In Search of Europe’s Last Pagans

The fact that there were still followers of ancestral pre-Christian religions living in Europe in the age of the Reformation is something not well known outside the countries that are heirs to those recent pagan traditions. There might be some awareness of the Sámi people in the far north of Scandinavia, but the study of late paganism in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Prussia (roughly corresponding to today’s Kaliningrad Oblast of the Russian Federation) has largely been confined to scholars in those countries. Yet the late survival of pagan beliefs and practices in the Baltic is more than just a historical curio. My new book Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic is a collection of translations of ten Latin texts by authors who were struggling to understand the traditional religion of the Baltic peoples at a crucial time in their history. The sixteenth century was an era of transformation, as the former military state of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia and Livonia became a series of secular duchies subject to Polish suzerainty while the Grand Duchy of Lithuania drew closer to Poland in a process that culminated in the Union of Lublin in 1569. All the while, these territories were convulsed by the religious conflicts of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation while they struggled to make sense of their own history.

The records we have of the last pagans of the Baltic are among the most detailed descriptions of pre-Christian religion in Europe, and therefore of great significance for understanding the common heritage of Indo-European religion (if such a concept has validity). By the mid-fifteenth century, the older medieval rhetoric of demonization and condemnation of paganism was giving way to a discourse of curiosity, in which Baltic religion was held up as an interesting survival, perhaps descended from Roman religion, which was worth understanding even if it was rapidly dying out in the face of Christian mission. The Renaissance Humanist project to understand Baltic religion was thus part of a broader project of studying humanity in all its variety, which would take on truly world-changing significance when those same Humanists were confronted with the challenge of understanding the peoples of the New World. The more familiar paganism of the Baltic was thus, in a sense, an intellectual proving ground for ideas that would go on to be applied to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Understanding Baltic paganism was crucial, in particular, for developing the identity of the Lithuanian nation within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in which a Lithuanian nobility descended from pagan forefathers played a very important role. Lithuania could not be a land without a history, and the recently abandoned paganism of the Lithuanians could not be a heritage without honour. The authors represented in Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic adopted a variety of different views of pre-Christian Lithuanian religion, ranging from distaste to admiration of a simpler time. The book’s introduction provides a thorough discussion of the motivations and conceptual frameworks of those authors who chose to write about Baltic paganism, exploring the rich background to this important collection of ethnographic texts, which this book makes available in English for the first time.

By Francis Young

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