Review Essay: The Dechristianization Thesis

By June 15, 2010

Jon Butler argued in Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People that colonial Americans were not really “Christianized” until late in the eighteenth century. In making his argument, Butler was essentially applying the “dechristianization” thesis to colonial America (he mentions Mormons in a later chapter). To shed light on these arguments, I wanted to summarize the debates over the dechristianization thesis.

The “dechristianization of Europe” developed out of the annale’s school and was stated most forcefully by Jean Delumeau in Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire (1971; English 1977). In his foreword, Delumeau declared, “The ‘Christian Middle Ages,’ as far as the (essentially rural) masses are concerned, is a legend which is being increasingly challenged. And if it is a legend, the two Reformations-Luther’s and Rome-constituted, despite mutual excommunications, two complementary aspects of one and the same process of Christianization.” On the eve of the seventeenth century, claimed Delumeau, the “climate of the people was characterized by a profound unfamiliarity with the basics of Christianity, and by a persistent pagan mentality with the occasional vestiges of pre-Christian ceremonial” (176). Descriptions from missionaries to seventeenth-century Brittany particularly drove this point home for Delumeau. “If the seventeenth century was the golden age of Christianization, especially in France, it was because the missionaries tried to reach the rural world” (190). “Is an intelligent, spiritual religion possible when one’s daily bread is not assured and when fear is one’s habitual companion?” Delumeau asks rhetorically. (169).

Robert Muchembled’s Popular Culture and Elite Culture in France: 1400-1750 (1979; English 1985) likewise saw early modern rural popular culture as “superficially Christianized but fundamentally magical” (92). Yet Muchembled applied Foucualt’s notions of a disciplined society from Discipline and Punish to argue that the Christianization of the rural masses was coercive and violent; Muchembled argues that he witch-hunts were a product of the destruction of an older popular culture. Muchembled also tempered his use of the dechristianization thesis, arguing that popular practices “demonstrate, rather, that Christianity had been ‘digested’ by rural popular culture and integrated into an animist and vitalist vision of the world” (105).

John Bossy began the critique of Delumeau in his introduction to the English version of Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire (1977). “The changes described by Delumeau are as important as he makes out,” conceded Bossy, “but I do not know that we are entitled to use the world ‘Christinaization’ to describe them. There is a Christianity of the literate which, as Delumeau rightly says, sixteenth- and seventeenth century reformers, Protestant and Catholic, were seeking to impose with more or less success …. But there is also a Christianity of the illiterate.” Bossy then cites Keith Thomas’s findings which “indicate that with all their aberrations the unreformed Church and uniformed Christian of pre-reformation days had some sort of grip on the idea that Christianity meant loving one’s neighbour…. Without succumbing to the ‘legend of the Christian Middle Ages’, I think it is possible to believe that the rural Church of medieval Europe did, in its own mode, transmit a respectable view of Christianity to the average rustic.” (viii-ix). Bossy’s Christianity in the West 1400-1700 (1985) followed up these suggestions by arguing that the Reformation simply created a shift in the way Christianity was practiced, changing from communal to confessional.

John Van Engan, gave an even sharper critique of the dechristianization thesis in his “The Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem,” in the American Historical Review (1986). “These historians of the early modern era were, at least in part, still engaging in the old practice of setting up a ‘medieval straw man’ to be conveniently knocked over by Luther, Calvin, and Trent” (521). Eamon Duffy’s set up his monumental The Stripping of the Altars (1992) as a critique of Delumeau and Thomas. Says Duffy, “Any attempt to explain this dimension of late medieval piety in terms of pagan survivalism among the uneducated peasantry is misconceived. These prayers were clearly a manifestation of popular religion, but it was a popular religion which extended from the court downwards, encompassing both clerical and lay devotion” (278-79). “This is not to suggest,” says Duffy, “that all such actions remained within the bounds of orthodoxy…. Instead, they represent the appropriation and adaptation to lay needs and anxieties of a range of sacred gestures and prayers, along lines essentially faithful to the pattern established within the liturgy itself. This is not paganism, but lay Christianity” (283).

Noting that no full-length treatment of the Christianization of Europe had been written for seventy years, Richard Fletcher undertook the task in The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (1997). Fletcher takes up the debate over Christianization explicitly in his final chapter, yet Fletcher continually has an eye toward the question throughout the work. At the end of chapter two, Fletcher asks, “what makes a Christian? Did Martin ‘make Christians’ by smashing a temple at Levroux? Sulpicius Severus thought so. Were the lakeside dwellers of Javols ‘made Christian’ when they diverted their offerings of local produce from lake to church? Gregory of Tours though so…. This is what our sources tell us; we have to make of it what we can” (65). Thus, while recounting the chronicled conversions of pagan kings, Fletcher continually comes back to this question.

