If you thought you knew about early Christianity in the West Country, think again.
Terry Faull is a landscape historian who has researched and investigated the origins of the Christians, in what is now Devon and Cornwall, for many years. Although his main sources of information are the visual and the written
record, he has been a fellow traveller of the TDs for long enough to appreciate where the rod and the pendulum can augment traditional archaeology - and he certainly knows a good dowsing site when he sees one.
His first revelation is that our ancient ‘saints’ weren’t saints at all, in the modern sense of the word. Far from being the evangelistic preachers of the modern myth, they were more akin in outlook to reclusive hermits, or even Buddhist monks, seeking out the silence and the stillness of the wilderness. Compared to the bustle of Ireland, Wales and Brittany, Dumnonia (broadly modern day Cornwall and south Devon) was a relatively untamed and largely empty terrain in the fifth and sixth centuries - ideal for the would-be solitary soul searcher. But the enlightened and the charismatic tend to attract attention and an audience - and in due course the rude shelter gave way to the wayside chapel, and the rest, as they say, is history.
These early holy men (and women) were not the Romanised western Europeans who came to establish the church we have grown up with. They were acolytes or descendants of Middle Eastern émigrés, who had arrived via the trade routes in the Celtic regions, perhaps as early as the fourth century. They took their ‘primitive’ form of the new religion with them when they filtered into the south west peninsula.
This was not the formalised and hierarchical social religion of the last millennia, but a more spiritual and nature-based philosophy, with many elements that would have been readily recognisable to the indigenous pagans of the time, not to mention 21st century pilgrims with a passing interest in the outlook of the Far East - or for that matter, dowsers like ourselves.
Here was a way of living that saw women as having equal status with men, saw mankind as part of - rather than having dominance over - nature, shunned overt conversion and regarded the built form and a fixed social structure as largely irrelevant. However, as with all things, change was inevitable, even in this apparent spiritual Garden of Eden.
As early as 618, The Council of Whitby had decided that the Christian path for Britain should be that of the European model, rather than its middle-eastern rootstock. Yet, at a time when physical distance meant decades of delay, the spiritual way of life of the inhabitants of the south west lingered on. Only when the more organised and aggressive Saxons, who had received their version of Christianity through the institutions emanating from Rome, had defeated the ‘Cornish’ at Hingston Down in the ninth century, did the days of the church of St Petroc and St Piran come to a close.
However, as the perpetrators of the Inquisition, the Third Reich and Apartheid later discovered to their cost, you cant kill enlightenment by force. The Celtic church may have been abolished, but its influence and its ideas have echoed down the centuries. For over four hundred years it moulded the religious outlook of the south west of England, and a surprisingly large cache of its physical legacy can still be seen, felt and dowsed in the chapels and churches, monuments and menhirs of Devon and Cornwall.
Terry produced slides of a veritable cornucopia of buildings and standing stones, churchyards and inscriptions to show how the traditions and the concepts of the Celtic church were absorbed, or at least tolerated, by the new Organisation. Just as the early Christians had appropriated the sites, ‘saints’ and the speech of the local pagans, so the new church rebuilt the chapels and modified the menhirs to its own ends. It is not without irony that this incorporation has helped to preserve some of them, so that we can still visit them today.
Terry showed how the symbol of the earliest ‘saints’, the Chi-Rho (a stunningly modern logo derived from the Greek letters for X and R), developed through the stylised Celtic cross and into the cruciform representation we know today. This is a good dowsing aid, as it helps us to identify the earlier Celtic sites at a glance.
Similarly, the inscriptions used on standing and memorial stones show the development of the language in use - and this too helps to date the artefacts. Those menhirs with a mixture of Latin and Ogham script are of particular interest.
The earliest church locations can also be indicated by the shape of the churchyard. Religious buildings of a Saxon, or pre-Saxon, foundation tend to have a circular or oval Llan or Lann (churchyard), whereas later constructions have the more formal rectilinear layout.
The list of Celtic ‘saints’ reads like a gazetteer of south western place names. Terry’s pictures gave us such a range of potential dowsing sites, that we will be hard put to get to them all before the next wave of religious orthodoxy sweeps though!
It was wonderful to see another big attendance at a TDs event. This brought our total for the winter season to over 200.
Many thanks indeed to all those who helped put on the four winter presentations.
Terry Faull is currently writing a book on the Ancient Saints of Devon and Cornwall, details of which I will circulate when it is published.
In the meantime, for those of you who were not around for his talk in 2006, Terry has written a beautifully illustrated book on the Holy Wells of Devon Secrets of the Hidden Source Halsgrove isbn 1-84114-354-5, which can be obtained from the British Society of Dowsers or from all good bookshops. Enjoy.