Like ‘heathen’, the term ‘pagan’ was closely associated with idolatry, superstition, and polytheism. Pagans, like heathens, worshipped various deities, and unlike Christians, Muslims, and Jews, were not considered to be ‘people of the book’. Protestants and Catholics alike equated idolatry and superstitious beliefs to being ‘unbelieving’, but they also used ‘pagan’ to criticise their own religious communities. In every age, Thomas Adams preached in 1615, churchmen have found cause to reprove their congregations: ‘[The Church Father] Chrysostome speaketh of his times: Christians now are become like Pagans or worse: Yet who will say that the Religion of Pagans was better then the Christians’?[1] Nonetheless, while ‘heathen’ appeared nearly one hundred fifty times in the King James Bible of 1611, the specific term ‘pagan’ did not appear at all. Although the terms overlapped and converged, this made ‘heathen’ more closely associated with scriptural culture, particularly the Old Testament. By contrast, ‘pagan’ often referred either to classical antiquity, or to the pre-Roman Anglo-Saxon English past. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that pagans were related to their pantheistic, often nature-worshipping expressions of faith.[2] Paganus was a post-classical Latin term which carried resonance with pagus, denoting ‘rustic’ or ‘the country’, yoking its associations with landscapes and particular sites beyond the control of cities.[3]

A mistrust of ‘pagan’ pasts was not merely an abstract or theoretical notion, but entrenched in the mythology of ancient Britain itself, and in understandings of pre-Christian pasts more broadly. In the early seventeenth century, the lawyer Simonds d’Ewes collected a manuscript account of the ‘Conquest of Brittain by the Pagan Saxons’ who had not yet been fully converted to Christianity, at a time when English statesmen and scholars were increasingly interested in recovering their own past.[4] The works of William Camden and John Speed recounted ancient tales that imbued familiar localities with mythic battles and sacred sites. Staffordshire had been the ‘habitation of Pagans, imbued with their bloud by King Edward the elder’.[5] Recounting the first planting of Christianity in Britain, Speed recounted the glory of the spread of Christianity which had become ‘Englands great joy and fame, [being] still continued, though the spirituall sparkes thereof for a season have sometimes beene covered in the cinders of the Pagans desolations, or with the superstitious worships of man’s inventions’.[6] As Speed articulated, ancient stories about Christianity vanquishing ‘superstition’ served a contemporary purpose, as Catholics and Protestants continued to debate where religious legitimacy lay. Confessional debates in the seventeenth century also indicated anxieties over whether the Eucharist could or should be called a ‘sacrifice’, due to its strong associations with pre-Christian ritual.[7] Scholars have noted the durability and presence of ancient and medieval past in early modern English culture. Continuing interest in omens and portents in early modern England ‘owed much to pagan mythology’, and Protestant reformers struggled against popular pastimes like celebrating May Day, or interpreting prodigies and freak incidents as messages from heaven.[8] Protestants in early modern England were thus aware of the ‘perplexing fragility’ of the reformed faith in a realm where the vestiges of paganism and Catholicism threatened the established order.[9]

While pagans were believed to inhabit a large part of the known world, they also existed in the Renaissance imaginary as a cultural legacy of Greco-Roman antiquity. In reference to the classical world, ‘pagan’ and ‘heathen’ were at times interchangeable. In his translation of Henri Estienne’s A world of wonders (1607), for example, Henry Stephen wrote of ‘heathen poets’ (Aristotle), ‘pagan poets’ (Ovid), and ‘heathen and profane pagans’ (denoting the general wickedness of religious deviance).[10] The ‘problem of paganism’ presented Renaissance philosophers, poets, and Christians with a dilemma: how could the political and cultural greatness of the Greek and Roman empires be revered and emulated without condoning the fact that its thinkers had lived in sin and religious error? The question of salvation, and the essence of the divine, went to the heart of anxieties over Greco-Roman sophistication on one hand, and their lack of knowledge about the ‘true’ God on the other. As John Marenbon recently argued, the early modern veneration of pagans as intellectual and even moral heroes meant that ‘[e]ither the doctrines must be altered … or it must be explained’ how God could have endowed the unsaved with such greatness while denying them everlasting life through Christ.[11] Further, the Neoplatonism espoused by some Renaissance thinkers acknowledged a debt to the philosophies of ‘pagans’ like Plato, who influenced the Christian theology of New Testament thinkers and influential medieval philosophers including Thomas Aquinas.[12] Nonetheless, pagan antiquity remained an accepted part of sixteenth and seventeenth-century humanist culture, permeating everything from the depictions of gods and goddesses in tapestries and jewellery, to framing the rhetoric of letters and diary entries. ‘However fortune shall looke upon me, I will looke confidently on her’, wrote the ambassador Sir Thomas Roe to Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, in 1635. ‘[Fortune] is a Pagen Goddes, yet can only hurt those, who made her’.[13]

As with ‘heathen’, depictions of ‘pagans’ came from Christians more than from individuals who claimed the title for themselves. Since the Church recognised that not all people were saved, the question of how to assimilate non-Christian peoples into English society remained problematic. In 1610, the puritan MP Edwin Sandys, an active member of the Virginia Company, lamented that Nanawack, a young Algonquian boy, had been living in London for several years, where he ‘heard not much of Religion, but saw and heard many times examples of drinking, swearing, and like evills, [and] remained as he was a meere Pagan’.[14] Sandys desired Nanawack to be moved to a more godly home, where good example would compel him to embrace Christianity.

