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Mystical Life in Anglo-Saxon England – Conversion

Part Two: Anglo-Saxon Conversion

As part of the research for my forthcoming novel, Murder at Elmstow Minster, I have delved into Anglo-Saxon spirituality – ‘pagan’ and Christian. In Part One of this series, I concluded by saying that there were some core aspects of pagan spirituality that would be certain to cause conflict with evangelising Christian missionaries who arrived in the year 597. Issues such as polytheism, belief in shapeshifting spirits inhabiting the landscape and animals, ancestor cults, magic, and anything but uniformity of beliefs.

We can dismiss quickly the notion that the overwhelmingly pagan population of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were fed up with their traditional beliefs and eager for the new faith. So, where was the fertile soil and temperate weather in which the seeds of faith could take hold, and how were these contentious issues weeded out? What happened, in practice, with the conversion of the English?

‘Lindsay Jacob’s research into the Anglo-Saxon period is intelligent and thorough. His understanding of the age – its cultural mores, its sensibilities and its beliefs – informs his writing’ Annie Whitehead, award-winning historical novelist and member of the Royal Historical Society

Let’s start with Conversion 1.01 – were there two clear options?

Two Options?

Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils’ (1 Corinthians 10:21, The Holy Bible, King James Version).

Religious conversion implies a fundamental change of spiritual conviction, in our case from paganism to Christianity. This suggests a choice between two distinct alternatives; what Barbara Yorke calls the ‘Christian binary system’ (Yorke, B., 2017: p60). The proselytizing benefits of this dichotomy to the Church’s mission are straightforward – you are either a Christian or you are not.

This is not inconsistent with conversion being a lengthy process with its share of pitfalls. However, it does imply that Anglo-Saxon folk understood what the missionaries were saying: that they had a choice of two options – remain a pagan or become Christian. Was this the experience in the earlier part of the conversion period of the seventh to ninth centuries? I think the answer is no.

Let us put aside for the moment the Church’s organizational and pastoral/teaching capacity, which is addressed in Part Four of this series. We also leave until then the fascinating question of whether the Augustinian mission was sent to evangelize a people devoid of a functioning Church or was it sent to stamp Rome’s orthodoxy and authority on an existing British/Celtic Church, which was considered to be lax and too accepting of pre-Christian attitudes? Let us look at a core issue of whether Christianity was seen as a distinct and separate belief system during the conversion period.

St Martin's Church, Canterbury - St Augustine's first base
St Martin’s Church, Canterbury – St Augustine’s first base

Imagine a conservative-minded farmer, who had just been baptised. What if the act were obligatory and the farmer had little idea what baptism meant; if it were just a gesture that he was obliged to undertake at the behest of his earthly lord – which was frequently the case? Do we imagine that early ‘converts’ accepted that their generations-old beliefs were all muddle-headed superstition and that there was only one God, who replaced all of their familiar deities and ancestor spirits? Does our farmer accept that his spiritual landscape has altered fundamentally from polytheism to monotheism – from paganism to Christianity? Or does our farmer get on with the rhythm of his agricultural life surrounded by a spiritual landscape he knows and loves, believing that there is simply now more choice of deities? 

When Augustine arrived in 597, the overwhelming majority of Anglo-Saxons were non-Christian and had a long tradition of living with multiple gods and spirits. Belief in a single God was alien. Our farmer and many more like him slotted God into their existed spiritual and cultural landscape, as the Romans and Romano-British had done before when confronted with new deities. They took on what they wanted to:

Christianity can also arrive, not as a package, but as chunks of imported metaphor. Appreciation of the popular stories of King David and Daniel does not require belief in Christ, the Trinity or the virgin birth’ (Carver, M., 2010: p10).

