Throughout history, did the spread of Christianity really lead to the diminishing of tolerance, referring to The Mists of Avalon?
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Bradley's The Mists of Avalon sees Christianity as the oppressor of women and the source of a patriarchal (rule by men) society in Britain. It is through this patriarchal society that oppressive social structures are put into place. They are created, according to Bradley, by "mindless" male priests who reshape and deliver the message of Christ. They tell us that women shouldn't even try to read the scriptures for she will never be able to understand them properly. It is only through the male priests that women can know the true meaning of the Bible. Bradley doesn't see the worship of Christ as oppressive, but she is outraged against the institution of Christianity, which is man-made. She believes patriarchy oppresses and silences women, but Bradley also feels the bigotry and intolerance of other religions by male-dominated Christianity is well-documented historically.
In The Mists of Avalon, Avalon is contrasted with Camelot, and Christianity is contrasted with paganism. Therefore, Christianity goes hand-in-hand with a patriarchal society, and paganism is connected to a matriarchal society (rule of women). Christian tradition depicts strong women as evil, going back to the concept of the original sin of Eve. A woman is responsible for all the sin and evil in the world.
Bradley is strongly opposed to the social and political powers dominated by men that present negative female stereotypes, challenging the gender roles and labels put on women during the Middle Ages. Christianity had strict rules for women's behavior then. Woman as a sexual being was considered sinful and dirty, revering only the image of a nonsexual woman, the Virgin Mary. Bradley challenges this view that female sexuality is something to be ashamed of and that aggressive or non-Christian women are socially unacceptable. All of the main female characters of the King Arthur legends are seen as devil-worshiping sinners for their refusal to be silent in societal and political areas. They all reject Christianity and God and believe in the Mother Goddess and paganism.
Many would agree with author of MISTS OF AVELON that Christian theologians, fearing and disliking women as vessels of deceit, temptation, and chaos. Christianity understands Eve, for example, as the mother of sin, Jovinian warned men not to marry beautiful women because they would lead them to sin, and St. Jerome advised men that 'it is good not to touch a woman,' as though there were danger even in the touch because any woman might cause a young man's judgment to fly away and lead him into sin. The Malleus Maleficorum, published in 1486, was a vicious tract that depicted women witches as sexual playmates of Satan, suggesting that women with unusual powers—including herbalists, midwives, and any woman who might behave in any unusual, socially unacceptable way, were dangerous. Such women were routinely tortured and executed, leading to the deaths, according to historians, of perhaps 50,000 women (estimates go as high as 200,000) between 1400-1800. This attack on women with “powers” certainly collides with Bradley’s celebration of women with power and provides just some of the historical context for her arguments. See Gerda Lerner’s WOMEN AND THE CREATION OF PATRIARCHY for an interesting historical background to Bradley’s novel.
The question was about the history of Christianity in general, and not about The Mists of Avalon specifically. So, my answer will be general. Although many elements of the Christian church can be seen as intolerant, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition, for the most part Christianity spread because of its tolerance of pagan cultures. For instance, we celebrate Christmas in December because the church decided it was better to assimilate the Roman feast Saturnalia, and although the Christian celebration of the resurrection is held during the season when the resurrection would have historically occurred, the word "Easter" comes from the name of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn, Eostre. One might say that Christians are more intolerant than the Christian church has been.
Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon certainly seems to believe that the spread of Christianity is equivalent to the diminishing of tolerance, and in many ways, that has been true throughout history. As the power of the Church grew, it became more and more required of everyone that they become followers of the Christian religion. Religion is one of those few things that people believe in so strongly that they feel compelled to lead others to believe in it as well. Gwenhyfar in The Mists of Avalon, for example, is so strongly convicted in her believes that she forces Arthur to make his entire nation a Christian nation over a few days, in the middle of a battle where unity might be threatened over such a sudden requirement.
However, Christianity is not the only religion that has been the cause of intolerance. Throughout history all over the world, there have been many religions that diminish tolerance. The message of The Mists of Avalon and the view that Morgaine eventually accepts is that there is a truth to all religions. Even Morgaine was somewhat intolerant of religions other than her own, but she eventually learns to embrace and respect other religions as well.
The underlying theme of The Mists of Avalon is that all religions in the end are one and that the only difference is how people choose to identify them. The question of intolerance is based on how the main characters interpret their own religion and that of others. At different stages throughout the novel, the characters find themselves questioning their religious beliefs when confronted with the beliefs of others. For example, the relationship between Gwenhyfar, a Christian, and Morgaine, a priestess of Avalon was constantly at odds because of their individual perceptions. Gwenhyfar viewed Morgaine at times as a witch and at others, as a sister and Morgaine went through similar phases with regard to her feelings for Gwenhyfar. Throughout the course of the novel, we see relationships and kingdoms brought together by religion and then ultimately destroyed by it. While it appears that Christianity is the source of discord between the characters, the true source of turmoil is ignorance and fear.
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