Pope Gregory's Letter to Mellitus

When studying the history of British celebrations of Jesus' Resurrection, much is made of a letter that Bede claims was written by Pope Gregory about 601AD.

According to most references, Gregory urged Abbot Mellitus to "ease" the transition of converts into the British church by usurping practices and festivals from pagan religions.

As an example, here's a quote from a Wikipedia article on "Anglo-Saxon paganism."

The article goes on to quote part of Gregory's notorious letter to Mellitus as "proof" of this assertion, without bothering to admit that the letter actually says nothing about "converting pagan feast days into Christian ones."

Christian usurpation of pagan practices was a popular theme of European anthropologists in the 1800s, by the way, leading them to search for pre-Christian elements in every aspect of Christian faith and practice. That's one reason so many people were glad to canonize Jacob Grimm's unsupported hypothesis that virtually all modes by which Europeans celebrated the Resurrection were stolen from the worship of an ancient Teutonic deity that Grimm for all intents and purposes invented in 1835.

Anthropologists have long since recognized that their nineteenth-century predecessors were claiming connections that were never there. But the notion that most or all Christian practices are just recycled pagan practices has survived in popular culture, especially among devotees of Neo-Pagan or New Age religions. In addition, once this sort of "urban legend" takes root in academic reference works, it's nearly impossible to dislodge.

Why Do Folks Keep Bringing up This Obscure Epistle?

By misrepresenting and misquoting Gregory's letter, Neo-Pagans and others have sought to boost their allegation that most European modes of celebrating Jesus' Resurrection, including colored eggs and egg-bringing rabbits, were "stolen" from ancient Teutonic cultures such as the Saxons in Britain.

The problems with attempts to use this bit of "evidence" to prove such claims are manifold:

Of course some folks would be disturbed by what seems to be a command to seize another religion's temples. But Mellitus was working his way through Britain one fiefdom, duchy, or kingdom at a time. He had no military support, so he was in no danger of seizing anything by force. The question facing Mellitus and people like him was: once a community is converted, should the now-neglected temple be torn down and a new church constructed, or would he be safe reusing the temple once it had been cleansed? Gregory's direction reflects his opinion that reusing the temple as a church might make the Saxon converts feel more at ease in the place. One benefit to archaeologists is that a number of pre-Christian structures are standing today which would otherwise have been torn down or crumbled from disuse centuries ago.

Recommending reuse of standing structures and introducing Christian-themed festivals on dates already established in the church calendar is a long way from saying that Gregory urged Mellitus to co-opt pagan practices and iconography, as many imply he did.

What Did Gregory Say?

The original manuscript of Gregory's letter has long been lost. But we do have manuscripts of one of Bede's books that claims to quote that letter.

The following translation is an excerpt from Fordham University's online translation of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It's a very literal translation, and therefore a little hard to wade through. For that reason, we've included an easier translation, also from Fordham, below this one.

Another Translation

The following is an except of the most important parts of the letter in, frankly, an easier translation. This translation is also in Fordham's electronic library.


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