History of Me, Part 5: Printing and Protestantism

In this edition of History of Me, we look at how both the printing press and the Protestant Reformation radically changed European society. Sound interesting? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

First, a little context…

Before we dive in, I wanted to give some background, especially for some of the particular Church doctrines and practices that feature in this post. So, here are some useful facts and terms to know:

  • Purgatory: Also known as limbo. Believed (and taught by the Church) to be where souls would go after they died to spend time doing penance for their un-atoned-for sins, until they achieved sufficient holiness and were allowed into heaven.
  • Indulgences: Pieces of paper granting the bearer exemption from a certain amount of time spent doing penance in Purgatory. They could be earned (eg by visiting a holy site) or purchased (eg by making a donation to build a new cathedral), and were a quick and effective way to raise money for the Church.
  • The Pope: Seen as not only the infallible representative of God on earth and leader of the Church, but also as a political figure to which even royalty had to give respect if not outright obedience. Popes often used their religious authority over people’s souls to leverage their way into more secular matters. (Though at this point, European society was Christian at its core, so “secular” is kind of a misnomer. Not that there weren’t atheists or people of other religions, but for the vast majority of Europeans the Church was such an intrinsic part of society and their daily existence that the way we think of separation of Church and State now basically didn’t exist at this time.)
  • Heresy / Heretic: As the head of the Church and infallible representative of God on Earth, the Pope (and, by extension, other church officials insofar as they were supported by the Pope) had the authority to declare certain beliefs “wrong” — heresy. Because of the importance placed on salvation, being declared a heretic was dangerous — you were seen as not only personally damned, but liable to lead others astray, and thus were likely to be sentenced to execution if you refused to recant or repeal your statements.
  • Excommunication: If a person (or group, or city, or a whole country) did something the Pope (and other church authorities) didn’t like, they could declare them to be excommunicated — that is, outside the salvation of the Church. While excommunicated, a person could not attend church, receive communion, receive their last rites, etc, which meant they were basically outside of society.

Okay, I think that’s a good start… now, on to the main event.

The printing revolution

Our first book dives right into the religious tension simmering just below the surface at this time in history. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie follows the invention of the printing press and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible(s) in Mainz, Germany in 1450 through the perspective of Peter Shoeffer, a trained scribe and actual person.

At the start of the book, the city of Mainz is under a blanket excommunication and embargo imposed by the local archbishop as punishment for the city council’s defiance:

There’d be no sacraments until the upstart council had backed down. The archbishop’s word was law: none of his priests would say a mass or take confession, the newly born were unbaptized and the dying were deprived of their last rites, consigned forever to the agony of limbo. (p.15)

Withholding religious rituals from people meant if they died they wouldn’t go to heaven, so the burden of excommunication on the populace was a heavy one. The fact that the archbishop is willing to let common people suffer this way in order to gain a leg up on the city council illustrates that blurred line between religious and political authority that church officials crossed regularly.

The book also does a great job of illustrating the politics specifically surrounding the creation of books and the invention of the printing press. At this time, most books were religious (with the exception of some classical texts used for teaching and philosophy). The writing of religious texts in particular, done mainly in scriptoria (writing rooms) by monks, was seen as a religious act and was highly regulated by the church to ensure uniformity and orthodoxy. In the book, Peter and co initially plan to print a shorter religious book, so they can finish and get paid sooner. But that gets nixed by church officials, so they decide to print Bibles because no one can argue with a Bible!

From there, the book really delved into the craft and mechanics of the printing process, which I found fascinating. I had never thought about ALL the steps needed:

  • Hand-write their own font
  • Hand-create molds to cast each letter
  • Invent a metal alloy that could withstand the impact of being pressed over and over
  • Cast thousands of tiny letters and ensure they were all the exact same height so the page would print evenly
  • Mix ink that would be thin enough to not get tacky but thick enough to not melt all over or get watered down
  • Select appropriate paper and vellum (calf-skin), and ensure they were all the same size
  • Collate and bind all the books by hand

It’s not that surprising, then, that it took five years to print around 150 Latin Bibles, one page (x150) at a time. Each one sold for the equivalent of 3 years’ wages for an average clerk.

…Which you might think is expensive. And it is. But a single Bible copied by hand could take a scribe a whole year to write. So even though 5 years for 150 Bibles sounds super slow, it’s a lot faster than 5 years for 5 Bibles!

The printing press greatly reduced and cost, time, and effort required to create books — but arguably its most immediate impact was felt in its ability to quickly replicate shorter items, such as pamphlets and indulgences, which allowed information to be spread and money to be raised very rapidly. In fact, a big reason for the printing press crew’s secrecy throughout the book (other than the obvious “don’t want anyone to steal my invention”) is because Peter, who feels printing a Bible is a spiritual act, doesn’t want the press to be used to print indulgences — and (spoiler) at the end of the book, that’s exactly what happens.

The Protestant Reformation

Speaking of pamphlets and indulgences, let’s talk about the Protestant Reformation!

The quick story (which I heard often as a kid growing up Lutheran) is that the Church was selling lots of indulgences and doing other unbiblical things, so Martin Luther wrote down 95 theses, or arguments, and nailed them to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. (Since religious folks were often also scholarly folks, this was basically the equivalent of posting a list of arguments in a forum on the internet — and in fact, it was quickly converted into a pamphlet and “went viral” throughout Europe.) Then the Church got mad, excommunicated Luther, and tried to kill him, but lots of people followed what he said and that’s why we have Lutherans (and all you other Protestants, too!) today. The end.

Obviously that’s simplistic. But actually, in some ways this is how the story feels to me, since learning it as a child made it feel almost mythological. So I really enjoyed having an opportunity to revisit this important time in history in its proper context, as a part of the story of my family and my peoples. (Especially since this reading accidentally coincided with the 500th anniversary of the 95 theses!)

As I read through chapter 3 of A Mighty Fortress, what stood out most to me was how much Luther and the Reformation were not just focused on theology, but also politics, economics, national identity, and social class. There was just SO much going on at this time in Europe and particularly Germany that it’s hard to digest it all at once! I’ve pulled out a few big themes below. (I swear I’ve tried to edit this down twice… sorry!)

Significant challenge to centralized Roman Church

The most obvious (at least to me) dimension of the Reformation is, of course, the religious angle. And it’s significant to note that this was a major, major upheaval for all of Christian society. Recent in everyone’s memory would have been the sacking of Constantinople (1453 – just 60 years earlier, during Gutenberg’s printing efforts) and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, the greatest eastern church, into a mosque. This left Rome as the sole center of Christendom, and to some it probably felt like the sky was falling to now see papal authority challenged from withinAnd remember — the big concern at this time, with excommunication and indulgences and all, was “Are you going to heaven?” So having suddenly two disagreeing camps would have been shocking and stressful for many.

Culturally speaking, I found it interesting to think about the big-picture cultural shifts in theology and faith practice. Medieval Catholicism emphasized the pilgrimage as a metaphor of life’s journey of judgment, penance, and grace with priests as guides and mediators. Protestantism emphasized the ability of all to access God and focused on each person as “righteous and sinful simultaneously” (AMF p. 85). Protestants also placed more emphasis on secular civic life (eg public schools, state welfare, de-sacramentizing marriage, etc).

Seeds of deep religious division

I knew going into this that much conflict in medieval/modern Europe has been about Protestants and Catholics, so it’s interesting (and sad) to see those seeds planted:

Over the centuries the pervasiveness of Lutheran and Catholic theology in gymnasiums [schools] and universities infused German public education with religious knowledge, which in turn exacerbated confessional divisions. Yet that same knowledge also made the Germans Europe’s most theologically literate people and facilitated both confessions’ cooperation with the state. (p.90, emphasis added)

In my experience, both parts of this quote are still true today: education (religious and otherwise) still has high importance in the German Lutheran church I was raised in, and even still today there is plenty of segregation and division between Catholics and Protestants. (Just go ask a Euro-American grandparent – I guarantee they’ll have a story for you, no matter which side of the tracks they grew up on.)

The rise of cities

Around the same time, the rise of cities and the merchant middle class  meant more desire for self-differentiation and openness to anti-Roman sentiment:

Local grievances against the Roman Church and a desire for communal sovereignty attracted urban populations to Protestant reforms. Viewing themselves as oases of republican government within a desert of autocratic rule, self-governing townspeople believed themselves to be morally superior to the landed nobility and royalty. They had gotten where they were not by birth, fortune, or military force, but by native ingenuity and the skills they acquired through productive work. (p.66-67, emphasis added)

(To me, this quote also explains exactly where the famous “Protestant work ethic” comes from!)

A major political statement

Back in 1356 (so 150 years before the Reformation), then-Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV granted German princes “semiregal rights within their respective lands” (AMF p.65). This led to the establishment of 7 princes (3 of whom were “ecclesiastical princes”, aka bishops!) as the “electors” of the next Holy Roman Emperor — which they did without the involvement of the Pope. This was a big win for regionalism and the beginning of a drift away from Roman influence.

The electors were still around at the time of the Reformation. And in fact, one called Frederick the Elector, a Saxon prince, had a huge collection of relics for which visiting pilgrims could gain “1,902,202 years of absolution for unrepented sins” (p.71). According to Ozment,

Luther hated the great relic collection and the even greater indulgence it promised. He waited to post his famous Ninety-five Theses until Frederick had departed Wittenberg for the 1517 autumn hunt…. When however, the crafty indulgence peddler John Tetzel, on the instructions of the archbishop of Mainz, began selling the famous indulgence for the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s in Rome on the borders of electoral Saxony, Frederick was as offended as Luther — albeit over the political intrusion rather than any religious impropriety. (p.71, emphasis added)

This turned out to be the first of many times Frederick interceded on Luther’s behalf — and it’s impossible to separate the religious and political motivations: “When, in April 1521, Luther, a condemned heretic, was summoned to the Diet of Worms [a church trial at Worms, Germany] to answer for his teachings, the elector of Saxony attended that meeting also, as a guardian angel. … At the conclusion of the Diet, the vast majority of German lands and cities joined electoral Saxony in refusing to sign off on its proceedings…” (p.74).

Not only did Germans refuse to condemn Luther, but before they even knew the verdict they had already brought their political and religious grievances:

The two movements, the new religious and the older political, spoke with one voice at the Diet of Worms in April 1521. There, the German estates, none of which was yet Protestant, presented [Holy Roman] Emperor Charles V with 102 “oppressive burdens and abuses imposed upon, and committed against, the German empire by the Holy See of Rome” — a national laundry list of political, economic ecclesiastical, and spiritual complaints, echoing many of Luther’s. (p. 78-79, emphasis added)

Rise of independent German identity

So far we’ve looked at how the Reformation was religious and political — but it also intermingled with a strong German nationalist impulse.

Ozment notes that “during his formative years, from 1518 to 1528, Luther was as devoted to German nationalism and civic reform as he was to the restoration of biblical Christianity” (p.77). In addition to writing about the abuses of the church, Luther discovered, edited, and published “A German Theology” as proof of “German sovereignty and cultural equality [with Rome]” (p.80). Ozment notes that “this pamphlet was another native root for Germans to cling to and a reminder of a still unhealed, historically wounded German pride” (p.80) — an attempt to raise themselves up from the memory of being the Romans’ “barbarian” neighbors.

This desire for a strong and unified German identity also found a linguistic expression — as Luther is also largely responsible for the advent of the modern German language. At this time, different dialects were spoken around Germany, but Luther spoke and wrote “an early form of the pan-German language we know today as High German, evolved from composite East Middle and Low German dialects” (p.88-9). 

A note about Luther…

The Reformation was a HUGE moment in history — I can see where so much of what we now think of as German began with the Reformation. And Luther should get credit for his part in it.

But I think it’s also important to be honest about his shortcomings, because those contributed to what we now think of as German, too. I’ll touch on two of those briefly.

First, Luther betrayed his fellow peasants. In short, the much-downtrodden peasant class took hold of the egalitarian spirit of Luther’s writings and began an uprising. Luther initially supported the movement, “calling the revolt and its anarchy a just divine punishment for their [rulers’] tyranny” (p.76), but when it came to a choice between the new Reformation being embraced by elites or dragged down by peasant rebellion, “Luther the cleric and the miner’s son called for the ‘merciless punishment’ of the peasants” (p.76). Like so many Germans before him, he chose empire over neighbor.

Second, Luther wrote awful things about the Jews. All you need to hear is that he actually wrote a book called On the Jews and Their Lies, and you know it’s going to be bad. In fact, Luther’s later anti-Semitic writings were a major influence for the Nazis. I won’t go into a ton of detail (here’s a link with more if you want) — but I never knew about this as a kid, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that Luther was a person who did some great things and some awful things.

The Reformation and Regular People

Mighty Fortress gave so much amazing background about the Reformation as a movement — but one of the things I most want to learn through this project is what effect all these big-picture movements had on everyday people. So I read Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath, which follows a single rural English village based on the financial account book of its priest, Sir Christopher, over the course of the English Reformation.

(Note: Morebath was Catholic, so obviously it would have been different for Protestant villages. But since at this time rulers could choose the religion of their country/province, I think this is still a valuable examination of how common folk were affected by courtly politics re: religion.)

The English Reformation provides a condensed idea of how the Reformation affected other nations, in part because the very rapid change in Tudor monarchs meant many forced religious changes for the people. During Sir Christopher’s record-keeping:

  • 1521 – Henry VIII writes pamphlet denouncing Luther; declared “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope
  • 1534 – Henry VIII makes self head of Church of England; is excommunicated; dissolves monasteries; forbids Catholicism
  • 1538 – Henry VIII starts to roll back some reforms, but then dies…
  • 1547 – Edward VI, radical Protestant, burned Catholic “heretics”
  • 1553 – Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), radical Catholic, burned Protestant “heretics”
  • 1558 – Elizabeth I, returned the country to Protestantism and burned a few Catholic “heretics” but then kinda settled down

Folks, that is all in just 37 years. Poor English people.

In the financial record of the village of Morebath, Sir Christopher records that each time the rules changed, the church had to purchase a new Bible and a new (approved) prayer book. Remember how expensive books were, even with the printing press? (3 years’ salary for a Bible.) For a small village parish like Morebath, forced liturgical change meant massive financial burden.

Another major impact was the outlawing (and re-allowing) of the veneration of the saints. In Morebath, parishioners took part in “interest groups” named after different saints, such as a group for young men named for St. George or a group of young maidens named for St. Sidwell (a local saint at Morebath). These groups helped people at different stages of life to have an engaged role in church life. Members also worked together to fundraise, and then donated the monies to the church to honor their saint in some way — such as the maidens financing a new coat of paint for St. Sidwell’s statue.

The saints were also deeply personal and entrenched in community life — often a woman would bequeath her rosary (a very intimate and important possession for a medieval woman) to be draped on St. Sidwell after her death, and parishioners would be able to be present with the saints and the objects that connected them with their absent loved ones.

With the outlawing of saints, these groups were dissolved, and the icons and decorations of the saints were no longer permitted in the church. Even in a financial record book, it’s clear that the loss of the saints hit parishioners hard. The residents of Morebath are recorded as keeping and hiding some of their saints and altar cloths. In fact, when a Catholic peasant rebellion rose up, Sir Christopher very sneakily records that the church sent several young men to support the rebels. So this was important enough to risk treason standing up for what they believed in.

In the end Protestantism won out, and Duffy notes that “with the extinguishing of the [saints’ altar] lights and the abandonment of the patronage of the saints… a dimension of warmth and humanity evident in the [financial] accounts [of Morebath] up to that point fades a little.”

Here we see how, as with the original conversion of Europe to Christianity, religious change at this time often came from the top down. Essentially, over the life of this parish priest, “twenty years of pious investment and communal effort” toward beautifying the church out of personal and communal devotion was in an instant “expressly declared unchristian” with the passage of these laws enforcing Protestant practice. It reminded me again how painful forcible conversion is, whether from religion to religion or even from one cultural practice to another. 

At the end of the book, Duffy notes that Sir Christopher, who became a priest as a Catholic, in the end had to shape his priesthood into the mold of Protestantism. He could have refused to change, or left the priesthood, but “the unthinkable alternative to conformity was to leave his vicarage and the people he had baptized, married, and buried for 40 years.” Duffy writes that “his [Sir Christopher’s] religion in the end was the religion of Morebath” — local, place-based, intertwined with those specific families and people. And I found that really beautiful to think about.

Conclusion

As I said, there’s just SO much here to take in. Printing presses accelerating the speed of public discourse. Resistance against Roman authority. Struggle to form a new faith. Coercion and conflict and loss and adaptation.

I feel like as we approach the “modern” era, I’m starting to see some of the themes that emerged early in the project — like “we’re not as cool as Rome” or forcible religious conversion or the disconnect between the powers and the rural folks —  resurface in deeper and more complex ways. 

I almost feel like Germany is starting to have kind of a personality to me, so that’s kind of cool. But also, people have baggage, and I already know where Germany’s particular baggage will get us… but it’s also fascinating to see where the roots of German nationalism began. And how, underneath it all, the Morebaths of the world try to put the pieces together and live life.

I’m still processing. But I’m really grateful for this journey.

Tune in next time for a dive into the Thirty Years War and the ins and outs of daily life in a typical German village.

Oh, and, bonus — enjoy Daniel’s cut-to-the-chase summary of my post. 🙂

SO… YOU’RE SAYING THAT LUTHER WANTED LIBERTY BOTH THEOLOGICALLY AND POLITICALLY FROM ROME, AND HE WAS PRETTY MUCH AMAZING AT LEADING THEOLOGICAL AND POLITICAL MOVEMENTS TO ACCOMPLISH JUST THAT, BUT NOT WITHOUT ACCIDENTALLY SCREWING THE POOR AND KINDLING THE 3RD REICH. OH… AND… PRINTING PRESSES.

