History of Me: Journey to Ancestral Lands

Well, I have done it. I have traveled to my ancestral lands. It was quite the whirlwind trip — and now, 4 countries, 8 travelers, and a jillion miles driven later, I’m going to tell you about it.

First Impressions

The first difference I noticed was even before I set foot on German soil: the lay of the land. Usually when I’m flying over the Midwest, the fun patchwork of farms looks like this:

NW Minn farm land - NASA
(This is a NASA aerial photo of NW Minnesota.)

But as we flew over Germany, I noticed that the German patchwork looked a little different…

(This is a Google Maps view of just outside Husum in NW Germany.)

See the difference? The US land divisions are very square and rigid, while the German land is much more of a mish-mash of various bits. Why is this? Modern colonialism.

As we learned back in the Little House / Wounded Knee project, the prairie land here in the present-day Midwest was systematically taken from Native inhabitants, divided up by white men with maps, and distributed to (mostly European/white) settlers via several Homestead Acts beginning in 1862 and extending through the early 1900’s. So, the land in NW Minnesota (and the rest of the land settled this way) was divided up all in one go, overwriting the footprint of previous inhabitants and their land-ways to parcel out equal squares to whatever applicant was granted the land — and the lay of the land shows those scars.

Germany, on the other hand, is still mostly populated by its original people groups (particularly in my family’s parts) and was able to keep its varied, traditional, organic land structure. Generally people lived (and still live) in their small towns and villages, and farm the land surrounding the village. This is in line with what we read in Kristin LavransdatterMorebath, and Daily Bread — folks lived in small communities together, and pretty much stayed put where they were. And although there is more movement and urbanization now today, as we drove through the countryside of Germany and the other countries we visited, it definitely felt like people had been living in these same European villages for hundreds (or thousands) of years. And in many cases, they have been. 

Snapshots

I’ve been struggling to put my trip into words for a while now, and at this point I’ve recognized that there’s no way I can adequately express everything we saw and felt and learned. So instead, I’ll just give a quick snapshot of each of the places we traveled to give you a little taste. If you want to know more, feel free to leave me a note in the comments and/or let’s grab coffee sometime!

Pellworm / Nordfriesland (The Clausens)

At the family barbecue in Nordfriesland!

The first week of our trip was spent in northwestern Germany — we traveled all over the state of Schleswig-Holstein, but focused particularly in the district (like a county) of Nordfriesland. By far the highlight of this place (and the trip!) was spending the week with our fantastically fun cousins. They definitely welcomed us like relatives immediately, and we had so much fun seeing their towns, their farms, their musical talents (including one accordion and many enthusiastic singing voices), and just getting to know them!

 

In addition to just being their awesome selves, our Clausen relatives also kindly took us around and taught us about the region. Due to being right on the North Sea, residents of Nordfriesland have always been fighting a neverending battle with the sea to keep their land from eroding. In fact, my family’s home island of Pellworm became an island in 1634 when a huge sea-flood broke through the sea-dikes, washed away most of the larger island of Strand, and left only the few smaller islands we have today. The old land is still there, but submerged — so now Pellworm and its neighbors are known for their mudflats, which are visible (and walkable) at low tide.

 

It was also super cool to get the cousin-guided tour of Pellworm itself. The island is just plain beautiful, and it was really meaningful to just be there and see the place and walk on the mud and breathe the air (and be blown over by the “not that bad today” wind!). Plus, when we visited both the Old Church (Altekirche – built in 1100’s) and the New Church (built in 1600’s… and still new, LOL), it was so cool to see the Clausen name EVERYWHERE! One of our cousins kept pointing it out, saying “our family gave this candelabra to the church” or “our family’s name is on that plaque from when they bought a new organ”. I could really feel both my connection to the place, and the old-ness of everything, in a very personal way. It’s my matrilineal island (or, as Daniel likes to say, “the place your mitochondria are from“) and being there felt in some ways like greeting a very long-ago friend. It was pretty special.

