I recently did an interview with renowned pagan author Yvonne Arburrow for patheos.com, which you can read here if you're so inclined, all about my tragic annual compulsion to debunk the worst of the Eostre fakelore that circuits the Net every Easter while trying hard to outline what the facts of the matter actually are.
In the course of the interview, I had a rant about the CSOF (Christians Stole Our Festivals) myth and why it's so pernicious:
Firstly, it peddles a facile and diminutising version of pre-Christian history. According to the CSOF line, there was one group of people called The Christians, and another group called The Pagans, and The Pagans had celebrations on the equinoxes and solstices, and these celebrations were usually about Fertility and about Goddesses, and along came The Christians and they forced all The Pagans to convert, and to make this easier they took all The Pagans’ festivals and Christianised them. All this is meant to have happened in some ill-defined but vaguely European space, during some unspecified time period when things were very muddy and bloody.
The second reason the CSOF line of argument is dangerous is that it’s flat out wrong. It treats Gregory’s letter as some sort of absolute rule obeyed by all The Christians at all times and in all places, rather than as the passing notion it actually was. In the particular case of Easter, it’s painfully easy to explain why Christians didn’t ‘steal’ it. The antecedent of Easter is Passover, Christ being seen as the ‘Lamb of God’ and the perfect Passover sacrifice, and the date of Easter was decided by the early Church in reference to that tradition (though there was a good deal of argument as to when the date actually was – google the Synod of Whitby, for example). For this reason, almost all countries call Easter some variant of ‘Pasch’. It’s only in a relatively small part of the world that people called it Easter, and the only reason why so many people call it Easter now is because of the dominance of the English language.
Today I'd like to elaborate on why the simplistic notion of 'The Christians' versus 'The Pagans' is so staggeringly unrepresentative of what actually happened in history. I'll be turning to our old friend the Venerable Bede as our primary source.
A lot of the CSOF myth, and indeed a lot of the Eostre speculation, comes from Pope Gregory's letter to the Abbot Mellitus in 601 CE. You're probably familiar with it; it's the one that describes converting pagan temples for Christian worship. But what almost always gets left out of discussions of this letter is the historical context. Which pagans, and which form of Christian worship, did Pope Gregory mean?
Christian Britons and Pagan Anglo-Saxons
Rather than a simplistic matter of The Christians versus The Pagans, we are dealing with multiple cultural groups and multiple iterations of Christianity. It's important to discern between the Britons who were 'Celtic' and the Anglo-Saxon invaders who were Germanic.
Celtic Britain already had a Christian presence by the 4th century. It was a province of the Roman Empire, and under Roman protection. We can't know how many Britons were Christian, but we do know there were enough of them for Britain to send three bishops to the Council of Arles in 314. After the Roman legions abandoned Britain, leaving it to 'look to its own defences', pagan Anglo-Saxons began to invade and settle the southern parts of the landmass.
To recap: a region that was originally (Celtic) Pagan became Christianised via Rome, but was then invaded by (Anglo-Saxon) Pagans. Clear so far?
Here's where it becomes interesting. The native British Church becomes increasingly distinct from the Roman Church. They have a different organisational structure, focusing on monasteries instead of bishoprics, and celebrate Easter on a different day from the Roman Church. In short, they practice the 'Celtic Christianity' of which you may have heard (though as I understand it, the popular conception of Celtic Christianity is heavily romanticised).
The pagan Anglo-Saxons expand their territory, and the Christian Britons make no effort to convert them. One can understand why. When a hairy Germanic pagan is overrunning your lands, with axe and sword, trying to talk to him about how he should abandon Woden and worship Jesus is not going to go down well.
Here is a map of how things stood at Augustine's time. Pagan Germanic tribes are all over the place and the Christianized Celts have been pushed back to the 'Celtic Fringe'.
While we're on the subject, here is a map of recently gathered genetic data that shows things really haven't changed all that much since then.
Pope Gregory Has An Idea
In 595 CE, Pope Gregory 'being moved by Divine Inspiration' gets it into his head that the pagan Anglo-Saxons who occupy much of Britain (let's call them the English) could really do with being converted to Christianity.
He duly selects the learned Augustine and a crew of monks, and presumably says something along the lines of 'Great news, guys! You're going to go to Britain and convert some heathen souls for the Lord! Off you go!'
Augustine and the monks set off from Rome, but they're barely out of the door before deciding that it is fuck this shit o'clock and they really, really don't want to go and try to convert any Anglo-Saxons. They complain that the Anglo-Saxons are 'a barbarous, fierce and unbelieving nation', and anyway they don't even speak the language. So they write to Pope Gregory and say 'thanks for the honour Your Popeness but we're not sure we're the monks for the job, please can we stay at home instead'.
Pope Gregory writes back to them, stating 'great labour is followed by the greater glory of an eternal reward', and basically telling them that they ARE going to go and convert the English whether they want to or not.
