© Tom Lethbridge 1967 
Now our step in the dark reminds me very much of something recorded by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History. This is often quoted and many people must know it. In AD 627, when Bishop Paulinus had brought the Christian princess, Ethelberga, from Kent to be married to the pagan king, Edwin of Northumbria, he reminded Edwin of a vow the king had made when an exile at the court of Redwald, King of East Anglia. In effect Edwin had promised to become a Christian when a certain sign was given to him. This was that a hand would be laid on his head.
Paulinus laid his hand on the king’s head and recalled the vow. Edwin recognized his obligation, but, before taking any irrevocable step, called his council together and discussed the matter. Was the court and country to become Christian or not?
During this debate, a speech was made by one of the council, which was so completely reasonable and so typical of the English way of thinking that the gist of it has survived in the writings of Bede to this day:
‘The present life of man, O King, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in the winter with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad. The sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but what went before, and what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.’
This was apparently the turning point of the discussion, especially since Coifi, the chief of Edwin’s own pagan priests, had already remarked: ‘I verily declare to you, that the religion which we have hitherto professed has, as far as I can learn, no virtue in it.’ The kingdom became Christian and Coifi himself was the first to defile the temple of the old gods.
The scholars of Victorian times foisted on us a completely erroneous picture of the Anglo-Saxons. They are looked upon as ferocious and completely bloodthirsty robbers. It is true that in the fourth century in the days of Ammianus Marcellinus there were robber bands living among the provincial Romans of Gaul, much like the bandits of China, who were known as Saxons.
But painstaking archaeological research has shown clearly that there were settlements of North Germans in Roman Britain long before the history book date of their first appearance. The people, who were known as Saxons in Britain, were largely Frisian in origin and the country when it crystallized out into the Seven Kingdoms of the Heptarchy contained a mongrel race, Romano-Briton, Frisian, North German and Dane, all of much the same original stock.
Their kings, sometimes with British wives, generally claimed a descent of great antiquity and they themselves, at least in the case of Edwin, attempted to carry on the tradition of the former Roman rulers. Edwin is said by Bede to have always had a Roman standard carried before him. They were pagan, but so were most of the Romans of Western Europe. And their paganism, as is shown by the remarks of Coifi, was only skin deep. Coifi himself can hardly have been any kind of teuton with a name like that.
Neither was England cut off from the Continent. Even in peasant graves there are masses of imported glass beads, purse-rings of elephant ivory and cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean; while the graves of the rulers contain metal objects from Egypt and Byzantium; glass vessels from the Rhineland; garnet, crystal and amethyst from abroad and much else besides.
The Saxons were not primitive savages, neither were they ignorant of the outside world; but they and it lived in the wreckage of a great civilization and in a state of frequent warfare. Comfort as it is known today did not exist and privacy, even in the king’s hall, was unknown. We can picture this hall, Edwin’s country house at Adgefrin, as perhaps a great wooden tithe-barn, with a log fire down its length. The bays between the posts which supported it could be divided off into rooms by hangings, as one can see illustrated in some of the nearly contemporary illuminated manuscripts. The king himself and his family sat, fed and slept on a raised dais at one end. Others of his court lived in the same way on broad benches against the walls down the sides and in each of the longer sides was a door through which the sparrow of the story flew.
We can reasonably infer that all available woodwork inside was elaborately carved. This can be judged from the great number of bronze brooches ornamented with chip-carved designs, which are recovered from the pagan graves; while in the earliest Christian graves ornament becomes more intricate, although still apparently derived from wood-carving. In still later centuries this carving was also transferred to the stone monuments, which are still relatively common and well known throughout the country.
It was a chance remark by Sir Cyril Fox to me years ago, which made me think of the meaning of Anglo-Saxon ornament. He suggested that much Celtic Iron Age pattern had once been found in the woodwork of chieftain’s houses.
I have given this brief sketch to show the kind of thing which Edwin’s councillor regarded as the height of luxury and comfort. Nothing more elaborate was known or thought of. There was absolutely no occupation after dark, but to eat, drink, play primitive games like draughts and listen to stories and songs.
Even love making was presumably confined to the summer hay field. Yet this was life as it was known and appreciated. As far as it went it was good and even the sparrow must have realized that it was to be preferred to the rain, snow and dark outside.
If Paulinus could give sure information that that darkness was not as it seemed to be, but that there was another and even better life beyond this one, of course this was great news indeed. But the imagination of the councillor would not run beyond a glorified version of the king’s hall.
Neither could that of the Apostles, for they were simply told to expect ‘many mansions’ in the world beyond, glorified versions perhaps of Herod’s palace or the Governor’s villa. So if we today are to imagine the appearance of a future existence, this imagination will be coloured by what we see and know around us. The boredom of the long winter evenings has gone and privacy is almost universal.
If the pendulum is telling the truth and our inferences from what it tells us are correct, then indeed the next world has all the properties of this, but we cannot see beyond the 40-inch rate for death because the two worlds have not the same register. There is this refracting layer, which appears to shift the centre of everything by 40 inches.
This is a fascinating speculation and there is no reason to suppose that I have argued correctly from the information available. But if it should chance that I have come to the correct conclusion, then the story that the pendulum is telling us is the same story which Paulinus told and which made so great an impression at Edwin’s court nearly thirteen hundred years ago.
There is an important clue, which seems to support this theory. Many reports have been recorded of persons, who when near to death have looked at their own bodies from outside and watched what was happening to those bodies with interest and complete absence of fear or feeling.
This has not happened to me and, although I seem to have once nearly died under an anaesthetic, nothing came to memory afterwards. But I have talked to apparently reliable people who have had this experience and I have had letters from others describing similar situations. I have no doubt that these things do occur. It they do, what has happened?
Several of the reports maintain that the observations of their nearly lifeless form were made from a distance of from three to four feet to one side and above the earthly body. Surely the answer is clear the centre of the field of the mind has moved beyond the 40-inch rate out on to the second whorl of our spiral. The observers were looking back at their body from the new position which their mind was taking up
I have a parson friend to whom this type of experience occurred while he was actually taking a burial service. He looked down to see himself conducting the obsequies. He was not ill, but he may have been tired and hungry. The pendulum appears to be giving us a perfectly reasonable explanation of a phenomenon which must take place to everyone at the time of death, assuming that there is another plane to which the mind must go.
I may be in error in speaking of this moving field as mind. Probably I ought to follow the Church’s example and call it soul. For some reason I do not like the word soul. It seems to have a lingering connection with playing harps on wet clouds. I prefer mind to soul, or ego, or any other term and hope that does not lead to confusion. After all nobody knows what the thing is anyway.
[i] Source: Chapter 10: A Step in the Dark; Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1967, ISBN 07100 1741 3.