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Early Medieval Paganism Resource

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.

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Posted by on March 5, 2011 in Books

 

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