These chunks of metaphor coexisted with the existing diversity of beliefs, and the Church was not yet sufficiently strong politically, culturally or spiritually to combat them. Whilst we know in hindsight that the Church ultimately gained this strength, this was not to be apparent for many generations. While our farmer might accept a new god and like some Bible stories, he quietly doesn’t take to the notion that his traditional deities and ancestor spirits are actually devilish demons, scheming to do him harm. Away from the prying eyes of the clergy, in the privacy of his own home or in a secluded grove, he continues to call upon his familiar spirits.

Top-Down Strategy

The strategy of the Christian mission was aimed at converting kings, and through them, the people. This made sense as little could happen quickly without the consent of kings. However, while large-scale conversion benefitted from allegiance to an earthly lord because it gets bums on seats, the dis-benefit is that comprehension of what it actually means is rather shallow and the whole edifice is unstable.

The apparent success of top-down conversion could rapidly dissolve. If a king decided to reverse his decision or if his successor did not see the benefits of the new faith and remained a pagan, then the allegiance of much of the kingdom also changed. Thus, many of the early Christian kings were succeeded by sons who had not been baptized or became apostate immediately after the deaths of their fathers (Tyler, D., 2007; p157). Tyler goes on to query the benefits of conversion to kings in the century after Augustine’s arrival:

‘The slow and erratic progress of the Christianisation of England’s kings, however, indicates that for much of the seventh century the disadvantages of conversion outweighed its utility’ (Tyler, D., 2007; p160).

More on the role of kings in Part Three of this series.

We need to dismiss the image of two tables – one Christian, one pagan – and folk chose which one to eat from. The missionary Church may have wanted neat dining arrangements but this was far from the everyday reality. Until the basic tenets of Christian faith were bedded down, replacing traditional beliefs, the labels, ‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’ were not particularly meaningful on the street. Indeed, they were meaningless, and are categories imposed in retrospect or by high-ranking churchmen sitting alone around their own refined table. Rather than two tables, there was one long feasting bench and folk chose from a rich variety of dishes. Some stuck with what they were familiar with; others tried a few new morsels, and of these, some continued with a new diet, while others decided they preferred their usual fare.

The Pope’s Compromise

There was a deep desire to hang onto what folk knew and loved. The multitude of peasants jeering at the monks whose boats were being swept out to sea at the mouth of the River Tyne, were rebuked by the great saint, Cuthbert (634/5-687), but they would have none of it and shouted back (expletives deleted):

‘Nobody shall pray for them! May God save none of them! For they have robbed us of the old religion and nobody knows how to cope with all these changes!’ (Edwards, D.L., 1982: p45).

They had been cut adrift by somebody else’s decision. Told to become Christian, their hearts and souls yearned for the old ways. There was much in the new faith and the behaviours it preached that was not attractive or welcome. For example, we can imagine that the Christian view of morality, of heaven and hell, and the departure of the dead until the Day of Judgement, was not wildly applauded compared to feasting with the gods and a continued relationship with powerful ancestors.

Possibly oldest working door in England
Anglo-Saxon door, St Botolph’s Church, Hadstock, Essex

As with many revolutionary movements throughout history, which started small, and facing an indifferent to hostile population, the Roman Church first sought compromise in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This made practical sense but it also exacerbated the state of confusion. This enlightened policy of Pope Gregory the Great, who initiated the mission, had far-reaching implications. Augustine asked the pope whether he should destroy the pagan temples. Gregory replied, via Abbot Mellitus, who was to join Augustine:

‘Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God. …. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds….’ (Pope Gregory’s letter to Abbot Mellitus, c 597).

This advice reflected St Paul’s approach of meeting non-believers along the road to conversion:

And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law …. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some’ (The First Letter of Paul to The Corinthians, Chapter 9, from verses 20 and 22, The Holy Bible, King James Version).

Let us listen once more to our farmer. It is probable that the overwhelming majority of the ‘temples’ he visited were natural places within the landscape or prehistoric sites that embodied the magic of age and mystery. So, he is still permitted – still encouraged – to visit these sites but new images have been installed. How does he perceive this? I would imagine that the traditional pre-Christian spiritual charge of place, rather than content, continues:

‘… for the Anglo-Saxons, the prehistoric landscape of east Britain can be seen as a non-literate text as deep as the Bible was to become’ (Carver, M., 2010: p11).

