I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the history of modern Paganism and anyone interested in prehistoric Britain. The complexity and depth of Hutton's writing have me recommending this to higher level readers: I marked it "Medium" but it is really on the edge of "Medium" and "Hard" due to the density of information included. Pagan Britain uniquely crosses scientific and religious lines with fascinating detail.
The intersection of science, speculation, and religion is a perilous space for any book to occupy. Considering the relative youth of archaeology and the current versions of Pagan faiths based on pre-Christian systems, Ronald Hutton’s Pagan Britain could have easily bent science or religion to fit his own theories on either subject. Thankfully, he did not. It has taken me a while to write this because I have been considering both the book and the review from two very different viewpoints in deciding which to highlight. I have concluded that following Hutton’s lead is the fairest path, and so I will attempt to give recommendations for both.
From a scientific perspective, Pagan Britain examines every major archaeological conclusion regarding the British Isles (and the Republic of Ireland where applicable, i.e. the history of Druids and the Invasion mythological cycle) with a critical eye. Every assumption made by archaeologists, geologists, historians, archaeoastronomers, anthropologists, and linguists is questioned. Nothing considered 'true' or accurate fact is left unexamined, including the expertise of the early archaeologists and scientists studying the subject. The approach could seem like a pretentious challenge to the capability of those who studied before, but the tone of the writing is that of enthusiastic evaluation and discovery. Far from condescending, Hutton’s assertion is that all conclusions about the historical data, including his own, could change as more information is unearthed.
It is refreshing to find someone so willing to truly question everything we think we know about every society living in the British Isles before Rome started recording history. Hutton cross-references with multiple ancient sources and cautions the reader to take even those with a healthy dose of critical thinking. From the oldest cave burials to stone circles to Tors, Hutton speculates on artefacts’ purpose and significance and calls out assumptions (his own and others’) as mere conclusions based on what little evidence is available.
Hutton begins at 6,000 BCE and works his way forward. The first half of the book covers prehistory leading to the Iron Age and Britain’s interactions with Rome. It is in this portion of the book Hutton describes the growth spurts and pains of the sciences that investigate human history, and debunks some oft-quoted myths about monuments. His writing smoothly integrates the physical history of the landscape in tandem with the evolution of archaeology from the 18th-century CE antiquarian study to modern science. He then delves into the intersections of cultures, peaceful and otherwise, that influenced Paganism: from the Celtic Iron Age myths to medieval and Renaissance Christianity to the scientific discoveries made as late as the 21st century CE. From a purely scientific and historical perspective, anyone interested in the prehistory of Britain will get loads of valuable information out of this book.
Pagan Britain is also decidedly written as a scientific-based history of the modern Pagan religions originating in the Isles. For purposes of this review, and corresponding space constraints, please allow me to encompass various terms used today to describe the modern offshoots of pre-Christian religions (Neo-Pagan, Celtic, Wiccan (of various style), Druidism, etc.) under a single umbrella term of Pagan/Paganism.
It is clear Hutton’s intention is to give serious practitioners a solid historical evolution of the modern belief systems. He touches everything that could influence Paganism: the scanty records of Celtic religious practices, the introduction of Roman culture to Britain, the spread of Christianity, the various linguistic shifts due to population migrations, and the changing mythologies. Everything is considered critically. For example, he reminds the reader that literacy was primarily a skill of Christian Monks in post-Roman Europe, the religious influence of the writers of the Book of Kells and other monastery-illuminated works should be included in any critical review of myth.
His work is not limited by the constraints of current nations. He discusses how the history of seasonal celebrations, mythological cycles, topography, and sociological changes all worked together to create a backdrop for the modern traditions based in the British Isles and Ireland. The history behind the myths and the causal factors for traditional ceremonies are valuable to anyone seriously studying a religion or spiritual system, and this book does a fantastic job of balancing science and speculation. Hutton’s work is as objective, thorough, and multi-disciplined as I have ever read on Celtic or British-Isles-based Paganism. Pagan Britain is a must-read for any serious student or practitioner on the level of The White Goddess and should be in any Pagan library as a valuable reference.
