Writing Baltic paganism in early modern England / Baltų pagonybė anglų tekstuose ankstyvaisiais Naujaisiais amžiais

Stephen Batman’s translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus (1582), which was among the first English texts to mention the religions of the Baltic peoples

My article ‘ “Of divels in Sarmatia honored”: Writing Baltic Paganism in Early Modern England’ has just been published in The Pomegranate, the international journal of Pagan studies.

The persistence of Paganism in the Baltic region (especially Lithuania) long after its official conversion to Christianity in 1387–1413 was a matter of widespread concern in early modern Europe, including England, challenging the narrative of Christianity’s triumph in northern Europe. England had a long history of engagement in the Baltic, and early modern English authors displayed an interest in surviving Baltic Pagans, while English Jesuits laboured in Lithuania to bring Pagans to Catholicism. This article examines the language used to portray Baltic Paganism by English authors and translators, arguing that Poland-Lithuania’s status as a European power meant Lithuanian Pagans received a somewhat more sympathetic treatment than other indigenous Pagans, such as the Sámi of Scandinavia and Native Americans. Early modern English responses to Lithuanian Paganism thus illuminate the complexity of European Christian attitudes to living Pagan religion in northern and eastern Europe.


‘Of divels in Sarmatia honored’: baltų pagonybė anglų tekstuose ankstyvaisiais Naujaisiais amžiais

Prūsijos, Latvijos ir Lietuvos baltai buvo vieni paskutiniųjų Europos pagonių, o jų atvertimas į krikščionybę tapo Viduramžių Europos cause célèbre, lėmusiu Kryžiaus žygius ir militaristinius vienuolių ordinus prie Baltijos jūros. Anglijos įsitraukimas į Kryžiaus žygius, o vėliau ir ekonominiai ryšiai su Baltijos regionu lėmė didesnį susidomėjimą baltų pagonimis Reformacijos laikotarpiu, XVI amžiuje. Šis straipsnis tiria angliškas reakcijas į baltų pagonis XVI–XVIII a. Keliama hipotezė, kad Lietuvos pagonys susilaukė atlaidesnio vertinimo nei kitos anglų sutiktos ikikrikščioniškos religijos.

[vertė Saulė Kubiliūtė]


‘The Catholic Conundrum’ in History Today

My article ‘The Catholic Conundrum’ has just appeared in the February 2023 edition of History Today, exploring the phenomenon of the survival of Catholicism in early modern England. The article pays particular attention to the relationship between Catholics and the government, and the paradox of a government that simultaneously needed Catholics and subjected them to intense persecution. The article is based on my book with Alan Dures, English Catholicism 1558-1642, which was published by Routledge in 2021.


Film review: Mr Landsbergis

Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s epic documentary film Mr Landsbergis (2021) is over four hours long, and without commentary apart from that provided by the questions Loznitsa asks Vytautas Landsbergis, the Lithuanian music professor who – some would say – brought down the Soviet Union. The film tells the story, through remarkable archive footage, of the first nation to declare its independence from the USSR, beginning the cascade that ended with the abolition of the Soviet Union in December 1991. That nation was, of course, the Republic of Lithuania – illegally annexed and occupied by the USSR in 1940 under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – which fiercely resisted occupation and never surrendered its claim to exist as a sovereign nation. The film tells how, as the thaw of Perestroika began, Lithuanians began to talk openly of independence and discuss how best to achieve it.

Although Landsbergis provides the film’s only commentary, the film is not so much his personal story as that of Lithuania in the years 1988-1991; rather than a story told by Landsbergis, it is a story told by the footage itself, intercut with Loznitsa’s questions to the former Lithuanian leader.

Close to the start of the film, Landsbergis offers a searing moral analysis of the Soviet Union (and, indeed, the Russian Federation that succeeded it):

It is may be one of the greatest mistakes humankind has ever made, and that mistake is all too evident within Russia and the former USSR: the belief that power over something is the supreme value; power over the little people, but first and foremost power over territories, over domains. And such an organisation, which calls itself ‘a state’, exists solely to expand its territory and remain invincible. They proclaimed this in their anthems and wherever else they pleased. ‘Invincible, everlasting, we shall rule forever, and Lenin will live forever’. All this nonsense is forever, and you must forget about everything else, because ‘everything else’ is evil; and if you serve evil, even in your mind, then you are already an enemy. Whose enemy? Our enemy. And since we are the people, that makes you an enemy of the people. If you think differently, if you don’t toe the party line, you aren’t just an enemy of the state, you are an enemy of the people … This is a fundamental lie. And this Empire of Lies, which still flourishes today, is founded on such complete falsehoods.