There is an irony in Pope Gregory’s decision. It certainly led to a largely peaceful and, over time, a successful conversion. However, the decision failed to recognise the spiritual importance of the natural world to pre-Christians. The spiritual charge was not just in the images or idols but in the site itself – a sacred tree, a hilltop, a river or spring. Our farmer is not alert to the niceties of the fine-grained strategy of Pope Gregory and rejoices that he is sanctioned to visit his spiritual places:

The natural world was fundamental to pre-Christian and post-Conversion popular beliefs’ (Semple, S., 2010: p21).

Accordingly, by retaining these places as sacred, under new management, the Church ensured that pre-Christian attitudes and their spiritual strongholds within the landscape would hold on, especially at the local level. The Church did what it could to convert the landscape (to be covered in Part Three) but it embodied a pre-Christian continuity.

The Pope’s strategy acknowledged the conservatism and tenacity of existing beliefs and sought to change them gradually by compromising on what he thought were peripheral issues. An often messy, uneasy, compromise was reached, which left much of the well-loved warrior culture of obdurate members of the elite unchanged:

‘Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England was successfully assimilated by a warrior nobility which had no intention of abandoning its culture, or seriously changing its way of life, but which was willing to throw its traditions, customs, tastes and loyalties into the articulation of the new faith’ (Foot, S., 2009: p348, quoting Patrick Wormald, 1978).

At an operational level, it is also axiomatic that the explanation of anything dramatically new and strange is illustrated by reference to what folk already understand, so to with Anglo-Saxon conversion. Surely, this must have added to the muddying of the waters. What were the metaphors that best carried and salted the faith? Undoubtedly, Christ’s parables involving farming and miracle stories would have had resonance, and Nick Mayhew-Smith suggests that Celtic missionaries and potential converts found a common language in the natural world (Mayhew-Smith, N., 2019).

Binary System

Conversion is, of course, a spiritual issue. It is also a political, social and cultural matter. The Church gradually formed alliances with ruling dynasties and gained the political, legal and economic power to make it a dominant force in Anglo-Saxon society. With its foot well in the door, how did the Church seek to differentiate itself and to sweep into one pile any alternatives and dispose of them?

Broadly, the task of clearly differentiating Christian from pagan belief and practice played out ultimately through the redefinition of spirits as demons and those parts of the physical landscape associated with them underwent conversion by being demonized or captured for the new faith in some other way. Not that this was always successful. What educated Churchmen wanted and what ordinary folk believed could be worlds apart. Let us look briefly at the points of contention mentioned in the first paragraph and how the Church managed them.

In saying the ‘Church’, I do not want to convey the impression that there was a single agreed response to contentious issues; there was not. There was a range of opinions from forms of compromise to outright rejection of pagan beliefs and practices, with the latter gradually winning out.

Polytheism: The Church was largely successful in eradicating open belief in the panoply of pre-Christian deities. However, there was some vestige of compromise to garner support from the warrior elite. Broadly, this took the form of some fascinating transformations that allowed the biblical and Germanic worlds to coexist, including pagan ‘gods’ to continue within Christianity. For example, some churchmen argued that past peoples had misunderstood as ‘gods’ Germanic and classical beings, who had actually been human kings (Yorke, B., 2017: pp58-64).

A beautiful example of such a fusion is the famous Franks Casket, made in northern England in the early 700s. It has a Christian message told through linked scenes involving biblical, classical and Germanic characters – likely to have been a feature of the culture of royal courts in the Middle Saxon period (Yorke, B., 2017: p60). This is the culture in which my novel, Murder at Elmstow Minster, is set.

