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§ 27. The Conversion of the Saxons. Charlemagne and Alcuin. The Heliand, and the Gospel-Harmony.


Funk: Die Unterwerfung der Sachsen unter Karl dem Gr. 1833.

A. Schaumann: Geschichte des niedersächs. Volkes. Götting. 1839.

Böttger: Die Einfahrung des Christenthums in Sachsen. Hann. 1859.

W. Giesebrecht; Geschichte der deutschen Kaiserzeit, Vol. I. (1863), pp. 110 sqq.


Of all the German tribes the fierce and warlike Saxons were the last to accept the Christian religion. They differed in this respect very much from their kinsmen who had invaded and conquered England. But the means employed were also as different: rude force in one case, moral suasion in the other. The Saxons inhabited the districts of modern Hanover, Oldenburg, Brunswick, and Westphalia, which were covered with dense forests. They had driven the Franks beyond the Weser and the Rhine, and they were now driven back in turn by Charles Martel, Pepin, and Charlemagne. They hated the foreign yoke of the Franks, and far-off Rome; they hated the tithe which was imposed upon them for the support of the church. They looked upon Christianity as the enemy of their wild liberty and independence. The first efforts of Ewald, Suidbert, and other missionaries were fruitless. Their conversion was at last brought about by the sword from political as well as religious motives, and was at first merely nominal, but resulted finally in a real change under the silent influence of the moral forces of the Christian religion.

Charlemagne, who became master of the French kingdom in 768, had the noble ambition to unite the German tribes in one great empire and one religion in filial communion with Rome, but he mistook the means. He employed material force, believing that people become Christians by water-baptism, though baptized against their will. He thought that the Saxons, who were the most dangerous enemies of his kingdom, must be either subdued and Christianized, or killed. He pursued the same policy towards them as the squatter sovereigns would have the United States government pursue towards the wild Indians in the Western territories. Treaties were broken, and shocking cruelties were committed on both sides, by the Saxons from revenge and for independence, by Christians for punishment in the name of religion and civilization. Prominent among these atrocities is the massacre of four thousand five hundred captives at Verden in one day. As soon as the French army was gone, the Saxons destroyed the churches and murdered the priests, for which they were in turn put to death.

Their subjugation was a work of thirty-three years, from 772 to 805. Widukind (Wittekind) and Albio (Abbio), the two most powerful Saxon chiefs, seeing the fruitlessness of the resistance, submitted to baptism in 785, with Charlemagne as sponsor.125125    “Jetzt war Sachsen besiegt,” says Giesebrecht (l.c., p. 117), “und mit Blutgesetzen worden das Christenthum und das Königthum zugliech den Sachsen aufgedrungen. Mit Todesstrafen wurde die Taufe erzwungen, die heidnischen Gebräuche bedroht; jede Verletzung eines chistlichen Priesters wurde, wie der Aufruhr gegen den König und der Ungehorsam gegen seine Befehle, zu einem todeswuerdigen Verbrechen gestempelt.”

But the Saxons were not entirely defeated till 804, when 10,000 families were driven from house and home and scattered in other provinces. Bloody laws prohibited the relapse into heathenism. The spirit of national independence was defeated, but not entirely crushed, and broke out seven centuries afterwards in another form against the Babylonian tyranny of Rome under the lead of the Saxon monk, Martin Luther.

The war of Charlemagne against the Saxons was the first ominous example of a bloody crusade for the overthrow of heathenism and the extension of the church. It was a radical departure from the apostolic method, and diametrically opposed to the spirit of the gospel. This was felt even in that age by the more enlightened divines. Alcuin, who represents the English school of missionaries, and who expresses in his letters great respect and admiration for Charlemagne, modestly protested, though without effect, against this wholesale conversion by force, and asked him rather to make peace with the “abominable” people of the Saxons. He properly held that the heathen should first be instructed before they are required to be baptized and to pay tithes; that water-baptism without faith was of no use; that baptism implies three visible things, namely, the priest, the body, and the water, and three invisible things, namely, the Spirit, the soul, and faith; that the Holy Spirit regenerates the soul by faith; that faith is a free act which cannot be enforced; that instruction, persuasion, love and self-denial are the only proper means for converting the heathen.126126    Neander III. 152 sqq. (Germ, ed.; Torrey’s trnsl. III. 76). It seems to me, from looking over Alcuin’s numerous epistles to the emperor, he might have used his influence much more freely with his pupil. Merivale says (p. 131): “Alcuin of York, exerted his influence upon those Northern missions from the centre of France, in which he had planted himself. The purity and simplicity of the English school of teachers contrasted favoably with the worldly, character of the Frankish priesthood, and Charlemagne himelf was impressed with the importance of intrusting the establishment of the Church throughout his Northern conquests to these foreigners rather than to his own subjects. He appointed the Anglo-Saxon Willibrord to preside over the district of Estphalia, and Liudger, a Friesian by birth, but an Englishman by his training at York, to organize the church in Westphalia; while he left to the earlier foundation of Fulda, which had also received its first Christian traditions from the English Boniface and his pupil Sturm, the charge of Engern or Angaria. From the teaching of these strangers there sprang up a crop of Saxon priests and missionaries; from among the youths of noble family whom the conqueror had carried off from their homes as hostages, many were selected to be trained in the monasteries for the life of monks and preachers. Eventually the Abbey of Corbie, near Amiens, was founded by one of the Saxon converts, and became an important centre of Christian teaching. From hence sprang the daughter-foundation of the New Corbie, or Corby, on the banks of the Weser, in the diocese of Paderborn. This abbey received its charter from Louis le Debonnaire in 823, and became no less important an institution for the propagation of the faith in the north of Germany, than Fulda still continued to be in the centre, and St. Gall in the South.”