 

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History of Me, Part 4: The Lives of Medieval Women

In this episode of History of Me, I get a detailed front-row-seat look at what life was like for Scandinavian women in early- and late-medieval Europe. Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

A Brief History of the Holy Roman Empire

Last time we focused specifically on the religious side of the coin, learning how Christianity grew and spread on the “trellis” of Roman infrastructure and trickled down from nobles to commoners. This is apparent in both of the books I read (more about those shortly); but first, I want to point out a couple other common themes that cropped up in this month’s Mighty Fortress reading:

  • Roman / Christian fusion led to Roman-Catholic ascendancy. This chapter looked at Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty of Franks (more on their terrible conversion practices in the last post). As Germanic tribes, especially the Franks, stepped into the vacuum left by the fall of the Roman Empire, the Christian bureaucracy growing on the trellis of Roman administration became fused with the Frankish kingdom. When Frankish power passed into Saxon hands in 919, the seat of power was retitled as the new “Roman Empire,” which by the 1200s had become the Holy Roman Empire. As the title suggests, this role became deeply entangled with the Church and with the office of the Pope… but suffice to say that this formalized the hand-in-glove relationship that had already been going on for some time. (We can also see, however, how incorporating the church, and thus the Pope, into regional politics lays the groundwork for later corruption and the Protestant Reformation.)
  • Partible inheritance (sharing between multiple children) was more equitable, but also led to greater political instability. The practice of partible inheritance (as opposed to primogeniture, in which inheritance is passed only to the firstborn son) sounds really great — and in fact, it was “based in the moral and religious belief that parents should treat their children even-handedly” (Ozment p.44). The problem occurred when monarchs tried to do it with their kingdoms, as Charlemagne attempted. This led to the Frankish kingdom being divided in two, and eventually fragmenting into ruin, from which arose “five loosely organized duchies (Franconia, Saxony, Thuringia, Swabia, and Bavaria)” which were “thenceforth the foundation stones of a fragmented and competitive medieval German realm” (Ozment p.49). This fragmented regionalism is partially why when we get to the Renaissance/Reformation era (which we will next time), Germany is still a collection of smaller princely states whereas England and France are highly centralized monarchies.

These are the broad strokes of this era of transition from the ancient world of the Romans to the medieval world of kings, princes, and popes. Keep them in mind as we turn to our two books…

Gunnar’s Daughter: A Rape Survivor’s Epic

[As noted above, rape is a major plot point in this book, so proceed with caution, and also, major spoilers.]

The first book I read, Gunnar’s Daughter (by Sigrid Undset), is set in the 11th century and follows a pretty awesome maiden named Vigdis. She is courted by Ljot (pronounced Yot, but I keep saying Lee-ott in my head), a foreigner who visits her father’s hall. She likes him and is thinking about accepting his proposal… but then he rapes her and flees in shame. (He’s written as a reckless, hyper-sensitive man with a million red flags for toxic masculinity.) Vigdis, however, is left alone and pregnant with her family, and the rest of the book follows her life as she deals with her trauma and raising a child alone, as well as cultural expectations in an honor-based society.

This book, I’ve got to say, was AMAZING. It’s written in the style of a Norse epic — very action-packed — but with a rape-survivor single mom as the protagonist. (RIGHT???) I HIGHLY recommend it, so if you’re planning to read it go do that first before you read all my points below, because I will be discussing the ending. Here are some of the major themes from this incredible book:

  • The setting is a world in between paganism and Christianity. In the story, Vigdis has a “runic knife” and references some long-ago priestess kinswomen “at the high place in the grove here”, but tells Ljot during one of their talks that her father “believes in nothing but his own power and strength” (Undset p.7). Paganism is fading, but it’s clear that the common folk have not yet embraced Christianity; in fact, later in the book Vigdis and her people are baptized essentially for political expediency when they journey to the court of King Olav, the first Christian king of Norway.
  • Vigdis embodies many of the idylls of Norse epic heroes, and her being a woman does not interfere with that (and makes it even more badass!). Okay — imagine a book written about a rape-survivor single mom who escapes attackers via skis with her newborn on her back, then assassinates the man who murdered her father, overcomes her PTSD to raise her child as a single parent, protects herself and her child from outlaws in the forest by convincing them to go on a quest to the king’s court with her, resists the king’s proposal by instead agreeing that she and her people will be baptized, and rather than decide between her two rival suitors instead brokers other marriages for them that make them allies to each other and herself and secure their protection and tutelage for her young son. NOW imagine that book was set in 11th century Norway, and was written in 1909. (1909!) That book is this book, and it’s AMAZING. I’m also incredibly impressed that, although the story does check back in with Ljot, the suitor-turned-rapist, periodically, it never (in my opinion) drifts into rape apologism or excuses what he does in any way.
  • Vigdis’s character is also incredibly emotionally present in this book, working through trauma and emotional healing to learn to love her son. Undset does an amazing job of depicting the emotional realities of surviving trauma, healing, and learning resilience. At first, Vigdis ignores her pregnancy, and initially when she gives birth to her son (alone, in the wilderness) she abandons the infant to die. However a few months later, she learns that her step-mother (who noticed her pregnancy and helped her hide it from her father) found the boy and had given him to the care of a neighbor, and she decides she wants to raise the child. What follows is a really beautiful tale of Vigdis’s emotional healing and growth into a wise and capable leader and mother. Seriously one of my favorite book characters. There is, however, a tragic element to this story… [LAST CHANCE TO STOP BEFORE MAJOR ENDING SPOILERS]
  • The downside of Norse tradition is blood vengeance, which leaves families — and Vigdis — grieving and empty. The sad ending is that Vigdis’s son, Ulvar, grows up and meets his father on a ship — but Vigdis, in accordance with the “unrelenting social code” of the time, insists that her son avenge her by killing his father or she’ll never speak to him again. (Again, in no way does the book excuse Ljot’s actions, but it does paint Ulvar’s desire to know his father in a sympathetic light.) In the end, Ljot actually falls on his sword so Ulvar won’t have to do it, but Ulvar is so heartbroken and traumatized at his mother’s willingness to banish him that after delivering his father’s head to Vigdis he rides away and never returns, and Vigdis dies alone. Sigrid Undset wrote Gunnar’s Daughter during a revival of national obsession with their Nordic heritage as a critique of the “nationalist tendency toward isolationist race mythology” that perpetuated a “glorified image of the Vikings” but “obscured the fact that they had not been peaceful, diplomatic cultural ambassadors but brutal marauders, raiding, destroying, killing, and abducting innocent people” (Undset p.xiii). It serves as a reminder that cultural heritage includes things both beautiful and destructive, and as we deal with our own pain and issues we need to be conscious of how our reaction(s) to our trauma affect(s) our children.

Another reason this book was important to me is that I actually have a single mother in my family tree. According to family stories and my research, one of my immigrant ancestors, Bertha, arrived here with her parents and siblings in the summer of 1891, pregnant and unwed at 25, and gave birth to a son in December. No one knows who the father was, or whether Bertha was a willing or unwilling participant. Either way, she did not marry the father and in fact never married. So I picked this book specifically to spend some emotional time with Bertha, my single-mom foremother.

In thinking about Bertha in the context of Vigdis, I’m really glad that Bertha had lots of family around her to help her raise her son, unlike Vigdis. Both Bertha and Vigdis, though, raised their sons in a new land away from where they grew up, which is scary but also provides a way to leave old painful memories behind. I wonder if, like Vigdis, Bertha ever struggled with uncertainty about whether she wanted her child, or with PTSD, or with having to hide her pregnancy from her family. I visited her gravestone last summer, and spent a moment standing there, thinking of her. I hope her life improved. I hope she was able to love her son and enjoy him, and live life without too much bitterness or loneliness.

Kristin Lavransdatter: 14th-century Norwegian Immersion

The second book (really a trilogy of 3 books) I read was also written by Sigrid Undset and is a massive masterwork, and the primary reason why Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. It follows the entire life of Kristin Lavransdatter (daughter of Lavrans, as traditional Norwegian naming customs go) as she is betrothed to a respectable, reliable man; falls in love instead with a dashing rogue (Erlend); sleeps with him (which was a huge deal for a betrothed girl of noble lineage); persuades her betrothed to back out and her father to consent to her marriage to Erlend; manages Erlend’s rundown estate back to relative prosperity; gives birth to seven sons; loses her husband’s lands when he plots against the crown; becomes estranged from Erlend, who then dies; sees her sons grow up and scatter; and then enters a convent where she dies of the Black Plague.

Whew, that’s a lot! Honestly I’m impressed I could summarize it that short, since altogether it comprises over 1100 pages printed.

