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book that, in my view, misses the opportunity to advance Francophone Baltic studies by relying on old scholarship and outdated tropes.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

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Publication of Magic in Merlin’s Realm

Publication day is finally here for my book Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain, which is a complete history of the entanglement of politics and magic in Britain’s history. The book has been a long time in the making; I wrote a first draft as long ago as 2017, a project arising from my earlier book Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England.

Display of Magic in Merlin’s Realm at the Cambridge University Press Bookshop, Cambridge

The new book is, I hope, a major contribution to British political history, because its aim is to transform our perception of the importance of belief in magic to politics. In much the same way as we now accept that religious belief played a major role in political decision-making in the past, so Magic in Merlin’s Realm argues that political decision-making in the Middle Ages and beyond cannot be truly understood without reference to people’s belief in occult forces.

As Dr Frank Klaassen has observed, ‘the evidence presented by [Francis Young] unequivocally demonstrates that politics in pre-modern Britain cannot be fully understood without some attention to the notion and practice of magic and the occult sciences in general such as alchemy and astrology. The author has also brought together a tremendous amount of scholarship in this volume which is commendable in its own right

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Lithuania and Britain at the Oxford Lithuanian Society

This evening I spoke via Zoom to the Oxford Lithuanian Society and Oxford University Lithuanian Society on the subject of ‘Lithuania and Britain: An Entwined History’, tracing some of the key historical connections between the two countries. The event celebrated Lithuania’s Restoration of the State Day (16 February) and featured a screening of the film Jump as well as a brief visit from the Lithuanian ambassador, Renatas Norkus. I am grateful to the Lithuanian Society for inviting me as a guest speaker, and for the opportunity to introduce my proposed project of writing a book-length history of Lithuania and Britain, for which I have started a Kickstarter in the hope of crowdfunding a Lithuanian translation. This will allow the book to be published in both Lithuanian and English.

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‘The Last Witch-hunt’ at the SPGS History Conference

Today I was one of the speakers at St Paul’s Girls School‘s annual history conference, on the subject of ‘The Last Witch-hunt: John Stearne in Ely, 1647′. The talk dealt with the end of Matthew Hopkins’ and John Stearne’s infamous witch-hunt of 1644-47 in the Fenland town of Ely, exploring the reason why the witch-hunt came to an end (beyond Hopkins’ death in August 1647) and why witch-hunting became unfashionable.

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‘Bogies, witches and fairies of East Anglia’ for Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education

Today I contributed a lecture on ‘Bogies, witches and fairies of East Anglia’ to a course for Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, ‘Tales of the Unexpected: Local Histories of English Magic and the Supernatural’. The course will features a live question and answer session with the course tutors on 17 February.