King Ethelbert, The Pagan With A Christian Wife
If the monks had compiled a list of 'pagan kings least likely to kill us on the spot', King Ethelbert of Kent would have been on the top of it. Accordingly, he was the pagan they went to first.
King Ethelbert was pagan, but his wife Bertha wasn't. She was Frankish and a Christian, and King Ethelbert had only been allowed to marry her at all on the condition that she be allowed to continue practicing her faith. She even had her own bishop, Liudhard. So Ethelbert was not only familiar with Christianity, he was accustomed to tolerating it. Certainly we can assume that things would have been somewhat frosty in the royal household if he'd mistreated a group of Christian missionaries.
Ethelbert Isn't Taking Any Chances
Eventually Augustine and his cohorts - about forty in all - land in King Ethelbert's territory. They still don't speak the local language, but Pope Gregory has managed to arrange some Frankish interpreters for them.
A few days later, King Ethelbert meets with them, but he insists on doing so outdoors. You see, Ethelbert is a good pagan and knows that if you invite someone into your house, you give them a degree of magical power over you. He doesn't fully trust these Christian foreigners, so he meets with them in a field.
Augustine and his monks approach the king, waving a banner with a silver cross on it, and carrying a big picture of Jesus that they've painted on a board. (What King Ethelbert makes of the latter, we can only imagine.) He tells them to sit down, they say their piece and he listens.
His verdict amounts to 'Well, guys, this all sounds okay, but to be honest it's all a bit new and strange, and I'm not just going to give up being a pagan after being one for so long like the rest of us English. But you've come a jolly long way, you're obviously sincere, and you're clearly serious about all this Jesus stuff, so we'll look after you and make sure you're okay. And you're cool to go and preach to our people if you like.'
King Ethelbert then gives Augustine's crew a place to stay in Canterbury, which was the main centre of his holdings, keeps them supplied with provisions and lets them preach as they will. As Augustine and the monks approach Canterbury, they wave their cross and big Jesus picture about and sing (paraphrase) 'Please God don't destroy Canterbury, Canterbury is really great, hooray for God,' no doubt with considerable relief.
Ethelbert becomes a Christian, but still remains unbelievably tolerant
The Christians set up shop in Canterbury, Ethelbert's wife Bertha goes and does Christian things with them, and in the fullness of time, King Ethelbert himself converts.
Now that the King has converted, a lot of his pagan subjects decide they're going to do the same. However, King Aethelbert notably does not require anyone to do so. In fact, his attitude is quite staggeringly accomodating. To quote Bede directly, adding some italics:
'It is told that the king, while he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, yet compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow citizens in the kingdom of Heaven. For he had learned from those who had instructed him and guided him to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion.'
Augustine Levels Up
Pope Gregory is pretty pleased with the mission to England and makes Augustine 'Archbishop of the English'. Augustine asks Gregory for guidance on various matters, such as 'what am I supposed to do about the various different customs in the different churches?' and Gregory's response is interesting: he tells Augustine to gather whatever seems best from the various churches and teach these things as he sees fit. 'For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.'
This is the point at which Pope Gregory writes his famous letter to Mellitus, proposing that pagan temples be converted for Christian worship, and that since the pagans are in the habit of sacrificing cattle, maybe they could be persuaded to sacrifice cattle to God instead. Baby steps, as it were. It's worth noting that Gregory doesn't mention Christianising festivals at all, just temples and the habit of sacrifice.
Augustine is warned about his miracle habit
Gregory also notices that Augustine has been performing quite a few 'great miracles' lately, and that these have been very helpful in converting the pagan English. Exactly what Augustine's miracles are, he doesn't say; but he does deliver an unmistakeable slap on the wrist, warning Augustine not to become full of himself, but to keep his mind on the job.
(Soon, we shall have an example of exactly what Augustine's 'miracles' entailed, and it is a doozy.)
Pope Gregory also sends King Ethelbert a pile of gifts, along with a letter encouraging him to be a good Christian king and convert more of his people, because look at Constantine, he was a pagan at first and he converted to Christianity and it worked out ever so well for him. The letter, to my mind, reads as if it were written with slightly gritted teeth and one gets the distinct impression that Ethelbert was happy to let others preach and convert, but wasn't really up for it himself.
In which Bede the Christian monk thinks a bloodthirsty pagan warlord is just the BEST
At this time there is an Anglo-Saxon pagan King called Ethelfrid up in Northumbria, who Bede writes of in glowing terms, calling him 'brave and ambitious'. Ethelfrid was famous for slaughtering Britons and expanding Anglo-Saxon territory. Bede is not at all keen on the Britons, largely because the British 'Celtic' Church didn't do things the Roman way, celebrating Easter on the wrong date and so on. Bede considers the Britons a 'heretical nation' for this.
Bede is full of starry-eyed praise for Ethelfrid, writing that 'he might be compared to Saul of old, king of the Israelites' if it weren't for the, you know, minor technical hitch of him being a pagan and all.
This is something people just don't realise about Bede. He was full of praise for a pagan warlord who slaughtered Christians, because a) both Bede and Ethelfrid were English, and b) they were the wrong kind of Christians.
