Consorting with the other: Re-constructing scholastic, rhetorical and literary attitudes to pagans and paganism in the Middle Ages
By Teo Kia Choong
Master’s Thesis, National University of Singapore, 2004
Abstract: Christian-Biblical theology has traditionally upheld an adversarial relation between Christianity and pagan cultures, with the latter being the Other and, subsequently, of the devil’s kingdom. As a study of medieval attitudes towards pagans and paganism(s), my thesis however suggests that Christian culture in the late antique to medieval period consciously adapted pagan cultures for its own ends, with a particular view to the usefulness of pagan cultures. Undercutting the texts that I study is a subtle recognition of the power that the pagan past, the Other that medieval Christianity is always at tussles with, holds over the minds of various individuals.
As a Church Father of the Latin West in Europe, Augustine of Hippo’s accommodations towards the Classical culture of his days are fundamental to our understanding how early medieval Christianity undertook a flexible approach towards the paganisms of its days. The literary forms of autobiography, catechetical manual and historia in Augustine of Hippo’s Confessiones, De Doctrina Christiana and De Civitate Dei mark his negotiations of fourth-century Rome’s pagan-literate culture. Augustine’s attachment to a pagan legacy of Classical letters was too strong to be denied, and he had to attempt justifying them. In doing so, Augustine of Hippo also made an implicit apologia for Christian letters — namely the exposition of the Bible, and its profound truths with which human history and personal life-events might be understood — as the ‘new’ Classics.
By contrast, Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica and the Mabinogion mark a narrative concern respectively with the Anglo-Saxon and Welsh-Celtic customs and folkloric traditions of Britain, which the medieval ecclesiam recognized as deeply ingrained in folk consciousness. Both texts reveal a functionalist approach undertaken by their scribe-author(s) respectively, wherein pagan motifs and tropes found in oral folklore and pagan belief structures are ransacked and re-invented for a new Christian purpose of affirming Christian superiority.
On the one hand, Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica reinforces this tapping into a folkloric consciousness insofar as it demonstrates the surfacing of local cults of saints and holy relics within eighth century Northumbria with their relevant links to earlier pagan cults of nature-magic. The Anglo-Saxon church had, as Bede’s text suggests, hence amalgamated pagan belief structures common to the Anglo-Saxon barbarians with Christian practices to form a syncretic version of Christianity. On the other hand, the Mabinogion stands as a later medieval compilation of various assorted tales and motifs from earlier oral-based Welsh myths and folkloric archetypes. These originally pagan myths, while retaining residual elements of the socio-religious beliefs of Celtic Wales, did not however remain stable throughout this process of transmission, but were adapted and reinvented by the medieval Christian scribes for their own ends of instructing their audience in moral-ethical lessons. Common to both texts is an active Christianizing of originally pagan oral sources and beliefs, thereby constituting a means by which the pagan past is preserved.