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.
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!