August 22, 2013

The spread of Christianity and the great civilizational fault line in Europe

An earlier post took the main split in Europe to be between the more sedentary farmer regions and the more pastoralist (livestock herding) or agro-pastoralist regions. The focus was on personality or character traits, and how those influence larger-scale social and political organization. A follow-up post looked at how these differences have influenced the history of cultural achievement in Europe.

Subsistence mode is strongly influenced by geography, in this case between the fertile European Plain, where you can thrive by planting crops, and the more hilly and mountainous region to the south and west of it, where you can't plant too much but where pastoralism can flourish. Here's a topographical map showing the Plain, which begins as a somewhat thin strip on the northern edge of the continent in the west and central parts, and then fans out to the south also as you move eastward into northern Germany and the Baltic area (click to enlarge):

I think of that division between the Plain and hill/mountain country as the great civilizational fault line in Europe.

Herders and farmers lead fundamentally different, in many ways opposite, ways of life, and have generally been in an off-and-on state of war against each other ever since pastoralism emerged as a splinter movement from agriculture. In short, pastoralists have mobility and a greater taste for risk on their side, so they make good raiders; farmers can use their sedentary ways to their advantage by building fortifications or other huddling-together defences, and advancing slowly but surely through putting down new settlements.

This clash of civilizations flares up all over the world and throughout history -- the Steppe cowboys of Central Asia vs. the farmers of the East Asian plains, the desert nomads from Arabia vs. the agrarian civilization along the Nile, the Han Chinese rice farmers vs. the Tibetan yak herders, the Tutsi pastoralists vs. the Hutu farmers in Rwanda, etc.

Less remarked on is the European incarnation of this clash. Nisbett & Cohen's book, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South, applied the basic approach to the United States, contrasting the Celtic pastoralist groups of the hilly and mountainous parts of the South (i.e., excluding low-lying plantations) against the more Anglo farmer groups of the agricultural and industrial North.

But in the European context, it has attracted surprisingly sparse mainstream attention. I haven't previously read about the connections I'm going to draw in this ongoing series (and I read a lot), but perhaps the sources are obscure, not in English, and/or out of academic fashion. My goal is more to get the ideas out there rather than claim originality (which I still hope they are).

Let's move on from personality and social organization to cultural institutions like religion. Here is a map showing the Christianization of Europe from early to late adopters:

Not a bad match with a topographical map, is it? (Remember that Scandinavians live in the low-elevation, farmer-friendly areas in the very south, not in the great mountains of Norway.) Christianity began among pastoralists in hilly/mountain country in the Near East, and quickly spread to other peoples who followed a similar subsistence mode around the Mediterranean.

The interesting part is its spread north of the Mediterranean European coastal areas. It did not simply move northward, or merely take longer to reach the more northern latitudes. Rather, it hit the most pastoralist regions first, including Ireland and its off-shoots in Scotland, which are well north of -- and across a sea from -- such continental areas as what was recently called Czechoslovakia. Moreover, it didn't simply move in a straight line from the continent -- it didn't catch on in England at first and then Ireland and Scotland, but the other way around. The latter countries sent missionaries to convert the English. That's because England's lands are more farmer-friendly, while pastoralism has found greater success in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

The areas that took the longest to Christianize are in the Plain off to the northeast -- the Finns, the Baltic peoples, and the purer, more northeastern Slavic peoples (i.e., the ones we usually think of as prototypically Slavic, not the hawk-nosed feuding pastoralists of the mountainous Balkan countries, who happen to speak Slavic languages).

The greatest test case is the family of Germanic language speakers. Some were very early adopters -- for example, the Goths who invaded Rome had already been Christians for over a century. The Visigoths went on to rule Spain, first as Arian Christians as they began, but quickly converting to Catholic Christianity by the end of the 6th century. The Lombards, the Burgundians, and the Alamanni, who settled much of what is now northern/central Italy, southern/eastern France, southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, were other early adopters. Most important were the early-adopting Franks, who went on to control France and the Rhineland.

Suddenly when you get into the more Plain-influenced regions of Germany in the north, people not only take longer to adopt Christianity, but they bitterly resist conversion until they're militarily defeated by a Christian army. The result of the Christian, Frankish king Charlemagne's victory in the Saxon Wars was a shift -- unwanted by the people -- from Germanic paganism to Christianity in northern Germany. Their Anglo-Saxon relatives in farmer-friendly England also took a little longer to convert, as mentioned before.

The Scandinavians are really part of the broader pattern of reluctance to join the Christian world that you also see among Baltic and (purer) Slavic peoples nearby, all of whom did not convert until centuries into the 2nd millennium. And unlike the eager Germanic speakers from the southern/western part of the continent, the Scandinavians don't appear to have been very enthusiastic during the initial conversion process. Maybe they were thinking, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

In the first post laying out the basic ideas, I drew attention to blond hair as a salient marker for Peoples of the Plain, and whatever personality traits it correlates with. * Without even understanding the reasons why, it is probably no accident that the blondest part of Europe was also the last hold-out against conversion. Lithuanian nobles did not convert until nearly 1400, and the common people even later after that.

I'm going to leave this at drawing a connection rather than trying to explain it. For one thing, I haven't given enough thought to why farmers wouldn't dig Christianity, while (agro-)pastoralists would feel a more natural affinity for it. And for another, it would be wiser to wait until I'm through with the rest of Christianity's history in Europe, to be better able to tie the whole story together.

As you may have noticed, the split among early and late adopters of Christianity looks suspiciously familiar if you know your maps of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War. Or of higher vs. lower levels of religiosity even today. But there are some interesting wrinkles to be pointed out as well, so I'll save that for another post. For now, take note of how deeply rooted these cultural schisms are.

* Pleiotropic effects are common when natural selection makes a quick, large change, as when animals are domesticated. The target of selection is some personality or behavioral trait, but the gene that influences it also influences some random aspect of appearance -- like floppy ears on dogs, or piebald coat patterns on cows.


  1. In short, pastoralists have mobility and a greater taste for risk on their side, so they make good raiders; farmers can use their sedentary ways to their advantage by building fortifications or other huddling-together defences, and advancing slowly but surely through putting down new settlements.

    You can add to farmers that they have large populations and can support a warrior class of good warriors, but those end up fighting one another for the good land and expand into pastoralist country more for security reasons, as England expanded to the Celtic fringe and China expanded to Tibet.

    Plains pastoralists seem to have a bigger advantage in general in terms of expansion.
    Hill regions on the edge of agrarian civilization seem to get pacified by large empires, while contiguous plains seem to be a source of invaders. I think this is predicted by Peter Turchin's meta-ethnic frontier. The plains pastoralists have a gradual gradient where they begin to increase while the farmers decrease, and at some point along this function they become militarily competitive with the farmers and their warrior class, competition is high at this point in the gradient, and this initial edge can amplify, while hills pastoralists are effectively an island up against a densely populated farmer regions, and the warrior class can then keep them handily locked up, even if they're fierce like the Gurkhas.

    it didn't catch on in England at first and then Ireland and Scotland, but the other way around

    I think there's recent evidence of the Christianisation of the Romano-British actually, possibly prior to the Irish and Scots, in the form of coins and whatnot, but the pagan Anglo-Saxons kind of wiped that out.

    Or of higher vs. lower levels of religiosity even today.

    If you look at the Eurobarometer information, it does have some match to topography, but the much closer match is to the North-South divide, contrasting Northwest Europe with Southeast Europe, with the exception of Ireland and Poland. Ireland's a little country though, so I'm not sure I'd weight it very much.

    Within the UK, atheism is bigger in Scotland than England, and comparable to England in Wales, so not much of a connection between religiosity and the Celtic Fringe there, funnily enough (the deeply religious Welshman is even a stereotype in the UK). Northern Ireland is more religious than England by quite some ways, but in Ireland religion is very politicised, and identification is often about politics -

    Of course, when you talk about religiosity you might be talking more about public religious ritualism (you've said before you think this is the more important or interesting component of religiosity to you), in which case Orthodox and Catholic could score higher than Protestant, even if they are more Atheist (the highly religious and highly Catholic poles would then score high, while the more atheist, even by British standards, and the Protestant Scots, those people whose identifiable school of philosophy was the "Scottish School of Common Sense", would score low).

