Saturday, December 27, 2008

Can Creationalists read?

I haven't played many games yet, though I'm happy to report that I have finished writing up 5 of the 6 books I need for Readings in World History: Middle Ages this spring. But then having happily settled into Bede's 7th Century Ecclesiastical History, I came across a strange episode that I remembered from Creationalist Bill Cooper's After the Flood.

Cooper described one reason why the Britons and English didn't get along this way:
[The trouble] begins, in fact, with the closing years of the 6th century AD and the arrival on these shores of Augustine, the Roman Catholic bishop whose job it was to bring the British Isles under the political sway of the Roman pontif.

The story is well known from Bede
et al how the British Christians who were here to greet Augustine declined his demand that they place themselves under the Roman authority, and were later massacred for their refusal at Bangor, twelve hundred of the finest scholars and monks of their day being put to the sword.

From that day on there existed an animosity between the Britons (Welsh) and the papacy that was to ferment throughout the early to late Middle Ages, only to culminate in the eventual expulsion of the papal authority from the realm of England under king Henry VIII, who was significantly himself of Welsh Tudor stock. - CH2
It was the mention of Bede that caught my attention*, and - since I came across the story tonight and, in true anal-retentive historian fashion, could not really continue to read until I had a) cleared any confusion up for myself, and b) blogged it - this long, meandering post is the result.

And it is not simply the troubles of King Henry that can be tied to the nefarious monk Augustine** it seems, but also the fact that Nennius could find little native British material to work with a century after Bede:
But in this context, the word hebitudo which Nennius used, suggesting something that has been made blunt or dull and which Morris renders 'stupidity', would perhaps better be translated as complacency or lethargy, the mood of the Britons that followed in the wake of the massacre of the monks at Bangor***. The profound cultural shock of seeing their finest scholars and spiritual leaders massacred by supposedly fellow Christians at the instigation of a Roman bishop no less, would have left a very deep wound indeed, and it is this state of mind amongst the Britons or Welsh that Nennius laments and which led to the neglect and loss of many records and books. - CH3
OK, so Cooper's assertion is that an English Roman Catholic Archbishop instigated a massacre of Christians by other Christians over superficialities****. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, so what's with the incendiary title to this blog? Well, it's just that when Bede tells the story, it's a little different:
For afterwards the warlike king of the English, Ethelfrid, of whom we have already spoken ... observed [the British] priests, who were come together to offer up their prayers to God for the soldiers, standing apart in a place of more safety; he inquired who they were or what they came together to do in that place. Most of them were of the monastery of Bangor ... [and] resorted among others to pray at the aforesaid battle, having one Brocmail appointed for their protector, to defend them whilst they were intent upon their prayers, against the swords of the barbarians.

King Ethelfrid being informed of the occasion of their coming, said, "If then they cry to their God against us, in truth, though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they oppose us by their prayers." He, therefore, commanded them to be attacked first, and then destroyed the rest of the impious army, not without considerable loss of his own forces. About twelve hundred of those that came to pray are said to have been killed, and only fifty to have escaped by flight...

Thus was fulfilled the prediction of the holy Bishop Augustine, though he himself had been long before taken up into the heavenly kingdom; that those perfidious men should feel the vengeance of temporal death also, because they had despised the offer of eternal salvation. (Book II, Ch 2)
Obviously we're talking about the same battle - there are 1200 monks of Bangor monastery killed, and both Cooper and Bede make the massacre a direct consequence of their refusal to submit to Augustine's authority.

But there are three phrases above - buried in the text, I'll admit - that lead us upon careful reading to reach precisely the opposite conclusion of Cooper.

The first is "though [Augustine] had been long before taken up into the heavenly kingdom." By the time this battle occurred, Augustine had "long before" died, so it is rather unlikely that the monks were massacred, as Cooper insists, "at the instigation of a Roman bishop," whom Cooper has already told us was Augustine.

OK, so maybe in his will he left instructions for good Christian soldiers to kill all the British monks - after all, Cooper insists they were killed by "supposedly fellow Christians." What saith Bede? The second phrase to note is that the priests were being protected "against the swords of the barbarians." Not fellow Christians - "supposedly" or otherwise - but pagan English soldiers. It is important to remember that Bede is likewise English, so he would probably not have used "barbarians" to refer to them unless he was talking about non-Christian English.

OK, so maybe the soldiers were pagans, but certainly the king who gave the command, Ethelfrid, was a Christian. Maybe he had secret orders from Augustine. Well the third phrase to consider is Bede's "Ethelfrid, of whom we have already spoken." Where had Bede already spoken of Ethelfrid, and can we from that discern the English Bishop's guilt or innocence?

At the end of Book I (Chapter 34), Bede introduced Ethelfrid, who was at that time kicking the Scots out of Northumberland before turning his attention to the British. Bede compares him to a very famous Biblical character, with one notable exception:
At this time, Ethelfrid ... ravaged the Britons more than all the great men of the English, insomuch that he might be compared to Saul, once king of the Israelites, excepting only this, that he was ignorant of the true religion.
He was ignorant of the true religion. In short, Ethelfrid was a pagan, leading an army of barbarians, long after the death of Augustine, resulting in the destruction of the Bangor monks. Bede makes the death of the monks a spiritual consequence of their disobedience, fully in line with his ecclesiastical purpose. Cooper makes their slaughter a direct exercise of Roman Catholic power against religious dissenters. Cooper's conclusion is therefore so far from the actual words of Bede that I really wonder if he ever read him.

* as well as the et al, as there really is no one else writing during the period but the Venerable One that could be et, much less al.

** Not the earlier theologian (Augustine of Hippo), but the first Archbishop of Canterbury. I suspect that in Cooper's opinion, the office has been little improved in recent years. There I must agree.

*** The battle was actually fought at the City of Legions (modern-day Chester) rather than Bangor. That's just where the monks were from.

**** In this case it was the date of Easter and the cut of the tonsure (the monks' ultra-stylin' hairdo) among other important issues of the day.

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