Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas

Im Auftrag des Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien Regensburg
herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Ausgabe: 64 (2016), H. 4, S. 674-675

Verfasst von: Christine D. Worobec


Christoph Schmidt: Pilger, Popen und Propheten. Eine Religionsgeschichte Osteuropas. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2014. 293 S., 10 Abb. = ISBN: 978-3-506-77265-7.

Christoph Schmidts book opens and closes with reflections upon the resurgence of religion in most of the republics and territories that had been part of the atheistic Soviet empire as well as Poland after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and disintegration of the Soviet Union. Noting the divergences in the levels of religiosity, with Poland emerging as the only country to have completely withstood atheism, Schmidt questions the old paradigm of secularization and seeks to present a history of the major religious communities between the Vistula and Volga Rivers from prehistoric times to the present, all in 293 pages. In order to cope with such a daunting task he presents ten brief hypotheses at the outset. The most important of these underscore the notions that religion can exist without churches and temples, that Eastern Europe has been and is far more religiously diverse than Western Europe, that inter-religious dialogues are key to understanding the rich religious traditions and reforms in the East, and that ultimately sacred images (including religious art, clothing, architecture, and other material objects) make religion tangible and comprehensible to believers.

Overall, Schmidt is critical of traditional scholarships focus on institutional religion within individual faiths. In this respect he underestimates the growing historiography of lived religion (or what had earlier been called popular religion) among the Orthodox, Old Believers, Uniates, and Muslims of early modern and modern Russia and Poland-Lithuania. Far more comfortable with the medieval and early modern periods, he neglects most of the sectarians who emerged from within Orthodoxy as well as the significant Protestant movements in the nineteenth century Russian Empire. Although Schmidt advocates understanding religion through its social and cultural history, he tends nevertheless to focus more on texts and religious intellectual and political history than images. He makes only generalizations about popular religious rituals.    

These criticisms aside, Schmidts greatest contribution involves chronicling the ways in which religious ideas migrated with movements of population over time and how different religions intersected and influenced each other. Thus, while the book has separate chapters in Part I devoted to shamanism, Christianity (Orthodox and Catholic), Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, the author through an analysis of these factors provides re-readings of these religions as they evolved. In Part II he elaborates upon the various religions greater intersection and impact in the post-Reformation period when religious and secular authorities were being questioned. Schmidt looks at specific case studies of Ana­baptists and Antitrinitarians in Poland and Lithuania, the Uniate Church in Ukraine, and in a single (overly descriptive and somewhat disjointed) chapter – Old Belief and Hasidism – before moving on to the effects of first rationalist thought and then Soviet atheism. Thus the pilgrims in the books title refer not to believers who traveled to holy sites to communicate with the divine but rather to religious communities, which were either nomadic and shamanistic in nature or driven from their homelands in the West because of religious persecution. The plague pogroms of 1349/50 along the Rhine produced the first wave of religious refugees – Jews – to Poland-Lithuania. In fact, as Schmidt effectively demonstrates, the borderlands of Eastern Europe between East and West became a zone of religious toleration and religious radicalism in the early modern period until the Counter-Reformation clamped down on non-Catholic Christian confessions.

Beginning with a deconstruction of Stone Age cave paintings in the Dordogne, Schmidt argues that shamanism influenced later monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as offshoots of these religions with its veneration of holy places, springs, mountains, and trees as well as what Schmidt terms the almost obligatory sky travel. (p. 35) The shamans trances and dancing appeared among the much later Hasidim and Shakers, with the notable difference that dances were not confined to religious leaders but embraced entire communities. Similarly, experiences of religious ecstasy or mysticism took different forms in various religions, producing ascetics, hermits, and holy fools in Eastern Orthodoxy, dervishes among the Sufis, yogi among the Buddhist Kalmyks, and Jewish practitioners of the Kabbalah, including the Hasidim.

Schmidts re-reading of Kievan Russ Christianization stresses the relative strength of the states pagan religion and the fact that in choosing a monotheistic religion the rulers seriously considered the Roman Church, Judaism, and Islam before settling on Eastern Orthodoxy. The ultimate choice of Eastern Orthodoxy, in his opinion, set a course in which icons and ritual prevailed over scripture and dogma. Schmidt goes so far as to argue that in rejecting learning and debate in favor of the magical rites of Orthodoxy, the elites of Rus created the conditions for an unparalleled spirituality. (p. 52)

Provocative generalizations such as the one above occur throughout the book, sometimes with inadequate empirical evidence or context. Schmidts stress on Roman Catholicisms embrace of literacy, for example, unfortunately privileges the intellectualism of religious elites at the expense of everyday Catholic practices such as the veneration of relics and the use of holy water and amulets, which like their Orthodox counterparts were imbued with magic and became the targets of Protestant criticisms in the early modern period and later. Similarly, Schmidts characterization of the 1595 Union of Brest, which created the Uniate Church – Orthodox in ritual, prayers, and liturgies and Slavonic in language in exchange for recognition of the popes authority – as mainly a Jesuit project diminishes the reformist impulses of Ruthenian Orthodox bishops that led to the union with Rome. On another note, while Schmidt is correct in arguing that Eastern Europe in the pre-Enlightenment period did not experience the Western Christian practices of intolerance such as the Crusades, pogroms connected to the Black Death, and the Inquisition, his insistence that Eastern Europe did not have witch hunts requires some nuancing. The witch-craze may have been less intense on the eastern peripheries of Europe, but fear of malevolent magic and witchcraft persecution were nonetheless very much a part of seventeenth and eighteenth century life in Poland, Ukraine, and Russia in spite of the different ways that these cultures defined witchcraft. Finally, Schmidts somewhat disjointed analysis of secularization in the twentieth century would have profited from a discussion of the ways in which believers made adaptations to the atheistic state while finding alternative and often creative ways of practicing their religions.

Christine D. Worobec, DeKalb/Illinois

Zitierweise: Christine D. Worobec über: Christoph Schmidt: Pilger, Popen und Propheten. Eine Religionsgeschichte Osteuropas. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2014. 293 S., 10 Abb. = ISBN: 978-3-506-77265-7, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/Rez/Worobec_Schmidt_Pilger_Popen_Propheten.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

© 2016 by Institut für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien Regensburg and Christine D. Worobec. All rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact jahrbuecher@ios-regensburg.de

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