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


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There is no paganism. There is only what we do here.

Frankly, if there is a degree of difficulty in trying to find coherence among the various forms of modern paganisms (see Micro-pagandoms) then there is much greater difficulty trying to lump together the whole diversity of pre-Christian practices across wide geographical areas. Even if we restrict our interest to those practices which immediately precede contact with Christian missionaries and make a broad distinction between Mediterranean paganisms and north European paganisms there is still a lot of 'it was mostly like this but sometimes like that' qualifications. And that's merely about what we think we know about these paganisms, which is only an infinitesimally trivial amount of what must actually have been happening.

Back to ancient pagans

If we think of pre-Christian religions as essential local practices with some shared worldviews then we risk gross distortions by using catch-all terms like 'paganism' to describe them all. The words 'pagan' and 'paganism' used in this catch-all way effectively go back no further than eighteenth century Neoclassicism. Yes there was a Latin word, pagus, 'the dwellers in the countryside' who did not follow predominately urban-based mystery cults such as Christianity and its more thriving competitors, such as Mythraism. But whether those rural dwellers thought of themselves as pagan is a more moot point (see Pagans, paganism, paganisms or pre-conversion?).

Despite much muddled thinking to the contrary, traditional beliefs cannot be deemed merely as 'witchcraft' – although it would be na´ve to think that 'spells' – for good or for ill – were not part of such traditional worldviews. I am inclined to agree with Stuart Clark's suggestion that Christianity 'invented' witchcraft – on the basis that originally it was heresy to believe in witchcraft and then, with the Inquisition, it became heresy not to! Carlo Ginzburg has succinctly argued that the Inquisition changed popular practice, at least in Italy. However, while all such research helps explain modern worldviews about witchcraft, all such developments are a long time after the Anglo-Saxons. (Clark 1997; Ginzburg 1991)

In Anglo-Saxon England social identity was expressed as –ingas, the 'people of' as in various place-names. I am writing this in the centre of a territory associated with the Cannings – the people of Cana – revealed by the modern village names Bishops Cannings and All Cannings. Cana was the founder of the lineage, the original tribal leader acting as a minor king. To the south are several villages named after Manningford – the ford of the people of Mana (the similarity of Cana and Mana suggests they were related). Nearly every English county provides examples of –ingas in settlement names. Almost every one refers to a 'founder', a tribal leader.

And, just as the head of household in Scandinavia or among Jewish communities is responsible for leading religious rituals – although can hire in specialist help for the bigger events – so too Cana and Mana and their great many contemporaries would have been leading or facilitating the relevant rites. A close examination of the Old English literature reveals that such leaders – whether referred to as a hlaford, ■eoden or cyning – were the ones who most often sought intercession with the deities. Whether the indigenous British still maintained their own rites, and the extent to which there was any influence between them are wide-open questions for which there seems to be no way of answering.

However there is little, if any, reason to doubt that what we lump together as Anglo-Saxon 'paganism' was just as diverse as the various local practices we lump together as, say, Hinduism. Each tribal leader would no doubt have 'ritual specialists' who had something of the status of the later bishops. We even know the name of one of them – Coifi, who served Edwin in Northumbria. But most probably those 'pagan priests' followed quite closely what the king wanted them to do. While we cannot be so confident that all early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were the size of Rutland this does seem to be about the minimum size to support any sort of effective group of fighting men. So one possibility is that pre-conversion England – and, to perhaps a lesser extent, other parts of Britain – was a patchwork of 'micro-pagandoms'.

Such early Anglo-Saxon local 'pagandoms' are almost certainly the successors to much older local 'pagandoms' of a similar size. Although whether they have more-or-less the same boundaries as their older precursors is a much more open question. The evidence for Rutland is exceptional and it may indeed be the exception. Here in central Wiltshire there is evidence that the Canningas tribe occupied a region which went from centre to centre of former Roman regios – and I return to this in Places of Anglo-Saxon worship .

The underlying reasons for the variations between 'pagandoms' is wide open to speculation. It may simply be a natural process of maintaining local or family/clan traditions. However, possibly – although not inevitably – the differences might reflect deeper ethnic identities, whether a contrast between indigenous continuations of Romano-British traditions or variations between Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians and so forth. No matter what the origins of the differences might have been, presumably 'borrowings' – perhaps as a result of inter-marriage between such groups – just made everything more varied. Yet despite steady change there would be an underlying conviction that 'We've always done it like that here.'

For present purposes I do not want to even attempt to resolve all the issues associated with the notion of 'micro-pagandoms', or even propose that the neologism is helpful. What I have hopefully achieved is to dispel any prior beliefs of an organised religion which we could refer to simply as 'the paganism of the Anglo-Saxons' and instead sow the seeds of the notion that modern use of the plural word 'paganisms' is a handy – and necessary – abbreviation for a great diversity of local practices. My evidence is both from Hinduism – another 'catch all' term for what are, before the independence movement, in essence local practices – and from the later medieval period in England where each diocese maintained its own traditions for the liturgical year.

However, just as the local practices of Hindus and medieval Christians are influenced by an underlying worldview, so too there is an identifiable north European worldview. But to simply refer to this as 'pagan' is to grossly oversimplify the situation.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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