cause of Gregory's 
> mission.  He writes, "There are separate lines of reasoning 
> which point to, but fail to prove, Liudhard's recent death in 
> 596" (75).  These lines converge in a circle: he supposes 
> Liudhard died because Gregory wouldn't have sent Augustine had 
> Liudhard been alive. But in the end, we know next to nothing 
> about Liudhard, his ambitions, his obligations to his Frankish 
> province, or his role at Aethelberht's court--and we cannot be 
> certain the Queen's bishop was anybody's political pawn.  
> Another instance of suspect speculation concerns a long chain 
> of hypotheses leading to a council at Augustine's Oak.  Based 
> on Augustine's embassy to Gregory in 601, as well as a 
> conviction of the complicity of the Roman church in court 
> politics, H.  assumes that Gregory's permission to create as 
> many as twelve bishoprics reveals Aethelberht's unrealized 
> plans for territorial expansion.  He then speculates on why 
> these "plans concocted jointly by the Kentish king and his 
> bishop" (100)--for which absolutely no evidence exists--were 
> initiated.  This speculation then curiously becomes the factual 
> grounds for further speculation about both the complicity of 
> Queen Bertha in the Pope's agenda and the later abandonment of 
> the plans.  By this chain of hypotheticals does H. 
> circumnavigate the scant evidence available and provide a 
> context for its later interpretation.  Thus he sees 
> Aethelberht's baptismal sponsorship of the East Anglian king 
> Raedwald as an attempt to bring Raedwald under Kentish 
> dominion.  The conference at Augustine's Oak is interpreted as 
> an attempt to bring the recalcitrant Christian Britons under 
> Aethelberht's control.  And an unremitting desire for 
> territorial expansion appears to have been Aethelberht's 
> response to Clothar's victories in Frankia (116).  In the end, 
> the evidentiary threads which hold together this patchwork of 
> speculation fail to sustain the weight of H.'s intriguing 
> conclusions.
> In his third chapter, H. turns to King Edwin and to Bede's 
> account of Aethelberht's death.  In the face of current 
> opinion, he suggests that Aethelberht's pagan son Eadbald may 
> have been baptized prior to 616.  He takes issue with the 
> standard translation of Bede (Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B.  
> Mynors, Oxford, 1969), arguing that "recipere nolverat" does 
> not mean "had refused to receive," but "had not wished to 
> receive," this latter somehow implying that Eadbald had wished 
> to convert at an earlier time.  This quibble turns on 
> tendentious English implications of the phrase rather than the 
> Latin ones.  Bede's Latin is fairly clear on the point.  
> Nevertheless, H. goes on to conclude that Eadbald was baptized 
> twice (134).  He later allows that Eadbald was never baptized.  
> He next turns to the friction between pagans and Christians in 
> Kent and among the East Saxons.  By refusing Christianity, he 
> argues, the East Saxons maintained an independent sense of 
> identity (he does not explain a similar reaction in Kent).  H. 
> seems to side with the pagans, and portrays the East Saxon 
> "non-Christians" as having "an essentially inclusive vision of 
> the sacred" while Christians "constructed barriers," which 
> seems to me wholly naive given we know virtually nothing about 
> Anglo-Saxon "non-Christians."  But this convenient invention of 
> liberal, inclusive pagans soon becomes established fact in H.'s 
> narrative, and he speculates on the "open cosmology" of the 
> Saxon "world-picture" (136), later noting without comment a 
> pagan propensity to head hunt (223).  He later corrects Bede 
> for his irrational account of the pagan priest Coifi, who at 
> first resisted Christianity, since "priests of traditional 
> religions have often proved to be that sector of society most 
> open to religious change" (168)--raising the spectre of his 
> earlier denigration of improper analogies.  In considering 
> Eadbald's (possible?) conversion, he disagrees with Bede's 
> account and proposes instead that pressure had been brought to 
> bear by Clothar and the Franks who considered "the Canterbury 
> church as part of their world" (139).  In fact, he says, Bede's 
> account was constructed "to disguise that king's vulnerability 
> to pressure from Frankia" (140).  Moreover, "Canterbury's 
> metropolitan status required that all evidence of dependence on 
> the Frankish church be written out of English ecclesiastical 
> history" (140)--a conjecture that speaks volumes about both the 
> state of the available evidence and H.'s method.  He next 
> supposes that Eadbald was not actually baptized, which then 
> presumably proves Bede's complicity in manufacturing history. 
