Friday, October 14, 2011
Not dark yet
I have never forgotten an early school history lesson during which we moved from the Romans to the period after they left the shores of Britain: the Dark Ages. Except, as our history teacher insisted, they weren’t really dark. Illuminated manuscripts, Anglo-Saxon sculpture and jewellery, the vigorous beginnings of English literature, and the very origins of England as a united kingdom – all of these belonged to the post-Roman period and told us that there was really quite a lot going on, some of it wonderfully illuminating.
Forty years on, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that Dark Ages weren’t really dark. TV historians and archaeologists seem unable to abandon the term, or the notion that, in telling us that the Dark Ages weren’t really dark, they are letting us in on some newly discovered secret about this remote and mysterious period.
And yet, reading of the hail-battered and rain-sodden landscape portrayed in Anglo-Saxon poems like The Seafarer, or grubbing about in dark little Saxon churches, some of them almost windowless, the Dark Ages in England do seem somewhat crepuscular. Where are the polychromatic churches of Ravenna, glittering with mosaics? Where are the marble-clad walls of Byzantium? Where the great spaces of early Christian basilicas of the kind we find in Rome?
Well, there’s one English church that still gets near to this kind of light, spacious, early Christian architecture: All Saints’, Brixworth, Northamptonshire, though not a glittering jewel box like the churches of Ravenna, is large, light, airy – and Saxon. With its large nave and rows of imposing arches, it has been described as the most impressive 7th-century structure north of the Alps. And it’s an indication as clear as any in England, that the Saxons, builders of small churches like Odda’s Chapel in Gloucestershire or the one at Bradford-on-Avon, could also build big.
Churches like Brixworth were regional religious centres, and on another level from small, privately endowed chapels like Odda’s. They were monastic foundations – Brixworth was apparently built for monks from Peterborough – and also no doubt places of pilgrimage. They are testimony to the wealth and faith of Mercia, the Anglo-Saxon Midland kingdom, in around 675.
The other remarkable thing about this church is the arches. They originally opened on to aisles or side rooms known as porticus, the use of which is unknown (side chapels? homes for holy relics? ossuaries? the jury it out). The porticus have gone, and the arches are now filled in, but their striking construction is still clear. They are made from bricks, and those are Roman bricks, reused from some earlier structure. It’s an inspired bit of recycling, the bricks fulfilling their role both structurally and visually. And it’s a reminder that these Dark Age buildings, which look forward to later churches and cathedrals, are also close to the preceding Roman era. It’s good that these Roman bricks are still enjoying their time in the sun.