Ancestor cults and animism: The nature of death and the soul, including condemnation of the belief in the capacity of the soul to shapeshift to animal form, would have been critical elements in the Church’s teaching. The Church denounced the belief that ancestors had a continuing ‘active’ presence amongst the living – that they could be contacted to provide supernatural help. As the dead could not be contacted in Christian belief, it was considered that attempting to communicate with them was, in fact, allowing demons who had taken on the appearance of the dead, to be conjured up. Thus, communicating with ancestors was associating with demons – necromancy. This was condemned and prohibited.

The attack on ancestor cults also had a spatial dimension. More on the conversion of the landscape in Part Three. At first, Christians were buried in traditional plots and cemeteries, alongside non-Christians, as this did not rupture the important ties of kinship, and the difference between Christian and non-Christian was not clear-cut anyway. Over time, ecclesiastical buildings and associated cemeteries provided an increasingly available and desired sacred alternative to community cemeteries. As time passed and the number of converts and the influence and unity of the Church grew, the memory of pre-Christian ancestors faded. While believers were included in the sacred geography, those who had turned their backs and sinned against God and king were punished by exclusion, which also protected the faithful.

The other side of this coin involved the Church ultimately depicting pagan ancestor sites as forbidding parts of the landscape. Thus, burial mounds came to symbolise ‘death, terror, sorrow and imprisonment’. This has been interpreted as an attempt to discourage barrow burial, use of ancestral locations for funerary rites and, ultimately, people’s links with their pagan ancestors and heathen past (Semple, 2002, pp 228-242, 246-47, in Sanmark, 2010: p168).

Places and features of the landscape associated with spirits were similarly treated – some were demonised and others were Christianised in a variety of ways – more on this in Part Three.

First Archbishop of Canterbury, St Augustine's gravesite
St Augustine of Canterbury’s grave site, St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury

Magic: This was probably the most durable of all pre-Christian beliefs and practices for a variety of reasons. Natural magic – the hidden qualities of plants and animals – was tantamount to medicine and science, but the division between natural and supernatural was never clear. For example, Bald’s Leechbook – a compilation of medical remedies, compiled in the first half of the tenth century – includes supernatural elements.

It was the Church that redefined and transformed the tribe of spirits that pagan Anglo-Saxons happily lived alongside into demons. Demonic magic came to involve an idiosyncratic mix of Christian and pagan rituals, persisting in what Kieckhefer calls the ‘clerical underworld’ (Kieckhefer, R., 2000: pp153-56). Speaking generally of the medieval period, Gosden comments:

‘Magic had an ambiguous, close, dangerous but productive relationship with Christianity. Where miracles stopped and magic started was always contentious, the role of the priest was never straightforward, and the conjuring of demons or angels combined Christian and ancient thought with contemporary practice’ (Gosden, C., 2020: p366).

Conclusion

Conversion was a long, tortuous process with no great probability of success for well over the first century after Augustine’s arrival, and later the pagan Viking incursions and invasions produced more uncertainty. Messy compromises and trade-offs were made and these contributed to the persistence of a pre-Christian flavour in Anglo-Saxon spirituality and culture. For generations, no matter what the Church hierarchy may have wanted, most ordinary folk did not perceive or want a clear demarcation between Christianity and traditional beliefs.

As the Church grew in strength politically and spiritually, it gradually built a semblance of a uniform, binary system. This never totally obliterated pre-Christian belief, and in some of the shadows ambiguous behaviours continued, such as with magic. To a simple peasant, the difference between miracles and magic was difficult to understand. However, continuation of pre-Christian practices did not mean that they remained imbued with unchanged pre-Christian meaning. Just as a ‘converted’ individual could accept some Christian symbolism or liking of biblical stories without taking to heart the full set of Christian doctrine, so a person could continue with some traditional rituals without a belief in their spiritual charge.

As Barbara Yorke has pointed out, the Christian binary system was rather a blunt instrument and, in practice, people differed on where the boundary between human and supernatural, acceptable and unacceptable, should be made (Yorke, B., 2017: pp60-61, drawing on Hall, A., 2007: pp51-52). An educated churchman might have a firm, well-thought out view but the mass of converted Anglo-Saxon men and women, while happy with Christ, did not have or desire such a definitive cordon. Part Three looks at the spiritual charge of royalty, saints and the landscape, and how these often embodied permeable, rather than solid, boundaries.

References

Carver, M. (2010) Agency, Intellect and the Archaeological Agenda, in Carver, M., Sanmark, A. and Semple, S. (eds.), Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited, Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Edwards, D. L. (1982) Christian England Volume 1, Its Story to the Reformation, London, Fount Paperbacks.

Foot, S. (2009) Monastic Life in Anglo-Saxon England c. 600-900, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Gosden, C. (2020) The History of Magic, UK, Penguin, Viking.

Hall, A. (2007) Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, Woodbridge.

Kieckhefer, R. (2000) Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Mayhew-Smith, N. (2019) The Naked Hermit, A Journey to the Heart of Celtic Britain, London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Sanmark, A. (2010) Living On: Ancestors and the Soul, in Carver, M., Sanmark, A. and Semple, S. (eds.), Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited, Oxford, Oxbow Books.

Semple, S. (2002) Anglo-Saxon Attitudes to the Past: A Landscape Perspective. A Study of the Secondary Uses and Perceptions of Prehistoric Monuments in Anglo-Saxon Society, Unpublished D. Phil Thesis, Oxford.

Semple, S. (2010) In the Open Air, in Carver, M., Sanmark, A. and Semple, S. (eds.), Signals of Belief in Early England: Anglo-Saxon Paganism Revisited, Oxford, Oxbow Books.

The Holy Bible, King James Version.

Tyler, D. Reluctant Kings and Christian Conversion in Seventh-Century England, in History, Vol. 92, No. 2 (306) (APRIL 2007), pp. 144-161.

Wormald, P. (1978) Bede, “Beowulf” and the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxon Aristocracy, in Farrell (ed.) Bede and Anglo-Saxon England, BAR, British series, 46 (Oxford: BAR, 1978) 32-95, at p57.

Yorke, B. (2017) King Alfred and Weland: Tradition and Transformation at the Court of King Alfred, in Insley, C. and Owen-Crocker, G. R. (eds.), Transformation in Anglo-Saxon Culture, Oxford, Oxbow Books.

2 thoughts on “Mystical Life in Anglo-Saxon England – Conversion”

  1. Dear Lindsay, a fascinating post. I’d be interested if you have any more thoughts on the impact of conversion on Anglo-Saxon attitudes to nature. I’m struck by In Lynn White’s argument in his feisty 1967 essay on The Roots of Our Ecological Crisis that: “the victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture.” For White, Christianity has as its core the belief that “it is God’s will that man exploits nature for his proper ends”. Any views? Many thanks Nick Robins

    1. Dear Nick, thank you for yr kind comment and thoughtful question. I think every age has used/misused Christian belief to suit itself, and to reflect its own conflicts. I have no doubt that conversion assisted exploitation of nature, but that is only part of the story. For example, my understanding is that the significant deforestation (exploitation) of England predates conversion, being largely implemented during the Bronze Age, following the widespread uptake of farming. While there are A-S saints with close links to nature, eg St Cuthbert, there is an abiding view that the ‘Celtic Church’ was closer to the natural world, and the Roman Church more aligned to towns. I do believe that pre-Christian (pagan) beliefs gloried in the spirituality of the landscape, and Christianity felt it needed to tackle this. I think Christianity today has a broad set of approaches to the natural world – from exploitation without regret, to a firm belief that humanity needs to repair its relationship with nature (I agree). Some reviewers of my novel, Murder at Elmstow Minster, have commented that nature is a living character in the story. I love this, for it is. In my case, the Fens of Eastern England. Sorry, a bit of a ramble. Best wishes, Lindsay

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