Monks, Druids, and
The Dark Ages
By Sharon Bradshaw
Durstan came to mind when I attended Swanwick, the UK writers’ summer school, in 2009. He was waiting for the arrival of the Vikings who raided Iona during 794AD. It was my debut novel, and I wanted to write a love story about a Monk who broke his vow of chastity at Beltane. When I began to research the Early Medieval period (500-1000AD), I discovered that I had chosen a strangely complex time in history. The more books and archaeology papers I read, the more fascinated I became. I followed the threads back from the 8th century to the late Iron Age, Celts, and Druids. To find out more about the world in which Durstan lived. ...The research I did inspired me to write, The Monk Who Cast A Spell, and the other books in the series.
The British Isles in Durstan’s lifetime were split into tracts of land ruled by Warlords, Kings, and Abbots. Wild animals, the lawless, and those who had been outcast lived in the forest between their enclosures. It must have been a terrifying experience to see a Viking longship on the horizon as the Monks did, but I can’t help wondering whether the Norsemen’s actions were any worse than those of the indigenous Warlords. Many of whom also raided their neighbours’ enclosures, enslaved them, and committed murder. The importance of believing in the most powerful God or Gods soon became apparent. It provided hope of survival in a violent society which in many ways resembled J.R.R.Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. The Ancestors knew that a strong deity could protect them, if honoured properly.
The early Christian Church had arrived in the British Isles several centuries before Durstan’s story begins, but some had still not converted to Christianity or chosen to abandon the Old Gods. People continued to believe in the existence of Elves and Faeries, giant Worms, Dragons and Dwarves. Charms and amulets were prevalent. Superstition was rife, and magic, an everyday occurrence. Monks were initially thought to cast spells, by writing on a piece of parchment. Two altars could exist side by side in a Church, to ensure that both Christian and the Ancestors’ Gods were honoured. Warlords swapped and changed their faith at will, since there was much to fear.
Many still believe that all of the Druids were massacred by the Romans in 61AD, during the Boudican revolt. Historians promoted this view, relying on the sparse accounts which mention them. Both Romans and Church regarded the Druids as their enemy. Tacitus didn’t write about that day on Anglesey from personal experience. Caesar similarly speculates in his books, and the Druids didn't leave behind their own version of events for us to learn the truth. It does however seem likely from the research I did that not all of their order was killed by Gaius Paulinus’ soldiers. Those who were left would undoubtedly have been fewer in number, and had to adapt quickly to survive. As the years passed they might not have had the same extensive knowledge or skills as their predecessors, especially once their schools and temples were destroyed. A Druidic presence in Celtic Ireland did continue, possibly too in other places where the Romans didn’t reach, on the edges of the British Isles. Some joined the Church whilst others may have been absorbed into the Roman temples. Druid Bards told their stories on feast days. Beowulf, and the other fragments we have in the 10th century Exeter Book, are examples of this. A Warlord who had yet to convert to Christianity in 794AD would surely have welcomed into his hall, the man or woman who could read the stars better than himself and converse with the Gods. Even more so, if there was a tale or two to be told!
The Church allowed this worship of the traditional Gods, and other pagan practises, to continue until it had a stronger foothold in the British Isles and could oust them. Adomnan Abbot of Iona (628 -724AD) and biographer of St. Columba (521 -597AD) attributes him with many of the qualities of a Druid. Weather magic, miracles, second sight and angelic apparitions which wasn’t unusual. Other saints were also given these “magical” skills. The Benedictine Rule wasn’t strictly followed in monasteries across the British Isles until many years after Durstan’s story takes place. Some of the Monks married initially, even had children. ...All of which enabled Durstan to celebrate Beltane with Ailan, as a fertility ritual.
The Druids today continue to celebrate the ancient solstices at our sacred sites. Stonehenge, Callenish, and Glastonbury. We don’t know if they follow any of the other teachings of their predecessors who lived in the 1st century. Nevertheless storytelling, tradition, and folklore ensure that our earlier beliefs are not completely lost. Even though they may change with the passage of time. Just as we still have our legends of Arthur, the ancient Tuatha De Danann are thought to be the Old Gods and Goddesses, living now in the Hollow Hills of Ireland. They journeyed to Tir Na Nog or the Celtic Otherworld, the land of the forever young where all is abundant and beautiful, when it became no longer possible to worship them openly because of the rise of the early Church.
The research I did into the background to Durstan’s story placed the Dark Ages in a new light, while the earlier history into which I delved shaped the 8th century where he lived. Folk memory of the distant past may well have been as important then as it is now to us. I continue to be fascinated by those who lived in that time... our Ancestors. These are a few of the books which enabled me to write, The Monk Who Cast A Spell:
The Monk Who Cast A Spell
By Sharon Bradshaw
Durstan, a young Monk, falls in love with Ailan in 794AD. She disappears after their sexual awakening at Beltane. He is shocked and confused when he meets her again, several months later. Beth believes that she can obtain the protection of the Christian Church by manipulating Durstan’s emotions, and he is drawn to her.
Their love story unfolds against the beautiful scenery of Scotland’s Hebridean islands. People cross the sea in coracles from Iona to Mull. They walk through ancient forest to Lord Duncan’s Hall inside its timber enclosure. The seasons change from Spring to mid-Winter when the Old Gods are in the magic of the firelight, and the shadows at Yule.
The early Christian Church continues to be challenged by tradition, and the Druids. Charms, amulets, and spells are prevalent. Life at the monastery is harsh, and Durstan is involved in the Viking raids. He doubts his religious beliefs in a society which is dominated by fear of violence, being outcast, or enslaved. Men and women in the 8th century are seeking protection from the most powerful God; Lord, or Abbot.
And Durstan’s quest… to regain Ailan’s love.
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The Monk Who Cast A Spell
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The Monk Who Cast A Spell
Sharon Bradshaw is a Historical Fiction Author, Storyteller, and Poet. She loves reading archaeology books, and delving into the 8th century to write the Durstan series. The Monk Who Cast a Spell, available now on Amazon is set in the real Middle Earth we called the Dark Ages. Subscribers to The Storyteller’s Newsletter receive a free short story from her every month.
Sharon also enjoys speaking about her novels, and how all this came about. She lives with her family and a large collection of books, near Warwick Castle, in the UK.