  2. I'm thinking of the big picture from questions like, "Does religion occupy an important place in your life?" That gets at practice, ritual, actions / conduct, more than belief, cognition, cheap talk, etc. And it's open enough to allow whatever practices there may be in that person's religious environment, not idiosyncratic practices.

    They don't break apart Scotland, Wales, and England, though. But basically the pattern of non-religious folks in the Scandinavian, Baltic, and non-Balkan Slavic areas.

    Slovakia and Poland are outliers, though. Don't know about the former, but the latter is probably due to nationalistic reasons within the last several centuries only -- being squeezed between Lutheran Eastern Germans and Scandinavians on one side, and Orthodox Russkies on the other, both trying to gobble up the Poles.

  3. "the deeply religious Welshman is even a stereotype in the UK"

    Funny, hadn't heard that one before. Let's see, on my mother's father's mother's side of the family, "all" of the men were Methodist preachers, according to my mom. That part is Welsh, though settled in America for a long time.

    Must be where I get my streak of outside-the-mainstream (quasi-)religious fervor from...

  4. Nonconformist, semi-religious preaching, *and* with that Welsh knack for singing:

    Howard Jones, "New Song" (1983)

  5. The Romans Christianized England before Scotland. Ireland was converted by the "missionary" Padraig, a Romanized Briton kidnapped by Irish raiders. That's not a matter of "recent evidence", it's been known for a long time.

    Other than that, an interesting map. James Scott writes in "The Art of Not Being Governed" about the popularity of millenarian religious fads among the hill people, and their predilection for adopting religions that distinguish them from lowlanders. As a result, Christianity is more popular among them, but you also find minority varieties of Buddhism, Islam, paganism, etc.

  6. Carleton Coon thought dark animals and humans lived in forests, pale types everywhere else. Humidity, fungus resistance.

    Thus, blond Vikings and Ukrainians. Though I think Iceland is full of brunettes. By Icelandic standards, anyway. I always liked girls with dark hair and fair skin- maybe they do too.

  7. Doesnt this just match the boundaries of the Roman empire ?

    First the Roman Empire, then the Germans (and Anglo Saxons), then the slavs and scandanavians.


  8. The northern vs southern German used to map onto a linguistic divide, with "high German" being the language of southern mountain Germans while "low German" was that of the northern lowlanders. English is supposed to derive from Frisian, which I think is supposed to be closer to low-German and Dutch than to high-German.

    The initial Christianization of England (Britain, at that time) was due to its conquest by Rome. Its dechristianization happened as a result of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. The Romans also failed to conquer northern Germany, though they did conquer Gaul. We (James Scott, in particular) normally think of the highlands being difficult to conquer, but that map also seems to resemble the former Roman empire. Was it more difficult for them to conquer lowland farmers?

  9. "Was it more difficult for them to conquer lowland farmers?"

    I don't think so, since they settled into the Pannonian Plain where Hungary is today.

    I think Rome's slaughter in the Teutoburg Forest has more to do with the Peter Turchin story about rising asabiya along a meta-ethnic frontier, regardless of subsistence mode or geography.

    It caused the Romans to rise at the expense of the formerly dominant Celts, but then also for the Germanic tribes to rise at the expense of Romans, especially along their frontier with them on the Rhine.

  10. Were the people conquered by Romans not on a meta-ethnic frontier?

  11. They were, but it takes centuries for asabiya to build up to a level where they can reverse the advance of their rivals.

  12. Good job.

    the pastoralist/farmer divide seems to transcend politics.

    The Midwest plains are strongly conservative. much of the South is also conservative. Yet the plains people in Europe are strongly liberal.


  13. off-topic, but I found this song, and couldn't help but think of your blog.

    "80s Stars" - Eiffel 65(Eurodance group from early 2000s).