Regardless of the reader’s interest in the subject, this is the sort of reading best described as chewy. It is not easily digested in a single sitting. Pagan Britain is not a book to be casually read while paying attention to other things; it is so packed with information it is nearly a textbook, written without a stuffy textbook tone. There is palpable respect for those who interpreted before him: he is not out to disprove anyone but to look again without preconceived notions. His willingness to re-examine every assumption provides the reader with an opportunity to look at the evidence with fresh eyes, to question and conclude for themselves. While the complexity has me recommending this to higher level readers, I can say Pagan Britain is a fascinating and valuable resource for a variety of scholars.
The true meaning of Paganism
The word "paganism" has come to refer to various pre-Christian religions belonging to a number of ancient cultures—those from Greece, Rome, Egypt, Scandinavia, and so on. It has come to also represent, in some circles, the modern ideology of Wicca and the followers of revived versions of the old practices. The truth about "paganism", however, is that it is a historically inaccurate phrase in the context of these aforementioned faiths. Although it is now the accepted term for these religions, it is important to examine where the word truly came from and what it initially meant, allowing for a better, all-inclusive understanding of the world's religious past.
The term "paganism" was revived during the Renaissance when writers were trying to differentiate the old traditions from their contemporary Christian faith. The term itself stems from the Latin paganus translated loosely along the lines of "country dweller" or "rustic" thus it was initially a word describing a person of locality rather than a religion. However, because of its usage in ancient texts, medieval authors mistakenly believed it referenced a religious sect and thereby gave it the corresponding connotation. In actuality, there was a different word used to describe the "pagans" as they are called today, and that word too stemmed first and foremost from the location of the religious supporters.
According to scholar Peter Brown of Princeton University, "Hellene" was initially utilized in place of "paganism". "Hellene" was a reference to Ἕλλην (Hellas), the native ancient Greek name for what is now called Greece. Brown explains that when Christianity started making appearances in the eastern communities, "Hellene" was used to differentiate the non-Christians from the Christians. Those from Hellas tended to remain faithful to the old religions, but with the strife between Judaism and Christianity beginning, the Jewish faction needed to ensure they were not incorrectly associated with them. As they were not from Greece, "Hellene" became the perfect title.
An ancient temple devoted to the god Zeus. Credit: MM, Public Domain
In the Latin west, it was more common for the various religions to refer to themselves by their ethnic origins rather than by the gods they worshipped—they simply referred to themselves (in their own language) as Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, etc., simultaneously insinuating their religious factions as well. This form of labeling was largely due to the fact that the political and religious aspects of life were a unified entity. Thus, the tradition of ethnic titling appears to have been continued by the early Christians. As far as ancient sources can tell, it wasn't until the Late Roman Empire that the term "pagan" began to be used instead, as it was an easy way to lump all the non-Christians together in conversation, decrees, etc. It rose to popularity as a matter of convenience rather than of accuracy and respect.
It is important to note that "paganism" is not intended to differentiate the polytheistic religions from the monotheistic. The number of gods does not apply to the term because many so-called "pagans" would have not considered it important to differentiate themselves based on the number of gods they worshipped. Followers of the ancient religions did not necessarily have anything against Christianity based on its preference for a singular deity—many cults within each sect had a primary deity at the center of the religion, beneath which subordinate deities were also worshipped. "Paganism" as a title was intended only to reference the non-Christians (and the non-Jews), isolating them into one solitary category that could be more easily destroyed and replaced.
‘The Triumph of Civilization’ by Jacques Reattu ( Wikimedia). Many ancient religions were polytheistic and believed in a pantheon of gods.
This effort of combining all non-Christian religions under one umbrella was, in fact, a clever strategy by the early Christians to remove the "pagan" faiths altogether. Using the Norse traditions as an example, the Vikings of the early medieval period had no true name for their religious following. In truth, the word religion would have been an unknown, foreign term to them. The Nordic tribes preferred the word "customs" as—like the Greeks and Romans—their rituals, beliefs, and traditions were undefined and fluidly interpreted, orally passed down rather than rigidly studied. There was no all-encompassing word for the belief in the Aesir and Vanir, and the various other beings and deities the ancient Norse worshipped, and there was no written text discussing their practices until the Christian author Snorri Sturluson wrote their mythology down in the 13 th century.
