Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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Rethinking conversion

Most of what we know about Anglo-Saxon England comes, predictably enough, from archaeologists and historians. Historians can tell us in reasonable detail how literate people thought. But the only people who were literate at the time were – with only a few exceptions – ordained clergy. While historians attempt to make some inferences about what people thought who were 'less Christian' – the laity and the unconverted – clearly such inferences are open to debate. One of the most productive sources for making such inferences turns out to be the survival of descriptive place-names.

When, Penda, king of the Mercians had died in 655 he was the last of the regional kings to be pagan. By the time the Vikings started settling in the late ninth century English people had been thinking of themselves as Christian for well over a hundred years. Quite what 'thinking of themselves as Christian' means is explored elsewhere but, for the moment, note that these Viking settlers quickly lost their pagan ways and assimilated into Christian society. If we presume that there was a big shift in outlook between being pagan and being Christian then such a swift and 'effortless' conversion seems rather curious. But if, as will show, there was no such big shift in outlook then this assimilation is far less problematical.

Before the English were Christian they were of course 'pagan'. Clearly they did not call themselves 'pagans'. The world 'pagan' enters the language as a derogatory term used by Christians to refer to other peoples' beliefs (and is still often used that way) – see 'Paganism', 'paganisms' or 'pre-conversion'?. At the very least we should not think of a homogenous 'paganism' but, rather, of a local diversity of 'paganisms' with some common aspects of practice and belief (see Micro-pagandoms).

Pioneering historians failed to recognise that pre-Christian religions were not 'top down' so never could be as homogenous as Christianity (which, in practice is not, and never has been, very homogenous despite a hierarchical system of authority). More crucially, British paganism was not merely 'imported'. Home-grown Romano-British practices had blended with the various north German traditions brought across the North Sea by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians and what have you. Yes there were broad similarities. But there were also significant differences. And it is these north European origins which we must seek out – even if most of the historical sources are Scandinavian!

Back in 1994 the historian James Russell published a book (Russell 1994) carefully arguing that local traditions – pre-Christian practices – had deeply influenced how the Christian missionaries adapted their faith to the north European converts. Christianity adapted to – rather than merely 'absorbed' – existing local practices. Because these were local then historical sources are rare and difficult to pin down. And such local practices contrast with what might be expected from a more hierarchical 'top down' Christianity.

In total these influences and adaptations were so extensive and profound that they amounted to a significantly different form of north European Christianity compared to its origins in Rome. Furthermore there was a lengthy 'transitional period'. Indeed, not until parish churches began to be commonplace in the eleventh century, did the new religion begin to modify the minds and emotions of most people.

An African analogy

We can get some idea of how complex the process of conversion was – as opposed to the greatly simplified accounts offered by historical sources – from missionary activities in Africa in recent centuries. Stephen Tomkins' own summary of the lives of David Livingstone and Sechele seems especially relevant.

See The African chief converted to Christianity by Dr Livingstone

screen grab

Apart from all the details specific to Africa, the fact that one local can convert far more people than concerted efforts of colonial missionaries is perhaps most pertinent. Change the name from Sechele to, say, Patrick or Cuthbert, and the analogy perhaps becomes more of a parallel. Nevertheless, analogies are always dangerous and there is no reliable reason to suppose that early missionary activity in England, Ireland or Wales was based around the activities of a Dark Age counterpart to Sechele.

However, Russell's description of how Christianity adapted to existing north European worldviews broadly fits this analogy. It certainly fits the evidence much better than the simplistic near-contemporary account – that of Bede, who merely offers a somewhat one-dimensional 'instant conversion'. His account, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ('Ecclesiastical History of the English people'), is far closer to modern ideas of propaganda than to contemporary expectations of historians – but that is only to be expected.

A Latin American analogy

If we look at missionary activity in Latin America, there too a complex process of conversion – with plenty of regional and national variations – provides plenty of evidence for the syncretic influences of indigenous beliefs and customs on Catholicism. The details of Latin American Christianity are complex and well outside the scope of Twilight; however John Lynch has written an accessible overview (Lynch 2012), while Eleanor Wake wrote a detailed study of the 'Mexicanisation' of Christianity, looking at Aztec cultural influences on Mexican churches (Wake 2010).

Furthermore, the various Latin American religions which have African roots (such as Santería, Candomblé, Umbanda and Macumba) all 'borrow' saints and practices from Christianity. Interestingly, at the time of slavery one of the major sects within Candomblé was influenced more by Islam, although Christian-influenced sects now predominate.

Wikipedia offers some excellent introductions to these Afro-Latin religions:

Santería    Candomblé    Umbanda    Macumba

Rethinking conversion from the viewpoint of the unconverted

Such syncretism of Christian and Islamic ideas and practices on the religion of slaves whose traditional practices were suppressed by slave masters might be considered as a parallel for the evolution of the religions of the walsh – the enslaved British-speaking peoples – in the early centuries of the Anglo-Saxon era (although Germanic pre-conversion practices, rather than Christianity, would have been the dominant influence on indigenous activities). Sadly there is no evidence to prove that such an analogy is valid (with the corresponding retort that, equally, there is no evidence to disprove it… ).

My own thoughts are along the lines that – as Russell more cautiously suggested back in 1994 – when Christianity first arrived in northern Europe from the eastern Mediterranean it underwent something of the same 'amalgamation' with local practices which we can see in, say, the evolution of Latin American Christianity. Another parallel would be the way Indian Buddhism 'interwove' with traditional Tibetan religion to create the Bön version of Buddhism.

Furthermore, and while this suggestion is outside the scope of Russell's research – and indeed historical sources are just too poor to offer any proof – the only reasonable expectation is that the local practices which predated the missionary activity ('paganism' as it is glibly labelled) were also profoundly influenced in both practices and underlying worldviews by increasing contact with the more flamboyant and hierarchically-organised missionaries. The parallel with Santería and such like is less accurate for most of northern Europe but may be closer to what happened among British-speaking communities once their Anglo-Saxon overlords increasingly converted.

Conversion versus Christianisation

David Petts has usefully drawn attention to the difference between 'conversion' and 'Christianisation' (Petts 2011: 13). The accounts of conversion of, say, Anglo-Saxon nobility, focus on the rite of baptism. They make little or no reference to any changes in the beliefs of the person who has been converted. Modern minds simple assume that such changes would have been a 'given' so there is no reason why they would have been mentioned. A more accurate response is that personal 'beliefs' were of little importance to the clergy at the time – although they would have been concerned with what the person did (e.g. going to church rather than worshipping idols).

In practice, while most people in England were converted to Christianity by the late seventh century, the process of Christianisation – changing what people believed – had barely started and would not be fully underway until the tenth to twelfth centuries.

As Twilight is mostly concerned with England before the ninth century there will be little discussion of Christianisation, although fairly frequent mentions of conversion. Just bear in mind that there is a big gulf between the two terms.

So, in a nutshell, 'rethinking conversion' is not simply about rethinking the process by which Christianity became dominant, but also rethinking how pre-conversion religion also evolved in response to the 'exotic' new faith.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013–14


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