Written by Dyami Millarson
Protestantism, which was a development that inaugurated the coming end of the medieval order, was a destabilising force for the Church in Northwestern Europe. While the popular revolution in Northwestern Europe weakened the medieval Church elite, it also inaugurated a great pagan resurgence in Europe. The old Church elite had been anxiously trying to keep “popular paganism”, namely the paganism of the populace, in check and the era of “monotheistic elite vs. pagan populace” was coming to a close as the lines started to become blurred following the popular revolution, the momentum of which Protestantism was riding.
The populace did in all likelihood not support Protestantism because they truly believed in it, but rather because they saw the opportunity to revolt. The momentum for revolution had built and Protestantism rode that momentum. Protestantism simply offered a monotheistic justification for the revolution. However, under the surface, much more was going on. There had been an age-old cultural tension between the elite and populace in medieval times, the long-dreaded uprising that the Church elites had been trying to prevent had finally arrived when the revolution justified by Protestantism finally occurred.
Leading up to the revolution was widespread dissatisfaction. After Europe had been fully christianised, the new Church elites and the populace grew ever more distant. Finally, people needed a renewal as the elite and popular cultures had grown too far apart to be reconcilable. The elites’ fear of a pagan uprising from the populace was correct and they focused on their energy on trying to prevent it, but they might not have expected a monotheistic justification for such an uprising. The synthesis between monotheism and polytheism eventually fateful; the Protestants officially saw the old elites as “pagan” and accused them as having forsaken monotheism, and thus the Protestants used the elites’ own propaganda to break free from their iron grip upon the populace and this freed paganism from medieval suppression.
In Northwestern Europe, paganism was never truly gone. It had always lived on among the ordinary people and the elites knew this. The Middle Ages had ended in an uneasy stalemate between paganism and monotheism. While the latter ascended the highest echelons of power, the former was banished from elite circles. It was, however, impossible to truly eradicate paganism; this would have required the complete eradication of all pagan knowledge preserved in texts, pagan festivals, and pagan spiritual beings. The Church did certainly try, but did not succeed. Furthermore, the situation was complicated as the Church derived legitimacy in Europe from its pagan sources as it claimed to be the heir to all the glories of past pagan times. This tenuous situation, with the Church trying to gain legitimacy through paganism, exposes the vulnerability of the Church.
The medieval Church was, contrary to modern imagination, not an all-powerful organisation and it did not achieve a fully indoctrinated Europe. It had to make concessions due to the limits of its power. The Church had to make an uneasy “peace” with paganism; it still tried to wage a cultural war on “popular paganism.” As this was the state of affairs in the Middle Ages, there was always a high chance that paganism would come back with a vengeance. The prospect of a pagan uprising was as real as day in the Middle Ages, and that is basically also how the Middle Ages ended when the inevitable finally happened. After all, there is no other way to interpret the social acceptance of popular interest in paganism in the ages that followed the Middle Ages, this had been a strict taboo in the Middle Ages.
The post-medieval centuries were much more accepting – as well as accommodating – towards a resurgent interest in paganism. This interest often still required a monotheistic justification, but decreasingly so as time passed. Northwestern Europe – and Europe as a whole – has been in a very gradual process towards the re-acceptance of paganism. This process, which is the accumulative result of ages of developments, is picking up pace in recent decades. The acceleration of this pagan resurgence may be seen as the result of technological developments; the revolutionary technology of the printing press is what helped paganism – as well as Protestantism – and finally the internet did the same. Paganism in the post-medieval ages is the result of the printing press and the accelerated growth of paganism in the modern age is the result of the internet.
It was inevitable that paganism and Protestantism would ride the same wave of revolution after the invention of the printing press. Protestant writers across Northwestern Europe, whose works were spread far and wide across the European world with the aid of the printing press, would later profess interest in Germanic religion. Thus, if one desires to understand the factors that explain why Protestantism played an out-sized role in the resurgence of paganism, one should accept the following facts: (1) the printing press was the driving technological force behind the popular revolution against the old order of the medieval Church, (2) the Middle Ages witnessed tension between the Church elites and pagan populace, and (3) as the old elites had feared a pagan uprising, Protestantism offered a monotheistic justification for exactly that uprising and proved to be a historically decisive destabilising force that weakened the power of the old Church and thus paved the way for the acceptance of the contemporary paganism of the populace as well as the study of the old paganism that had existed prior to monotheism.
It would be historically inaccurate not to acknowledge the service that Protestantism has done to the resurgence of paganism. Thanks to Protestantism, paganism was freed from its medieval shackles. Freedom is what it needed in order to heal from imprisonment and gradually make a full recovery. Paganism is the rising star of the European cultural scene. The forces of history have aligned for bringing about the return of Germanic religion, and it is fair to acknowledge the useful role that Protestantism has played. Protestantism was the sword that ended the hegemony of the medieval Church, and Protestantism rode on the back of an inherited pagan horse, whose rider would never abandon him as the horse is simultaneously the human rider’s dear companion and beloved heirloom. So there is nothing wrong in being thankful to Protestantism for bringing the spirit of paganism as ancient European cultural force back to the foreground, and consequently, paganism is no longer shunned from the very centre of European cultural power as well as it is no longer excluded from European high culture; polytheism is now an incrementally normal part of European cultural discourse.