    "All the music around me don't touch me no more, I can't feel the vibe"

    "Two thousand new songs and they all sound the same, I need something more"

    "But I heard the radio playing that song I'm wondering why"

    "I'm wondering what happened to them all, where are the 80s STARS"

    "I can still feel the magic of those melodies, its been like a dream"

    "A century has gone and its music has too, those old friendly songs"

    "Something I've been missing for such a long time, I'm wondering why"

    "I wonder what happened to them all, where are THE 80's STARS"


  14. The "taking time to build up" angle makes sense.

    There's an interesting geographic exception to Midwestern rural conservatism: the "driftless" area. It's hillier than normal for the Midwest because an ice age glacier missed it.

  15. Very interesting.

    Also see:

    An HBD Summary of the Foundations of Modern Civilization | JayMan's Blog

    This is a broad summary of HBD Chick's work.

    Your post might go some length in explaining why different groups adopted Christianity when they did – and most of all, why different groups accepted the Church's ban on cousin marriage when they did. HBD Chick and I wonder if it was something about the Germans before hand that made them more willing to outbreed.

    Also see the links to key posts by HBD Chick here:

    HBD Fundamentals: On the evolution of modern advanced civilized peoples | JayMan's Blog

    About the American Nations and Nisbett's description of them, the reality is a bit more complicated. See here:

    Flags of the American Nations | JayMan's Blog
    Maps of the American Nations | JayMan's Blog

  16. The Blondest8/29/13, 9:47 PM

    If you read the book "The Barbarian Conversion" by Richard Flectcher, the Catholic Church largely converted Europe through bribing local kings with money to get them to convert. Unusally these bribed monarchies in a generation or two would eventually convert the locals. According to Flectcher this process of European conversion was slow since many kings were not easy to bribe.

    Maybe pastoralists were simply easier to bribe than farmers due to having propensity toward criminal activities like cattle raiding and kidnapping. Pastoralists likely saw the Catholic Church's bribes being no different than paying off a local authority. Farmers likely had far more disgust to bribes versus the pastoralists since their culture was more law biding.

    I do not have enough evidence for this idea. It is just speculation. Also Fletcher book does not focus much on the Chrstian conversion of the Greco-Romans. Robin Lane Fox's book "Pagans and Christians", which focuses on the Christian conversion of Greco-Romans tends to present it as a more complex event than the Eastern and Northern European conversions. A mix of violence, bribing, and evangelism, and not simply bribing local authorities describes the mass conversion of the Greco-Romans.

  17. Also groups of pagan like the Wendish and some Nordic pagans lasted will into the Crusader period. Wendish was the last pagan religion of the Baltic people. Their religion centered around a goddess named Soule. The religion was like a kinder and more female version of Germanic paganism. Also the latter Nordic pagans form of Asatru (the religion of the Vikings and Germanic pagans) was more peaceful than the older version. They tended to emphasis the nature worship over war.

    The last European pagans lot more female friendly and peaceful than early Vikings, Celtic pagans, and Greco-Roman pagans. Strangely the last European pagans were very similar to Marija Gimbutas's Old Europeans.

  18. "the purer, more northeastern Slavic peoples"
    Your measure of "pureness" here is amusing. The Russians in particular, and the Eastern Slavs in more general, never formed by means of expansion into a pristine territory; but by consecutive assimilation of the former Uralic or Baltic-speaking peoples. To ascribe some kind of essence of Slavicity to them is a good example of why not to assume equality of linguistic and genetic ancestry as a default hypothesis.

    There may well have existed a cultural aversion to Christianity that lined up with the earlier Uralic/Baltic-speaking area, though. If I had to guess for a single main connecting factor, I'd go not with genetics, but a common selection factor: the retention of hunting as a major subsistence method alongside farming. It's easy to imagine there ought to be a rather major differences in the psychological implications between depending on cultivating a labor-intensive but, once prepared, easy-to-extract resource, be it grain or sheep — and depending on a trivial-to-cultivate but difficult-to-extract resource.

    An interesting fact that may be relevant here is that good parts of the Mari people, and in smaller part their neighbors the Udmurts, continue to remain pagans to this day, in contrast to the freefall-Russifying Mordvins or Karelians, the centuries-ago Russified Meryans or Chuds, etc. For that matter, pockets of Sami and even northern Finnic paganry were still alive (if mostly covert) up to the 19th century as well.


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