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These writers were not interested in providing a full portrait of the Anglo-Saxons' pre-Christian belief systems, and thus our textual portrayal of these religious beliefs is fragmentary and incidental.Conversely, the historian Brian Branston argued for the use of Old Norse sources to better understand Anglo-Saxon pagan beliefs, recognising what he perceived as mythological commonalities between the two rooted in their common ancestry.Anglo-Saxon paganism, sometimes termed Anglo-Saxon heathenism, Anglo-Saxon pre-Christian religion, or Anglo-Saxon traditional religion, refers to the religious beliefs and practices followed by the Anglo-Saxons between the 5th and 8th centuries AD, during the initial period of Early Medieval England.A variant of the Germanic paganism found across much of north-western Europe, it encompassed a heterogeneous variety of disparate beliefs and cultic practices, with much regional variation.There is no evidence that anyone living in Anglo-Saxon England ever described themselves as a "pagan" or understood there to be a singular religion, "paganism", that stood as a monolithic alternative to Christianity.According to the archaeologists Martin Carver, Alex Sanmark, and Sarah Semple, Anglo-Saxon paganism was "not a religion with supraregional rules and institutions but a loose term for a variety of local intellectual world views." Carver stressed that, in Anglo-Saxon England, neither paganism nor Christianity represented "homogenous intellectual positions or canons and practice"; instead, there was "considerable interdigitation" between the two.It is not clear why such names are rarer or non-existent in certain parts of the country; it may be due to changes in nomenclature brought about by Scandinavian settlement in the Late Anglo-Saxon period or because of evangelising efforts by later Christian authorities. Shaw has however warned that many of these sites might not have been named by pagans but by later Christian Anglo-Saxons, reflecting spaces that were perceived to be heathen from a Christian perspective.As such, scholarly understandings of pre-Christian religion in Anglo-Saxon England are reliant largely on rich burials and monumental buildings, which exert as much of a political purpose as a religious one.
Much of this archaeological material comes from the period in which pagan beliefs were being supplanted by Christianity, and thus an understanding of Anglo-Saxon paganism must be seen in tandem with the archaeology of the conversion.The scholar Michael Bintley cautioned against this approach, noting that this "'Germanic' paganism" had "never had a single ur-form" from which later variants developed. While Christianity was initially restricted to Kent, it saw "major and sustained expansion" in the period from c. 625 to 642, when the Kentish king Eadbald sponsored a mission to the Northumbrians led by Paulinus, the Northumbrian king Oswald invited a Christian mission from Irish monks to establish themselves, and the courts of the East Anglians and the Gewisse were converted by continental missionaries Felix the Burgundian and Birinus the Italian. In the final phase of the conversion, which took place during the 670s and 680s, the final two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to be led by pagan rulers — in Sussex and the Isle of Wight — saw their leaders baptised.