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.
Hence the tendency to label “pagan” anything in medieval European art that does not conform to stereotypes of Christian art. One observes it in visitor guidebooks, in shops that sell medieval merchandise, and in academic books about medieval art, especially those more than two or three decades old. The figures who appear in the Book of Kells and the statues on White Island in Ireland’s Lough Erne are unlike depictions of the human form derived from Greco-Roman tradition—therefore, “pagan.” Yet Ireland had been a Christian nation for centuries before these works of art were produced, and their context is specifically Christian. Do we call them pagan merely because they seem culturally alien?
Likewise, decorative themes in churches have often been labeled “pagan” when they do not seem obviously Christian. Foliate heads, which depict human heads made of or hidden within leaves, are the classic case. The identification of this motif, which is almost ubiquitous in European churches built between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, as portraying the pagan “Green Man” originated with the amateur anthropologist Julia Hamilton Somerset. Her 1939 article in the journal Folklore coined the term “Green Man” and essentially invented an ancient fertility cult surrounding him, one that supposedly persisted into the Middle Ages. The article appeared at a time of heightened interest in folklore in British anthropology and letters, a trend begun by James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1891) and continued by Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) and other modernist studies, many of which misconstrued the mythological material in order to recover a coherent native pagan tradition. Somerset declared the Green Man’s presence in churches proof that “unofficial paganism subsisted side by side with the official religion” of medieval Britain.
Somerset’s was for decades the definitive interpretation of the Green Man, influencing scholarly studies of the motif in folklore and medieval art and literature. More recently, architectural historians have acknowledged the speculative nature of her arguments. They remain divided, however, on the meaning of the Green Man, with some proposing that he represents a soul ensnared by sin (symbolized by the vegetation), and others that he is a decorative tradition with no symbolic meaning, or a visual joke. Despite (or because of) the collapse of scholarly consensus as to his meaning, the Green Man retains a unitary evocativeness, a stand-in symbol for all things folkloric and pagan in British history. The eminent medievalist scholar Carolyne Larrington, though she recognizes that his cult began in 1939, nevertheless makes him the emblem of British folklore in her book The Land of the Green Man (2015). In popular culture, the Green Man remains what he became in the mid-twentieth century: a countercultural symbol with application to various movements and causes, from ecology to free love.
Countercultural appropriation often fills the gap when scholarly consensus is lacking. Architectural historians are divided on the true meaning of Sheela na gigs, the carved images of women exposing large vulvas, which ornament the walls of many medieval churches in Britain and Ireland. Some scholars interpret these images as warnings against the sin of lust; others say their purpose, like that of other grotesques in Christian architecture, is to ward off evil spirits. Still others claim that the Sheela na gigs portray a pre-Christian fertility figure or Celtic goddess. The evidentiary basis for the pagan interpretations is weak, but they retain popularity due to the association between pagan religion and the celebration of female sexuality. An image like this has no place in misogynistic Christianity, the reasoning goes. This is, of course, a glib account of both Christianity and paganism, filtered through modern cultural politics.
Today’s medievalists are more cautious than were many earlier scholars when it comes to identifying pagan motifs in medieval art. But in many instances, older interpretations have stuck, especially in heritage literature (pamphlets about individual buildings and local history publications), where they cement the popular idea that pagan imagery was rife in the medieval period. The fact that scholars often fail to agree on alternative accounts may abet popular acceptance of “pagan” explanations—a catch-all that neatly accounts for seeming anomalies.
The actual nature and prevalence of something called “paganism” in medieval Europe is a complicated matter, not least because “medieval Europe” was so geographically vast and culturally various, and spanned so many centuries. Many pagans remained in Europe in the early medieval period from a.d. 476 (the year of the fall of the Western Roman Empire), when the Christianization of the continent was not far advanced. In Eastern Europe, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania remained officially pagan until the end of the fourteenth century, and the Bosnians followed their own idiosyncratic religion until their conversion to Islam in the late fifteenth century. Even in Western Europe, the Sámi people of northern Scandinavia were not evangelized until the late seventeenth century, and throughout the Middle Ages there were some pagan immigrants, visitors, and slaves in Europe, albeit in small numbers. Broadly speaking, however, the dawn of the second millennium inaugurated a period in Western Europe when paganism was dead or rapidly dying. The official conversion of Norway, around a.d. 1000, marked the assimilation of the last pagan polity in Western Europe into Christendom.
