Ritual space - the Tarbat peninsula, showing the location of Bronze Age and Iron cists, early medieval monastery and standing stones and medieval wells and chapels © Martin Carver.

4.3 Spirituality

Protohistoric or early medieval people were both prehistorically aware and intellectually active, and considering that many would live in rural communities that were detached from others to a greater or lesser extent, it is possible to assume that local expression could be given to cosmic belief.  This expression will have been influenced both by the deep time of the locality and by incoming ideas.  Amongst the incoming ideas were those of Christians whose differential impact upon isolated societies, themselves subject to variant beliefs, may have led to religious ideas and practices that varied from place to place. It must be a priority of future research into the religious archaeology of the period to rediscover this degree of local variation and emphasis without bowing to preconceptions that surround the scholar at every turn. This is a possible thread that can be followed across the whole medieval period feeding into the concept of successive reformations: forceful reformation characters occur as much in early Christian conversion times (and at several points in between) as in the 16th century Reformation (and later).

Such strictures apply to any retrospectively imagined “Celtic Christianity”. Institutionalised Christianity can not simply be assumed from the earliest date. There may, indeed, be themes shared between the western parts of these islands but the differences are equally significant. Ronald Hutton puts it nicely: “Just as in every previous period, a great range of individual idiosyncrasy operated within a few widespread similarities” (Hutton 1991, 235).

It can certainly be agreed that there was no monolithic Christianity before the 12th century but there was a degree of institutional Christianity, with a semi-autonomous ‘chain of command’ stretching back to Rome. That said, throughout this period there can also be seen a fundamental split between a ‘magical’ and a ‘priestly’ approach (though with many individuals exercising both). Even after the 12th century when there can be seen across Europe a Christian Church exercising more control this was not absolute – reform and heresy and political subjugation continued manifestly influence events and belief.

Looking specifically at the material culture of religion offers valuable as to how it was actually practised, and reveals that, even during the later medieval period, it was suffused with magical practices and “unorthodoxy” (or idiosyncrasy). In the study of Medieval religion there should be no assumptions about what that religion was, and resist expressing it in crude, all-embracing terms such as “Paganism” or “Christianity”. No ‘orthodoxy’ of an ‘institutionalised paganism’ has been defined for early medieval Europe (Carver 2003, Carver 2010). It would alos, as has been said, not be prudent not to assume that Christianity in the 4-8th century had already achieved the uniformity or social control that it would do in the later Middle Ages. Polities of the 4-8th century are famously fragmented and their Christian materiality famously diverse, and an explanation for this may possibly be found in the diversity of previous proto- and prehistoric practices. What is sought therefore are local expressions of cosmology, and the relevance of prehistoric archaeology to early historic Scotland requires consequent emphasis (Carver 2009a ).

4.3.1 Ritual enclosures

A map showing a peninsula on the north east coast of Scotland with the location of archaeological sites plotted

Ritual space – the Tarbat peninsula, showing the location of Bronze Age and Iron cists, early medieval monastery and standing stones and medieval wells and chapels © Martin Carver.

‘Ritual enclosures’ would include those already designated monasteries on literary or other grounds (Iona, Portmahomack, Hoddom) and cognate curvilinear enclosures that have their Irish analogue in the rath. The uncertainty lies in whether the curvilinear enclosure adopted by monasteries (the “monastic vallum”) correlates in any way with a prehistoric predecessor.

The monastic signals are generally taken to be standing stones, burials and a church (if any churches of the 4th-8th centuries in Scotland were known).

