The Myth of Medieval Paganism

Jan 14, 2020 by

by Francis Young, First Things:

They don’t look very Christian—those strange faces made of leaves, and those women displaying cartoonishly enlarged genitals on the walls of medieval churches. Most people who have explored the medieval architecture of Western Europe have heard a tour guide explain that a particular carving or decorative feature is a pagan image obtruding itself subversively in a Christian sacred space. It is common for historical films, dramas, and novels set in the medieval period to feature pagan characters, often living at the edge of society, who conceal ancestral beliefs from a domineering Christian Church. The idea that something called “paganism” existed in medieval society as a mode of conscious resistance to Christianity has proved seductive, despite having no factual basis whatsoever. How did the myth of the pagan Middle Ages arise, and why does it exert such a hold on our imaginations?

The myth dates back centuries, with beginnings in the Middle Ages themselves, when the charge of paganism proved useful in theological controversies. The idea that sects of sorcerers worshiped the devil and offered sacrifices to him emerged in the writings of fourteenth-century demonologists. This legend allowed individuals accused of sorcery and witchcraft to be tried for apostasy, since they were said to have switched from worship of God to worship of the devil. In the sixteenth century, Protestant critics of the Catholic Church made heavy use of the accusation that Catholicism was a form of paganism, since it permitted practices such as veneration of saints and relics. For post-Reformation Protestants, the Middle Ages were pagan because they were Catholic.

In the nineteenth century, anti-Catholicism combined with a Romantic fantasy of pagan sorcery as a rebellion against the institutional power of the Church. The French historian Jules Michelet articulated the Romantic view in his history of witchcraft, La Sorcière (1862). Nineteenth-­century folklorists classified many folk customs as relics of a pre-­Christian past, creating the impression that ­Europe’s peasants had remained essentially pagan beneath a cultural veneer of Christianity throughout the medieval period and beyond.

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