Detail of Runestone 181, in Stockholm. Norse gods Odin, Thor and Freyr are represented as three men. Credit: Berig, Wikipedia
According to Gareth Williams in Viking: Life and Legend , what is now considered the Norse religion is actually the "legacy of the Christian missionaries", their textual product a "concentrated target" that is much easier to remove and erase than the amalgamation of gods liberally worshipped. Consolidating the various Norse—and every other "pagan"—tradition into a simplified faith with recorded rules and codes provided the early Christians with a more straightforward target to remove and replace.
Though the phrase "paganism" is widely used to describe followers of the various ancient religions, it is important to understand from where the term originates and the misconceptions behind its usage. Too many centuries have passed now—the word "paganism" will continue to label these supporters despite its original meaning. But it is never too late to be informed of the origins of the term, thereby allowing a better comprehension of the history of the ancient followers.
Featured image: Cernunnos,"The Horned One", ancient god of nature and fertility. ( Source)
Brown, Peter. Late Antiquity: a guide to the postclassical world (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 1999.) s.v. "Pagan".
Cameron, Alan G. The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford University Press: New York, 2011.)
Davies, Owen (2011). Paganism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press: New York, 2011.)
Robert, P. & Scott, N. A History of Pagan Europe (Barnes & Noble Books: New York, 1995.)
Swain, "Defending Hellenism: Philostratus, in Honour of Apollonius," in Apologetics, p. 173
Williams, Gareth, Peter Penz, and Matthias Wemhoff. Vikings: Life and Legend (Cornell University Press: New York, 2014.)
York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion (New York University Press: New York, 2003.)
Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking. Read More
Did Pagan structures exist for hundreds of years between the Romans leaving and the European missionaries arriving or were they a visual manifestation, a stamping of Pagan identity in the face of Christianity?
Cheriton Parish Church built on a Pagan mound
It would appear that in terms of monument building, i.e Pagan shrines and Christian churches, Paganism and Christianity evolved closely. Paganism prior to this period, seemed to have very little outward manifestation of it’s practices. Did it respond to the Christians church monument building culture with it’s own monumental symbolism? Quite possibly. The elaborate burial at Sutton Hoo bears testament to this possibility. Here some notable people were buried, on the edges of what might be considered to be Christian Francia. It is not a Christian burial, although these were adopted by other noble Franks, it was a Pagan burial but emulating and adopting the Christian tradition of monumental status. This is maybe a clue to the progression and evolution between what we now refer to as Paganism and Christianity but was probably a blend of the two, conversion to Christianity taking various forms depending on variables such as the presence or absence of dominant rulers, population number, size and distribution of settlements, strength of Pagan and local beliefs and so on. Maybe the adoption of Chritianity had more to do with the economic benefit it could bring than the idea that evangelizing missionaries were converting Pagans. Nor was there an amorphous blend across England. The west and east were poles apart. The east had rulers who were influenced by Scandinavian and German beliefs and the west by the Celts and their early adoption of Christianity. In the middle a medley of all sorts as you might expect.
What if Paganism survived in Britain?
From what I have read on Celtic Paganism and druidism, it seems it was very decentralized, I can't see that they had any sort of hierarchy. Nothing (lore, ritual, etc.) was written down and everything was passed down orally. IIRC, I think they also settled disputes and acted in a more secular role as well, although I think read that some scholars think that their role was purely secular? Please correct me if any of this is incorrect! I do want to note that I am not looking at the practices of Neopaganism, but at the paganism that was practiced in the British Isles before the Roman conquest.
My original idea was that it would have eventually centralized into a more formal religion, but then I wondered how that would have played out with all the different tribes/kingdoms that made up Britain at the time. I would think that, between political alliances and infighting that eventually either a confederation of kingdoms or a unified kingdom would emerge over time. This might be driven by one leader with that larger vision who wheels and deals to make it happen kind of like Alfred the Great, except without the framework of Roman government or Christianity behind him. The question then becomes, would paganism be a strong enough foundation for them to build on? Obviously the situation would be so different from what actually happened that it wouldn’t be exactly the same.
