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

Nature rituals of the early medieval church in Britain: Christian cosmology and the conversion of the British landscape from Germanus to Bede
Mayhew-Smith, N. (Author). 25 Apr 2018

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis