A friend recently shared an article from First Things by Francis Young, “The Myth of Medieval Paganism.” It’s a worthwhile read, and makes a point that medieval historians have been trying to get through to the culture for a long time. “For post-Reformation Protestants, the Middle Ages were pagan because they were Catholic.” This anti-Catholicism in turn created a mythology that took unexpected turns. The Romanticism of the Victorian era conjured up a “pagan” Middle Ages that never existed and has precious little to do with any evidence. Historians have long known better; even when they were fresh, the extravagant hypotheses of James Frazer’s Golden Bough and other, less-responsible folklorists, were incisively criticized. But they have an enduring grip on the popular imagination, making for good tour-guide stories and advertising pamphlets, and have proven hard to eradicate.
Last week I played the song of the roasted swan (Olim Lacus Colueram) from the Carmina Burana for one of my classes, in the Boston Camerata’s reconstruction of the original, not Carl Orff’s modern version. The student reaction I thought most interesting was, “This sounds pagan.”
That was an interesting comment because, of course, neither that student nor anyone else has ever HEARD “pagan” music. The qualities that, in our popular imagination, evoke a “pagan” sound are, in reality, simply MEDIEVAL, and the people who originally created that music would have seen themselves as good Christians. Presumably pre-Christian Europeans sang songs of some kind and there are bits of verse preserved that may convey the lyrics, but we have little idea what any of it sounded like, and no sign that there was a distinctively “pagan” music style. Music was just music. A friend recently shared with me a rendering of a poem from the Norse Egilssaga that was used in Game of Thrones and is now popular on Tiktok. It was sung as though it were an Irish ballad that Clannad or Altan could have performed. Whatever Egil Skallagrimsson sounded like when he chanted his verse, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that.
Modern neo-pagan pop culture has appropriated elements of medieval style, taking their cues from the wishful fantasies of Victorian folklorists who thought they saw “pagan survivals” and sometimes even “secret resistance” in “Green Men” (aka foliate heads) and damn near anything else with a whiff of agricultural or sexual fertility (as though medieval Christians didn’t farm and have sex). Never mind the inconvenient fact that foliate head designs never occur in pre-Christian settings.
To some extent, everything I’m saying here may just be academic pedantry. Who cares if our imagination of a pagan Middle Ages is just a fantasy? What harm does it do to sing a Viking lyric in an Irish style? Probably it doesn’t matter much at all. Sometimes I feel like the professional horse trainer driving through the countryside, whose young daughter said, “Mommy, look at the beautiful horsie!” and snapped back, “No it isn’t,” before realizing what she was saying.
And yet, maybe it does matter. Modern neo-pagans are not the same as neo-Nazis, but the ideology of white supremacism often draws on the imagery of a fantasized Middle Ages as a white man’s paradise. Many Nazis seized on the idea of a Nordic “pagan survival” in the Middle Ages because the Christianity that actually predominated was insufficiently Arian, too foreign, too Mediterranean… too Jewish.
The appropriation of medieval tropes by neo-Nazis punches an obvious panic button. But there’s a subtler, equally significant issue here. I’ve been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics lately. One of his themes that resonates strongly for this historian is his insistence that any view of ethics must be thoroughly engaged in reality, not (contra Kant) the rigid adherence to abstract principle. I often stress to my students an ethical foundation of study, that all people – including those long dead – deserve to be understood before they are judged, whether positively or negatively. It is our mandate to understand people fully, on their own terms, and not rush to condemn them, nor to romanticize or idolize them. In this way, the essence of the study of history is the exercise of love; to embrace the other person in their reality, as they are, not as what we find it useful for our own ends to make them into.
And this, in turn, brings us to the thorny problem of “appropriation.” “Cultural appropriation” has become a buzzword on the left, and with cause. Like many such tropes, it has often been overdone; cultures by nature tend to influence and borrow from one another, and not every borrowing is an act of imperialistic desecration of another’s sacred tradition. Nevertheless, appropriation can be the antithesis of love; treating the other fellow human’s life as a vein of aesthetics and imagery to mine for one’s own purposes rather than as a living human to embrace and share with. It is, in that sense, a looter’s habit of mind to live in. What I would point out here is that such a looting mentality is not limited only to contemporary cultures; there’s also such a thing as chronological appropriation, seizing upon the images and themes of the past, wrenching them out of context for our own ends, and treating the past as a fantasy to justify our own wishes rather than as the lives of real human beings to be taken seriously AS human beings.
At the heart of it all, the practice of history is a work of love; to learn to embrace the reality of the other person, alien to ourselves in so many ways, and not to bend them to our own purposes when they, departed from this world, are no longer able to object.