Where Did All The Pagans Go?

Where Did All The Pagans Go? November 25, 2016

I have been posting about a source on religion in Wales around 1715 , which illustrates how Christian communities maintain themselves when church structures and institutions have been removed. The author, Erasmus Saunders, tells us a lot about the rural society of his time, and its religious life. Almost as important, though, is what he does not tell us. Although this is not really a live argument these days, reading Saunders makes nonsense of what was once a powerful historical theory, namely that early modern Britain (and Europe) was awash with clandestine rural paganism, complete with secret human sacrifices. (I have already blogged quite a bit on this theme).

Saunders portrays a society with plenty of medieval and Catholic survivals, including prayers for the dead, the invocation of ancient saints, and the veneration of holy wells associated with those saints. From other sources, we also know that those ancient Celtic saints were particularly commemorated in the feast days of the mapsant or patronal festival celebrated by each parish, and which served as the focal point of the rural year. These events reinforced the connection of the given territory with a saintly founder, Teilo (Teilaw) at each of the various Landeilos, Cadoc at Llangadog, David at Llanddewi, and so on. A large proportion of Welsh place-names recall the church (llan) or martyrdom site (merthyr) of this cloud of Celtic witnesses, places commonly associated with special fairs and holy wells.

The mapsant and the ritual landscape with which it was associated survived largely intact until uprooted by Methodist and evangelical revivals between about 1780 and 1830. The evangelicals hated the older practices as signs of paganism, which they emphatically were not. Those practices were Catholic, and historically very Christian.

Other than the holy wells (just possibly), Saunders describes nothing whatever that fits the Margaret Murray secret paganism theory, and if anything like that had indeed been happening, he would have trumpeted it forth because it fitted his theme so exactly. We can even imagine what he might have said. Look, these villagers are so deprived of proper pastoral care that they are performing ancient pagan rituals! They are sacrificing bulls to Celtic gods! There are naked fertility rituals! Oh, the horror! Quick, give us lots of money to pay more clergy!

Do we find anything like this? Absolutely not a word. Nor is there anything from any of the later evangelical writers who were likewise so anxious to portray the Welsh (and English) villagers as buried in a swamp of primitive ignorance and lust. But paganism? Of course not. That concoction would not appear until the romantic speculations of the late nineteenth century.

Wales, incidentally, produced plenty of folklore and superstitions about witches and conjurers, soothsayers and cunning men (or women), but at the same time, there is very little evidence indeed of formal witchcraft charges or cases. The total executed on such charges through the whole of its history runs to five names, all between 1594 and 1655. (Richard Suggett, A History of Magic and Witchcraft in Wales, History Press, 2008). When witchcraft does feature in court records, it is commonly in church court records of slander cases (“You damned witch!”) Wales in fact runs as close as we get in Europe to being witchcraft-free.

Where we actually have evidence of what those accused Welsh witches were using for their charms and spells, it commonly involved pre-Reformation Catholic material. Protestant regimes might not have liked that, but pagan it clearly was not.

Proving a negative is very difficult, but in this case, it really does seem possible. That theory about covert paganism is simply and demonstrably wrong.


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