Killing Stones

Keith Thomas

  • The 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.

This sacralised landscape was dealt a devastating blow by the Protestant Reformation. Like the early Christians, the Reformers attacked the very notion of the immanence of the holy. They followed their Lollard predecessors in claiming that the worship of saints was idolatry, that the age of miracles was over, that one place was as holy as another, and that prayer was as effective in a field as in a church. They dissolved the monasteries, destroyed the shrines, burned the images, decapitated the roadside crosses and ridiculed pilgrimages. By systematically demystifying the landscape they are usually thought to have taken a decisive step towards what Max Weber called ‘the disenchantment of the world’. Generations of historians have accordingly seen the Reformation as a milestone on the route to the Enlightenment and modern secularism. Protestantism, they claim, was a newly hatched rationalism running around with the shell on its head. As Charles Taylor wrote in A Secular Age, the Reformation was ‘central to … the abolition of the enchanted cosmos and the eventual creation of a humanist alternative to faith’.

This is the influential master narrative to whose attempted demolition Alexandra Walsham has devoted much of her brilliant academic career. She is the first woman to hold the Cambridge chair of modern history and one of the youngest fellows of the British Academy. Her prolific writings are notable for their learning, intellectual cogency and exquisite detail. Her main contention is that the English Reformation was a far more complex affair than is usually suggested. She sees it as a protracted, equivocal and ambiguous process, and one that emphatically failed to accomplish the disenchantment Weber claimed for it. Whether she is writing the history of angels or providentialism or religious toleration, she invariably stresses the continuity rather than the disjunction between the beliefs and practices of Protestant England and those of the medieval past; and she delights in finding examples of stern Puritans who believed in prodigies and providences, and saw the influence of the supernatural in daily life. Here her acknowledged inspiration is Bob Scribner, the radical Australian Catholic historian who died prematurely in 1998, after having shown in his studies of the German Reformation that Lutherans could be just as superstitious as their opponents.

The Reformation of the Landscape takes this reinterpretation one step further by emphasising the persistence in the Protestant era of medieval ideas about the immanence of the holy, in particular the continuance of a belief in the supernatural qualities of wells, trees, stones, ecclesiastical buildings and other landmarks. The book was originally intended as a study of the role of holy wells and healing springs in early modern England, but in the process of composition widened out into a much broader study of the impact of the Reformation on the landscape and the way in which it was perceived. The result is an enormously ambitious work which attempts to cover the whole of the British Isles, and ranges in time from prehistory to the 19th century. Its footnotes testify to Walsham’s omniscient grasp of recent historical writing on every subject from Anglo-Saxon religion to modern folklore. Many, indeed most, of the individual topics she covers have been explored by previous scholars, but no one has attempted an overall interpretation on so grand a scale. Hers is a superb work of synthesis, full of fascinating detail, animated by an astringent intelligence and abounding in original insights.

Walsham begins by emphasising the central place played in ancient paganism by the veneration of nature. Although the original purpose of the menhirs and stone circles scattered through the landscape remains obscure, it seems clear that the religion (or religions) of the ancient Britons revolved around topographical features and open-air enclosures. Many of these sites were taken over by the Christians, in a manner piquantly conveyed by two of the illustrations in Walsham’s book: one of Rudston church in Yorkshire, erected next to a gigantic prehistoric monolith; the other of the ruined Norman church of Knowlton, Dorset, built inside a Neolithic henge.

These accommodations between Christianity and paganism involved compromises between local lay communities, attached to their traditional landmarks and rituals, and the Church’s hierarchy, keen to make a fresh start. Walsham admires the ‘energy and inventiveness of Catholic Christianity in the late medieval period’ and believes that by 1500 it had ‘all but displaced’ memories of ancient paganism. Even so, she stresses that the higher clergy remained anxious about popular credulities in a way that anticipated the Reformers’ desire to return to the purity of primitive Christianity. Medieval religion, she maintains, was not free from internal dissension. Pilgrimages and the worship of holy sites did not fit easily into the parochial system. Rather like the later Puritan habit of ‘gadding to sermons’, these practices were a form of lay voluntarism. Here is another instance of continuities that straddled the Reformation divide.

