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Christianization of Early Medieval Societies: an Anthropological Perspective
By Przemyslaw Urbanczyk
Conversion, and Christianity in the North Sea World: The proceedings of a Day Conference held on 21st February 1998, edited by Barbara E. Crawford (University of St Andrews, 1998)
Introduction: Conversion of early medieval Europe may be discussed as a continental process or as a series of local events having their specific characteristics. Usual scholarly attitude in such studies concentrates on analyzing historical facts that are often supplemented by archaeological data. However, most of the publications lack general perspectives, i.e. some reflection on what was the reason for the spectacular success of Christianity.
I realize the difficulties with reducing the complicated history of conversions to a few general aspects. I know the reservations posed by post-modernist negative attitudes towards the building of models. I acknowledge that we should rather speak of Christianities than of one Christianity and that pagan religions are very difficult to systematize. However, I believe that discussion of the past needs generalizations in order to make possible comparisons for the purpose of formulating our position in discourse and for creating visions of distant times.
Facing the lack of direct evidence left by pagan societies one must use theoretical achievements of cultural anthropology and historical sociology. These may help to understand why Christianity expanded so vigorously and rather peacefully among societies that lived on the fringe of the Italo-Frankish and Byzantine world. Certainly military expansion and coercion were not the most important factors and neither was activity of numerous missionaries. The reason should be sought in the strategy of local elites seeking ideological support for their geopolitical ambitions. They surely understood and admired the socio-technical advantages of Christianity seen in the visual emanation of successful states.
There are furthermore sources indicating some premeditated activity in introducing elements of ideology that seemed necessary for the establishing of stable territorial organizations. I have tried to list those advantages which were so attractive that they made pagan leaders promote the new religion even though it radically interfered with most aspects of social reality. In order to make my argument clearer I will first try to list basic differences between Christianity and European paganism.