Charlemagne relaxed somewhat the severity of his laws or capitularies after the year 797. He founded eight bishoprics among the Saxons: Osnabrück, Münster, Minden, Paderborn, Verden, Bremen, Hildesheim, and Halberstadt. From these bishoprics and the parochial churches grouped around them, and from monasteries such as Fulda, proceeded those higher and nobler influences which acted on the mind and heart.

The first monument of real Christianity among the Saxons is the “Heliand” (Heiland, i.e., Healer, Saviour) or a harmony of the Gospels. It is a religious epos strongly resembling the older work of the Anglo-Saxon Caedmon on the Passion and Resurrection. From this it no doubt derived its inspiration. For since Bonifacius there was a lively intercourse between the church of England and the church in Germany, and the language of the two countries was at that time essentially the same. In both works Christ appears as the youthful hero of the human race, the divine conqueror of the world and the devil, and the Christians as his faithful knights and warriors. The Heliand was composed in the ninth century by one or more poets whose language points to Westphalia as their home. The doctrine is free from the worship of saints, the glorification of Peter, and from ascetic excesses, but mixed somewhat with mythological reminiscences. Vilmar calls it the only real Christian epos, and a wonderful creation of the German genius.127127    See Ed. Sievers, Heliand, Halle, 1878.

A little later (about 870) Otfried, a Franconian, educated at Fulda and St. Gall, produced another poetic harmony of the Gospels, which is one of the chief monuments of old high German literature. It is a life of Christ from his birth to the ascension, and ends with a description of the judgment. It consists of fifteen thousand rhymed lines in strophes of four lines.

Thus the victory of Christianity in Germany as well as it, England, was the beginning of poetry and literature, and of true civilization,

The Christianization of North-Eastern Germany, among the Slavonic races, along the Baltic shores in Prussia, Livonia, and Courland, went on in the next period, chiefly through Bishop Otto of Bamberg, the apostle of Pomerania, and the Knights of the Teutonic order, and was completed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.


III. THE CONVERSION 0F SCANDINAVIA.


General Literature.


I. Scandinavia before Christianity.

The Eddas, edit. Rask (Copenhagen, 1818); A. Munch (Christiania, 1847); Möbius (Leipzig, 1860).

N. M. Petersen: Danmarks Historie i Hedenold. Copenhagen, 1834–37, 3 vols.; Den Nordiske Mythologie, Copenhagen, 1839.

N. F. S. Grundtvig: Nordens Mythologie. Copenhagen, 1839.

Thorpe: Northern Mythology. London, 1852, 3 vols.

Rasmus B. Anderson: Norse Mythology; Myths of the Eddas systematized and interpreted. Chicago, 1875.


II. The Christianization of Scandinavia.

Claudius Oernhjalm: Historia Sueonum Gothorumque Ecclesiae. Stockholm, 1689, 4 vols.

E. Pontoppidan: Annales Ecclesiae Danicae. Copenhagen, 1741.

F. Münter: Kirchengeschichte von Dänmark und Norwegen. Copenhagen and Leipzig, 1823–33, 3 vols.

R. Reuterdahl: Svenska kyrkans historia. Lund, 1833, 3 vols., first volume translated into German by E. T. Mayerhof, under the title: Leben Ansgars.

Fred Helweg: Den Danske Kirkes Historie. Copenhagen, 1862.

A. Jorgensen: Den nordiske Kirkes Grundloeggelse. Copenhagen, 1874.

Neander: Geschichte der christlichen Kirche, Vol. IV., pp. 1–150



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