Paganism in Conversion-Age Anglo-Saxon England: The Evidence of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History Reconsidered
Church, S.D. (University of East Anglia)
History, 93 (2008)
This article argues that the current understanding of English paganism relies too heavily on the belief that, when they wrote of the pre-Christian religion(s) of the English, Pope Gregory I (d. 604), in the letters preserved in his Register, and the Northumbrian monk Bede (d. 735), in his Ecclesiastical History, were describing English religion before conversion to Christianity as it really was. Their purpose in discussing English paganism, it is argued, was to provide succour and support for the process by which the English would be saved from eternal damnation in the face of the coming Day of Judgement. Neither Gregory nor Bede, both of whom came to be revered as Fathers of the Church, were passive observers of the conversion process. On the contrary, both men were active participants in the eradication of error amongst the English; error whose detail they had no interest or incentive to describe empirically. These were men who answered to a greater Truth – the Truth of the Word of God. It was this Truth which, this article argues, actually informed their descriptions of English paganism and should inform our understanding of their words on this subject.