 

I’m not even coming close to doing justice to this part of the trip… but to avoid this post being incredibly long I’ll leave it there for now and go on to the next place. 🙂

Gerdau (The Hillmers)

It was a pretty long drive out of the way, but a few of us made the trek over to Gerdau, a small town in the modern-day state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen), to see if we could find the burial places of our ancestor Hilmers (they only spelled it with one L). We didn’t find any direct ancestors in the cemetery, but we *did* find a sign proclaiming the town’s 1000-year anniversary celebrations (back in 2004)! Gerdau was another place where I really felt I could feel the ancientness of the village… people have been there since the year had three digits!!! (So basically as long as anyone knows.) We also found an entire street called Hilmer! We decided to go for it and knocked on the door of a house with a Hilmer mailbox, and met some very delightful Hilmers to whom we are probably not related (there are several unrelated lines of Hilmers from this area, including ours), but they gave us a book about the town that was printed for their millennial anniversary and were very kind. All in all, it was definitely worth the trip just to walk around such a beautiful and ancient village. And who knows, maybe I’ll find the right Hilmers next trip!

 

Cuxhaven (The Heldts)

This was the least certain family connection, as we’re not even certain this is the right place, but we have a photo of family in front of the Cuxhaven tower. We enjoyed recreating the photo, and appreciating the beautiful view of the sea (and the beach basket chairs!)

 

Lachen, Switzerland (The Kriegs)

Next we flew to Zurich and took a short train along Lake Zurich to the town of Lachen. We arrived on a Sunday, and it was really interesting to see just how shut down the whole town was. Pretty much everything was closed, and we hardly saw any people on the streets except a few walking or biking to church and some kids at a track meet. The two most interesting things about being in Lachen were (1) it was beautiful to sit and think of our ancestors living there along the lake, looking at the same view we were looking at; and (2), it’s possible (and statistically probable) that at some point these relatives were Catholic! (This is a big deal for old-school Europeans — as we discussed on our previous readings about religious divides.) There wasn’t a Lutheran cemetery in town, so we checked the Catholic one and found a couple of (unsure if related) Kriegs… so that’s an interesting twist. Regardless, it was a beautiful little town with a relaxed Sunday morning vibe, nestled between the lake and the beautiful (stereotypically Swiss) hills.

 

Brezno, Slovakia (The Surovis and Blaskos)

Having recently read my book about Slovakia and learned a ton, I was pretty excited just to spend some time in Brezno with the Tatra Mountains that my dad grew up hearing about from his grandma and aunties. It was a beautiful drive from the airport through the mountains to the town. On our way we stopped at a (Hungarian) castle that really gave me a visual, visceral sense of what it must have felt like when that castle was an active defensive fortress (and what it must have felt like to live in the town down the hill). It was super awesome and cool because castles, but it was also a little complicated because I knew that the Hungarians used this as part of their domination over the local Slovaks. History is messy, y’all.

In Brezno, the overwhelming feelings were amazement at the beauty of the surrounding mountains and trees, and relief whenever we found anyone who spoke ANY English! We also had a really good journey to the very well-maintained local Lutheran cemetery, where we appreciated the obvious care given to the ancestors — and we were able to find grave markers with all the different last names in our Slovak side of the family! This town definitely felt less Western, partly because of the extra language barrier, but also partly because you could see it was more run-down (per 1000 years of being under Hungary’s thumb) and had clearly been part of the Soviet bloc. It also felt more isolated to me, I think maybe due to the mountains as well as the less-complete infrastructure (they are still completing their first freeway). The mountains really dominate the landscape, so I can see why my great-grandparents would still be talking about the Tatra Mountains even once they lived in the middle of a city halfway around the world.

 

Dretyn, Poland (The Schulzs and Schwichtenbergs)

Our last stop was in Dretyn, Poland (formerly known as Treten, Prussia), which is located in the region of Pomerania. When my ancestors were there, it was called Pommern and it was controlled by Germany. My ancestors left when it was part of Prussia — but my one Schwichtenberg cousin that I know of no longer lives there, because after WWII they had to leave. Knowing this, we weren’t really sure what we would find in the village. Another cousin of mine has done extensive research on the Schwichtenbergs, and there is a network of towns where they lived, but we only had time to visit Dretyn, so we just crossed our fingers and drove.

