Pagans in Europe who refused to convert

Just how long did it take for Europe to become wholly Christian?  Well the answer is – a lot longer than you think.  In the year 313, the Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire but at that time, it’s estimated only ten per cent of Romans were Christian.  Once the imperial household had adopted the new religion, plenty of Romans saw it as good politics to climb on board.  But there came a point when even evangelizing in market squares, big donations to the church, tax breaks for priests, career opportunities for the ambitious, etc reached the limit of what it could do to convert everybody.  So….coercion was adopted as a method.  With the emperor Theodosius we see the full use of the Roman state brought to bear to make everybody Christian – and that being the Catholic version of Christianity, not the Arian or Nestorian or any other heresy that sprung up in this period.

So – done deal.  Everybody Christian then?  No.  The historian and Yale professor Ramsay MacMullen has written brilliantly on the subject of how the Roman Empire struggled to bring everybody on board. Pagans resisted at all levels of society including the aristocracy. Many found Christianity intellectually vapid while others held on to the old gods that they believed had given them glory and good fortune in the past.

But surely by the early Middle Ages – centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire –  the crucifix was accepted all over Europe?  Again the answer is negative.  Both Rome and Constantinople – with their differing versions of Christianity – rushed to convert northern Europeans who still rejected Christ.  The old Viking religions succumbed to the sway of the Pope and the eastern Christians, backed by the Byzantines, penetrated deep in to eastern Europe and Russia.

Two movies reveal how royal rulers adopted Christianity quite late on in Europe and how persistent old religions were.  In Army of Valhalla – we see pagan Vikings and pagan Polish tribes fighting in the ninth century – two/three hundred years after England had been re-converted to Christianity, having first adopted it in the fourth century under Roman rule.  We are told at the end of the movie that Poland eventually became Christian…Catholic to be precise.

Iron Lord is a Russian movie that deals much more explicitly with Christian conversion in Russia as a the Prince of Rostov takes on a pagan cult based around a violent bear!  He kills the bear and the tribe converts.  They convert to what one pagan calls the ‘Greek God’ – namely the version of Christianity that was being espoused by the Byzantine empire.

But astonishingly, in the early 13th century, the ‘Old Prussians’ of what is now northern Poland and the Baltic state of Lithuania had still not converted.  Indeed they held out so vigorously that the papacy mounted a full crusade against them, spearheaded by the Teutonic knights – an order not entirely dissimilar to the Templars.   The motivation of those neighboring kingdoms for wanting to convert these people is of course entirely suspect – they coveted their lands – but converted they were and to a large extent destroyed as a culture.  The Teutonic Knights also turned their attention to the Russians, who had adopted the Byzantine version of Christianity, much to the pope’s disgust.

However – the knights came a cropper in what is called the Battle of the Ice where the Russians let the ice do the talking.  Here is a Russian advert for crisps which explains what might have happened.

So, in spite of what you might have thought before, it took nearly a thousand years from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to finally bring Europe under Christian domination.  And not everybody went willingly.


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