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The Temple of the Forest: Ecology of Belief in Early Medieval England

Richard Smith | University of Chester

Throughout the writing of my dissertation on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, one thing in particular stood out among all the other aspects of the process of conversion. Not only was the conversion to Christianity a dramatic theological shift for most of the population, but it was also a profound change in how people saw themselves in relation to their environment. One of the fundamental aspects of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon belief was a reverence for the concept of a sacred landscape. As well as venerating a form of the divine present in the land, there were also features of the landscape that were considered to be particularly sacred. This aspect is something that I couldn’t help but think about in comparison to our modern context and the environmental crisis we face today. This is not to say that it is necessary to take on or incorporate the pre-Christian beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons into our daily lives, but it seems poignant to value our environment much more than is often the case today.

Upon their arrival from what is now northern Germany and southern Denmark, one widespread feature of the landscape that inspired the imaginations of the early Anglo-Saxons were burial mounds. These were known to be sites where people went to speak with spirits and deceased relatives but without any modern fear of ghosts or the supernatural. Such mounds continued to be important focal points throughout the later process of conversion. Later still, when the Normans arrived in Britain, they found that large burial mounds, such as the Iron Age example at Skipsea Brough in East Yorkshire, were convenient places to situate motte-and-bailey castles. This appropriation provided a strong visual symbol to the population of the Norman usurpation of power and the authority of the new Norman political class over the old Anglo-Saxon hierarchy.

'Skipsea Castle, Skipsea Brough, East Yorkshire. The motte of the early Norman castle is thought to stand on top of an Iron Age burial mound'
Skipsea Castle, Skipsea Brough, East Yorkshire. The motte of the early Norman castle is thought to stand on top of an Iron Age burial mound

It is this appreciation of the landscape and its features as something inherently special that I wish to contrast with how we see ourselves and the climate crisis we face today. To the early Anglo-Saxons, barrow mounds were only one feature in a whole landscape overflowing with meaning. Indeed, it is evident that many of the early churches constructed during the conversion were built over spring lines that terminated in natural wells. This suggests that they were built on top of likely sites of worship for the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons in a display of theological dominance. This is reinforced by evidence of ritual deposits in bogs, marshes, springs, and wells that show a clear reverence for these places. It seems to be that these places appeared almost like portals into the earth, granting direct access to ancestral gods and goddesses. What’s more, the use of the word ’heathen’ to refer to non-Christians strongly implies that paganism was associated with those who worshipped on the heath, rather than in a church. Again, we see in this the complex symbolism and cultural significance ascribed to the landscape - the idea that there was something more important about the landscape than what might be apparent at a first glance. Particular trees, such as the oak, were interpreted as totemic world pillars, while natural springs, like the one found at Harrogate in North Yorkshire, were ascribed healing properties. Each and every feature of the landscape had a role and a story to tell. As The Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem describes, the oak trees were also extremely significant as a trusted and reliable boat building material: “The Oak is fodder for flesh on earth for the sons of men. It frequently ferries over the gannet’s bath. The spear-waves test whether the Oak possesses reliability for noble men.”

It was not only the landscape which possessed a sacred value to the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons -animals also held a great amount of meaning. As they were associated with particular deities and could assist in forms of divination, animals could convey blessings to people and places. Consequently, animal symbolism was something heavily invoked in the art, weapons, and armour of the Anglo-Saxons both before and after their conversion to Christianity. This reverence for animals and what they represented reveals a desire to be associated with and to acquire their characteristics such as strength or speed. Boars featured prominently and were well-respected for their ferocity and charges, while stags were greatly respected for their antlers and beauty. All of these traits were greatly prized by the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons, and their relationship with the animals around them would have been much closer with the animals they encountered daily. Indeed, there appears to have been a far stronger sense of respect for the ecosystem in which both humans and animals were situated than is present today.

The way in which early Anglo-Saxons interacted with their landscape and the animals that inhabited it alongside them provides valuable lessons in the face of the climate crisis we face in the world today. This is especially apparent in light of the ongoing destruction of 108 ancient woodlands as part of the construction of the HS2 rail line, for example. The landscape and the animals inhabiting early medieval England were not just respected, but revered, and it is this which makes the pre-Christian religion of the Anglo-Saxons all the more significant today. This is especially pressing when pre-Christian faiths, in general, belong to a somewhat understudied field within the history of religion. Seeing ourselves as more closely tied to our environment and rediscovering some of this respect can only be positive for the future.

Certainly, advances in scholarship and popularisation of the heritage movement have helped to increase awareness of these issues. Yet, there is still much to be done in this field, and I cannot encourage people enough to go out into their local areas and discover local legends about their surroundings. The reliance people in the past had on their landscape brings a whole new perspective on its importance, allowing us to see that we don’t just exist in isolation, but are part of a wider ecosystem. This alone brings a much greater respect than simply seeing exotic species on TV. In essence, the history of every hill and cave can tell just as much of a story as the history of nations and individuals. By recognising these stories and keeping them from being forgotten, we can keep the respect and reverence held by the Anglo-Saxons and use to help protect our landscapes today. The notion of belonging to a wider ecosystem is essential in this. Every hedgehog and sparrow, every wild boar and stag carried due respect and reverence for the Anglo-Saxons, as they should for us. I can only hope that what I have illustrated here can help to shed light on the subject for others who sympathise with the concept of giving the landscape and the wildlife within it, not only the respect it deserves, but also the reverence it requires.


Further Reading

  • Carver, M., A. Sanmark and S. Semple, S., eds, Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010)

  • Grendon, F., ‘The Anglo-Saxon Charms’, The Journal of American Folklore, 22.84 (1909), pp.105-237

  • Hall, A., Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2007)

  • Herbert, K., Looking for the Lost Gods of England (Ely: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994)

  • Hunter, J., ed., Greening the Paranormal: Exploring the Ecology of Extraordinary Experience (California: August Night Press, 2019)

  • Looijenga, T., Texts and Contexts of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions (Leiden: Brill, 2003)

Richard Smith is currently a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Chester studying Theology and Religious studies combined with History, where he is writing his dissertation on the extent of conversion in early Anglo-Saxon England. His focus is on ancient religion, particularly the socio-linguistic aspects of the history of belief and the retention of folk beliefs in the modern world. When not working on his dissertation or writing assignments, he organises the University Craft Beer society as its Vice President and hopes to one day work as a brewer.


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