…the garbing of the Church’s teachings in Anglo-Saxon robes did not signal a surrender to the pagan past, but rather its rout.
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland
The time is the mid- eighth century. Boniface, missionary to the Anglo-Saxons in the Germanic parts of the Frankish Empire, would be slaughtered, along with his companions – martyrs, toiling in fields occupied by worshippers of Woden king of the demons. Boniface, following the example of Christ, prohibited his companions from drawing swords.
Stories of runes died in Christian blood did not scare off these monks; it served to inspire their sense of purpose. Hel, the pagan underworld became the abode of the damned: hell; Eostre, the festival of the spring, became Easter. “The victory of the new was adorned with the trophies of the old.”
Boniface would chop down a sacred oak to Thunor, a mighty a fearsome god, “whose hammer-blows could spit mountains.” With its timbers, he would build a church.
Even those won for Christ, however, would not be separated from their earlier customs: sacrifices offered to springs, inspecting entrails, claims of reading the future. Even churches that reached back centuries were not immune to practices such as these. Slaves sold for sacrifice, in addition to goats and bulls; fornicating bishops, whose only qualification was inheritance from their father; blood feuds.
Yet, in addition to support from the pope, he won a powerful patron: Charles Martel. Martel saw in Boniface a man who could help tame the east. The Frankish princes would not follow Boniface’s lead. Three days after the aforementioned slaughter, a squad of Christian warriors found the killers – and wiped them out; their women and children enslaved.
The pagans, having learned their lesson, concluded to follow the teaching of the now-dead Boniface. The method of conversion would not be lost on future Carolingian monarchs. There were more oaks to fell. In 772, fifty years after Boniface’s felling of Thunor’s oak, an even greater totem would come crashing down: Irminsul, believed to uphold the heavens. It did not, as the skies remained in their place.
This was the work of Charles – Charlemagne. The west had its emperor – no longer tied to the emperor in Constantinople, the New Rome. Charlemagne would annex northern Italy, take Barcelona back from the Arabs, and push deep in the Carpathian basin. But his bloodiest wars, lasting many years, were against the Saxons:
Every autumn, his men would burn the harvests and leave the local peasants to starve. Settlement after settlement was wiped out. Entire populations were deported. These were atrocities on a Roman scale… In 782…Charlemagne ordered the beheading of 4500 prisoners on a single day.
Those who refused baptism were put to death. The same fate awaited those who offered sacrifice to demons, cremated a corpse, or ate meat during the forty days before Easter.
As a programme for bringing an entire pagan people to Christ, it was as savage as none had ever been before.
From my earlier work, I recall Charlemagne launched a campaign every year of his reign. Carl Trotz has written an interesting novel, from the viewpoint of the Saxons; I have reviewed it here and here. Finally, there is something called the “Charlemagne Prize,” awarded to our betters working on their centralizing schemes. Much can be understood about such people simply by understanding Charlemagne’s methods.
Returning to Holland, Charlemagne had something no pre-Christian Roman emperor ever had – the pope’s blessing. (BTW, a recent recipient of this Charlemagne Prize was…Pope Francis. As they say, history may not repeat, but it rhymes!) Yet, Charlemagne’s method was one which Boniface would never have approved. Alcuin, a compatriot of the martyr, would urge the king to use persuasion, not force, for the purpose of conversion.
Eventually, this advice would move Charlemagne. Every Christian would be taught the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The priests were to know all forty of Gregory the Great’s homilies. Christian teaching would touch almost every aspect of life.
Yet, within a few decades of Charlemagne’s death, this order born in violence would begin to come apart (some background offered here, along with further examples of Charlemagne’s terrors). In 846, Saracen pirates would sail up the Tiber, sacking St. Peter’s and capturing humans for slave markets; Vikings would overthrow entire kingdoms in England and Ireland.
Eventually, Athelstan would defeat these Vikings in England, emerging as the first king of what would eventually be understood as this realm. He would rule from Northumbria to the Channel.
In 955, Hungarians would invade and occupy Bavaria. Previously merely looters, this time they intended to stay. Otto would eventually lead an army against these invaders: three thousand heavily armored horsemen and the very spear that pierced the side of Christ (how many spears lay claim to this title, I cannot say).
Against all odds, his cavalry would crush the Hungarians. Hacked and speared, the Hungarians would later claim that only seven survived. Within a few years, Otto would be crowned emperor by the pope. Otto, a Saxon, would now sit on the throne of the Frankish emperor that slaughtered his ancestors!
The Huns would eventually Christianize. As would the Bohemians, the Poles, the Danes, and the Norwegians. A baptized king – what pagan ritual could compete with this lineage from Christ Himself?