The countryside was beautiful — there are these tall, thin trees that have a red tint, and they seem just magical! That combined with the alternating rolling farmland had me double-taking to see if I was actually in Minnesota. (No wonder my ancestors liked the Midwest!) Once we arrived in the town of Dretyn itself, the cemetery told the tale: the old section was full of German surnames and overgrown by decades of weeds, while the new section next to it was full of Slavic names and very well-tended, like the cemetery in Brezno. Now, whether this neglect is malicious or just due to the exodus of all the German relatives of those buried there, I’m not sure. But it was pretty clear that the era of Germans living in these parts was a thing of the past.

 

After returning to Hamburg, Daniel and I were able to have lunch with our Schwichtenberg cousin and visit the Auswanderer (Emigrant) Museum. He told us about how Dretyn had been occupied by the Russians after the war, and then his forebears were forced to leave with nothing. They found work in Niedersachsen, which is where he lives now. Although the Schwichtenberg house is still standing in Pomerania, and they wrote a letter to the Polish government requesting it back… they haven’t received a reply. Obviously Poland has some good reasons to be angry at Germany… but it’s sad to see that neglected cemetery and think of all the deaths and pain and wounds caused by violence in this oft-occupied area. As my cousin and I walked through the Auswanderer Museum together, I thought about the hardship of choosing to leave your homeland (like my ancestors) and the hardship of being forced to leave (like my cousin’s ancestors). Different, but both hard. So, we dealt with it like good Germans: we ate fish and drank beer. 🙂

 

Coming to America

Daniel and I had a few days of rest on Pellworm before flying out, but the Auswanderer Museum got my imagination ticking. By the time we got in our third (and fourth, and fifth…) line at the Hamburg airport to have our documents verified yet again, I was thinking of my ancestors waiting in Hamburg to get on the boat to America, worrying about getting their documents in order (or about getting caught if they weren’t in order), worrying about making the journey safely, standing in crowded and hot rooms with too many people, hoping things would be better where they were going. They probably didn’t know what they were in for… but they hoped it would be better, so they came. And brought their German (and Slovak) homelands in their hearts with them. This time, I carried those places with me too as I took one last look and got on the plane.

Conclusion

I have learned SO MUCH from this trip… I learned a bit of German (not much), I know what my home-places look and sound and feel like, and in some rather intangible way I feel more… rooted. Whole. Connected. I can’t even describe it. I’m sure little tidbits and thoughts will continue to come up as I finish my official reading project and beyond.

The other thing I am still pondering is something one of my cousins said, which I think is really smart. I commented how they had made us feel like family immediately, and she said, “I think Germans are like coconuts and Americans are like peaches. Germans have a hard shell, but once you get past it the middle is all soft and good; Americans are nice on the outside, but there’s a hard core that it’s tough to get into.” I just resonated with that so much — and I wonder how German-Americans lost that coconut-ness, since at one time WE were Germans — but it made me start to think about how I want to be more of a coconut and less of a peach. I want to have a thick skin, but be all soft and good on the inside. I think my cousin is super wise, and I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind as I return to the last bit of my reading project, about immigration and how my ancestors became “Americans” (whatever that means).

Next up, back to my reading list as we continue with the immigration book on my list, Not Fit For Our Society: Nativism and Immigration in America. (And unfortunately, it’s still a pretty relevant read right now.)

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History of Me: Interlude

Hello, dear readers —

So, in my last post I was pretty excited about reading my next book about immigration. It was February. I had just learned all about Slovakia. I had three whole months to finish the rest of my reading list.

Then… life happened.

I don’t want to go into all the hairy details now (maybe another time), but suffice it to say that the last few months have felt like an object lesson in the phrase “When it rains, it pours.” It’s been a bit rough.

So, here are a couple updates:

1) I haven’t read the immigration book yet. But…

2) It’s trip time! I leave for Germany soon — and though I’m bummed I didn’t finish my whole reading list, I’m glad I at least got through the Europe parts!

