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Premiere of ‘St Edmund: From King to Legend’

This evening I attended the premiere of Christian Horsnell’s documentary film ‘St Edmund: From King to Legend’ at Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St Edmunds. The film tells the story of the development and significance of St Edmund’s cult between 869 and 1020, when a Benedictine abbey was founded at Bury St Edmunds. Christian Horsnell interviewed me for the film early in 2020, and after this evening’s screening Christian and I both answered questions from the audience about the film and about St Edmund.

There will be further screenings of the film at Abbeygate Cinema in the coming week and you can book tickets here.

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Talking Jubilee beacons on BBC Radio 4

This afternoon BBC Radio 4’s PM Programme featured an interview in which Evan Davis spoke to me about the history and folklore of beacons. The segment was recorded on 1 June at Castor in Cambridgeshire, where we witnessed the lighting of the village’s new gas-fed beacon for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

Although the tradition of lighting beacons for royal jubilees dates back only to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the lighting of fires has long been a symbol of great national events. Beacons that served as warnings, and as a primitive system of telegraphy, are now a symbol of national unity as well as a powerful emblem of continuity with the ancient past; the high places in the landscape where beacons are lit today may well be the same places where beacons have been lit for as long as humans have sought to communicate over long distances.

You can listen to the interview here from time signature 31:00.

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Review: Queens of the Wild by Ronald Hutton

My review of Ronald Hutton’s new book Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe: An Investigation has just been published by First Things magazine, and explores the light this book sheds on the real history of paganism in the medieval period.

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Launch of Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic

Yesterday (31 May) the Lithuanian Embassy in London hosted an online launch for my recently published book Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic. The Lithuanian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, HE Renatas Norkus, recorded a message welcoming participants before Dr Pavel Horák hosted the event. I gave an introduction to the book, exploring some of its main themes, before Prof. Vytautas Ališauskas of Vilnius University responded with his reflections on the book, followed by Dr Toms Ķencis of the University of Latvia. There was then an opportunity for me to respond to questions sent in by listeners. The launch produced an interesting discussion, and it is my hope that it marks a new development in the study of Baltic religion beyond the Baltic states.

I am very grateful to the Lithuanian Embassy for hosting this event, to the academic participants and to all who attended online.

Arc Humanities Press is currently offering a 40% discount on the book (until 24 June) if the book is purchased via the websites of Arc Humanities Press or Amsterdam University Press. Enter the code PEMA40 when prompted.

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Review: Les derniers païens by Sylvain Gouguenheim

Sylvain Gouguenheim, Les derniers païens: les Baltes face aux chrétiens xiiie–xviiie siècle (Paris: Passés Composés, 2022), hardback, 444pp.

To see a new book about the religious history of the Baltic is always a good thing, given how under-studied and underappreciated this field is outside the Baltic states. To see one appear in French is especially pleasing, given that study of Baltic religion outside Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia has generally been confined to scholarship in Russian, German and Polish (and, to a lesser extent, English). Sylvain Gouguenheim’s study is one of impressive scale, ranging over the entire history of paganism in the Baltic from prehistory to the eighteenth century. However, Les derniers païens is also a problematic book that, in my view, misses the opportunity to advance Francophone Baltic studies by relying on old scholarship and outdated tropes. Even the book’s title raises troubling questions. It was not ‘the Balts’ who were Europe’s last pagans (or, more accurately, Europe’s last pagan polity) – but the Lithuanians. The choice of title reflects Gouguenheim’s decision to analyse Baltic history through an ethnographic rather than historical lense. In doing so he echoes the Indo-Europeanism of Marija Gimbutas and others, where the history of the Balts begins with their language.

There is nothing wrong with ethnography, linguistics and comparative mythology. But that they play such a central role in a book that is avowedly a work of history is a little disappointing. Gouguenheim rightly highlights the difficulty of reconstructing the history of peoples primarily described by outsiders, and hostile outsiders at that; but he shows little interest in the potential contributions of archaeology to our knowledge of the history of the Baltic, and while briefly acknowledging that Lithuania did produce some writings, he portrays the Balts as illiterate and essentially pre-historical. Indeed, the collision of the literate late Middle Ages with the ‘barbarian’ Balts seems to fascinate Gouguenheim, yet this presumes a somewhat stereotyped view of the Balts as people who had no use for writing. As the letters of Mindaugas and Gediminas show, a society illiterate in the technical sense can still make use of writing – and do so very effectively.

The difficulty with persistently viewing the Balts through an ethnographic lense is that it essentially denies them a history in the normal sense; they remain a collection of tribes, caught in the amber of scholars’ fascination with Baltic languages and folklore, while the magnitude of the political achievements of individual Baltic nations are overlooked. It is striking that, for Gouguenheim and many other scholars, the Lithuanians are first and foremost the ‘last pagans’; they are not the creators of an astonishing empire that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The ethnographic focus on the Lithuanians as Balts means that Lithuania’s multi-ethnic polity is neglected.

The author describes Lithuania’s conversion to Christianity as ‘the passage of a “tribal” society to a sovereign principality, having become one of the great European states,’ (p. 74) yet elsewhere he assures us that the Lithuanians formed a pagan state. Gouguenheim seems torn between the evident truth that Lithuania was a functioning polity and the idea that an illiterate, pagan, ‘barbarian’ people could possibly form such a thing. Part of the problem is, perhaps, Gouguenheim’s fairly uncritical approach to the medieval sources. While he acknowledges the limitations of these sources in general terms, the author presents us with accounts of Baltic pagan atrocities and enormities without comment. Similarly, in the book’s extensive section on Baltic paganism, Gouguenheim relies to a surprising degree on authors like Peter of Duisburg and Simon Grunau who have been systematically critiqued for decades as unreliable witnesses in the scholarship on Baltic religion.

Overall, Gouguenheim’s Les derniers païens is a welcome addition to the scholarship – virtually any book about Baltic religion is – but in my view it misses the opportunity to set aside certain misconceptions and hackneyed tropes about the Baltic region. The book is thorough in its treatment of the sources but its interpretation leaves something to be desired. Gouguenheim is to be commended for taking the story of Baltic paganism into the eighteenth century, and his willingness to engage with this little studied region is admirable.

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‘Royal Bury St Edmunds’ in A New Suffolk Garland

Today marks the publication of A New Suffolk Garland, a collection of writing about Suffolk in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, for which I was commissioned to write a section about the royal connections of Bury St Edmunds. The essay explores the history of Bury’s royal visitors, royal patronage and the significance of the shrine and cult of St Edmund to the English royal family over the centuries.

Edited by Elizabeth Burke, Dan Franklin, John James and Mary James, A New Suffolk Garland is inspired by A Suffolk Garland for the Queen (1961), an earlier eclectic anthology about the county for Elizabeth II, which stood in turn in a line of Suffolk Garland books stretching back to 1818. For the latest New Suffolk Garland, 90 authors and artists were invited to contribute new writing and illustrations about Suffolk to produce a memorable souvenir of the county and of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

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‘Folklore For All’ in Hellebore

My article ‘Folklore For All’, a tribute to the 1973 Reader’s Digest book Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, has been published in the latest edition of Hellebore magazine. The article explores and authors and illustrators of this remarkable compendium of British folklore and customs, that became many people’s introduction to folklore and a standard text that inspired a generation’s love of Britain’s ancient lore and customs.

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Publication of Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic

My book Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic: Sixteenth-Century Ethnographic Accounts of Baltic Paganism is published today by Arc Humanities Press.

Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic is the first translation into English of the key Latin texts written between around 1450 and 1580 about the religion, culture and language of the Balts, at a time when paganism was still a living reality in the Baltic region. The Union of Krewo and the formal conversion of Lithuania to Christianity in 1387 created a vast domain ruled by the Lithuanian Jagiellonian dynasty. It therefore became imperative for the scholars of Europe to understand Lithuania and the Lithuanians, who had become in a short time one of the major powers of Catholic Christendom. Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic brings together the writings of ten authors of diverse nationalities (Polish, Lithuanian, German and Italian) who were all trying to make sense of the Baltic peoples in the context of the Renaissance ethnography of the time. These authors, who displayed genuine curiosity about Baltic beliefs and customs even while they condemned pagan ignorance, preserved valuable information about Baltic cultures (although it is important to treat these sources, largely written by outsiders, with caution). The book includes the entire texts of Jan Łasicki’s On the Gods of the Samogitians and Jan Malecki’s Little Book on the Sacrifices and Idolatry of the Old Prussians, as well as extracts from larger works that discussed Baltic religion and society.

Understanding Lithuania and the pagans of the Baltic posed particular conceptual challenges in a late medieval Europe dominated by monotheistic faiths. The problem of understanding the pagans of the Baltic foreshadowed the even greater challenge of engaging with the indigenous peoples of the New World after 1492. Encounters with Baltic pagans and other pre-Christian societies in the Old World prepared Europeans to encounter the global reality of human cultural and religious diversity in the sixteenth century. In 1410, under the patronage of Władysław II Jagiełło, the Polish scholar Paweł Włodkowic became one of the first to argue for the ‘natural rights’ of pagans before the Council of Constance, in the context of the pagan Samogitians’ right to be free of the oppression of the Teutonic Order. The Latin texts translated in Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic could be read by learned individuals throughout Catholic Christendom, and embodied a complex set of responses to Baltic religion that ranged from admiration and nostalgia to condemnation and disgust. Either way, however, Renaissance Europe was fascinated by a real or imagined pagan Baltic world.

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‘Merlin, Magic and the British’ on The Rest is History

Today I featured on Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook’s popular history podcast, ‘The Rest is History’, to talk about the relationship between politics and the occult in British history. The interview focussed on some of the stories in my new book Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain.

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Contract signed with Cambridge University Press: Twilight of the Godlings

The fairy dance by Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach (1895)

I have just signed a contract with Cambridge University Press to publish my next major book, entitled Twilight of the Godlings: The Shadowy Beginnings of Britain’s Supernatural Beings.

Britain has passed through many religious transformations over the past two millennia, including the introduction of Roman religion, the arrival of Christianity, the introduction of Germanic paganism and the final process of Christianisation in the early Middle Ages. Yet historical, linguistic and archaeological evidence reveals that belief in ‘godlings’ – those lesser earthbound spirits of nature, of the home, and of human destiny – has remained a constant throughout the island’s recorded history. From the highly localised deities of Roman Britain to the elves of the Anglo-Saxons and the fairies of late medieval England, Britain’s ‘small gods’ have presided over a twilight realm of belief and ritual co-existing alongside the authorised religions of its rulers. Twilight of the Godlings delves deep into the tangled roots of British folklore by tracing the history and mythology of Britain’s folkloric beings from the pre-Roman Iron Age to the late Middle Ages, arguing that we must cast aside many common cultural assumptions about the ‘Celtic’ origins of fairies and the likelihood of folkloric survivals over many centuries. Setting aside the cherished idea that Britain’s folkloric beings are the decayed remnants of pagan gods and goddesses, Twilight of the Godlings argues that this class of beings has always been part of popular religion. The godlings survived because they fulfilled particular needs, regardless of religious change, and while their names and identities altered, their essential importance remained.

Twilight of the Godlings will be the first book for many years to revisit the once hotly-c0ntested question of the ultimate origins of Britain’s fairies, drawing on the latest research and interpretations and the resources of history, archaeology and linguistics. The book reaches the conclusion that the key to unlocking the secrets of Britain’s godlings is understanding the nature of popular Christianity and the legacy of the Classical world.