The Great Anglo-British Miracle-Off
You will remember that while Augustine and his homies are doing their missionary thing over in the Anglo-Saxon side of the map, the Britons are still doing their 'Celtic Church' thing over on theirs. Tellingly, the bishops of the Britons outright refuse to help Augustine convert the Anglo-Saxons. Augustine isn't happy about that. It's time to bring the two churches together for the sake of a common cause. Augustine, who we will remember has been given a warning about his habit of working miracles, has something big up his sleeve.
With the help of King Athelbert, Augustine arranges a parley between the bishops of the British church and his own crew. This takes place on the borders of their territories, at 'Augustine's Oak'.
The discussion is not productive. It consists of accusations that the other side is celebrating Easter on the wrong day (this was a really, really big deal back then) along with tons of other you're-doing-it-wrong-no-you-are back-and-forth that Bede sums up as a 'troublesome and tedious contention'. Augustine's lot point out that look, EVERYONE ELSE in Christendom follows the Roman way, so why can't you? The Britons retort that they just prefer their own ways, thank you very much.
When it's clear that the debate is going nowhere, Augustine proposes a miracle-off. Let's let God decide which of our churches is the right one, he says. I challenge you Britons to a miracle contest. Whichever group is able to perform a miracle in the name of God is clearly the one God favours, and we'll all agree to do things that group's way in future, deal?
The Britons agree to this. One can sympathise; Augustine has essentially challenged them to a contest of faith, just like the Bible talks about in the days of Moses, and they can't exactly back down without losing face.
Right, says Augustine. Let's find some sick bloke, and we'll take it in turns to try to heal him. Ah! Here's a convenient Anglo-Saxon fellow who's blind! Try and heal him, go on, bet you can't.
(It is to Bede's credit that he records the nationality of the blind chap; he can hardly have been unaware of the implications.)
The Britons, who by now must be aware that they have been royally stitched up, nonetheless go through with it and try to heal the blind Anglo-Saxon with prayer. Alas, he is not cured. Now it's Augustine's turn. He prays. Success! A miracle! The blind man can see! Clearly, the Roman church is best and now the Britons have to adopt Roman ways. God has spoken.
This puts the Britons in an awkward spot. They tell Augustine that yes, clearly he's favoured by God, but you know what, they simply can't just change their ways on the spot without the consent of their people, so why don't they make a date for a future sit-down and this time they'll bring a lot more of their own crew. Augustine agrees.
Augustine's Epic Diss
The date and place of the synod are duly set. The bishops of the Britons are apparently worried that Augustine just might be God's chosen bloke after all and go and see an old hermit to take his advice. The hermit tells them that if Augustine is truly a righteous man and blessed of God, he will be humble and show them respect; they should make sure they turn up after he has, and if he stands up to greet them, they should acknowledge his humility as a sign that he's God's man.
The Briton bishops roll up to the synod. Augustine is sitting in a chair. He remains sitting in a chair. Fuck this guy, think the Briton bishops. They accuse him of being basically an arrogant arsehole.
Augustine, who doesn't seem to understand what diplomacy means, tells them that their Church does loads of things wrong when literally everyone else does it the Roman way, but if they'll just a) keep Easter at the 'correct' time, b) fulfil the ministry of baptism and c) help convert the Anglo-Saxons, he'll totally overlook all that other stuff.
This pisses the Briton bishops off even more. You can forget about being OUR archbishop, they tell him. Among themselves, they agree that if Augustine is this much of a dick to them when they haven't even recognised his authority, how much more of a dick will he be if he's their archbishop?
RIGHT, says Augustine, IT IS ON. If you won't have peace with your brothers, then you'll have war with your enemies. If you won't help preach the gospel to our Anglo-Saxon friends, you'll only have yourself to blame when they slaughter the bollocks off of you.
In which Ethelfrid slaughters the bollocks off of the Britons
Remember Ethelfrid, the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian pagan king who is also Bede's problematic fave? He re-enters the picture at this point.
Bede tells us (with something suspiciously like relish) that Augustine's prophecy of doom to the British Church came true, and the British clergy were first against the wall.
Ethelfrid, a noted warmonger, is busy monging war in the Chester region. He has brought his truly enormous army to the city and notices a large group of Briton monks and priests who've gathered in a supposedly safe location nearby. What are those priestly types up to, he asks. They're praying, he is told.
Well then, says Ethelfrid, if they're praying against us, then that technically makes them armed enemies: 'Though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they assail us with their curses.' He gives the order to his army: kill the priests FIRST. So they do. Twelve hundred of them.
And Bede sees this pagan slaughter of Christians as the will of God. 'Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of the holy Bishop Augustine, though he himself had been long before taken up into the heavenly kingdom, that the heretics should feel the vengeance of temporal death also, because they had despised the offer of eternal salvation.'
In conclusion, it's really not as simple as 'The Christians' versus 'The Pagans'. The truth is much more complicated, much more interesting, and in places, much more blackly hilarious.