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Ravens in the Mead-Hall or How I Spent My Weekend

I just returned from a conference at Villanova this past weekend. The Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance (PMR) conference is one of the leading theology conferences held every year just outside of Philadelphia. It’s really my favorite conference, the one I really, really try to do every year. It’s a lovely group of people and I always learn so much when I attend. This year the panels were so good (they pretty much always are) and I feel I have new things to gnaw upon, so much productive feedback to integrate into my work, and so many new books to track down and read. I can’t wait for next year (and for me to say that about any conference is miraculous. I might enjoy them but they generally wear me out. This one, well, I was sorry when it ended).

This year I chaired a panel and presented a paper. Usually I work in Patristics. My ongoing area of interest is developing a cultural poetics of the eunuch, looking at early Christian sources and the way ideas of the self and the holy were mediated through the figure of the eunuch. Because this conference covers more than just late antiquity, however, I was able to present a side project, one that is rapidly becoming a major secondary area of interest for me. I first gave an iteration of this paper, titled “Ravens in the Mead-hall: Rewriting Faith in the Wake of Charlemagne and the Saxon Wars” at last year’s Kalamazoo Medieval Conference and in between then and now, I’ve tweaked it considerably. This paper discusses Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons and their consequent forced conversion through the lens of post-colonial theory. It utilizes the Heliand, the 9thcentury Saxon translation of the Gospels as a lens through which to explore the re-positioning of the Saxons as a subaltern people, and the ways in which their indigenous religious traditions remained vividly relevant within the framework of Christianity. It gets a little darker than this implies, discussing things like forced child oblation, genocide, and the erasure of indigenous religious cultures too (and these darker threads are things I intend to continue exploring with this line of research). It was remarkably well received.

This is partly my way of holding space as a polytheist for our ancestors. Yes, it is useful to go to professional conferences. It’s a chance to explore these side topics, to get valuable feedback, in an atmosphere that – at least in this case – is fairly relaxed and congenial. Yes, I really want to look more closely at the ways post-colonial theory can be applied to Charlemagne’s atrocities. The more I learn about forced child oblation, forced exile, forced conversion and all the various ways the Franks impeded on and erased Saxon religious culture, the more I’m convinced that it’s here specifically that structures were first put in place that came to be used throughout the conquest of the New World, six hundred years later. Before all of that, however, I am holding space for the dead.

This is important. This is part of our history as contemporary polytheists. This is the story of our traditions, what happened to them, and why we are in the position we’re in today of having to reclaim, rebuild, and restore. If we do not understand what happened and where we came from, then we will never truly appreciate the importance of that restoration, of holding staunchly to our traditions, of cultivating piety and respect and reverence for our dead.

Why do I do this? Let me give one small example: during the Q&A, one of the attendees, a senior scholar who herself later presented a fascinating paper on a piece of Arthurian lit., said to me very earnestly, “I think it’s important to remember that the Franks had good intentions.” When I picked my jaw up off the floor I responded, “I’m sure that makes all the difference to the five thousand plus Saxons butchered at Verden.”

 I’m sure that makes all the difference in the world to the men, women, and children who fought to maintain religious and cultural independence and instead ended up exiled, impoverished, with their children forcibly interred in monastic “schools” where they were Christianized and denied a Saxon identity religious or otherwise. Are you fucking kidding me? That is like saying Hitler had good intentions too. Who the fuck says that? Yet here we are in 2019 and I’ve an intelligent, educated scholar in all earnestness urging me to remember: the Christians had good intentions.  That’s why I do this, because that attitude is everywhere in academia. It isn’t genocide if it occurred before the 19thcentury and was blessed by the cross.

Of course, not everyone thinks that way and most of the scholars that I work directly with would be equally appalled by such a thoughtless comment, a comment that erases the religious and cultural genocide of a people. Still, there are enough who do not question the narrative of the goodness of conversion, of Christian expansion, who do not realize that such expansion came with a heavy price, writ in blood, who do not realize it was forcibly done against the will of numerous peoples, or who do not care, that it is important to hold the line openly and at times vociferously. The evidence is there for those scholars who care to look. It is my obligation to do so. The intentions of those who destroyed our traditions really don’t matter. The results speak for themselves.

