Pope Gregory's Letter


Pope Gregory's Letter
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   Very often quoted, but rarely in full, is a letter sent by Pope Gregory to Abbot Mellitus, who was about to join Augustine in England, in the year 601; we know of it only through Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written in 731 (book 1, chapter 30). Those who wish to demonstrate the origins of traditional customs and lore in pagan times use it as a much-needed bridge across the societal chasm of Christianization; they take it to mean that the Church in England adopted a general policy of appropriation rather than confrontation, and from this basis argue for a large-scale survival of non-Christian elements within the Church and/or within society. It has become a key element in many modern interpretations of folklore.
   This is thus a crucial text, requiring close scrutiny. The numerous translations agree in substance but differ a little in emphasis; the one quoted here was first published by Dent in 1910. Gregory asks Mellitus to tell Augustine: what I have, upon mature deliberation of the affair of the English, determined upon, viz., that the temples of the idols in those nations ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed.
   For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed ... may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they are accustomed.
   So far, the letter is permissive rather than prescriptive: well-built temples can be reused, once properly consecrated. It does not say that every temple must be so used - far less that the siting of purpose-built churches should be determined by proximity to pagan shrines and landmarks. Gregory then turns to festivals:
   And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches that have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things ...
   To schedule the new feasts to coincide with the anniversary of the church's dedication, or the feast-day of its patron saint, would almost inevitably break any previous links with the agricultural cycle or seasonal turning-points - the letter does not advise picking saints whose days match pagan festivals. His advice that people should build huts (tabernacula) of tree branches does not imply that this was already an English custom; it is more likely that he had in mind the Old Testament Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23: 39-43) as a suitable model for converts to adopt. There is no reason to think the English had such huts, and far likelier that they feasted comfortably indoors in the halls of local leaders, or possibly in the temples themselves, if these were large. That Gregory was thinking of the Old Testament is borne out by the rest of the letter, which discusses how 'the Lord made Himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt' by gradual degrees, allowing them to go on killing beasts, but 'in his own worship', not as an offering to the Devil. This raises the question of how much Gregory actually knew about English paganism; did he have detailed information, or was he making generalized assumptions about how pagans behaved?
   It is in any case doubtful that the policy outlined in this letter was widely adopted. In the same year, Pope Gregory wrote to King Ethel-bert, urging him to 'abolish the worship of idols and destroy their shrines' (Bede; book 1, chapter 32). The few other relevant documents include no other reference to any policy of accommodation, but on the contrary mention several temples deliberately destroyed; archaeology has so far found no traces of pagan Saxon shrines under any churches. David Wilson concludes: 'There is no intimation from the literature that any attempt was made to convert these sites into Christian churches on the lines suggested by Gregory' (Wilson, 1992: 29-43).
   ■ Vida D. Scudder (ed.), Bede's The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (1910).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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