Angels in Early Medieval England

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Richard Sowerby
Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     2016.
     288 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198785378.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The study of angels has long served as a prime target for modern mockery of medieval theological disputes. Richard Sowerby’s new volume convincingly reveals the error of that stereotype and demonstrates the great value of attending to the details of early medieval English beliefs about angels. Through careful attendance to nuance and respect for the sources, Sowerby builds an argument explaining the significant changes to the stature of angels in England over the course of the early middle ages. The book is primarily concerned not with abstract theology but  aims to use ideas about angels as a means to access the culture and mindset of early medieval England. The book appropriately sets the stage for this analysis by delineating the intellectual history of angels from their biblical appearances (and notable absences), through patristic developments of those issues, and to the presence of those ideas in early medieval English writings. The ensuing chapters then grapple with English departures from the patristic sources, the gradual weakening of guardian angels, angelic guides in the afterlife, the declining emphasis on angels as signals of sanctity in hagiography, and the potentially unorthodox insertion of angels into prayers and benedictions. Each chapter provides a fascinating and illuminating step in the overarching argument that beliefs about angels changed in response to the different generic demands of the various types of texts in which angels appeared in early medieval England. Rather than finding evidence that historical and cultural changes produced corresponding theological shifts, Sowerby concludes that the migrations of invocations of angels from one genre to another are the driving force. Although he does not overtly investigate the concept or definition of “genre,” Sowerby finds that the demands of each new generic context emphasize different angelic aspects and consequently change their overall meaning and cultural resonances. For example, early hagiography presents conversations with angels as evidence of sanctity. When angels appear in homilies, however, the emphasis shifts to their duty as guardians of every person, which consequently dilutes the importance of their conversations with saints. Inspired by such homiletic topics, subsequent prayers asking for angelic aid create the appearance that angels only work when actively invoked, making them seem “rather less than dependable” (221). Each chapter admirably stands on its own while also contributing to this clever and useful argument.

Angels in Early Medieval England is notably multidisciplinary. Sowerby’s primary paradigm is that of an historian, but literary and liturgical texts feature as much as the expected theological works. Moreover, he employs art historical analysis that goes well beyond merely justifying the inclusion of pretty pictures, a full dozen of which appear throughout the book. For example, the decorations of stone crosses from the late 8th or early 9th century test the validity of standard scholarly assumptions regarding medieval understandings of angels. In re-analyzing the crosses, Sowerby impressively begins a pattern of respectfully disagreeing with prior scholarly claims, noting the ways in which those claims do indeed apply and make sense before presenting his own, competing interpretations. In many cases, these reinterpretations carefully move the focus away from patristic writings, to which (Sowerby claims) scholars have attributed too much influence. Noting that “looking backwards into the pages of patristic exegesis” is “by no means an illogical approach, for the influence of the Church Fathers was immense” (49), he nonetheless gently reminds the reader that the following centuries did not simply parrot those influential writers: “[i]f we do not make the effort to engage equally with the opinions of less authoritative writers from the early Middle Ages, we risk obscuring the intentions of the very people we are trying to understand” (50). Thus, Sowerby takes into full account the influence of Augustine and Gregory, who frequent many of the book’s pages, and then takes the early medieval English material on its own terms and within its own context.

This move—of recognizing patristic influence and then assessing the medieval material in its own right—is highly welcome but sometimes leads to problematic assumptions of authorial intent. In the careful analysis of formulaic blessings in the Durham Collectar, for example, Sowerby correctly notes that the blessings faithfully follow the “established practices” of such prayers with only minor departures (209). This reading is happily sympathetic to the author of the prayers, presuming an innocent motivation for the inclusion of unorthodox material (namely the supposed archangel Panchiel) rather than some sinister desire to subvert church teachings with sorcery. This lack of cynicism is quite refreshing. Nonetheless, this same mindset leads Sowerby to further conclude that “the creator of the prayers had been searching through his memory for a way to liken his request for pest-free fields to a known story from the biblical past” (213). This conclusion seems reasonable, but it is speculative in ways somewhat similar to interpretations that Sowerby takes issue with elsewhere. While his argument ultimately rings true, it might have been safer to restrict the claims to the text of the blessings itself, rather than presume to know the author’s original intent.

Sowerby’s conclusions on the influence of genre are fascinating and insightful, and the individual explorations of the different appearances of angels in various contexts are illuminating in and of themselves. Indeed, Angels in Early Medieval England is a superlative book—well written, well argued, and a welcome addition to the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Davis-Secord is Associate Professor of English at the University of New Mexico.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard Sowerby is Lecturer in Early Medieval Insular History at the University of Edinburgh.

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