Conversion can be a bit of a lottery

The martyrdom of St Adalbert at the hands of the Prussians, from the doors of Gniezno Cathedral

An unsuccessful Baltic conversion attempt: the Prussians martyr St Adalbert, as depicted on the doors of Gniezno Cathedral, from Wikimedia Commons

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.

Map of the Baltic tribal zones, c. 1200

Map of the Baltic tribal zones, c. 1200, from Wikimedia Commons

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).


17 responses to “Conversion can be a bit of a lottery

  1. There’s a rich tradition about pagans casting lots in medieval conversion narratives. There are some really nice parallels to this Latgalian story connected with the C9th missions to Birka in Rimbert’s Life of Anskar:
    (1) when plague strikes the pagan Swedes after the toss the missionaries out of Birka in 845, one of the pagans visits a soothsayer who casts lots and finds that ‘all their gods were well-disposed towards him … but … the God of the Christians was much incensed against him’.
    (2) a Danish army threatens Birka even after the townsfolk have made sacrifices for their safety and paid tribute. A Christian convert observes that the pagan gods are not helping, and the people ask the Christian God for assistance. Meanwhile the Danes cast lots to see whether they should attack the town, and find that God is against them. The lots tell them to sack a town on the other side of the Baltic instead (it’s alright, they’re only pagan Curonians), which they duly plunder.
    (3) The followers of the pagan king who rules Birka cast lots and find that it is God’s will for Anskar’s mission to be re-established. The king then goes before the local assembly, where the people accept the renewal of the mission.
    (4) The king at Birka decides to restore Swedish overlordship over the Curonians (who appear in your map). They take one town, and then attack another far inland. After many days, they cast lots to see which gods will support them, and find only Christ will help. Thereafter the Curonians submit without a fight and pay tribute. After this, we hear, Christianity was not opposed at Birka…
    If I remember rightly, Ian Wood discusses these and various other similar examples in /The missionary life/–the point being that in some (early medieval) missionary hagiographies and conversion narratives it seems to be accepted that the Christian God is able to make his will known to the pagans through their own rituals of divination. This may tell us something about paganism in the north–but it must also says something about the religious theories of the missionaries and those who wrote about them.

    • If it’s in Rimbert that’s potentially a problem for its historicity in Henry of Livonia, which is worth me thinking about too; I would imagine that the Hamburg-Bremen historiography was known to the Baltic missions. Hmm. But you’re quite right that this must be part of the mental toolkit of the missionaries, because who after all is the audience for these texts? Presumably not the pagans…

      One of the other things that’s coming up in this book is that the Curonians were especially known for being untamably violent, so I guess being able to use divine help on them to that kind of effect probably counts double!

      • I always feel rather sorry for the Curonians in Rimbert, who wind up as the ultimate fall-guys in everyone else’s conversion narratives. Nice to know they had a bit of a reputation later on.
        I don’t know about Henry of Livonia’s sources, but I’d imagine Adam of Bremen would be a likely intermediary, since he absorbs some of Rimbert’s tales on the casting of lots, and adds plenty of further tittle-tattle on the practice (making it clear that God doesn’t /always/ speak to pagans through this medium–most notably in the case of Olaf Tryggvason, whom Adam disparages as a heathen ‘who placed all his hope in the prognostication of birds’ (!) rather than as the missionary king celebrated in west Norse historical legend).

  2. Interesting. Rather than God being on the side of the strongest battalions, the strongest battalions are on the side of God, so we’ll choose your God above the others.

    • I think it’s the idea that the gods are measuring the battalions too that’s interesting. Mind you the same article emphasises that, if the average Baltic pagan didn’t like the answer the gods had given, they might well just ask again until it came out right. Kind of like tossing a coin to find out what you really want to do.

  3. I am recalling this from my spotty memory so details may be off but isn’t there a similiar story re: Iceland? The chief when confronted with Christian missionaries says “Let me ask the gods” and goes under a blanket and enters a trance state returns a day or so later and says “the gods have spoken and told me we should become Christians”. Funny sort of pagan gods who put themselves out of business – perhaps they wanted a rest from the rigors of the god business.