3) I’m still hoping to read the “immigration to America” part of my reading list after I get back. (In some ways, I think it’ll actually be cool to leave Europe and then read books about my ancestors leaving Europe!)

I’m thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to learn and prepare for this trip, and I’m thankful that I am also learning to cut myself some slack and take a break when it all gets to be too much.

Can’t wait to share some thoughts on my trip when I return, and thank you for reading along with me on this journey.

Rebekah

History of Me, Part 7: Slovakia – Survival and Self-Determination

In this edition of History of Me, we take a brief trip to the land of the Slovaks to learn about 1/4 of my ancestors and their struggle to survive. 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.

A note about ethnicity

Me and my Slovak grandmother

Although I was vaguely aware as a kid that three of my grandparents (and thus, most of my genes) were German, I was definitely aware that my other grandparent was Slovak. Growing up, my Slovak grandmother was really the only person in my family who was referenced as having an ethnicity — my grandpa would tell stories of all the Slovak goodies my grandma’s mom and aunts used to bake, and my dad used to joke about how grandma (and he) had “suntan Slovak” skin. (Unfortunately for my sunscreen budget, I inherited “pasty Prussian” levels of melanin. Womp womp.)

I think part of the reason that my Slovak/Slavic ancestry is seen as “ethnic”/marked as compared to my “normal”/non-marked German ancestry is that Slavic countries are seen as less established (aka “civilized”/white) than German and other West European countries, and German-American immigrants as more established/assimilated/white than Slavic-American immigrants. There’s a sense that there’s a hierarchy or pecking order of whiteness (aka absence of “ethnic-ness”), and Germans might not be at the top but they’re definitely above Slavs/Slovaks.

It’s interesting that this is the feeling I had even growing up, because that dynamic definitely plays out in the history of the Slovak people — both in Europe and here in the USA. (We’ll get into the Europe part below, and save the USA part for the upcoming immigration post.)

The Slovaks: Hanging in there since 500 AD.

For this foray into Slovak history, I read A History of Slovakia: The Struggle for Survival by Stanislav J. Kirschbaum. I honestly didn’t know very much about Slovakia when I started this book — but I quickly learned that the book’s subtitle was merited, as the Slovaks are a pretty small people group, and they have spent a lot of their recorded history surviving domination by larger entities.

The northern Tatra Mountains in Slovakia

Kirschbaum starts out by defining some of the identity questions and terms relevant to the Slovak story: “The term Slovakia, as a geographical and political concept, is relatively recent; it appeared for the first time in the 19th century, in a petition to the Habsburg emperor in 1849. … Yet, for the Slovaks, the land on the northern shore of the Danube and in the Tatras has always been their home, even when the political and geographical boundaries were not always clear.” (p.9)

In this region, “always” means at some varied passersby as early as 500 BC, with some Slavic tribes (the umbrella term that includes Slovaks) arriving as nomads around 500 AD and settling down. These Slavic groups were loosely associated, but began to become more cohesive when faced with outside threats from various marauders.

My two ancestries collide for the first time in about 803, when priests from the Frankish (German) Holy Roman Empire requested permission from the Pope to send missionaries to the Slavs. This was, of course, yet another example of imperial/Christian fusion, as Kirschbaum notes: “the extension of Church authority into the Slavonic lands was an integral part of Frankish-Slavic politics, which had as its primary aim the strengthening of the imperial power of the Franks over the Slavs” (p.25). The Roman (Catholic) Empire baton having been handed to the Germans, they used it to try to maintain supremacy over the Slavs. (This is the beginning of the sense of the Slavs as less “civilized” than the Germans — since Rome and the church joined, the “mission field” was always made of “barbarians”, even once the former barbarians became Christians.)