The Protestant Reformers saw the Catholic landscape as a repository of error and falsehood, but differed as to how far the work of purification should be taken. The shrines of saints were obvious targets. So were wayside crosses and holy trees, like the miraculous Glastonbury Thorn that flowered on Christmas Day. The Puritan preacher Hugh Peter wanted to pull down Stonehenge, and the 18th-century Baptist Thomas Robinson boasted that he had ‘killed’ 40 stones at Avebury with his own hands. But, like the radicals who proposed that all churches and cathedrals should be razed to the ground, they were generally thought to be going too far. Protestants retained their ecclesiastical buildings; and in the 17th century High Churchmen laid new emphasis on their intrinsic holiness. Later on, Welsh Nonconformists, in a deliberate attempt to recall the topography of the Holy Land, gave their chapels names like Bethlehem, Soar and Bethesda.

Walsham convincingly demonstrates that, despite all the waves of violent iconoclasm, the ‘progressive desacralisation of the landscape’ was never completed. In Ireland, the land remained covered with topographical reminders of the medieval heritage. In England, the Catholic community preserved legends of the saints, made pilgrimages to ruined abbeys and chapels, and held annual gatherings at St Winefride’s Well. After initial hesitations, the Counter-Reformation Church vigorously reasserted the notion that divine power was concentrated at particular locations. The martyrdoms of missionary priests created new holy sites: Tyburn was Calvary and the route to the scaffold a via sacra.

The Church of England compromised by encouraging May games, well-dressings and the annual perambulations of parish boundaries, which customarily stopped at trees marked by crosses (‘gospel oaks’). Many holy wells were converted into the health-giving spas that were so popular in fashionable circles in the 18th century. The powers that a previous age had attributed to the miracle-working effects of sanctity were now put down to the mineral properties of the water. Walsham, who is deeply hostile to what she calls the ‘Whiggish narrative of the onward march of secularisation’, claims that the spas owed their popularity to continuing assumptions about God’s benevolent intentions. This may be going too far. Eighteenth-century Bath was hardly noted for its piety; and stories of waters that lost their virtues because of drunkenness, swearing and sabbath-breaking by their visitors do not suggest a religious atmosphere. Walsham’s claim that the ‘rampant secularism’ of the health resorts was not inherently incompatible with pious devotion seems unduly optimistic.

Nevertheless, it is true that some holy wells retained their popularity, even when doctors could find no special mineral properties in them; the great example was St Winefride’s, which attracted some Protestant patients as well as Catholics. In the 18th and 19th centuries most medicinal waters lost their holy character. But, though they no longer had the authority of the saints behind them, the unofficial practice of healing rituals around wells, stone and trees survived in Wales and the Highlands well into the 20th century.

While conceding that the critical inquiry of the Protestant era did indeed ‘erode aspects of the magical universe’, Walsham points out that many natural philosophers accepted providentialism and left God firmly in command of the natural order. Floods, tempests, earthquakes and other natural disasters were regularly portrayed as divine acts of admonition or punishment. She sees religious zeal as a motive force behind the study of natural history and the dissemination of Newtonian physics. Ideas about the localisation of the holy may have been weakened, but the natural world remained alive with spiritual significance and emblematic meaning. ‘A very nettlebush may prove a book of instruction’ to those who can read it, thought the Norfolk minister Edmund Gurnay. The notion that certain landscapes, especially mountainous ones, were peculiarly conducive to religious meditation was long enduring.

In her last chapter, Walsham discusses the tangled web of memory, legend and folklore which overlay the post-Reformation landscape. Once again, she stresses the continuation of belief in the sacred or supernatural qualities of certain sites. Skirrid Fawr in Breconshire was said to have been cleft at the moment of Christ’s crucifixion, while sunken trees and fossilised leaves were hailed as relics from Noah’s Flood. Monastic ruins generated feelings of regret and embarrassment among many Protestant antiquaries and clergy; ancient inhibitions about the profanation of the holy lay behind their worries about the fate of those who had sacrilegiously possessed abbey lands.

