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Cult of Celtic saints widens under fresh examination

26 February 2021

Reinterpretation of inscriptions adds 30 per cent to the tally of Celtic saints

Robin Leicester

A sixth-century pillar, inscribed “Pumpeius Carantorius”, from Eglwys Nunydd, now in the Margam Stones Museum, near Port Talbot

A sixth-century pillar, inscribed “Pumpeius Carantorius”, from Eglwys Nunydd, now in the Margam Stones Museum, near Port Talbot

NEW historical and archaeological research suggests that Celtic Britain had even more recognised saints than previously thought. A study carried out by an authority on the period increases the number of known saints by about 30 per cent.

Until now, place-names and medieval church dedications have been the main evidence for the existence of Celtic saints, and suggested that there were at least 860 in Britain. Very little contemporary archaeological evidence exists, however.

Now, after a detailed analysis of fifth- and sixth-century memorial stones, mainly in Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland, Professor Ken Dark of the University of Reading is proposing that the individuals commemorated on those stones were saints, and not warriors or other secular figures, as previously thought.

It is thought to be the first time that contemporary evidence for a widespread cult of saints has been identified.

Professor Dark has studied the titles and personal descriptions on many of the stones. Honorific titles reveal that some were martyrs (commemorated with the word “memoria”), spiritual sages (“sapientisimus”), holy men (“sanctus”), or pious devotees of famous Continental saints (spiritual “son/daughter of” Martin or Victricius) — even that their mortal remains were considered as sacred relics (“nomina”).

WikimediaThe Fianna raised a pillar stone with her name in Ogham letters: illustration by Stephen Reid (1873-1948) from Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T. W. Rolleston

Professor Dark looked in detail at 240 inscribed stones from the fifth to early seventh centuries. The majority of the inscriptions were written in Latin, but almost one fifth were inscribed in Ogham, a long-forgotten Irish-originating script. A few were inscribed in both scripts.

The location of the stones also supports the theory that they commemorate saints. Professor Dark’s investigation correlated inscriptions from 150 stone monuments in Wales, 20 in southern Scotland (and around Hadrian’s Wall), 40 in Cornwall, and 30 from elsewhere in western England. On the whole, concentrations coincide with the highest concentrations of Celtic church dedications and place names.

Most of the inscribed stones were not erected in cemeteries but as roadside monuments, or in other prominent and highly visible positions. Professor Dark believes that they may well have functioned as shrines where travellers could pray and ask the saint to intercede with God.

At least three of the dedicatees had royal status, but the majority were almost certainly monks or clerics. In some instances, clerical status is referred to in the inscription.

Children could be regarded as saints; and 16 of the 240 newly identified probable saints were women, some, perhaps, wives of senior ecclesiastical figures. In Celtic Christianity, priests (including bishops) and possibly monks were allowed to marry, Professor Dark says.

Professor Dark has published this research in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History. He writes: “The new research sheds fresh light on the practices and beliefs of Christians in Western and Northern Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. It seems to highlight, for example, the extent to which women and married clergy flourished within the British Church.

“It also shows the importance that the British population attached to having very local saints in that very early period. The phenomenon may well reflect the very decentralised and personalised nature of evangelisation in parts of fifth- and sixth-century Britain.

“Fifth-century Britain was a place of great social, economic, and political change — and part of that change was a rapid increase in Christianisation.”

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