Why Conversion Histories Matter

converting-the-islesJust before Christmas, a new volume of essays was published on conversion in the early Middle Ages. The subject is an old one and a good one. Moreover, it is timely.

Stories about conversion are not what everyone considers crucial about the Middle Ages. Indeed, I was once commissioned to write a short piece on Anglo-Saxons from the Midlands working in Germany for a website, and the top comment was ‘This is all very well but there are more important things than what some monks got up to a thousand years ago’.

Well, for a start that depends on who you are. Secularisation – or at least the decline in active Christian communities in Europe – does mean that the origins of individual and national churches might sometimes seem an antiquarian issue. But for a thousand years, those origin stories have been a central part of local and national identities. The first history of the English, a work which helped to define ‘the English’ as a people’, was written by Bede around 731 as an ecclesiastical history. And Bede’s stories alone have been reread and rewritten over and over again. Conversion history is about identity.

A second point is that conversion history takes you into the difficult world of cultural clashes and exchanges. People with different beliefs can be seen in conflict. Crucially, not all conflict was caused by differences in belief. How different the pagan Saxons would have looked to the Christian Franks in the eighth century had they not been fighting over raiding and political loyalties too. But people can be found in dialogue, making some compromises, finding accommodations. Funnily enough, war is NOT the only consequence of interaction between different religious groups by a long stretch.

But a crucial third point is that people often did and do write polemically about conversion histories, exaggerating the sense of conflict and making religious aspects more central than they might have been. Everyone knows that, whatever the vikings actually did, most of the accounts of them are a little hyperbolic because they were written by churchmen for other churchmen, all of whom felt the Church was under assault. Less fully appreciated sometimes is that many of the stories were written by people, mostly safe from viking attacks, who had other political axes to grind against kings or rivals by writing about vikings. The news does not always tell you what happened, but there is always an agenda.

So The Introduction of Christianity to the Early Medieval Insular World – aka Converting the Isles 1 – brings together a collection of essays by people working on very different aspects of early medieval conversion, including issues of exchange, interaction, and polemic. It cuts across history, archaeology, literary scholarships and anthropology. And we hope that it will help to illuminate the complexities involved and highlight some of the dangers of believing the polemics.

P.S. Many of the original lectures behind the essays can still be accessed as podcasts on the Converting the Isles website here.

P.P.S. There are some good books on this subject:

  • Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (1996; 2003; 2013).
  • Richard Fletcher, The Conversion of Europe (1997) [or The Barbarian Conversion in the US].
  • Ian Wood, The Missionary Life (2001).
  • Barbara Yorke, The Conversion of Britain (2006).