Dark Age Saints

3 Mar 2021

Dark age saints are mainly found in the Celtic west of Britain and in Ireland, from Cornwall to the western isles. There is an interesting piece of verbaige at www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/dark-ages-celtic-britain-... ... but I suppose the rest of Britain also had its share of saints, from St Alban to St Cuthbert. Mind you, these saints were possibly influenced by the Celtic Church, which was the major centre of Christianity in Britain and Ireland until Rome sent Augustine to introduce a rival priestly tradition. Henceforth, Canterbury took centre stage. There is an intriguing story there that has never fully been told as the propaganda in favour of the Roman appointee has drowned it out.

The Independent story concentrates on where all these  saints and sinners may have come from and why the Celtic 'cult of saints' developed. Christianity was a religion practised and popularised by the elite, which is a fairly common assumption, but here it has a new twist. The research analysed hundreds of inscriptions, including Ogham [described as a dark age script]. They say the saints were a way to increase reverence for what were an aristocratic elite. The impetus was the rapid deployment of small monastic communities as well as the larger monasteries, which required elite finance and support. Hence, lesser sons of the elite became monks - but not your garden variety of monk. These were the saints, it is suggested, the sons of the privileged. In order for Christianity to grow and prosper it was necessary for the aristocracy to support it. For example, St David - or Columba. The latter came from a powerful family in Ulster.

Saints were mostly active in the 5th and 6th centuries AD and faded after Rome reimposed itself via Christianity. The saints were an aristocratic endeavour. What might that mean as far as we are concerned is debateable as a far more autocratic system developed with the arrival of Augustine. Saints were derived from indigenous practises, and it is well known that some had druidic roots - merely switching doctrines. Hence, the saints were perceived as an intermediary with god, much like the druids - a direct line to heaven. Ordinary people needed to have access to god and scores of saints took on that role, interceding with god on behalf of the general populace. One might even call it a Christian adaptation of pagan ideas. Even road side monuments were erected, somewhat like the 'herms' of the Greco-Roman world. These monuments provided a sort of travellers wayside place of prayer and observance, and gifts to the gods seem to be the origin of such practises. It even exists in the modern world, revived by so called modern pagans.

The research was led by Ken Dark of Reading University. He has written extensively on the dark ages, often in association with his wife, Petra. See for example 'Landscape of Roman Britain' Sutton Publishing: 1997, or 'The Environment of Britain in the First Millennium AD' Duckworth:2000.