Sometimes gifts arrive in a timely manner. Just in time for the beginning of the semester, a news story broke that provided fodder for first day discussion in my medieval courses: Pagans demand return of church buildings 'stolen' 1,300 years agoUsually it's great when the news covers the Middle Ages because it makes the period seem more relevant to my students who generally think things that happened a couple of decades ago are 'ancient' already.

This news item gave me a chance to say yes, it was the practice to 'repurpose' temples: we have a letter from Pope Gregory instructing an abbot to follow this advice:

Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.

But these modern pagans have no leg to stand on with their argument that the buildings belonged to them. The temples might just as well have been Celtic or Roman. Further their claims of a 'spiritual genocide' are difficult to substantiate: for one thing, conversion in this era was not generally a violent thing. Most of the time it involved only changing a king's alliance.

Moreover, their claims of representing the "original, indigenous faith of the English people" is a bit tricky. For one thing, the 'English' are neither indigenous nor original to the British Isles. The Celts were there long before them, as were the Romans. But they were both invaders too. Even the Neolithic folks who first farmed the lands of the sceptred isle came from across the Channel to introduce the practice to the Mesolithic hunter-gatherersWe go through a lot of invasions and changes before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrive as mercenaries after the fall of Rome -- and most of the history of this period is written down by their descendants long after they were Christianised. 

I'm a bit prickly about the misuses of medieval history because there's a lot of it going on, both inside and outside the academic community after what Dorothy Kim has called the 'Dumpster Fire Summer' in medieval studies. Across the discipline, many have taken on a renewed commitment to engaging with the controversies involved in 'Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy' (to use Dorothy's title). 

It's great that folks are interested in this historic period, but with the knowledge of the world at your fingertips, don't fall into error by perpetuating ridiculous ideas with no basis in reality. Some good resources to find accessible information about the period include the always excellent In the Medieval Middle blog and the Public Medievalist, which is running a terrific series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages which also deals with the long and terrible history of anti-semitism.