Walsham also detects ‘the emergence of a body of genuinely Protestant folklore’. Stone circles could be seen as the petrified remains of sabbath-breakers. Sunken cities were interpreted as divine judgments on sin; and a variety of peculiar rock formations were attributed to the activities of the devil. St John’s Well at Lutterworth in Leicestershire became Wyclif’s Well. Other sites were associated with the Protestant martyrs of Mary’s reign or with later evangelical leaders. A well in Shropshire was said to be holy because John Wesley had once drunk from it. In Walsham’s opinion, the Reformation ‘served as much to stimulate the formation of landscape legends as it did to extinguish them’.

Here she surely overstates her case. Is it really true that ‘the Reformation was the begetter of as many myths as it overturned’? The Marian martyrs never generated a miraculous mythology comparable to the medieval cult of saints; and neither did any other English Protestant leaders. One would have to search hard to find many examples of Protestant, miracle-working holy places. Moreover, by concentrating on those folkloric traditions with a religious dimension, Walsham appears to overlook the widespread tendency of early modern men and women to regard the natural world in purely secular terms. For many people, the landscape was a commodity, an object of private ownership and an economic resource to be exploited. In the 17th century the parson-poet George Herbert lamented that it was very difficult to get country folk to see God’s hand in the workings of nature. They thought that crops grew because of their own efforts, not divine providence. They knew the landscape around them in intimate detail but, for them, its associations were primarily connected with their own labours and those of their predecessors. Ridge and furrow reminded them that their pasture had once been under arable cultivation. Ruined castles and deserted villages recalled earlier settlements. Coins and weapons unearthed by the plough were a reminder of the Romans and other invaders. The names of villages, houses and fields recalled vanished institutions and long-dead inhabitants.

Topographical traditions were not just about saints and monks. More usually, they related to kings and queens, armies and battles, or folk heroes like Robin Hood, Guy of Warwick and, above all, King Arthur, to whom, according to the Elizabethan historian William Camden, ‘the common sort ascribe whatever is ancient or strange’. Cairns, cromlechs and barrows were believed to be memorials to ancient princes or tombs of great men slain in battle, usually against the Danes. Ruins were indiscriminatingly regarded as the work of Oliver Cromwell.

When topographical features did retain a supernatural association, it was not necessarily anything to do with conventional religion, Protestant or Catholic. Walsham records the revealing observation of an Irish bishop in 1694 that ‘the superstitious people’ usually ascribed ‘whatever is strange and extraordinary, though natural, to the working of giants, fairies, daemons, and such like imaginary causes’. Giants are mentioned in Genesis and demons can be fitted into Christian cosmology, but despite the attempts of a few late 17th-century writers to represent them as evil spirits, fairies cannot. For all her learning and subtlety, there are times when Walsham seems rather too anxious to overturn conventional wisdom. Isolated and untypical examples of ‘Protestant folklore’ are presented as if they were representative of a general trend. In her eagerness to show that the Reformation involved less of a break with the past than is sometimes thought, she sometimes comes near to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

These overstatements do not seriously detract from a very fine achievement. The Reformation of the Landscape will be essential reading for anyone interested in the religious and cultural history of early modern Britain. Personal experience, however, leads me to question the initial premise on which Walsham says her book is based. ‘The landscape,’ she declares, ‘is a surface upon which society successively lays down fresh sediments of meaning without ever [my italics] being able to remove or conceal existing ones.’ Well, hardly ever. One morning in the early 1940s, as a small boy growing up in the Vale of Glamorgan, I accidentally came across what may have been a remnant of what Walsham terms the ‘vibrant culture of religious healing’. It was a muddy spring in the middle of a wood. The branches of the surrounding hazel trees were covered with pieces of rag. This, I learned, was a ‘rag well’, visited by people seeking a cure for skin and other diseases, who left behind pieces of their clothing as a sort of votive offering. Years later, I discovered that this very spring was probably the one described in 1696 by the antiquary John Aubrey in a report to the Royal Society; it was reputed to cure the king’s evil, an attribute which a local doctor at the time put down to the limestone in the water. In Aubrey’s day, it had no apparent religious associations. I would like to have gone back to examine the site and the rags that surrounded it, but, alas, the spring and the hazel trees have long been cleared away by an improving farmer. In this case at least, the landscape has been definitively reformed.