The Slavs could play this game, too, though. By finding ways to incorporate Christianity and leverage papal authority to escape total conquest by the Franks, a Slavic leader named Mojmir and his nephew, Rastislav, unified some of the tribes into the Empire of Great Moravia, which encompassed modern-day Slovakia and Czech Republic. Though it was surrounded by other powerful peoples and became essentially a vassal kingdom of Franks, it was a time of cultural significance for the people, as they received into their midst St. Cyril and St. Methodius (sent by the Greek Orthodox church) who helped to create and solidify the Old Slavonic language.

This empire was short-lived, however. After barely half a century, Moravia was conquered by Magyars (Hungarians) from east around 900 AD and was subsumed into its empire. Kirschbaum notes that “the history of the Slovaks after the fall of Great Moravia became interlocked until the 20th century in the history of the Hungarian state” (p.38). Now, you may have just read past that, so let me say that again — the Slovaks/Moravians were conquered by the Magyars (Hungarians) in about 900 and didn’t get out from under Hungary’s thumb until 1918. Yes,  THAT’S OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.

A. THOUSAND. YEARS. Like a MILLENNIUM. Of subjugation and Magyarization.

And THAT is why “The Struggle for Survival” is an apt subtitle.

Honestly, after learning that, it was hard for anything else in this book to stand out to me. I just had to sit and take in the fact that for this branch of my family, my ancestors were colonized and oppressed in their homeland by the same people for like 40 generations. WHEW. That is some heavy stuff. I kind of still don’t know how to process it, but it feels significant and big.

Polka-dots, Czechs and Slavs

(See what I did there? 😉 )

After 1000 years of subjugation to the Magyars, it’s not surprising that the Czechs and Slovaks would also have a complicated relationship. Basically, they started out as two separate Slavic tribes, and ended up being thrown together by mutual subjugation by the Magyars and desire to strike out on their own. Unfortunately for the Slovaks, it didn’t go quite like they’d hoped…

[Scene: After 1000 years of Hungarian domination, Slovaks and Czechs find themselves liberated from the Magyars in the aftermath of World War I.]

Slovaks: Wow, being forced to speak Magyar and being treated like a second-class citizen was the worst.

Czechs: Yeah, agreed! Just because someone is in power doesn’t mean they should force their ways and their language on everyone else! 

Slovaks: Woohoo! Can’t wait to have our own country!

Czechs: …but wouldn’t you rather share a country with us? Come onnnnnnn…

Slovaks: …I mean, maybe, but really we’d rather have our–

Czechs: GLAD YOU AGREE! I already arranged it with all my Allied friends. 

Slovaks: What? But you didn’t even talk to —

Czechs: And also, the capital will be in our territory.

Slovaks: But what about —

Czechs: And you should speak Czech, because Slovak isn’t really even a real language anyway, just a variant of Czech.

Slovaks: But —

Czechs: Isn’t freedom GREAT???

Slovaks: *stunned silence*

Even though this is a dramatization, I’m not really exaggerating… in fact, the Czechs and Slovaks had this drama about language and culture and self-determination going way back even during the Hungarian period. The Bible translation they both used was in Czech, so even some Slovak Lutherans jumped on the Czech bandwagon — and they were most of the Slovak diaspora, so the Allies heard only support for Czech-Slovak unification — and thus Czechoslovakia was born. It’s a classic example of what happens when you pick and choose who you ask about what they want. (Because, after 1000 years of subjugation, the Slovaks really needed another self-interested superpower telling it what its borders should be and how they should meld with another culture like they were told. *MILLENNIUM-SIZED EYEROLL*)

Should I stay or should I go?

This brings us to the cusp of my ancestors’ immigration. The earliest of my direct immigrant ancestors from Slovakia arrived in 1905, and the latest in 1924. Basically, a lot of the same push factors existed in both pre-war Austro-Hungary and post-war Czechoslovakia as did in mid-19th-century Germany: wars, economic downturn, unemployment, general turmoil.

In addition, of course, were the cultural push factors, such as wanting to get out from under the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s thumb. Society was super multi-cultural, but it was VERY clear which culture was on top: the Magyars. And it’s not like Slovaks were even second — German settlers were given special status to attract their presence, leaving Czechs and Slovaks to duke it out for the crumbs (and we know how THAT went). I mentioned this to my grandpa, that I never knew Slovaks had to speak Hungarian and such, and he immediately replied, “Oh, they [grandma’s mom and aunts] all spoke five languages.” (I counted: Hungarian/Magyar, German, Czech, Slovak, and English once they got here. Wowza.)

