The British Orthodox Church
Metropolis of Glastonbury

Previous Issues

Historical Articles

Liturgical Articles

Theological Articles

Pastoral Articles

Spirituality Articles

Miscellaneous Articles

Extending the Christian Frontier in late Antiquity:

Monks, missions, monasteries and the Christianisation of space.

Towards a wider historical context for the archaeology of mission


In his consideration of the conversion of northern Europe to Christianity in the late antique/early medieval period, the historian Richard Fletcher makes the following observation:

‘The monasteries founded by the exiled holy men had something of the character of mission stations’

(Fletcher 1997: 94)

This statement was made in connection with a discussion of that dynamic leitmotiv of the Christianisation of Europe during the sixth century: the wandering holy man (peregrinus)[1] as particularly personified by Columbanus, who engaged in an effective and wide-ranging mission of re-conversion in post-Roman Europe, through the Merovingian Kingdom and beyond its Rhine frontier to the east. This quotation provides the starting point for this contribution; having considered the socio-cultural impact of the Christian mission in southern and eastern Africa during the nineteenth century (Finneran 2002: 163 ff.; and see also Lane 2001: 153 ff.), I now seek to apply some of the broad ideas framed in that study to understand how the ‘rules of engagement’ of mission archaeology — with particular reference to understanding re-conceptualisation of place and space — can be applied to the model of the monastery as a mission, and monk as missionary, in late antique/early medieval Europe. [2]

Chronologically this contribution spans almost a thousand years, and geographically encompasses the western and eastern Christian worlds. Using case studies drawn from archaeological and historical studies of the earliest monastic systems of Egypt, western Europe and Ethiopia, this paper analyses how monasteries enforced cosmological change within the landscape (surely the primary goal of a mission) yet also operated within a strictly-defined political and socio-economic framework in order to effect a more secular reorganisation of space. I term these different spatial scales the ‘psychogeographical’ and ‘socio-political’;[3] perhaps a dualism recognised by Henri Lefebvre (1991: 254) as ‘imagined’ and ‘real’ space. It is important to recognise that both perceptions of space are subsumed into the wider process of ‘Christianisation’, although I am aware that this term is open to criticism (e.g. Kilbride 2000). Within the context of the present study the label remains a useful starting point for analysis, and in any case a critique of the term — valid as it may be — is beyond the scope of this paper.

The archaeology of mission: definitions and implications

The idea of mission archaeology — and the archaeological recognition of the actual process of conversion — encompasses a number of intriguing socio-cultural and ideological themes (e.g. E. Graham 1998). These themes may be defined on the basis of scenarios informing the actions of the missionary and those informing the actions of the target convert, drawing on a selection of key sources in the literature (after Horton 1971; Kaplan 1986; Urbanczyk 2003). The most important may be defined as follows: political and economic motivations on behalf of the missionary; the methodology of conversion i.e. ‘selling the message’ (which may involve coercion, violence and intrigue); the creation of a new consumer base, buying not just an ideological message but also concomitant change in lifestyle and consumption habits; the use of ideology as a tool for domination and the motivation of the target converts in accepting a new cosmological outlook. In many cases acceptance of Christian values helped the newly converted gain access to new trading networks and resources, it legitimised their pre-existing social order and justified the use of force to uphold it, and also the reaction of the converted — both culturally and socially – could also be read as a form of resistance to the message of political control; cultural syncretism was thus the result of a mediation of two opposing ideological value systems.  In addition — and this is important in the context of the present study — acceptance of Christianity was often marked by the acquisition of a very important tool for social and information control: literacy.  The process of conversion, apart from obviously embodying ‘an almost unmanageably broad range of psychological phenomena’ (Macmullen 1984: 5) also encompassed a wide variety of socio-cultural changes too.

A few examples drawn from the history of European missionary and political interaction with Africa (e.g. Finneran 2002: 25-30; Isichei 1995: 74ff.) serve to illustrate just what a complex set of social and cultural variables are embodied in the process of mission. Portuguese military and economic expansion into the African interior from the sixteenth century onwards was accompanied by a concerted missionary effort. The settlement at Qsar es-Seghir (Morocco) bears witness to a frontier settlement, engaged in an overt game of political and economic expansion, yet which served an important role as a centre for missionary activity (Redman 1986). Although Portuguese evangelisation was less successful along the east coast of Africa, it is clear that in the case of the Kongo kingdom and among the segmentary societies of the southern African interior some degree of cultural and ideological integration with the Portuguese worldview was achieved, more through the actions of missionaries than by trade or warfare (Isichei 1995: 63-7). [4] During the nineteenth century, in case studies presented from the Gold Coast (Meyer 1997) and the Tswana of southern Africa (Reid et al. 1997; Lane 1999), the actions of the missionary had important implications for the re-ordering of domestic space, marking a transition to a radically different form of architecture. In the case of the Tswana king Khama III interaction with the missionary and his message was governed by political considerations – for him acceptance of the Christian message was really an exercise in social control and prestige. These themes, I will argue, can also be recognised in the process of monk and mission in the late Antique world with special reference to the reordering and redefinition of spatial perceptions. In the following section I will define the idea of the monastery and attempt to understand how it acted upon symbolic, imagined space — psychogeography — in early Christian Egypt.

