Surprises in History

The Barbarian Conversion:
From Paganism to Christianity

by Richard Fletcher.
Henry Holt, 1997, 524 pp., 36 b&w plate

Here is a very readable and fascinating account of the Christianization of Europe, from the late Roman Empire to the conversion of Lithuania in the person of its king Jogaila in 1385; that is, from the time of Origen to that of Chaucer, a vast span of time. It is a feat of huge erudition to have described it as Richard Fletcher does, with extraordinary nuance, and with reflections on modern perceptions of his subject matter.

Three questions frame Fletcher’s narrative: (1) what were the barbarians of Europe converted from? (2) how did the process work? and ultimately, (3) what were they converted to? None of these questions is easily answerable, given the state of the evidence. In the first place, the peoples of Europe outside the Empire and outside the Church did not record their history and thought. Even inside the boundaries of Christian Europe, which were constantly shifting, records are scarce and full of interpretive problems. Given this state of things, we have to wonder, what did Christianity mean to the converts? In what particulars was it more than a re-christening of old habits? To what extent and how did it transform European society?

These questions might be alarming to us modern Christians, because they add up to another: What confidence can we have in the continuity of the tradition we ourselves hold dear? That anxiety lends the greatest interest to Fletcher’s account. Bare hints, suggestive glimpses, and his professional caution, are enough to relieve us of any naïve ideas we have of simple people living out simple faith.

The problem of translation between languages and cultures is only one of many large obstacles. As in our time, churchmen tried to make the Gospel intelligible to their hearers. One notable attempt to do so is the Heliand, probably composed in the second quarter of the ninth century, for German readers. The anonymous author took secular epic poetry, full of heroic virtues, as a model. Thus, we get Jesus as ‘lord of the peoples,’ Mary as ‘a woman of noble lineage,’ Herod as ‘giver of rings,’ disciples as ‘sword-wise warriors,’ and Peter as Christ’s ‘sword-thegn.’ The boat on Galilee turns into a northern longboat; Matthew describes Jesus deserving loyalty because he is a ‘more generous mead-giver’ than any other.

It turns out, not surprisingly as soon as it is said, that Christianity spread through Europe along lines of political and economic power. Monks who wished to preach the Gospel would first approach the nobility. In the 630s, the Frankish king Dagobert I assisted the missionary Amandus with nearly 25,000 acres near the Franco-Belgian frontier, and later with forcible coercion, for such as ‘did not freely choose to be reborn by the waters of baptism.’ In 653, King Oswy of Northumbria helped bring about the salvation of a prince Paeda, son of king Penda of Mercia, by making conversion a condition of marriage to Oswy’s daughter. Monasteries, as we know, possessed and manufactured books. Books were furnished to missionaries as more than informative documents; they were extremely precious and impressive expressions of power in themselves.

One of the most important turning points in medieval history was the Hildebrandine reforms of the eleventh century. This was the point at which the Church, under Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) engaged in the investiture disputes, taking to himself the power of appointing bishops, which had previously belonged to secular princes. This, not the Constantinian conversion, appears to be when Catholic hegemony (like Norman hegemony in Britain) became organized along formal lines of accountability. Afterward, papal legates were a more constant presence, with diplomatic and reporting responsibilities, throughout Europe. By decreasing missions’ flexibility vis à vis pagans, Gregory actually worked against some ecclesial interests. Before then, monks, bishops, and princes consulted popes more as their interests dictated.

It is not that translation makes preaching false, or power makes conversion cynical. Nor can we say that power omitted to address Gospel to ordinary people, living on the edges of survival. Fletcher is never so judgmental as that in his description of events and persons. We simply do not know, because we do not have documents to tell us, what went on in individuals’ hearts and minds. What we can infer is that they chose to record the workings of faith on other planes than those which interest us today.

The documents we do have, tantalizing in the extreme, are hard to square with our modern notions of the interiority of faith, or with such romantic notions as “Celtic” piety. They are also hard to square with the representation of Christianity as the religion of “marginalized” people—even though Fletcher’s account is of people literally on the margins of Christendom. In fact, as he says (p. 519):

It is still inadequately appreciated that Christian Europe in the early Middle Ages was both wealthy and well managed. The view that the early medieval economy was in some sense ‘primitive’ or ‘under developed’, long ago abandoned by medievalists, is still widespread. . . . Medieval Christendom was densely settled, and efficiently exploited. Furthermore, it commanded, partly by inheritance from a Roman or pre-Roman past, partly by means of fertile improvisation, orderly structures and techniques of power . . . which were demonstrably effective, and which were above all flexible and adaptable to novel social circumstances.

Not the least remarkable of such ordered structures was the institution of the Christian church. . . . The varied paganisms which expanding Christianity encountered were lacking in union and discipline. Christians were organized, pagans were not. This made all the difference.

The sustaining interest in Fletcher’s narrative comes from those varied paganisms, and the church’s flexible techniques of approaching them. By handling his documentary evidence with great delicacy and respect, Fletcher lets many an unfamiliar and surprising detail come through to us. The result is a challenge to many cherished notions about what makes any given practice Christian, and ultimately, what constitutes faith. And, since these are the people through whom we have inherited much of what we think of as Christianity, we have to ask, what is the ground of our own confidence that we understand the faith? And what is the meaning of our commonality with people so different from ourselves who have gone before us?

2 thoughts on “Surprises in History”

  1. This post reminded me of questions I had while on our recent tour of Croatia. I asked the well-informed tour guide when the Croatian people who came to the area mostly in the eight century AD became Christian. He didn’t know. An internet search indicates probably after 800 AD, when the area was ruled by Charlemagne. The extant Graeco-Roman-Illyrian population retreated into the walled cities on the Adriatic, but the old and newer populations merged after the migrants became Christian.

  2. This current post about secret communications between the Roman popes and the Mongols in the thirteenth century is interesting:

    It reminded me of a book I read a while ago, “The Lost History of Christianity,” by Philip Jenkins. This is a fairly short chronicle of the expansion of Christianity in the East, about which many Western Christians are entirely unaware, its flourishing for a thousand years, and then its collapse under the waves of the Mongols and Muslim pogroms. The thirteenth century marks the time when large numbers of Copts converted to Islam because of the pressures, although their remnant are still a sizable minority in Egypt. Other Christian groups in the East disappeared, and some of the small groups which survived are being annihilated under the new waves of fanatic Islamism.

    Did these groups go under because they were, as the Western authorities judged them, “heretics?” Jenkins thinks there were other forces in play. And their whole history, along with questions about the conversions of the European pagans, should lead us to think more carefully about what “real” Christianity is, and to be perhaps more humble about whether our own little niche is the “real” church.

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