Early medieval England, or what would be eventually known as England, followed a path of spiritual enlightenment similar to those of its continental neighbors; from paganism to Abrahamic religion (principally Christianity), its tale is simultaneously unremarkable as well as intriguing for no other fact than, as with all systems of historical advancement, its progress was uneven.
To start from the very beginning, “The principal gods of Anglo-Saxon society were those of later Norse mythology, Tiw, Woden, and Thor” (Blair 6, The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction). An interesting notation is that research suggests that this religion does not look different than from under its incarnation under Roman rule. So, this means that other than the fact that later Church doctrine “forbade the veneration of ‘stones, wood, trees, and wells’,” we are able to parse “that such activities featured in pagan English cults.” Such facts may surprise people who believed that paganism in this period of England’s history was a unique incarnation compared to other European territories.
Unfortunately, how this religion was practiced in England is lost to time.
What we do know, however, is that around the 590s, much of the English King strata converted to Christianity alongside their courts (23). It is presumed that the Roman monk Augustine, who led a mission to Kent in 597, is responsible for the promulgation of Christianity during this period (though, of course, he is but one in a long line of adherents). During this period (by 604), we see several ‘sees’, as well as monasteries and churches, dot the landscape. But, as Blair recounts, “the church experienced losses as well as gains.” Conversion to Christianity was often a non-exclusionary affair; many settlements would convert then apostatize once their situation with the church soured or pagan hardliners resumed control. Additionally, of those settlements which did not immediately recant their conversion, archeology notes that many kings would maintain both a pagan shrine in addition to their Christian altar, suggesting that the view of Christianity was, during this early period, reconcilable with their traditional pagan beliefs (24).
It was not until the arrival of Irish ecclesiastics around c.563 that the Northern English were converted for good. As we know from Bede and his celebrated history, the decisive point of divergence which gave the Irish success was their cultural similarity to the English; namely, they both came from underdeveloped tribal-warrior societies and so were able to integrate into the grassroots of the community with ease (25). From this initial success came the outflowing of additional conversions as the network of monasteries spread.
Needless to say, the monastery was the primary unit of religious organization. Its focus on close communication with local communities “made more sense to the kin-based English than did the Roman model of a bishop running his diocese bureaucratically from an urban cathedral” (25). Monasteries themselves often combined Roman and traditional values. Alas, the exact details of daily life in these monasteries elude us, though “there are good grounds for thinking that by 750 England contained hundreds of small ‘minsters’ with pastoral care as well as devotional functions, serving what may be called the first English parochial system” (29). But such places, and their ‘old minsters,’ wielded only petty amounts of authority, even with royal patronage.
It needs to be said, though, that by this time Christianity and education were becoming intertwined; kings, for instance, would often become literate so as to fuse theology into tribal custom when writing laws, something that enabled their territories to ascend into the modern, civilized world (30). Also, aside from the royal bloodlines becoming literate, along, perhaps, with a certain small, privileged percentage of the population, an additional function of religion was urban development. “A late ninth-century translation of Bede’s term urbana loca is not… ‘towns’, but ‘minsterplaces’” (30), something which suggests that many great urban centers began as merely lay settlements tended to by minsters. Such a course of advancement would make sense, since, it was the policy of kings to reorganize and reform religious structures and life as they spent time away from the battlefield.
Blair, John. The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford U.P, 2000. Print.