Nature rituals of the early medieval church in Britain
: Christian cosmology and the conversion of the British landscape from Germanus to Bede

  • Nick Mayhew-Smith

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This thesis studies ritual interactions between saints and the landscape, animals and
    elements during a three-hundred year period from 410 AD. Such interactions include
    negotiations about and with birds and other animals, exorcism of the sea, lakes and
    rivers, and immersion in these natural bodies of water for devotional purposes.
    Although writers of the period lacked a term such as 'nature' to describe this sphere of
    activity, it is demonstrated that the natural world was regarded as a dimension of
    creation distinctively responsive to Christian ritual.
    Systematic study of the context in which these rituals were performed finds close
    connection with missionary negotiations aimed at lay people. It further reveals that
    three British writers borrowed from Sulpicius Severus' accounts of eastern hermits,
    reworking older narratives to suggest that non-human aspects of creation were not
    only attracted to saints but were changed by and participated in Christian ritual and
    Natural bodies of water attracted particularly intense interaction in the form of
    exorcism and bathing, sufficiently widely documented to indicate a number of discrete
    families of ritual were developed. In northern Britain, acute anxieties can be detected
    about the cultural and spiritual associations of open water, requiring missionary
    intervention to challenge pre-Christian narratives through biblical and liturgical
    resources, most notably baptism. Such a cosmological stretch appears to have
    informed a 'Celtic' deviation in baptismal practice that emphasised exorcism and
    bodily sacrifice.
    Nature rituals were a systematic response to the challenges of the British intellectual
    and physical landscapes, revealing the shape of an underlying missionary strategy
    based on mainstream patristic theology about the marred relationship between
    humans and the rest of creation. St Ambrose emerges as the most influential
    theologian at the time when the early church was shaping its British inculturation,
    most notably led by St Germanus' mission in 429.
    Date of Award25 Apr 2018
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Roehampton
    SponsorsAHRC through the TECHNE consortium
    SupervisorTina Beattie (Supervisor) & Charlotte Behr (Supervisor)


    • Christianity, Celtic, British, baptism, nature, landscape, environment, Bede, Germanus, Cuthbert,Columba, Guthlac, Felix, Iona, Ireland, ritual, liturgy, bathing, nakedness, penance, penitential,paganism, conversion, mission, missiology, cosmology, asceticism, birds, sacrament, exorcism,Ambrose, Pelagius, Augustine, Pacts, Pictland, patriotic, Sulpicius Severus, Evagrius,pedilavium, foot washing, monasticism, desert fathers

    Cite this