Another factor I found particularly interesting: the region that is now Slovakia was known for its mining industry and metalwork, going way back to the Middle Ages. (Kirschbaum notes that “the gold ducats struck in Kremnica [Slovakia] around 1330 were among the most sought-after coins in Europe” [p.55].) But when other more centralized countries began to explore/colonize the “New World”, the gold and silver stolen for “free” was way cheaper than what could be produced in Slovakia, so the entire region’s economy was slowed immensely and fell behind other European powers who got ahead by enriching themselves at the Americas’ expense. Interesting to see the ripple effects of how the colonization and theft here even impacted back to Europe. (Also, another way in which Slavs fall to the bottom of the European hierarchy, hence their more “ethnic” status.)

Given all that, it’s easy to see why some Slovak folks thought they had a better chance in America, the “land of opportunity”, rather than waiting for yet another chance at Slovak self-determination to fizzle out. (They didn’t actually get their own country till 1993, so it took a LONG time.)

Conclusion

It’s super interesting to me that Slovakia — which I’ve been thinking of as an ancient country/people group — in its current nation-state iteration is younger than my sister.

I honestly didn’t know how little I knew about Slovakia and the Slovak people until I read this book — but I’m so glad to have begun my learning journey!

In a lot of ways, the Slovaks are the “runt” of Europe that hung in there long enough to finally be able to plot its own political course. To me, this is a parallel to the determination and survival strength of my Slovak great-grandmother, whose father left the family as soon as he got to America, and whose husband (my great-grandpa) passed away at the age of 37, leaving my great-grandma (age 32) to raise my grandma (age 12), her sister (age 10) and their younger brother (age 2) all on her own. She had her mother and sisters around to help, but still — it must have been a huge struggle to find herself widowed with three young children in a foreign country in 1935. (And remember, English was probably her fifth language.) But somehow, they all made it — and that’s how I think of Slovakia. Hanging in there and surviving the hard times, living in hope that things get better.

And this survival is not without its trauma. My great-grandmother (according to some records I found) struggled with some mental health issues, and died when she was only 55 (a year before my dad was born). Surviving hardship is hard. But we who are here now — both as the children of our ancestors and as the next generation of our peoples — can honor and be grateful for the fact that our ancestors lived and fought to bring us into being.

Next time — finally — the immigration post! Join me as I dive into Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America. (I could not have known how timely of a read this would be right now…)

History of Me, Part 6: From Weak States to Strong Empire

I’m back after a busy holiday season and ready to dig in!

In this edition of History of Me, the Reformation planted the seeds of inter-religious conflict that led to foreign invasion, and eventual nationalistic German unification. 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.

After the Reformation…

When we last left our intrepid heroes, Germany/Europe was just figuring out how the heck to survive the upheaval caused by the splitting of the “one true Catholic Church” into several Protestant sects (Lutheranism, Calvinism, etc), each of whom thought they had a corner on salvation and right-ness.

Everybody and their brother in Europe fought in this. Literally.

Unfortunately, many didn’t survive. Religious tensions that bubbled up when various German states (and eventually other countries) converted to Protestantism erupted in 1618 into the 30 Years War, essentially a war that began with German states but grew to include various foreign powers on both sides of the Catholic League / Protestant Union divide.

Now, I didn’t know much about the 30 Years War before I read my readings for this section (chapters 4-8 in Mighty Fortress and Our Daily Bread). If I learned about it at school, it was a blip of a fact to be memorized, so when I began reading I was like “Oh yeah, the 30 Years War.” Thirty years doesn’t sound all that long in the scope of the world. BUT. Think about what it would be like to live in a constant state of war and violence and fear… for 30 years. That’s how old I am right now. So if I was born in 1618, if I survived I would have lived in war for my whole life, because the 30 Years War didn’t end until 1648. Even when it did end, it was common for German villages to have lost 40% of their population during the 30 Years’ War. This is comparable with rates of death due to the Black Plague throughout Europe.

