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book that, in my view, misses the opportunity to advance Francophone Baltic studies by relying on old scholarship and outdated tropes.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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