Emperor Constantine of Rome converted to Christianity and issued the Edict of Milan in 313 to promote the tolerance of all religions within the empire. After this, Christianity began to rise in influence and numbers throughout the Roman empire until Christianity became closely associated with Roman culture and citizenship.
Christianity was transmitted to Britain via the Roman Empire and its spread is probably due to a complex set of factors: traders, soldiers, Roman statesmen, and others coming to Britain. There is evidence that there were already Christian communities there by AD 207, and by the beginning of the fourth century some structure of dioceses was in place. Three bishops, a priest and a deacon were sent from Britain to the Council of Arles in AD 318, but they were so poor as to depend on charity for their travel costs. Despite the withdrawal of Roman forces c.410 CE, the British church survived and effectively became the “mother church” for Ireland for at least two more centuries.
Latin literacy was a prerequisite for full participation in Christianity. Not only were the official texts of the religion (the Jewish Old Testament written in Hebrew and the Christian New Testament written in Greek) translated and transmitted in the language of Latin, but the fundamental religious ritual – the Eucharist – was performed with a Latin text.
Christianity brought in a new set of symbols which marked the faith visually. The symbol of the cross itself could be easily inscribed on objects, although it could be rendered in a variety of styles drawing upon a number of different traditions. The Chi-Rho Christogram – the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek letters, often combined in various ways to make a cross – evolved in the fourth century as a virtual trademark of Christian identity. Crosses were sometimes carved into non-religious items, such as milk pails and querns, in the belief that the Christian symbol would protect them and increase their power, a practice later scorned by church reformers.
Two further symbols are prominent in Christian iconography: the book and the crozier. Literacy was a useful tool for administering a transnational religion and the Latin literary tradition brought with Christianity was associated with a self-confident, imperial civilization. All of this is implied by the symbol of the book. The crozier originates in the analogy, common throughout the Bible, that the clergy guide believers just as a shepherd guides his flock of sheep. The crozier became the symbol of the office of the bishop.
Orthodox Christian burial was different from pagan burial, leaving a mark in the archeological record: Christians were buried along an east-west axis (so that they would be facing east when they were resurrected); they were not accompanied by grave goods for the Otherworld; their bodies were laid intact (inhumation), rather than after excarnation or cremation; they were generally placed together near a church or engraved stone. Furthermore, Christian burial grounds lack decapitated bodies (sometimes found in pagan sites), include infants (who were generally excluded from pagan burial) who could be baptized, were in or around churches, and were marked by stones engraved with Christian symbols. Thus, we might expect for religious transformation to be accompanied by clear changes in material culture. In practice, however, it took time for pre-Christian burial rites to be abandoned entirely in some Christianized communities.
The organization of the Christian church was typically derived from the organization of the Roman state: each Roman civitas was equated with a diocese and was overseen by a bishop. This was a convenient starting place for southern Britain, having gone through a Romanizing phase, but without any pre-existing Roman template, northern Britain and Ireland had to create their own organizational structures and traditions of leadership.
There is varying evidence and considerable disagreement about the state of the Christian church in Britain before the Roman withdrawal and the degree to which native Britons had been Christianized.
On the one hand, some of the evidence points towards a small and underdeveloped church. Despite the importance of literacy and literature in religious activity, no Christian texts survive from Roman Britain, whether letters, sermons, or collections of church laws. There were still pagans wealthy enough in the second half of the fifth century to support pagan cults and buildings, such as the temple built c. 360 CE to the British Celtic god Nodons in Lydney, Gloucestershire.
On the other hand, the Christian “heretic” Pelagius seems to have been a product of Romano-British Christianity, a man well educated and articulate enough in Latin to pose a serious challenge to contemporary theological discussions in Rome itself (see below). Although the evidence for Christian churches in Roman Britain is sparse, this could be because they are difficult to detect: it would be hard to identify pre-existing buildings (such as Romano-Celtic temples) reused for Christian purposes rather than built from scratch according to continental Christian standards. The general decline of pagan temples and artifacts activity in the later fourth century suggests that Christianity was indeed making headway.
Until recently many scholars doubted the strength of Christianity among the native Britons during the Roman period. Pointing out that most of the archaeological evidence for Christianity exists in the east and south, they surmised that most converts were imperial officials and urban élite who either left with the Roman withdrawal or were displaced by the pagan Anglo-Saxons who rapidly filled the region. Christian missionaries trained on the continent, they assumed, had to be sent to re-Christianize Britain. More recent reassessments of Christianity in Britain have instead argued for a stronger continuity of Christianity between the Roman period and the early medieval period. Some saints’ cults founded in the Roman period were still active in later centuries and Gildas (in the sixth century) depicts a confident British church derived from Roman foundations.
