theguardian: by Simon Jenkins —
A tale of 12th-century monks peddling sanctity for cash holds a lesson for today’s fearful Christians
The truth is out and in the headlines. Back in 1184 the monks of Glastonbury fabricated an edifice of myth about their monastery’s past for pecuniary gain. No, Christ did not come with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, to “walk on England’s green and pleasant land”. No, Joseph never brought the holy grail to the Somerset Levels. No, the churchyard thornbush was not his staff, let alone the crown of thorns. And no, the burial pit is not that of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. It was all made up by canny monks with a Disneyland fixation.
We might wonder how many academics does it take to disprove a load of cock-and-bull. The answer is 31, if they come from the Reading University archaeology department. And they probably got a grant for it. I am tempted to accuse them of cruelty to hippies and new age nutters. Everyone “knows” the holy grail was taken from Glastonbury to Strata Florida after the dissolution, and then hidden in Nanteos Mansion outside Aberystwyth. It was seen there by Wagner when composing Parsifal. It now resides in a Hereford bank vault. A facsimile of the chewed and broken cup sits on my desk. Very holy it is too. Any more nonsense from Reading and I shall sue.
The 1180s brought the establishment of Thomas Becket’s shrine after his murder at Canterbury, and an explosion of pilgrimage sites in abbeys and cathedrals across England. There was St Cuthbert at Durham, St Hugh at Lincoln, St Etheldreda at Ely, St Wulfstan at Worcester and St Swithun (he of the rain) at Winchester. Poor Wells tried to find a saint for decades, but used dud lobbyists in Rome for their various candidates.
Shrines were astonishingly lucrative. There was no nonsense about free entry, and pilgrims were milked at every altar. Rochester was so desperate for a new east end, it fixed a few miracles on a murdered pilgrim and had him canonised as St William. The cash rolled in. St Cantilupe of Hereford was drawing 9,000 visitors a year, and building a new transept. Salisbury cathedral was built on a shameless sale of indulgences “for the remission of sins”. The hypocrisy of the church was equalled only by the gullibility of the rich.
Dr Johnson asserted that no man is so innocently occupied as when engaged in making money. I am sure that applies to monks. But the result was not just a mass tourist migration on a par with today’s Glastonbury shrine to music. Millions trusted the church and believed these myths for centuries. They drove men beyond belief, to wars, feuds, misery and slaughter.
In Lincoln a medieval version of the Ku Klux Klan tried to canonise a child, “Little St Hugh”, as having been killed by local Jews, so as to secure their banishment. At the time of the Glastonbury fabrication, the Third Crusade was enticing men from their homes to kill Muslims for the “liberation” of Jerusalem. No one witnessing fanaticism today can dismiss the potency for evil of religious myth.
The evolution of Christianity into a more peaceable religion has always made Christmas a pleasing ritual. The image of a virgin birth and a babe in a crib sits happier on the Protestant mind than the floggings, crucifixions and sadism of Eastertide. Conventional wisdom holds that it is fine to indulge children with Christmas tales as “true”. We can leave them a certain deliberate fuzziness between history and myth. They can sort things out for themselves when they get older. It is all harmless. We can smile and relax.
Under the Prevent strategy, schools are now under orders “to take action against staff who demonstrate unacceptable views … and to target non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism”. Meanwhile, next door, little Christians are singing, “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war … like a mighty army … where the saints have trod”. This may now be more metaphorical than when composed, but in the face of behaviour allegedly motivated by Qur’anic myth, the temptation for fear-fuelled Christians is to slide in religious responses rather than socio-criminal ones.
This was most noticeable in the “crusader” talk bandied about by American and British leaders prior to the Iraq war. It is now being bandied about again. As in 2003, the response to the Paris killings is expressed as a battle for “western values and way of life” against an “existential threat” from religious extremism. That the vast majority of Muslims are as peaceable as the vast majority of Christians is of no matter. A bomb and a hail of bullets are hallowed with metaphysical content to validate a grotesquely violent response.
Paris has unleashed a rhetoric in western capitals evoking holy war, retribution and revenge. Britain is arming itself to drop bombs on the wretched people of Syria and Iraq, who have not attacked Britain, merely because they “harbour” religious fanatics.
Through this intellectual morass there is only one sensible path. It is clearly to puncture myth, to distinguish truth from falsity, or at least probable truth from palpable falsity. Christmas, Easter, Glastonbury, saints and legends galore may be fantastical, uplifting or even just fun. They should be related as fiction, and the good archaeologists of Reading should be thanked for labelling them as such. We can then handle all religions on an equal footing, and not lurch into answering fanaticism with fanaticism and turning crimes into wars.