"That force was often used in the conversion of northern peoples
is undeniable, and it was used with a ferocity and violence beyond anything the conquistadors did in the Americas and far
beyond anything that happened in modern Africa or Asia."
Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History,
Part of Christian
mythology relates to the "winning for Christ" of the
fierce Germanic tribesmen who purportedly destroyed ancient civilization.
In very broad brush terms, we are given a comforting image of the
heroic priest, armed only with his Bible and Christian forbearance,
who subdues the savage warriors with homilies from the Good Book. (We are, of course, being offered an early-day version of how
European colonial "missionaries" saw their own activity).
As if by magic
(or rather, miracle, such is the efficacy of the Lord's word)
whole tribal confederations and vast tracks of Europe are baptised
to Christ. Where the legions of Caesar had failed to vanquish, a
humble monk with bell, book and candle triumphs. In a trice, Europe
becomes a patchwork of "Christian kingdoms" and history
becomes a story of the consolidation of regal power, the mopping
up of a few recalcitrant pagans and suppression of the odd heresy.
in the history of Christianity, the truth is far darker and far
Magic Not for Reading!
encrusted Bibles just the thing for an illiterate king.
literature: precious gems on the cover nonsense
few remaining books had become "sacred
objects filled the
with awe. Special
were built to house
these dazzling artifacts,
regarded as having
related how scrapings from Irish manuscripts
were used to treat snakebites, while
popular superstition suggested that the
Book of Durrow had the ability to cure
I. Zaczek (Celtic Art and Design, p10)
Hearts & Minds
did barbarian chieftains convert?
was the highest echelon of an 'heroic' social structure.
Raids into neighbouring territories were an essential part of the
barbarian economy. By acquiring 'prestige goods' such
as slaves, jewelry, gold pieces, fine weapons the barbarian
ruling elite preserved its rule and raised its social status. Success
at raiding strengthened the link between a chief and his warriors.
Yet tribal leadership
itself was always threatened by the great social mobility of
tribal society. At any time, any bold and able warrior could
raise his own status and become a new member of the elite or even
a chieftain. High Kings (or Great Khans) were effectively the result
of an election held by clan or tribal elders in time of emergency.
The claims of a barbarian 'king' to legitimacy were fragile and
leaderships changed often and violently.
vulnerability' became especially acute during the period
of migrations in the 3rd to 5th centuries, when tribal territories
were ill-defined and ever-changing, tribal alliances continuously
made and remade, and warriors of the same tribe fought both for
and against the Romans.
In a word, barbarian
leadership was neither well-defined nor secure.
Rome meant influence from a world which was everything barbarian
society was not: a stable 'kingdom' that seemingly embraced the
whole world and existed 'forever'. Roman society by the 5th century
was becoming ever more rigid and hierarchical, with eroding social
and geographic mobility and an immense and widening gulf between
rich and poor. Rome's urban middle class was being taxed out of
existence, freedmen were being confined in indentured labour and
hereditary employments and the soldiery was being reduced to a peasant-farmer
these characteristics helped to accentuate the growth and the power
of a more rigid and stable barbarian aristocracy.
tribal chieftains wanted to rule like Romans:
Goth wishes to be like a Roman, " said Theodoric, "but
only the humblest Roman wants to be like a Goth."
So strong was
barbarian desire to establish a 'Roman' legitimacy for their new
kingdoms that the illiterate Charlemagne, centuries later,
styled himself "King of Franks and Lombards and Patrician
of the Romans." He was crowned Emperor and
Made infamous by
their victory over Valens at Adrianople in 378, and for the sack of Rome
in 410, the Visigoths frequently fought in defence of Roman civilization.
A 1000 years before Luther's German
monk Ulphilas (311-388) gave the Goths a written script and thereby a
vernacular version of the Bible though none could read! For all the fame given to Ulphilas, it was actually Roman captives
who first introduced Christianity into the Gothic lands. Later in the century,
in a tribal civil war, one particular clan adopted the Christian god.
In the conflict between chieftains of the Thervingi tribe, Fritigern was
induced by his Roman allies to adopt Christianity (or at least deploy 'Christ magic') against the 'old gods' of Athanaric. When the pagan
Athanaric died in 382 even he was honoured with a Christian state funeral
in Constantinople, and his 'royal house' continued as
The first tribal confederation to be settled within the empire, the Visigoths
actually left Italy as allies (foedus) of the Roman emperor in
pursuit of earlier invaders Siling Vandals, Suevi and Alans tribes
they confronted and annihilated in Spain.
