I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Faith of our Fathers

By the eleventh century, all of the English were Christian, and the Norse were converting. If the Norse were still heathen, their kings and other authority figures were mandating that they convert to Christianity. It increased ease of trade–since many Christians were supposed not to trade with the heathen—and eased the control of the populace by those in command. The rate of Norse conversion and regression went up and down, and there were frequent—if brief—times of backsliding. It is worth noting that in many cases when the Norse were allowed to settle—in the Danelaw by Alfred, in Normandy and elsewhere—conversion to Christianity was often required.

This is not to say that the Christianity of the time was anything like the Christianity we know today. Or even that the Christianities of the time are like the Christianities today. The Christianity practiced by the English was not the ancient Celtic Christianity that had been introduced to the isle about the same time that the Roman missionaries introduced Latin Christianity. In the seventh century, the Synod of Whitby had turned English practices closer to those of the Latin church  (King Oswiu of Northumbria who called the Synod was a Celtic Christian, while his wife was Latin; with apologies to Queen Eleanore and James Goldman, that perhaps is the real role of sex in history!). There were still differences, a closer relationship between the English church and that of Rome was not achieved until after the Conquest.

The heathen practices are not truly known, and anyone speaking about practice of the heathen faith are not speaking from any position of omniscience. The Norse and other heathen peoples did not write down the methods of practice, and what we have left have been filtered through the fog of Christianity. As with Caesar’s interpretation of the Druids centuries before, we don’t know how much is misleading, how much is propaganda, how much is ignorance and how much is interpreting the culture by the knowledge of another. Even our major sources of Norse mythology were written down—and perhaps interpreted—by Christian writer such as Snorri Sturlusson—some time after the Viking Age. Much has been made of the similarities between Christian and heathen mythology—the Allfather and Jesus both hanging on a tree or cross, etc.—and some have suggested tat such similarities eased the conversion, but I remain a little diffident about this. Perhaps the similarities were invented after the conversion? Perhaps we’ll never know!

This is not to say that heathenism vanished entirely after the Conversion. Ever since the beginning of Christian expansion, heathen and pagan practices were absorbed into Christian thought. Look at Christmas and Saturnalia or Easter and Eostre or Saint Josaphat and Gautama Buddha! In fact, Pope Gregory the Great told his missionaries to England in La Civiltà Cattolica that

“That some customs and religious observances of the early Christians were closely related to certain pagan practices and ways is known to all scholars nowadays. They were practices too dear to the people, customs too deeply rooted and intertwined in the public and private life of the ancient world. The mother church, kind and wise, did not believe that she had to uproot them; rather, by transforming them in a Christian sense, raising them to new nobility and new life, she prevailed over them by means that were powerful yet gentle, so as to win to herself without uproar the souls of both the masses and the cultured.”

As a result, one can easily see how Christian practices had their origins in those of the heathens, and the concept of a dual religion—for example praying to Jesus in the morning but praying to Thor if needing to go on a sea voyage in the afternoon—was probably fairly common if not widely mentioned at the time. The exception was Iceland, where The Saga of Burnt Njall notes that when the island converted to Christianity in 1000, the lawspeaker, Thorstein, who made the decision, noted:

“This is the beginning of our laws…that all men shall be Christian here in the land, and believe in one God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but leave off all idol-worship, not expose children to perish, and not eat horseflesh. It shall be outlawry if such things are proved openly against any man; but if these things are done by stealth, then it shall be blameless.”

The dual religious practice continued for some time afterwards but was eventually replaced by thorough Christian practice.

In our portrayal, we try to incorporate ecclesiastical practices and beliefs. Martin Williams, the ecclesiastical officer of Regia, has done much and extensive work to make certain that ecclesiastical practices as presented to the public is respectful, legitimate and faithful to the practices and beliefs of the day.

Since the era—and in fact, much of the Middle Ages—are so rooted in and defined by religious thought, I am more than happy to be involved with a society that gives it its proper due. Any society that ignores or that forbids ecclesiastical practices is only perpetuating a flawed and incorrect version of history! Those persons who spurn ecclesiastical portrayals because they might not match modern belief systems might well be politically correct, but they are obviously not true living historians! Just observe the portrayal of ecclesiastical figures in such films as “The Godfather” and “Black Robe” and remember what I was told many years ago: “Well, we have to remember that we are ‘Reen-ACTORS’!”

For a look at the importance of the role of religion in living history—especially at the time we recreate—there are several articles on the Regia page: http://www.regia.org./listings.htm. Persons interested in a fair ecclesiastical impression might want to read Martin’s handbook at http://regia.org/members/handbook/church.pdf

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4 responses

  1. Dan

    What is your opinion about re-enacting religious practices for eras that have very sketchy information? Is it better to fabricate based on paltry information or forgo re-enactment all together? Which is less inaccurate?

    May 13, 2011 at 07:53

    • Let me stress. I don’t want to see a burlesque of religious faith. I hesitate to see the portrayal of a full mass by a layman. I don’t think that is showing the proper amount of respect. Preaching a homily or making a meal prayer is another matter altogether.

      That said, if people don’t know the specifics of religious practices, and research does not offer anything, then the practices should not be improvised or interpreted unless there is absolutely no doubt that they will not be perceived as the One True Way. If the practices are unknown or doubted or misunderstood, then they should be portrayed fairly and minimally and might not be that essential to the interpretation of the culture. What cultures are you thinking of?

      May 13, 2011 at 08:09

  2. Dan

    I was thinking primarily of any pre-Christian culture, but in particular the Celtic Druids.

    As you already pointed out what little info we do have about them is either filtered through Christian writings, external sources, or stories that were written down by Christians. Thus, their objectivity, accuracy and completeness are very suspect.

    May 13, 2011 at 08:28

    • Dealing only partially with the pre-Christian era, I can only give aresponse from that perspective.

      We have religious symbology that can be worn. We can speak about people with dual religious convictions making the decision. We can talk in generalities. Doing a first-person religious rite is certainly questionable, but I stay away from first0person impressions to begin with. I might have problems with a full Wicker Man celebration or ceremonially hanging corpses in the the heathen temple or immolation ceremonies (using ibn Fadlan, you have a good idea of the Norse burial/burning). In fact, even looking at something thru the Christian filter, you can often get a bare-bones basic view of what was being done. Dependent, of course, on a knowledgeable interpretation of the culture and a reluctance to incorporate modern pagan practices. There is usually a kernel of truth there!

      May 13, 2011 at 08:43

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