The Monastic Archetype:  Christianisation of space in late antique Egypt

In its earliest form in fourth-century Egypt, the Christian monastery was founded upon the idea of removal or disengagement from society rather than as a tool for active and positive engagement and participation in the process of Christianisation.[5] Although it appears that avoidance of taxation and social responsibilities may have played a part in motivating the withdrawal of the early Christian holy man (Goehring 1990), it is also clear that the practice of xeniteia (voluntary alienation from society) was a psychological response to a call from God (Caner 2002 passim).  The founder of Christian eremitical (i.e. solitary, anchoritic) monasticism, St Antony, followed this path, but his actions did take on an element of mission, albeit of an amorphous kind. He attempted to engage in a Christianisation of the desert space, which was regarded as a profane, evil and elemental place; a domain of demons (Yi-Fu Tuan 1974: 110). Antony’s mission, then, was among spiritual beings, yet it reflected a wider conceptual ordering of space within late antique Egypt; the major city (Alexandria) was by now overwhelmingly Christian, the desert and rural area pagan (Frend 1979). In the first case, the monk as missionary in late antique Egypt sought to alter the psychogeography of the landscape and reclaim ‘evil’ places for God. This process was marked by the appropriation of pagan sacred spaces such as pharaonic tombs (hence domains of the dead) and their conversion into desert hermitages, as well as the colonisation of a landscape that was superstitiously regarded as being elemental, dangerous, somehow separate from the safety and ‘civilisation’ of the Nile Valley and Delta (fig. 1). I would argue that this combined sense of duty and danger, travel, isolation and active mission in areas perceived as physically and psychologically dangerous (‘the dark continent’ of nineteenth-century popular imagination, for instance?) are key elements in the motivation of the missionary, yet also some degree of engagement and empathy with the ‘unknown’ would also be desirable.

Eremitical monasticism soon became a highly popular social phenomenon, but it was only with the development of an organised and communal (cenobitic) form of monasticism under St Pachomius during the fourth century that we see the emergence of the monastery as we would recognise it today (i.e. an integrated hierarchical settlement, with differential activity and living areas which took on from the earliest opportunity the dual role of prayer and work (Goehring 1996)). This is the sort of ideal that would form the basis of the later mission station, a functionally-specialised settlement within the landscape that embodied the notion that to do God’s work effectively, manual labour and education were essential pre-requisites. This form of monasticism was the tool by which a succession of holy men, or missionaries, evangelised areas of the now rapidly decaying Roman Empire of the west. Staying briefly with the Egyptian scenario, it is debateable whether we could recognise a structured process of mission behind the founding of these cenobitic, Pachomian monasteries. Their purpose remained to attract disaffected urbanites, so in a sense they were places for potential convertees to visit, passive places of conversion within the landscape rather than active mission stations per se. These places also fulfilled another more overt political function: during the Byzantine period, after the rupture of the Chalcedonian schism in 451, rural monasticism became a vehicle progressively for mobilising Egyptian Coptic nationalist sentiment against the Greek, urban orthodoxy. The desert, now Christianised, became a counterweight to the political and ecclesiastical domination of the Orthodox (Melkite) Byzantine authorities, a place for strengthening an awareness of Coptic, anti-Chalcedonian identity. The monastic mission now took on a character of resistance rather than spiritual domination (fig. 2).

The Christianisation of space in Egypt had been partly effected through the presence of a developed monastic system, fixed in the countryside, actively challenging the influence of the Greek-speaking, urban Christians. Although its is arguable whether there was an overt political or economic motivation behind the establishment of these monasteries (they seem to have been driven by a psychological need) it is clear that in terms of the process of mission these places supplied a number of dynamic and charismatic monks who would actively engage in the conversion of Upper Egypt, a problematic and conservative area far from the direct influence of Mediterranean, Byzantine ‘civilisation’ that would often demand more muscular and coercive approaches to the Christianisation of space (Wipszycka 1988). The holy man in Egypt, our missionary archetype, was a complex figure, one who was equally psychologically apt to withdraw from society completely, or engage in social mediation (Brown 1971). Most importantly, in the earliest phases of the Christianisation of space, he acted as a dynamic conduit between the two polar ideologies, Christianity and traditional religion, drawing upon social memory and appealing to collective consciousness, to be successful he had to be exceptionally capable of framing areas of traditional belief in a Christian context (Frankfurter 2003) – much as we would see in the later nineteenth century in sub-Saharan Africa.