Records suggest that even conversion did not necessarily serve to fully integrate non-Christian peoples. The case of an unnamed ‘negro’ ‘Moor’ in the arraignment of Captain William Longcastle, brought to trial for piracy in 1609, presents one such example. An English factor brought the boy from North Africa to London to testify as a witness in condemning Longcastle of piracy. Having been ‘brought to be a Christian’, the boy arrived in court to supply evidence.[15] Longcastle seemed baffled at the appearance of his black servant, and ‘denied him not to be his boy, but intreated of the Court, that the tongue of a Pagan, an Infidel, whose testimonies were no evidence to confirme the Jury … might not be the are [sic] to hew downe the tree of his life’.[16] ‘I beseech your Lordships’, Longcastle pleaded, ‘let the tongue of a Christian and not of a Pagan cut off my life’.[17] The dramatic arrival of the North African boy in a London court speaks, on one hand, to the remarkable possibility that such a figure had some sway in metropolitan judicial matters. On the other hand, those presiding over the court told Longcastle, before convicting him, that ‘it was not the aproovement of [the Moor’s] tongue, nor that he had beene his boy which made them give credit, that now they stood guilty, but the resolved oath of Anthony Wye’.[18] Longcastle’s vehement repetition of ‘pagan’ to discredit his servant’s testimony suggests that ‘pagan’ was a term that often served to alienate individuals, particularly those consigned to dwelling on the fringes of Protestant English society, and unable to participate in the political life of the realm.

Throughout the seventeenth century, ‘pagan’ remained a term that writers used to vilify or criticise those who rejected civil, Christian behaviour. ‘Brutes that you are!’ wrote the anonymous author of The reformed gentleman in 1693. ‘How unreasonably do you style your selves Christians, when as you do that on the Lords-Day which a Modest Heathen would blush to do at any time? Are there any Pagans in Nature worse than your selves in Practice?’.[19] Such rhetoric continued to pit Christians against non-Christian and other ethnographic groups, but it also reinforced the term’s connection with nature. At the same time, Protestant colonists used ‘pagan’ to describe indigenous peoples with whom the English were at war or in conflict. The English were well placed, wrote Beauchamp Plantagenet in 1648, to ‘conquer on Indians, and convert Pagans, and civilize them, and bring them to the obedience of our Soveraign … to make our Soveraign an Emperour of America’.[20] In 1679, Roger Williams, long-time colonist in New England and founder of Providence, Rhode Island, sent a deposition to London vouching for the reputation of the son of the recently-deceased planter Richard Smith. Smith Jr., Williams wrote, deserved to keep his lands in North America, for he had been ‘with great acceptation’ among the ‘English and pagans’.[21] In ‘the late bloody pagan war’, Smith Jr. had served faithfully under several English generals, and deserved to keep the lands he had maintained ‘in the pagan wilderness and Nahigonsik country’.[22]

‘Pagan’ was thus a term with meanings that were in tension with each other. The veneration of classical antiquity, including Greco-Roman political philosophy and poetry, retained a powerful hold over the early modern English imaginary. Yet ‘pagans’, especially those who existed in nature or in the wilderness, framed how English writers categorised ethnographic peoples in a period of expansion, where the polytheistic and unsaved presence of such peoples seemed to justify their subjugation to English authority.
‘Stonehenge’, John Speed[23]
1. Thomas Adams, Englands sickenes (London, 1615; STC 114), sig. H4v.
2. ‘pagan, n. and adj.’, Oxford English Dictionary [accessed 16 May 2017].
3. Ibid.
4. ‘A paper Book in to, before which, Sir Simonds D'Ewes prefixed the following title: Gildas Badonicus, soe named from the time of his birth’, in A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum: With Indexes of Persons, Places, and Matters, ed. by Robert Nares, Stebbing Shaw, Joseph Planta, et al. (London: Record Commission, 1808), p. 334. See also Graham Parry, The Trophies of Time: English Antiquarians of the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
5. John Speed, England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1627; STC 23035), sig. N2r.
6. John Speed, The theatre of the empire of Great Britaine (London, 1612; STC 23041), sig. Xxir.
7. Nicholas Moschovakis, ‘“Irreligious Piety” and Christian History: Persecution as Pagan Anachronism in “Titus Andronicus”’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 53 (2002), 460-86 (p. 464).
8. Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 168.
9. Alexandra Walsham, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 79
10. Henry Estienne, A world of wonders (London, 1607; STC 10553), sigs. Gr, O6r, D2v.
11. John Marenbon, Pagans and Philosophers: the problem of paganism from Augustine to Leibniz (Princeton, 2015), p. 13.
12. Ibid., p. 29.
13. '[Sir Thomas Roe] to Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, 23 June 1635', The National Archives, SP 16/291 f.60v.
14. Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 57-8.
15. The lives, apprehensions, arraignments, and executions, of the 19 late pyrates (London, 1609; STC 12805), sig. E2r
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid., sig. E4r.
18. Ibid.
19. A.M., The reformed gentleman, or, The old English morals rescued from the immoralities of the present age (London, 1693; Wing M6), sig. I4v.
20. Beauchamp Plantagenet, A description of the province of New Albion (London, 1648; Wing P2378), sig. B3r.
21. 'Deposition of Roger Williams touching the Narragansett countries, 21 July 1679', in Calendar of State Papers: Colonial, America and West Indies: Vol. X, 1677—1680, ed. by W. Noel Sainsbury and J. W. Fortescue, British History Online [accessed 17 July 2017].
22. Ibid.
23. ‘Stonehenge’, John Speed, Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1612)
Usage Examples
'[The Church Father] Chrysostome speaketh of his times: Christians now are become like Pagans or worse: Yet who will say that the Religion of Pagans was better then the Christians?'