The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation, by James C. Russell
This one is going to be complicated, enlightening, troubling, controversial, valuable….
From the author’s Wikipedia page:
[Russell’s book] examines the encounter of the Germanic peoples with Christian conversion efforts. Russell argues that a Christian missionary policy of temporary accommodation of pre-Christian beliefs and customs inadvertently contributed to a Germanization of Christianity. He contends that since the Second Vatican Council, there has been a conscious effort in the Roman Catholic Church to "shed its predominantly Western, European image". However, Russell notes, "the popularity of Catholic traditionalist movements among persons of European descent suggests that the Germanic elements within Christianity have not lost their appeal".
Why is this topic of interest to me? As you know, I point to the period of the European Middle Ages and the decentralized law and society of the time as perhaps the closest and longest lasting example of something approaching a libertarian society that I have found. Fundamental characteristics of the society include its Christianity.
Yet Christianity existed elsewhere and during the same time; however, I do not find that Christian society elsewhere progressed in a similar manner – decentralized governance, decentralized law.
So, why is this topic of interest to me? I guess I want to understand the “why.” And it seems reasonable that the “why” could be found in the cultural traditions of the Germanic tribes that were joined to the Christian religion as brought by the missionaries.
Russell examines the period beginning with the entrance of the Visigoths into the Eastern Roman Empire in 376 until the death of St. Boniface in 754. His inquiry is divided into two parts: in Part I he develops a model of religious interaction between folk-religious societies and universal religions; in Part II, this model is applied to the specific case at hand – the “folk-religious” Germanic tribes meeting “universal” Christianity.
For now, just a brief introduction: the religions of folk-centered societies are “world-accepting”; religions such as Christianity are “world-rejecting.” World-accepting societies value this life: kin, agriculture, military; world-rejecting religions offer hope in the afterlife, with little concern about this life.
When the missionaries first went north into the regions populated by the tribes, they emphasized aspects of Christianity that would resonate with the tribes, and deemphasized aspects that would be rejected. After a few hundred years, the Germanic Christianity poured south over the Alps and theologically conquered Rome.
Germanic Christianity emphasized the drama of the Incarnation, the Passion and the lives of the saints; it deemphasized the doctrine of Salvation and the End Times. Germanic influence can be found in chivalry, feudalism, the ideology behind the Crusades and the cult of relics – none of which can be found in, for example, the Sermon on the Mount.
For Christianity to be accepted by the Germanic tribes, it had to be presented and interpreted in a heroic manner. Perhaps the best known example is that of St. Boniface and Thor’s Oak:
…the saint attempted, in the place called Gaesmere, while the servants of God stood by his side, to fell a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter.
St. Boniface succeeded in shattering the tree:
At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling.
St. Boniface offered a powerful God, a warrior more powerful than Thor (Donar, in Old High German), the god of Thunder.
As noted, this will be complicated, enlightening, troubling, controversial, and valuable. But for now, this is enough – I think I have covered each of these already.