Then there is the question of how long would paganism survive when exposed to other world religions (Christianity, Islam etc.) though trade? How would it survive Germanic and Viking invasions? If it did survive, what kinds of massive ways would that impact the United States? Would there even be a United States? My head is spinning! I feel like the implications of a non-Christian Britain would reach out all over the world, or maybe I’m overstating it?
Please help me smart people! Hopefully I haven't made too much of a fool of myself with my first post!
Europe Leaves Christianity for 'Paganism'
LONDON and DUBLIN – Martyr's Free Church in Edinburgh is part of the rich history of Christianity in Scotland. Today it's "Frankenstein," a bar that describes itself as a family-friendly venue but also a place for stag parties, bar top dancers and monsters.
St Paul's Church in Bristol, England is now a school for circus performers.
And in Llanera, Spain, the Church of Santa Barbara is now "Kaos Temple," a skateboard park.
But before you get angry at the new owners, understand that Europe today has more empty church buildings than it knows what to do with because Europe is, by and large, no longer Christian.
You could say these churches are the remnants of a "lost civilization." Christian civilization. It was once at the very heart of Europe's life and culture. Those days are over.
Belief in the Christian God has Plummeted.
"In Britain, something like seventy or seventy-five percent of British under 30 say they have no religion," says theologian Stephen Bullivant, author of Mass Exodus.
And Bullivant has more bad news: Europe's move away from Christianity is accelerating.
"People often ask me, especially the Catholic church, 'What can we do to kind of bring everyone back?" Bullivant says, "And half-serious, I always say, 'Well, invest in time machine technology.'"
A Christian in 'Pagan' Britain
Dr. Harvey Kwiyani, professor of African Christianity and Theology at Liverpool Hope University, is from the Christian nation of Malawi. He says moving to what he calls Britain's "pagan culture" was a shock.
"Growing up in Malawi, Christianity is exploding there. The median age of an African Christian is 19," he said, "Coming to Europe, these are post-Christian people. They have moved away from Christianity. I teach students who tell me 'I am fourth generation pagan in my family.'"
Kwiyani added, as an expert in the field, "The data is clear: Christianity in Europe is dying."
'Christian' Nations Persecuting Christians
God is still moving in Europe, but the larger culture has been lost, and while some governments might still be officially Christian, they are now openly persecuting Christians.
Attorney Andrea Williams of Christian Concern in London says, "I think that what is hard for people in America to understand is that the people of Great Britain really have no notion of what Christianity is."
Williams spends much of her time defending clients like Christian doctor David Mackereth, who was fired after refusing to call a bearded transgender man a woman, because of his Christian beliefs.
Mackereth said he was "compelled to say things which I cannot say. But when I'm told to call a man a woman or call a woman a man, they're pushing my conscience in a way it cannot go because I could not serve my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and do that."
It's the same story for Christians across Europe. In Finland, a Christian member of parliament faces possible prison time for simply tweeting Bible verses that condemn homosexuality.
Europe is Returning to its Pagan Roots, but There is Hope
Bullivant says it will probably get worse for Christians, as Europe returns to its pagan roots. "The end of that road, culturally, I think is eighty, ninety percent 'no religion,'" he said.
Kwiyani said that because Europe has "not just left Christianity but has left religion, to convince them of the need for religion again is a challenge."
Williams believes "only a radical revival can change that, but if we don't, it's going to get darker yet."
There is hope for Europe, and it could be in something missions leaders call "The Blessed Reflex."
It was the prayer of early missionaries like William Carey and David Livingstone that one day, the gospel would return from the mission fields of Africa and Asia to re-evangelize Europe.
There are signs the Blessed Reflex has begun.
In the Fifth Century,St. Patrick endured persecution, imprisonment, and torture as he brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to Ireland. Now CBN Films is releasing a powerful new movie about his life. "I Am Patrick" hits theaters March 17 and 18 only. You can get your tickets HERE.
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Christianity Spreads From Kent
Augustine preaching to King Æthelberht, from A Chronicle of England, B.C. 55-A.D. 1485 , written and illustrated by James E. Doyle , 1864, via the Royal Academy of Arts, London
Æthelberht also persuaded his nephew, King Sæberht of Essex to convert to Christianity in 604. It is possible that this conversion was primarily political in nature, as Æthelberht was Sæberht’s overlord – by compelling his nephew to accept his new religion, the Kentish king asserted his dominance over Essex. Similarly, King Rædwald of East Anglia was baptized in Kent by Mellitus, the first bishop of London and a member of the Gregorian mission, in 604. In doing so Rædwald also submitted to Æthelberht’s political authority.