The first half of the film chronicles the period from the foundation of Sąjūdis (the Lithuanian independence movement) in 1988 to Lithuania’s declaration of independence on 11 March 1990. Loznitsa is unflinching in portraying the internal divisions within Sąjūdis over the best way to advance its agenda within the new atmosphere of Perestroika. The fear that Gorbachev might be replaced by a more hardline leader, and that Perestroika would come to an end, was clearly an ever-present fear; and Lithuanians were rightly concerned about Gorbachev’s motives. Was the new climate of free expression just a trap so that those most actively opposed to the Soviet occupation would publicly expose their identities? These were not unreasonable concerns, but the momentum for independence was also unstoppable.

Central to the Lithuanian independence movement was the insistence that an independent Lithuania would not be a new state, but simply the reinstatement of the Republic of Lithuania created in 1918 and illegally occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940. It was this occupation – and the role of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – that set the Baltic states apart from the other constituent nations of the USSR; and indeed the United States had never recognised the USSR’s annexation of the Baltic republics. However, the crucial event for advancing the Baltic independence movements occurred not in Vilnius, Talinn or Riga but in Moscow, where an official investigation into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact concluded not only that the pact really had existed (something hitherto denied by the regime) but that it had been one of Stalin’s crimes. While damnatio memoriae of Stalin was nothing new, the nullification of the pact had profound political consequences for the Baltic states. What possible reason for the occupation could there now be, if the USSR itself now repudiated the original basis of that occupation?

Gorbachev turned instead to economic arguments in an effort to retain the Baltic nations in captivity. On his visit to Lithuania, he is shown arguing with Lithuanians and assuring them that it was only in the Soviet sphere of influence that the Lithuanian economy could survive. Yet the moral bankruptcy of the late Soviet Union emerges even in his own words: ‘You couldn’t have said this before, could you? You know what would have happened to you’, Gorbachev remarks to one Lithuanian who challenges him, chillingly reminding all Lithuanians of the deportations to Siberia. The idea that the Soviet Union could admit its crimes and wallow in its own moral bankruptcy while at the same time asking Lithuania to remain part of the Union was a defining illusion of the period; Gorbachev, and Soviet officials like him, were incapable of imagining a world without the Soviet Union. What they failed to see was that, with the adoption of intellectual freedom under Perestroika, Communist ideology was being dissolved; and without Communist ideology, the USSR could not exist. The archive footage of the People’s Congress of the USSR, struggling to acclimatise itself to the concept of free discussion and flailing against historical necessity, is some of the most fascinating in the film.

Lithuania’s outlook as an independent country was indeed dire, economically and politically. There was little appetite for the break-up of the Soviet Union in the West; the end-game of Glasnost and Perestroika, as Margaret Thatcher’s government saw it (for example) was some sort of modernised, westernised USSR becoming a trading partner of the West – not the apocalyptic scenario of the USSR’s total collapse, with all the dangers that entailed. Decades of Soviet policies of centralisation left Lithuania economically crippled and scarcely ready to support itself. There was no guarantee that anyone would recognise a self-declared Lithuanian state; what Lithuania was doing, no-one had ever done before. In purely material terms – which were the only terms in which Soviet ideology encouraged people to think – Lithuania’s defiance of the USSR was madness.

Yet the message of Loznitsa’s film is perhaps precisely this – that history, at least sometimes, is not determined by purely material considerations, but by the human spirit. Just three months after Mr Landsbergis was released, Loznitsa’s own country of Ukraine proved this to be true by resisting Russia’s full-scale invasion, against all odds. Yet the situations of Lithuania in 1990 and Ukraine in 2022 were also very different. On the one hand, Lithuania confronted the Soviet Union without an army and without arms, with nothing but nonviolence to fall back on. On the other hand, the Soviet Union of 1990 was a diffident power uncertain of the reason for its own existence, unlike the monstrous engine of extreme nationalist ideology that is the Russia of Vladimir Putin. It was this Soviet diffidence that created the window for Lithuania’s assertion of its own independence, although the months that followed 11 March 1990 must have been terrifying; Lithuania was free in spirit, but the Soviet Army remained. Tanks and armoured vehicles prowled the streets threateningly, and the fledgling government found itself forced out of government buildings as Moscow attempted to impose direct rule.

