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Wales and the Britons, 350-1064 (History of Wales)
Wales and the Britons, 350-1064 (History of Wales)
T. M. Charles-Edwards
Oxford University Press, 2013
816 pp., $185.00

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Philip Jenkins


The Lantern-Bearers

Roman Britain seen afresh.

If you have never read the entrancing historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92), you have a huge treat in store. Ostensibly written for children, her books give an uncannily powerful sense of ordinary life in Celtic Britain from the Iron Age through the Dark Ages. They also offer an inspiring historical mythology. In the 5th century, she suggests, the fading of Roman rule in Britain meant snuffing out the candle of civilization, replacing the rule of light with centuries of darkness, of ignorance and pagan barbarism. In books like The Lantern Bearers and Sword at Sunset, Sutcliff depicted the last warriors of that old civilization, the soldiers of the dying light, whose desperate struggles would eventually be commemorated worldwide in the Arthurian legends.

In less romantic form, that idea of the collapse of a once-glorious civilization long dominated accounts of the end of Roman Britain. The narrative has a potent religious dimension, for Roman Britain was Christian, with a full framework of dioceses and churches. Yet during the 5th century, that older structure was utterly uprooted across most of what would become southern and eastern England, raising the troubling question that accompanies the death of any church: how can God permit his faith to be swept from any land? In this instance, though, the wider church did ultimately triumph. From Western Britain, Celtic Christians like Patrick spread their faith to Ireland, where it flourished mightily. By the 7th century, the heirs of those early Irish converts were carrying that faith—and the light of learning and civilization—across the British Isles and over much of Western Europe. Faintly and tenuously at first, the light returned.

And yet, for all the achievements involved in saving civilization, the older Celtic peoples of Roman Britain survived only in sadly reduced circumstances. By the Middle Ages, the British who had once dominated most of the island clung on to political power in the poorer ...

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