• Michaela Selway

Defining “Pagan” in the Early Medieval Period

The period from the death of Christ until the “death” of paganism can arguably be defined by belief and the ruptures and changes that underwent religious thought throughout this period. Despite the importance of this term, however, few historians writing on the medieval period have defined the word belief. This is because belief is one of the most difficult terms to define, thus the historian takes for granted the reader’s understanding of the word [1]. In the introduction to his book, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe, John Arnold stipulates that belief is arduous to define as it is intangible and only manifests in actions [2]. However, actions do not always disclose the beliefs of the individual as one can act against them. Thus, Arnold posits that the most accurate method of recording belief is to record unbelief: ‘the absence of something expected.’ [3] When placed in this context, belief becomes the set of ideals or expectations one has for their surroundings or future [4]. Jaime Ezquerra states that belief was ‘a cultural construction whose ambition it [was] to describe and taxonomise perceived reality, not merely at the level of empirical facts but also at the level of the imaginaire.’ [5] Belief gave meaning to everyday life and often gave individuals a purpose and place in society. Religion, in particular, created communities that individuals could identify with. Margaret M. Mitchell notes how belief was used in this period to create an ‘us versus them’ divide between different religions [6].This can be seen through the Christian use of the word “pagan” to determine who was Christian and who was not. The use of this term changed over the course of the early medieval period, revealing that beliefs were not black and white, as the writers hoped to portray it, but rather flexible enough to allow manipulation with changing contexts.

Images of Pagans in Medieval Texts

While a definition of belief is not present in many texts on these two periods, the historiography has greatly dealt with the definition of pagan. In the preface to his book Between Pagan and Christian, Jones argues that the definition of “pagan” varied depending on the religion of the author, particularly considering that it was Christians who first used the word extensively [7]. Jones undertakes a history of the word pagan, beginning with the etymological meaning: pagus, “belonging to a village.” This developed into “civilian” and then “enlisted soldier.” Therefore, the traditional definition of pagan was merely villager or ‘peasants among whom the old beliefs and practices lingered on.’ [8] Over the centuries, pagan developed religious connotations as it began to denote ‘those who did not accept the Christian God,’ which was synonymous to the word ‘Gentile.’ [9] Jones notes how in the fourth century, writers transitioned away from using gentile and solely to pagan as it carried more connotations other than simply those of another religion [10]. Other derivatives such as paganus became one who was “non-Christian” or ‘one not enrolled in the army of Christ.’ [11] Overall, “pagan” was used by Christians to denote ‘the other’ and create a division between themselves and those of another religion [12].

Much like Arnold’s use of belief, the comparison between pagan and non-pagan allowed Christians to clearly determine what they were not in order to define what they were, thus establishing what were acceptable practices for a good Christian to adhere to [13]. Maijastina Kahlos explores this in her book Debate and Dialogue, where she determined that ‘Christian polemical writings functioned as a tool for establishing and defining boundaries between Christianity and other religions.’ [14] Indeed, Kahlos argues that ‘Christian authors themselves [were] the creators of the images of pagans’ rather than the pagans themselves creating their own image. Thus, the image created ‘reveals more of the creators of the image than of the object portrayed.’ [15] Similarly, just as historians must be wary of labelling all individuals under broad terms, Kahlos stated that Christians and traditional historians of this period placed all ‘diverse religions, cults and practices’ within this one term “pagan” [16]. Kahlos challenged this notion with her development of the term incerti: those who fell between the two religions [17]. She argues that incerti have been forgotten in history as Christian leaders were too concerned about representing their religion in a black and white manner [18]. In their opinion, the assimilation of Christians into “pagan” culture between the death of Christ and the reign of Constantine was diluting their pure faith [19].

Jones’ and Kahlos’ works rewrote the definition of the word “pagan” in the early medieval period to reveal the multifaceted use of the word. As the word “pagan” was a Christian construct, it allowed the word to change meaning depending on the societal pressures. Henry Sefton argued that in the fourth century Christian rulers legalised Christianity, which allowed Christians to worship publicly and in their own buildings that accommodated larger crowds [20]. Christian leaders sought to establish Christianity as the true and only religion. Jones argued that this was led by religious doctrine and policies that widened the chasm between Christian and non-Christian. Indeed, Jews, whom Christians had sought protection under in the first period, and pagans ‘became more and more linked together in Christian thought’ due to their rejection of Jesus Christ, and thus their rejection of the “truth” [21]. Throughout the course of the early medieval period, Jews became labelled as pagans, despite their commonality with Christianity. It was through the works of historians such as Jones and Kahlos that incerti and the changing nature of the word pagan were disclosed. Their exploration of the ‘grey area’ led to other studies that rewrote traditional narratives of these two periods [22].

It is through the work of historians such as Kahlos and Jones that traditional understandings of broad terms such as “pagan” and “Christian” are able to be questioned. Through a study of what belief meant in the early medieval period, the meaning of what was not Christian became clear. These terms were not set in stone but rather altered with the changing contexts of society. In order to create an “us versus them” divide between a Christian and a non-Christian, the meaning of the word “pagan” was manipulated and even those with a similar religious foundation, notably the Jews, were excluded.

--- Michaela Selway is the co-founder of Tāhuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying how biblical ideas on Origin Myths, Morality, Prophecies and Gender Roles were projected into Chronicles throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


[1]John Arnold, ‘Belief,’ in Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe, London, 2005, p.1.

[2]Arnold, ‘Belief,’ p.6

[3]ibid., p.4.

[4]ibid., p.5.

[5]Jaime Alvar Ezquerra, Romanising Oriental Gods: myths, salvation, and ethics in the cults of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras, New York, 2008, pp.18-19.

[6] Margaret M. Mitchell, ‘Gentile Christianity,’ The Cambridge History of Christianity: Part II - ‘The Jesus Movements, Cambridge, 2006, p.103.

[7]Jones, Between Pagan and Christian, p.xiii.

[8]Jones, Between Pagan and Christian, p.4.

[9]ibid., pp.xiii, 3.

[10]Jones, Between Pagan and Christian, p.5.

[11]ibid., p.5.

[12]ibid., p.6.

[13]Maijastina Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue: Christian and Pagan Cultures c.360-430, Aldershot, 2007, p.2.

[14]ibid., p.1.

[15]ibid., p.1.

[16]ibid., p.2.

[17]Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue, p.2.

[18]ibid., p.3.

[19]Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue, p.4.

[20]Henry Sefton, ‘Buildings and Belief: Early Church Structures,’ in Tim Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity, Minneapolis, 2018, p.135.

[21]W. Ward Gasque, ‘Establishing Christianity: Challenges to the New Faith,’ in Tim Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity, Minneapolis, 2018, p.29; Jones, Between Pagan and Christian, p.9.

[22]Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue, p.2.


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