When people reflect on the Anglo-Saxon worldview they sometimes invoke an image which has passed into the general fund of anecdote: this life is like a sparrow which flies into the Great Hall in winter -- it passes from the dark and cold through a splendid warmth and brightness, briefly, then flies back out into the dark and cold again.
Setting aside the utter unlikeliness of this scenario -- a sparrow flying straight through the hall, rather than perching gratefully in the rafters and shitting in your mead? -- it does have a certain resonance, and casts a spiritual light onto a people generally characterised by a stoic grumpiness, a love of strong drink and garish jewellery, and an inexplicable urge to die in battle (which may explain the subsequent reputation of the British abroad).
The source of this little parable is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), written around 730 AD by the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk. In Book II, chapter xiii, to be precise (read it yourself -- link here). Read in context, however, the tale of the allegorical sparrow is actually more poignant, and more comic, than it might seem.
The context is Bede's account of the conversion to Christianity of the pagan Edwin, King of Northumbria, around 625 AD.
Previously on Bede's Ecclesiastical History:
Following an encounter with a mysterious tall, dark stranger in a dream and a foiled assassination attempt when in exile with King Raedwald, Edwin has been predisposed to conversion at the hands of Paulinus, a Roman missionary who is said to have borne a striking resemblance to the tall, dark stranger in Edwin's dream, and who miraculously turns out to know the secret hand gesture revealed to Edwin in the dream.
Being a good Anglo-Saxon, however, Edwin cannot convert his people without at least a pretence of consultation (plus ça change...). So he gathers the council of wise men -- in Anglo-Saxon, a moot, or possibly a thing. The main item on the agenda -- after taking apologies, minutes of the last moot, and moot points arising -- is:
1. So, what do we make of this Christianity business? Any objections?
First up is the Top Pagan Priest. Surprisingly (at least in Bede's account) he's all for it. Indeed, he says, I knew the pagan thing was rubbish all along -- look, if it wasn't rubbish, why aren't I richer and more powerful? "I move: let's convert to Christianity immediately. Hey, I've seen the jewellery these Roman boys wear! And check that big curly stick!"
Next up is wise old warrior man, Sitting Bull with a gigantic sword and a snowy white beard. He utters the immortal parable of the sparrow. Very cool, wise old Geordie warrior. But, if you actually read it, what he is saying is this:
"There is an infinity of unknowable darkness before and after the brief span of a human life. Getafix over there has never had anything useful whatsoever to say about those dark bits fore and aft. If the new priestly boy does have something useful to offer -- and especially if it stops my Missus gibbering about timor mortis in the small hours -- then, hey, WTF?"
[A grunted chorus of "WTF! WTF!" applauds these words]
Boss Priest is back on his feet. "Through the Chair! Through the Chair!! I totally agree with my scary warrior friend from Sunderland. In fact, the old ways were such rubbish, that I'm going to ride over to the shrine ... right now ... on a stallion ... with a SPEAR and a SWORD ..."
[sharp intake of communal breath at this heresy]
"... and totally TRASH the place! Anyone else up for it? I reckon this Christianity is going to be fun!"
["Yeah! WTF!! WTF!!" Stamping of feet. They saddle up and ride out.]
As Bede wrote:
The multitude, beholding it, concluded he was distracted; but he lost no time, for as soon as he drew near the temple he profaned the same, casting into it the spear which he held; and rejoicing in the knowledge of the worship of the true God, he commanded his companions to destroy the temple, with all its enclosures, by fire. This place where the idols were is still shown, not far from York, to the eastward, beyond the river Derwent, and is now called Godmundingham, where the high priest, by the inspiration of the true God, profaned and destroyed the altars which he had himself consecrated.
Bede does not record whether item 2 on the agenda -- the Mead Fund -- ever got discussed.
So, if nothing else, you can perhaps see the thinking behind my Ring Hoard -- the battered remnants of a sacred cache of rings, perhaps hidden in a remote corner of North Herts near the Saxon settlement of Stithenaece, just inside the Danelaw, within the lands once dominated by the Iceni...
Next: A Song for Hilda