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§ 29. The Christianization of Denmark. St. Ansgar.


Ansgarius: Pigmenta, ed. Lappenberg. Hamburg, 1844. Vita Wilehadi, in Pertz: Monumenta II.; and in Migne: Patrol. Tom. 118, pp. 1014–1051.

Rimbertus: Vita Ansgarii, in Pertz: Monumenta II., and in Migne, l.c. pp. 961–1011.

Adamus Bremensis (d. 1076): Gesta Hamenburgensis Eccl. pontificum (embracing the history of the archbishopric of Hamburg, of Scandinavia, Denmark, and Northwestern Germany, from 788–1072); reprinted in Pertz: Monumenta, VII.; separate edition by Lappenberg. Hanover, 1846.

Laurent: Leben der Erzb. Ansgar und Rimbert. 1856.

A. Tappehorn: Leben d. h. Ansgar. 1863.

G. Dehio: Geschichte d. Erzb. Hamburg-Bremen. 1877.

H. N. A. Jensen: Schleswig-Holsteinische Kirchengeschichte, edit. A. L. J. Michelsen (1879).


During the sixth and seventh centuries the Danes first came in contact with Christianity, partly through their commercial intercourse with Duerstede in Holland, partly through their perpetual raids on Ireland; and tales of the “White Christ” were frequently told among them, though probably with no other effect than that of wonder. The first Christian missionary who visited them and worked among them was Willebrord. Born in Northumbria and educated within the pale of the Keltic Kirk he went out, in 690, as a missionary to the Frises. Expelled by them he came, about 700, to Denmark, was well received by king Yngrin (Ogendus), formed a congregation and bought thirty Danish boys, whom he educated in the Christian religion, and of whom one, Sigwald, is still remembered as the patron saint of Nuremberg, St. Sebaldus. But his work seems to have been of merely temporary effect.

Soon, however, the tremendous activity which Charlemagne developed as a political organizer, was felt even on the Danish frontier. His realm touched the Eyder. Political relations sprang up between the Roman empire and Denmark, and they opened a freer and broader entrance to the Christian missionaries. In Essehoe, in Holstein, Charlemagne built a chapel for the use of the garrison; in Hamburg he settled Heridock as the head of a Christian congregation; and from a passage in one of Alcuin’s letters128128    Epist. 13, in Monumenta Alcuiniana, Ed. Jaffé. it appears that a conversion of the Danes did not lie altogether outside of his plans. Under his successor, Lewis the Pious, Harald Klak, one of the many petty kings among whom Denmark was then divided, sought the emperor’s support and decision in a family feud, and Lewis sent archbishop Ebo of Rheims, celebrated both as a political negotiator and as a zealous missionary, to Denmark. In 822 Ebo crossed the Eyder, accompanied by bishop Halitgar of Cambray. In the following years he made several journeys to Denmark, preached, baptized, and established a station of the Danish mission at Cella Wellana, the present Welnau, near Essehoe. But he was too much occupied with the internal affairs of the empire and the opportunity which now opened for the Danish mission, demanded the whole and undivided energy of a great man. In 826 Harald Klak was expelled and sought refuge with the emperor, Ebo acting as a mediator. At Ingelheim, near Mentz, the king, the queen, their son and their whole retinue, were solemnly baptized, and when Harald shortly after returned to Denmark with support from the emperor, he was accompanied by that man who was destined to become the Apostle of the North, Ansgar.

