The Prevalence of Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 410

The Prevalence of Christianity in Roman Britain to AD 410

By Janka Dowding

Hirundo: The McGill Journal of Classical Studies, Volume 3 (2004)

The Hinton St Mary Mosaic

Introduction: Popular mythology claims that Joseph of Arimathea introduced Christianity into Britain in AD 63 when he brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury after Christ’s crucifixion. As this story demonstrates, a befuddling mix of myth, tradition and fact dominates the period preceding the Roman withdrawal. The literary evidence comes primarily from later sources like Bede and Gildas, who depend on older sources that have since been lost. In these texts it is often difficult to differentiate fact from fiction, as well as to establish with any certainty the depth to which Christianity had infiltrated the island. When the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early fifth century, they not only left behind a vast Roman culture, but also a religion, Christianity, which was inherently Roman. In the last centuries of the Roman Empire, Christianity was a major factor in defining oneself as being Roman, or possessing Romanitas. This held true even in areas as remote as Britain, but very little has been done to explore the correlation between Christianity and ‘Romanness.’

Twenty years ago, scholarship was remarkably lacking in explaining the extent of Romano-British Christianity. Given the dearth of literary and historical sources from this time period, stu- dents of Romano-British Christianity must inevitably turn to archaeology. In 1930, archaeologist and historian Collingwood emphasized the fact that there was very little evidence for Christianity. However, since Jocelyn Toynbee’s study of Christian art in Britain in 1953, archaeologists have discovered hundreds of new sites and artifacts. Dorothy Watts in particular has re-evaluated many previously ignored sites as well as introduced new indi- cators of Christianity. As a result, new research has proven that Christianity was not solely an urban, upper-class phenomenon. Instead, it had widespread appeal throughout Britain and elicited a deep commitment from its adherents, which allowed Christianity to persist even through the pagan attacks of the fifth century AD and beyond.

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