Conversion: everything or nothing?

At the Institute of Historical Research last night we had Peter Heather on ‘Vandal religious policy under Geneseric’, which was fascinating even for those of us with almost no knowledge of the Vandals. His main argument was that if you read Victor of Vita’s ‘History of the Vandal Persecution’ with a sceptical eye, then there is not much actual persecution under Geneseric/Geiseric (439-477), only under his son Huneric. We also got the staggering fact that there were around 600 bishoprics in North Africa at the start of the fifth century (as a result of the Donatist conflict) and the possibility of there being a number of ‘slightly bemused Father Ted-like Neo-Platonists’ around. In what he admitted was a more speculative vein, Peter thought that Geneseric’s religious policy of converting the Vandals to Homoian Christianity (his preferred term instead of Arian) may have been motivated by an urge to find a neutral religion between the amalgam of Vandals (Silings and Hasdings) and Alans that he lead.

Which got me back to thinking again about a problem that often comes up for early medievalists: how much does conversion mean? A lot of contemporary discussions of early medieval conversion suggest the possibility of choosing a religion for political purposes (though Peter thought Geneseric might have been a sincere believer, who attributed his improbable success to his religious choice). Yet does this make conversion too easy? Robert Bartlett has allegedly said that ‘changing one’s religion is less like changing one’s hat and more like changing one’s head’. Did conversion mean everything to those who experienced it or nothing?

If you’re talking about individuals nowadays converting freely, then it’s obviously normally nearer the everything pole: literally a ‘turning around’. But what about the early medieval situation of what you might (slightly anachronistically) call ‘state-sponsored’ conversion? (One of the problems in discussions on such topics is that there is too often a dichotomy of forced v free conversion, as opposed to the reality of a continuum of incentives to change or disincentives to keep your religion. In the same way, Victor of Vita tends to use ‘persecution’ for any acts negative to Nicene interests). What did a change of religion mean to those who didn’t get to make the initial decision?

The problem with assessing this is that in most of the cases we don’t get to hear the voices of those opposed to the change. And where we do (as for example in the Christianisation of the Roman empire), it’s essentially the elites we hear, who often have an investment in the status of the old religion that is atypical. So I got to thinking about a analogy that’s slightly more distant (though not quite as far as modern African conversions): the sixteenth-century English change from Catholicism to Protestantism.

There are some obvious limitations to this analogy. There is better communication and more literacy in the period and the state also has a more effective coercive apparatus. (Though although there are firm religious moves against Catholicism, there is not actual persecution in the sense of widespread danger to life and limb). There’s also arguably less doctrinal difference than in a conversion from ‘paganism’; on the other hand, there is a substantial change of religious and social practice, in everything from the language of services, and the appearance of churches to the village social events. And we not only have far better evidence ‘on the ground’ for people’s views than in the early Middle Ages, we also have historians such as Eamonn Duffy eager to listen to those opposed to religious change.

Duffy’s explorations (both in The Stripping of the Altars and The Voices of Morebath) suggest that the answer in this case to the effect of the conversion is both everything and nothing. He stresses the religious trauma caused to many all over the country (and particularly in Morebath) and the great attachment felt to the old ways (even to the extent of rebellion). And yet, as he admits, by the 1580s, new traditions were developing around the Elizabethan prayer book. Catholic traditions, in other words, could be largely replaced by Protestant ones in about 50 years.

The English reformation suggests that a state-sponsored change of religion could be traumatic but not traumatising for a culture; short-term confusion, but long-term continuity. In the specific case of the Vandal acceptance of Homoian Christianity, their society may already have been so disrupted by warfare and migration as to make the religious change less significant. As Peter pointed out, it’s not clear that most of the Vandals were Homoian by the time they took over North Africa; there simply hadn’t been time. The English example also suggests that even widespread resistance to religious change could collapse surprisingly quickly: repression, even without active persecution, looks to erode the base of a religion pretty quickly. Peter referred to the 484 list of bishops ‘Notitita provinciarum et civitatum Africae’ which refers to 466 bishops of Africa, 88 of whom had ‘perished’ (which he suspected meant converted from Nicene Christianity). But both the example of English recusants and other cases (such as Christians in the Middle East or diaspora Jews) also imply that even in an atmosphere of considerable hostility and discrimination, small communities of devoted believers can remain in their original faith almost indefinitely, unless they are actively exterminated by the authorities. For those people, too, conversion presumably means everything: for most the impact seems surprisingly transitory.