In addition to just being a generally violent and traumatic time for the average German villager, it was also tough time for the German states. Ozment describes this war as “the trauma of the Germans” and a time when “militarily superior nations settled their conflicts and increased their assets” (p.107). Basically, the 30 Years War was the first and most notable in a long series of conflicts in which individual German states (acting separately from the Holy Roman Empire) got swept up in conflicts with much larger and more dominant nations.

Because so many of these wars were driven in large part by larger, more powerful foreign aggressors (Sweden, France, Russia…), anti-foreign sentiment began to rise. (The first King of Prussia, Frederick William, is quoted as saying “I will put pistols in the cradles of my children, so that they can help keep foreigners out of Germany!” [Ozment p.132]) Two main centers of German political power began to coalesce — namely in Austria (led by the Catholic Habsburgs) and Prussia (led by the Protestant Hohenzollerns).

When Napoleon came knocking on Austria’s door in 1792, Prussia and other German states left them to face the French alone by signing neutrality treaties. Unsurprisingly, Austria was soon defeated, and Napoleon acquired much of western Germany in the peace treaty of 1797. In the next few years, Napoleon made some radical changes to French-occupied Austria and western Germany, including officially dissolving the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and totally reorganizing the cities, districts, and religious dioceses of southwestern Germany. (Ozment notes that “more than three hundred sovereign entities [aka cities, states, etc] the French encountered in 1800 had been consolidated into thirty-five at the time of their departure” [p.158].) Napoleon then continued his march east and conquered formerly neutral Prussia as well. The French occupation was painful, but the Prussians got their revenge when their contingent of conscripted troops defected to join the Russians and helped defeat Napoleon in 1812-3.

When the 1814 Peace of Paris reset the national boundaries to restore Germany to Austria and Prussia, these two powers began to fight their way to the top, with Prussia victorious in the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. Despite an economic and agrarian crisis in 1846 (which kicked off large waves of German immigration to the USA), Prussia was able to consolidate power and ride a wave of pro-German nationalism to unify Germany in 1871 under the banner of the Prussian Empire.

The Prussian Empire, 1871

That’s a lot of history there… but it’s interesting to read this from my shoes, because I literally have family from Prussia / east Germany as well as near Austria in now-Switzerland… so when I read this, it’s like I’m reading about my ancestors fighting. For example, In 1864, a united Austro-Prussian army marched into the northwestern state of Schleswig-Holstein and fought Denmark over possession of this territory. So, like, my maternal grandpa’s family and my paternal grandpa’s family got together and invaded my maternal grandma’s home state. Super weird.

It’s easy to see how (a) this was an incredibly traumatic, chaotic, and violent time for the average European/German person, and (b) this began to evolve into the “might makes right” strong-man mentality of the later Prussian Empire.

Also, this (mid 1800’s) is now beginning to get into the period of time when my ancestors immigrated from Europe to the USA… I’ll talk more about that in another post, but I definitely see a lot of “push” factors in terms of a tumultuous climate that may have made it sound nice to start over in a new country.

German Village Life

As with Voices of Morebath, I read Our Daily Bread: German Village Life 1500-1850 by Teva Scheer to get an idea of what everyday village life was like in the midst of all the political chaos.

The first thing I noted at the start of the book was that, again, the 30 Years War had a massive impact on village life. Scheer notes that “both the villagers and their noble lords lived out their lives in small, rural, and isolated worlds” (p.4), but also that “most people’s ancestors… had lived in [their same villages] since the end of the 30 Years’ War in 1648 or earlier” (p.9). So when we think of the self-contained “little town” like in Beauty and the Beast, we’re not entirely wrong… but large national events like wars did have a massive impact on otherwise isolated hamlets. Religion — especially directly after the Reformation — was another major influence from the top down, with Protestant/Catholic conflict being a major driver for war as well.

