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 Vitas ‘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.
Duffys 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.