Albrecht Classen

title.none: Milis, ed.,The Pagan Middle Ages (Classen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0104.002 01.04.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Ludovicus J. R. Milis, ed. The Pagan Middle Ages. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1998. Pp. iv, 160. $72.00. ISBN: 0-851-15638-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.04.02

Ludovicus J. R. Milis, ed. The Pagan Middle Ages. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1998. Pp. iv, 160. $72.00. ISBN: 0-851-15638-X.

Reviewed by:

Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

This volume originally appeared in 1991 in Dutch under the title De Heidense Middeleeuwen and has recently been competently translated into English by Tanis Guest. Ludo Milis, who teaches cultural and religious history of the Middle Ages at the University of Ghent, invited his colleagues at his institute to collaborate with him on this project which promises to be of great interest to many medievalists. Although the general notion of the Middle Ages is deeply influenced by the dominant role played by the Christian Church, it would be a gross misunderstanding to assume that with the arrival of the Irish and later the Anglo-Saxon missionaries on the European mainland all vestiges of paganism disappeared quickly. As Milis rightly points out in his concluding remarks, religion serves a very concrete purpose in human life and is not a phenomenon all by itself: "The key problem for mortal man is the uncertainty of existence; some explanation is needed for untimely death, poverty and disease. For the mortal being . . . the significance of the gods and of God lies in the effectiveness of their power and the support this enables them to provide" (152). Certainly, the Christian religion established itself all over Europe and crushed paganism, but because of its monotheistic character, it "offered no solutions to earthly problems, except by fleeing from all things earthly" (153). Consequently, people often returned to old, pagan practices and beliefs, and they continue to do so today as reflected by good-luck charms, talismans, knocking on wood, worshipping the Virgin Mary and a host of martyrs and saints (as in the Catholic Church). Paganism is, after all, not simply an atavistic form of misguided belief, but a fully-fledged religion in its own terms but utterly condemned by the Christian Church. In so far as the medieval church still heavily struggled to maintain its dominance, despite its seemingly far-reaching control, and therefore often had to adapt to many old rituals and utilize ancient temple sites, the book's title is not an oxymoron, but a good formulation which captures an important aspect of the entire medieval culture.

After an introductory chapter by the editor, the following topics are treated. Martine De Reu investigates the contacts between the early medieval missionaries and the pagan population mostly in northern Europe. Alain Dierkens investigates the evidence produced by archeological research regarding the struggle between pagan culture and the Christian world. Christophe Lebbe highlights the considerable impact of death and the world of ghosts on people's everyday life and culture. Annick Waegeman discusses the intriguing, but heretofore hardly considered historical connection between the classical sybil or prophetess, so highly venerated in antiquity, and the medieval mystic. Véronique Charon presents an overview of medicinal knowledge in the Middle Ages based on herbs, incantations, and rituals; finally, Ludo J. R. Milis investigates the tensions between the Christian teachings and human sexuality which was mostly cast in the image of pagan practices, hence resulted in profound struggles between the religious institution (the preacher, the confessors, etc.) and the mortal sinner whose failures were attributed to pagan attitudes. Each chapter is structured in such a way as to provide maximum information in the limited space without going too much into details. The authors provide a survey of the major points, but also discuss primary sources wherever pertinent. Each chapter concludes with a bibliography of the most important titles.

In what follows I will comment on each chapter individually, highlighting major points and offering some critique where necessary. Christian missionary activities have always operated along the same lines, whether in seventh-century Gaul, eighteenth-century Northern Mexico, or in nineteenth-century Congo, as De Reu demonstrates, insofar as the missionaries regularly first targeted the ruling class and then turned to the young generation to secure their conversion which then would be the basis for the missionary success in the future. Often violence broke out in response to too harsh practices by the missionaries, but in the long run the Christian Church succeeded worldwide in establishing itself fully. However, many pagan rituals and beliefs have survived until today, as the examples of magic and charms illustrate.

Archeological evidence sheds interesting light on the progressive missionary activities from the early to the high Middle Ages, as the Church managed to normalize funeral customs and to impose its own rules. However, as Dierkens argues, many of the burial gifts maintained a rather ambivalent nature, as animal motifs on jewelry or armor could both be considered Christian or pagan. Funeral meals were certainly not part of Christianity, but they often survived the times and were adopted by christianized communities. In fact, "so many compromises were made, so much was adapted and recycled, that we have to ask whether it is really relevant to see Christianity and paganism as opposing forces" (54).

Similarly, as Lebbe argues, the attitude toward death, ghosts, the army of the dead, Hellequin's band, etc., that is, the entire field of "superstition," could never be fully colonized by the Christian church, as people "attached more value to old, atavistic ideas than to the church's vision" (76). Waegeman's claim that medieval mysticism is intimately bound to the pagan belief in the power of sibyls and prophets might at first come as a surprise, but a closer analysis proves to be rather convincing. Hildegard von Bingen's visions, for example, were viewed with great hesitation by the various high ranking members of the church, until finally Pope Eugenius III confirmed the mystic's divine inspiration. Waegeman is certainly right in pointing out that mysticism allowed individual women to gain considerable leadership positions, even within the Christian church, but this has less to do with medieval paganism than with "feminist" or political issues during the Middle Ages.

Charon's article deals with herbal knowledge in the Middle Ages, which finds very little corroboration in the New Testament, but here again this seems to stretch the major argument of this book a little, as medicine based on herbs is not by itself a pagan practice. The use of incantations and rituals, however, certainly widespread in the Middle Ages, demonstrates that even in the field of healthcare paganism continued to play a major role. Finally, Milis' article nicely illustrates how much medieval penitentials and confessors' handbooks reveal the chasm between officially sanctioned sexual practices and the reality outside of the church, which in turn opens a window on pagan cultures.

This pleasant and highly informative volume concludes with an index of people and places. Paganism was certainly a major, though subdued force throughout the Middle Ages. Many more aspects demonstrating this observation could be adduced and would have to be discussed to do full justice to the topic. The relationship between man and animal, for instance (and this not only in perverse sexual terms), between people and their houses, their land, the water, and air, the dubious cult of the Virgin Mary, martyrology, the reflection of paganism in vernacular literature, in architecture and the visual arts, etc. also would deserve to be studied. Milis' volume The Pagan Middle Ages offers, however, a valuable start, and much more research in this area can be expected. Since the Dutch version had appeared already in 1991, it would have been advisable to update the bibliography, but overall the basic information assembled here won't need much correction anyhow.