Converting the Isles: Conference Report

Roy Flechner and Máire Ní Mhaonaigh have been co-ordinating a research network, ‘Converting the Isles’, most recently funded by the Leverhulme Trust. They rightly stress the importance of ‘conversion’ in Europe history:

Conversion to Christianity is arguably the most revolutionary social and cultural change that Europe experienced in late-antiquity and the early middle ages. Christianisation affected all strata of society and transformed not only religious beliefs and practices, but also the nature of government, the priorities of the economy, the character of kinship, and gender relations.

Last week was their foray into comparative history with a conference ‘The Isles and the Wider World’. And it was rather good.

Comparative history can be difficult but, as Chris Wickham has rightly insisted, if you haven’t understood difference, you haven’t understood anything. Professor Wickham supplied a number of ways of thinking about religious change in his own keynote lecture. He offered four principal dichotomies: conversion vs adhesion, conversion vs ecclesiasticisation, belief vs ritual, and ‘our’ vs ‘their’ agency. Paying attention to these kinds of issues should help us to frame questions and comparisons. But there are problems too. First, we need to treat conversion narratives with care. Second, we should try not to homogenise any religions encountering each other (eg “Germanic paganism” likely covered a wide range of local and supra-regional belief patterns). Third, it is necessary to consider geography and the role of sacred spaces, before and after interaction. And fourth, it is necessary to consider attitudes towards death and burial amongst both sides as part of understanding the wider communities in history.

Is it possible to frame these ideas in relation to anthropological inquiry? Professor Wickham certainly did so, drawing on J. D. Y. Peel and others. The conference organisers had also invited two anthropologists to help out. Tomas Sundnes Drønen, who has studied Norwegian missionaries in Cameroon, spoke of another quartet of concepts: crises (that need answers), missionary attitudes towards people, translatability of concepts, and the specific historical context. Drønen also produced everyone’s favourite story – of how the Dii people of Cameron developed a legend about how they converted because a Mr Fløttum liberated them by helping them to pay tax by taking their taxes to the taxcollectors with his truck. Both Drønen and Fenella Cannell identified a range of scholarship which raises important questions for medieval mission, Cannell singling out J. Robbins’ Becoming Sinners (2004), Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns (2007), and the polemics of Talal Asad as ways of reframing and nuancing ideas of cultural interactions and clashes – while stressing that these models are absolutely ripe for criticism. There are conversations here for medievalists to join. (Also, hearteningly, the models discussed seemed familiar rather than completely revelatory to the medievalists in the room).

There were many excellent contributions to the project at a less overtly theoretical level.

Archaeology is of course often used to supplement patchy conversion narratives. Here, Bernhard Maier argued that the material evidence for conversion in southern Germany – a process which developed concurrently with conversion in Britain – needs to be treated with great care because it is so ambiguous and fragmentary that it does not offer a firm narrative to fill in the gaps of narrative sources. From a different perspective, Sébastien Bully and Jean-Michel Picard reported on the recent excavations at Columbanus’s monasteries of Annegray and Luxeuil. Of note here was the argument that Luxeuil does not seem to have experienced a prolonged period of abandonment, so the implication in Jonas of Bobbio’s Vita Columbani that it was a deserted near-pagan wilderness was not true. (There was some disagreement here about whether a building needs to have fallen down to have been abandoned but we can pass on that. Also, I’d never read the relevant passages of the VC as implying that Columbanus had been a missionary in the Luxeuil area, but maybe I’ve missed something).

Sources other than historical narratives also came under scrutiny. Ingrid Remold gave a persuasive argument about how the Old Saxon Heliand was probably used in the Christianisation and instruction of a mixed religious-secular audience, highlighting the ways in which it amplified passages from the Bible to do things such as tackle ‘Blood Feud’ (or whatever one would prefer to call the disparate activities the term covers). Erik Niblaeus, meanwhile, brought our attention to baptismal rituals for pagans in liturgical handbooks, emphasising the similarity between baptism and conversion. Of particular interest here was his discussion of ‘prime signing’ – pagans often became catechumens but did not receive baptism, so entering an extended period of education which allowed them to interact with both Christians and pagans. Here, Erik suggested, was evidence of pagans engaging intelligently with Christian ritual (or “having their cake and eating it too”, as Jo Story said, next to me). Taking us out of our usual comfort zones, we also heard a fascinating paper by Krisztina Szilágyi about Muslim converts to Christianity – something never mentioned in Arab sources but which appears often in anti-Islamic polemics. Here, it was notable that most conversion stories involved men (not women) entering the safety of monasteries (a safe space), only to then leave and to be beheaded (possibly a topos).

Even traditional missionary narratives received some different spins to usual. I argued in my own paper that seventh-century ‘hagiography about mission’ developed in part out of older legends about the conversion of Gaul, recalibrated to reflect contemporary concerns. Sven Meeder, meanwhile, discussed how the memory of cultural groups became distorted over time, drawing attention to the ambivalence displayed towards the Irish identity of Columbanus and Gallus in Carolingian writings.

In reflecting on the conference at the end, it struck people that this was not the kind of conference one would have had even ten years ago. There was more theory and comparative reflection, it was truly international both in terms of scholars and subjects covered, neglected sources had come to the fore, and many of the old concerns (e.g. top-down conversion vs bottom-up, the growing reach of “Rome”) had moved to the peripheries.

Podcasts of the individual papers can be found here. Enjoy!