Ansgar was born about 800 (according to general acceptation Sept. 9, 801) in the diocese of Amiens, of Frankish parents, and educated in the abbey of Corbie, under the guidance of Adalhard. Paschasius Radbertus was among his teachers. In 822 a missionary colony was planted by Corbie in Westphalia, and the German monastery of Corwey or New Corwey was founded. Hither Ansgar was removed, as teacher in the new school, and he soon acquired great fame both on account of his powers as a preacher and on account of his ardent piety. When still a boy he had holy visions, and was deeply impressed with the vanity of all earthly greatness. The crown of the martyr seemed to him the highest grace which human life could attain, and he ardently prayed that it might be given to him. The proposition to follow king Harald as a missionary, among the heathen Danes he immediately accepted, in spite of the remonstrances of his friends, and accompanied by Autbert he repaired, in 827, to Denmark, where he immediately established a missionary station at Hedeby, in the province of Schleswig. The task was difficult, but the beginning was not without success. Twelve young boys were bought to be educated as teachers, and not a few people were converted and baptized. His kindness to the poor, the sick, to all who were in distress, attracted attention; his fervor as a preacher and teacher produced sympathy without, as yet, provoking resistance. But in 829 king Harald was again expelled and retired to Riustri, a possession on the mouth of the Weser, which the emperor had given to him as a fief. Ansgar was compelled to follow him and the prospects of the Danish mission became very dark, the more so as Autbert had to give up any further participation in the work on account of ill health, and return to New Corwey. At this time an invitation from the Swedish king, Björn, gave Ansgar an opportunity to visit Sweden, and he stayed there till 831, when the establishment of an episcopal see at Hamburg, determined upon by the diet of Aix-le-chapelle in 831, promised to give the Danish mission a new impulse. All Scandinavia was laid under the new see, and Ansgar was consecrated its first bishop by bishop Drago of Metz, a brother of the emperor, with the solemn assistance of three archbishops, Ebo of Rheims, Hetti of Treves and Obgar of Mentz. A bull of Gregory IV.129129    Mabillon: Act. Sanct. Bened. Ord. IV. 2, p. 124. confirmed the whole arrangement, and Ansgar received personally the pallium from the hands of the Pope. In 834 the emperor endowed the see with the rich monastery of Thorout, in West Flanders, south of Bruges, and the work of the Danish mission could now be pushed with vigor. Enabled to treat with the petty kings of Denmark on terms of equality, and possessed of means to impress them with the importance of the cause, Ansgar made rapid progress, but, as was to be expected, the progress soon awakened opposition. In 834 a swarm of heathen Danes penetrated with a fleet of six hundred small vessels into the Elb under the command of king Horich I., and laid siege to Hamburg. The city was taken, sacked and burnt; the church which Ansgar had built, the monastery in which he lived, his library containing a copy of the Bible which the emperor had presented to him, etc., were destroyed and the Christians were driven away from the place. For many days Ansgar fled from hiding-place to hiding-place in imminent danger of his life. He sought refuge with the bishop of Bremen, but the bishop of Bremen was jealous, because Scandinavia had not been laid under his see, and refused to give any assistance. The revenues of Thorout he lost, as the emperor, Charles the Bald, gave the fief to one of his favorites. Even his own pupils deserted him.

In this great emergency his character shone forth in all its strength and splendor; he bore what God laid upon him in silence and made no complaint. Meanwhile Lewis the German came to his support. In 846 the see of Bremen became vacant. The see of Hamburg was then united to that of Bremen, and to this new see, which Ansgar was called to fill, a papal bull of May 31, 864, gave archiepiscopal rank. Installed in Bremen, Ansgar immediately took up again the Danish mission and again with success. He won even king Horich himself for the Christian cause, and obtained permission from him to build a church in Hedeby, the first Christian church in Denmark, dedicated to Our Lady. Under king Horich’s son this church was allowed to have bells, a particular horror to the heathens, and a new and larger church was commenced in Ribe. By Ansgar’s activity Christianity became an established and acknowledged institution in Denmark, and not only in Denmark but also in Sweden, which he visited once more, 848–850.

The principal feature of his spiritual character was ascetic severity; he wore a coarse hair-shirt close to the skin, fasted much and spent most of his time in prayer. But with this asceticism he connected a great deal of practical energy; he rebuked the idleness of the monks, demanded of his pupils that they should have some actual work at hand, and was often occupied in knitting, while praying. His enthusiasm and holy raptures were also singularly well-tempered by good common sense. To those who wished to extol his greatness and goodness by ascribing miracles to him, he said that the greatest miracle in his life would be, if God ever made a thoroughly pious man out of him.130130    Si dignus essem apud Deum meum, rogarem quatenus unum mihi concederet signum, videlicet ut de me sua gratia faceret bonum hominem.” Vita by Rimbert, c. 67 (Migne 118, p. 1008). Most prominent, however, among the spiritual features of his character shines forth his unwavering faith in the final success of his cause and the never-failing patience with which this faith fortified his soul. In spite of apparent failure he never gave up his work; overwhelmed with disaster, he still continued it. From his death-bed he wrote a letter to king Lewis to recommend to him the Scandinavian mission. Other missionaries may have excelled him in sagacity and organizing talent, but none in heroic patience and humility. He died at Bremen, Feb. 3, 865, and lies buried there in the church dedicated to him. He was canonized by Nicholas I.