Reading Kristin Lavransdatter is definitely a commitment, but the beauty of it is that when you turn that last page you feel as if you’ve just lived a whole life. There is so much detail, and Undset does such a good job of letting you into Kristin’s infatuation with Erlend, struggle to manage motherhood and marriage, and wrestling with herself over the guilt she feels from what she sees as a massive sin and betrayal of God and her father, Lavrans. It’s truly an experience.

A couple themes that stuck out to me:

  • Christianity is much more omnipresent, but paganism still lurks here and there. Much of the language and fabric of Kristin’s world is shaped by the church — cathedrals and convents and priests and Hail Marys — but sprinkled here and there are things like the ancient practice of leaving offerings at the burial stone of the first owner of the estate, or describing odd babies as changelings. There is even one scene where Kristin, who is a healing woman, practices “sorcery” by laying grave dirt on a dying child to try to save his life. (She views this as a serious sin, but does it anyway out of debt to the child’s parent.) It is clear, however, that Christianity is ascendant and paganism is fast fading.
  • Conflict between feminism/self-determination and family honor. Kristin fights to marry the man she wants, and wins. And her own self-determination is a strong theme throughout the entire book, not just at the start. However, Kristin also wrestles with how to uphold or regain her family’s honor, when she’s clearly transgressed it with her defiance of her father. (In addition to getting pregnant before marriage, which was a huge no-no, Kristin also spends much of the book trying to offset the rash and unwise actions of her roguish husband, Erlend.) At times her self-admonishment comes off as extremely harsh on herself and there is a lot of self-denial for the good of her family and sons later, but at other times it’s amazing to see what kind of autonomy she has even as a woman in 14th-century Norway. One of my favorite things about this book was getting to see Kristin change her mind and vacillate between conflicting ideas, because that’s how life really is — it made her very human. (Side note: we again got to see the symbolism of keys as the markers of women’s ownership and management of the estate. When Kristin is married, her husband places the keys to his manor on her belt, and when Kristin’s son marries, she gives the estate keys to her new daughter-in-law to signify the transition to the next generation.)
  • Pervasive sense of fatalism, but with a strongly stubborn individualistic streak. If you remember back to the first post about Norse mythology, one of the big themes I highlighted was the belief that a person’s fate is already decided, but how people live their lives is up to them. The incredible detail and specificity with which Undset tells Kristin’s story reinforces both the sense of personal choice AND the sense of “your fate is your fate,” and in fact Kristin herself remarks toward the end of her life that “All that had happened and would happen was meant to be. Everything happens as it is meant to be” (Undset p.989).

Conclusion

I think this might be my favorite reading group so far, possibly because I love that I got to immerse myself in the lives of medieval women. The history in Ozment’s Mighty Fortress is a good overview of the religious and political upheaval that provides the backdrop for these stories, but to me the most realistic account of what life is like at any given time and place is getting to experience the everyday lives of women at that time and place. 

I feel like I so resonate with both the survival and emotional resilience of Vigdis (as well as her getting caught between healing and what society demands of her) and the daily grind of Kristin trying to balance her own happiness with caring for all her various family members as a daughter, wife, and mother. Although I read these books to gain more understanding of life as a medieval European woman — and I did — I also think these themes are still incredibly relevant to life today.

It’s still important to be connected to our families and our cultural roots; and those connections still bring us both joy and pain. I’m thankful for the ways these books have helped me to connect more deeply with both the joys and the pains of my ancestors, especially the women.

Tune in next time as we dive into the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation — just in time for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses. 

History of Me, Part 3: Beliefs and Betrayal

In this episode of History of Me, a look at how Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. (Hint: It’s super complicated.) Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

The Barbarian Conversion

Two looooong books this time. The first was non-fiction: The Barbarian Conversion by Richard Fletcher. If you are interested in an in-depth look into this topic, I recommend reading this because there is LOADS of detail. Here are some of the big ideas that stuck out to me:

  • When Constantine converted, Christianity became the religion of Roman favor. As Fletcher takes pains to clarify, “Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, though this is often said of him. What he did was to make the Christian church the most-favored recipient of the near-limitless resources of imperial favor.” This caused a conflation of “Christianness” with “Romanness” in the eyes of many in the empire, and set the stage for…
  • When Rome collapsed, Christianity stepped into the void as a kind of Roman surrogate. Because Christianity had become entangled with Romanness,  bishops and dioceses were set up in the same regional manner as Roman governmental officials and provinces. Thus, when the empire collapsed, it was an easy step for the religious structure to take over and grow on the “trellis” of what had been the imperial apparatus.
  • From there, conversion usually proceeded from the top. Once Christianity took hold among Roman elites, leaders of other cultural groups began to opt in. Since bishops were also often seats of power, church officials often came from noble families and were thus well-placed to convert their relatives and former peers. Thus, “Christianity became an inseparable component of the aristocratic identity” (Fletcher p. 192). Conversion also happened first at the city centers, and took much longer to spread to rural areas. (As Fletcher puts it, “fuzziness is an essential and important part of the process of barbarian conversion” [p.132].)
  • Early Christianity was not monolithic, but became so over time. Despite how clear theological matters may seem today, early Christianity was rife with disagreements that were later labeled as “heresies” by the winners. For example, check out Arianism or Donatism. This is interesting because  by the time “Christian” missionaries arrived some places, some people had already embraced “heretical” strains of Christianity — which was cause not for celebration, but for re-conversion! I can see this laying the groundwork for later intra-religious conflict…

This gives you the basic big-picture outline of how Christianity was spread. Constantine, to bishops, to nobles, to their vassals and (eventually) to rural country folk.

However, another huge piece that first occurred in Europe was forcible conversion, and for this we turn to Charlemagne. By the 700s AD, the Frankish kingdom in northwest Germany / northeast France was established and Christian, and ruled by the Carolingians. (I’ll read more about this kingdom / time period next time, but for this post we’re jumping a little ahead.) Charlemagne’s predecessor launched a campaign against their Saxon neighbors to the east, but it wasn’t just about a land grab:

By the end of the campaign, the Saxons were cowed and ‘sought peace and the sacraments.’ The stage was set for the bloody Saxon wars and forcible conversions of the reign of Charlemagne. (p.210) … [In 30 years] not much headway had been made with the conversion of the Saxons. Were these stubborn people never going to submit? In the [end] they did. The harsher measures… bore fruit, in the short term. In 782 [Charlemagne] massacred 4,500 prisoners. More fortunate ones were enslaved or deported. In 784 he led his army to the banks of the River Elbe: no Frankish ruler had ever before campaigned and laid waste as far to the east as this. In 785 [the eastern ruler] submitted and was baptized. (p. 215) … The Saxon Capitulary [when they finally surrendered] stands as a blueprint for the comprehensive and ruthless Christianization of a conquered society. (p.216, emphasis added)

So basically, Charlemagne and the Franks were the first to forcibly require conversion to Christianity of their defeated foes, on pain of death. Not only that, but like many who experience trauma the Saxons then turned around and when they had the power they reenacted that trauma on others: the Saxons conquered and forcibly converted the Slavic Wends (aka future Slovakians) and Pomerania, a late pagan holdout (where my dad’s German side is from), was subjugated by Poland in 1120.

I’m guessing you can see some parallels to some other colonial forcible conversion and assimilation; I could. Here’s what Fletcher has to say about it:

Christianization in these lands of the northern Slavs meant ‘Germanization’: a colonial church, a church of the German ascendancy, was imposed upon them. Cherished patterns of cultural identity were broken up: immemorial ways of doing things… Little that was positive was proffered in exchange. No native Wendish clergy was encouraged; no Christian literature in Old Pomeranian was developed. The converts were cowed and resentful. (p.450, emphasis added)

Basically Charlemagne took the imperialist impulses that had been first propagated by the Romans, mixed in the Christianity that had become the new elite religion, and began a chain reaction of violent colonial conversion that has continued for centuries. As Fletcher notes, “The spiritual conquest of [eastern Europe] points ahead to that of Mexico and Peru” (p.491).

So when we white folks look at the trauma that Europeans have done to others in the name of God, we can also look at ourselves and know, we were “better” at colonialism and violence by the time we got to other continents, but we practiced on our neighbors first. To me, this is significant not as a way to equalize everyone’s trauma and make it all go away, but as a way to understand that long ago, some of my ancestors chose to prioritize power over neighbor, at the cost of their humanity and many people’s lives. And that choice kept being remade and remade. And it’s still being remade today.

Mists of Avalon

It was interesting to re-read this book. (Also, fair warning, I will discuss major spoilers for this book as well as mentions of abuse, so proceed with caution.)

The first time I read it, I mostly noticed the subtextual and at times very overt theological conflict, because those concepts were really new to me. And those pieces are still there — I noticed lots of themes and plot points that reaffirmed the history I read in Barbarian Conversion including some nobles that were Romanized, the slow “fuzzy” permeation of Christianity into the elite, the even slower trickle-down of Christianity to the peasants, and the gradual radicalization of the Christian missionaries. All line up with what Fletcher describes based on the historical evidence we have.

