Introducing Conor O’Brien

Dr Conor O’Brien is Solway Fellow in the History of Christianity at the University of Durham and Associate Professor (Research) at the Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies there

The very first lecture I attended at university was on the conversion of Constantine. It was given by the late Jennifer O’Reilly at University College Cork, and it was in no small part due to Jennifer’s inspirational teaching that I fell in love with the history of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages during my undergraduate degree. I was very lucky also, at that time, to be exposed to a very unusual body of source material: the scriptural interpretation (exegesis) of the Anglo-Saxon monk, Bede (d. 735). I subsequently studied Bede’s exegesis as a graduate at Oxford, working under Sarah Foot (EHS President 2011/12) – publishing the results as my book Bede’s Temple: An Image and its Interpretation (OUP, 2015).

Exegesis seems like a very abstruse and minor historical source, especially early medieval exegesis which is frequently highly derivative of earlier, patristic writings. What can second-hand theology teach us as historians interested in the realities of early medieval lives? Quite a lot, I think. In the early Middle Ages, scriptural commentary was a kind of catch all intellectual genre. Augustine, after all, had asserted that the exegete needed a broad education to be able to effectively make sense of the Bible; consequently, works of biblical interpretation often contained medical, historical, linguistic and scientific knowledge, in addition to what we would now understand as theology. Exegesis gave thinkers an opportunity to write about their ideas of politics, gender, society and justice, as well as about the Church, Christ, heresy and orthodoxy. Early medieval exegesis is consequently a treasure trove of material and in Bede’s Temple I essentially reconstructed the intellectual worldview of one major thinker from his scriptural commentaries.

This use of exegesis is so exciting because it is quite a recent development in early medieval scholarship – only really taking off in the past twenty years. For a long time, historians simply ignored the work of exegetes from the early Middle Ages, despite having access to an awful lot of it in the volumes of the Patrologia Latina. Looking at exegesis has the potential, therefore, to overturn our traditional understanding of many important questions. For instance, historians have traditionally assumed that Bede promoted an ideology of Christian kingship, that he thought the greatness of a king should be measured by the extent to which he embraced and then helped to spread Christianity as the one true religion. Some scholars have suggested that Bede saw kings as being a bit like priests and bishops, in that their duty was primarily a religious one. This argument, however, is based only on reading Bede’s historical writings. If we look at his exegesis we find that Bede was blasé about whether kings were moral Christians, stating that it should make no difference to their subjects if they were or not. Kingship was a purely worldly, secular institution for Bede, who did not think that kings had any special duties to God.

The way that exegesis has upended traditional expectations of what Bede believed regarding kingship has inspired me to begin a major project studying early medieval views of kingship and asking to what extent people at the time thought of it as something secular, that is religiously neutral. In some sense this is ecclesiastical history (bishops, theology and canon law all play an important role in the story) – but it is also much more than that, in that it tells us things about the early Middle Ages which should be of interest to every historian of the period. This touches, I think, on one of the great strengths of the Ecclesiastical History Society: the fact it is so open and welcoming, despite being devoted to a subject which has traditionally lent itself to division and specialism. It can be a great champion for the relevance of religious history to the wider discipline.

Like many members over the years, I gave my first paper as a doctoral student at the EHS and had my first publication accepted by Studies in Church History. Back then in 2011 I met many other graduate students at the Summer Meeting from a variety of different backgrounds and specialisms – many of whom would not have thought of themselves as traditional Church historians. That ability to attract members from a quite a wide pool (clerical and lay, historian, classicist and theologian, ancient, medieval and modern) is one of the society’s greatest strengths. It is something I am keen to further strengthen over the next three years.

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