Christianity and ‘Paganism’

The conversion of the ‘pagan’ countries to Christianity is an interesting question in the context of the current conflicts with regard to religion and religious conversions and their political dimensions. Despite the way it is often portrayed by Christian apologetics, there was nothing inevitable about the conversion process, nor was it necessarily a popular one. Much has been said about the conversion of ancient Rome to Christianity as a state religion, from Gibbon onward often seen as a contributor to its decline. Although this is said with dubious justification, yet the conversions of the early Middle Ages are somewhat under-considered. It is these to which we now turn.

Indeed even the conversion to Christianity of the Romans began at the top, with the fable of Constantine’s conversion after his victory over his opponent on the Pons Milvius, and this pattern is seen everywhere in the early Middle Ages. Missionaries sent by the Church would convert some King of a ‘barbarian’ people, and from that point on they are counted in the ranks of the Christians. However, this is clearly a tale all too simple, and it does not explain the motives involved. From a political point of view, the main questions are:
– Why was the focus of conversion at the top, not at the bottom, as seems to be the norm today in terms of missionary activity?
– What could have been the motives of the rulers to adopt Christianity rather than the extant religions?
– What might the response of the subjects of these rulers have been?
We will try to answer all of these questions.

First it is necessary to get an idea of what ‘the Church’ as such was and how it developed by means of some examples and chronology. Christianity had been a state religion, and the only permitted religion, in the Roman Empire from the time of Theodosius on, and in its proto-orthodox form (which refers to the variety of Christianity that later developed into Roman Catholicism as well as its offshoots in Protestantism and the Eastern Orthodox church). When the Roman Empire collapsed, the Byzantine successor empire in the east maintained Christianity, but in their own form, which over time increasingly diverged from that which was dominant in Western Europe. It must be noted, as an aside, that for most of the early Middle Ages Western Europe must be seen as, globally speaking, a fairly backward and provincial area, and certainly compared to the Byzantines despite their setbacks.

The most powerful church that developed under the first converted peoples was that of the Merovingian and Carolingian Franks, whose King Clovis I (466-511) converted to ‘Catholic’ Christianity around 500. (Some peoples, such as the Vandals, had been Christian already, but in the form of Arianism, which the church that operated in Rome and which carried the authority of the Roman ideology in the West did not accept.) The Frankish Kings from then on made a purposeful policy to ‘inherit’ the prestige as well as the administration, mutatis mutandis, of the Roman Empire, and since their realm was very large and relatively organized in the early Middle Ages, their political influence was great. It is through this that the ‘orthodox’, non-Arian form of Christianity came to dominate the continent, especially as it seems to have been more popular among the non-elites than the Arian form, even though it is now suspected Clovis had considered the merits of Arianism also.1 Through the power of the Frankish realm, Christianity spread to Kent, to Ireland, to parts of Germany, Scandinavia, and Spain, all of whom had fairly regular trade relations with the Franks.

‘Paganism’ as such was not of course one religion, nor did it clearly have any identifiable center. It is more a name given by the later Christian writers of the early Middle Ages, who are often unfortunately our only source, to the many different forms of religion that they contrasted to Christianity itself and which they associated with backwardness and superstition.2 In fact, what the scant evidence can tell us about the different beliefs of the different regions, it seems to have been a popular animism related to the magical and holy powers of certain natural sites as well as spirits and the like, supplemented with a pantheon of deities representing, as with the Hellenic religion, certain realms of human life as well as certain natural phenomena. Many of the popular practices of religion in fact continued after supposed conversion, not just because Christianity once officially the religion of the people was often not more than skin-deep, but also because spiritual practices unrelated to any specific organized religion as such could well be continued or reinvented within Christianity. That it was necessary for the Christian church in its different forms and locales to cater to this may be attested by the many saints, relics, votives, amulets and whatnot of this period, as well as by the practice of building Christian temples on sites already considered holy.3 The pantheons of the ‘pagan’ religions in the North and East of Europe are unclear, and we often lack accurate information on the details, but generally they seem to have had the same structure as the Greco-Roman ones: a theogony, a polytheistic structure with an all-powerful leading God at the head, and chiefs and kings having powers to lead in the form of their worship and in the sacrificial (and other) rituals, often deriving their authority in this from a family connection to the Gods.4

Why then the conversion of these same ‘pagan’ Kings? Several reasons may be proposed that seem credible. The first is the already mentioned authority of the church, whether Roman-Frankish or Byzantine, and its prestige derived from the Roman Empire, either by inheritance (as in the West) or by descent (as in the East). Especially those kings whose realms were close to the major Christian powers must have felt strong pressure to adopt their religion. This would remove a cause for war against them, which they will have feared, as well as making trade and diplomacy easier and promoting integration into their political structures and alliances, desirable for kings who wished to ensure their own power at the expense of their relative independence. Yet of itself this cannot have been sufficient, since there are too many counter-examples that could be given, in particular since Christian powers have not waged war on each other less than realms with any other religion.