Their reward (418) was territory in southwest Gaul (Aquitaine). This
they later extended to include most of Spain. The Visigoths also provided
most of the cavalry in the motley force that stopped Attila and the Huns
When Aquitaine was lost to the Franks, the Visigothic kingdom in Spain
continued, though considerably weakened by Christian sectarianism. The original Arian faith
was never forced on the indigenous people but when, in 587, King Recared
converted to Catholicism a weapon in another Visigothic civil war
religious intolerance arrived.
At the 3rd Council
of Toledo (589) Spain became a theocratic state: Arianism was proscribed,
Jews were enslaved, and pagans murdered.
The Visigoths in Spain were themselves destroyed by Arabs in the 8th century.
They disappeared from history in little more than 300 years.
My Leader ... into the baptismal font
Once a warrior
king embraced 'Christianity' an adoption of form
and formality with little or no regard to content the
warrior aristocracy followed its king. Thus, for example,
when Clovis accepted Christ as his new god, he compelled three thousand of
his retainers to follow him into the baptismal font.
Among the common
tribesmen religious allegiance was not an issue of conscience. This
was not an age of individual opinion or preference. When the tribal
leadership adopted a new god the tribe followed suit.
Not to have done so would have been tantamount to rebellion. When
Charlemagne insisted on baptism as the sign of submission, he punished
with appalling barbarity any resistance, as when, in cold blood,
he beheaded, in a single day, 4500 Saxons at Verden, in 782 AD.
adopted Christ as their new god, the warrior aristocracies
forced the new faith on their peoples.
professors of grammar, rhetoric and jurisprudence
were maintained in their privileges and pensions
by the liberality of the Goths."
Gibbon (Decline & Fall, ch 39)
The eastern branch
of the Goths had adopted a more nomadic existence than their Visigothic
cousins, in the grasslands of the Ukraine of the 2nd century.
Unfortunately the Ostrogoths were the first European tribe to be subjugated
by the Huns and formed part of Attila's confederacy.
With Attila's death, the Ostrogoths reasserted themselves under their
Eastern Emperor Zeno first hired them to guard the northern frontier and gave
them land in the Balkans. Nervous of their
presence so close to Constantinople, he persuaded the Goths under their
astute king Theodoric to retake Italy from Odoacer.
As 'Consul of the Romans' as well as chieftain of the Goths, Theodoric (493-526) ruled the Gothic world from a palace at Ravenna, modelled
on Diocletian's palace at Spalato. Throughout his realm much
of Roman civilization was actually restored. Theodoric's administrators were
Roman; he maintained the senate; he made Roman patricians,
like Boethius, consuls. He also checked the expansion of the
Franks and brought peace to the west. T He was also a Christian of the Arian persuasion.
dynastic links included a marriage to Audofleda, the
sister of Clovis, king of Franks. He ruled Spain on behalf
of his infant grandson; pacified the Vandals and protected
the coasts with a fleet of a thousand vessels. In Rome he
presided over games in traditional Roman manner; the dole was still distributed and the aqueducts still
was an Arian Christian, but he tolerated all sects of Christianity. He
was even called upon to arbitrate between warring popes Symmachus and Lawrence! In the last year of
his life he moved against the Catholics when they attacked
Jewish traders and conspired with Constantinople.
his death in 526, his daughter Amalasuntha ruled the Ostrogothic
kingdom as regent. His grand daughter Matasuntha married
Germanus, nephew of the Eastern Roman Emperor. But by then
Romano-Gothic Italy had been destroyed
armies from the east.
by Justinian and 30 years of warfare (Rome
changed hands four times) destroyed urban civilization
in Italy and brought whole regions to famine.
rule lasted just 14 years before an invasion of
Lombards under Alboin swept it away.
of a powerful and virile Gothic state that might
have fought off the barbarians, Italy had no resistance
to offer. Rome became a backwater, and the
victories of Justinian a disaster for the Christians
of the West."
Regan, Decisive Battles, p40.
Lost World of "Gothica" (c.
Built in 526 by his daughter Amalasuntha.
of the age of Augustus or Hadrian, the thirty feet wide central
'chapel' is crowned by a single piece of granite
weighing 450 tons.
