Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries
Imagine walking through the main thoroughfare of your local town, past the severed limbs of some of your erstwhile fellow-townspeople, watching them gently swing and twist as they hang. They won’t give up paganism, and their dismemberment has been ordered by the bishop himself. You are in 7th century Harran, a city later famous for remaining openly pagan probably longer than any other, and what you are witnessing is far from atypical of your time, in what remains of the Roman Empire, east or west. Welcome to the world of Professor Ramsay MacMullen, a world where the newfound elite status of 4th-8th century Christianity is the platform for forced conversion, atrocity, and assmilation by any means. MacMullen says previous histories were written or influenced by the winners or their advocates; an imbalance he sharply corrects.
The excellence of this book lies in its encompassing scholarship, combined with a compete and unwavering impartiality. MacMullen really does see things as they were, and despite clearly not being a believer of any kind himself (as fellow reviewer Curtis Steinmetz has mentioned) shows a near-perfect understanding of paganism and the reasons for the loyalty consistently shown to it, both in the period and beyond.
In describing the Christian reaction to that loyalty he is absolutely unflinching. He has no time for Church spin which sees Christianity as the faith which welcomed slaves and women, both of whom were far better off under paganism as he shows. The vast majority of sermons in this period address the rich male faithful, the ‘brethren’. And their faith, as he reveals, is often one of extreme aggression, of most of whose acts I had no inkling. (Funny, how quiet the persecution has been kept.) There was no talk of tolerating the pagan, not once political power had been gained. Church leadership was on the contrary happy to incite mob violence with florid denunciations of the ‘lethal infection’ represented by the ‘mad, loathsome, disgusting’ heathens, with their ‘natural insanity’.
Early in the period considered there was of course the murder of Hypatia, but mobs of Christian heavies caused trouble in numerous other occasions according to the orator Libanius, as Shaw has also noted in l his excellent book on Iamblichus. Christian monks would break up pagan feasts or temples at order. Later emperors, particularly Justinian and Tiberius, were perhaps the most impressively violent — the latter had one persistently pagan governor tortured, torn up by wild beasts, and then crucified. (Crucifixion was often the ironic execution of choice.)
MacMullen’s book is about more than that though; he covers much which carried less surprise for me but was equally thorough and fascinating. In a wide-ranging chapter ostensibly on ‘superstition’, he describes the power of miracles (which have always been and probably will always be the major reason for anyone’s conversion to any religion, I suspect) and shows the world of healers and weatherworkers with each side, pagan and Christian, competing for the best magic. This is a familiar sight to me (see Saint Patrick v. the Druids in Ireland of the period, for example). Clearly it’s a long time since Christian magic was considered the best in any official sense, but unofficially the formulae being used then are still being taught today, and you can easily find Christian magic of the exact same kind on Amazon, for example in A Century of Spells. Nothing much has changed.
It’s important to note that in contests of magic, the winner is always the one sharing a faith with the person writing up the contest. :) Thus we have scores upon scores of Christian miracles, and few pagan ones. However, that pagan workers still did the business is clear from the fact that loyalty to them was so hard to eradicate. And indeed they have survived until today also, not just in Biddy Early and her ilk, but unremarked in many places — see for example John Cuthbert Lawson’s Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion, page 49, for absolutely pagan weatherworking in Greece around 1910.
Survivals of pagan practices, in general, also play a big role in MacMullen’s account. I knew of many already but he has many more, especially with regard to grave-feasts for example. Equally interesting is the number of pagan rites that were simply purloined into the Faith, over the protests of the upper orders of the hierarchy, because the people wanted and needed them. Christianity didn’t have much practice of its own, and the people were not accustomed to addressing ‘God directly’. The faith in saints and angels and martyrs, as everyone knows who has looked into the matter, simply replaced the older nature-based and deity practices, as it has done regularly in modern Christianizations of paganism such as Santeria.
This produces some amusing moments: great shrines appear to the Archangel Michael, who is promptly denounced by the authorities as a demon! Numerous other practices involving relics and saint-magic are very well described, and the picture on the cover of the book is particularly interesting — a saint statue of gold that was still producing miracles and drawing worship in 1000 CE, apparently. Yes, an idol by any standard.
Paganism *never* disappeared, even if its public rites often either died or were assimilated. That much is clear, and there are very good reasons why it shouldn’t in my opinion, to do with the way human spirituality naturally works. But in trying to eradicate it, Christianity found itself in a pretty pass. I’m afraid I had always assumed that the Roman paganism of the time must have lost its vigour for Christianity to have taken over ‘so easily’, and now I’m thoroughly disabused. Among the elite it had gone, but not among the people. And the takeover wasn’t done ‘easily’, to the extent it was even done at all. The importance of this book goes to the nature of religion itself, as well, because MacMullen delivers the beliefs of the period without comment. You see what produced faith, or otherwise, much more clearly than in many books of religious theory! And the irony is that, after all the febrile denunciations, paganism could still in the end be said to have assimilated Christianity, just as much as or more than the other way around.
A note on his writing. Some people don’t like it, but I disagree. Most academic language still seems to be by Le Corbusier, and I think it’s nice to find some done still by Wren and Brunelleschi. Sure, he could be seen as florid, why not? “I have indicated at various junctures, above, my hopes of staying within those areas where the texture of the evidence is fairly close… and one need not rappel across great gulfs of ignorance on gossamer threads of conjecture.” It’s not every day an academic produces prose I’d like to hear read by Michael Hordern! And actually the style makes for a density of meaning, and a corresponding shortness of the overall text, considering how much it packs in.
This is just an excellent book. Obviously Christians and pagans will be interested, but I particularly recommend it also to those with an interest in ‘folklore’ and ‘superstition’, and to those interested in the nature of religious belief in general. On a wider culturological level I also recommend it — if you are studying phenomena like the cultural revolution, which is only an updating of the same mindset, read this. It is, finally, also a marvellous testament, not only to the nature of its chosen period, but to the worth of a wide-ranging and scholarly mind surveying that period with immense discrimination, determined to tell it like it was.