Rædwald’s actions post-conversion are perhaps a testament to the political nature of baptism among the Anglo-Saxon elite at this time: The East Anglian king did not give up his pagan shrines but instead added the Christian God to his existing pantheon. This act may also hint at how belief in Christianity was practically achieved by missionaries attempting to convert pagan Anglo-Saxons. By allowing the Christian God to sit alongside other pagan gods, pagan Saxons could be introduced to elements of Christian doctrine piece by piece, eventually leading to the full abandonment of the old gods, and the acceptance of monotheism.
The ornate helmet found at the Sutton Hoo ship burial in Suffolk, East Anglia , via the National Trust, Wiltshire. It is thought that the occupant of this incredibly elaborate burial site was Rædwald and that the helmet belonged to him.
Paulinus, a member of the Gregorian mission, went north to Northumbria in 625 to convince its king, Edwin, to accept baptism. Following a successful military campaign, Edwin finally vowed to convert and was baptized in 627, although he does not appear to have attempted to convert his people. Edwin also recognized the potential this new faith had for asserting his dominance over other rulers, and by persuading Eorpwald of East Anglia to convert in 627, he successfully established himself as the most powerful ruler of the English.
Christian (and Pagan) Symbolism on Some Late Roman and Byzantine Coins
Although not all Christians celebrate Christmas Day on December 25 (some still use the Julian Calendar date corresponding to January 7), as we are, in either case, a few days away from Christmas this seemed an appropriate time to examine a few ancient coins on our website that carry early Christian symbols, all created after the Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as the state religion.
We begin with a bronze Centenionalis of Aelia Flacilla (died AD 386), wife of the Emperor Theodosius I. The reverse of this fairly large medium value coin bears an image of the formerly Pagan personification of Victory seated and inscribing a shield with the “Chi-Rho” symbol that had been used by Constantine I, the first Emperor to adopt Christianity some 50 years earlier, as his standard at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
Despite popular belief the Chi-Rho, formed by combining the Greek capital letters…
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“Any book from Ronald Hutton is something of an event, and his newest, Pagan Britain is as rigorous a guide to this disputed territory as you’ll get. His scholarship is honest and cuts through the sheer nuttiness that invests the subject.”—Melanie McDonagh, The Tablet
"With Pagan Britain [Mr Hutton] has written a thoughtful critique of how historians and archaeologists often interpret ruins and relics to suit changing ideas about religion and nationhood. . .Mr Hutton leads readers to question not only the ways in which Britain’s ancient past is analysed, but also how all history is presented. He is also a lovely writer with a keen sense of the spiritual potency of Britain’s ancient landscape."—The Economist
“Lively and bang up-to-date, this is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in the subject.”—Trevor Heaton, Eastern Daily Press
“This is an expedition into deep time: a meticulous critical review of the known and sometimes shadowy rituals and beliefs in the British Isles from early prehistory to the advent of Christianity. . .Ronald Hutton brings the discussion alive with detail and debate. . .offer[ing] a visceral experience of the remarkable and often enigmatic evidence for ancient beliefs, rituals and practices in the British Isles.”—Sarah Semple, Times Higher Education Supplement
“This magisterial synthesis of archaeology, history, anthropology and folklore traces religious belief in Britain from the emergence of modern humans to the conversion to Christianity.”—Jonathan Eaton, Times Higher Education Supplement
“Hutton writes as an even-handed observer of his own discipline, and it is here that most of the solid evidence of ritual behaviour can be found.”—Graham Robb, The Guardian
“It’s a superb piece of work and beautifully written, too. . .a deeply rooted, or grounded, book, which sets religious and spiritual beliefs in their social context. To my mind it is just the sort of book one should read before visiting the newly made-over Stonehenge.”—Francis Pryor
“This makes for a useful primer of pagan life and pagan values, and offers a fascinating glimpse into a world that defies the simplifications of modern re-enactors.”—The Good Book Guide
'This book is a thoroughly researched, well-written, readable and balanced history of a subject that is often associated with cranks and phantasists. Professor Hutton is not, I think, one of them.'&mdashLindsay Fulcher, Minerva
&lsquoThis makes for a useful primer on pagan life and pagan values, and offers a fascinating glimpse into a world that defies the simplifications of modern re-enactors.&rsquo&mdash Good Book Guide , 1st April.
