Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Anglo-Saxon attitudes

St Bede has appeared a bit more than usual in the Divine Office recently. May 25th was his feast day and the second reading for the Visitation on May 31st was from one of his homilies.

Apart from the integral spiritual interest of these readings I was struck by the references in the account by an eye-witness of Bede's last hours read on the saint's day to a Rogation procession with relics on the eve of Ascension and to Bede's request that his fellow monks should remember him with Masses for his soul, whilst his sermon for the Visitation referred to the singing of the Magnificat at Vespers. Nothing exceptional in that, but I realised how easily one can forget that such things were the staple of the life of the early eighth century Church, and be surprised by such direct evidence. I suspect many people in England have a view of the Anglo-Saxon Church as being all homespun missionary stuff, a bit undenominational and, well, Anglican, and not as part of the universal Catholic Church of the West, with all its already long established rituals and ceremonials.

The impression is reinforced by the fact that the not inconsiderable number of Anglo-Saxon church buildings that survive have, inevitably, lost virtually all their decoration, save fragments of sculpture - and that is usually damaged through demolition and rebuilding or through deliberate iconoclasm. The artistic vitality of Anglo-Saxon England needs to be appreciated as part of the institution which sponsored so much of that creativity, that is the Church. It is not something which stands on its own as artistic endeavour, or which by its absence is denied to have ever existed.

What St Bede records or was remembered about him is a valuable corrective to such impressions. His role as a Doctor of the Church is thus linked to his position as an historian and author of unique importance.

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