I argue here that one of the most important and perhaps ignored elements of the action of the missionary monk was in the reorganisation of psychogeographical space, and this is a motif seen elsewhere. Across Europe, the seizure and appropriation of sacred places and recasting of their meanings may be viewed as a syncretism of space (e.g. Barnish 2001). In early medieval Ireland, for instance, pagan space was re-conceptualised to help spread the message of Christianity:  sacred trees (bili) and water sources were all appropriated (Bitel 1990: 57) and bullaun stones were pressed into action as baptismal fonts (Mytum 1992: 91). In Anglo-Saxon England, recent work in the Witham valley in Lincolnshire has shown that monastic establishments respected older sacred pagan nodes in the landscape (Stocker and Everson 2003).[6] The great missionary of Merovingian Gaul, Columbanus, sited his monastery at Luxeuil in an old Roman temple (Bullough 1997) and the Celtic evangelisers of Cornwall, for instance, left distinct toponymic imprints upon the pagan landscape, often respecting places of pagan sacred significance (eg. Turner 2003). These spatial statements work on two levels; in terms of the ‘real’ space it reflects a pragmatic decision to use an existing building or important secular, strategic focus of the landscape, but in terms of psychogeographic or imagined space it makes a statement of new ownership and seeks to wipe away any residual vestiges of pre-Christian symbolism. I would argue here that Christianity does not have an affinity with natural places and natural spaces: it is not a religion of nature, and wherever Christian missions encountered such a psychogeographical framework of meanings they soon sought to tame and acculturate them.[7] The early seventh-century collection of biographies by the monk John Moschus, the Pratum Spirituale (The Spiritual Meadow), is filled with entertaining and edifying stories of holy men trying to overcome nature. Be it human nature and temptation, demons or wild beasts; the acculturation of natural space was a very important psychological motivation among early Christian missionaries. However, it is also clear that more secular issues played a part, and we must recognise that the missionary played an important part in mediating and reordering political, social and economic space (e.g. Binns 1999).

The Missionary monk and the Christianisation of space: a secular dimension

Until the passing of the Edict of Toleration in 313, and the formal recognition of Christianity by the Roman Empire, there was little scope (apart from the brave or foolhardy) for active Christian missions among the pagans of the Empire. Such a course of action usually resulted in a swift martyrdom, and although Christian monasticism became an important phenomenon in the next centuries, it often provided merely an escape from society rather than fulfilling an active role of mission work.   Christian communities beyond Rome’s borders (of which there were many) could ask for a bishop to lead them, but it should be emphasised they would not be concerned with an active programme of evangelisation within these areas. Rather, their concern was merely to provide leadership for fragmented Christian communities beyond the Christian frontier (Fletcher 1997: 25). Active and dynamic Christianisation of space in Europe in the sixth century and beyond is a phenomenon associated with the charismatic, wandering monk-missionary: often an Irish holy man. This is no accident of history. As we shall see, Ireland was effectively evangelised through the existence of a complex monastic framework, and this process would be replicated throughout western-central Europe (Charles-Edwards 1975; Rees 2000 passim). It should be emphasised at this point, however, that the wandering Celtic monks (as best represented by St Columbanus and his cohorts) did not view themselves psychologically as being missionaries; this was essentially pilgrimage work, a journey fraught with danger (Walker 1970). It was this element of risk that appealed, yet there were also complex socio-economic and political factors at work; these missionaries would have an impact upon the reorganisation of the secular landscape. This is perhaps best understood with a brief consideration of the picture in early medieval Ireland from the fifth century onwards.

As Ireland was never fully integrated into the Roman political system, it is debateable as to whether we could recognise there any form of developed urban space such as was seen in Roman Britain. Lacking central loci of power, the monastery filled this role and acted as a powerful centralising ideological, social and economic force (B. Graham 1998).  Early medieval Ireland was politically fragmented into about 150 small kingdoms (tuatha) with each being ruled by an ‘overking’, and organised socially along kin-based lines (‘tribes’ for want of a better word). It was into this social framework that the earliest missionaries to Ireland fitted the basic template of the cenobitic monastic system. It worked remarkably well, adapting to pre-existing ideas of social structure and prestige, and subtly reworking them. The siting of each monastic centre illustrates this (Bitel 1990: 26). As the monastic system expanded during the seventh century, more complex communal foundations in the north and midlands such as Clonard, Clonmacnoise, Glendalough and Bangor emerged (MacDonald 1984). Each of these monasteries was associated explicitly with the identity of a charismatic monk/missionary, and they were either sited strategically on the borders of kingdoms (Edwards 1990: 105; Mytum 1992: 63), or at the very centre of secular power. The monastery at Ard Macha (Armagh), for instance, was sited strategically close to the centre of political power at Emain Macha (Navan) and soon usurped it (Hamlin 1985; Hurley 1982). Participating fully in social and exchange networks across the tuatha the monasteries served a clear social, political and economic role, they provided leadership and bureaucratic shape, they were also centres for innovation and creation,  promoting the use of sacred technologies such as writing and manuscript production, allowing for a new level of collective social storage (Bradshaw 1989).

