High King of Heaven: Aspects of Early English Spirituality. By Benedicta Ward. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1999. xiii + 114 pp. 5 black and white plates. $16.95 (paper).
Vision and Image in Early Christian England. By George Henderson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xviii + 292 pp. 8 color plates and 94 black and white plates. $90.00 (cloth).
In High King of Heaven, Benedicta Ward writes with her customary verve about "what the Anglo-Saxons thought and said and did and prayed in the light of the Gospel of Christ" (p. xi). Her focus is on the period between Augustine's arrival at Canterbury in 597 and the sack of Lindisfarne by the Danes in 793, with a concluding glance at King Alfred near the end of the ninth century. Not surprisingly, the central figure in her appraisal is the Venerable Bede, about whom she has written extensively elsewhere. In her preface, Ward defines "spirituality" as a combination of "the desires and religious aspirations of men within their cultural context" and "a field of study earlier called ascetic theology, and/or mystical prayer" (pp. x-xi). While these themes are woven together throughout, the cultural context that looms largest in the first two chapters, with prayer and its attendant practices (e.g., biblical study, asceticism, devotion to the saints) holds center stage in the subsequent five chapters.
The initial chapters explore the foundational influences of Gregory the Great in Rome and the Irish missionaries from Iona, respectively. As Ward notes, it is customary to play these two influences off one another, usually to the advantage of the "free-spirited" Celts over the "institutional" Romans (p. 16). But this author insists that she is writing "not about Celtic, Roman or Anglo-Saxon but about the mingling of those which produced English piety, stressing the mixture rather than the ingredients" (p. x). Her judicious discussion of the Synod of Whitby in 664 should be required reading for anyone who invokes the name of this famous council where it was decided that the kingdom of Northumbria would follow the Roman observance in the dating of Easter and the form of monastic tonsure:
So almost everyone at Whitby had close and friendly contact with both Roman and Irish missionaries; it was not a clash of opposites, but an argument between friends on a matter the importance of which united them far more than the details divided. There was no sense that Romans were good and Irish were bad. In this matter of the Easter date, what needed sorting out were errors of calculation, whoever did it (p. 22).
Ward may be overstating the irenic character of the debate at Whitby, but she is certainly correct about the lack of hard and fast party lines. Many in Ireland had long followed the "Roman" observance, and Wilfrid himself had been trained at the Irish foundation of Lindisfarne before he became the foremost proponent of the Roman cause. Nor was the dispute over Easter dating a mere ecclesiastical quibble; as Ward explains, Easter was "not to them an arbitrary date but the pivot of the whole of the cosmos, the central moment when reality was revealed in the face of Jesus Christ" (p. 17).
Especially rewarding in Ward's chapters on Anglo-Saxon prayer and devotion are her well-chosen and often extensive quotations from biblical commentaries by Bede and Alcuin, the lives of saints Cuthbert and Guthlac, Old English poetry such as the Dream of the Rood, and private prayers from the Book of Cerne and the Book of Nunnaminster. …