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Sacred Britain: place and pilgrimage

16 December 2016

Sacred BritainSacred Britain by Martin Palmer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book looked interesting, but I was a little bit suspicious of it, because such books sometimes tend to be full of New Age tosh. But as it was a library book it would cost nothing to look at and there was no compulsion to read it. There was no mention of ley lines in the index, and that seemed to be a good sign.

It dealt with things like sacred groves and holy wells, and that was interesting, as my great grandfather grew up in the vicinity of a holy well, which I was able to visit. But though the book was informative, it seemed rather shallow. The main aim seemed to be to encourage people to go on pilgrimages, and to create a lot of pilgrimage routes, old and new.

I also learnt a few things I hadn’t known about history in general. One was that there had two periods of major ecological collapse in Britain.

First was a mini-Ice Age about 1000 BC, caused by a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland

Before this, the inhabitants had built stone circles, such as Stonehenge (the biggest) which seem to have served ritual and astronomical purposes, though very little is known about them or the people who built them. After the mini-Ice Age, the inhabitants were more warlike, and the henges were abandoned. There were invasions of new groups, like the Celts, and instead of henges, hill forts were built.Overpopulation led to competition for scarce resources.

The second ecological disaster was caused by the Romans, who ruled southern Britain from 44BC to around AD 410. They went in for big agri-business, needed to feed the cities of their empire, and they exhausted the soil, chopped down the forests, and created an ecological disaster. Britain got off relatively lightly, though, as the Romans’ activities in North Africa turned those parts of the world into the deserts they are today. As the historian Ronald Hutton put it,

Christians in antiquity were no more destructive of the environment than pagans. They may have cut down sacred groves at pagan places of worship, but that was about as far as it went. The Roman Empire, while pagan, caused an ecological disaster by cutting down the North African forests, causing much of the topsoil to be washed into the Mediterranean, and in the same period the lion was exterminated in Europe, the elephant and hippopotamus in North Africa and the bear in England. Christianity was irrelevant to this process.

The coming of Christianity to Britain enabled the land to recover somewhat, and the authors have an interesting notion of Christian town planning, which was lost around the time of the Enlightenment when secular town planning took over. They note the Chinese art of Feng Shui, and the Christian equivalent that developed in Russia, but give interesting examples of how it appeared in England too, and it can be seen in the placement of churches dedicated to particular saints — St Michael and St Catherine on hill tops, churches dedicated to St Helen were often placed close to one reputed to hold a relic of the true cross, and so on.

One rather disappointing thing was that it repeated the hoary old legend of Eostre being a Celtic goddess. Though first published in 1997 the authors did not make use of books like The pagan religions of the ancient British Isles by Ronald Hutton, which had already been published in 1991, and might have saved them from such errors.

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