Another complicating factor: “Paganism,” though often taken to denote a loose system of religious belief and practice, is in fact difficult to define in positive terms. Pagan practice varied widely in ancient and medieval Europe, and we often do not know whether the cultural practices of pagan peoples were connected to their religion, or to what extent. Moreover, the very word and concept derive from an insult used by late-Roman urban Christians against rural people who continued to worship the traditional gods. The Latin pagani has the sense of “bumpkins” or “hillbillies.” Technically, then, “pagan” was never anyone’s professed religious identity, but a category invented by Christians to indicate unacceptable religious practice. To the extent that medieval Christians had a positive idea of paganism, it drew on a tradition of polemic in the Church Fathers, for whom paganism entailed, above all, the act of sacrificing to the traditional gods—the act that constituted unambiguous evidence of apostasy if a Christian performed it. On this definition, there were practically no pagans in Western Europe from the eleventh century on.
Of course, this is a very minimal definition, akin to the minimal (though canonically adequate) definition of a Christian as “one who has received baptism.” The fact that a person had been baptized and had ceased to sacrifice to ancestral gods did not necessarily mean that he had abandoned other pre-Christian cultural practices, perhaps including some forbidden by the Church. Because the pagan traditions lacked the Abrahamic religions’ emphasis on conscious belief, it is likely that for many baptized ex-pagans and their descendants, the continuation of some form of ancestral worship simply happened, without reflection or argument. A person who was securely Christian by medieval lights might look awfully pagan to us.
Such persons were by no means “secretly” or “actually” pagan. They likely were not aware of any contradiction between traditional practice and Christian profession. Baptized and assimilated within a Christian polity, they had no religious identity other than “Christian.” The Romantic notion of paganism as a cult of conscious resistance to institutional Christianity is not a meaningful idea in the context of the Middle Ages themselves.
Likewise, the presence of apparently pre-Christian elements in medieval Christian art and devotion is more complicated—and more interesting—than the cliché of “pagan survivals.” Practices and beliefs derived from pre-Christian religions were incorporated into “folk Christianity” or “popular Christianity”—Christianity as practiced on the ground, and as distinct from the official faith taught by bishops. Evidence suggests that popular Christianity was a “cultural vernacular” into which people slotted pre-Christian cultural elements, probably without any subversive intention. The diversity of medieval Christianity is something many scholars have begun to appreciate in recent decades, since they stopped hunting for pagan survivals.
For instance, medieval Europe was full of saints’ cults that enjoyed no sanction from the official Church. Henry II’s mistress, Rosamond Clifford, was venerated as a saint after her death for her beauty, not her holiness. Saint Guinefort was not a Christian or even a human being, but a dog who was said to have saved a child. Strange practices emerged from these and other saints’ cults, practices that have proved deceptive to modern observers.
The practice of sacrificing cattle to saints in Ireland, Scotland, and northern England has been taken by some historians as a pagan survival, and as evidence that the saints were merely Christianized versions of pagan deities. Other scholars believe, more plausibly, that these sacrifices were a deviant form of the sanctioned practice of offering cattle to a saint’s shrine within pastoralist communities that had been Christian for centuries but lacked sufficient understanding of Christian theology to realize that sacrificing to saints might be unsound.
Though there is little evidence that any saints were directly Christianized gods and goddesses, it is undeniable that many occupied the same “niches” in folk spirituality as the gods once had. England’s St. Dunstan (d. 988) took over from the Anglo-Saxon smith-god Wayland as patron of blacksmiths. But the monkish archbishop of Canterbury, who played the harp and plied handicrafts, is hardly the vengeful Wayland—who fashioned goblets from his enemies’ skulls and brooches from their teeth—by another name.
A fertility rite in medieval Bury St. Edmunds, England, required a woman who wanted to conceive to walk around the town beside a white bull while stroking it, before making an offering at the shrine of St. Edmund. The involvement of an animal in a ritual connected to fertility, along with the fact that unblemished white bulls were significant in Roman paganism, has led many interpreters to conclude that the rite evolved from a pagan antecedent. In fact, it probably developed from late-medieval elaborations of the legend of St. Edmund, in which Edmund deceived the Danes besieging his castle by sending out a fattened bull (though the defenders were starving), thereby turning the bull into a symbol of plenty and, by extension, fertility.
When we encounter “pagan-seeming” images or practices in medieval Christianity, we should consider the probability that they were simply expressions of popular Christianity before positing the existence of secret pagan cults in medieval Western Europe. Once we accept that most culturally alien practices in popular Christianity were products of imperfectly catechized Christian cultures rather than pockets of pagan resistance, we can begin to ask the interesting questions about why popular Christianity developed in the ways it did. Rejecting the myth of the pagan Middle Ages opens up the vista of medieval popular Christianity in all its inventiveness and eccentricity. After the first couple of centuries of evangelization, there were no superficially Christianized pagans—but there remained some very strange expressions of Christianity.
Francis Young is a British historian and folklorist.