Moscow’s attempted economic blockade of Lithuania ended in farce when it was undermined by the corruption of Soviet officials themselves, while a military parade through Vilnius in November 1990 to mark the 73rd anniversary of the October Revolution was similarly shambolic, serving only to expose the firmness of Lithuanian opposition to the USSR. Yet a hardening of Soviet attitudes came with the realisation that 1991 would see Lithuania create its own currency, opt out of the Soviet economy, and redouble its efforts to achieve formal diplomatic recognition from foreign governments. The USSR’s ‘special operation’ in January 1991 was calculated to crush Lithuania and occupy it once more. Lithuanians had no means of resisting beyond forming large crowds around key buildings and putting up makeshift barricades. As Landsbergis describes the events of 13 January 1991,

[The Soviets] probably thought that the crowd would disperse. Obviously. They were very well equipped and had military superiority. They fired into the air or at the ground, but then started firing straight ahead when the crowd didn’t disperse. Tanks were used to crush people. People should have run away when they saw the level of violence. But they did not budge, they kept blocking the way, dragged people out from under the wheels, all the while cursing the attackers as fascists …

The Lithuanians’ refusal to budge – the act of physical disobedience that cost 14 people their lives that night – made it impossible for Gorbachev to continue the operation. This was not how it was supposed to happen, and the Soviet leader was desperate to preserve some shred of plausible deniability and salvage his reputation as a peace-loving reformer. However, the film makes clear how close Lithuania came to losing everything in August 1991 when hardliners attempted a putsch against Gorbachev – Soviet commanders in the Baltic were willing to seize control of the independent republics (where Soviet troops were still stationed, of course).

Loznitsa’s decision to concentrate solely on the story of Lithuania means that the wider Baltic context is missing from this film – which makes it unusual, since the story of the Baltic independence movements is often told together. Furthermore, there are some aspects of the story emphasised more than others – and the events at the TV Tower of the night of 13 January 1991 are not covered in much detail. There are numerous points in the film when it would not be clear what is going on to someone unfamiliar with modern Lithuanian history, and there is no captioning of prominent individuals who appear in the film so we know who they are. This may be because the film was aimed at a Lithuanian audience (although Loznitsa interviewed Landsbergis in Russian) and therefore the audience would be expected to know. Or it may be that Loznitsa made the directorial decision that such niceties as captioning would interrupt the flow of the film. Either way, the film is a monumental achievement in the compilation and interpretation of archival film of a crucial event in 20th-century European history, interpreted by the man who was at the centre of those events.


A return to fiction: Shades of Rome

My second collection of supernatural tales, Shades of Rome: Ghostly Tales of Roman Britain has just been published. The collection follows on from my first foray into short fiction, Yellow Glass and Other Ghost Stories, published in 2020. Unlike the first collection, however, all of the stories in Shades of Rome are united by a theme: namely, the archaeology of Roman Britain, whose uncanny side emerges in these tales of archaeological horror.

The collection includes a preface, ‘Britain’s Roman Uncanny’, which explores the place of Roman Britain in supernatural and weird fiction, and why this period of history exerts such a pull. The seven stories themselves are inspired by Britain’s Roman remains – long-abandoned sacred springs, disturbing curse tablets, troubling altars – as well as by our behaviour in encountering the relics of the past; both a ‘nighthawk’ (an illegal metal detectorist) and an overreaching billionaire who rebuilds a Romano-British temple suffer unexpected consequences in these stories.

I hope that these stories will bring ‘a pleasant terror’ to readers as well as bringing to life the archaeology of Roman Britain, which still has the power to fire the imagination…


Article in The Catholic Herald about the Harpole Treasure

My article ‘Excellent Women’, about the remarkable Harpole Treasure from Northamptonshire, has appeared in the January 2023 edition of The Catholic Herald magazine. The article explores the possible context for this 7th-century burial and its potential significance for understanding the spread of Christianity in early medieval England, and Mercia in particular.


Review: A History of Christian Conversion by David W. Kling

My review of David W. Kling’s A History of Christian Conversion has just appeared in the journal ARYS. This is a major new global history of the phenomenon of conversion in Christian history, from the early church to recent times.


