Much of the historical residue marked on my Ordnance survey maps with pseudo-Old English script is actually made up of Neolithic and Roman remains: stone circles, mounds, roads, and forts. Presumably these were in better shape in Aldred’s day than now, so visible and usable. How would tenth century Christians have viewed these relics of ancient peoples?
In the draft chapter on Aldred and Bishop Ælfsige’s Wessex journey, I had them camp amidst Neolithic burial mounds (see the Oakley thread). Some scholars think Anglo-Saxons would be fearful of such sites, often reused as gallows and burial ground of criminals, while others argue for less superstition (Sarah Semple, “A Fear of the Past: The Place of the Prehistoric Burial mound in the Ideology of Middle and Later Anglo-Saxon England,” World Archaeology 30.1 , 109-26). I opted for a fearful and superstitious local boy combined with a certain pragmatism on the part of the two churchmen.
The question came to mind again when I stopped at Castlerigg near Keswick on my way to Dacre. This is one of many stone circles not as famous as Stonehenge.
As I walked across the grassy hill, I wondered: Would the entourage accompanying Cuthbert’s body have avoided such a site, or been attracted to it for its commanding vista of the surrounding area? Perhaps they might even do as their predecessors had done and sacralize it with Christian ritual, knowing their Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History records a papal letter to Abbot Mellitus advising the missionaries to clean out pagan sites and temples to reuse as Christian sites of worship, thus attracting people to something familiar. Could this stone circle be christened and made a temporary sanctuary through the strategic placement of some crosses?
The second site that raised questions about Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the ancient past was the Roman fort Verteris at Brough in the Eden Valley. Although the ruins of a later castle now stand on the site, the Roman ditches are still visible reminders of the heavily fortified site.
What would it have looked like in the ninth and tenth centuries? Perhaps the stone foundations were still extant. Certainly any traveler would have recognized it as a strategic military site with a commanding view and deep ditches to protect it. Below on Brough farm is this lovely haven, perhaps a more peaceful place for weary travelers to rest (I opted for the delicious ice cream at the farm shop, the price for parking there).
Next up: Aldred’s cat (a visit to the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibit and Bede’s World).