Other than those things, however, Scheer notes the unchanging nature of many rural villages:

Villages remained profoundly conservative — suspicious of strangers and hostile to any innovation, such as new crops or agricultural innovations. The inhabitants lived too close to the prospect of starvation and ruin to be open to experimentation. Each village tried to be as self-contained as possible. (p.15, emphasis added)

Each village was its own little world with its own local and regional customs, but some generalizations can be made to give us the idea of what life was like. Scheer writes about an imaginary typical family in an imaginary town to illustrate this. Here’s what stood out to me:

  • “Membership” in the town (burgher status) was highly regulated by current residents and leaders — basically, you had to pay a fee and be given permission to join the town. (Seems pretty similar to Morebath, actually.)
  • Villagers still followed the “good old law” (p.35) of Germanic custom in many areas as opposed to the still somewhat foreign Roman law. (That’s how you can tell villages are old school… the Romans were gone like 800 years ago and their laws are still the “new” ones!)
  • Ongoing conflict and deeply entrenched division between Protestant and Catholic villages/people — “As late as WWII, Catholic and Protestant villages periodically came to blows” (p.48)
  • Community leaders strictly regulated many aspects of villagers’ lives, including jobs (villages limited the number of millers or blacksmiths that were permitted to operate there), church attendance (you could be fined or otherwise censured for absence), and marriage (had to get permission, and when that wasn’t given the rate of illegitimate birth rose).
  • “An individual’s position in a community was dependent on the degree to which he or she was considered an honorable person” (p.86). I got this book for my parents for Christmas, and in talking with my dad about it earlier today we talked about some of the cultural values we recognized in the book from our relatives and family culture. We decided that the emphasis on honor definitely crossed the pond… but that it was sometimes a “mixed bag”. 🙂  (This also was a common theme in both the Norse stories and the Sigrid Undset books that I read. Interesting to see the threads stay present but morph slightly over time.)
  • Village life was hardest on women. Between medieval witch trials (which were worst in Germany and led to the deaths of over 100k women across Europe) and back-breaking non-stop labor (manual or child-birth-ical), village life was not easy.
  • Death was a common part of life. Not even to mention all the wars mentioned above… but just in terms of child mortality. Scheer notes that “in general, data suggest that between one-third and one-half of children died before their 5th birthdays” (p.119). I can’t imagine how painful it must have been to know that half your children would probably die. (Also, this explains why so many families in my family tree around this time had so many children!)

Overall, there were some good things — like people knowing each other and working out how to live together as a collective — but also, that collectivism sometimes seemed to turn into conformity and legalism that could be stifling. So, as with all cultures, some good and some bad. 

Although this book is about medieval German village life, it’s written by a German-American for those interested in their immigrant ancestors — so ultimately the book highlights some of the push factors leading to the large waves of German migration to the US in the mid-1800s. We’ll talk more about that in a later post — but even just from what we know already, the combination of lots of wars (chaos) plus and end to those wars (increased population) plus the economic/agricultural crisis of the 1860’s (decreased jobs/food/money to pass on to next generation) make a pretty strong recipe for migration. (Not to mention reports of basically “free” stolen land due to the Homestead Act of 1862… but that’s a whole nother blog series…)

Conclusion

In this post — which, admittedly, covers a lot of time — we see Germany finally coming together as a unified modern nation… an Empire, in fact. But despite political/imperial/nationalistic success, many average people were suffering and struggling. This is the point at which most of my direct ancestors’ stories and the story of the Prussian Empire / German Nation diverge; my direct ancestors immigrated to the US between 1855-1924, so from now on their story will begin to align with the USA’s story instead. We can see Germany getting stronger and more militaristic (foreshadowing the later authoritarian rise of the Nazis), and we can also see a lot of the people falling out the bottom of society, and coming to America in hopes of climbing to the top… so now I really feel like I have a clearer picture of what my ancestors were leaving behind (and some of the why) when they chose to come here.

NEXT TIME: We’ll get to the immigration post soon, but first, I’ll take a one-book trip to Slovakia to learn about the 1/4 of my family tree that I’ve been neglecting so far!

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.

 

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!