What does Saint Patrick, Confession §1 tell us about Christianity in Roman Britain? What do §9 and §23 tell us about literacy, and the associations of literacy, in the church?
Most of the first Christians in Ireland would have been slaves and captives captured in Roman Britain by Gaelic raiders. Patrick himself claims that he was one of thousands of such Christian Britons taken to Ireland as a slave. Clergy administered to such Christians as existed in Ireland, but the British Church had no interest in converting pagans to Christianity.
It also appears that the area with the greatest Roman connections – the province of Leinster – may have been the first area of widespread Christian activity in Ireland. In addition, some Irish people were travelling and living in Roman Britain and may have brought their knowledge of Christianity back home with them when they returned to Ireland. The lack of Roman civitas in Ireland upon which to graft a Christian infrastructure brought about a haphazard array of early Christian establishments in Ireland, depending mostly upon opportunities for patronage, especially amongst the local élite.
The biography of St. Patrick is as alluring as it is lacking in detail. Through analysis of his letters and related texts some educated guesses about his career and impact on Ireland can be made. Although he must have received some basic training from the British Church, he seems to have received further instruction in central or northern Gaul. Based on practices in that area, but differing from those in the contemporary British Church, he promoted a basic form of monasticism and the conversion of pagans. Although denied consecration as bishop by the superiors of the British Church he was given this status in Gaul and exercised it in Ireland.
What does Saint Patrick, Confession §41, §51, claim about the status of Christianity in Ireland when he arrived? What does Saint Patrick, Epistle, say about Christians (from Britain) coming into the lands of Gaels and Picts?
Pelagius (c.350-c.425) was probably the first Celt to stir a major controversy in the Christian church. We know nearly nothing about his origins or early life: he probably went to Rome as a young man. One of his detractors called him a “porridge-sodden Irishman,” but this is most likely a slur without geographical accuracy; he was most likely a Briton.
His original texts were destroyed, although quotations from his writings survive in the documents of others, such as Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). The “Pelagian heresy” consisted of several assertions which are logically connected: (1) human beings exercise free will and are capable on their own accord of achieving perfection; (2) humans suffer death as a consequence of nature (rather than a divine punishment); (3) humans do not inherit original sin; (4) there is no need for infant baptism. Pelagius’s heresy has been represented as posing a serious threat to the authority of the church and its institutional foundation:
The struggle with Pelagianism was thus in reality a struggle for the very foundations of Christianity; and even more dangerously than in the previous theological and Christological controversies, here the practical substance of Christianity was in jeopardy. The real question at issue was whether there was any need for Christianity at all; whether by his own power man might not attain eternal felicity; whether the function of Christianity was to save, or only to render an eternity of happiness more easily attainable by man. (Schaff, St. Augustine, 10)
On the other hand, Pelagius may have simply been a spokesman for a wider ascetic reform movement in the church. He was put on trial in 418, found guilty, excommunicated and expelled from Rome. Saint Augustine records the strong denunciation of the heresy attributed to Pelagius by a church council who met to discuss the matter:
Whether Pelagius or Cœlestius, or both of them, or neither of them, or other persons with them or in their name, have ever held or still hold these sentiments,—may be doubtful or obscure; but nevertheless by this judgment of the bishops it has been declared plainly enough that they have been condemned, and that Pelagius would have been condemned along with them, unless he had himself condemned them too. Now, after this trial, it is certain that whenever we enter on a controversy touching opinions of this kind, we only discuss an already condemned heresy. (Schaff, St. Augustine, 415.)
Followers of Pelagianism were sent into exile as well and followers of his heresy found refuge in Britain. Pelagianism continued to find supporters in Gaul and Britain into at least the 430s and his texts continued to be copied by Irish and Brythonic scholars into the 8th century. It was to oppose the spread of the Pelagian heresy that Palladius was sent by Rome to Ireland in 431. Debates about pre-destination, free will, and grace rumbled on for centuries in the church.
After the condemnation of Pelagianism, many Christian writers may have been careful to reflect the “official” church views on human destiny being pre-determined by God (rather than fully within the control of human free will) and grace as a gift from God (whether or not we “deserve” it). How can we see this reflected in:
- Saint Patrick, Confession § 38, 42
- Saint Patrick, Epistle § 1, 6
Charles-Edwards, “Conversion to Christianity.”
— Wales and the Britons.
Herren, “Patrick, Gaul, and Gildas.”
Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland.
Redknap, “Early Christianity.”
Winlow, “A Review of Pictish Burial Practices.”
Youngs, “Some Christian Symbols.”