4 thoughts on “Conversion: everything or nothing?

  1. This is as good a write-up as I’d manage of this seminar, I shall probably just track-back to you 🙂 I haven’t much to add to your musings on conversion, but one thing does strike me. That is that the value attached to a confession is very socialised, and doesn’t necessarily map to actual belief. I once had a Jewish friend with family in Northern Ireland, for example, who genuinely had been asked, “but ar’ ye a Cattolic Jaou er a Pratestant Jaou?” In Ulster confession is political, not religious, and I imagine Europe during the Wars of Religion must have had similar valencies only deadlier. On the other hand the Christians I know seem to regard denomination as an interesting thing to compare notes over a glass of something vivifying at parties, and a switch from one to another is not a big deal. In Ulster it would have probably meant moving to a different part of the city and changing your name ten or twenty years ago.

    So when we have a medieval conversion situation I wonder if some similar sort of range existed, like in Byzantine Syria where one’s choice of Christological stance can be very dangerous at times or anybody’s guess at others maybe, or in barbarian kingdoms like Theodoric’s Italy where the accent from the state propaganda machine is on harmony, but where local feeling might be rather different… The social value of one’s confession must have been very different from political situation to political situation, and maybe there were times therefore when conversion was easier to consider than others. It’s not a process that I can relate to internally at all, but the external factors must have some relevance, no?


  2. In attempting to answer this question for the 16th century Philippines (converting, under some duress, from local animisms to Roman Catholicism) Vicente Rafael, in his Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule (Duke UP, 1993), emphasizes the ways in which Filipinos “translated” Christian doctrines into more familiar terms, in effect hearing what they chose to and ignoring as much of the rest as possible.

    It must be admitted that much of Rafael’s interpretation is speculative, at times perilously close to “This is what I would have done (thought, said) had I been a 16th-century Filipino.” On the other hand, it is one of a number of efforts to come to terms with mass quasi-political conversions to new religions – Islam and Theravada Buddhism, as well as Christianity – in Southeast Asia over the last millennium or so. The question is certainly not unique to early medieval Europe.

    (And I haven’t even touched on Latin America!)


    • There have been similar studies of that kind of ‘translation’ of Christianity into barbarian societies, but (as I presume is the case with the Philippine conversions) all we have as evidence is what the proponents of the new religion say. (Are there any cases in the Spanish empire when we do have documentation of what those following the losing religion felt?) So even if you can have some sense of what the ‘peasants’ on the ground are doing or not doing to conform to the new religion, you don’t really know why they’re not conforming (and the contemporary proponents of the new religion probably didn’t understand either). Is it ignorance or misunderstanding or militant ‘paganism’ or winding up the local priest or political resistance expressed in confessional terms or what? Which is why I think the English reformation is interesting, in that you can get to hear if not actually the peasants talking about the meaning of the old religion, at least people like Christopher Trickey (who wrote the key document in Eamonn Duffy’s Morebath book) who is very, very low down the hierarchy of the losing side (Catholic parish priest of a seriously obscure parish).


      • Not being a scholar, I don’t have a clear idea on how reliable this is, but apparently we do have at least one such case–a Franciscan named Sahagun interviewed Spaniards and Mexica priests who had participated in some sort of debate over the conversion of the Mexica. The reference here says the account is in “Book XII of the Florentine Codex” in J. Lockhart’s We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico.

        Of course, even assuming it’s reliable, it’s an account of what the elites thought–not the common people.


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