Following up on Karen Jolly’s comments in previous posts, I’ve finally turned to her Popular Religion in Late Saxon England. Besides feeling a bit silly about not having discovered it previously (my first encounter with Jolly’s work was her ‘Prayers of the Field’ then another chapter in a volume on Witchcraft and Magic), it’s also gotten me thinking about the age-old question in Anglo-Saxon historiography: What happened when Germanic/pagan customs met with institutional Christianity? Very many interesting things, seems to be the answer. Popular religion became a contested space, where Christian ideas sought to bleed into, influence, or impose itself onto pre-Christian beliefs.
Jolly’s work is representative of recent historiography, which has shifted away from depicting paganism and Christianity as diametrically opposite forces locked in headlong combat for religious primacy. Another excellent contribution in the same vein is a recent edited volume by Martin Carver, Alex Sanmark and Sarah Semple entitled Signals of Belief in Early England, which takes this nuanced approach to the archaeological evidence. As both Jolly and Carver express quite clearly, the word ‘paganism’ can misrepresent what was actually taking place; ‘paganism’ is a flattening Christian definition of the non-Christian, which tells us little about what ‘pagans’ might actually have believed (as opposed to what they did not believe in. Christianity) and also ignores the possibility of difference and variation within pagan practice. I agree with Jolly’s suggestion that perhaps Germanic ‘folklore’ or ‘customs’ would be more appropriate – although, as Carver has pointed out, almost any label that modern historians use to describe Anglo-Saxon beliefs can be picked apart as quickly as they are adopted since reality was likely to be more flexible and more fluid than our sources might suggest. The tenacity of Germanic practices may not be a reflection of an anti-Christian reaction to the Christian faith, but may simply demonstrate how the Anglo-Saxons sought to make Christianity culturally relevant. Towards the end of Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, Hall suggests that some learned clerics may not have considered belief in elves to be incompatible with demons.
One approach that has been adopted by historians and archaeologists alike is to compare the Germanic folklore of the Anglo-Saxons with anthropological evidence. John Blair has been an extremely strong proponent of this in his recent work, drawing especially his own familiarity with Finland (his wife is Finnish, I believe) to construct meaningful comparisons between the Karelian people and the Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, Finland crops up again in the case of Alaric Hall, who spent some time in Helsinki as a research fellow and strongly advocates the Finnish interest in folklore studies as a good thing for Anglo-Saxonists. Guy Halsall’s discussion of ritual warfare in early medieval Europe is good, short example of how anthropology can provide us with useful models for interpreting Anglo-Saxon history. While anthropological evidence needs to deployed carefully lest we descend into superficial, anachronistic comparisons, I believe it helps us to make sense of the perplexing worldview of the Anglo-Saxons.
These recent trends in Anglo-Saxon historiography lead me to the context of Singapore. While the urban environment of Singapore would hardly qualify as a typical anthropological study, the religious tensions that have arisen from the spread of Christianity give us much to ponder in the context of Anglo-Saxon England. Most Christians in Singapore are first- or second-generation Christians, coming from families who practice some form of Chinese folk religion fused with either Buddhism, Taoism, or both. This has resulted in many families with mixed religions – often, the children are first-generation Christians while the parents and/or remain Buddhist or Taoist. The intergenerational conflict that results is complex and multi-layered: Christianity is perceived as a ‘Western’ religion so conversion is seen as a betrayal of one’s ‘Chinese roots’; Christians who no longer bring offerings to the family’s ancestors and household gods are accused of bringing misfortune upon the family; parents fear that their Christian children will no longer venerate them after they pass away.
In response, the church has had to wrestle with questions of practicality, of the Christian faith meeting traditional Chinese practice: Are Christians allowed to burn joss-sticks? Is it more important to preserve family ties by attending non-Christian funerals (where the family is expected to take part in the rites) or does the integrity of the Christian faith require you to avoid them? I daresay that this isn’t only a Singaporean problem. In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I saw a shrine to the Virgin Mary adorned with fresh joss-sticks and images of dead ancestors. The questions of syncretism that Wulfstan and Aelfric wrestled with in their homilies would not seem out of place in Southeast Asia today.
It is out of this socio-cultural milieu that my own passionate interest in Anglo-Saxon religion has developed. I find it absolutely fascinating that the same questions posed by Christian reformers in Anglo-Saxon England are still relevant more than a millennium later in lands several thousand miles away.
Blair, John. ‘The dangerous dead in early medieval England’. In Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald. Edited by Stephen Baxter, Catherine Karkov and David Pelteret, pp.539-59. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.
Carver, Martin, Alex Sanmark and Sarah Semple, eds. Signals of Belief in Early England. Oxford: Oxbow, 2010.
Hall, Alaric. Elves in Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007.
Halsall, Guy. ‘Anthropology and the study of pre-conquest warfare and society: the ritual war’. In Weapons and Warfare in Anglo-Saxon England. Edited by Sonia Hawkes, pp.155-77. Oxford: OUP, 1989.
Jolly, Karen. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England. Chapel Hill; London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.