Trees in the Religions of Early Medieval England

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Book review of Trees in the Religions of Early Medieval England (Anglo-Saxon Studies) by Michael D.J. Bintley

An age of transitions

Early medieval England is very interesting because it is an age of transitions.

Anglo-Saxon settlement

From 410 AD onwards, the Roman Empire was no longer able to protect its territory in Britain. At this point there were already Germanic people on the island, thanks to the Roman use of Germanic mercenaries. In the 5th century more Germanic people arrived and the Anglo-Saxon settlement period began.

Before the Anglo-Saxons the people living in what is now England were Romano-British. They spoke a Celtic language related to modern Welsh. They knew about Christianity and about the paganisms that flourished in the Roman Empire.

Historians used to think that the Germanic settlers displaced the native British population from England, pushing them into Wales. The latest evidence suggests that the displacement was cultural rather than physical. Germanic culture, social structures and language became dominant over a period of time.

From paganisms to Christianities

The settlers brought their own forms of paganism with them. As the Anglo-Saxons were not one people, and came from various parts of northern Europe, their paganisms would have been diverse.

When they arrived they did not establish one country, but rather multiple kingdoms. This would have added to the diversity of their traditions.

In the late 6th century Pope Gregory the Great sent a mission headed by St Augustine of Canterbury to convert the English to Christianity. (It should be noted that Irish Christians were also spreading Christianity in the north.)

It took about a century to convert all the kingdoms, and even then, paganism survived for some time in the folk beliefs and folk stories of the general population.

So there we have it. Transitions from Romano-British to Anglo-Saxon culture and language. And also transitions from Romano-British paganisms and Anglo-Saxon paganisms to Irish and Roman Christianity.

Trees as a constant in an age of transition

Cultural and religious transitions are seldom clear cut. When different cultural groups meet, they pass ideas to each other. When new religions come in, they tend to pick up elements from the religious traditions that are already there.

It’s already well known that Pope Gregory advised St Augustine to ease the conversion process by blending in aspects of paganism that were not incompatible with Christianity. For this reason churches were set up on pagan sacred sites, so that people could feel a sense of continuity between the old and the new.

In his book about trees in early medieval religions, Michael D.J. Bintley shows how trees were a constant, knitting the old and the new together.

For pagans across northern Europe, trees and groups of trees held a sacred meaning. The evidence that survives suggests animism and also mythologies about a world tree of cosmic significance. Pagan practice not only involved living trees, but also enormous pillars cut from trees.

Trees and leaves also featured strongly in Christian imagery. In the Gospels Jesus is described as the true vine, hence the popularity of vine leaves in Christian art.

The large wooden cross that Jesus died on was described in tree-like terms by the Anglo-Saxons. The Old English Christian poem The Dream of the Rood plays on this, with the tree that became the cross speaking to the listener.

In the Old Testament trees appear in the Garden of Eden, the burning bush and in references to pillars and staffs.

For the Anglo-Saxon converts to Christianity therefore, trees were a point of familiarity, a continuity. Trees in their visual art pointed both forwards to their new faith and backwards to their ancestral sense of the sacred.

As new Christians they looked back at their pre-Christian spirituality and saw themselves as people who were guided by God but not yet given the Gospel. Trees were a point of continuity that helped them to think like this. Trees were a sign that God was already there.

Closing remarks

This blog post is my attempt of a summary of some of what Bintley has to say about trees in the religions of early medieval England. (I am writing from memory so there may be mistakes.) If you’re reading this blog because you’re doing research for schoolwork, please don’t stop here. Get hold of Bintley’s book, whether through a library or through buying it.

Bintley covers a very complex subject in an accessible way. Each chapter ends with summaries of his conclusions, and the final chapter summarises the entire book. I look forward to reading more of Bintley’s other work.

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