By Peter Orton
Leeds Studies in English, n.s. 36 (2005)
Introduction: This article will re-examine some of the information in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, completed in AD 731, on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the late sixth and seventh centuries. It will concentrate not on the positive promotion and reception of the Christian message, but on the related but (as I shall argue) distinct question of the Anglo-Saxons’ detachment from the pagan religion that they had followed for centuries before the missionaries arrived. Bede himself was, of course, far more interested in the embrace of Christianity by the Anglo-Saxons, particularly their kings, than he was in any problems they faced in putting paganism behind them; and although commentators on Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum are now less willing than they once were to align themselves with Bede’s own moral and religious perspective on the conversion, which clearly had much in common, ideologically speaking, with that of the missionaries whose work he describes, it is bound to be difficult to discover evidence of the counter-attractions of paganism in an ecclesiastical history written by a committed Christian.
Bede’s lack of interest in the interface between the two religions is not simply a consequence of his personal religious convictions; conversion is supposed, from an orthodox Christian point of view, to entail the recognition that all pagan beliefs and practices are fundamentally misguided. Christian conversion does not afford paganism even the dignity of a serious adversary; it simply reveals its folly. Nevertheless, the information Bede supplies shows that not all Anglo-Saxons saw the adoption of the new religion as automatically cutting off the line of retreat into paganism, or even as necessarily involving its abandonment.
Furthermore, if we try to bypass Bede’s perspective and look at the conversion, not as the simple enlightenment of benighted heathens, but as a process of social and intellectual interaction between the missionaries and their ‘victims’, the suspicion soon arises that neither side understood the other’s religious position at all well. Part of the reason for this, as we shall see later, is that paganism and Christianity represent two very different kinds of religion, making it difficult for adherents of either to appreciate the attractions of the other. In the final part of this article I shall use the Old English poem Beowulf to illustrate some of the difficulties the Anglo-Saxons faced in revising their conception of their own pagan past in the light of their newly-acquired Christian faith.