    • That does seem familiar but perhaps someone else can confirm; since we already have JPG in the thread, I hope they can…

      • Yes, the medieval story of Þorgeirr the Lawspeaker and his epoch-making recommendation that the Icelandic general assembly should accept Christianity as the sole public religion of the land (first presented in writing by Ari Þorgilsson approximately 120 years after the event) is well known. The story of the Icelandic conversion is brim-full of juicy tit-bits–but of course it’s not ‘a’ story–it’s a complex of tales that evolved over time, and survives in a range of different texts, including Ari’s. Modern narratives based on these texts are composites–so, for instance, the story of the waterfall doesn’t occur in Ari’s account. There’s lots of historical interest in this stuff, but it’s an uphill battle to keep thinking critically when you’re faced with manifestly anachronistic writings as lovely, level-headed, and full of incident as the Icelandic sagas. It’s certainly interesting that medieval Icelandic stories resolutely depict Iceland as having been converted on Icelandic terms. The interpretation of Þorgeirr’s mysterious withdrawal under his cloak as having involved some sort of shamanistic activity has proved attractive to many. But the crucial difference between these tales and your original Baltic example is that they reflect the Icelanders’ own revisiting and romanticisation of an increasingly distant past. Whether or not C12- and C13th-century Icelandic historical writers might have absorbed lessons from Adam of Bremen and other such writers on pagan access to God’s messaging service is an interesting question.

        • Thankyou, I thought you would know! It’s all rather too late for me to have much idea of where sources are travelling and who might have read what, but it does strike me that of course, my original Baltic example is contemporary to some of the saga-writing, loosely. I wonder what stories might have been travelling across the Northern routes…

          • Well Adam of Bremen was certainly known to some writers of C13th and C14th saga literature: I doubt Henry of Livonia’s Chronicle ever made it to Iceland–but a few Icelanders might have encountered writings like this in mainland Scandinavia or Germany, and some would have been plugged into the right ecclesiastical networks. I’m sure it would be very profitable to look at saga accounts of paganism and Christianisation in mainland Scandinavia in the C10th and C11th in relation to accounts of crusade and conversion in the Baltic in the period during which the sagas were being written.

  4. I’m being very lazy because I am sure Peter Brown references this story but I haven’t the book right at hand – further part of the story is that the fellow who went under the blanket then threw his pagan god statues into a waterfall which is to this day known as the Waterfall of the Gods. I think the background to this was that the Norweigans were converting and putting some pressure on the Icelanders to convert and so it seems that perhaps conversion was a better choice than conflict with the Norwegians. So pagan gods apparently could count battalions – or at least knew how important it was to stay friends with the Norwegians.

    • That’s an interesting twist, because the deposition is almost a ritual act in itself and could have created a new holy site for those not feeling the new religion so intensely…

  5. what seems to be at issue is the need to avoid conflict – not just with the Norwegians but also among themselves. One would think a place like Iceland would require a lot of cooperative behavior to succeed – hence conflict was out of the question. I would think – given that many Icelanders had Irish wives and hence there were probably some Christians even before the arrival of this missionary – that the deposition site did not become a rallying point for dissenters – dissent simply was not going to work in that environment. Which makes me wonder how often the need to avoid conflict within an interdependent group plays a role in conversions.

    • well, there’s dissent, which I take to be active and public, and just carrying on with the same practices as you used to do and going to Church as well. I don’t know much about Iceland, but this is something that Carolingian Church legislators can get a little heated about, and I would assume that, precisely because of the need to co-operate, someone in Iceland doing that would have to be quite anti-social to get him- or herself denounced.

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  7. Since there is no assumption that contemporary historians of the Catholic Church who are also Catholics adopt this perspective this traditional approach is a chapter of historiography not yet closed but applying to a definite area that is not central to the academic history of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is from this standpoint that the Christian historian estimates all particular events in their relation to the end or purpose of the Church. All this is for him objective reality certain truth and the only foundation for the true scientific pragmatism of ecclesiastical history.

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