From a monastic base in Ireland, Celtic evangelists blazed a trail across the political landscape of the post-Roman British Isles, leaving their names imprinted upon the countryside (of Cornwall and Wales especially) together with edifying hagiographic tales of astounding deeds.[8] [9] Archaeological sources alone are also problematic. There is nothing in the material record that tells of the Christianisation of Cornwall prior to the tenth century, even though we know that the ecclesiastical system was monastic in character to some extent, and played an important role in the political power of the Kingdom of Dumnonia (Olson 1989: 1-2; Turner 2003). It is clear that the Christianisation of British space was effected largely by the monastery, and, as in Ireland, it played a very important role beyond that of the ideological alone. In the Pictish kingdom of Dalriada the monastery of Iona (an Irish foundation) played a key socio-economic role as a centre for secular power,[10] at once a political and religious centre (Fisher 1996; Smith 1996), and although the picture within the Anglo-Saxon sphere was different, we can see broadly similar mechanisms at work. In the kingdom of Northumbria, for instance, the seventh-century King Oswald asked Aidan, a monk from Iona, to come to his kingdom and build upon the success of the earlier mission of Paulinus. The situation of Aidan’s monastery of Lindisfarne embodied a contradictory dichotomy: located on an island, a desert in the sea, it was ‘distanced’ from, yet strategically close, to a position of earthly secular power at Bamburgh Castle (O’Sullivan 2001).[11]

The social, cultural, political and ideological impact of the missionary monk was considerable, and the secular importance of the monastery was soon emphasised with the award of extensive royal patronage (e.g. Cramp 1973; Carver 2001; Fadda 2000; Yorke 2003). The monastery now became a meeting point of the secular and sacred worlds; this much is clear from historical sources. Bede, for example, emphasises the role of the monastery in evangelisation given the lack of a wider diocesan structure (Dunn 2000: 197). From an archaeological perspective we begin to see a gradual increase in the complexity and size of monasteries, and a general integration into the wider world. For instance, at the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow monastery there was a large lay cemetery, which indicates that the place had become more socially inclusive and open, at least to some sections of society (Cramp 1969). The monastic system in Anglo-Saxon England grew to colonise the landscape in order to effect more overt social and economic control; this is recognised in the establishment of a central house and outlying dependencies engaging in local evangelisation and religious control (Foot 1989), although these later foundations should be more accurately labelled Minsters — centres for priests living communally rather than monks – but were essentially centres of mission nonetheless.[12]

The monastery played a key role in the  secondary Christianisation of space in continental Europe after the erosion of the Roman political system. Initially monasteries became places of personal devotion and retreat rather than playing an active role in the Christianisation of secular/non-monastic space in Gaul and Italy (Atsma 1976). In any case the widespread adoption of the Rule of St Benedict of Nursia in the mid-sixth century withdrew the monastery even further from the wider world and made access more controlled (Dunn 1990). Again, it was the role of the Irish peregrinatio that was central to this secondary evangelisation of Europe, reinforcing the original Christian message (Dunn 2000: 151). Rural Gaul had already been effectively Christianised through the vigorous missions of St Martin of Tours in 371-379; charismatic and dynamic, he relished smashing pagan installations, upsetting the established psychogeography of space while enjoying useful aristocratic patronage (Fletcher 1997: 46). The original Gallic monastic system — in common with many examples built upon the Roman urban model — did not penetrate too far into the pagan ‘wild lands’; it was reliant upon the support of the Merovingian aristocracy and was not part of a concerted mission process. This is  may be contrasted with the dynamic mission movement of the Irish monk Columbanus, a figure who is most closely associated with the reinvigoration of missionary zeal in Europe (Wood 1981). Columbanus was a charismatic whose monastic missions reached beyond Francia and whose work refreshed the stale continental Christianity with a vigorous dose of Irish Christianity — with its emphasis on penance and active evangelisation — and at the same time afforded its patrons the ability to construct a framework of control within the landscape, a framework based upon the monastic system, serving at once an ideological and secular role (figure 3).

Columbanus’s mission strategy reflected that which swept through Ireland some centuries earlier. In the words of one scholar, “Columbanian monasticism appealed to the Frankish aristocracy because, like it, it was rural” (Fletcher 1997: 136). The emphasis, as in early medieval Ireland, was upon strengthening kin ties within the community; the social layout of the monastery reflected pre-existing secular social structures. Columbanus also chose his monastic sites with care, respecting secular political boundaries. In the 590s, for instance, he set up a major community in an old Roman fort upon the boundary of Austrasia and Burgundy at Annegray (Bullough 1997). The Frankish court also used monasteries to extend political influence (Dunn 2000: 166): missionaries penetrated beyond the Danube frontier to set up a dependency of Luxeuil at Weltenburg (Kelheim, Bavaria); the foundation at Echternach (Luxemburg, dating to 698) dominated the battleground for the evangelisation and political control of the politically fragmented north-eastern Frankish zone (Fletcher 1997: 197); in Thuringia the important monastery of Fulda was extensively endowed by royal patronage, and was both spiritually and economically important in an area where the Frankish court sought to extend political control (Talbot 1970). In northern Italy Columbanus’s final foundation at Bobbio served as a centre of evangelisation among the Arians of that region, peoples who, with their heretical beliefs, could have caused endless troubles for the Frankish Kingdoms (Dark 1983). [13]

The Irish monastic influence on the continent was heavy; the monastery in all cases served as a centre of spiritual evangelisation and the extension of Frankish political power. These monasteries, built upon an Irish model and led by charismatic and energetic figures inspired by earlier Celtic monks, were a striking success. In Germania, for instance, they were responsible for promoting agrarian development, and yet again, complemented the pre-existing social tribal structure with its emphasis upon kinship, was important in an area which was predominantly a non-urban environment unused to such a centralisation of power within a single place (Prinz 1981).

Mission Archaeology: the view from early medieval Europe and towards a global context

We have seen that the physical space of the monastery embodied a number of key roles, both secular and ideological. Initially configured as a place for withdrawal and personal contemplation in its original Egyptian archetype, it rapidly became a key instrument in the Christianisation of space (Gilchrist and Morris 1993). This change in role — from a place of passive missionary activity to a dynamic and active agent — becomes apparent for the first time in the fringes of north-western Europe in the late fifth century, at a time of considerable socio-political flux and uncertainty in the late antique world, and marks a move away from the Romanised form of rural and urban monasticism.

Figure 3. Map showing the progress of Columbanus’ European missions of the seventh century and related contemporary British missions.

If anything, it is the Irish influence that marks the emergence of the role of the monk as an active missionary. Let us now deconstruct the mission scenario as presented above and try to understand how the monastery was so successful as an agent of admittedly a secondary, re-evangelisation on continental Europe in the mid- first millennium AD.

The first problem presents for us a somewhat hermeneutic analytical situation: how to empathetically understand the psychology of the missionary. The peregrinationes, for instance, were driven by a pilgrimage impulse which resolved itself in a sense of self-sacrifice. Although nominally independent agents, they were often used as willing pawns in the wider political game, the process of evangelisation being explicitly linked to political concerns. For them, the act of mission was part of an improving process of self, not merely a chance to civilise and bring the word of God to a new audience, but a pilgrimage fraught with danger. Examining personal motivation and drive allows us to understand how and why some missions were more successful than others. Columbanus, for instance, drew upon a long thread of social memory, that of his Irish inheritance, a psychology geared towards the monastery as an active agent of mission. Self-assured, calling upon experience gained in the Irish monastic system, he applied rules of engagement learnt long ago in Ireland to reach into the psyche of those potential European converts. He was also not averse to using (when it mattered) extensive secular patronage to further his aims. It is also clear that the missionaries of late antique Europe sought to understand their target converts: in Ireland the monastery respected the pre-existing kin-based structure, and it also appealed in a similar way to the rural Merovingian aristocracy and German peasantry. Some degree of ‘ethnographic’ knowledge — empathy with and understanding of the social structure of the target group — assured success in the venture. In this way the Christian message could be adapted to directly target the day-to-day concerns of the societies, and could be altered to fit in with the existing social mores. The message had to be ‘sold’ and as with any form of selling, a degree of ‘market knowledge’ and thus ‘market research’ was an essential pre-requisite.

Returning to the place itself, we need to consider the characteristics of the monastery as a mission, as the physical buildings shared a number of essential facets. At the centre was the church building which catered for the direct spiritual need; the act of spiritual education was accompanied by an emphasis on physical labour and also education. For the former, gardens and ancillary buildings would be provided; for the latter educational space was required. As the Pachomian monastery was built upon the ideal of work for God and the common good (the motto ‘the Devil makes work for idle hands’ is particularly apposite), so too was the nineteenth-century mission station in Africa. Only very rarely do we have direct archaeological evidence for the ‘sharp end’ of the mission process, the actual conversion of individuals to Christianity. One intriguing example may be the so-called ‘grandstand’ at Yeavering, Northumberland which could represent a centre for mass, crowd-participation baptisms at a centre of royal power (Hope-Taylor 1977). In the words of a recent contribution, it would have represented a spectacle akin to a Billy Graham meeting (Rahtz and Watts 2003). We can certainly find examples archaeologically (something incidentally also noted at southern African mission stations, see Finneran 2002: 167) of differential treatment of the dead according to their status in life as non-Christians, catechumens or fully-baptised: differential spatial treatment of the dead is noted in burial zones around Irish monasteries that reflect both gender and baptismal status (Hamlin and Foley 1983). The more secular, educational role of the monastery/mission afforded people opportunities to further themselves, whilst at the same time providing a useful socio-economic resource for the monastery itself; the benefits could be new agrarian techniques honed on the farms of large cenobitic monasteries, or the chance to become literate, or the production of useful hand-crafts. [14]

