Killing Stones

Keith Thomas

  • BuyThe Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland by Alexandra Walsham
    Oxford, 637 pp, £35.00, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 924355 6

Most of the world’s religions have their holy places, thought to offer closer access to the divinity. Sometimes they are associated with key events in the history of the religion concerned. They may, like Bethlehem and Mecca, have been the founder’s birthplace, or, like Jerusalem and Lourdes, the scene of apparitions, martyrdoms or miracles. Mount Ararat in Turkey is sacred to the Armenians because it is where Noah’s Ark came to rest. Mount Kailas in Tibet is venerated by Hindus as the paradise of the god Siva, and by Buddhists as the centre of the cosmos. Even when they lack any historical associations, natural features can take on religious significance, particularly if they are intrinsically mysterious and awe-inspiring. Ayers Rock, that giant monolith, is spiritually important to Aborigines, just as the symmetrical, snow-capped cone of Mount Fuji is sacred to the Japanese. Rivers and springs with healing qualities can become objects of worship. Caves and grottoes may be associated with deities and credited with prognosticatory powers. Other holy spaces are built by human hands. Churches, mosques and temples assume a numinous quality when they are seen as places where, as T.S. Eliot put it, prayer has been valid. Often containing relics and other holy objects, they are sites where wonder-working rituals may be performed. Their interior space is frequently differentiated, with some parts more sanctified than others; access for women may be restricted and entry to the holiest areas confined to the priesthood.

All these practices presuppose that divinity is immanent in the world, but in a localised way. The demarcation and protection of holy spaces becomes one of the means by which religious institutions assert their claim to supernatural authority. It is, therefore, all the more remarkable that the first Christians should have rejected the whole notion of sacred space. Whereas the Greek and Roman world had been full of holy places, the early Christians were encouraged to see themselves, not buildings or sanctuaries, as the temple of the living God (II Corinthians 6.16). For them, God was ubiquitous, rather than located in some particular spot. Only in the fourth century did Christians begin to construct their own sacred topography. The driving force was the cult of martyrs and the building of urban churches to contain their relics. It set in motion a long process by which Catholic Christianity would construct a new geography of the sacred.

By the later Middle Ages, the European landscape was dotted with thousands of churches, chapels and monasteries; their dedications to Christ, the Virgin or the saints were often incorporated into the names of towns and villages. Crosses were erected by the wayside. Shrines housing the relics of saints became the object of pilgrimages by the faithful, seeking a place where their prayers would be more efficacious, and miracles of healing and divination might be performed. In this process of spiritual colonisation, the Catholic clergy showed little compunction about taking over former pagan sanctuaries and appropriating their numinous aura. As Pope Gregory the Great remarked in his instructions of 601 for the Christian conversion of England, people were more likely to worship in places with which they were already familiar: pagan idols had to be destroyed, but the temples themselves should be kept and converted to Christian uses. Wells and healing springs that had been frequented in pagan times were rededicated to Christian saints. St Winefride’s Well in North Wales attracted royal patronage and papal indulgences. St Patrick’s Purgatory was a complex of caves on an island in Lough Derg, Donegal, where the faithful could enjoy a foretaste of the terrors of hell by spending 24 hours underground; it became a physical incarnation of Catholic theology. The medieval countryside was made into a text conveying spiritual truths.

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