Under the Goths, Roman intellect had not yet disappeared.
the Christian Bishop...
as represented by the local aristocrat-cum-bishop could
bestow legitimacy, and with it all the pomp and ceremonial
that filled subject people with awe and obedience. As the empire
decayed, its rituals and regalia became ever more ornate and overbearing.
kings delighted in Roman titles which
they put on their coinage, modelled very closely on Roman coinage.
From 382 onwards barbarian tribes had been granted the status of
'federate of the Romans' (foedus) and their chieftains had
been accorded patrician status. Some barbarian chiefs (for
example, Fravitta, in 401) were even raised to the status of consul.
When there were no longer emperors to bestow some grand honorific,
the occasion fell into the hands of the bishop.
kings sought marriage into the imperial bloodlines.
In a notable
example, the Empress Galla Placidia was carried off to Gaul
by the Goths, and in 414 she was married (in a Roman-style wedding
ceremony) to the Visigothic chieftain Athaulf at Narbonne.
The bridegroom wore a toga! 'Catholic princesses' were conveniently
found at many convenient moments: Ingund married to Hermengild
in 583 (intensifying the Gothic civil war in Spain); Bertha
married to the Saxon Aethelbert in 600 (levering the Catholic
church into Kent); and of course Clotilda, married to the
kings wanted Roman patricians in their entourage,
men who could advise them in the governance of their newly acquired
peoples. Everywhere, the indigenous 'Romans' outnumbered their warrior
example is the court of Theodoric, Ostrogothic king of Italy.
administration was modelled on that of his imperial predecessors
and was staffed by Romans. Among 'men of letters' at his court
Aurelius Cassiodorus, senator, statesman, monk and writer. As the
local "statesman" the Bishops "spoke" for
the native people and offered "administration" of
cities and districts on behalf of the alien king.
the Dark Age elite a fusion of ex-pagan chiefs, who
were in awe of all things Roman (including its Christianity),
Roman landowners who survived by foisting Christianity on to superstitious
Civil and ecclesiastical
power coalesced. Saying much the same thing in Christ-speak,
Isodore of Seville (560-636):
who will not practice virtue by the admonition of the priest,
may be kept from doing evil by the power of the king."
– Isidore, Sententiae, I, 16.
The very heart
of this veneer of legitimising romanitas was the religion
by which the emperors had legitimised and made 'divine' their
rule Christianity. Hence
the rise and rise of the Christian bishops and, in particular,
Bishop of Rome the custodian of the corpse of the empire
and self-styled bestower of its legacy.
book of Christian spells and the inheritance of more
than a thousand years of Roman 'gravitas' behind him,
the patrician-bishop easily swayed the untutored mind
of a barbarian king.
As well as "Christ magic" he offered "legitimacy" and
the power of the written word for kingly diplomacy.
With his help, an upstart king's authority could now be
With bribes and baubles, he gained access; he took on the role of ambassador
and agent; he lent support to one side against another in fratricidal conflict;
he advised; he provided 'virgin brides' and officiated at royal weddings and
ceremonials; he governed the locals on behalf of his barbarian overlord.
all, his own wealth and authority grew. And the nonsense
he peddled Christianity became official
the West was Won: The Rise and Rise of the Franks
the closing years of the 5th century the Christian Church showed
no interest in converting barbarians. God, it seems, had chosen
the Roman Empire to spread his Word. Yet when the fierce tribesmen
arrived at the city gates, that event was "God's Judgement"
and the Christian bishops were all too ready to abandon the empire
and throw in their lot with the invader.
the '3-day wonder' of the sack of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths,
it was Gaul that was in dire straits in the 5th century, not Italy
(which enjoyed a late 'Indian summer' under its Gothic king.)
In the late
5th century Salian Franks under Clovis began three centuries of
expansion by absorbing the other Frankish tribes. In 486 Clovis
defeated the Roman general Syagrius and the last Gallo-Roman region
of Gaul Soissons was overrun. Subjugation of the Thuringians
and Bavarians, followed.