Film review: November

November is a 2017 film by the Estonian director Rainer Sarnet, based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk. The film is notable – and of interest to me – for its portrayal of Estonian folklore. It has been classified (wrongly, in my view) as folk horror, a genre that has developed in the Anglo-American world and has limited relevance to Baltic cinema. There is nothing in the film that an Anglo-American audience would recognise as horror. The best description for the film’s style is, instead, ‘magical realism’, because the viewer is plunged into a world where everything in Estonian folklore is viscerally real and, indeed, just a part of life. Peasants really can assemble their farm implements into a kratt, animated by a pact with the devil; the dead really do return and feast with the living on All Souls’ night; people really can transform themselves into wolves; the devil is a grotesque, clown-like trickster.

Films based on folklore are always faced with a dilemma; to what extent will the film suggest that everything in folklore is real? At the two extremes are folk horror (where folklore is often a motive for extreme and horrific human behaviours rather than corresponding to any preternatural reality) and magical realism, where everything in folklore is real. In the middle hover those films that try to create some doubt in the viewer’s mind about the reality or unreality of preternatural beings. November works so well because it is firmly in the magical realist genre; there is no ambiguity. This world is real. And this, indeed, reflects the feel of Estonian folktales, which rarely present the preternatural in ambiguous terms. If you go into the sauna at the wrong time, you might well be flayed alive by murderous sauna-spirits (although the sauna, interestingly, makes only a passing appearance in November).

In addition to the film’s unabashed magical realism, something else I appreciate about November is the avoidance of a paganism/Christianity dichotomy. Such a dichotomy is a frequent trope of the folk horror tradition, precisely because that genre is grounded in Anglo-American cinema and therefore in a culture where such a distinction has been consciously constructed, with folklore stereotypically interpreted as ‘pagan relics’. In Estonia, by contrast, scholarship on folk religion has tended to approach it as a form of popular Christianity with local characteristics; Estonia was, after all, formally Christianised much earlier than its Baltic neighbours, in the early 13th century. And yet, as becomes clear over the course of the film, this popular religion is really neither Christianity nor paganism, but something else: a third, creole construction composed of elements of folklore and half-understood Christianity, itself like a kratt made of old tools and brought to a kind of life. There is a memorable scene where the entire congregation spits out the hosts they have received at Holy Communion in order to make holy bullets, and by the end of the film the priest’s housekeeper has bewitched him with the help of a local witch, leading the old man about on a lead in order to perform his sacred duties. But, crucially, those duties are still considered necessary. The horror lies not in paganism overtaking Christianity; rather, the colonial Christianity imposed on the Estonians is a weak, feeble thing unequal to the task of holding the people’s hearts and minds, so they turn it to their own wills.

November is set at an unspecified date in the first half of the 19th century – a significant period, since Estonia’s peasants had already been freed from serfdom but remained under the rule of a German Lutheran aristocracy who were given a significant degree of autonomy within the Russian Empire. There are hints in the film of a coming Estonian national revival, but for now the peasants remain in a degraded state; cowed by yet also rebellious against the decadent aristocracy, who are taken for fools by their own servants and tenants.

Clearly, there are certain themes of the film that hark back to a shamanistic Finnic past, such as Liina’s real or imagined transformation into a wolf in some sort of trance state; but these are not overplayed as ‘pagan survivals’, perhaps because the film is told from the perspective of peasants who are unaware of the origins of any of their customs – they are just things they do, just things that happen. The film avoids self-consciousness to an impressive degree; most importantly, it offers a plausible experience of the world-view of a 19th-century Estonian peasant – indeed, perhaps one that is more plausible than anything a purely realist film could offer.


Review: Ten Cathedral Ghosts by Nicholas Orme

Nicholas Orme, Ten Cathedral Ghosts (Wick: Brown Dog Books, 2022), 134pp.

The antiquarian ghost stories of M. R. James have many imitators, to the point where the ‘antiquarian ghost story’ might be said to be a sub-genre of ghost stories (or supernatural stories) themselves at this point. The antiquarian ghost story is ostensibly so called because its protagonist is often an antiquary or other academic knowledgeable about the past, or because the story features some sort of antiquarian investigation or discovery. But James was also an antiquary himself, and thus a strict interpretation of the antiquarian ghost story might require that its writer should be an antiquary as well, because antiquarian ghost stories are a genre of supernatural tale that emerges from the work of the historian, the archivist, or the archaeologist. It is certainly the case that many ghost stories with antiquarian themes attempted by writers with no experience of actually working with the remains of the past often miss the mark and feel like ill-judged mimicry.