Ultimately, says Fletcher, “Country people are notoriously conservative. We may be absolutely certain that more than a few generations of episcopal exhortation or lordly harassment would be needed to alter habits inherited from time out of mind. Ways of doing things, ways that grindingly poor people living at subsistence level had devised for managing their visible and invisible environments, were not going to yield easily, perhaps were not going to yield at all, to ecclesiastical injunctions. But even granite will be dented by water that never ceases to drip” (64).

After documenting the Christianization of the last European kingdoms, Fletcher gives a final analysis to the question of Christianization. Fletcher begins by citing Delumeau and notes that the complaints about the religiosity of the common people of the seventeenth century come from reformers promoting new definitions of proper Christian practice. “Backsliding and refurbishments are easy enough for the historian to cope with. The trouble is that the shrill denunciations of reforming rhetoric can easily conceal—sometimes intended to conceal—changing assumptions, expectations and definitions from view. Standards of observance have not been unvarying. It may be that historians of the Delumeau tendency have been culled by that rhetoric (511-12).”

Ultimately, says Fletcher, modern historians who have written on conversion have been too influence by William James for whom conversion was “intense and spiritual.” Yet for the masses of the early middle ages, “When they received the faith they did so, for the most part, million and millions of them, because they were told to do so or because they were born into it. The struggles they experienced in the course of their usually short lives were not spiritual but the harshest of material ones—just how to keep going in a world that was chronically short of food, warmth and heat” (514). The masses converted out of obedience to a new set of rituals. Though the conversion was “not about theology but about conduct and disposition… there was nothing “mere” about conduct for early medieval men and women about the acceptance of a rite” (515).

C. J. Watkin’s History and the Supernatural in Medieval England (2007) is the best treatment I’ve read so far on these subjects. Watkins explores the writings of twelfth-century English chroniclers who provided a wealth of information about popular attitudes, stories and practices. Watkins follows Duffy by attacking the notion of an elite/popular religious divide in the Middle Ages. Watkins admits that in the parish system there was a central/rural divide with the country people not likely hearing sermons at the cathedral very often. Yet, Watkins argues that rather than fostering the vestiges of paganism, it instead fostered local Christianities, as opposed to the universalizing attempt of the reformers. Indeed, Watkins argues that paganism simply did not survive into the central Middle Ages. Watkins notes that Yitzak Hen in his study of on Merovingian Gaul “is doubtful about the idea of living paganism even in this early Christian period but argues convincingly that fear of paganism persisted among churchmen long after the reality had largely vanished. And it thus continued to stimulate the reproduction of the old anathemas” (78). Watkins criticizes those such as Carlo Ginzburg who argue for pre-Christian survivals, saying that we really don’t know what those practices were. “This obscurity makes it easier to see vestiges of the pagan in images, rituals and stories which are not explicitly Christian. The very vagueness of ‘the pagan’ as an analytical category allows a range of medieval cultural fragments to be retro-fitted into an alternative, non-Christian ‘system’ of belief.” Watkins notes certain images of the green man and sheela-na-gig (naked woman) in churches but asserts, “they may have become disarticulated from the system of belief which originally produced them. To speak of ‘survival’ is to beg questions about what exactly had survived.” Further “it is only in the wider field of language, image and gesture, at a given moment in time, that individual words, representations, and rituals gained their meaning. To isolate them and to privilege morphology leads to the construction of new fields of meaning based on very different and contestable judgments about similarity” (81).

Most importantly, Watkins argues, the twelfth-century churchmen didn’t complain much about paganism. Their bigger worry was the misuse of sacred objects and gesture for illicit ends. Thus the reformers worked hard to keep holy objects out of the hands of the laity. Yet such a concern suggests the Christianization of the population, argues Watkins, who wanted to get their hands on Christian power. The illicit uses were for personal gain that was seen as selfish and impious at a time when churchmen stressed that the sacraments needed to be coupled with pious intent.

Although the dechristinaization of the Middle Ages must be rejected, the early modern shifts in practices imposed by both Catholic and Protestant Reformers (Delumeau, Muchembled, and Duffy) were very real. Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons (1997), while noting the criticism of Delumeau, adds, “there is scarcely any doubt that ‘Christianizing’ was what reformers of all the major churches thought they were doing” (530). As Clark notes, beginning around 1400 at the University of Paris under their venerable chancellor Jean Gerson, late medieval reformers began to decry the “superstition” of the masses and set about to reform such practices. In doing so, these reformers imposed their own definition of true Christianity in opposition to what the believed the benighted masses were doing; scholars like Delumeau have often implicitly accepted the reformers worldview (468). These attempt to reform the practices of the masses continued in the next two centuries under the Protestant and Catholic Reformations. The clerical elite did attempt to create universals in belief and practice that the uneducated and rural would likely not have kept up with. These divisions could create differences of official and unofficial practices and it was these unofficial practices that the authorities were likely to label magical, superstitious, and vestiges of paganism.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Christian History


  1. thanks for such a detailed summary.