The model narrative of a mission process outlined above is based upon a selection of case studies of the role of the monastery in the Old World during late antique and medieval times. In many areas of continental Europe, the peregrinus was actively engaged in mission work among people who had been previously Christian, but who had often relapsed into pagan ways. In a sense this was a process of re-Christianisation, and it was the anchoring of a monastic system within the landscape which reinforced the secondary formal phase of mission as well as creating a framework for more overt secular, political socio-economic control. This is a situation also recognisable from the picture in Ethiopia, where although monasticism played little part in the active evangelisation of the Aksumite Empire in the mid-fourth century, it was very much a part of the secondary consolidation phase conducted by the so-called Syrian nine saints and sadqan in the sixth century (Kaplan 1980). I have suggested, at the beginning of the paper, that the term ‘Christianisation’ is problematic; this is arguably largely because of its emphasis upon a teleological concept, the idea that a landscape can become totally Christianised to the exclusion of any other ideological system. It is clear from the case studies presented here that we are not dealing with rigid boundaries of spatial meaning; ideological and secular demands take on an equal importance, and as there is always a multi-vocality of meaning in place and space, — a true syncretism — any study of mission must take into consideration a myriad of amorphous physical and psychological factors. Therefore the question of ‘when does the process of mission finish?’ itself becomes problematic; Richard Fletcher suggests that it ends with a church ‘fully crewed’ by natives, with the full support of the nobility, and an independent, vernacular tradition of Christianity (Fletcher 1997: 451)?  I would argue that because the mission process encompasses such a myriad of meanings, it never actually ends, there are continual re-assessments of secular and ideological spaces.  As an example of the cyclic nature of the mission, I have outlined elsewhere (Finneran 2002: 188), we are seeing a gradual secularisation of western society and a concomitant and dynamic growth of Christianity in Africa. In time it may be that Africa represents the global future of Christianity and that we may see, ironically, a re-mission of Europe from Africa.


For his detailed and incisive comments upon this paper, I wish to thank my former Southampton colleague (and only fellow medievalist) Professor David Hinton. For challenging discussions related to issues raised here I must record my gratitude to Sam Turner and David Knight. Any errors remain my own. This paper is respectfully offered to His Grace Abba Seraphim on the occasion of his thirtieth anniversary of his ordination.

Niall Finneran


Atsma, H.

1976    Les monastères urbains du Nord de la Gaule. Revue d’Histoire de l’Église de France 62: 163-187.

Barnish, S.

2001   Religio in Stagno: nature, divinity and the Christianisation of the countryside in late antique Italy, Journal of Early Christian Studies 9/3: 387-402.

Binns, J.

1999    The concept of sacred space in the monasteries of Byzantine Palestine. In Case Studies in Archaeology and World Religion. T. Insoll, ed. Pp. 26-32. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports International series 755.

Bitel, L.

1990    Isle of the Saints: Monastic Settlement and Christian Community in Ireland. Cork: Cork University Press.

Bradshaw, B.

1989    The wild and woolly west: early Irish Christianity and Latin orthodoxy. Studies in Church History 25: 1-23.

Brown, P.

1971    The rise and function of the holy man in late antiquity. Journal of Roman Studies 61: 80-101.

Bullough, D.

1997    The career of Columbanus. In Columbanus: Studies on the Latin Writings. M. Lapidge, ed. Pp. 1-28. Woodbridge: Boydell.

Caner, D.

2002    Wandering, Begging Monks: Spiritual Authority and the Promotion of Monasticism in Late Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Carver, M.

2001    Why that? Why there? Why then? The politics of early medieval monumentality. In Image and Power in the Archaeology of Medieval Britain. H. Hamerow and A. Macgregor, eds. Pp. 1-22 Oxford: Oxbow.

Charles-Edwards, T.

1975    The social background to Irish peregrinatio. Celtica 2: 43-59.

Cramp, R.

1969    Excavations at the Saxon monastic sites of Wearmouth and Jarrow. Medieval Archaeology 13: 24-66.

Cramp, R.

1973    Anglo-Saxon monasteries of the north. Scottish Archaeological Forum 5: 104-124.

Dark, K.

1983    Celtic monastic archaeology: the fifth-eighth centuries. Monastic Studies 14: 17-29.

Dunn, M.

1990    Mastering Benedict: monastic rules and their authors in the early medieval west. English Historical Review 105: 567-594.

2000    The Emergence of Monasticism: From the Desert Fathers to the Middle Ages. Oxford: Blackwell

Edwards, N.

1990    The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. London: Batsford.

Fadda, A.

2000    The vernacular and the propagation of the Faith in Anglo-Saxon missionary activity. Studies in Church History: Subsidia 13: 1-15.

Finneran, N.

2002    The Archaeology of Christianity in Africa, Stroud: Tempus.

Forthcoming.   Holy waters: Pre-Christian and Christian water association in Ethiopia. An archaeological landscape perspective. In The Archaeology of Water: Social and Ritual dimensions. F. Stevens, ed. London:

Finneran, N. and T. Tribe

2004   Towards an archaeology of kingship and monasticism in medieval Ethiopia. In Belief in the Past. The Proceedings of the Manchester Conference on Archaeology and Religion. T. Insoll, ed. pp. 63-74. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, International Series 1212.

Fisher, I.

1996    The West of Scotland. In Church Archaeology: Research Directions for the Future. J. Blair and C. Pyrah, eds. Pp. 37-42. London: C.B.A Research Report 104.

Fletcher, R.

1997    The Barbarian Conversion from Paganism to Christianity. London: Harper Collins.

Foot, S.

1989    Parochial ministry in early Anglo-Saxon England: the role of monastic communities. Studies in Church History 26: 43-54.

Frankfurter, D.

2003    Syncretism and the holy man in late antique Egypt. Journal of Early Christian Studies 11/3: 339-385.

Frend, W.

1979    Town and countryside in early Christianity. Studies in Church History 16: 25-42.

Gilchrist, R.

