Though no Christian I, I was still firmly schooled in a Christian tradition and every now and then I realise that my preconceptions of religion are kind of Christian unless shaken otherwise. For the early medievalist this can sometimes be an obstacle to understanding: the lord God I heard about most when I was a schoolboy was a jealous god, but many of his rivals maybe not so much, and when we deal with conversion from paganism this becomes relevant. The classic story for most of us is probably Bede’s report of King Rædwald of East Anglia, one of those in the Ecclesiastical History who got it wrong, in his case by being converted only so far as to install an altar to Christ in his multi-denominational pagan temple,1 but there are others, and even where the cults are probably not similar at all the ready acceptance that Christ might certainly be a valid and powerful god, but not the only one, shows up quite a lot.
I am currently reading something about Eastern Europe for review (no, I agree, I don’t know why either) and this came up again in a particularly charming case.2 In the context of the Baltic Crusades, circa 1208, one particular group, the Latgalians, apparently found themselves caught between two sets of missionaries, one from the Germans and one from the Orthodox Rus’. Rather than decide their brand of Christianity, as the Rus’ themselves are alleged to have done, on the basis of which looked like more fun,3 they decided that only one source of guidance was appropriate for such a decision and cast lots before their own gods to decide which of these versions of Christ they should adopt. That’s not the best bit: they got an answer, and it was pro-German (or I doubt we’d hear of it). Given the immediate military circumstances that seems to be a politically switched-on god that answered, and he, she or it presumably continued to be on call in the future, though our source, Henry of Livonia, preferred to omit this implication.4 I need to remember about other world-views like this.
1. Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, transl. Roger Collins & Judith McClure as “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” in eidem (edd.), Bede: the Ecclesiastical History of the English People – the Greater Chronicle – Bede’s Letter to Egbert, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford nd), II.15. I’m beginning to think there is more to be said about teleology in the HEGA, you know; does anyone know if there’s work on this out there somewhere?
2. Alvydas Nikžentaitas, A., “Die Möglichkeiten der alternativen Geschichte. Das Alltagsleben im Baltikum des 13. und 14. Jahrhunderts” in Jörn Staecker (ed.), The Reception of Medieval Europe in the Baltic Sea Region. Papers of the XIIth Visby Symposium held at Gotland University, Visby, Acta Visbyensia XII (Visby 2009), pp. 397-419 at p. 399.
3. Samuel Hazzard Cross & Olgerd P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (edd./transl.), The Russian Primary Chronicle, Medieval Academy of America Publication 60 (Cambridge MA 1953), s. a. 988.
4. Heinrici Chronicon Livoniae, ed. †Leonid Arbusow & Albert Bauer as Heinrichs Livländische Chronik: zweite auflage, Monumenta Germanae Historica (Scriptores rerum germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXXI (Hannover 1955), online here, XI.7, at p. 55 rather than the p. 59 cit. Nikžentaitis. Hmph. There is an English translation by James Brundage as Henricus Lettus, The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, Records of Civilisation (New York 1961, repr. 2004).