So, I recently read Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. I’m fascinated by the transition between paganism and Christianity for many reasons, personal and scholarly; I tend to follow Gibbons in thinking the faith both profited from and contributed enormously to the fall of the Roman Empire1. The older I get, the weirder Christianity and its assumptions seem to me.
Of course, the older I get, the weirder any religion other than a sort of salad-bar paganism seems. There’s a great deal of “live and let live” when your gods welcome foreigners into the pantheon as a matter of course. If one must be religious at all, a diverse group of gods who are required to show ID if they want you to do anything at all for them and are understood sometimes as representations of deep psychological processes one is harnessing for one’s own therapy and use in becoming a decent person is hardly the worst way to go.
But I digress. (As usual.)
History is full of “holy what the fuck” moments, and I had one about three-quarters of the way through the Ecclesiastical History, in Chapter XVI. Bede was talking about Caedwalla’s2 military takeover of the Isle of Wight.
Here I think it ought not to be omitted that, as the first fruits of those of that island who believed and were saved, two royal boys, brothers to Arwald, king of the island, were crowned with the special grace of God. For when the enemy approached, they made their escape out of the island, and crossed over into the neighbouring province of the Jutes. Coming to the place called At the Stone, they thought to be concealed from the victorious king, but they were betrayed and ordered to be killed. This being made known to a certain abbot and priest, whose name was Cynibert, who had a monastery not far from there, at a place called Hreutford, that is, the Ford of Reeds, he came to the king, who then lay in concealment in those parts to be cured of the wounds which he had received whilst he was fighting in the Isle of Wight, and begged of him, that if the boys must needs be killed, he might be allowed first to instruct them in the mysteries of the Christian faith. The king consented, and the bishop having taught them the Word of truth, and cleansed them in the font of salvation, assured to them their entrance into the kingdom of Heaven. Then the executioner came, and they joyfully underwent the temporal death, through which they did not doubt they were to pass to the life of the soul, which is everlasting. Thus, after this manner, when all the provinces of Britain had received the faith of Christ, the Isle of Wight also received the same; yet because it was suffering under the affliction of foreign subjection, no man there received the office or see of a bishop, before Daniel, who is now bishop of the West Saxons.–Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Project Gutenberg.
I quote the entire (short) chapter because I had to set the book down and stare into the distance, just working this around in my head. I think I even mouthed “what the fuck” at Miss B, who was snoring heavily next to me, blissfully unaware.
Dogs, man. Anyway.
The murder of royal children is nothing new in history; the very concept of monarchy makes it somewhat inevitable. Dictators pursue the families of those who oppose them on kind of the same principle, with extra terrorization thrown in.
But what brought me up cold was imagining those kids. Just think about it–you’re a child, your family is murdered, you’re hidden and betrayed, then you’re going to be executed and you know it, and along comes this guy to browbeat you into swearing allegiance to his particular sky fairy and he won’t leave you alone until you do.
Imagine being Bede and thinking this story is not horrifying but actually laudatory and exculpatory of murder, and worthy of being held up as a moral victory for your “pacifist” faith.3
Christianity is wild, yo. And people say history is boring.
Other things–like Bede’s constant harping on the “correct” way of calculating Easter, and the reasons why–were interesting and in some cases eye-rolling, but this one particular nugget filled me with cold sleepless horror. I had to take some Violette Leduc right after, to get the taste out of my mouth.
Of course, I also had to read Carlo Jansiti’s afterword about how Leduc’s publisher bowdlerized Ravages and wouldn’t bring out Therese and Isabelle until Leduc stood to make money from it from another (less shitty) publisher, at which point the shitty publisher said “Oh, no, we never said we wouldn’t publish it!”4 Which filled me with incandescent rage. I suppose as an anodyne to Bede it was healthy enough, but hardly less wearing on the nerves.
I was going to head right into The Book of Margery Kempe, but I think I need to pace myself and am instead diving into Witchcraft and Demonology in Hungary and Transylvania, which I scored in the recent Palgrave sale. There’s only so much unfiltered medieval Christianity I can take at one go. Besides, the latter book is a collection of scholarly articles, so I can go hunting through the footnotes at leisure in a way the Kempe-dictated and priest-filtered book5 won’t allow.
I just… I’ve been thinking about that short chapter in Bede a lot lately. It hit me right in the feels, and I’ve never been so glad for modernity, imperfect as it is. Bede’s world was horrifying in several ways. Of course, life is still horrifying around the globe; I’m in an immensely privileged position (for many reasons) and grateful for it.
I want everyone in the world to be just as privileged as I am. More, even.
We can’t hope to understand or mitigate the horror without a knowledge of, and critical reckoning with, history. I think a lot about hearing Harry Turtledove talk about how on balance things are much better than they ever were, and he was absolutely right, but still, it’s awful enough and we can always do better.