A stronger explanation can be sought in the class relations between the monarch and his subjects. One of the explanations for the seemingly superior powers of conversion on the part of monotheisms generally over polytheist and animist systems of religion can be sought in the fact that rulers wish to integrate the ideology of their realm with their own position in a top-down hierarchy, and if possible wish to reinforce this hierarchy. Even Christian kings in the early Middle Ages had a far from absolute power and were very reliant on their nobility,5 but Christianity’s monotheistic system with one supreme God ruling all subject to him equally, as well as the church’s interpretation of the same as legitimizing the king as steward of people on behalf of God, can easily be seen to reinforce the central power of the early monarch. In fact, there is some evidence that the ‘pagan’ religions themselves underwent a development from animism toward an increasingly strong structure of divine superiority, which we may surmise is a sign of the same process taking place before Christianity presented an ideal opportunity.6 In the case of the latest conversions, we can add to this a development in the theory of the Christian church in which the explicit division of medieval society into the classes of laborers, warriors (rulers) and clergy was defended, this being a product of the process from early feudalism to high feudalism. Such a viewpoint would have been even more convenient to monarchs for their conversion in terms of its explicit endorsement of the hierarchy.7

Then there is what one might call the political problem of the ‘pagan’ theology: namely, their acceptance of the multiplicity of religious forms, precisely because of its own decentralized and particular nature. Monotheist religions necessarily are universalizing and aggressive, because their God ‘is a jealous God’. Polytheist-animist religions however recognize in the world many different loci of holiness and divine or magical powers and many possible Gods, and as such it poses no problem to the belief of the polytheist that some groups worship Jesus when they worship, among others, Perun or Odin. Local Gods would have been difficult to control and the religion relatively hard to centrally dictate and shape by any king, making him prefer a more top-down monotheist approach where the religious rules and forms would be organized and taught by the church system of centrally regulated monasteries and churches. Indeed in practice this centralization had to be enforced by successive series of enforcements of uniformity by Rome (even onto the Counter-Reformation), and often this later also led to fights between the monarchs and the church authority over the right to rule local churches and their doctrine, but for a king seeking to centralize power and establish a regulated administration, polytheistic animism must have been a headache compared to Christianity. As mentioned, ‘pagan’ kings and nobility often supported their claims to power by reference to descent from Gods or giants (as the Ynglinga saga tells us), but the also referred to development of proto-monotheist forms in even these religions before Christianity shows that this must not have been a sufficient guard against the decentralizing egalitarianism of ‘pagan’ animism. This egalitarian animism itself was clearly difficult to wipe out, as shown by the persistence of countless forms of magic, of local saints, of old rites and habits re-interpreted in Christian forms, even to the extent of old imagery and sacrifices, at least among the masses of the people; but the tolerance of polytheism became its undoing, as those proposing a single jealous God would not allow any other, whereas the polytheists were often willing to admit theirs, which alone would ensure the eventual defeat by attrition of the polytheists.

As a final point the influence must be mentioned of the difference between revealed religion and natural religion. Christianity, as a religion ‘of the Book’, relied on writing for its spread, whereas in those days only the elite was capable of reading and writing at all. This control over the rites and the access to the religion on the part of the elite must have been highly tempting to kings even when they could not read and write either (such as Charlemagne), as they could entrust their bureaucracy with it in the form of the literate clergy. Moreover, it is a well-known phenomenon that oral traditions, once in competition with writing, do not survive well, even when it comes to religion. After all, the written form means an orthodoxy is established, there is a single Truth which can be appealed to and which can potentially govern all occasions, whereas the natural religions in their oral traditions rely on the integration of local customs with local circumstances, and are constantly subject to alteration as the circumstances change. It is in a sense too flexible for its own good when faced with written competition; lack of uniformity and localism allows a bureaucracy relying on uniform orthodoxy to impose its will against relatively weak resistance each time, simply by converting each place in turn or stamping out any resistance locally where it would not survive a challenge at hegemonic level. That the clergy involved were often the only form of ‘education’ available, not least in reading and writing, would have been just an added incentive.8 The resistance of people against the new religion of monotheism would have been mostly passive therefore, by maintaining animist beliefs, by lacking interest in the new religion (we know that Christianity in Britain almost died out after the Romans withdrew and a new mission had to be sent much later to rekindle it9), and perhaps by occasional violent revolt; but on the whole, despite the more egalitarian and decentralized nature of the animist-polytheist views, in their original form they were simply no match for the increasingly central bureaucratic powers in Northern and Eastern Europe as feudalism progressed, especially since they had little power to re-establish ‘paganism’ once conversion had officially taken place, even if this did not happen through violence. Indeed, Sir Jack Goody has even gone so far as to say that ‘paganism’ when reliant on oral traditions and local practices alone is incapable of converting anyone itself at all.10

Nowadays, there is something of a small revival of ‘paganism’ in various forms, most of them for want of sources reliant on 19th and 20th Century inventions of tradition and various syntheses of practices from widely differing places and periods. In terms of its appeal to the old paganism, it has little intellectual merit. But perhaps with the demise of the monotheist organized religions and their enforced hierarchy in the developed world, any remaining current of religious and spiritual feeling can be channeled into new forms of this kind, more egalitarian in nature and more permissive of power-subverting politics. If so, it must be careful to learn the lessons of the demise of the old ‘paganisms’ and strengthen itself accordingly.

1. Mayke de Jong, “Religion”, in: Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2001), p. 134. It must be noted Rome itself had been hostile to Arianism from the very start, as Theodosius I repressed it.->
2. Ibid., p. 146-147.->
3. Ibid., p. 148.->
4. E.g. Barbara Yorke, “The Adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon Royal Courts to Christianity”, in: Martin Carver (ed.), The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300-1300 (York 2003), p. 255.->
5. Rosamond McKitterick, “Politics”, in: McKitterick (op. cit.), p. 33-34.->
6. Przemyslaw Urbanczyk, “Politics of Conversion in North Central Europe”, in: Carver (op. cit.), p. 21-22.->
7. Ibid., p. 24.->
8. Ibid. Sir Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (Cambridge 1986), p. 4-18.->
9. Ibid. William Frend, “Roman Britain: A Failed Promise”, in: Carver (op. cit.), p. 79-91.->
10. Goody, p. 4-5.->