1995    Contemplation and Action: The Other Monasticism. London: Leicester University Press.

Gilchrist, R. and R. Morris

1993    Monasteries as settlements: religion, society and economy AD 600-1050.  In In Search of Cult: Investigations in Honour of Philip Rahtz. M. Carver, ed. Pp. 113-118. Woodbridge: Boydell.

Goehring, J.

1990    The world engaged: the social and economic world of early Egyptian monasticism. In Gnosticism and the Early Christian World: essays in Honour of James M. Robinson. J. Goehring et al., eds. Pp. 134-144. Sonoma.

Goehring, J.

1996    Withdrawing from the desert: Pachomius and the development of village monasticism in Upper Egypt. Harvard Theological Review 89: 267-285.

Graham, B.

1998    The town and the monastery: early medieval urbanisation in Ireland AD 800-1150. In The Church in the Medieval Town. T. Slater and G. Rosser (eds.). Pp. 131-154. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Graham, E.

1998    Mission archaeology Annual Reviews in Anthropology 27: 25-62.

Hamlin, A.

1985    The archaeology of the Irish Church in the Eighth Century. Peritia 4: 279-99.

Hamlin, A. and C. Foley

1983    A womens’ graveyard at Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone and the separate burial of women. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 46: 41-6.

Hope-Taylor, B.

1977    Yeavering: An Anglo-Saxon British Centre of Early Northumbria. London: Department of the Environment Archaeological Report 7.

Horton, R.

1971    African conversion. Africa 41: 85-108.

Hurley, V.

1982    The early church in the south-west of Ireland: settlement and organisation. In The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland. S. Pearce, ed. Pp. 297-332. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports British Series 102.

Isichei, E.

1995    A History of Christianity in Africa. London: SPCK.

Kaplan, S.

1980    The rise of the monastic holy man in the early Solomonic period.  In Ethiopian Studies: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, Tel Aviv, 14th-16th April 1980. G. Goldenberg, ed. pp. 343-358.  Rotterdam: A A Balkema.

1986    The Africanisation of missionary Christianity: history and typology. Journal of Religion in Africa 16/3: 166-186.

Kilbride, W.

2000    Why I feel cheated by the term Christianisation. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 17/2: 1-17.

Lane, P.

1999    Archaeology, non-conformist missions and the ‘colonisation of consciousness’ in southern Africa c. 1820-1900. In Case Studies in Archaeology and World Religion. T. Insoll, ed. Pp. 153-165. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports International Series 755.

2001    The Archaeology of Christianity in global perspective. In Archaeology and World Religion. T. Insoll, ed. pp. 148-181. London: Routledge.

Lefebvre, H.

1991    The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Levine, D.

1974    Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

MacDonald, A.

1984    Aspects of the monastery and monastic life in Adomnan’s Life of Columba. Peritia 3: 271-302.

Macmullen, R.

1984    Christianizing the Roman Empire AD 100-400. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Meyer, B.

1997    Christian mind and worldly matters: religion and materiality in the nineteenth-century Gold Coast. Journal of Material Culture 2: 311-37.

Mytum, H.

1992    The Origins of Early Christian Ireland. London: Routledge.

Olson, L.

1989    Early Monasteries in Cornwall. Woodbridge: Boydell.

O’Sullivan, D.

2001    Space, silence and shortage on Lindisfarne: the archaeology of asceticism. In Image and Power in the Archaeology of Medieval Britain. H. Hamerow and A. Macgregor, eds. Pp. 33-52. Oxford: Oxbow.

Prinz, F.

1981    Columbanus, the Frankish nobility and the territories east of the Rhine. In Columbanus and Merovingian Monasticism. H. Clarke and M. Brennan, eds. Pp. 73-87. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports International Series 113.

Rahtz, P. and L. Watts

2003    Three ages of conversion at Kirkdale, North Yorkshire. In The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe AD 300-1300. M. Carver, ed. Pp. 289-309. York: York Medieval Press.

Redman, C.

1986.   Qsar es-Seghir: An Archaeological View of Medieval Life. New York: Academic Books.

Rees, E.

2000    Celtic Saints: Passionate Wanderers. London: Thames and Hudson.

Reid, A., P. Lane, A. Segobye, L. Börjeson, N. Mathibidi, P. Sekgarametso

1997    Tswana architecture and responses to colonialism. World Archaeology 28: 96-118.

Sanmark, A.

2003    The role of secular rulers in the conversion of Sweden. In The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe AD 300-1300. M. Carver, ed. Pp. 551-558. York: York Medieval Press.

Smith, I.

1996    The origins and development of Christianity in North Britain and Southern Pictland. In Church Archaeology: Research Directions for the Future. J. Blair and C. Pyrah, eds. Pp.19-36. London: C.B.A Research Report 104.

Stocker, D. and P. Everson

2003    The straight and narrow way: Fenland causeways and the conversion of landscape in the Witham Valley, Lincolnshire. In The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe AD 300-1300. M. Carver, ed. Pp. 271-288.

Talbot, C.

1970    St Boniface and the German Mission. Studies in Church History 6: 45-57.

Turner, S.

2003    Making a Christian Landscape: Early Medieval Cornwall. In The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe AD 300-1300. M. Carver, ed. Pp. 171-194. York: York Medieval Press.

