Christians and Pagans: The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede

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Christians and Pagans: The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede. By Malcolm Lambert. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2010. Pp. xx, 329. $50.

In Christians and Pagans Malcolm Lambert provides a detailed account of Christianity in Britain from its origins in Roman Britain to its dominant presence in the "Christian Britain" of the eighth century. Lambert is a meticulous scholar. His reading of the early texts is careful and observant, and his mastery of the extensive scholarly literature is evident in the footnotes. Many of the recent advances in understanding early British Christianity come from archaeology, which obviously fascinates Lambert. His leisurely and precise descriptions of finds are fascinating: fifth-century Eucharistie vessels from Water Newton in Huntingdonshire reveal the liturgical sophistication of an early church; two centuries later, in a grave ten miles from Canterbury, a warrior 's belt buckle depicting Woden enables one to appreciate what the Christian evangelists were up against.

Lambert's account has numerous strengths. One is his treatment of the "lost church" of the first five centuries. Drawing on archaeology, Lambert shows us a church that from the outset grew bottom-up through the initiative of ordinary Christians and that, even after Constantine's adhesion to Christianity, remained a minority vis-à-vis the pagans. Another strength is Lambert's affectionate and insightful treatment of major figures. Columba, Cuthbert, HiId, and Bede come alive, also particularly Patrick, "most remarkable of all British Christians" (p. 49). A third strength is Lambert's appreciation, stated repeatedly throughout the book, that it was hard for Christianity to penetrate elite societies that celebrated gore and were deeply imbued with "the paganism of the battlefield" (p. 178). Lambert tells stories of monks (often the main missionaries) who were committed to nonviolence. …