The Barbarian Conversion. 3rd of 3: Charlemagne, Boniface and The Conversion of Europe

In 738 Frankish king Charles Martel crossed the Rhine near Essen, laid waste the Saxon land beyond and ‘made tributary that very savage people.’ In 744 his son Pepin invaded further into Saxony and subdued its people: ‘Christ being our leader, many of them were baptized.’ The association between military victory and Christian baptism is notable in these comments by a contemporary chronicler. Presumably the baptizers were with Boni­face. Another punitive Frankish expedition occurred in 748. One of Boniface’s last letters refers to a Saxon incursion in the course of which thirty churches had been burnt down. It was presumably in reprisal that Pepin led a big army into Saxony in 753 and ravaged far and wide, taking many prisoners and much booty. Although he penetrated as far as Rehme, near Minden, he did not have matters all his own way. Bishop Hildegar of Cologne was cornered by the Saxons and killed: it was characteristic of the Frankish Adelskirche that a bishop might be an active participant on the field of battle. However, by the end of the campaign the Saxons were cowed and ‘sought peace and the sacraments.’ The stage was set for the bloody Saxon wars and forcible conversions in the reign of Charlemagne, Charles Marterl’s grandson.

Charlemagne and Forced Conversion. For the first time in Christian history a state-sponsored mission used the faith quite unashamedly as an instrument for the subjugation of a conquered people. We know, as Charles could not, that his conquest of Saxony would furnish precedents for ugly episodes in thirteenth century Prussia or sixteenth century Mexico. Charlemagne, like Teutonic Knights or Spanish conquistadores, would probably have claimed that he was doing God’s work in God’s way.[1] Not all agreed at the time. One who was troubled was Alcuin. His anxieties surfaced in a number of letters he wrote in the 790s, precious because rare indications of debate and disagreement about missionary strategy at the heart of Charlemagne’s court.[2]

Many obscure figures were missionaries among the Franks. One emerges slightly from the shadows, Pirmin. Under his guidance monasteries were founded as well at Murback, Pfaffers, Niederaltaich, and Hornbach—to name only the most important in his network.[3]

Boniface among the Frisians. Boniface was born in Wessex in about 680. His given name was Wynfrith. An early entrant to the monastic life at Exeter, he later moved to the monastery of Nursling on Southampton Water. In May 719 Wynfrith received a formal commission from Pope Gregory II to undertake the evangelization of heathen people. It was on this occasion that he received a new name, that of the early Roman martyr Boniface. Wynfrith’s new identity was unambiguously Christian and Roman, and potentially that of a martyr.[4]

It mattered very much to Boniface that he came to his charges as the pope’s man. It could have been, however, that in their perceptions he came as Charles Martel’s. There were difficult and delicate questions here which were to cause Boniface much heart-searching.[5]

Pagans ‘not yet cleansed’ were first encountered at Geismar, where there was a sacred oak tree. It is possible that there may have been there ‘a pagan shrine of more than local significance,’ In a brave act of public Christian assertion Boniface felled the oak. ‘At the sight of this extraordinary spectacle the heathens, who had been cursing, ceased to revile and began, to believe and bless the Lord.’ Willibald, the author of the Life of Boniface, had almost certainly read Sulpicius Severus’ Vita Martini. Boniface used the timber from the fallen oak of Geismar to build a chapel which was the nucleus of his second monastic foundation, at Friztlar.[6] As his work expanded into the Franconian region, Boniface replicated the pattern [of power encounter] further south, with communities at Kitzingen, Ochsenfurt and Tauberbischofsheim near Wűrzburg.[7]

Towards the end of his life, he determined to lay down his administrative responsibilities and return in person to those northeastern mission fields which, in his biographer’s words, ‘he had once deserted in body but never, indeed, in his heart,’[8]