HOWEVER. That was not what stood out most to me on this read-through. What was painfully, in-your-face obvious to me in this book was the incredible amount of relational brokenness, pain, and loss.

Part of this comes from the structure of the story — it’s a retelling of King Arthur, which requires infidelity, incest, and mass death just to fulfill its core plot points.

Another big part is due to the fact that this go-round, I read as one aware of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s history of abuse, as told by her daughter. (There were parts of the book that, knowing this information, read wayyyy too creepily. NOT okay.)

Those things aside (and I recognize that for some, those things are too big to put aside, but I’m going to discuss the book anyway) — to me, this book is about the story of patriarchal/imperial Christianity and how matriarchal beliefs struggled to survive. It’s a really complex story with a lot of characters, but I’ll pull out a few points:

  • Women vs. the patriarchy. From page one, this is a book primarily about women, and our protagonist, Morgaine, introduces herself as “sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen.” Throughout the book we see how the constricting roles allowed to women by patriarchal Romanized Christianity harm all the women. We see this in how many of the Romanized/Christianized men treat women, and especially how men’s treatment of women finds a focused voice in the internalized oppression evident in King Arthur’s shrinking bride, Gwenhwyfar, who is constantly saying things like “It is unseemly for a woman to raise her voice before the Lord…” (p.288).
  • Women can be part of the patriarchy, too. Although the main theme of this book is about patriarchal/Western/Christian oppression, a lot of the pain in this story also comes from the damage that women in this book inflict on each other in a quest for Avalon to survive. For example, Morgaine’s aunt, who is the high priestess, basically tricks Morgaine into sleeping with her little brother (Arthur), and Morgaine feels so betrayed that she flees Avalon and almost never returns. So painful. Although I understood that the priestess (and eventually Morgaine as well) use people horribly to try to secure the survival of Avalon, that noble goal doesn’t make me feel any better when it ends with everyone Morgaine loves dead and her alone among the ruins of Avalon. They weren’t the cause — they were pushed out by patriarchal Christianity — but I found myself wishing they could at least have loved each other and enjoyed what time they had rather than betraying each other and dehumanizing each other in the face of violence.
  • Earth/Goddess vs. imperial Christianity. In this book, we can see played out in the Arthurian legend the elements of conversion. At first both the druids and the first Christian missionaries to Britain coexist, but as the priests become more closed, rigid, and exacting and begin to call the Goddess rites satanic and evil, the priestesses of Avalon have to fight to keep their way of life alive. The priests demand orthodoxy, and the people are forced to give up the stories and rituals of their land to what (especially for women) is a restrictive, negative system of harsh rules that literally teaches them they are the gateway of sin. (It’s said by a character in the book, but it’s a real teaching of the church at that time.) Even though the priestesses of Avalon have their own issues, it’s sad to watch as the juggernaut of Roman Christianity squelches the old ways and comes down hard on women.

Interestingly, though, the book ends on a somewhat hopeful note amidst all the death and destruction. Despite the demise of Avalon and the cult of the Goddess as Morgaine knows it, she finds a similar group of young women venerating the Virgin Mary and Saint Brigid at a convent on the island of Avalon.

But Brigid is not a Christian saint, she thought, even if [the priest] thinks so. That is the Goddess as she is worshiped in Ireland. And I know it, and even if they think otherwise, these women know the power of the Immortal. Exile her as they may, she will prevail. The Goddess will never withdraw herself from mankind. (p.875)

For Morgaine, the fact that the Goddess has found her way into the canon of Christianity means she will live on in some form. For me, I’m not sure I find this ending satisfactory. It took a lot of pain, loss, death, and betrayal to get there. But I do appreciate the idea that the deep spiritual ideas of the land and our ancestors stay with us in some form, in our bodies even, even if they take different forms.

Conclusion

To me, this reading section — like the last section — really helps me to understand how far back some of the toxic strands of empire go. As I said above, some of my ancestors have been choosing power over people for a looooong time. And I understand that some of those times may have felt like survival choices — just like the priestesses of Avalon did horrible things to try to survive — but just because something helps you survive doesn’t mean it’s good for you in the long run.

I’m reminded of the book The Body Keeps the Score (which I HIGHLY recommend), which talks about the impact of trauma in our lives and over generations. When we experience trauma, our brains enact coping mechanisms to help us survive — but we can get stuck with those mechanisms “on” and that’s when we start to have PTSD.

We’re all walking around traumatized to varying degrees, and grasping onto what power we have in order to try to ensure our survival. The sad part of this trend is that people in power (in our country, mainly white people) keep choosing to maintain and consolidate their power. The hopeful part is, that if all this structural inequality and pain is the result of my ancestors choosing power over people, then perhaps if I make a different choice I can begin to unravel what they wove over centuries.

May it be so!

Tune in next time as we jump forward into the early Middle Ages with Ch. 2 of Mighty Fortress and several books by Nobel-winning author Sigrid Undset!

History of Me, Part 2: When Germans Met Romans

In this episode of History of Me, we take a peek at the earliest recorded accounts of “Germans” and their interactions with the Roman Empire. Intrigued? Let’s dive in

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Meet the Germani…

For this section I started off by reading the introduction and first chapter of Steve Ozment’s A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German Peoplefollowed by Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest.

Scene: It’s the first century BC. Caesar invades France (then known as Gaul) but mostly leaves the Germanic tribes to themselves, relying on intimidation to keep relative peace. Later after he dies Caesar Augustus (the next emperor) starts to look across the de facto border of the Rhine River toward the land occupied by “barbarians,” aka the yet unconquered Germanic tribes. A small conflict born out of misunderstanding gave Rome an excuse to invade; during the ensuing conflicts a Germanic force led by a Roman-trained Germanic commander called Arminius defeated an army of Roman legions at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (also translated as the Teutoburg Pass).

I won’t talk much more about the battle in this post, but tuck Arminius’s name away for later. Both Fortress and Forest mentioned how the story of Arminius’s victory over Rome was rediscovered centuries later and became a focus point for German unification and nationalism. So I’m sure we’ll hear of him again.

As I read through the account of the battle and the history surrounding it, I loved learning more about the tribes that lived in present-day Germany/Europe before it was actually called Germany. Fun fact: just like we now call the tribes of this continent “Indians” or “Native Americans,” Romans (outside colonizers) were the first ones to call the tribes in this part of Europe “Germans” (Germani). (NOTE: There is much disagreement about where this name comes from, so the meaning is uncertain.)

A map of some of the tribes that made up “Germania” around the turn of the calendar (100 BC – 300 AD ish)

Steven Ozment notes that “at this time [ca. 100-0 BC] the tribes were neither racially uniform nor transregionally united but composites, ‘loose and shifting amalgams of peoples,’ who formed no coherent Germanic front” (p.17). I also found it interesting that of the tribes who had strong identities at this point, some like “the Franks, Goths, and Lombards developed historical identities by allying with leading, or royal, families and embracing their genealogical myths” (p.17). This actually shows the connection between the ancestral/mythical stories of the previous post and the Germanic tribes recorded here. Like many other peoples, Germanic tribes and leaders found ways to connect their stories to the lineage of the gods by making the gods their ancestors.

The Empire’s bargain…

Even more than the battle, though, the really compelling thing for me about these stories was reading about how the Roman Empire functioned.

Both Fortress and Forest went to great lengths to set the scene and describe what it was like to be a barbarian tribe (or just a barbarian) in the world of Rome. Here are some illustrative passages:

Over the last decades of the old millennium and the first of the new Christian Era, the Romans diminished the threat the tribes posed by brutally punishing their forays [across the Rhine] and finding ways to divide and coopt them. Among the latter were simple human temptations. … Before contact with the Romans, tribal leaders ruled more by persuasion than by coercion and maintained social peace by equitable divisions of land and wealth within the tribe. The new wealth gained from trade with the Romans worked to stratify tribal society, setting new rich against poor and encouraging disproportionate divisions of tribal land. (Ozment p.19, emphasis added)

The Romans sought to have their way with the tribes by transplanting the sons of leading men to Rome, where, to their material benefit, they grew up as Romans. Such transplantation was both by invitation and by hostage taking. Selected elite barbarians were in this way Romanized, many thereafter residing in Rome for the remainder of their lives, while others returned to their homelands as assimilated servants of the Roman Empire. It would be too much to call these repatriated tribesmen brainwashed, since as a rule they served the Roman Empire willingly, gaining new land and wealth for themselves while continuing to enjoy membership in the cosmopolitan Roman world… (Ozment p.20, emphasis added)

Rome promoted leading tribal leaders within Rome’s imperial aristocracy. By recognizing certain chiefs as allies, barbarians were flattered into becoming emissaries for the Roman way of life. It was a practice that first bound them to Rome, then made them dependent on her. (Forest p. 79, emphasis added)

Basically, the Romans came in with their giant empire and their power and their wealth and their military organization and offered tribes (or at least, tribal leaders) a bargain. If they pledged loyalty to Rome, and adopted Roman culture and Roman religion (aka emperor-worship – Romans connected themselves to their gods, too), they would receive power and wealth and move up in Roman society. (And of course, there’s the elephant in the room of “or else.”)

