Anglo-Saxon Church Councils, C. 650-C. 850

By Frantzen, Allen J. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Anglo-Saxon Church Councils, C. 650-C. 850


Frantzen, Allen J., The Catholic Historical Review


Anglo-Saxon Church Councils, c. 650-c. 850. By Catherine Cubitt. [Studies in the Early History of Britain.] (Leicester University Press. Distributed in the United States by St. Martin's Press, New York. 1995. Pp. x, 363. $59.00.)

An excellent contribution to the history of the early English church, this book offers both a specific focus on ecclesiastical councils and an encompassing assessment of the growth and development of religious culture in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Anglo-Saxon Church Councils is organized into two parts. Three succinct essays in Part One explain the organization of synods, their frequency, location, and other matters; the actual business of the synods, which ranged from questions of doctrine to the adjudication of disputes concerning church property; and diplomatic (or textual) matters and procedure. Five chapters in Part Two analyze major councils-"Clofesho" (held in 747), Chelsea (816), and councils convened by papal legates visiting York and Canterbury (786)-and charter evidence of synods held during the late eighth and early ninth centuries, a period when Mercian kings exercised political ascendancy over the Church in regions south of the Humber. Two appendices (together over seventy pages) summarize the evidence for each synod discussed and supply maps showing the location (or probable location) of the synods and other useful data.

Eighth-century councils brought about fundamental organizational changes that reflected the Church's need to consolidate its position. Early in the ninth century, Cubitt argues, the political significance of the synods diminished as bishops became more concerned with protecting their privileges and less concerned with reforming ecclesiastical practices. The bishops' authority in judicial matters (including disputes about property) waned as West Saxon kings undid the older political order created by Mercian kings; thereafter synods focused more narrowly on ecclesiastical issues.

As Cubitt notes in her introduction, scholarship on Anglo-Saxon synods is scant. The two most important early councils-"Clofesho" and Chelsea-are not included in Dorothy Whitelock's influential English Historical Documents (which does include a compressed version of the papal legates' report); the standard edition of conciliar texts by Haddan and Stubbs is over 125 years old. Cubitt suggests that the synods have been ignored for three reasons: manuscript evidence is limited (especially in comparison to continental synods); the Anglo-Saxon Church was long thought to have lacked distinctive conciliar traditions (synods were seen as extensions of royal councils instead, and indeed those synods dealing with political matters rather than ecclesiastical reform are those Whitelock and others regarded as most important); and Anglo-Saxon church history has been predominantly monastic in emphasis, while the history of synods is the history of episcopal rather than monastic authority (pp. …

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