Converting paganism to hagiography in the post-classical Atlantic world

After the Theodosian edicts were enacted throughout the easternn and western Roman Empire in 439 CE, the official process of re-using pagan religious sites as Christian places of worship began in earnest. As paganism was a nature-landscape-ancestor-based religion, this process necessitated the re-interpretation of the oral history associated with these sites as well seeking a Christian narrative to replace that of the pagans at each site. Consequently it must have been fairly difficult for Christian officials to implement, as the laws gave little if any guidance as to how this might be achieved, save that sites, buildings and structures ought to be preserved for use by Christians. Having made paganism illegal, the laws were designed with Christianisation in mind, intended not to alienate potential converts. They were enacted with the metropolitan Romanised lifestyles of the southern Europeans in mind, and although the metropolitan centres of the British Isles were de facto Romanised by this period, these were islands in a pagan landscape that had its roots in a religion quite different to that of the southerners.

What evolved over subsequent centuries was a slow assimilation of the principles, histories and legends of those that frequented and relied upon them in maintaining the spiritual dimension of their lifestyles. This appears to have been achieved by the propagandistic method of coding these principles etc into popular stories about ‘saints’ – Christian antecedent heroes who were supposed to have bought this far-off religion to the peoples of Atlantic Europe. The greatest success (perhaps unsurprisingly) in re-envisioning Atlantic paganism came out of Ireland, where there had been no significant Romanisation and miscegenation, thus allowing a more sensitive and cohesive approach to the Christianisation of pagan peoples. The repercussions of the end of the western Empire meant that Ireland was to provide the stable ideological base and models for establishing the conversion of much of Atlantic Europe: This would be subtly syncretic, and whereas Kings and nobles (and their metropolitan followers) were expected to follow a pious continental model of Roman Catholic christianity and abandon the trappings of paganism, their peoples were largely to be allowed to keep their feet in both worlds, although were nominally seen as christian.

The stories of local saints’ lives that started to be generated from the 4-5th centuries onwards are therefore full of pagan details, as are various legends associated with the former pagan shrines they inherited. These were often written down for the use of clergy in establishing the canon for oral legend, which would still be the cultural mode of the vast majority (95%+) of illiterate ordinary people. Some of these have survived to modern times in written form, whereas others remain only in oral folklore. As many are realising, they contain a very significant amount of information for those seeking to recover the traditional religion of the Atlantic Europeans.

The main operators who pushed this process – and almost made it official – are the Irish monks of the 5th-6th centuries and their inheritors of the 7th-9th centuries who consolidated this approach. Of all of the names of the most significant chancellors of this new university of syncretisation, surely the most significant were those of Finnian of Clonard and his students (including the ‘Twelve Apostles of Ireland’) who propagated a network of Abbeys throughout Ireland. Finnian’s great British compatriot and apparent co-worker was Cadog of Llancarfan, who appears to have taken care of business on the eastern shores of the Irish Sea.  It is almost certain that the majority of these religious men were the brothers and sires of local tribal leaders if not kings themselves (Cadog was a king and Colmcille was a prince, for example) and therefore had access to the learned classes who were repositories of pagan knowledge and traditional learning. Although Finnian’s immediate fore-runners such as Patrick were often credited with Christianisation in Ireland, it was this next generation which were to provide the propaganda which pushed the Christian narrative back beyond the horizon of its advent and begin to replace paganism in earnest among ordinary people by using a concerted scheme. Although it had its origins in Britain, the Anglo-Saxon incursions and post Empire collapse of Britain pushed the emphasis of Christianisation into Ireland, Mann etc. This scheme, once established, then appears to have cascaded back outwards into Wales, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, the Hebrides and the Isle of Man, western Scotland and Brittany during the 5th and 6th centuries, after which time the pagan invaders and settlers were becoming influenced by the international power and benefits of the Christian church, which continued the glory of the Roman imperium, modelled on Augustine of Hippo‘s allegorical and historically aspirational treatise known as ‘The City of God‘.

The historicity of these Atlantic holy men and women is often difficult to ascertain, and many of the sources that name them are much later than the supposed dates of their ministry. In addition, the details of their lives (where recorded in manuscripts or folklore) are often so full of fantastical or pagan details that we sometimes have to wonder if their existence was only required to be legendary. All of the saints operated under assumed pseudonyms, adding to their mystery, and perhaps their effectiveness as faceless vessels of the new order….

In some of my further postings I will detail a few of these and start to bring the pieces of the jigsaw to the table…

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