Paganism and Christianity in Britain evolved in a melting pot of early Roman and Celtic culture, where influences waxed and waned from a diverse set of influences and allowed the emergence of a wide range of possible alternatives. What led to the dominance of one over the other? Paganism and Christianity, separate and exclusive, how helpful is this view?
An assessment of the ecclesiastical nature of England at the times of the early Anglo Saxons, could be said to be fluid and evolving, depending on political and social conditions in the region. The idea of Paganism and Christianity being two separate entities in Anglo Saxon England is probably an unhelpful way to describe them. England in the C7th and C8th contained a population as varied and culturally separate as anywhere on Earth. Invasion after invasion of people from the Mediterranean, the mid Continent and the northern latitudes, brought cultural influence from north, south, east and west. The abandonment of Britain by the Romans, meant a shift in culture and power. There is so little written about or left in the earth, to bear witness to Anglo Saxon Paganism, that we have to rely on a largely subjective analysis of what is available. Pre-historic monumental structures, such as mounds and barrows, seem to have held special meaning for the Anglo Saxon Pagans. Evidence of enclosures on these mounds, although few exist, point to the first and possibly only sites of Pagan worship in Anglo Saxon England. From enclosure developed a building and in this maybe is the idea of a Pagan shrine, encountered and written about by the first Christian missionaries to Britain.
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?
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 Christianity 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 was happening in Britain around the C7th that saw a shift towards conversion to Christianity?
In the C7th, Paganism and Christianity were maybe seen as separate and ‘conversion’ from one to the other part of a cultural assimilation. What was happening that made England at this time ripe for conversion? This period saw the emergence in Britain of kingship. These new leaders had closer contact with their Continental neighbours than at any previous time. The culture that surrounded these new kings shifted as they assimilated new ideas and resources. It became apparent them, that Christianity gave them power in a number of previously un-imagined ways.
The Christian idea of there being one god, one ruler, was possibly very appealing to a king striving for dominance. A written set of rules obeyed by all and the emergence of a hierarchical power base must have had tremendous appeal. Could the monumental architecture of Christianity have had a huge bearing on conversion to Christianity? The emergence of structures in which ritualized ceremonies took place must have had huge impact. The building of monuments was a way of making a huge statement. It was a solid testament, standing hugely and boldly in a society that proclaimed it’s power. It spoke of wealth, drawing in resources of all kinds, what king wouldn’t what a part of that. Paganism had it’s monuments as well and the early churches used these mounds and barrows to build upon, maybe to show dominance, maybe to assimilate the different cultural identities.
Some kings used the new churches to pay homage to their Pagan beliefs as well towards their new Christian beliefs, with altars to both within the same structure. So Paganism and Christianity rubbed along, for several centuries, Paganism eventually losing out to the more sophisticated outwardly obvious Christianity. Christian missionaries no doubt had a clear distinction between Paganism and Christianity but the laity were not prepared to lose sight of their traditional customs and beliefs and so emerged a church where the merits of the two, as far as the population were concerned could be merged and blended.