Nicholas Orme is among the most eminent historians of medieval Britain alive today, and therefore his slim volume of ghost stories certainly fits that strictest definition of the antiquarian ghost story. Orme knows of what he writes. The conceit of the collection is that they are all set in the same place – the cathedral and cathedral close of the fictional cathedral city of Acester – and recounted by Orme as both a narrator and, in some cases, a participant in the story as the cathedral’s historian. Orme is, of course, the historian of a real cathedral: Exeter Cathedral, on which he wrote a book in 2009 to celebrate its millennium. Whether Acester is a thinly-disguised Exeter is for the reader to decide.

Each of Orme’s stories is capable of standing alone, but they are also linked together by the same location and some of the same characters, such as the vague, hapless and trendy Dean and the caustic, old-fashioned yet spiritually astute Canon Caliver. Having lived for years in the equivalent of a cathedral close myself (The College at Ely), I can say that Orme’s portrait of life in the curtilage of a great cathedral rings true – and the very idea of setting a book in a fictional cathedral close is, of course, a literary nod to the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope.

As for the ghosts themselves, the first one we encounter (in ‘It Came Upon The Midnight Clear’) is a rather terrifying and malevolent poltergeist-like being that tries to engineer Canon Caliver’s death. The remaining ghosts are rather less threatening than this, even if the grinning skeleton of ‘The Ace of Hearts’ is rather unsettling; and some, like the Victorian lady of ‘Through A Glass, Darkly’, are positively benevolent. Perhaps my favourite trope of the antiquarian ghost story is the role of old documents in uncovering the story, giving insight into the work of the historian; and Orme does not disappoint. Archival work plays a role in ‘The Second Echo’, while an obscure antiquarian volume sets things going in ‘On Matthew’s Day at E’en’. A medieval book is at the centre of ‘The Devil’s Epiphany’, even if it has now been emptied of its sinister import. The restoration of an ancient artefact is at the centre of ‘The Limping Imp’, perhaps the strongest story in the collection which manages to be comic and menacing in equal parts.

Ghost stories written by antiquaries – as opposed to mere ‘antiquarian ghost stories’ in the sense of fitting a Jamesesque genre – are always interesting, speaking as they do to the sometimes unnerving experience of immersing oneself in the past and its documents or relics, day after day. The past has a tendency to become more real than the present; the dead seemingly assert themselves, clamouring for recognition. Furthermore, anyone who spends enough time in an archive is sure to encounter some strange things along the way – peculiar stories, enigmatic yet suggestive inscriptions, unsettling uses of language. All of these are fuel to an imagination already predisposed to detect the uncanny.

Nicholas Orme’s Ten Cathedral Ghosts are well-crafted stories in the tradition of M. R. James’s ‘pleasing terror’, moving from the comfortable, the banal and the familiar into altogether more unsettling realms. They work well together as an ensemble, and we are left with an impression of the community of the cathedral close, both living and dead, which adds another layer of depth and texture to the stories. A book of ghost stories by a historian is always a treat – for when it comes to the power of the undead past to intrude into the present, historians know whereof they speak.


Short story published in Ghosts & Scholars

© Corinium Museum

My short ghost story ‘To The Unclean Spirits’ was published recently in volume 43 of the supernatural fiction magazine Ghosts & Scholars, guest-edited by Helen Grant. Set on Hadrian’s Wall, the story features a sinister Roman altar, some illicit archaeology, and the discovery that some beings honoured in Roman Britain are just waiting for a little attention to awake and seek refreshment…


Article published in British Catholic History: ‘Surveying a Field Come of Age’

My review article ‘Surveying a Field Come of Age’ has just been published in the journal British Catholic History. The book is a review of Robert E. Scully and Angela Ellis’s Companion to Catholicism and Recusancy in Britain and Ireland, but also goes beyond that to take stock of the historiography of early modern British Catholicism and the field’s recent evolution. The appearance of summative companions like Scully and Ellis’s is an indication that the field is approaching, or has attained, maturity and is seeking ways to define its identity and communicate it to scholars in other disciplines as well as to the wider public.