Cumbrians and Northumbrians must have felt isolated and marginalised fourteen hundred years ago. Agriculture had collapsed around them, the population had plummeted, there had not been a new road or stone building constructed in two centuries. Education, industry, and trade had collapsed. We were one of the most underdeveloped places in Europe or Asia. But within just two generations our remote, sparsely-populated area was producing the greatest art, spirituality, and scholarship in Europe. Why? I wish I knew. But it was in part because our rural isolation was a strength not a weakness.
We were transformed, first, by a new faith. Christianity arrived in heathen Northumbria and Cumbria in two ways: with charismatic Irish ascetics, travelling on foot; and with horse-born Bishops sent by the papacy. We were ideally placed to combine these rival traditions because we were always a frontier zone. When Hadrian’s wall was manned, we were half part of Rome, half outside it. We were never part of Roman urban civilisation – our landscape and culture was more like ‘barbarian’ Ireland. But we were surrounded by the great walls and forts of Rome, and had touched a wider European civilisation.
We were transformed next by our curiosity. We sent scholars to Rome, and eagerly copied down all the knowledge with which they returned. When a Syrian arrived, scholars assailed him with so many eager questions, that a witness compared him to an old boar, fending off a pack of puppies. We learned from the best musicians, masons, glaziers, and scholars on the continent. We studied crisp carving, and orthodox images from foreign sculptors. Then we surpassed them. On the Bewcastle cross, for example, we worked a sun-dial across a petal, invented unprecedented flowers, and filled an entire frame with a mystical checker-board. But the dignity of the figures, and proportions of the composition, remained in the best classical tradition.
We were transformed ultimately by our capacity to use with confidence the energy of different traditions. We preserved some of the tone of our own pagan past. We emulated the purity and spirituality of Irish Christianity while abandoning its most outdated and discredited customs. We followed the latest models of Rome, but we lived ascetic lives, which world-weary Romans had thought no longer possible in the modern world. Within forty years, as the Mediterranean declined, Northumbria and Cumbria were producing the greatest artists, scholars, missionaries, and statesmen in Northern Europe. Bede, the greatest historian of his age, and one of the finest late writers of Latin prose, came from a culture which had been, not long before his birth, almost illiterate.
St.Cuthbert – an Anglo-Saxon monk, born in what we now call Scotland, dying in what we now call England – was the ultimate symbol of our Middleland civilisation. He retained an almost pagan delight in animals – he was fed by sea-eagles, and communed with ravens. According to an eye-witness, he stood all night up to his neck in the sea to pray, and at dawn, otters came to lick the frozen saint back to life. On that island he suffered alone as a Celtic ascetic. But he had a great reverence for scholarship, acknowledged he was part of a broader European civilisation, and died as an orthodox bishop, encouraging his disciples to follow the customs of Rome. It was because of men like this, that the pope, looking for a missionary, turned to Northern England. This was why Charlemagne’s chief of staff was a Northumbrian.
Our Golden Age has never been easy to admire, or even remember. It left no Ziggurat of Ur, no Machu Picchu, or pyramid. Many of its most distinctive contributions lay in advances in religion and theology, which we struggle to understand. Even its most famous treasure – the illuminated pages of the Lindisfarne gospel – is not a public monument; it is a hand-written book in an alien language: the turn, of each page, hides the last, as it reveals the next. All that remains of the seventh century Hexham Abbey – once the greatest building of its kind north of the Alps – is a narrow crypt, made of grey-stone lifted from Hadrian’s Wall. Of the major Anglian monastery at Dacre, fit to be visited by Kings, no trace remains beneath the stone beasts in the churchyard.
Yet, no other civilisation has come so quickly, from rural isolation, to dominate the imagination of a continent. None has made such unpromising conditions a more rapid catalyst for seriousness, and greatness. It was a golden age lived to its fullest in places, not just without cities, but without buildings: in the red sandstone cliff walls of the Eden, right down to Wetheral, or on the island in the lake at Derwentwater. At Lindisfarne it is easy to be transfixed by the ruined priory, with its purple columns, tapering, like sandstone pillars, scoured by desert winds. But that building was constructed centuries later. The real essence of the Northern renaissance lies further out to sea, in the faint shape of Inner Farne: a place defined by the iridescence of the water at first light, by seals, and by birds. St. Cuthbert’s final home.