24 February 2016

Saint Ethelbert of Kent: 1400 years.

Today is the 1400th anniversary of the death of S Ethelbert, Confessor, first Christian King of Kent. The Holy King was baptised, together with many of his people, by S Augustine, sent by Pope S Gregory the Great.

It is not often realised, either by Anglicans or by Catholics, what a remarkable phenomenon it was, that little mission which S Ethelbert received and established in Canterbury in 597. It happened a couple of centuries before the Carolingian Renaissance, before an imperious Frankish dynast embarked upon his project of replacing 'Gallican' liturgy with books copied directly from exemplars of the City. S Augustine's 'Church Plant' in Kent resulted in a little island of Romanitas being set up in the furthest North; and was, in political terms, magnificently timely.

King Ethelbert of Kent was clearly aware that Christianity was the cult of the Big World; he so valued his links with that world that he had accepted a Christian Frankish princess as his queen, with a Frankish bishop as her chaplain. Yet, to adopt her religion ... his Father-in-law's religion ... would have made him appear an appendage of her apron-strings, if not a vassal of her father. But the offer of a direct relationship with the Papa Romanus; to have a dialect of Christianity more august than theirs parachuted in; enabled him to trump the dignities of his in-laws. To be addressed as Rex Anglorum and as gloriosissimus, praecellentissimus by a Pope who compared him to Constantinus piissimus imperator ... to be instructed that the dedications and the liturgical dispositions and the choral arrangements of the churches being constructed in Canterbury precisely paralleled those of the great City itself, making Canterbury a new, Northern Rome, so miraculously far beyond the Alps ...

If there was one single over-riding characteristic of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, it was its Romanitas. Professor Jesse Billett of Toronto has recently devoted much erudition to this subject in his The Divine Office in Anglo-Saxon England 597-c.1000. His concern is to examine the surviving evidence for how the Divine Office, the round of daily prayer, was performed in the monasteria, 'minsters', of Anglo-Saxon England; and to demonstrate that it is inaccurate and anachronistic to speak of this as 'Benedictine'. Although there is plenty of evidence for the respectful study of the Benedictine Regula in the English Church, an assumption that this must have included a careful replication of S Benedict's directions with regard to worship contradicts the hints given in the evidence of the period concerned. I say 'hints' because writers naturally fail to describe in detail what they assume their readers will take for granted (throughout my blog posts you will not find any evidence that I use a knife and a fork while eating ... because we all do that ... and the remarkable thing would be if I did not do so ... and in that case I would explain to you my aberrant behaviour). Nevertheless the evidence is sufficient to fill some 500 pages and to build up a formidable case.
So how did they worship? I will repost two more posts on this subject in the course of today.

8 comments:

G said...

We were lucky to scoop Prof. Billett: he's sure to come out with many more gems.

Charlesdawson said...

I remember from my schooldays, the habit we had of writing our translations in pencil, in minute script, between the lines of our Latin texts, as insurance in case the master called on us to translate. I didn't know, then, that going on for thirteen hundred years before, Anglo-Saxon monks and priests were doing the same thing in their psalters. Some of the glosses on the text of the Vespasian Psalter (sadly only a fragment of the work has survived) are dated, I believe, to the 9th century and are among the earliest surviving English texts.

The British Library has digitised Cotton MS Vespasian for our delight and the AS glosses can still clearly be seen, originally in red ink, now faded to brown. See f.152r for an excellent example. The glosses date from the 9th to 12th centuries.

I like to think of some AS clerics and/or scribes, determined not to lose the meaning of the ancient Latin, neatly scribbling in the "crib" as and when they could!

Oliver Nicholson said...

The interlinear gloss in the Lindisfarne Gospels is surely the earliest English translation of the Gospels.

Sig S√łnnesyn said...

Professor Billett is also a superb singer, illustrating his academic papers with beautiful renditions of the chants of the Divine Office. He really ought to make a CD to go with the book!

Charlesdawson said...

Yes, I believe the Lindisfarne glosses, which date to the late 10th century, are the earliest extant English translations of the gospels (the original Latin MS is early 8th century); but some of the glosses in the Vespasian Psalter (of psalms, not gospel texts) have been dated to the 9th century.

Banshee said...

Ooh, ooh! Are you going to talk about young Bede and his teacher being the only ones in the monastery to survive the plague who could sing the Office, for something like a year? And that experience probably being the foundation for St. Bede's remarkable love and understanding of Scripture?

Chatto said...

Will have to start saving for that book - £60 a go!

Mary O'Regan said...

Hi, Fr Hunwicke,

Great post!

I linked to your blog in my latest piece for The Catholic Herald.

http://catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2016/02/29/king-ethelbert-the-christian-monarch-whose-influence-is-barely-acknowledged-today/