The problem, of course, was that even if they gave up everything that made them “Germanic”, there was only so far they could advance in Roman society. Even Germans or other barbarians who climbed high enough to achieve Roman citizenship still faced barriers:

Citizenship gave affiliated tribes the same legal protections and rights as native-born Italians. Yet, despite acculturation and success, Romanized barbarians, whether Africans, Germans, or Jews, could still find themselves treated as inferiors in the imperial city. That was especially true of the first generation to undergo assimilation. And while the Roman senate looked on tribal elites as occupying the same high position in native societies that senators held in Rome, there was no thought of parity between Roman and barbarian…. While social acceptance might come after full Latin fluency and the fading of native languages and customs, the transplanted barbarian was often, in the Roman perception, a “hyphenated” Roman…. (Ozment p.24)

So cooperating Germanic tribes/leaders gave up their culture, their community, their traditions, their languages, and sometimes their homes — all for a chance to play a game that they couldn’t win, because Romans would always be superior – but at least they got a piece of the pie, and could hope that their less-German, more-Roman children could climb higher than they.

Sound at all familiar? I thought it did, when I heard Pastor Ebony Adedayo, one of the pastors at my church, preaching last Sunday about how white supremacy was created in this country by dividing poor whites from poor/enslaved blacks:

Forsaking language, culture, and history, the newly created white race exchanged its identity for a baseless lie. And the only thing that remained was the lie, or rather the notion that whites were superior to everyone else. In order to preserve that lie, people, politicians, people in high places have gone to great lengths to dehumanize themselves to the extent that it is extremely daunting task to find our way out of it. Not impossible, but daunting.

(You can listen to the full sermon here. Highly recommended!)

Reading all this about the Romans coming to Germania was super eerie for me, because if I change the nouns it morphs into the history of this country — first what was imposed on indigenous tribes here, and then what was also enforced on later immigrants. Give up your tribal/cultural identity in exchange for power and/or survival. Be held back by your “hyphenated” status — until, for my ancestors, their light skin and distance from their “ethnic” past enabled their children to dissolve into whiteness. Or, as the author of Teutoburg Forest puts it: intimidate, conquer, assimilate.

A note about forests versus farms…

When faced with Roman threats (or enticements) of “assimilate or else”, some tribes resisted. Some were conquered. The significance of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest is that it, along with several other battles over the following years, sufficiently delayed the Romans so that their empire and army was too far-flung to fully conquer Germany. They ended up pretty much keeping to the west/south of the Rhine River, and while the tribes to the north/east did trade and integrate with Romans, they were never forcibly conquered. (And in fact later, Germanic tribes ended up overrunning and taking over much of the Roman Empire… but I’m guessing that’s for another post!)

Notice the dotted line — Rome never extended beyond the Rhine into Germania.

But one of the significant downstream effects of this Rhine border being held is that it reinforced the existing regional differences in Europe/Germany:

The battle also reinforced another effect, one less tangible, but one that has had a profound psychological and social impact on Europe and is still being felt today. It confirmed the fault-line between north and south. History could now be used to back up long-held prejudices. [As one historian wrote:] “The slaughter in the Teutoburg Forest divided Europe into the warm south, who forever saw forests as dreadful places to be avoided and cleared, homes to dragons and trolls, antitheses of the civilized city, and the north, who understood [forests] to be healing, protecting, mystical, spiritual places. How you feel about a silent birch forest at twilight says more about your blood and your kin than your passport. (Forest p.7)

We can see how this lays the groundwork for the process of Christianity later sweeping through the wealthier urban centers in the south and pushing Norse stories and traditions north, to the outskirts and the forests, where Snorri Sturleson finally wrote them down a thousand years later in the Edda. I’m interested to keep an eye out now for farm vs. forest and that north/south dynamic as we continue through this project.

Conclusion

I didn’t really expect things to get emotional this quickly, but it was actually really hard for me to read the parts about the tribes taking the Roman bargain, becoming co-opted into the empire, and giving up their ways in exchange for power, money, and influence. I wanted to reach back in time and tell them “No, don’t do it! You don’t know what it’s like to be rootless, without traditions or stories!” But of course, that was 2000 years ago, and now I just have to deal with the choices they made.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s not like they had much of a choice. (Though I’m sure some were more eager to sell out for influence than others.) Given the threat of Rome, I might have made the same decision in their place. Survival is primal, instinctual. But knowing they probably tried to make the best choice they could doesn’t take away my sadness that they took the first step toward losing something beautiful that I wish I could have back.

This, to me, is why Empire (which we talk about a lot at our church) is a perfect analogy for much that is wrong with the world and with how humans treat one another. Rome started this power-grabbing bargain on a large scale millennia ago — they figured out how to systematize power-mongering with their never-ending war-to-captive-to-citizen machine — and it’s kept going and going ever since, and we’re still doing it today. Personal advancement trumps the community. The power game has never stopped.

Anyway, this section has really felt to me like peering into a mirror or a pool and watching a past mistake. (“Noooo Isildor, throw the Ring into the fire!!!”) I know I have some grief and probably even some anger about it. But I’m still glad to have read it, because as Pastor Ebony says, it’s daunting to find a way out – but not impossible. Looking forward to continuing my search.

Tune in next time for a look at the coming of Christianity and The Barbarian Conversion (as well as Mists of Avalon for a fictionalized perspective). 

Interlude: What Counts as “German”?

Hi folks!

After reading my last post about Norse mythology, my husband said “Norse? That’s like Scandinavian, right? But I thought you were German!” So I wanted to post a brief explanation about that question and talk about how I’ve chosen to approach the issue of what to include in my “German” reading project.

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

The Bad News: No “German” Myths

The reason I chose to read about Norse mythology for this project is that, well, there really isn’t much specifically “German” mythology left — that’s the bad news.

The main reason is that Christianity took root in some places (including most of what is now Germany) before the local stories and beliefs could be written down. H. R. Ellis Davidson fills us in:

By the time the great nations emerged, and men thought of Anglo-Saxon England or Merovingian France as established powers, most of the Germanic peoples had given up their heathen beliefs and adopted Christianity.

… In Scandinavia the new Church was much longer gaining a foothold. Not until the tenth and eleventh centuries were the people of Norway converted….

Thus we see why we can learn comparatively little about the heathen myths from England and Germany, where Christianity was established early. We have to turn for information to Scandinavia, where a vigorous heathen population flourished for centuries after Augustine sailed for Kent…. (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, p.11-12)

So by about 1000 AD, most of Europe was converted to Christianity, other than a few scattered pockets. (I’ll read more about that process later.) Around 200 years after that, Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar who wanted to preserve the great poetic tradition of the scaldic (Norse) storytellers before it was wiped out, wrote The Prose Edda, which is the most complete compendium of these stories that we have today. So European indigenous beliefs’ most complete surviving iteration is Norse, because they were in Iceland when they were finally written down.

The Good News: It’s All Norse to Me

The good news in terms of my reading project is that Germanic mythology, based on what we know of it, was similar to and interwoven with Norse mythology. As I mentioned in my last post, Odin was called Wodan in the Germanic tradition. So when we read Norse myths, we’re really reading versions of German/Germanic myths.

Picture this as a comparison: imagine Greek and Roman mythology as we know it today — except that Greek folks never wrote their stories down, but Romans did. What would we still know today? Probably we would refer to all the gods by their Roman names, and while a few Greek names would be known, the most complete version of the pantheon would be Roman. BUT, a lot of the elements would still be the same. That’s basically the state of German mythology — gone before being recorded, but preserved in a “cousin” Norse form by an Icelandic historian.

So, What Does This Mean?

I hope this helps to cast a little more light on the challenge of “rediscovering” ancient German/Germanic culture and story. But honestly, though it may seem a little contrived to put all these seemingly disparate pieces together, I think it’s more authentic this way. Because ancient “Germans” didn’t live in a vacuum of only German folks — they interacted and intermarried with people around them. Norse mythology isn’t tied up in a neat little package — it’s messy. Different gods and goddesses evolve and mesh into each other. Stories change or contradict each other. Elements get borrowed from neighbors (such as a Norse myth featuring a huge cauldron, which is a common symbol in the mythology of the Celts across the sea in what is now Britain).

The point is, I’ve done my best to assemble things that help me imagine and connect with what we know about the stories of ancient Europeans. If I can’t find something about people who lived in my ancestors’ specific birthplaces, that’s okay — because the idea is to begin to understand the mindset, the spirit, and the connection to the land, not get every exact detail right. Even hearing creation stories from my Anishinaabe and Dakota relatives helps me begin to learn these things — and that’s not even the same continent! — so I can certainly learn important lessons from some Swedes and Celts. 🙂

Anyway, I hope this helps to lay out some more of my thought process as I look back in time and space. I’ll be reading some more Scandinavian books, as well as at least one book based in Celtic story, so we will have plenty of opportunities to practice putting the pieces together to better understand the stories of ancient Germanic peoples.