But his vocation always kept his face firmly turned towards the northeast. In Saxony lay the real challenge to a missionary worthy of his calling. Accordingly, he set off in 753 to those northern, coastal, low-lying marshy regions where Frisians and Saxons lived, from whence the English had migrated to a new country three centuries earlier. There, among their own blood and bone, communicating in their own tongue, Boniface and his followers laboured hard throughout the autumn, and the following spring, destroying shrines, building churches, baptizing many thousands. But they were surprised on 5 June by a gang of seaborn predators attracted by the prospect of loot. Boniface and his companions were slaughtered on the spot.[9]

In his address to the assembled Saxons Lebuin dwelt on the familiar theme of this worldly rewards. Accept the God of the Christians and ‘He will confer benefits upon you such as you have never heard of before.’ Lebuin also uttered warnings: ‘If you are unwilling . . . there is ready a king in a neighbouring country who will invade your land, who will despoil and lay waste, will tire you out with his campaigns, scatter you in exile, dispossess or kill you, give away your estates to whomsoever he wishes, and thereafter you will be subject to him and to his successors.’[10]

It is fairly clear that Charles and his advisers misjudged the Saxon potential for resistance both to the Franks and to Christianity. One can sense that the savage measures which followed sprang from a king of baffled exasperation.[11] Refusal to be baptized became a capital offense. Cremation of the dead became a capital offense. Eating meat in Lent became a capital offense. So did attacks on churches, slaying of clergy, participation in various rituals identified as pagan, alongside disloyal conspiracy against the king. Sundays and the greater feast days were to be observed by abstention from worldly business and by attendance at church. Churches were to be provided by their congregations with endowments in land, buildings, and slaves. They were to be supported by tithes of income and labour payable by all men. Infants were to be baptized within a year of birth. Burials were to take place only in cemeteries attached to churches.[12]

Liudger founded a monastery, still today Műnster (a derivation of the Latin monasterium), which he used as a base from which to evangelize western Saxony. He was consecrated bishop there in about 804 and established his Episcopal seat at Műnster and worked there until his death in 809.[13] Bremen, Műnster, and Paderborn were founded as mission communities, and later became the seats of bishops. Some did not but grew into important monasteries in their own rights. Other monastic communities, such as Werden, were established as colonies or daughter-houses of monasteries back in the Frankish heartland.[14]

Anskår would be remembered by later generations as the ‘apostle of the north,’[15] Anskår, born in about 800, had been entered as a youth in the monastery of Corbie. There he received a good education and could have read—almost certainly did read—the missionary lives of Martin, Cuthbert and Boniface which were to be found in Corbie’s library. From there he transferred to the daughter-house of Corvey in Saxony upon its foundation in 822, to take charge of the monastery school.[16] When Harald returned to Denmark after his baptism he took with him some Christian clergy, including Anskår, supplied by the emperor. In 852 Anskår sent missionaries to Sweden who began the conversion of the Swedes. He also established good relations with King Olaf of Norway, who permitted preaching and church-building.[17]

Lithuania. The last country in Europe to be Christianized was Lithuania, in 1387. Lithuanian nobles were converted, but the population of the countryside remained largely heathen or pagan. (“Heathen is an Old English word that described “the people of the heath.” Pagan is from the Latin for uncultured country dwellers.) It is interesting that literate Christians living in cities used terms like heathen and pagan to refer to non-Christians. When the “regions beyond” the cities of Europe became Christianized, the long period of the  conversion of the European peoples came to an end.

References Cited

[1] R. A. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, 1st American ed. (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1998). 195

[2] Ibid. 195

[3] Ibid. 203

[4] Ibid. 205

[5] Ibid. 206

[6] Ibid. 206

[7] Ibid. 207

[8] Ibid. 210

[9] Ibid. 211-2

[10] Ibid. 214

[11] Ibid. 214-5

[12] Ibid. 215

[13] Ibid. 219

[14] Ibid. 219

[15] Ibid. 225

[16] Ibid. 225-6

[17] Ibid. 226-7