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


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Cohen's word picture (see Micro-Christendoms) sets the context for the phrase 'micro-Christendoms' where each diocese sustained, in various ways, local practices. Now what was going on the pre-diocese kingdoms before the conversion? Were there 'micro-pagandoms'? There are no written sources to tell us but it is not difficult to make some deductions.

While the sources for north European and south Scandinavian pre-Christian beliefs reveal a certain amount of consistency, they also reveal considerable local diversity. Some of that diversity is because what information we have straddles rather substantial periods of time. But modern scholarship assumes that everything varied not only over time but also over distance.

Exactly the same can be said for the local practices in the Indian subcontinent which Western scholars placed under the collective heading of 'Hinduism'. As already noted, only with the development of Indian nationalism in the nineteenth century did Indian people themselves adopt the word 'Hinduism'; indeed the idea of a 'national religion' was very much part of the independence movement's rhetoric (and this sectarianism was to lead to the disastrous partitioning of Pakistan right at the end of the colonial era). Sudha Chandola has provided a first-hand account of how modern day practices in remote parts of Uttar Pradesh reveal a shared belief in the 'Mata' or 'Devi' (the Mother Goddess) yet expressed through locally distinctive practices (Chandola 2007).

From the perspective of traditional Western theology, Hinduism is barely a religion. From this perspective only Judaism, Christianity and Islam are 'fully' religions. What this tells us is not that the non-Western world doesn't have 'proper religions' but, rather, what Western theologians traditionally regard as proper religion is modelled rather too narrowly on the Abrahamic faiths (that is Judaism, Christianity and Islam, who all regard the prophet Abraham as key to the founding of their faiths). In these 'big three' religions there is a hierarchical structure, a canonical text and a clearly-formulated 'creed'. But take away some or all of these key factors and religion starts to look a little more like it does in India and a lot more how it appears in, say, China.

Above all non-Western religions are not overly-fussed about exactly what followers believe. Specific sects and 'schools' may well have a more focussed set of beliefs, but they recognise that other people following broadly the same practices have other beliefs, or much more fluid beliefs. Without attempting to fully summarise how the current generation of academics studying comparative religion attempt to define 'religion', such things are 'creeds' are not that important.

A rather wonderful guide to how the current generation of academics studying comparative religion attempt to define 'religion' is Food, Sex and Strangers: Understanding religion as everyday life by Graham Harvey (Harvey 2013).

To borrow just one of his observations, different Jewish sects do not differ over beliefs, but over the correct performance or observation of major rites and festivals. We should think of this Jewish example as typical of religions, to which Christianity is one of the few exceptions – despite considerable ethnocentricity which holds otherwise (Harvey 2013: 53)

Most religions are best described as 'orthopraxy' rather than 'orthodoxy' – if you like, consistency of what is done is more important than what is 'said' or thought (Harvey 2013: 153). Put less pomposly, pre-Reformation Christianity and most non-Christian faiths have 'do-ers' rather than believers (Harvey 2013: 7)

Only since the Reformation has the Western notion of religion become focussed on what people believe more than what people do. Early bishops did not expect to be concerned with what the laity did. There were no 'rules books' and the correspondence from bishops sent on papal missions back to the Pope reveal long lists of questions about how the converts should be instructed to lead their lives. The implication is that the pagan precursors to the bishops provided plenty of such advice! The old cults may be deemed wrong but there was no one-to-one replacement. Not until the thirteenth century is there significant instruction for the laity, and that comes in behind the practice of private confession which originated in the twelfth century.

Little wonder then that in the near-absence of any alternative instructions, what Christians 'did' until well into the medieval period derived more from what 'they had always done' – even if the belief system within which they maintained those traditions had shifted. When we look at so-called 'folk customs' and 'old wives' charms' recorded in rural Britain during the nineteenth century we are looking at the distant successors to this tradition. The people are indisputably part of a Christian belief system but what they actually do does not come from biblical or even ecclesiastical precedents.

Doing and believing in modern paganism

Interestingly modern paganism – in all its 'denominations' from Wicca, through Druidry, Northern Traditions, hedge witches and much else – is an excellent example of a religion which has little in the way of canonical tests (except sometimes within specific groups) while bringing together people with a diverse range of specific beliefs. While different modern pagan groups do different things – that is inevitable – there are often broad similarities in when and how rituals and celebrations are performed. Indeed, above all else, modern paganism is about 'doing'. Apart from a small minority, 'being a pagan' is about going to as many as possible of the eight annual festivals, having some of the right sort of material culture (if only a distinctive pendant or tattoo) and wearing clothes that are different to usual (although some pagans 'dress differently' to social norms all the time).

The arrival of the Sun

The arrival of the Sun.
Part of a Summer Solstice ritual by the Charnwood Grove at Beacon Hill, Leicestershire, June 2006.

Wiccans and Druids all regard the solstices, equinoxes and 'quarter days' in between as the main times for rituals – although some may have 'extra' rites for the new and full moons when these do not fall close to the eight main festivals. In these rituals participants form a circle, join hands, call the quarters, bless and share bread and mead or wine, then close the quarters. Some of the words of 1950s and '60s Wiccan rites – 'Hail and welcome', 'So mote it be', 'Hail and farewell' – have also become part of Druidry (although sometimes changed to a different formula which still betrays its origins, such as 'Know you are welcome here' instead of 'Hail and welcome'. Chanting, drumming and other ways of 'raising energy' are typical, although the energy of the Druid's triple awen chants is raised for inspiration and creativity but not usually focussed in the way that Wiccans send a 'cone of power'.

For the purposes of this study I need to emphasise that while the overall 'structure' of the rituals is fairly consistent, each group develops its own versions of these rites, which continue to evolve year-on-year. Not only do each of the eight festivals have a somewhat different emphasis within the overall ritual, so too each year the rite will be somewhat different from its precursor twelve months previously. There is an interesting counterbalance between what is 'expected' and what makes each occasion distinctive for that group and for that particular year.

One major difference between different denominations of modern paganism is that groups with a Wiccan background usually venerate a goddess and maybe her consort. In contrast Druid rituals rarely honour a deity but instead honour nature (and, in the last decade or so, also the ancestors of place, of blood and of tribe). In my experience participants in Druid rituals embrace a wide variety of personal beliefs in deities – or lack of – but these rarely come to foreground.

Indeed looking back to the Druid orders of the mid-twentieth century, they were essentially a rather odd version of Christianity, and the more influential members of the groups were often from Anglican or Nonconformist backgrounds. However Christians – unless well and truly lapsed – are regarded with considerable disdain within Wiccan groups as part of the Wiccan 'mythos' is a deep polarisation between Christianity and a supposed pan-European medieval 'Old Religion'. The source of these ideas are two books by Margaret Murray published in 1921 and 1933 which, while offering an entirely imaginary account of medieval religion, influenced a large number of other writers – including D.H. Lawrence, Robert Graves, and T.S. Eliot – and have been widely read. I dwell on this point simply because what pagans – Druids, Wiccans and others – do is broadly consistent, whereas what members of such groups believe is, on the one hand, left open, and on the other is based on a specific myth with a clear canonical text (even if not necessarily seen that way from the inside!).


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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