Urbanczyk, P.

2003    The politics of conversion in north-central Europe. In The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe AD 300-1300. M. Carver, ed. Pp. 15-27. York: York Medieval Press.

Van Egmond, W.

2000    Converting monks: missionary activity in early medieval Frisia and Saxony. In Christianising Peoples and Converting Individuals. G. Armstrong and I. Wood, eds. Pp. 37-45.

Vlasto, A.

1970    The mission of SS Cyril and Methodosius and its aftermath in central Europe. Studies in Church History 6: 1-16.

Walker, G.

1970    St Columban; monk or missionary? Studies in Church History 6: 39-44.

Wood, I.

1981    Prelude to Columbanus: the monastic achievement in the Burgundian Territories. In Columbanus and Merovingian Monasticism. H. Clarke and M. Brennan, eds. Pp. 3-32. Oxford: British Archaeological reports International series 113.

Wipszycka, E.

1988    La Christianisation de l’Egypte aux IVe-VIe siècles. Aspects sociaux et ethniques. Aegyptus 68: 117-166.

Yi-Fu Tuan

1974    Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Yorke, B.

2003    The adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon royal courts to Christianity. In The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe AD 300-1300. M. Carver, ed. Pp. 243-257. York: York Medieval Press.

2003    The adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon royal courts to Christianity. In The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe AD 300-1300. M. Carver, ed. Pp. 243-257. York: York Medieval Press.

[1] This term emphasises the idea of cutting free from the world and becoming a wandering pilgrim; such exiles could be linked to an idea of Christian destiny, or even mission  (Fletcher 1997: 30).


[2] Although there are a number of famous holy female personalities at this period, active mission was a feature of males, i.e. monks.

[3] The idea of a ‘psychogeography’ is here used to describe symbolically-loaded meanings of space, an amorphous — almost supernatural — landscape laden with meanings above and beyond the workaday notion of ‘taskscape’. It is certainly a growing genre amongst a more avant-garde group of travel writers; a provocative example, and a personal favourite, is Iain Sinclair’s (1997) exploration of London: Lights Out for the Territory London: Granta.


[4] The Kongo artisans soon developed a highly distinctive and imaginative Christian art tradition of their own, recasting traditional western European forms within an African context (Finneran 2002: 178). 5 The idea of anachoresis, or withdrawal from society, is not a theme associated with late antique Christianity alone: the Essenes at Qumran in Palestine, and the Therapeutae and Gymnosophists of Lower Egypt all sought spiritual inspiration by removal from society (Dunn 2000: 1) 6 Current research by the present author is beginning to arrive at a similar conclusion for the place of the monastery in early medieval Ethiopian space (Finneran and Tribe  2003). 7 One example of this is the creation of the baptistery, a means of physically controlling access to water and removing any notion of symbolic attachment to running water (Finneran forthcoming.)

[5] The idea of anachoresis, or withdrawal from society, is not a theme associated with late antique Christianity alone: the Essenes at Qumran in Palestine, and the Therapeutae and Gymnosophists of Lower Egypt all sought spiritual inspiration by removal from society (Dunn 2000: 1)

[6] Current research by the present author is beginning to arrive at a similar conclusion for the place of the monastery in early medieval Ethiopian space (Finneran and Tribe  2003).

[7] One example of this is the creation of the baptistery, a means of physically controlling access to water and removing any notion of symbolic attachment to running water (Finneran forthcoming.)

[8] The use of contemporary historical sources should be treated with caution; they leave few clues as to the modus operandi of the Celtic missionary beyond the miraculous.


[10] It was a favoured royal burial place; the thread of social memory is still strong for in 1994 it witnessed the interment of the late Labour party leader John Smith.

[11] The Ionan connection was not confined to Northumbria; its influence was felt in the conversion of Peada of Mercia, and King Sigebert II of the East Saxons.

[12] The story of an archaeology of mission in England for instance should not stop here; one could incorporate the actions of mendicant orders or friars from the twelfth century onwards when these wandering priests essentially took on the role of missionary. From an archaeological perspective, it is interesting that Friary churches from the thirteenth century onwards have especially wide naves — a function related to packing in a large congregation to hear the friar preach (Gilchrist 1995: 5); this contrasts with the rather closed nature of the early European monastic churches.

[13] We also see, much later on, a similar framework for the Christianisation of the medieval Scandinavian landscape where the ‘monastery as mission’ was used in the promotion and extension of secular power as well as ideological change (Sanmark 2003).

[14] Literacy was actually very important in this regard; a useful example being the Byzantine-derived missions of Cyril and Methodius in the Balkans which were linked explicitly to the development of High Church Slavonic (Vlasto 1970). Translation of gospels into vernacular language (and creating new alphabets incidentally where none had previously existed) was an important component of the mission process. Literacy engendered power for the missionary (it enabled him to reach more converts) and to the converted — it allowed for integration into wider political networks and information exchange. There was one more important side effect of the educational process: the monastery, closed and contemplative, provided a ready supply of missionaries heavily immersed in Christianity (Van Egmond 2000).

Pages: « 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11»