From elves to angels: Researcher studies Christianization process

During medieval times, the spread of Christianity was one of the most significant developments in Europe. From 400-1400 AD, societies slowly went from believing in giants and magic to being mostly Christian.


But how did missionaries manage to convert entire nations or groups of people? The popular answer is that leaders saw the benefits of unifying their land under the banner of Christianity. Eric Bryan, assistant professor of English and technical communication at Missouri S&T, wants to know more about the history of the conversion process among common people in Scandinavia.
“Try telling a medieval farmer that he can’t worship his ancestral gods anymore, and he’ll ask you how the crops will grow, who will take care of his children, and where will he go when he dies,” Bryan says. “You’ll be lucky if you don’t find out what a sword in the gut feels like. Plenty of missionaries died very unpleasant deaths.”
In order to study Christianization, Bryan spent the spring semester in Iceland. “It has a fairly homogeneous society and is separated from the rest of Europe, which helps reduce many of the variables that might interfere with a clear look at this particular cultural development,” Bryan says.
The research is focused on the ways literature and folklore of the period portray things like death, churches, gender and mythological beings, like elves or angels. “If we can find evidence in sources from early, middle and late Christianization, then we can learn something about how belief changes over time,” Bryan says.

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