Early Medieval Paganism Resource

05 Mar

I have been absolutely neglectful of this blog over the last few weeks. Real world, work, etc., all getting in the way, at least for posting anything beyond a quick foo-foo post. (foo-foo is a scientific term for “uselessly frivolous”). Hopefully I can get back to it but no promises.

I just finished reading Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Popular Cultures in Early Medieval Pastoral Literature by Bernadette Filotas. I originally planned on posting a review but there are at least two good ones out there. For anyone, James Bugsglag from the University of Manitoba wrote one which is available online from The Medieval Review. Michael Bailey also wrote one for Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft. 1 So I’m going to restrict myself to a few comments.

I started reading this thinking it would consist of a lot of analysis, similar to but more recent than Valerie Flint’s The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. I was wrong about that through nobody’s fault but my own. 2

This book is overwhelmingly a survey of mentions of paganism by Western European Christian authorities between roughly 500-1,000 AD. Filotas uses Caesarius of Arles’ sermons and letters as something of an early bookmark and Burchard of Worms’ Decretum for the end of her period. In between we have a comprehensive discussion, in a very structured, methodical manner, of all mentions of paganism in religious documents.

There are nine chapters in the book; her introduction where she discusses her methods and sources, and eight which are topical. The topical chapters are:

2. Idolatry, Gods and Supernatural Beings
3. Nature
4. Time
5. Space
6. Magic – Magicians and Beneficent Magic
7. Ambivalent and Destructive Magic
8. Death
9. Alimentary Restrictions

Within each of these chapters she has followed something of an encyclopedic formula where she lists a term, or group of terms with equivalent meanings, and describes how often the respective term(s) were used and in what context. Once I got myself into a rhythm of reading it I found it quite interesting. The book’s filled with information but I ended up not taking a ton of notes because on scanning the index I could see that I would be able to use it fairly easily to find a given term.

There isn’t a lot of analysis beyond discussing the context of the use of terms however I was struck by one statement near the end which I’ll quote at length due to its importance: “Our sources then show significant insights into beliefs and practices of the faithful. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that they have disappointingly little to offer on the subject of popular culture. The immense volume of legislation, penitentials, sermons, letters and tracts yields about two thousand mostly short passages dealing with practices that may be considered to be pagan survivals and superstitions. This is not much, considering the extent of time and expanse of space covered: over 500 years and most of Western Europe. Moreover, few contain material not drawn from earlier sources; there is little to be found at the end of our period that was not there at the beginning.” (359)

“Even if we can accept that the texts are repetitive because they continued to describe permanent features of beliefs and practices, we are left with the question as to why they mention so seldom areas of life which were untouched in earlier texts. . . . The magic used by weaving women is cited repeatedly. But there is not a word about any other occupation, about charcoal-burners, wood-cutters, miners, fishermen, sailors (a notoriously superstitious crew), smiths (with their strongly magical antecedents), potters, tanners, wheelwrights, peddlers, beggars, thieves and prostitutes, all of whom undoubtedly engaged in magical rituals adapted to their unique circumstances.” (359) 3

Her message is clear; while we can glean some information about daily life from the concerns of religious authorities, we can learn far more about what was important to these authorities. However she believes that information on culture may be out there. “Other contemporary written sources, such as histories, liturgy, customary law and, in particular, hagiography, should be studied systematically to see if they shed light on each other and on broader cultural questions.” (360)

If you’re interested in what the Church and Christian authorities thought about pagan practices in Western Europe during the Early Medieval period, I can heartily recommend this book. There is a LOT of information in it. I have a feeling I’ll be using it quite a bit as a reference.

1 Bailey, Michael, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, Volume 2, Number 2, Winter 2007, pp 206-209.

2 Flint receives more mention in the introductory chapter than any other secondary source. I read Flint about ten years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit. Even wrote my first ever review on it. Flint ventures much more into an analysis of the survival of pagan practices, regarding both frequency and in examining why certain practices survived.

3 This is distressingly close to the same quotes Bailey used in his review but I think these are essential for understanding where this book fits, or at least where Filotas believes it fits, in Medieval Studies.

Filotas, Bernadette, Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Popular Cultures in Early Medieval Pastoral Literature. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (2005). Pp. 438, xii. ISBN: 0-88844-151-7.

Flint, Valerie, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press (1991). Pp. 452, xiv. ISBN: 0-691-00110-3.


Posted by on March 5, 2011 in Books


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7 responses to “Early Medieval Paganism Resource

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    March 6, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    Interesting! I'm currently working through John Blair's The Church in Anglo-Saxon England and his chapter on conversion, paganism and syncretism is full of fascinating possibilities (and a lot of citation of Flint). This may be an interesting comparison. Glad to see you back on the blog, too.

  2. Curt Emanuel

    March 7, 2011 at 3:46 am

    Thanks. Blair sounds like a very good book but I haven't bought it yet. I'm in my annual pre-Kalamazoo book-buying hiatus. Or I'm supposed to be – I just found a used set of the 10-volume Ante-Nicene Fathers set for a very good price and couldn't pass it up.I seem to be on a medieval magic/paganism/medicine kick right now. Interesting stuff. Just finished Stephen Pollington's Leechcraft which is another very good reference-type book.

  3. ceil1

    March 7, 2011 at 6:43 am

    I'm paraphrasing but Richard Fletcher wrote something to the effect of the best way to know something about pagan beliefs (given the paucity of written info) was to look at what the pagans converted to become (Christians of course). I always thought that was a very provocative statement – thid book seems a stab in that directionGood to see you back!Cecelia

  4. Curt Emanuel

    March 8, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    There's probably some truth to that, at least when we're talking non-Roman paganism (pagan is such a broad term), though archaeology is getting better. As long as people don't try to read too much into finds. Flint had a statement in her book that has stuck with me, something to the effect of (paraphrasing), "the use of wood or stone for Christian monuments likely points to pagan roots." Sounds nice until you start thinking, OK, I'm a 6th century person in Gaul or England and I want to build a monument. I look around me for something to build it from – and what do I find? Not sure plastic or stainless steel was much of an option.

  5. Alexandra

    March 10, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Curt, thank you for a wonderful post. I really enjoyed both the review and the thoughts you pulled out of the book.

  6. esmeraldamac

    March 28, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    An interesting-sounding book, although it sounds like the people who might have had the pre-Christian practices were not the ones writing things down! Still, it's good to have a modern take on this subject.

  7. Curt Emanuel

    March 29, 2011 at 3:24 am

    Some of 'em did but not many, particularly after the 5th century (or at least those manuscripts haven't survived). That's not the focus of this book though.


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