Ansgar’s successor in the archiepiscopal see of Hamburg-Bremen was his friend and biographer, Rimbert, 865–888. In his time all the petty kingdoms into which Denmark was divided, were gathered together under one sceptre by King Gorm the Old; but this event, in one respect very favorable to the rapid spread of Christianity, was in other respects a real obstacle to the Christian cause as it placed Denmark, politically, in opposition to Germany, which was the basis and only support of the Christian mission to Denmark. King Gorm himself was a grim heathen; but his queen, Thyra Danabod, had embraced Christianity, and both under Rimbert and his successor, Adalgar, 888–909, the Christian missionaries were allowed to work undisturbed. A new church, the third in Denmark, was built at Aarhus. But under Adalgar’s successor, Unni, 909–936, King Gorm’s fury, half political and half religious, suddenly burst forth. The churches were burnt, the missionaries were killed or expelled, and nothing but the decisive victory of Henry the Fowler, king of Germany, over the Danish king saved the Christians in Denmark from complete extermination. By the peace it was agreed that King Gorm should allow the preaching of Christianity in his realm, and Unni took up the cause again with great energy. Between Unni’s successor, Adaldag, 936–988, and King Harald Blue Tooth, a son of Gorm the Old, there grew up a relation which almost might be called a co-operation. Around the three churches in Jutland: Schleswig, Ribe and Aarhus, and a fourth in Fünen: Odense, bishoprics were formed, and Adaldag consecrated four native bishops. The church obtained right to accept and hold donations, and instances of very large endowments occurred.

The war between King Harald and the German king, Otto II., arose from merely political causes, but led to the baptism of the former, and soon after the royal residence was moved from Leire, one of the chief centres of Scandinavian heathendom, to Roeskilde, where a Christian church was built. Among the Danes, however, there was a large party which was very ill-pleased at this turn of affairs. They were heathens because heathenism was the only religion which suited their passions. They clung to Thor, not from conviction, but from pride. They looked down with indignation and dismay upon the transformation which Christianity everywhere effected both of the character and the life of the people. Finally they left the country and settled under the leadership of Palnatoke, at the mouth of the Oder, where they founded a kind of republic, Jomsborg.

From this place they waged a continuous war upon Christianity in Denmark for more than a decade, and with dreadful effect. The names of the martyrs would fill a whole volume, says Adam of Bremen. The church in Roeskilde was burnt. The bishopric of Fünen was abolished. The king’s own son, Swen, was one of the leaders, and the king himself was finally shot by Palnatoke, 991. Swen, however, soon fell out with the Joms vikings, and his invasion of England gave the warlike passions of the nation another direction.

From the conquest of that country and its union with Denmark, the Danish mission received a vigorous impulse. King Swen himself was converted, and showed great zeal for Christianity. He rebuilt the church in Roeskilde, erected a new church at Lund, in Skaane, placed the sign of the cross on his coins, and exhorted, on his death-bed, his son Canute to work for the Christianization of Denmark. The ardor of the Hamburg-Bremen archbishops for the Danish mission seemed at this time to have cooled, or perhaps the growing difference between the language spoken to the north of the Eyder and that spoken to the south of that river made missionary work in Denmark very difficult for a German preacher. Ansgar had not felt this difference; but two centuries later it had probably become necessary for the German missionary to learn a foreign language before entering on his work in Denmark.

Between England and Denmark there existed no such difference of language. King Canute the Great, during whose reign (1019–1035) the conversion of Denmark was completed, could employ English priests and monks in Denmark without the least embarrassment. He re-established the bishopric of Fünen, and founded two new bishoprics in Sealand and Skaane; and these three sees were filled with Englishmen consecrated by the archbishop of Canterbury. He invited a number of English monks to Denmark, and settled them partly as ecclesiastics at the churches, partly in small missionary stations, scattered all around in the country; and everywhere, in the style of the church-building and in the character of the service the English influence was predominating. This circumstance, however, did in no way affect the ecclesiastical relation between Denmark and the archiepiscopal see of Hamburg-Bremen. The authority of the archbishop, though not altogether unassailed, was nevertheless generally submitted to with good grace, and until in the twelfth century an independent Scandinavian archbishopric was established at Lund, with the exception of the above cases, he always appointed and consecrated the Danish bishops. Also the relation to the Pope was very cordial. Canute made a pilgrimage to Rome, and founded several Hospitia Danorum there. He refused, however, to permit the introduction of the Peter’s pence in Denmark, and the tribute which, up to the fourteenth century, was annually sent from that country to Rome, was considered a voluntary gift.

The last part of Denmark which was converted was the island of Bornholm. It was christianized in 1060 by Bishop Egius of Lund. It is noticeable, however, that in Denmark Christianity was not made a part of the law of the land, such as was the case in England and in Norway.



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