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Response to Review of Heaven and Earth in Anglo-Saxon England: Theology and Society in an Age of Faith

I’m grateful to Dr Máirín Mac Carron for her thoughtful and generous review of my book. She is absolutely right to point out that the most difficult aspect of this kind of study is the limitations of the surviving source material. This is especially so when one of the aims of the book is to explore – and to consider how to explore – some of the religious beliefs of those who did not produce the relatively small number of written texts which survive to the present day. My comments here are simply to add to some of the points she raises for discussion.

It’s interesting to see – if I read her correctly – that Dr Mac Carron has some concern that my arguments do not give enough credit to lay people in understanding the importance of salvation. I don’t think I anywhere denied the ability of lay people to understand salvation or its importance, but I was conscious that in past scholarship there has tended to be something of a split between those who presented the ‘uneducated’ in the early Middle Ages as following Christian belief blindly, and those who presented these same individuals as not knowing or not understanding anything of Christianity, so that there was essentially a ‘pagan’ (whatever we mean by that) section of society which had a thin veneer of Christianity/Christianisation laid over the top. These views have disappeared from more recent scholarship but, as a perception of the early Middle Ages, they still seem to persist in the minds of some scholars of other periods (not to mention undergraduates). Moreover, alongside these views – and even in more recent works which offer a more subtle understanding of the beliefs among or within Christian societies – it is often taken for granted that theology and complicated theological ideas were remote and incomprehensible to the illiterate. Where Dr Mac Carron reads my argument as not giving enough credit to the laity (as I think she does in the first of the ‘troubling’ comments cited), I was rather trying to suggest that it’s important for historians and theologians to remember above all that early medieval Christian people were individuals who made their own choices in accepting or rejecting particular aspects of what they were taught or heard. I am sure that people from all backgrounds wholeheartedly believed in, and were concerned about, the Last Judgement. But my own feeling is that if, for example, we assume that not everyone was as focused on the Last Judgement as the writers whose works survive, then Judgement Day and the punishment threatened at its coming must for some people have seemed so distant as to be not worth worrying about. This is not to say that some people of all backgrounds weren’t concerned about it! – it is rather to assume that the perspective which survives in the sources is not the only one that existed at the time.

Often the nature and limitations of the surviving evidence make it difficult to draw firm conclusions about who understood or believed what. In the case of the idea of purgatory, much of the evidence for concern over the post-mortem interim fate of the soul is drawn from records of donations to religious foundations to help the souls of those who had died. These records represent at the minimum one transaction, though more likely a series of conversations and interactions over a number of years, which allow us to glimpse at least one moment at which those in a religious foundation might be able to communicate ideas about the fate of the soul to their potential benefactors (and, indeed, when it would be in their interest to do so). In the case of those who had nothing to give and left no records of donations, it is much more difficult to envisage such personal moments at which these ideas might have been discussed. This is not to say that the poor didn’t accept or believe in purgatory or didn’t know about it, just that it’s difficult to identify anything which might help us to pinpoint clear evidence either way. The nature of the historical and archaeological record is that those who have nothing are always the most difficult to see and to understand: we know this, and it isn’t easy to work out how to address it, though this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. On the other hand, it is too easy to assume that the surviving views of the tiny minority of literate elites (who were often highly educated in theological complexities) were remote from ordinary people and essentially irrelevant on a daily basis. My hope is that the arguments presented in my book will encourage more debate on when, how and why theology mattered outside the fairly limited contexts in which it was written down in the early Middle Ages; and how, as scholars, we can or should read our sources to understand the extent of that influence. My thanks again to Dr Mac Carron for her thoughtful comments; I hope she will join me in taking this debate further.