For those interested in reading my article in full, it will be coming out in the next issue of Walking the Worlds.

Schooling the Saxons or Colonization of the Mind

In the 19thand well into the late 20thcentury (through the 1990s in some areas), Native children in America and Canada were forcibly removed from their parents and forced into “Indian Schools,” where they were beaten, abused, forced to give up their native language and forcibly Christianized. This was governmental policy. It was law. The primary purpose of their “education” was, first and foremost Christianization. I always thought this was an abomination that happened in the New World. Today I learned differently.

I learned that when Charlemagne (may he be damned) conquered and forcibly converted the Saxons, the same thing happened to them.

I’m still processing this. I was assigned a book to read in one of my classes and the information was there, clear as day. Children were taken away from Saxon families and interned forcibly in monastic schools, which led upon adulthood to those children being tonsured and forced to take vows. It was slavery. Make no mistake, the Saxons did not go peacefully. They did not willingly or easily abandon their Gods. They were butchered, tortured, imprisoned, and forced into conversion by Charlemagne and his successors. Sound familiar?

A hundred years later, in condemnation of a monk Gottschalk of Orbais, a man who had been committed to the monastery as a child and forced against his will to take vows and who was now seeking freedom, his abbot Hrabanus blamed his quest for freedom on an inherent Saxon hatred of Christianity in general and monasticism in particular. Hrabanus made it clear he considered the Saxons at best, a subaltern people, underserving of liberty specifically on religious grounds:

Should those who are inferior by virtue and dignity spurn those superior and more eminent than themselves, and reject them as if they were unworthy of all honor, those to whom they were rightly made subject? For who does not know, living in this region of the world, that the Franks were in the faith and religion of Christ before the Saxons, whom they later subjected to their dominion by force of arms – being made their superiors according to the practice of lords and even more by their paternal disposition—and dragging them away from the cult of idols and converting them to the faith of Christ? But now these notions are spurned ungratefully by certain primates of this very nation according to the flesh against the law of heaven and the law of the court…(emphasis mine)

Because yes, we should all be grateful when the good Christians come to burn down our temples, destroy our religion, execute the faithful, kidnap our children, and force us into servitude. Even the author of the book (and translator, I believe, of these speeches) called this one of the “most blatantly imperialist” views in favor of forced Christianization to be found in the 9thcentury. (For both quotes see Matthew Bryan Gillis, Heresy and Dissent in the Carolingian Empire: the Case of Gottschalk of Orbais,” Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 40-41).

This is the way monotheism worked as it swept across Europe and then the Americas erasing religions and cultures. It was in every case, attempted annihilation.

This is why monotheistic colonization is so different from previous ones. The Romans, for instance conquered people and enslaved them and that was horrible but they didn’t try to completely change the internal landscape of the people, to tear away their language, to obliterate their Gods. Only with monotheism do we see this kind of conquest.  It’s not a white problem. It’s not a black problem. It’s not a problem of any race. It’s a monotheistic problem, so when you ask me why I condemn monotheism so much, why I will never, EVER advocate peace with this system of corruption, take a look at our own history.

And no, not all individual Jews, not all individual Muslims, not all individual Christians – many of them are lovely people and there are many things about their traditions that are lovely as well–but the system is dehumanizing, because monotheism is not the belief in one God, it’s a rejection of all other Divinities and therefore the monotheist can never be at peace with his neighbors.

This is all the more reason why we should commit to honoring our Gods, honoring our ancestors, and rebuilding our communities always, always remembering that they can be destroyed again, if we’re not committed, if we’re not pious, and if we’re not vigilant.   

In memory of the 4500 martyrs of Verdun and all those who have fought monotheistic obliteration before and since.