"Although this is a work of great scholarship it is also an accessible and enjoyable account of a major part of the history of Britain. Greatly recommended."&mdashJohn Rimmer, Magonia
'At last, a balanced, well-written and original review of Britain's pre-Christian religions that treats the complex and enduring legacy of prehistory with due respect. It is also full of unexpected insights. A delight.' - Francis Pryor, author of Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland Before the Romans
"A well-written and thoroughly researched study of a most important subject. The book is informed, fair minded and extremely readable. Nothing like this has been done before.'"?Richard Bradley, author of The Prehistory of Britain and Ireland
“Graceful prose . . . a brisk pace . . . This is a big book on a vast subject, presented intelligently.”—John L. Murphy, PopMatters
The Myth of Medieval Paganism
T hey don’t look very Christian&mdashthose strange faces made of leaves, and those women displaying cartoonishly enlarged genitals on the walls of medieval churches. Most people who have explored the medieval architecture of Western Europe have heard a tour guide explain that a particular carving or decorative feature is a pagan image obtruding itself subversively in a Christian sacred space. It is common for historical films, dramas, and novels set in the medieval period to feature pagan characters, often living at the edge of society, who conceal ancestral beliefs from a domineering Christian Church. The idea that something called “paganism” existed in medieval society as a mode of conscious resistance to Christianity has proved seductive, despite having no factual basis whatsoever. How did the myth of the pagan Middle Ages arise, and why does it exert such a hold on our imaginations?
The myth dates back centuries, with beginnings in the Middle Ages themselves, when the charge of paganism proved useful in theological controversies. The idea that sects of sorcerers worshiped the devil and offered sacrifices to him emerged in the writings of fourteenth-century demonologists. This legend allowed individuals accused of sorcery and witchcraft to be tried for apostasy, since they were said to have switched from worship of God to worship of the devil. In the sixteenth century, Protestant critics of the Catholic Church made heavy use of the accusation that Catholicism was a form of paganism, since it permitted practices such as veneration of saints and relics. For post-Reformation Protestants, the Middle Ages were pagan because they were Catholic.
In the nineteenth century, anti-Catholicism combined with a Romantic fantasy of pagan sorcery as a rebellion against the institutional power of the Church. The French historian Jules Michelet articulated the Romantic view in his history of witchcraft, La Sorcière (1862). Nineteenth-century folklorists classified many folk customs as relics of a pre-Christian past, creating the impression that Europe’s peasants had remained essentially pagan beneath a cultural veneer of Christianity throughout the medieval period and beyond.
Hence the tendency to label “pagan” anything in medieval European art that does not conform to stereotypes of Christian art. One observes it in visitor guidebooks, in shops that sell medieval merchandise, and in academic books about medieval art, especially those more than two or three decades old. The figures who appear in the Book of Kells and the statues on White Island in Ireland’s Lough Erne are unlike depictions of the human form derived from Greco-Roman tradition&mdashtherefore, “pagan.” Yet Ireland had been a Christian nation for centuries before these works of art were produced, and their context is specifically Christian. Do we call them pagan merely because they seem culturally alien?
Likewise, decorative themes in churches have often been labeled “pagan” when they do not seem obviously Christian. Foliate heads, which depict human heads made of or hidden within leaves, are the classic case. The identification of this motif, which is almost ubiquitous in European churches built between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, as portraying the pagan “Green Man” originated with the amateur anthropologist Julia Hamilton Somerset. Her 1939 article in the journal Folklore coined the term “Green Man” and essentially invented an ancient fertility cult surrounding him, one that supposedly persisted into the Middle Ages. The article appeared at a time of heightened interest in folklore in British anthropology and letters, a trend begun by James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1891) and continued by Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) and other modernist studies, many of which misconstrued the mythological material in order to recover a coherent native pagan tradition. Somerset declared the Green Man’s presence in churches proof that “unofficial paganism subsisted side by side with the official religion” of medieval Britain.
