Investigating ‘peasant conversion’ in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England
By Roy Flechner and Máire Ní Mhaonaigh
Published online in Converting the Isles: An International Network for the Study of Conversion to Christianity in the Insular World (2015)
Introduction: A well-known episode in Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert tells of Tyneside peasants who jeered as they watched strong currents sweeping an unfortunate group of monks out to sea. Cuthbert, distressed by the sight, immediately took to praying, but the peasants remained unrepentant: ‘At illi rustico et animo et ore stomachantes aduersus eum, Nullus inquiunt hominum pro eis roget, nullius eorum misereatur Deus, qui et ueteres culturas hominibus tulere, et nouas qualiter obseruare debeant nemo nouit’ (‘But they, rustic in spirit and speech, declaimed against him: “let no man”, they said, “pray for them, let God not pity any of them, for they denied men their old ways of worship (culturas) and nobody knows how the new ones ought to be observed”).
Whether this is indeed a record of what John Blair described as a ‘rare account of a negative response to pastoral care’, or mere literary creation, it is undoubtedly rare for its choice of protagonists: lowly peasants as opposed to the aristocrats whom one usually finds in conversion-related stories, which often feature missionaries who were aristocrats themselves. The antipathy that Bede had for the boorish peasants is apparent in his derogatory use of the expressions rustico et animo et ore and (earlier in the passage uulgaris turba. Such lowly peasants are unusually at the receiving end of the conventional hagiographical topos of top-down conversion, in which they seldom appear as discrete individuals but more often as the silent members of faceless crowds undergoing mass baptisms, either willingly or by means of coercion.
It may not strike us as unusual that contemporary sources rarely report actual effects of conversion on ordinary folk, since some of these effects, like the episode involving the peasants on the banks of the Tyne, could have given the church a bad press. But it is somewhat surprising that we find very little in the way of propaganda bent on stressing positive changes that Christianity could bring, propaganda of the kind that Bishop Daniel of Winchester scripted for Boniface in the oft-cited letter which he advised the missionary to lure converts by contrasting the economic prosperity of Christian communities with the backwardness of the non-Christian. Thanks to statements such as Daniel’s we are able to gauge some of the sort of social and economic changes that contemporaries associated with Christianity and their potential to attract converts of all social levels.