Methodological Approaches to the Investigation of Processes of Conversion and Religious Hybridization

A multidisciplinary workshop

9 December 2016 |09.00-17.00 |University of Utrecht, Sweelinckzaal, Drift 21 (entrance through the Library, Drift 27)

This workshop is a follow up of a previous meeting which took place at the University of Utrecht in May 2016. The aim of this series of events is to gather researchers based in the Netherlands and abroad to discuss the concepts of Paganism, Christianity, Conversion, and Religious Synthesis. We intend to build up a network of scholars working in different fields and periods in order to discuss ideas and approaches to deal with such phenomena and processes in the Middle Ages.

Each participant will give a short presentation (max. 20 minutes) based on his or her own research. Scholars of different levels will contribute to the workshop – from senior researchers to master students. Plenty of time will be reserved for debate, as the we are aiming at the exchange of perspectives and research experiences. The workshop is open to all.

To stimulate debate the following reading material is recommended:

Chris Wickham, ‘The Comparative Method and Early Medieval Religious Conversion’, In: R. Flechner, M. Ní Mhaonaigh (eds.) The Introduction of Christianity into the Early Medieval Insular World, Converting the Isles I (CELAMA 19), (Turnhout, 2016).

Jonathan Sheehan, ‘Thinking about Idols in Early Modern Europe’ Journal of the History of Ideas  67, no 4, (October 2006).

Please access this  title in your local library or, if unavailable, write to


09:00-09:20  Introduction – Marco Mostert  (U. Utrecht)

09:20-09:40  Speakers Introductions

Panel I       

Moderator: Carine van Rhijn (U. Utrecht)

09:40-10:00  ‘Conversions in the New World: some case studies from the Jesuit missions in Spanish America’, Renate Dürr (U. Tübingen)


10:00-10:20  Frisky Dancing and Sacraments more like Excrements – Church Buildings and Images of Paganism in the Early Middle Ages, Miriam Czock (U. Duisburg-Essen)

10:20-11:40  Discussions

10:40-11:00  Coffee Break

Panel II       

Moderator: Carine van Rhijn (U. Utrecht)

11:00-12:00  Utrecht Master Students’ Papers & Discussions

12:00-13:20  Lunch Break

Panel III      

Moderator: Elaine Pereira Farrell (IRC, UCD, U. Utrecht)

13:20-13:40  ‘Old Germanic Studies of the 21st century; a palaeolinguistic approach to Germanic identity and religion’, Peter Kerkhof (U. Leiden)

13:40-14:00  ‘An Old-Irish Impotence Spell: Pagan or Christian?’, Jacqueline Borsje (U. Amsterdam)


14:00-14:20  Discussions


14:20-14:40  Coffee Break

Panel IV      

Moderator: Elaine Pereira Farrell (IRC, UCD, U. Utrecht)

14:40-15:00 ‘Accommodating religious diversity: Early Medieval Europe and the Early Medieval Near East’, Ab de Jong (U. Leiden)

15:00-15:20  ‘Paganism in Early Medieval Europe: Some Methodological Challenges and Directions’, Roy Flechner (U. College Dublin)


15:20-15:40  Discussions

16:40-16:00  Coffee Break

16:00-16:30  Closing Remarks –Rob Meens (U. Utrecht)



‘Frisky Dancing and Sacraments more like Excrements – Church Buildings and Images of Paganism in the Early Middle Ages’, Miriam Czock (Universtität Duisburg-Essen)

In the early middle ages churches were not only centres of Christian activity, but also a focal point of clerical arguments about Christian society and Christian behaviour. The paper will look at two very different perspectives in which pagans were used to define the church as place of worship. On the one hand I will look at prohibitions to dance and sing on saints’ days or at churches, which are frequently found in a very broad variety of sources up to the high Middle Ages. On the other hand I will have a look at how a pagan past was used to legitimise church dedication. Both perspectives shall shed some light on the different instances in which paganism could be used to build a Christian identity.