 

History of Me, Part 1: A Journey through the Nine Worlds of Norse Myth

In this episode of History of Me, I read lots of books about Norse mythology and try to understand the psyche of Pre-Christian Europeans. Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

(P.S. If you are wondering why I’m reading Norse mythology and not German mythology, check out this brief note on what counts as “German” for this project!)

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

Opening the Word-Hoard*

Okay team, I ended up reading four different books for this section. Here’s the low-down:

  • First I read Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Davidson) — which I actually really enjoyed! I LOVED learning about some of the ancient mythological types (e.g. the weeping maiden, the wounded/dying god) and seeing how they come up in Norse as well as Celtic and other myths. But it’s very academic, and while I learned a lot I was more interested in reading the actual stories themselves. So…
  • Then I read The Poetic Edda (which, I discovered, is NOT the same as The Prose Edda — it’s an entirely different document, not just a different translation). It contains some myths and some sagas about human heroes. I was glad to finally read some stories — and I’ll discuss a few of my favorites below — but the translation style was a bit hard for me to connect with. SO…
  • I found The Norse Myths (Crossley-Holland), which is basically re-tellings of ancient Norse myths (mostly ones in both the Eddas). The great part is, they’re geared to be read by kids, but there are EXTENSIVE notes on the source material, differing story versions, etc. Basically awesome!
  • I also read Czechoslovak Fairy Tales in hopes of adding a Slavic perspective… it didn’t really work, but I’ll discuss that a bit later.

Got all that? Clear as mud? Okay, great.

Odin and Freya and Thor – oh my!

I have to say, I LOVED my adventure into the world of Norse mythology. Being pretty knowledgeable (aka nerdy!) about both Greek mythology and Bible stories, it was really interesting to read through stories of the Norse pantheon and see both similar and differing themes.

I won’t go through the whole pantheon — for that you can review Wikipedia, or just read The Norse Myths! (which I do highly recommend) — but I’ll say a bit about my favorite “characters”: Odin, the Norns, and Yggdrasil.

Odin (aka Wodan, in the Anglo-Saxon version) is the “Allfather” — the leader of the gods (think Zeus) and the father of Thor. He’s known for his craftiness, wisdom, mysteriousness, poetry, unpredictability, and association with death, and is one of the few male gods associated with magic. (Lots of the magic folks in these myths are women, seeresses known as volva, including Freyja, the most prominent goddess.) I picture Odin as a rather dark, brooding figure — he had only one eye (he sacrificed one in exchange for the mead of poetry) and he was often to be found with his two ravens, Thought and Memory. Odin is the god of lots of things — but my favorite part is the mysterious knowledge bit (aka the Ravenclaw bit…). Odin is also really clever and enjoys messing with Thor, to the audience’s hilarity (I’ll come back to this later).

The Norns are mysterious, magical women who weave and decide the fate of every mortal and god — similar to the Greek Fates. I have always liked the Fates, so I loved reading about the Norns as well. Their main duty is measuring out people’s destinies — but they were also invoked in childbirth and function essentially as matriarchal protectors. I also love that part of their job is to tend to Yggdrasil, the world tree (see below).

Yggdrasil is an ash tree that provides the structure for the entire universe, comprised of nine worlds strewn about its branches and roots. Here, perhaps, is where I get my love of trees, since according to the Norse the entire world is built around a massive, god-like tree. (In fact, for a long time it was the custom for Europeans to have a “guardian tree” standing beside the house, perhaps as an echo of Yggdrasil’s embrace of the worlds.) There are also all manner of creatures that live in Yggdrasil’s branches, including deer that nibble its branches and a squirrel that runs up and down taking messages from the dragon in Hel to the eagle perched at the top.

Norse Cultural Values 101

For quite some time I’ve joked about traits in my family  (such as stubbornness, stoicism, etc.) that I feel are “typically German.” But it was really interesting to see some of those traits appear in these stories as “typically Norse.” Here are the cultural values that stuck out the most in these myths and stories.

Resilience / Fatalism

One of the most interesting things to me was the Norse conception of fate and human free will. Throughout the stories, all people and even the gods are subject to the fate set out for them: eventual destruction at Ragnarok, the last battle before the end and rebirth of the world. As Kevin Crossley-Holland points out, this is likely at least somewhat influenced by the harshness of Viking life, especially farther north:

We glimpse in the myths, as in the sagas [non-god stories], the isolated, physically demanding lives experienced by most Norsemen. One farm was often a hard day’s ride from the next…; a traveller was less likely to meet other humans than some of the birds and animals that abound in the myths — a deer, an otter, a wild boar, a wolf, or at least a squirrel, an eagle, a raven. (p.xvii)

So probably, long cold winters a resigned Norseman make. However, As H. R. Ellis Davidson writes,

We find in the myths no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us. (qtd. in Crossley-Holland, p.xx)

To me this is incredibly profound and beautiful.

The Viking belief in the pre-determination of one’s fate also lent itself to the desire for fame and glory while alive.

No Viking believed he could change his destiny, ordained as it was by the Norns [basically the Norse version of the Fates] who wove the fates of gods and men alike but, for all that, the way in which he lived his life was up to him. (Crossley-Holland, p.xix, emphasis added)

Here, in my view, is where I inherited my strongly independent streak (some might say pig-headed…). When your fate and even the day of your death is already set, you exercise as much agency as possible while you can.

Humor and cleverness

One way that Norse folks dealt with harsh climates and uncertain but unchangeable fate was to laugh. This is present throughout many of these stories, as gods found themselves in humorous positions or used their cleverness to try to outwit each other (or some giants, who were always quarreling with the gods). Clearly Vikings appreciated a quick wit and a hearty guffaw.

For example, in one story the gods are trying to trick the wolf Fenrir into “seeing if he can escape” from a chain, which is actually intended to bind him until Ragnarok (at which point he will kill Odin and swallow the sun, so no big deal). Fenrir, seeing how this might be a trap, agrees to be chained on the condition that one of the gods put a hand between his jaws as insurance. The “bravest god Tyr” volunteers… and when Fenrir is, of course, bound, sure enough he snaps his jaws and there goes Tyr’s hand. What’s telling is the final line of the scene: “The other gods laughed, they knew that Fenrir was bound at last. They all laughed except Tyr: he lost his hand” (Crossley-Holland p.36). I mean, what a punchline, right?? It reminds me of the joke, “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. …Then the game is Find The Eye.” These sorts of dry gallows humor lines are dotted all throughout the stories.

(Another favorite in this vein is what amounts to an epic rap battle between Odin and Thor, where Thor is trying to cross a river but Odin, disguised as the ferryman, refuses to ferry him and instead insults him until he gives up and walks around instead. LOL!)

Sadness / Emotional expression

I was kind of expecting the tough-it-out stoicism, and maybe even the laugh-in-the-face-of-danger humor, but what I was not expecting to find in these stories was an incredible range and depth of emotion.

My favorite story from the Poetic Edda is a series of poems that comprise the story of Sigurd (aka Siegfried), which is the basis for Wagner’s Ring cycle opera. First of all, it was really cool to have two women feature as basically the main characters of this ongoing saga. But the part that stuck out most to me was the part of the story called “The First Lay [poem/story] of Gudrun”. In it, Gudrun is dealing with the death of her husband, Sigurd. But her grief is so great that “Gudrun could not weep” (p.177). The structure of this story felt a lot like the biblical book of Job — various friends come and tell her sad stories to try to get her to cry and mourn appropriately — but she doesn’t. In the end, a friend realizes that Gudrun needs to process and grieve in her own way, and takes her to see the body of her husband laid out for the funeral.

Gudrun looked at him one time only;
she saw the prince’s hair running with blood,
the bright eyes of the lord grown dim,
the prince’s breast scored by the sword.

Then Gudrun knelt, leaning on the pillow;
loosened her hair, scratched her cheeks,
and drops like rain ran down to her knees. (p.179 vv.14-15)

Once the dam breaks, Gudrun, who has been silent to this point, talks for stanzas about her grief and missing her beloved husband. You can see it’s very raw:

So was my Sigurd, beside the sons of Giuki [her brothers],
as if a leek were grown up out of the grass,
or a bright stone were threaded onto a string,
a precious gem, among the nobles.

I thought myself also, among the prince’s warriors,
to be higher than all of Odin’s ladies;
now I am as little as a leaf
among the bay-willows at the death of the prince.

I miss in his seat and in my bed
my friend to talk to… (p.179 vv.18-20)

There’s a really beautiful, honest simplicity here — and I found this kind of emotional present-ness to be common among these stories. The Norse myths  — and by extension, presumably, the Norse — are not afraid of pain, or hardship, or loss, or messiness. There’s also a whole story where Balder, one of Odin’s sons and the kind, well-loved god of mercy and peace, is killed and the sadness is palpable during his funeral scene — and this is all the gods gathering! So the fact that not only the (female) protagonists but also the gods can express joy, sorrow, anger, and the whole gamut of emotion frankly is really refreshing.

