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CONVERSION AS CONVERGENCE: GREGORY THE GREAT CONFRONTING PAGAN AND JEWISH INFLUENCES IN ANGLO-SAXON CHRISTIANITY Miriam Adan Jones In a famous letter written in July 601, Gregory the Great offers two pieces of advice to the party of Roman missionaries working in Anglo-Saxon England, regarding how they are to deal with the pagan past of their (prospective) converts. First, with regard to places of worship, Gregory proposes that pagan temples ought to be rid of their idols and consecrated as churches; second, with regard to religious celebration, that the pagan custom of ritual slaughter and feasting should be retained with certain adjustments.1 Particularly striking is the advice to include in the festivities the building of huts (tabernacula), from the boughs of trees, in which the worshipers may sojourn while feasting at the site of their converted church.2 Far from being a concession to English pagan usage, this seems to have been inspired by the Jewish festival of Sukkot , the feast of tabernacles, as described in the Old Testament and practiced by earlymedieval Jews.3 Gregory’s letter, addressed to Abbot Mellitus and meant to be relayed by him to the missionaries, goes on to argue that the Anglo-Saxons will be more receptive to Christianity if the change is incremental: “For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut away everything at the same time from hardened minds, because anyone who strives 1  S. Gregorii Magni Registrum epistularum, ed. Dag Ludvig Norberg, 2 vols, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina (hereafter CCSL) 140, 140A (Turnhout: Brepols, 1982), XI.56 (hereafter Reg. ep.). 2 It is not clear whether Gregory’s advice was ever put into practice. David Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism (London ; New York: Routledge, 1992), 29–43, finds no indication in the literature that pagan sites of worship were converted into churches. Flora Spiegel, “The tabernacula of Gregory the Great and the Conversion of Anglo-Saxon England,” Anglo-Saxon England 36 (November 14, 2007): 6–10 (hereafter Spiegel, “The tabernacula ”), on the other hand, offers archaeological and literary evidence that Gregory’s instructions to construct tabernacula may have been carried out in at least some cases. 3 Spiegel, “The tabernacula,” 4–5. i6 p&c 00 book.indb 151 2017.09.20. 16:22 MIRIAM ADAN JONES 152 to ascend to the highest place, relies on ladders or steps. He is not lifted up in one leap.”4 But in other letters Gregory’s attitude is markedly different: “hunt down the worship of idols, and overturn the building of temples” (Idolorum cultus insequere, fanorum aedificia euerte), he writes to King Æthelbert of Kent only a few weeks earlier.5 This harsher approach accords better with what we know of Gregory’s missionary strategy in other regions: where paganism is found in Sicily, Sardinia, and Francia, we find him encouraging bishops and aristocrats alike to repress it forcefully.6 There is also support for the use of force to aid Christianization in Gregory’s theological works: in his Moralia, Gregory compares the power wielded by temporal rulers to the strength of the rhinoceros—just as the rhinoceros breaks up the earth enabling it to be cultivated, the Christian ruler crushes the wicked and allows the church to flourish.7 This makes Gregory’s leniency towards English paganism in his letter to Mellitus surprising. Surprising also is his deliberate importation of a Jewish custom into the English context. Not only because there was no precedent for such an appropriation, but because Gregory would normally balk at the idea of Christians applying the letter of the Law to themselves in such a manner. His preference for a spiritual understanding of the Hebrew scriptures expresses itself throughout his exegetical works. An extended argument for the spiritual reading of the Old Testament opens his commentary on the Song of Songs. To heed only the literal sense, he writes, is like noticing only the colors 4  “Nam duris mentibus simul omnia abscidere impossibile esse non dubium est, quia is qui summum locum ascendere nititur gradibus uel passibus, non autem saltibus eleuatur.” Reg. ep., XI.56; John R.C. Martyn, trans., The Letters of Gregory the Great, Mediaeval Sources in Translation 40 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004), 803 (hereafter Martyn, Letters). 5  Reg. ep. XI.37; Martyn, Letters, 783; George Demacopoulos, “Gregory the Great and the Pagan Shrines of Kent,” Journal of Late Antiquity 1, no. 2 (2008): 353–69 (hereafter Demacopoulos, “Gregory and the Pagan Shrines”), suggests Gregory’s letter to Æthelbert should...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9789633862568
Related ISBN
9789633862551
MARC Record
OCLC
1019979655
Pages
382
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-21
Language
English
Open Access
No
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