The Franks were
a heathen German tribe, almost the only one untouched by Arianism,
spreading from the east. While the primitive Franks continued to
give homage to their old Germanic gods, other, more Romanised, tribes
had adopted Arian Christianity as a 'national' religion.
barbarous they may have been but for the beleaguered Catholic bishops,
the Franks were the great hope. In the Franks, the papal agents
found a fierce but malleable tribe and they spared nothing to bring
the Frankish overlords under their sway. The dominion of the Franks
in the west ensured the triumph of Roman Catholicism.
the "conversion" of Clovis is a crucial event,
comparable to the "conversion" of Constantine and
equally is surrounded by the same fanciful mythology.
like Constantine's, was no "inward experience of grace"
but was a military matter. He was convinced that victory in battle
lay in the gift of the god of the Christians. Christ for him was
a talismanic war god.
the myth, in 496, after a close call against the Alamanni, the
had been 'saved' by a prayer either from Clovis himself, or the
Catholic Bishop Gregory of Tours (or maybe both!) A grateful
Clovis took baptism, to become the first "Catholic" ruler
in the west.
Of course, he
had been softened up somewhat by marriage in 493 to a Catholic princess,
the Burgundian Clotilda, put forward as his bride 'on
account of her beauty and wisdom' (and no doubt her Catholicism!)
Clovis, like Constantine a century and a half earlier, was also
aware of the political advantage of posing as a liberator of "those
oppressed by religious heresy":
me to see that the Arians possess the fairest portion of
Gaul. Let us march against them, vanquish the heretics, and
share out their fertile lands."
In 507 Clovis
took Aquitaine from the weak Visigothic king Alaric II, and then
subjugated Burgundy. Both areas were forcibly converted to Catholicism to the delight of the local bishops. The Franks became the major force in the west, weakened only by the
traditional division of the kingdom between the king's sons (hence,
Franks and Catholics Warriors for the Faith
death in 511, Clotilda went into a monastery at Tours where she
stayed until her death in 545. No surprises that she made
In the half
century after Clovis, the belligerent Franks advanced eastward as
far as the Elbe and took advantage of the preoccupation of the Ostrogoths
with Justinian's invasion of Italy to seize Gothic territories in
Gaul and the north.
was split between Chlodomer (Orleans), Childebert (Paris), Chlotar (Soissons),
and Theuderic (Metz).
The upstart Pepin III ended this "federalism" in the 8th century.
The pope, Stephen II, legitimized his regime in 754 by anointing Pepin
'King of the Franks.' Papal fear of Lombard expansion
in the 8th century rendered the Vicar of Christ a dependent, first
of the Frankish emperor and then of the German.
In return for the papal endorsement, in 756,
Pepin defeated the Lombards and conquered Ravenna (taken 5 years earlier
by the Lombards from the Byzantines). Pepin left the conquered
territories to the Pope, thereby founding the 'Papal State' and establishing
a temporal power for the Vicar of Christ, who was at last free of fetters
from the emperor in the east.
The "special relationship" of
the Franks and the Papacy would endure for centuries. In time, the relationship would be reverse: Popes would make and break kings and
war such a fine innovation of Christianity!
would never end. In the 8th century, Frankish conquest carried the
sword of Christ to the throat of the Thuringians and Bavarians,
and halted the armies of Islam that had overwhelmed the Visigoths
Towards the end of the century, after forty bloody years
of continuous aggression, Pepin's son Charlemagne had extended his personal rule over part
of Spain, most of Italy and all the German lands. Charlemagne's Franks slaughtered tens
of thousands of Saxons, Avars and Slavs in order that they might
know God's loving kindness – just
what the Galilean carpenter had in mind?
for Christ Charlemagne
of Franks and Lombards and Patrician of the Romans."
most joyful moment for the papacy came when Pope Leo
III, recently half-blinded by an angry mob, outwitted
Charlemagne, kneeling at prayer. By producing a hidden
placing it on the emperor's head to a simultaneous
chorus of acclamation the peeved Charlemagne
reluctantly accepted that he had been 'crowned by the
precedent that would be used by the papacy for a thousand
Chris Scarre, Chronicle of the Roman Emperors (Thames & Hudson,
Robert Graves, Count Belisarius (London, 1938)
Arthur Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Thames & Hudson, 1986)
Helen Ellerbe, The Dark Side of Christian History (Morningstar & Lark,
Richard Fletcher, The Conversion of Europe (Harper Collins, 1997)
Edward Gibbon, The Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (1799
Michael Grant, The Climax of Rome (Weidenfeld& Nicolson, 1996)
Michael Grant, Fall of the Roman Empire (Weidenfeld& Nicolson, 1996)
Robert Wilken, The Christians As the Romans Saw Them (Yale UP, 1984)
Robin Fox Lane, Pagans & Christians (Viking, 1986)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
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Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
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