A brief note about that fairy tale book…

Oh yeah — about that Czechoslovak book I read… yeah, I was hoping it would give a Slavic perspective on the Norse mythology stuff, but basically that didn’t work because as I read it was clear that these stories were from wayyyyy later, probably in or after the medieval period. (The stories in the Prose Edda, by contrast, were written down around 1100 but were told orally for centuries before that.) Very clearly Christianized. Which is fine, but doesn’t jive with the time period (Pre-Christian) that I was looking at this week.

Interestingly enough, most of them deal with money/economics — such as a really poor son finding a magician who helps make him rich and marry a princess, poof, the end. So I’m choosing to read them as medieval stories that helped poor peasants survive hard lives (escapism), and I will keep them in mind for when my reading list arrives at the Middle Ages.

Conclusion

As I said in the introduction to this project, to me stories are the best way to understand — like emotionally connect with and get — the culture of a people. I feel like I’ve just drunk from the firehose of Norse/Germanic story and I can tell that I’m still deeply processing some of these things at a level that doesn’t really translate into words, but I also feel like there are wisps and snippets where I’ve had flashes of “got it”.

When I finished reading Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, all I could think of was this song I sang when I was in choir — it’s called the Corpus Christi Carol — the text is believed to have been written in the 1500s, but I think this modern arrangement beautifully captures and touches the sense of mystery and ancient mythological types (a grove of trees, the weeping maiden, the wounded knight, the falcon) that are floating around in my rock tumbler of a brain right now. Take a look! (And read along with the lyrics here if you want.)

Overall, I feel that I’ve begun my reading journey with a good sense of groundedness and ancientness. I feel like now I know something of what the Norse psyche may have been like, and all these ideas about Viking values and culture will be a good foundation for the rest of the project.

Next up: We’ll dive into the earliest recorded history of “Germania” — contact with Rome circa the birth of Christ. (See reading plan here.)

*P.S. “Opening the word hoard” is a real phrase from these myths — it also appears in some translations of Beowulf. It’s kind of the best! 🙂

The History of Me: My Next Project Begins

At the end of my last reading project, I said that I had an idea for another project and would be telling you about it soon. Well, that was almost exactly one year ago… and I’m finally ready to embark on my next project. But first — a little context.

Where am I?

When I first began doing this reading-blogging-project thing, it was kind of a fluke. I accidentally stacked two books together, realized they happened concurrently, and decided to take it as an opportunity to continue my education on the true history of the Native peoples of this land and how this country came to be. I learned a lot about the stories we tell ourselves as a nation and why it’s important that we admit and honor the truth, even if it’s painful.

Then, I got curious about the land itself — while European invaders and settlers killed and stole their way to pushing the Native peoples out of their homes, what was happening in the eco-realm? The answer I found was that imperialism and destruction happened on both a human level and an environmental level, as settlers tried to literally recreate Europe in both culture and ecology.

These two reading projects answered questions I had about the historical, cultural, and ecological context in which I find myself today, as a Euro-American resident where the Plains and the forests meet. What I learned helped me to know my location — in time, in space, in culture.

But all of these questions and answers just led me to another question.

How did I get here?

Now that I know roughly my sociopolitical and geographical location — now that I’ve surveyed the landscape — what I most want to know is, how did I get here?

I’m just like the plants I read about in Changes in the Land — a European flower, growing here in space cleared by violence and colonization, but also brought here on a specific journey. How did I, Rebekah Schulz-Jackson, a German/Slovak Lutheran-raised woman, get all the way over here to Dakota/Ojibwe country at the start of the 21st century? Where do I come from? Who are my people? What have they weathered, what have they lost or gained, and what do they pass down to me — both good and bad?

I’ve learned a lot more about the story of this land and its people — and now I want to learn more about the story of the land my people came from before they planted themselves — and me — here.

The Plan

Over the past year, I’ve begun to dive into family history research, based mostly on the incredibly in-depth work of several other genealogically-inclined relatives in several of my family tree branches. As such, I’ve identified five places that (I think) are where my great-grandparents (or their parents) lived before they immigrated to the US.

Great-Grandparents Map v2

  1. Pellworm, Nordfriesland, Germany: Small island home of my mother’s mother’s mother (nee Clausen) and her ancestors going back as far as anyone knows. This is the closest thing I have to a home land place.
  2. Hannover (or Hanover), Lower Saxony, Germany: A fishing town that has been at the center of several kingdoms and was the home of both my mother’s father’s father’s family (Hillmer) and mother’s mother’s father’s family (Heldt), which is pretty funny, since my grandparents met and married in northwest Iowa.
  3. Lachen, Switzerland: A rural, mostly German-speaking town near Zurich at the base of a long lake (hence the name) that was the home to my mother’s father’s mother’s family. (My great-grandmother was only half Swiss, which makes me — if my math is right — 1/16 Swiss. So I won’t spend much reading time on Switzerland specifically.)
  4. Treten, Kreis Rummelsberg, Prussia (now Dretyn, Poland): A small farming town that’s traded political hands quite a few times, and is home to my father’s father’s mother’s family (Schwichtenberg) as well as my father’s father’s father’s family (Schulz).  It was part of Prussia when they left there — now it’s well within the borders of Poland.
  5. Brezno, Austria-Hungary (now Slovakia): Nestled in the Lower Tatra Mountains, Brezno and its neighboring towns were the home of both of my father’s mother’s parents, though they didn’t marry until they had both migrated to the US. My grandma was full Slovak — and I’m 1/4 — so I have sprinkled in a few specific resources about Slovakia and the Slavs throughout this project.

Since these places are scattered across mostly Western Europe — though focused in Germany — I’ll be reading a mix of books focused on both Germany and Europe at large throughout the centuries. Here’s my schedule:

HoM Reading Plan v2

Since I now have a full-time job (which I didn’t when I did my last two reading projects), I’ve spread the reading out to one group per month, rather than per week. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay on track.

As a fun bonus… if I stay on schedule, I will finish this reading project right before my family and I go on a family history trip to Germany/Europe to visit the cities I’ve marked on the map above!!! I’ve been researching and preparing for this project for over a year now, so I’m SUPER excited to get going and prep for our trip, which I’m sure will be very emotional for me, especially since two of my grandparents (my mom’s parents) just passed away last summer. Family history has become a lot more personal for me now.

A Disclaimer, and a Hope

Before I really get into this project, I want to be clear: I’m not really a German person. Or a Slovak person. Or a European person. I don’t speak German, I have a single “ethnic” recipe from my Slovak grandma, and even the most recent of immigrants in my family died before I was even born. Digging back into the roots of my ethnos (people group) will not suddenly make me understand the land, or turn me into an indigenous person, or bring my grandparents back, or answer all the questions I have about who I am and where I come from. As a friend reminded me when I was wrestling with some of these questions, “Germany” is a set of lines on a map, not an actual place, and reading about it won’t restore the stories of my particular ancestors. Europe is a big place, political boundaries change, and for all I know I could be genetically part Italian or Asian or Russian. There is a strong temptation for me (and, I think, for many white folks) to use rediscovering my heritage as an escape. But I can’t turn back time and flee my complicity in American whiteness and become “German” again. (And, especially because what I’d be fleeing to is Germanness, I’m particularly aware that all identities come with their own complicities and responsibilities.)

The purpose of my reading quest is NOT to nail down all the answers, or to return to some idyllic vision of “the way it was.” I know even before I begin to read that my family’s past in Europe was not idyllic, and what has been lost to the sands of the time is comprised as much of pain as of joy.

My goal is simply what it has been the last two reading projects: to emotionally engage with and attempt to understand and walk alongside the stories of a place. In this case, the place where the known stories of my family begin.

I’ve learned from both the Bible (which is full of powerful and complex stories) and the example of Native leaders in my life the immense, immeasurable power of storytelling. So now, I will read stories of Europe and of the place sometimes called Germany — because stories, like rivers, lay down layers of sediment on a place. I hope that digging my toes into each fertile layer will help me understand more about where my family once was rooted, why they chose to leave, and how I can grow my own roots here in another land.


A Note about Whiteness: I want to be super clear about the context and goals of this reading project, because I recognize (and was recently reminded) that white folks investigating their heritage can sometimes go to a really dark, violent place. So this is me being very clear:

I am looking into German/Germanic/European history and culture as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. I denounce and repent of the ideology of white supremacy and all its works and all its ways.

Moving forward, I will be posting a shortened version of this note/disclaimer on each post in this project. If something I write seems to be teetering on the borderline, PLEASE leave a comment or message me in some way. I want to be accountable to do this in a way that deconstructs whiteness, not reinforces it.

For more context on how I’m hoping to approach this, check out this super excellent article on differentiating between whiteness and individual European cultures.


P.S. Here are links to the books I’ll be reading, in case you want to follow along.