There are of course prehistoric enclosures, (oval, circular and semi-circular) which can have nothing to with Christianity. Many of them have standing stones and burials. They are generally considered to have had ritual functions and there is a large literature on their possible use as calendars. This is no longer considered an outlandish subject, even if its precise details are still far from clear:

 “Religious specialization is now hardly to be doubted at the stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury……..observations of the sun and moon at such sites was part of the calendrical interest seen over much of Britain, especially in the Highland Zone……. Specialist observers or seers, in effect a priesthood, were a feature of this society” (Renfrew 1973, 55; repr 1984, 242); endorsed in 1996]

The implications here are that the ritual enclosures that are designated as monasteries are successor sites as much as they are innovation, and it is the duty of researchers to study them as such. This means that every monastery requires an appreciation of its local prehistoric context. It also means that there should be an awareness of its ambient intellectual inheritance as well as the currency of new ideas from the continent.  Within this inheritance there may possibly have been a local calendrical ‘system’ at least in localities where there were henges.  If that possibility is accepted then it would be a valuable research project to investigate possible links between astro-archaeological phenomena in localities and possible calendrical variation, including the date of Easter, and its acceptance in early medieval Britain. This is to say no more than that studying protohistory and prehistory together may offer some unexpected rewards. What may be less rewarding is to consider the monastery as a Christian paragon, untouched by anything that preceded it and thus to be studied in isolation from its pre-existing social and intellectual context.

One strand of contemporary early medieval Conversion Period thought (which includes Gregory the Great and St Patrick) did not argue for the wanton destruction of paganism but saw Christianity as the completion of a long process, a perfection of human religious thought, suggesting that they saw paganism as the natural precursor of Christianity. Even from the later middle ages there is a train of Christian thought that recognised certain elements of paganism and certain of its practitioners as worthy, almost pre-figurers of Christianity. The rhetoric of monasteries being founded in desert locations perhaps needs more nuanced interpretation – the idea of ‘desert’ could well have encompassed that which is pagan or uninformed by Christianity , a desert then would be seen as an absence of Christ not necessarily as an absence of “pagan” communities.

A photograph of an ornate large pennanular brooch decorated with silver and gold filigree and amber stones

The Hunterston brooch was probably made around AD700 at a royal site such as Dunadd, Argyll. It represents a considerable technical achievement by a crafts person familiar with a range of techniques and styles of decorative metalwork. The centre of the brooch displays Christian imagery, while other forms of decorative style adorn the rest of the brooch, ©ScARF

A potentially more interesting divide is not between Christianity and paganism but between ‘magicians’ and ‘priests’. Such a segregation between those who advocated and practiced direct action or magic and those who preferred a more spiritual, contemplative, preparation for the after-life is an approach that can be applied to both religious camps.

4.3.2 Iconography

Sculptured stones are perhaps the most substantial and visible remains of early Christianity in Scotland. Some of this sculpture features complex iconographical scenes and significant attention has been devoted to their identification. However, unlike other parts of early Christendom, Scotland appears to lack examples of portable iconography other than illuminated books. There are no early Christian iconography-bearing ampullae, pilgrim tokens, or articles of metalwork for instance.

This is a significant difference in the Scottish expression and communication of early Christianity, and as such the reasons behind this should be a research priority. There are few early historic Scottish objects whose main or sole decoration is Christian in nature; for instance there does not appear to be a strong tradition of pectoral cross pendants. Christian imagery instead appears to have been integrated with other types of decoration on for instance the elaborate penannular brooches from Hunterston and Rogart.

Although iconography on sculptured stones has been the subject of substantial work, more recent approaches to the context and use of such monuments are continuing to bear fruit. Some useful approaches include: considering the selection and combination of iconographical scenes, their physical positioning with regards to potential audience(s); the performance of church rituals, and the themes which whole iconographical programmes might explore (such as the seasons, the liturgical year, the role of a monastic or community-orientated church). The potential impact of lost pigments or other embellishments (such as metal bosses or glass insets) on the meaning and communication of messages in Christian sculpture should not be forgotten. The selection and creative representation of iconographical schemes on sculptured stones and in illuminated manuscripts were Christian intellectual exercises, both for the creators and the audiences. It asked both groups to question what they knew in order to identify and understand the scenes portrayed, as well as the wider themes communicated by multiple scenes presented together.

See also the ScARF Case Study: The development of the early church

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