Francis Young’s New Book on Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic Awarded Book Publication Subvention

Aug 8, 2021

The AABS Board is pleased to announce that Arc Humanities Press has been awarded the AABS Book Publication Subvention for publishing “Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic: Sixteenth-Century Ethnographic Accounts of Baltic Paganism.” The book, authored by UK-based historian and folklorist Francis Young, provides the first English translations of the key early modern Latin texts on Baltic paganism.
Francis Young. ©Francis Young, 2021.
Francis Young Francis Young is a UK-based historian and folklorist specializing in the history of religion and supernatural belief. He is the author, editor or co-author of 15 books. His research interests include monasticism, saints, the history of magic and ritual (especially exorcism), early modern Catholicism, fairy belief and European paganism. He is especially interested in the history of England, Ireland and the Baltic states. He is also a professional indexer and a translator specializing in medieval and early modern Latin.

Francis was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk and studied Philosophy at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and Classics at University of Wales, Lampeter before receiving his doctorate in History from Cambridge University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was Volumes Editor for the Catholic Record Society between 2015 and 2017. He spent several years as Head of Sixth Form at an English cathedral school, teaches for Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education, and regularly appears on BBC radio and other media. Two of his books have previously been shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award.

The Baltic peoples were among the last in Europe to convert from ancestral religions to the Christian faith, and pre-Christian ancestral religious practices persisted for centuries after official conversion. The pagan (and recently pagan) Prussians and Lithuanians fascinated Renaissance humanist scholars, who sought to understand an alien belief system using new methods of historiography and ethnography. With the rise of the Jagiellonian dynasty at the end of the fourteenth century and the emergence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as one of the major powers of Christendom, it was essential for other Europeans to understand the origins of the Lithuanians. In contrast to medieval Christian condemnations of paganism, in the early modern period scholars scrutinized Lithuanian religion for any evidence it might provide of the alleged Roman origin of the Lithuanians. At the same time, the Reformation produced renewed efforts to Christianize the Baltic peoples, which were accompanied by a growing realization that conversion could be achieved only by understanding Baltic languages and cultures.

The texts included in this volume were written between around 1450 and 1590 by eleven different authors in Latin, the universal language of scholarly communication in western Christendom. Together, the texts provide some of the most detailed records of any European pre-Christian religion. However, the texts must be read in context and cannot be used to reconstruct Baltic religious beliefs and practices without careful analysis. The authors were writing within established interpretative and literary traditions, some stretching back to the ancient world, and therefore disentangling literary features of accounts of paganism from factual detail can be a very challenging task. 

“It is the first book to consider early modern ethnographic works on East-Central Europe in the context of recent scholarship on early modern ethnography as a whole.”
However, many of the texts are characterized by the triumph of curiosity about paganism over condemnation of infidels. Humanist accounts of Baltic paganism both anticipated and paralleled accounts of alien belief systems encountered in the New World, and as such they are of considerable importance in understanding how Christian Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries dealt intellectually with indigenous religion. The early modern records of Baltic paganism are, for this reason, arguably of global significance, as well as of European and national significance for the Baltic states.

Woodcut showing Lithuanian pagans worshipping trees, snakes and fire, from Olaus Magnus, On the Northern Peoples (The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo).

This book provides the first English translations of the key early modern Latin texts on Baltic paganism, including extracts from works by Enea Silvio Piccolomini, Jan Długosz, Filippo Buonaccorsi, Maciej z Miechowa, Johannes Stüler, Martynas Mažvydas, Michalo Lituanus, and Alessandro Guagnini, as well as the complete text of Jan and Hieronim Malecki’s ‘Little book on the sacrifices and idolatry of the Old Prussians’ and Jan Łasicki’s ‘On the gods of the Samogitians’. It is the first book to consider early modern ethnographic works on East-Central Europe in the context of recent scholarship on early modern ethnography as a whole. While the author is an established scholar of the history of religion and belief in medieval and early modern Europe, this will be his first published contribution to the field of Baltic studies.

What is AABS book Publication Subvention?

The AABS awards its Book Publication Subvention of up to $5,000 for individually authored books, edited volumes, and multiple-authored books in English that make a substantial scholarly contribution to Baltic Studies. The applications must be submitted by publishers, not authors. Priority will be given to single author’s first monographs.

AABS awards two Book Publication Subventions each year. Applications may be submitted for review anytime, on a rolling basis.

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