Matthew 10: 34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Millennium, Tom Holland
Besides just being interested in the period of medieval history, I am finding this book worthwhile for the mirroring of our time – when Christianity is attacked from all sides, when the civilization we thought we knew is now so visibly changing before our eyes, albeit driven by events before any of our lifetimes.
In the last post, we had Christianity under attack by the Huns – this during a time when Muslims and Vikings were equally intent on conquest and looting. It gives me pause to wonder: how to understand the idea of “love your enemies” when your enemies are after nothing but your death.
Would Christianity have survived if every Christian meekly accepted martyrdom? And yes, I understand what can be said about the opening verse in the context of this question.
Too much for me to contemplate, so I will just get on with the story. We left the story with Christendom, such as it was, on the verge of destruction. We pick up the story with the one region where it was secure – Saxony. Yes, the same Saxony that Charlemagne slaughtered into the faith. Look, I know all of the complications that this adds to my question…but it is the story.
…along the banks of the Elbe…Christian warriors stood on watchful sentinel, and dreaded no one.
This river flows from today’s Czech Republic through the northeastern part of Germany and flowing out near Hamburg into the North Sea. Along the river are some of the key cities in the history of Christian Europe, including Magdeburg and Wittenberg.
In the tenth century, the river separated the Saxons from the Wends in the east, Slav tribes who still worshipped various idols – a worship not so different than that practiced by the Saxons just a few generations before. To the west of the river, a relatively wealthy Saxony; to the east, brutish poverty.
Now it was the Saxons that would come to save Christians. The Franks, further west, had been exhausted. As Conrad, king of East Francia, lay dying, he told his brother to propose Henry – a Saxon – as his successor. Surprisingly, the brother complied.
Henry presented himself not as a new Charlemagne, but as a first among equals. Nevertheless, through various political machinations, he was soon the dominant figure in Christendom. It was now time to take on the Huns. While victory was not decisive through the remainder of his life, Henry had changed the fortunes of the Christian people.
To secure such authority, on his passing Henry did not carve up his holdings among his sons. Instead, he left it all to Otto, the eldest. On his coronation, Otto was instructed by the Archbishop of Mainz: “Drive away the enemies of Christ,” while handing Otto a sword. Unlike his father, Otto didn’t go for this first among equals stuff. He took the holy oil and the mantle of a new Charlemagne.
This did not sit well with many of the other nobles. Of course, most put off was his younger brother, Henry, who didn’t get his share of his father’s holdings. He was so disruptive that Otto had him imprisoned during the coronation ceremony. The relationship went back and forth over several years – various acts of appeasement, resentment, rebellion, and sedition.
Then a revolt along the Rhine was crushed, and Otto took the opportunity to nominate himself lordship over Franconia – from then on to serve him as Saxony had.
Otto’s handling of Henry would eventually pay off. Named Duke of Bavaria, it was on Henry’s shoulders that the subduing of the Huns would rest. In 950, Henry inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Huns; it was clear that a massive retaliation would follow. Otto prepared himself for the task.
Even here, we see the struggle: for the Saxon aristocracy, warfare was considered, perhaps, the Christian’s ultimate duty. Of course, many Christian scholars of the time did not see it that way.
In the meantime, a rebellion by Otto’s son against Otto had to be crushed. Shortly thereafter, the Hungarians attacked in full force – no longer a raiding party, but this time after the complete conquest of Christian Bavaria. Few of the nobles sent warriors to the cause, preferring to see Otto suffer defeat.
Vastly outnumbered, after prayer and fasting, Otto went to battle. Losing several divisions to an ambush, he pressed on, charging his men:
“For who are we, to submit to such an enemy? We, who should blush at the very idea! We, who are the lords of almost all of Europe!”
The slaughter was prodigious. Those attempting to flee were drowned in the river, burned in their villages, or hunted down. Against every custom of war, he chose not to ransom the Hungarian princes that were captured, but strung them up from the gallows in Regensburg. Those who would conquer Bavaria were left to rot – with birds picking at the remains.
Otto then turned back to the Wends. In victory, he had the prisoners beheaded. Bloody work all around, but for the first time in a century, the Christian east was secure. From this would come ‘the Eastern Command,’ Ostarrichi – or Austria as we know it.
What was despair barely a decade before – when Gerberga, a Saxon but also the Queen of West Francia, believed that Christendom was headed to slaughter – had been turned by Otto into hope. Otto, a compatriot Saxon, was also her elder brother.
By the time Otto died in 973, he had freed Christendom of its enemies and established churches and orders of clergy throughout Europe. By then, the duke of the Poles had also been baptized, taking a Saxon nun as his bride! In Hungary, crushed in the knowledge that their gods failed them in battle, Christian missionaries would reap a large harvest.
Christianity was no longer under siege in Europe. The apocalypse had been averted, the world’s end not so near.
The Christians of the time thought they were living in the end times, perhaps bringing some relevance to this passage:
Revelation 19: 11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS