Thought for the Day - 25/03/2014 - Rev Dr Michael Banner
Thought for the Day
On Thursday the British Museum will reopen a gallery, the centre piece of which is to be the spectacular Sutton Hoo treasure. 75 years ago archaeologists dug up a 7th century burial mound covering a 27 metre-long ship loaded with the grave goods of an Anglo-Saxon noble or king. Perhaps the most famous and iconic object is a striking and forbidding helmet complete with face mask with moustache and eyebrows.
The revamped gallery is devoted to Europe from 300 to 1100 and the curator expresses the hope that the now beautifully displayed objects will finally put to bed that popular categorization of the time between the Romans and the Renaissance as the Dark Ages. Not only are many of the exhibits stunningly beautiful, but they are skillfully engineered and manufactured – nearly 1400 years after they were made, the hinges on a sword belt still move freely. ‘We refer to it as the early Middle Ages or the early medieval period’ says the curator - the notion of the Dark Ages should be consigned to history.
There is a certain melancholy incongruity, of course, in the fact that the Sutton Hoo treasure was dug up during the mythically glorious summer of 1939. As these fabulous and sophisticated objects from a supposedly barbaric age emerged into the light, 20th century Europe was about to descend into a period of moral darkness marked by crimes and horrors which almost defied belief. The very century which, from time to time, had been tempted to pride itself on being the high point of civilization and was accustomed to look back with some contempt towards its primitive forebears, was about to outdo any other age in the scale and inventiveness of its barbarisms.
When Christians talk about the Fall, the point is not to speculate about some event in the distant past, but to describe how things are in the present. The book of Genesis has God say to Cain, about to become the Bible’s first murderer, that sin is crouching at the door – its desire is for you, but you must master it. This is not however, some striking fact about the mythic or long dead Cain, but a description of the human heart. Evil, says Christ, proceeds from within – from out of the heart – and some project of moral self-mastery is – no exceptions – universally demanded.
So we can go to the British Museum, or go on line, and see these fabulous objects – and see for ourselves that it was wrong to write off 1000 years as artistically and technically unsophisticated. But if we are thinking of moral, not cultural history, I will still speak of the Dark Ages – just so long as we remember that rather than happening a long time ago, they may not have finished.