> This leads to H.'s portrait of Eadbald as a political 
> opportunist who saw Christianity as a way of extending his 
> territory with the help of both the Merovingians and King Edwin 
> of Northumbria.  From these dizzying and sometimes 
> contradictory speculations, he next turns to King Edwin.
> H. proposes some excellent scenarios in this section, and he is 
> to be credited with a remarkably detailed knowledge of this 
> era.  His discussion of Edwin's political intrigues well repays 
> the reading, and complements nicely one of his major sources, 
> D.P.  Kirby, <i>The Earliest English Kings</i> (London, 1991).  
> Yet, there are a number of difficulties.  First, he fails to 
> show convincingly that Christianity was commonly considered an 
> arm of Aethelberht's dynastic ambition.  Without this, the 
> implicit relation between the two as received political opinion 
> cannot be allowed to substantiate further speculation.  Second, 
> he leaves unanswered a number of questions about the 
> "overking," a contentious subject at best, but which he treats 
> as established fact.  He seems to consider the "overkingship" 
> the goal of every ambitious Anglo-Saxon king, so it should get 
> some attention <i>per se</i>, but neither does he discuss it, 
> nor does he cite Patrick Wormald's essential study on the 
> topic.  This becomes especially troublesome when he comes to 
> the dynastic struggle between Aethelberht and Raedwald, king of 
> the East Angles (<i>HE</i> II, v), and he is forced to depart 
> violently from Bede's Latin in order to make sense of these two 
> simultaneous "overkings" (195, n.  55).  Third, while 
> describing the purported political tensions which Edwin 
> engaged, he makes some vexing claims about chronology and 
> identity.  Michael Wallace-Hadrill, in his posthumous 
> commentary on the <i>HE</i>, noted that Bede's dating in this 
> regard may have been confused by two conflicting sources.  
> Kirby attempted to set it right.  But H., silent on Wallace-
> Hadrill and Kirby, suggests that Bede purposefully "massaged" 
> the numbers (145).  This is simply unfair.  H. also assumes a 
> unique Deiran identity common to "the people at large" (145), 
> and it is this identity, like Aethelberht's Kentish identity, 
> which fuels the political tensions within which H. weaves his 
> speculations.  But the terminology in Bede (III, vi) suggests 
> that he (and presumably King Ceowulf) understood the 
> unification of the Northumbrian provinces (<i>provincia</i>) 
> under Oswald as reinforcing a common identity as a single 
> Northumbrian <i>gens</i>.  The feuding royal families of the 
> Bernician province and the Deiran province need not reflect 
> similar tensions among the greater Northumbrian population.  
> But H. declares that "there was no such thing as Northumbria in 
> 616" (151). Peter Hunter Blair, on the other hand, sees Deira 
> and Bernicia as two territories of a single Anglian people 
> (<i>World of Bede</i>, Cambridge, 1970, p.  35).  Gregory, who 
> in the sixth century noticed some Deiran slave boys in a 
> Frankish market, was told they were Anglian.  Kirby notes co-
> operation between Deira and Bernicia, and Aethelfrith's rule 
> over both territories as possibly "a formalization of a 
> previous relationship" (71).  There is no reason to assume that 
> Deiran and Bernician identities superseded an Anglian one, even 
> though an assumption of such a tension is convenient for H.'s 
> political speculation.  In fact, H. just as conveniently 
> abandons this distinction, later calling Edwin "an Anglian king 
> of Angles" (156).  He then adduces from the archaeological 
> remains at Yeavering in Bernicia that Aethelfrith was 
> attempting to build an "English" monumental court complete with 
> a pagan "temple" to rival Aethelberht's "Frankish" Canterbury 
> (148).  The distance from Yeavering apparently alienated the 
> Deirans as a people, reducing them in the eyes of the 
> Bernicians "to the status of a satellite community" (149).  