‘Old Germanic Studies of the 21st century; a palaeolinguistic approach to Germanic identity and religion’, Peter Kerkhof (U. Leiden)

Over the past thirty years, the study of the Early Middle Ages has benefited greatly from the historian’s and archeologist’s inquiries grafted on the premise of large scale cultural continuity in the transition from the Late Roman Empire to the Early Medieval barbarian kingdoms. This paradigm is often characterized by the aphorism ‘the transformation of the Roman world’ and has greatly improved our understanding of Early Medieval religious and elite culture. Understandably, the historian working in this paradigm favors the study of Christian Latin sources and is weary of using vernacular texts for which no written historical framework exists. As such,  the new paradigm of Roman continuity contrasts sharply with more traditional viewpoints that reckon massive migrations of Germanic speaking peoples took place and that these ‘barbarian’ peoples dismembered the former Roman Empire. This premise is maintained to the present day by many Germanic philologists who focus on the vernacular texts of Early Medieval Europe and attempt to reconstruct the prehistoric oral culture that gave rise to them.

Nowadays, historians and Old Germanic philologists rarely engage each other’s scholarship on this subject and whenever a debate does arise, it is commonly found that both sides lay an extraordinary burden of proof on one another. In this paper, I intend to address some of the biases that historians might hold in regards to Old Germanic philologists and show how Old Germanic studies has progressed since the 19th century foundation of the discipline.

I will focus on the problem of ‘Germanic shared vocabulary’ and its significance for prehistoric Germanic identity and religion. In the field of historical linguistics, this study of shared vocabulary in order to glean cultural information about pre-literary societies is known as linguistic paleontology or paleolinguistics (cf. Mallory & Adams 2006; The Oxford introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European world). It is my contention that 21st century Old Germanic Studies in general and paleolinguistics in particular has adjusted their cultural paradigms to accommodate a more nuanced view on the relationship between language, culture and identity than their 20th century predecessors. Moreover, historical linguists have taken a keen interest in new sociolinguistic findings concerning language as an identity marker in pre-literary societies. These new avenues of inquiry offer fresh possibilities for an interdisciplinary debate between historians and linguists on both Germanic identity and pre-Christian culture.

‘An Old-Irish Impotence Spell: Pagan or Christian?’, Jacqueline Borsje (U. Amsterdam)

A medieval Irish spell in Dublin, Trinity College, Manuscript H.3.17 is headed ‘Knowledge to render a man impotent’. I will give a close-reading of the text and hope to show that we deal with a ‘layered’ or composite text. I will give demonstrations of multiple readings of the text on the basis of which the spell has been given various historical backgrounds: from Indo-European mythology to Irish medieval saga to monastic ritual to Late-Antique binding- and curse-spells. I will argue that just as modern scholars have read the text in different ways, so may the perspective of historical ritual users of the text have varied, depending on their religious/cultural affinities.

‘Accommodating religious diversity: Early Medieval Europe and the Early Medieval Near East’, Ab de Jong (U. Leiden)

It is  no longer considered acceptable to view, or represent, Early Medieval Europe as religiously monolithic, in spite of the presence of the theological and political ideal of an orbis christianus. Most recent students of this world prefer to highlight the religious complexity and diversity that persisted in it. I shall argue, however, that this complexity – while being real – was a de facto pluralism, and that this makes a real difference once we compare it with the de iure pluralism of the Muslim world. There are two consequences to this observation: the first is the fact that there seems to have been less of a religious synthesis in the Near Eastern case compared with Europe; the second is that the Muslim Near East witnessed a continuing process of the rise of movements and communities that placed themselves beyond the boundaries of the Islamic ummah, whereas religious diversity in the Latin West largely grew within the boundaries of Christianity. Taking stock of these processes should allow us to develop better models for understanding religious change.

 ‘Paganism in Early Medieval Europe: Some Methodological Challenges and Directions’, Roy Flechner (U. College Dublin)

This paper will attempt to articulate some of the central methodological and conceptual (as distinct from factual) challenges in researching late antique and early medieval paganism. The central question can be summed up thus: ‘what do historians actually study when they say they study paganism’?

Organized by Elaine Pereira Farrell, Rob Meens and Carine van Rhijn

funded by: