Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 13, No 1 (2011)

Pagan Saxon Resistance to Charlemagne’s Mission: ‘Indigenous’ Religion and ‘World’ Religion in the Early Middle Ages

Carole Cusack

Abstract


What is “known” about the interplay between Paganism and Christianity in the Middle Ages grows more problematic with every new scholarly contribution. Recently it has become fashionable to assert that nothing can be known of the earlier oral tradition of Pagans, as all that remain are Christian texts written by Christian clergy who drew upon Biblical models such as Canaanite “idolatry” to depict the Paganism of medieval peoples like the Anglo-Saxons and the Frisians of whose religion they were ignorant. Extreme versions of this position deny the existence of Paganism entirely; this is because all the texts were produced by Christians, and other potential sources of information about Paganism (archaeological evidence, comparative Indo-European parallels, and folklore) are deemed inadmissible. The encounter between literate, urban Christianity and non-literate rural Paganism in early medieval Europe resembles contemporary cases where the claims of “indigenous religions” (e.g. legal actions to establish native title mounted by peoples who were non-literate at the time they were colonized by Europeans) and “world religions” (e.g., missionary religion directly or indirectly facilitating colonialist enterprises) clash. Yet this is rarely recognized within the academic disciplines of history and medieval studies. This article considers the struggle between the Pagan Saxons and the Frankish Christian army of Charlemagne in the late eighth and early ninth centuries as a case study of an indigenous people and religion being crushed by a universalizing world religion promoted by a globalizing colonialist empire. It argues that medieval Christian missionary and colonialist programs were intended to bring about the deliberate obliteration of indigenous Pagan cultures, a fact which is rarely recognized by scholars.

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