Converting to Christianity has been on my mind lately – not for me personally; I’m culturally Christian and happy in a complex and theologically inclusive faith community – but because I’m writing a story set in a time and place when we don’t know how many people had or hadn’t converted. Conversion in historical settings is often described as if it were of a whole community at once – and perhaps sometimes it is. Conversion in historical settings is also often measured by the recorded actions of the ruling class. This has two problems. One is that the people doing the recording, later on, were themselves almost always Christians. The other is that just because the leader of your community has converted, it doesn’t mean that everyone has. (Even if the leader has converted in terms of actions, there’s still the issue of what they actually believe, but we have even less access to that.)
In the case of Europe – my story is set in Wales – we can put down some markers for the groups of people surrounding the right time and place. We know a fair amount about the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, with Constantine accepting it in 312 and Theodosius 1 making (Nicene) Christianity the state religion in 380. We know a little bit about missions to the British Isles, with Ireland converted around 430 and the first Christian king of the English, Ethelbert, converting in 597. What isn’t clear is to what extent the British people in Wales had converted to Christianity, and what their beliefs were in the gap between the Romans leaving (around 383) and the Saxons arriving (from 446, but starting on the eastern side of England). Some of them would have been Christian (and those who were would mainly have been Pelagians – followers of the ideas of Pelegius, who was excommunicated in 418). Some would have followed the Roman religion, especially if they arrived through the extensive movement of Roman soldiers around the empire. And some might still be following a local religion, now mixed with Roman elements but also retaining Celtic ones.
This ambiguity is attractive to me as a writer, because it gives me space to explore. I’m able to take a range of elements from the evidence – things which might have survived from the Roman period and things which might have begun by this time and be recorded later – to create a fictional society in which these multiple religious currents are meeting and mixing. Of course, historical fiction is always only partly about the past, and quite a lot about now. Finding a time in the past when multiple religions which interest me today where interacting in ways which were obviously complex and aren’t fully know also opens up a space for me to pose, in the past, the questions which I’m thinking about now.
For example, I’m interested in multiple religious belonging – why and how an individual might be part of more than one faith community – and in what it takes to be identified as part of a religion. When it is something the individual can identify for themselves, simply by stating it? When does it require community involvement, and what form does that take? Some religions have clear prescriptions about this, at least for some cases, but there are typically also cases of uncertainty as well. What are the actions which are considered characteristic of a faith in a particular time and place, and when does performing them mean you have joined or at least become associated with that religion? In this early period, baptism hadn’t yet taken up the role which it is given by later Christian communities, of acting as an entry ritual, determining who is and who is not part of the community. In exploring this complexity in fiction, characters can move in and out of different categories, with those around them – and perhaps even the characters themselves – unsure about where they fit.
Converting a person – and so even more a group of people – to Christianity can never have been simple. I’m not going to pass judgement on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to convert Britain to Christianity. There are later cases where it seems to me to be clearly bad, especially where Christianity was forced on people, used as an excuse to suppress local culture, and put to work to maintain oppressive social structures. There are other cases where people convert because they have found their right spiritual path, and that is, in general, obviously good. And there are lots of situations in between – where people convert because they think it will give them a better life, or because everyone around is converting, or because they are not so much moving from one faith to another as adding something to their religious lives. The extent to which pre-Christian British religion survived in Christianised forms is up for debate, but I think there’s enough evidence to say on the one hand that some pre-Christian British practises were adapted into Christian ones, and that this didn’t result in a long-standing, multi-generational Pagan tradition running alongside the public Christian religion.
One of the reasons I think the conversion of Britain isn’t directly comparable to some more recent cases of countries being converted is that Christianity didn’t arrive in Britain with an oppressive ruling class. It arrived through the Romans – who had invaded long ago by time they adopted Christianity, and who gave up trying to rule Britain soon afterwards. And it may also have arrived through independent routes; if Christianity came to some parts of Scotland, Wales, and England via Ireland, for example, that separates it from Roman involvement. It did pick up some Roman ways of structuring administration, and we have some evidence of bishops in Britain in the 300s (if Restitutus was indeed Bishop of London, for example). Instead, it seems that, in this period when few records were produced, that there would have been multiple religious traditions all common in the community, and people perhaps moving between them, combining them, and trying to work out what the relationships between them should be.
Fun times for writers who want also want to explore those things!