Michael F. Strmiska, Miyazaki International College, Japan.
Presented at Conference on Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness,
Prague, CZ, March 2002.
Any thoughtful student of history soon comes to understand that major events affecting large numbers of people can be approached and assessed from a variety of angles and perspectives. It is a durable truism that “ history is written by the victors,” with many historical accounts of previous times slanted to favor the interests of particular nations or social groups over others less privileged. In recent times, social and intellectual trends such as feminism, deconstructionism, postcolonialism and indigenous people’s movements have raised awareness of the importance of acknowledging the
voices and viewpoints of persons, groups and nations who have been ignored or devalued in history as it has been construed, constructed and promulgated by the dominant social groups of past times.
In looking at the history of religions in Europe, I am struck by the extent to which one particular viewpoint has dominated understanding and blocked critical reflection about what is arguably one of the major historical transformations in ancient and medieval times: the change of religions which took place in Europe when Christianity spread beyond the confines of the Roman Empire to replace the traditional, natureoriented religions of other parts of Europe. For lack of a better term, I will refer to these pre-Christian European religions as “ Pagan” religions or as “ Paganism.” By and large,
the transition from Paganism to Christianity has been viewed through the lens of a perspective which assumed that Christian domination over and suppression of the preexisting Pagan traditions was a natural and necessary thing.
This view of European history, grounded in the dogmatic conviction in the
intrinsic superiority of Christianity to all other religions, has a long history and venerable history in its own right, beginning with the Christian scriptures themselves. To medieval participants in this Christian-centered discourse, European civilization was one and the same as “ Christendom,” and even today, it is still commonplace to refer to Europe as the “ Christian West.” In the last 150 or so years, however, the authority of this paradigm or
metanarrative of Christian supremacy has been corroded by the general secularization of Western societies and also by Western people’s increasing contact with and knowledge of other religions from around the world.
The deflation of this metanarrative of Christian privilege has enormous
implications for the position of Christianity in relation to other religions in the
increasingly pluralistic societies of today and tomorrow, and it has equally important ramifications for how we view and interpret the past. With the paradigm of unquestioned Christian supremacy giving way to a new ideal of religious tolerance and coexistence in which religious pluralism is viewed as the norm, we have reason to look with new eyes at the topic mentioned earlier, the transition from Paganism to Christianity in Europe.
This change of religions is often characterized as the “ rise” of Christianity, but it should also be understood as the “ fall” of Pagan religions in Europe; a “ fall” which was neither a simple nor a painless process, but rather a bloody and protracted struggle.
Christianity did not simply “ rise” like a spring plant or the dawn sun; it conquered. Nor did Paganism merely “ fall” like a leaf from a branch or a fruit from a tree; it was crushed. The temples of the old religions in Europe did not simply collapse because of old age and dilapidation; they were torn down by the Christians and in some cases, recycled as building materials for the construction of Christian churches.
In many areas, the adherents of the Pagan religions fought tenaciously to preserve their ancestral traditions, even if their struggles were ultimately in vain, and their traditions so thoroughly eradicated that only the most fragmentary traces were to remain.
Clearly, there were, and are, two sides to this story, but we usually only hear one side,that which celebrates the victory of Christianity. What would we hear were we to listen to the other side, to the voices of the Pagans who suffered loss, defeat and erasure? What would we find were we to seek to discover these past peoples and their religions rather than to dismiss them?
I believe that the most basic and perhaps most important lesson that comes from such research and contemplation is the realization that there was religious pluralism in medieval Europe one thousand years ago; a lively clash of competing Pagan and Christian religious cultures. In the terms of the Russian theorist Bakhtin, there was religious heteroglossia, religious dialogue.1 This religious dialogue ended with the victory of the culture of Christian monologue and monologic, but this monologue never succeeded entirely in eradicating all traces of the Paganism of the past, which lived on in
folklore, in popular customs and celebrations, and even entered into Christianity itself,with Pagan gods made over into Christian saints or reviled as forms of the Christian devil, and holy days reinterpreted as feast days for Christian saints. Realizing that Pagan religion represented another distinct dimension of European life, both before, during and after Christianization opens the way to a more nuanced and multi-dimensional understanding of European history and culture. Realizing that the forces of Christianization were continually striving to impose religious uniformity and erase even
the memory of religious dialogue and pluralism contains important food for thought in our contemporary world situation, as I will reflect upon in the conclusion.
In the following brief case-studies, examining first, the role of Emperor
Charlemagne, and second that of the Vikings in the religious conflicts between Pagans and Christians in medieval Europe, I attempt to show how examining European history from the Pagan point of view can illuminate important issues and raise valuable questions for our contemporary understanding of European history.