Wu Zetiam, the Printed Word
As Buddhism was revolutionising Chinese society, thanks to the power of faith in the word, a remote island in northern Europe was also on the brink
of seismic change.
Again, it would be a woman who'd play a critical role in this transformation. Her name was Hilda and she was the niece of an Anglo-Saxon king, Edwin
I've always been fascinated by this woman, who seems to have one foot in a kind of mythical past. There are stories that she turned snakes to stone
and was a pioneer who blazed the trail for women. Above all, she is revered as someone who championed learning for ordinary people.
As one monk poetically put it, "Her life was an example of the works of light". In 627, when Islam was evolving into a religious
superpower, Hilda would help set her country on a course to become one of the greatest nations in the world.
For the last 100 years of Roman rule, Britain was, nominally at least, Christian, but with the withdrawal of Roman troops from 410 A.D., the
Christian flame was all but extinguished. The next 200 years were a fractious, messy time. Germanic invaders brought back in pagan gods and took
away Roman benefits, like unity and literacy.
But in the seventh century, when Hilda was a child, there was a revolution. Monks from Christian, literate Ireland led a bold mission to help
re-establish their faith in Barbadian Britain. Two of Ireland's visionaries, Columbanus and Aidan, established major monasteries at Iona
These missionaries didn't just bring religion. The monasteries they came from were great bastions of knowledge and learning, so when these
monks came to convert, they brought books, reading and writing, helping to change the face of this country for ever.
Crucially, these Irish evangelists believe that knowledge should be for all, for men, women and children. I'm meeting Prof Sarah Foot
from Oxford University to find out what this meant for Hilda and her people.
Professor Foot "It's bringing a whole series of things that the Anglo-Saxons haven't experienced before and it's going to fundamentally change
the nature of their whole society and culture. It's going to bring this religion of the book and with it the technology of writing. It's going to
bring artistic and cultural materials and artefacts from the Roman and Mediterranean worlds. Its going to introduce new ways for kings to run
their realm using writing and literacy."
For Hilda, the Irish missionaries' passion for education proved inspirational and life-changing and, at the age of 33, she joined their
ranks. Under the tutelage of Irish bishop Aidan, Hilda devoted her life to education and study. She founded an abbey at Whitby in Yorkshire
and became its abbess, responsible for the welfare and education of the whole community.
This must be a great job for a woman, because this is quite a warrior culture at this age. You know, it's a lot about brawn and muscle. But
here she can use her brain.
Professor Foot "And the abbess had probably more power than any other woman in Anglo-Saxon England. Hild had enormous political, economic and
educational power. It's the best career opportunity for girls in seventh century England. We've got lots of evidence that she was directly in
teaching here. There are five men educated in this monastery who go on to become bishops. No other single monastery produced that many figures,
and all of them had been taught in this place by this woman."
In mediaeval England, religion provided women with not only a rich education but the ability to shape and influence future leaders of the
country. Hilda wasn't just a character in history. You could argue that she was instrumental in the foundation of English history itself,
thanks to her influence on a man called Bede.
The monk, Bede, was a brilliant scholar and intellectual. He wrote the very first history of England.
Peter Darby "Bede absolutely saw the value of what Hilda was doing at Whitby and presents her as an ideal type and something to be emulated.
And this shows as well that Bede really saw a role for women in the church going forwards. And so Hild, I suppose, blazed the trail for the
achievements of Bede and really showed that it was possible to establish a great centre of learning. There is a deed there to the actions of
Hild at Whitby and the programme of learning that she introduced there."
Bede's biography of Hilda records one of the most important events in history of England. This took place in 664 and it's called the Synod of
Whitby. Hilda's Abbey hosted a great debate between Irish monks and Rome about the right date of the key Christian festival, Easter. Hilda's role in
orchestrating this event was critical.
Professor Foot "This was something that mattered so much to these people, for whom Christianity was a new, exciting faith. Nobody wanted to think
that they were doing wrong. But it's a much bigger question than that, because deciding how to calculate the date of Easter meant deciding to align
themselves behind the power of Rome and so make themselves part of a Central Europe, but also the much wider, Church."
Because the choice is between this rather remote West and the East, which is the powerhouse of Christianity at this time.
Hilda embraced the majority decision. England's future lay with Europe. Incredible to think that this place that she ran, witnessed this
extraordinarily important decision.
Professor Foot "Yes, it is so extraordinary to think that this moment that that really put England on a Christian map, that one of the
key people who made that happen was a woman. You could say that the decision at 664 in Whitby is a decision that really changes the
future of English history."
This is an age when religion and new ideas gave women like Hilda the power to make history.
Professor Foot "The seventh and eighth centuries represent really a golden age for women in English Christianity. There is no other period
where women are able to exercise such genuine power and influence in the Christian culture and, indeed, the wider political sphere than they
are in this period. Hild is a major figure educationally but she's also a major figure in the political life of the nation. Kings and bishops
came to consult Hild about what they should be doing. Beyond the ninth century, the idea that women would hold such positions of authority
and influence is one that you just don't have any more. Women tended to be enclosed, cloistered, constrained, walled inside houses where
there aren't any men. "
Eventually, the great abbeys were downgraded. Now all that's left is a haunting reminder of their former glory.
With the establishment of universities in the 12th century, at a stroke, the role of nunneries and monasteries as educators of the world
was virtually eradicated. These places only admitted men. For the next 1300 years, all women were barred and it wasn't until 1920 that a
woman could be legally awarded a university degree. I'm sure Hilda would have been horrified.