How Pagan Was Medieval Britain?
Paper by Ronald Hutton
Given at Gresham College on June 7, 2023
Ronald Hutton explores how the idea of pagan survivals became prevalent among British historians, based on work by folklorist Lady Raglan and Margaret Murray. He discusses how historical research then fatally undermined those ideas – for example, witch trials as a persecution of pagans, most associated with Margaret Murray: “Sustained and widespread research into the trial records, across the whole of Europe and its colonies, proved that the individuals prosecuted for witchcraft had not been pagans, even though ancient ideas had played a part in creating some of the belief systems that had produced the trials. After that, the component parts of Lady Raglan’s construct of the Green Man were dismantled. The medieval foliate heads were studied by Kathleen Basford in 1978 and Mercia MacDermott in 2003. They were revealed to have been a motif originally developed in India, which travelled through the medieval Arab empire to Christian Europe.”
In Hutton’s view, Christianity made paganism redundant: “Medieval British Christianity made paganism unnecessary by reproducing its features in a parallel form, united to a very different theology.” Those features included polytheism, which Hutton explains: “Paganism had many deities. The equivalent in Christianity was provided by saints, who were likewise of both sexes and with many different individual areas of potency. There were hundreds from which to choose. Some had a very localised following. Cornwall alone, famously, had scores. Walstan of Bawburgh was venerated by twenty parishes in Norfolk, and Sidwell in Exeter and East Devon. Just as with pagan deities, the relationship of people with saints was very ad-hoc: they went to them for help when they had specific problems. Such approaches could be much more important to ordinary commoners than mainstream religion, and this remains a feature of traditional Roman Catholic societies…Like pagan deities, also, natural places such as wells and trees were sacred to saints, so that those seeking their help did not need to enter a church if they did not wish it.”
Moreover, pagan temples were not generally converted into churches. Hutton shows how, on the whole, pagan temples were not changed directly into Christian churches in Britain, nor pagan deities into saints. And he will conclude that “There is no real evidence for genuine paganism in Britain after 1030.”
Professor Hutton is Professor of History at the University of Bristol, where he is a leading authority on history of the British Isles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and on ancient and medieval paganism and magic. Click here to view his university webpage.
Top Image: A ‘green man’ in Southwell Minster’s Chapter House, famous for its intricate stone carvings, known collectively as the ‘Leaves of Southwell’. Photo by Southwell Minster Marketing / Wikimedia Commons