    Comment by g.wesley — June 16, 2010 @ 9:35 am

  2. Steve, this is great (and actually helpful as I study for comps). Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — June 16, 2010 @ 11:21 am

  3. This is a great review and very useful. How would you categorize some of those things mentioned in the comments of your earlier post: caul-lore, healing by passing through trees, etc.?

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 16, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

  4. Useful reminders. Thanks

    Comment by smb — June 16, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

  5. Thanks for this, Steve.

    Comment by Ben — June 16, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

  6. Thanks all. J. that’s a tricky question since it brings up the tricky category of magic. So let me just say a couple of things. First, Karen Louise Jolly’s work on Anglo-Saxon elf charms is really interesting. Her book is essentially an attack on Valerie Flint. Jolly argues 1) there is no such thing as Christian magic, things were either licit (and thus not magical by contemporary definition) or illicit. 2) She argues that a whole lot of what they did should fall under the category of science of medicine. Thus she compares burning pieces of rope to get rid of elf wounds to using pills and needles in our day.

    Ultimately you have to not think about religion, science and magic as hard and fast categories. What you want to get at is how did the practitioners under their acts. The problem is that you often can’t really figure that out. Did everybody see these or other practices as “Christian”? Probably not. But I do think many if not most would not have seen such practices as violating Christianity. Anyway, a complicated topic. Of course, by the early modern period, the elites did see these practices as “superstitious” and worked hard to eradicate them.

    Related to Christopher’s work, the early Methodists who were quite successful among common rural people ran into a whole lot of folk ideas that the state church had tried to eliminate. Says John Rule “Methodism did not so much replace folk-beliefs as translate them into a religious idiom” (63) and further “credulous miners” “could be responsive to his message not because he demanded a new and rational view of the world, but because he did not.” “Methodism, Popular Beliefs and VIllage CUlture in COrnwall, 1800-50” in Popular Culture and CUstom in 19th Century England, ed Robert D. Stroch (New York: St. Martins, 1982), 48-70. See also Owen Davies “Methodism, the Clergy, and the Popular Belief in Withcraft and Magic” History 82, no. 266 (1997): 252-65.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 16, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

  7. That makes sense, Steve. Though problematic, the Malleus Maleficarum includes skads of what we might call clinical magic.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 16, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

  8. I have come to the conclusion that magic is almost worthless as an analytical category.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 16, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

  9. Steve – what about ‘religion’?

    Comment by matt b — June 16, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

  10. Thanks, Steve, this is very helpful.

    Comment by Jared T — June 16, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

  11. I have similar issues with religion as a category. Magic has the added problem of having a history of use as a tool of marginalization.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 16, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

  12. Yes, SC, these are problematic categories and are often to marginalize. Says Delumeau, “there is a basic antipathy between magic and religion, even though in history their two domains have frequently overlapped and for a long time the reasons and nature of this antipathy were not clearly seen.” (172). Not until post Enlightenment thinkers that is.

    The problem is that it’s hard not to use these terms. Take for instance “love magic.” What else do you call it but love magic?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 17, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

  13. Take for instance “love magic.” What else do you call it but love magic?

    I used to call it against the BYU honor code.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 17, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

  14. Some of the theoretical literature that I read ten years ago talked about magic being more manipulative vs. religion being more supplicative or even just submissive. Also magic tending to be more individualistic vs. religion tending to be more communitarian. And all of this used relatively/comparatively. For example, Or like comparing “thy will be done” prayers vs. love potions. Mormonism, on the first score, would be more magical than most Christianity, which would be more magical than Islam. I think there is a useful, salvageable meaning that can be used with care in certain comparative treatments.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — June 23, 2010 @ 10:32 pm

  15. What often ends up happening Mark is that a liberal Protestant definition gets termed religion and that which is not gets called magic. I like what William Dever says in his book Did God Have A Wife? “Religion is magic.” And Dever goes on to rant about what bad work liberal Protestants do in trying to understand other cultures. The manipulative/supplicate divide simply reifies a particular theological point of view.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 24, 2010 @ 11:15 am

  16. cue lds bible dictionary, s.v. prayer:

    “The object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them.”

    Comment by g.wesley — June 24, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

  17. Not to belabor the point, but I think the best way to proceed is to simply note how the particular culture you are studying defines magic (and what they mean by magic) and understand the definition to be culturally specific (while noting that there are shared tendencies in the way magic is defined).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 25, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

  18. Steve,
    That’s probably the only practical solution, as unsatisfactory as it may be

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 25, 2010 @ 3:19 pm

  19. […] Eamon Duffy sets up his monumental Stripping of the Altars as a challenge to three books: A. G. Dickens The English Reformation, Jean Delumeau Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire and Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Duffy xx). Duffy’s critique of Dickens is related to what I describe in this post (Dickens described the English Reformation as a popular movement while Duffy said it was not; most scholars agree with Duffy now) and the critiques of Delumeau are described in my write up on the Dechristianization of Europe. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Magic in the Middle Ages: Eamon Duffy’s Critique of Keith Thomas — October 15, 2010 @ 1:13 pm


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