Somerset’s was for decades the definitive interpretation of the Green Man, influencing scholarly studies of the motif in folklore and medieval art and literature. More recently, architectural historians have acknowledged the speculative nature of her arguments. They remain divided, however, on the meaning of the Green Man, with some proposing that he represents a soul ensnared by sin (symbolized by the vegetation), and others that he is a decorative tradition with no symbolic meaning, or a visual joke. Despite (or because of) the collapse of scholarly consensus as to his meaning, the Green Man retains a unitary evocativeness, a stand-in symbol for all things folkloric and pagan in British history. The eminent medievalist scholar Carolyne Larrington, though she recognizes that his cult began in 1939, nevertheless makes him the emblem of British folklore in her book The Land of the Green Man (2015). In popular culture, the Green Man remains what he became in the mid-twentieth century: a countercultural symbol with application to various movements and causes, from ecology to free love.
C ountercultural appropriation often fills the gap when scholarly consensus is lacking. Architectural historians are divided on the true meaning of Sheela na gigs, the carved images of women exposing large vulvas, which ornament the walls of many medieval churches in Britain and Ireland. Some scholars interpret these images as warnings against the sin of lust others say their purpose, like that of other grotesques in Christian architecture, is to ward off evil spirits. Still others claim that the Sheela na gigs portray a pre-Christian fertility figure or Celtic goddess. The evidentiary basis for the pagan interpretations is weak, but they retain popularity due to the association between pagan religion and the celebration of female sexuality. An image like this has no place in misogynistic Christianity, the reasoning goes. This is, of course, a glib account of both Christianity and paganism, filtered through modern cultural politics.
Today’s medievalists are more cautious than were many earlier scholars when it comes to identifying pagan motifs in medieval art. But in many instances, older interpretations have stuck, especially in heritage literature (pamphlets about individual buildings and local history publications), where they cement the popular idea that pagan imagery was rife in the medieval period. The fact that scholars often fail to agree on alternative accounts may abet popular acceptance of “pagan” explanations&mdasha catch-all that neatly accounts for seeming anomalies.
The actual nature and prevalence of something called “paganism” in medieval Europe is a complicated matter, not least because “medieval Europe” was so geographically vast and culturally various, and spanned so many centuries. Many pagans remained in Europe in the early medieval period from a.d. 476 (the year of the fall of the Western Roman Empire), when the Christianization of the continent was not far advanced. In Eastern Europe, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania remained officially pagan until the end of the fourteenth century, and the Bosnians followed their own idiosyncratic religion until their conversion to Islam in the late fifteenth century. Even in Western Europe, the Sámi people of northern Scandinavia were not evangelized until the late seventeenth century, and throughout the Middle Ages there were some pagan immigrants, visitors, and slaves in Europe, albeit in small numbers. Broadly speaking, however, the dawn of the second millennium inaugurated a period in Western Europe when paganism was dead or rapidly dying. The official conversion of Norway, around a.d. 1000, marked the assimilation of the last pagan polity in Western Europe into Christendom.
Another complicating factor: “Paganism,” though often taken to denote a loose system of religious belief and practice, is in fact difficult to define in positive terms. Pagan practice varied widely in ancient and medieval Europe, and we often do not know whether the cultural practices of pagan peoples were connected to their religion, or to what extent. Moreover, the very word and concept derive from an insult used by late-Roman urban Christians against rural people who continued to worship the traditional gods. The Latin pagani has the sense of “bumpkins” or “hillbillies.” Technically, then, “pagan” was never anyone’s professed religious identity, but a category invented by Christians to indicate unacceptable religious practice. To the extent that medieval Christians had a positive idea of paganism, it drew on a tradition of polemic in the Church Fathers, for whom paganism entailed, above all, the act of sacrificing to the traditional gods&mdashthe act that constituted unambiguous evidence of apostasy if a Christian performed it. On this definition, there were practically no pagans in Western Europe from the eleventh century on.
