Wednesday 24 April 2013

Conference report: 'Converting the Landscape'

Dr Brittany Schorn writes:

The ‘Converting the Isles Network’, based in the Department and supported by the Leverhulme Trust, held its fourth colloquium on the 22nd and 23rd of March at Bangor University. Despite somewhat hazardous travel conditions due to an unexpected freeze, all participants managed to make it to what turned out to be an extremely productive gathering. The subject, ‘Coverting the Landscape’, was considered from the perspective of different regions and methodologies, and led to an extremely productive and stimulating discussion of fundamental questions about the nature of Christian conversion.

The colloquium began with a session on burial evidence and problems of interpretation. Elizabeth O’Brien considered the variety of burial practices in early Christian Ireland, focusing in particular on the practice of inserting burials into ‘ferta’. She stressed that this could be read as a political rather than a religious statement, as it provided a means by which important people and newcomers could be incorporated into the existing landscape. Adrián Maldonado provided a fascinatingly nuanced discussion of Pictish barrow types, highlighting regional differences and also pointing out the difficulty in identifying the influence of Christianity itself with certainty. 

In the second session of the morning, Tomás Ó Carragáin and Morten Søvsø spoke on the difficulties involved in identifying ecclesiastical landscapes. Tomás Ó Carragáin examined the problem of how scholars can quantify the density of churches in the landscape in relation to secular sites, pointing out methodological problems that may significantly skew the broad pattern. Morten Søvsø spoke on recent and ongoing excavations at the church-site in Ribe, likely the oldest church in Denmark, which have important implications for our understanding of the history of the church in Viking-Age Denmark. 

Friday afternoon Nancy Edwards led a freezing, but fascinating, excursion to view inscribed stones on Anglesey. Moving through the southwestern part of the island, we took a chronological tour of the development of these inscriptions.

Our discussion of stone monuments continued as the subject of the opening session of the second day of the colloquium. Meggen Gondek discussed the distribution of the different classes of Pictish symbol stones, focusing in particular on a series of sites in Aberdeenshire, demonstrating what they can reveal as evidence of changing religious practice. Cecilia Ljung then examined a phase of early Christian stone grave monuments in Sweden, dated to a very limited period in the 11th century. She considered their relationship to the already significant runic memorial tradition and using Västergötland and Øland as case studies, stressed regional differences in the nature of the church and conversion.

The next session, on technology as a tool of conversion, looked at the way that the conversion affected agricultural organisation and production. Thomas McErlean described the revolutionary changes that accompanied the introduction of mechanical mills at Nendrum, as well as improvements to the exploitation of fishing, forest clearing, and agricultural organisation that monasteries brought. Gabor Thomas then looked at the relationship between monastic foundations and intensification of rural production in Kent, taking the case study of Lyminge: a monastery which is currently the subject of a major interedisciplinary research project.   

Rory Naismith continued the theme of technology and economic impact through examination of monetization in relation to Christianization. He examined a series of areas across northern Europe, in each of which coinage enjoyed a different relationship with religious development. Finally, Lesley Abrams closed the colloquium’s papers with a review of the fascinating question of when and how the Vikings of Dublin converted to Christianity. Several important questions emerged of how conversion is to be defined and contextualized, which led effectively into the closing discussion.

The colloquium ended with a lively roundtable discussion of questions such as: is it possible to distinguish belief from the institution of the Church in the surviving evidence? What is the minimum requirement to identify as Christian and how did missionaries perceive their goals? And to what extent did economic change follow ideology?

The Network now looks forward to our final colloquium to be held in Cambridge on the 19th–21st of September 2013. The subject will be ‘The Isles and the Wider World’ and confirmed speakers include Rowan Williams, Bernhard Maier, Chris Wickham, James Palmer, Sven Meeder, Ingrid Rembold, Geneviève Bührer-Thierry, Jörn Staecker, Stanislaw Rosik, Jean-Michel Picard, Sébastian Bully, Krisztina Szilagyi, and Tomas Sundnes Dronen. A full programme will shortly be available from our website here, along with registration information.

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