aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,
aefenglommung
aefenglommung

And now, for something completely different

Last night, one of my parishioners, who teaches 8th Grade History, asked me for some help identifying primary sources. She has a working group of students who have identified a thesis for a research paper which she feels unqualified to assist much with.

Their thesis is that there is a pagan origin to many Christian holidays. Now, this has been asserted many times. And it has been disputed many times. A month or so ago, we argued over the origins of Christmas here on LJ. I can find a fair assortment of scholars quoting other scholars back and forth.

But she requires her students to cite at least two primary sources; that is, quotations and such from back in the time when Christianity was expanding and solidifying its position in society, creating and/or adapting holidays and new customs for them.

I could think of only one primary source: Pope Gregory's letter to Abbot Mellitus, giving advice to pass on to Augustine of Canterbury. It was written in 601, and is preserved in Bede, who wrote a century or so later. My e-mail to the teacher and Gregory's letter are below the cut, if you're interested.

Anyway, can anybody else help with some primary sources that address this issue?

The thesis your students are entertaining is a hotly contested one among scholars. Current scholarly opinion is leaning against the idea of Christianity taking over pagan holidays and customs wholesale (baptizing them, so to speak). But there is a blizzard of details and every writer makes of the data what he will.

The only PRIMARY source I can readily find is a letter written in AD 601 by Pope Gregory in Bede's History (Chapter 30), which I quote below. Considering how unique Gregory was in the history of Christian missions, his advice might be taken as the EXCEPTION, rather than the rule, though. Gregory was unusually accommodating and willing to let the English make modifications in worship and customs and so forth (under Augustine's guidance), rather than impose a Roman pattern on them. That is perhaps one reason why the conversion of the English was so thorough that Anglo-Saxon paganism is recoverable only through a tiny handful of material and linguistic remains. Gregory's pattern was generally NOT followed by other church leaders.


To our well loved son Abbot Mellitus: Gregory, servant of the servants of God.

Since the departure of those of our fellowship who are bearing you company, we have been seriously anxious, because we have received no news of the success of your journey. Therefore, when by God's help you reach our most reverend brother, Bishop Augustine, we wish you to inform him that we have been giving careful thought to the affairs of the English, and have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God. And since they have a custom of sacrificing many oxen to demons, let some other solemnity be substituted in its place, such as a day of Dedication or the Festivals of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there. On such occasions they might well construct shelters of boughs for themselves around the churches that were once temples, and celebrate the solemnity with devout feasting. They are no longer to sacrifice beasts to the Devil, but they may kill them for food to the praise of God, and give thanks to the Giver of all gifts for the plenty they enjoy. If the people are allowed some worldly pleasures in this way, they will more readily come to desire the joys of the spirit. For it is certainly impossible to eradicate all errors from obstinate minds at one stroke, and whoever wishes to climb a mountain top climbs gradually step by step, and not in one leap. It was in this way that the Lord revealed himself to the Israelite people in Egypt, permitting the sacrifices formerly offered to the Devil to be offered thenceforward to Himself instead. So He bade them sacrifice beasts to Him, so that, once they became enlightened, they might abandon one element of sacrifice and retain another. For, while they were to offer the same beasts as before, they were to offer them to God instead of to idols, so that they would no longer be offering the same sacrifices. Of your kindness, you are to inform our brother Augustine of this policy, so that he may consider how he may best implement it on the spot. God keep you safe, my very dear son.

Dated the seventeenth of June, in the nineteenth year of the reign of our most pious Lord and Emperor Maurice Tiberius Augustus, and the eighteenth after his Consulship: the fourth indiction."
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