> Within these tensions H. speculates on Edwin's conversion 
> (although he entertains an idea that Edwin may have been 
> baptized earlier by a Briton).  He claims that Edwin recovered 
> his pagan roots in order to impress Raedwald of East Anglia.  
> Afterwards, he took over Yeavering and its "temple" with 
> "timber posts which might conceivably have been carved idols" 
> (153), evidence for which is a series of holes; they might just 
> as conceivably have been timber posts.
> H.'s final chapter addresses the Bernician or Northumbrian 
> kings following Edwin.  Each successive king, H. argues, sought 
> to distance himself from the religion of his predecessor:  
> Edwin (Christian) precedes Eanfrith of Bernicia and Osric of 
> Deira (pagans who each ruled less than a year), who in turn 
> precede Oswald (Christian).  But when dealing with Oswald's 
> Christianity (rather than paganism) in the face of Edwin's 
> Christian legacy, H. puts the distinction down to different 
> <i>brands</i> of Christianity: Irish, British, and Roman (208).  
> He assumes that in terms of conversion, these are all 
> essentially different, and Oswald's choice sufficiently 
> distanced him from his predecessor.  Although H. represents 
> conversion as a matter of public rather than private 
> conviction, one wonders about such examples as King Sigiberht, 
> who retreated to a monastery (215) or the spiritual pilgrimage 
> to Rome of Kings Ine, Oswiu, and Alfred.  In fact, King Oswiu 
> offers a conundrum to H., since he didn't revert to paganism in 
> an effort to distance himself from his predecessor, Oswald.  
> Speculation gets the better of H. with respect to Oswald and he 
> concludes, "This discussion has progressed in very general 
> terms and has been characterized by hypothesis.  That is owing 
> to the very little that is actually known about King Oswald." 
> (213)  But there is nothing "very general" in speculating about 
> Oswald's motivations and the precise political currents which 
> may have influenced his reign.  In fact, unless one is 
> constantly on guard, one might be forgiven for mistaking these 
> hypotheses for something "actually known." H. thus offers his 
> readers an <i>apologia</i>, saying his "may not be an entirely 
> sound conclusion," and faults his poor evidence (213).  The 
> fault lies not in the evidence, but in an attempt to extract 
> from it that which it will not yield.
> Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the argument in this 
> chapter concerns the relation between victory in battle and 
> Christianity.  Pope Gregory, in writing Aethelberht, had 
> promised him the strength of God in war.  Christianity, argues 
> H., is a talisman against defeat.  The battle between Edwin and 
> the West Saxons is called "a test of the favours of the 
> Christian God" (208).  But this does not seem to be the case 
> with the victory of the Christian Welsh King Cadwallon over the 
> English, the same king who killed both Osric of Deira and 
> Eanfrith of Bernicia.  To H., this defeat only damages slightly 
> the reputation of the pagan gods.  Yet these same gods had 
> played such an important role in effecting the death of the 
> Christian Edwin in c.616.  One wonders if gods can weaken.  In 
> a study dedicated to Anglo-Saxon politics and religion, one 
> might expect at the least a systematic treatment of this notion 
> of religion as a talisman against defeat.  This would be 
> especially helpful in terms of the one great anomaly in this 
> regard:  Penda, the great heathen king of the Mercians.
> This is a fascinating study, but I remain skeptical of Higham's 
> speculation.  On the whole, I consider it a species of the 
> <i>argumentum ad ingnoratiam</i> fallacy: not-P is unproven, 
> therefore P.  (In this case, though, it would be not-P cannot 
> be proven, therefore possibly P.) Much of Anglo-Saxon history 
> will never be known to us.  To speculate on what might have 
> been is an intriguing exercise, but in the end we must resolve 
> to be content with a capacity to leave things unresolved and 
> unanswered.  I would recommend this work only to those who have 
> a firm grasp of Anglo-Saxon history, lest they consider as fact 
> the speculations on offer. 
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