Christ in Celtic Christianity: Britain and Ireland from the Fifth to the Tenth Century

Christ in Celtic Christianity: Britain and Ireland from the Fifth to the Tenth Century

Christ in Celtic Christianity: Britain and Ireland from the Fifth to the Tenth Century

Christ in Celtic Christianity: Britain and Ireland from the Fifth to the Tenth Century


Christ in Celtic Christianity gives a new interpretation of the nature of Christianity in Celtic Britain and Ireland from the fifth to the tenth century. The written and visual evidence on which the authors base their argument includes images of Christ created in and for this milieu, taken from manuscripts, metalwork and sculpture and reproduced in this study. The authors challenge the received opinion that Celtic Christians were in unity with Rome in all matters except the method of Easter reckoning and the shape of the clerical tonsure. They find, on the contrary, that the strain of the Pelagian heresy which rooted itself in Britain in the early fifth century influenced the theology and practice of the Celtic monastic Churches on both sides of the Irish Sea for several hundred years, creating a theological spectrum quite distinct from that of continental establishments. MICHAEL W. HERREN is Professor of Classics and Distinguished Research Professor at York University (Toronto), a member of the Graduate Faculty at the Centre for Medieval Studies in the University of Toronto, and an Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy; SHIRLEY ANN BROWN is Professor of Art History and a member of the Faculty of Graduate Studies at York University.


If a book can be inspired by a song, this one was inspired by 'Is that all there is?', famously sung by Miss Peggy Lee. While this book is not about existential angst, the question of the song's title is aptly posed with regard to Celtic Christianity, and more generally to Insular Christianity in the early middle ages. From Bede to historians of the twenty-first century it has been widely accepted that Christians in the early British and Irish Churches were wholly orthodox in matters of faith. the questions debated were confined to 'practical issues' such as Easter tables, equinoxes, epacts, consecrations, triple immersions and tonsures. To be sure, these issues caused plenty of trouble in their day, but to persons living in the twenty-first century, including those still seriously interested in the history of Christianity, they look like a tempest in a teapot. Is that all there was?

This book began with the project of defining the images of Christ that were prevalent in the British Isles, and more specifically in Celtic Britain and Ireland from the fifth century to the tenth. It became apparent that one could not achieve this goal simply by looking at poems and pictures without an ideological context for their interpretation. the most fundamental task was to investigate the character of Christian theology prevalent in Britain and Ireland from the fifth to the tenth century, and to look for continuity and change. But how could this be achieved if there was no theology to study, but only epacts and haircuts? Is that all there was?

Previous speculation regarding the spiritual roots of Celtic Christianity has tended to look to the distant East, the monastic theology of Egypt being a particularly favoured focus. We followed a different path of investigation, deciding to look for those clues that were directly under our noses, by which we understood the evidence found in the indigenous religious culture of Britain and Ireland. of course, Christianity was transplanted to Britain by someone (probably not Joseph of Arimathea), but it developed a life of its own and produced a religious literature. Focussing on theology, we examined a substantial sample of religious writings produced in Britain and Ireland down to about 900, with some further post-holing beyond. These include historical writings, canon collections, penitentials, monastic rules, scriptural commentaries and works on scriptural questions, saints lives, letters and a variety of works less easily classified. We also took stock of books on religious topics that were imported into Britain and Ireland ― at least as far as this was possible, given the rudimentary state of our knowledge of `books known to the Britons and Irish'.

In our survey of religious literature (or works with relevance to religion) we decided to go beyond those writings produced in Britain and Ireland, and to include works written by Britons and Irishmen who spent a portion of their lives on the continent, notably Pelagius, Faustus of Riez and . . .

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