The Medieval Church

Christians, like all people, encountered ancient monuments such as megaliths as part of the landscape they inhabited, and made them intelligible within their own cultural and religious context (see Daniel 1972; Grinsell 1976: chapters 2-4; 1986; Morris 1989: chapter 2; Holtorf 1997). But 'Christianity' had no single voice. Christian views on both the pagan past and megaliths must have varied considerably between bishops, various theologians and different sorts of local believers; they also differed from century to century, and from country to country. Moreover, the Christian cultural memory did not necessarily have a clear conception of the actual age and original cultural context of the stones; some may have held them for natural features, others for relatively young constructions, in any case entirely contemporary with the Christian world. Nevertheless there are several historical responses to megaliths which are distinctively 'Christian'.

Often enough, the stones of megaliths were perceived as something hard and permanent which could be re-used for other building purposes. Good examples of churches built over or using megaliths can be found on the Iberian peninsular, e.g. in Alcobertas where a well-preserved dolmen forms the side-chapel of the church of St. Mary Magdalene, and in Pavía where the chapel of San Dionísio is in fact a transformed dolmen.

In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, quite a few of the thousands of country churches and stone walls of churchyards may partly have been built from the large stones that megaliths so conveniently supplied. E.H.Wackenroder reported in 1730 about conditions on Rügen (p. 8):

"Die Berge waren mit grossen ungeheuren Steinen umgeben, zur Befriedigung der eingescharten Todten-Krüge... Die Steine sind hernach zur Befriedigung der Christlichen Kirch=Höfe gebrauchet worden, wie denn auch die meisten Kirchen in Rügen auf dergleichen Todten=Hügeln erbauet worden."

"The mountains were surrounded by incredibly large stones in order to circumscribe the buried urns... The stones were later used for marking off Christian cemeteries, just as most churches in Rügen were built on burial mounds like this." (my translation, with help by Robert Gerlich, S.J.)

Where megaliths were not considered merely as building material, they could be seen as connected to the spiritual and religious sphere and thus became part of a mythical landscape of supernatural beings and eventually a Christian cosmology (cf. Semple 1998). Many sites in the landscape are now associated with Christian folklore (Simpson 1986).

The Church and its theologians employed two main strategies to deal with prehistoric monuments. One strategy consisted of ascribing these stones to the Devil and consequently treating them as sites of evil. Perhaps because they had played a role in the ritual life of pagan communities, prehistoric monuments appeared as a symbol for paganism as such: "the god of one religion becomes the Devil of that which replaces it" (Grinsell 1976: 20). It may have been a consequence of such a 'diabolisation' (Roymans 1995: 15) that today a large number of megaliths and other sites in the landscape are named after the Devil, or connected with him in folktales.

The fact that megaliths in Medieval times have been ascribed to the Devil does not, however, automatically allow an interpretation of the stones as monuments of highly (negative) religious significance. Medieval Christianity embraced all aspects of life. Accordingly, something which is foreign to this society is foreign also in the religious sense. There is thus no need to assume any continuity of prehistoric religious cults or practices in order be able to call an ancient site 'pagan'. As Leslie Grinsell writes,

"in many instances 'Devil' traditions ... merely indicate that the monuments to which they relate were constructed by a race unconnected with the present inhabitants" (1976: 21).

It is hardly surprising then that megaliths, too, were perceived as something foreign stemming from another time or another world unconnected with the present, e.g. the worlds of the Devil or of giants. Similarly, in early modern times prehistoric sites were occasionally perceived as directly connected to witchcraft (Grinsell 1973).

How the Christian Church dealt with pagan sites is partly reflected in the edicts of the early Church Councils. The canons of the Councils of Arles (443-452), Tours (567), Nantes (658), and Toledo (681 and 693), among others, contained passages that condemned worshipping at the pagan sanctuaries and encouraged the Bishops and all Christians to neglect, to hide, to desecrate, and even to destroy them, with the threat of excommunication for those who did not obey.

An alternative and much more common strategy employed by the Christian Church was the preservation and adoption, i.e. 'depaganising' and 'christianising' of ancient monuments in order to allow a new interpretation in the Christian sense. By the edict of Honorius (408), it was even forbidden to demolish pagan shrines and instead they had to be rededicated as Christian sanctuaries. In a letter sent in the year 601 Pope Gregory advised King Aethelberht to "repress the worship of idols" and "destroy the shrines", but only one month later Gregory had changed his mind (Marcus 1970), when he wrote to Abbot Mellitus on his departure for Britain, that

"we have been giving careful thought to the affairs of the English, and have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them and relics deposited here. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God. And since they have a custom of sacrificing many oxen to demons, let some other solemnity be substituted in its place, such as a day of Dedication or the Festivals of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there ... They are no longer to sacrifice beasts to the Devil, but they may kill them for food to the praise of God, and give thanks to the Giver of all gifts for the plenty they enjoy" (Bede 1968: 86-7 [I, 30]).

