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Anglo-Saxon Paganism.

Since the publication of Eric Stanley's devastating set of articles on 'The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism' in 1964-5, a crisis of confidence has overtaken the study of Anglo-Saxon pre-Christian culture. Modern scholars rightly doubt whether they can detect resonances of pagan belief in Old English literature, or the corpus of Anglo-Saxon charms. Some at least of the place-names categorized by Sir Frank Stenton in a classic paper of half a century ago have been dropped. Much of what used to be taken for granted as archaeological evidence of heathen custom is nowadays questioned. Apart from the fact that Christian writers were sure that some of the beliefs and practices of their 5th- and 6th-century ancestors were pagan, one might well begin to wonder if any substance will ever be given to Professor Stanley's 'unknowable unknown'. Dr David Wilson (no relation) does his best. Having cut back his range of reference in accordance with modern canons, he first reviews the onomastic and literary evidence, before concentrating most of his attention on the archaeological record, especially that of inhumation burial (Sutton Hoo, as a 'special case', gets a short chapter of its own). Unexpectedly, the most successful part of his discussion is perhaps that on place-names. He has an interesting and prima facie convincing suggestion about the distinction between a weoh, which he sees as the sort of wayside shrine that might come to be associated with a named individual, and a hearg, which he interprets as a group sanctuary, almost always on high ground, relatively remote from the beaten track, and hence (?) frequented only at particular times of year. The account of places named after particular gods is also judicious, though the recently discovered charter upholding the 'Frig' element in Friden (Derbyshire) is missed. On written evidence, Dr Wilson is prone, like many before him, to read more into the vocabulary of Christian polemic than may be wise. Granted that we do now have what may very well be a pagan temple at Yeavering, and that what has been unearthed at Blacklow (Warwickshire) is very hard to explain in any other way, granted indeed that new lines of enquiry may shortly bring other possibilities to light, the fact remains that Pope Gregory could very well have projected his own Mediterranean experience of solidly built structures on to the world of the far north; and he and his English disciples, especially the bookish Bede, were soaked in a Biblical tradition where no ungodly cult was complete without its 'fana', 'arae' and 'idola': can we be sure that the 'fanum' where Raedwald ('like the Samaritans', as Bede revealingly says) had installed 'altars' to both the Christian God and demons, and which was still standing half a century later, was really a pagan building with a Christian sector, rather than vice versa?

The archaeological discussion that makes up the great bulk of this book is nothing if not exhaustive. Any idiosyncrasy of burial patterns that might conceivably have religious (or, as is rather too often said, 'sinister') overtones is given its place. Though it is startling in this day and age to find Gibbon's gibe about the feminine propensity to superstition revived, even as a joke (is it a joke?), Dr Wilson is suitably cautious about most of this material; so much so indeed that one is occasionally surprised that religious overtones were ever suspected at all. The fact that Christian writers made so little fuss about the way in which pagans had disposed of their dead, with the important exception of cremation (a point that Dr Wilson could have given more attention) and a few ancillary rites, surely suggests that pagan associations were difficult to perceive at the time. Gregory, after all, conspicuously did not say anything about burial to match his famous prescriptions for shrines and festivals. If, in other words, one emerges from Dr Wilson's archaeological survey wondering what it all amounts to, that may be precisely the right historical conclusion, though one doubts whether it was quite the one intended by the author. To get much further, it may be necessary to have regard to anthropological investigation of societies where the range of consciously religious activities seems comparable with that indicated for the Anglo-Saxons. PATRICK, WORMALD Christ Church, Oxford
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Author:Wormald, Patrick
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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