Of course, this is a very minimal definition, akin to the minimal (though canonically adequate) definition of a Christian as “one who has received baptism.” The fact that a person had been baptized and had ceased to sacrifice to ancestral gods did not necessarily mean that he had abandoned other pre-Christian cultural practices, perhaps including some forbidden by the Church. Because the pagan traditions lacked the Abrahamic religions’ emphasis on conscious belief, it is likely that for many baptized ex-pagans and their descendants, the continuation of some form of ancestral worship simply happened, without reflection or argument. A person who was securely Christian by medieval lights might look awfully pagan to us.
Such persons were by no means “secretly” or “actually” pagan. They likely were not aware of any contradiction between traditional practice and Christian profession. Baptized and assimilated within a Christian polity, they had no religious identity other than “Christian.” The Romantic notion of paganism as a cult of conscious resistance to institutional Christianity is not a meaningful idea in the context of the Middle Ages themselves.
L ikewise, the presence of apparently pre-Christian elements in medieval Christian art and devotion is more complicated&mdashand more interesting&mdashthan the cliché of “pagan survivals.” Practices and beliefs derived from pre-Christian religions were incorporated into “folk Christianity” or “popular Christianity”&mdashChristianity as practiced on the ground, and as distinct from the official faith taught by bishops. Evidence suggests that popular Christianity was a “cultural vernacular” into which people slotted pre-Christian cultural elements, probably without any subversive intention. The diversity of medieval Christianity is something many scholars have begun to appreciate in recent decades, since they stopped hunting for pagan survivals.
For instance, medieval Europe was full of saints’ cults that enjoyed no sanction from the official Church. Henry II’s mistress, Rosamond Clifford, was venerated as a saint after her death for her beauty, not her holiness. Saint Guinefort was not a Christian or even a human being, but a dog who was said to have saved a child. Strange practices emerged from these and other saints’ cults, practices that have proved deceptive to modern observers.
The practice of sacrificing cattle to saints in Ireland, Scotland, and northern England has been taken by some historians as a pagan survival, and as evidence that the saints were merely Christianized versions of pagan deities. Other scholars believe, more plausibly, that these sacrifices were a deviant form of the sanctioned practice of offering cattle to a saint’s shrine within pastoralist communities that had been Christian for centuries but lacked sufficient understanding of Christian theology to realize that sacrificing to saints might be unsound.
Though there is little evidence that any saints were directly Christianized gods and goddesses, it is undeniable that many occupied the same “niches” in folk spirituality as the gods once had. England’s St. Dunstan (d. 988) took over from the Anglo-Saxon smith-god Wayland as patron of blacksmiths. But the monkish archbishop of Canterbury, who played the harp and plied handicrafts, is hardly the vengeful Wayland&mdashwho fashioned goblets from his enemies’ skulls and brooches from their teeth&mdashby another name.
A fertility rite in medieval Bury St. Edmunds, England, required a woman who wanted to conceive to walk around the town beside a white bull while stroking it, before making an offering at the shrine of St. Edmund. The involvement of an animal in a ritual connected to fertility, along with the fact that unblemished white bulls were significant in Roman paganism, has led many interpreters to conclude that the rite evolved from a pagan antecedent. In fact, it probably developed from late-medieval elaborations of the legend of St. Edmund, in which Edmund deceived the Danes besieging his castle by sending out a fattened bull (though the defenders were starving), thereby turning the bull into a symbol of plenty and, by extension, fertility.
When we encounter “pagan-seeming” images or practices in medieval Christianity, we should consider the probability that they were simply expressions of popular Christianity before positing the existence of secret pagan cults in medieval Western Europe. Once we accept that most culturally alien practices in popular Christianity were products of imperfectly catechized Christian cultures rather than pockets of pagan resistance, we can begin to ask the interesting questions about why popular Christianity developed in the ways it did. Rejecting the myth of the pagan Middle Ages opens up the vista of medieval popular Christianity in all its inventiveness and eccentricity. After the first couple of centuries of evangelization, there were no superficially Christianized pagans&mdashbut there remained some very strange expressions of Christianity.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
Jonathan’s work appears in the first issue of A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred. You can purchase that issue, as well as all our other titles, together in digital form for only $20 US (£16).