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The Pagans and the Other: Varying Presentations in the Early Middle Ages

Ian Wood

Networks and Neighbours, Volume One, Number One (2013)

This paper discusses the position of the pagan ‘Other’ in medieval thought, arguing that although Paganism was alien to the Christian, churchmen wanted above all to bring the pagans into the Christian fold: they were part of God’s creation, and they had to be preached to before the Last Times. The Other, therefore, had to allow the possibility of integration. As a result the Pagan Other in the early Middle Ages was an ambiguous category, and not a clear demarcation of difference.

For the early Christians the pagans were all around them: however much the Christians saw the pagans as different, they came from the same families, lived in the same cities, and were subject to the same government. The Otherness of the pagan was thus defined in terms of spiritual blindness or, in the martyr acts, cruelty. While the pagans were outsiders to the Christian community, they all, pagan and Christian, lived within a single Empire, and to some extent shared a single classical culture. With the Christianisation of the state, perspectives began to change, though the changes were complex, and until the eighth century pagans in our sources are likely to be close neighbours of the Christians, meaning that it was difficult to present them as totally alien: rather they were marginal figures who might be no more different than other awkward members of society. Towards the end of the eighth century, however, the pagan came to be more obviously the ‘Outsider’, defined increasingly as the Outsider to the Carolingian empire. In the ninth century, as the expansion of the Carolingian empire brought the Franks into greater contact with hitherto little-known areas, this would lead to a very complex debate about Otherness, which would only be halted in the North by the emergence of the Viking threat, which led to the emergence of a simplistic (though equally manipulated) image of the heathen – a destructive force, albeit one that might also be seen as the agent of divine wrath.

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