It is uncertain if the ancient 'temples' were indeed megaliths. But the text is revealing even if Gregory might not have referred here to prehistoric monuments but to former Roman or Saxon cult practices and temples, which is perhaps somewhat more plausible (Morris 1989: 70-1).

The Christianisation of megaliths was popular in many areas of Europe (Kirchner 1955: 670-1; Grinsell 1986). Some menhirs, such as the famous stone of St.Uzec in Brittany, were embellished with Christian symbols and their top parts were carved out into Christian crosses. This is, however, not necessarily a transformation into a place of Christian worship since the cross can simply represent a symbolic purification of the formerly pagan site. Other megaliths were associated in legends with the life of Christian Saints. Some were entirely 'recycled' and became carved high crosses (Morris 1989: 83-4). It was also possible to deal with pagan tombs by baptising those buried: St.Patrick supposedly opened a grave and christianised the dead therein. In the chapel of St.Michel, which was built on top of a passage grave at Carnac, a church fresco from around 1970 can be found; it shows archaeologists excavating a tomb and by that redeeming the soul of Neolithic people who could now find their way to the heavenly Jerusalem (Kaul forthcoming).

Nico Roymans recently questioned this very polarised view of two opposed strategies of the Christian Church towards prehistoric monuments: a negative choice leading to neglect and complete destruction, and a positive choice leading to their assimilation and a continuing use of their locations. Roymans emphasised instead a spatial distinction which was made by the Christian Church in early modern village territories. In an 'outer zone' with negative, non-Christian connotations prehistoric funerary monuments were left intact but at the same time 'diabolised'. In an 'inner zone', on the other side, which was "perceived as Christian, civilised and cultural", pagan monuments have been either destroyed or 'christianised' by connecting them with the cult of a saint (Roymans 1995: 18-9, 33).

Some ancient tumuli were reportedly used by early Christian priests as locations from where they preached, e.g. in Proseken, Kreis Wismar (newspaper article from 8.12.1820 in Ortsakte). Occasionally, prehistoric monuments and other holy places have even been incorporated into new church buildings built on their places, as e.g. it seems to have been the case with the church of Glasten, Kreis Grimma in Saxonia (Unteidig 1994: 132-3; cf. Kirchner 1955: 669-70). Sometimes churches were deliberately built next to prehistoric (and therefore pagan) remains in the landscape (e.g. Blake 1998). Both strategies brought two main advantages: a (sometimes imaginary?) continuity of cult at the same location gave additional credibility and legitimation to the new belief, and simultaneously it gave the assurance that this cult could, from now on, be nothing but Christian. Similar principles may have been at work when in colonial southern Africa the main Christian churches were built near major cultural sites including the site of Great Zimbabwe (Ndoro and Pwiti 2001: 32).

For perhaps similar reasons, several churches in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern contain in their outer walls clearly visible cup-marked stones and other large stones, which may partly stem from broken-up megaliths, e.g. in Brüel, Kreis Sternberg (Urban 1993: 36-7). It is almost as if these stones were on display as forming the 'base' of the church. This is a nice example for the 'ostensive use of spolia' (Raff 1995: 66).

A cup-marked stone (on the right) and other large stones
at the base of the church in Brüel, Kreis Sternberg (1995)

During the Medieval period and up until the 20th century, new cups and grooves were also carved into stones of churches already built. This practice, for which various interpretations can be found, is recorded for Dreilützow, Gadebusch, Greifswald, Gnoien, Goldberg, Güstrow, Malchow, Neubrandenburg, Neukalen, Plau, Röbel (Kalms 1971: 11), Schwaan, Schwerin, Sternberg, Stralsund, Teterow, Parchim, Vietlübbe, Warlin, Wismar, and Wolgast (Brast 1982: 34-46; Urban 1993; Himmelstierna 1993; cf. Kirchner 1955: 651, 658).

The Christian Churches of the present have no strong feelings about prehistoric monuments, nor (to the best of my knowledge) any policies of how to deal with them. Paganism is encountered elsewhere. But this is not to say that the megaliths and barrows have lost all of their spiritual appeal. A lot of people nowadays, and by far not only New Age supporters and modern druids, are attracted by the aura, the cosmological atmosphere and a magical mystery which surrounds many prehistoric monuments. Some distinctively Christian folklore of megaliths originated in the Medieval and is still known by people in some areas (Eliade 1958: 221-5). Furthermore, Emma Blake (1998) found in Sagama on Sardinia an altar in the shape of a nuraghe with a statue of the Virgin Mary on top. Elsewhere, several megaliths transformed into Christian chapels during the Medieval period are still in use today (see above).


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 8 April 2005