Germanic or Saxon Christianity is a term used to describe a form of the Christian faith that grew out of the Christianisation of the Germanic and particularly the Anglo and Continental Saxon people.
Examples of medieval Christo-Saxon syncretism may be found in the development of chivalry and of the Eigenkirche or Propriety Church. This was a church or abbey built on private ground by a feudal lord, over which he retained certain propriety interests, such as nominating clergy. This provided the local dryhtens or chieftains with checks and balances to the power of the, usually Italian, popes. In England, the Royal peculiars have remained propriety churches to this day.
Accommodating Germanic folk religion and the re-interpretation of Christianity
The following extract of a letter from Pope Gregory to Abbot Mellitus in the early days of Augustine’s mission to the English, demonstrates how the Church hoped to retain and adapt ancient folk customs as a way of making Christianity more familiar to the people and of increasing its chances of taking root. This is a process known as inculturation and still used today.
However, an earlier letter from Gregory to the Kentish King Æþelbert, was less accommodating and shows that he would have preferred the pagan temples and holy places to have been destroyed and completely replaced with Christian places of worship. This was the more familiar process that had been used elsewhere in Europe as Christianity gradually spread northwards and westwards. His change of tact owed more to real politique than anything else. He recognised that the pagan faith and traditions of the Saxon English were simply too embedded in the folk culture for a complete replacement to have stood any chance of success. Yet, his policy of inculturation meant that the true nature of conversion was never really understood and ensured that significant elements of the old religion were absorbed into the new. Importantly, the mission of St Boniface to the continental Saxons over 100 years later adopted a similar approach with much the same result.
Religion and socio, ethnic & cultural identity
Broadly speaking, there are two types of religion; folk religion which tends to be ethno-specific and universal religion which proclaims a universal truth to all peoples. Native European religions were folk based, of which the pre-Christian Germanic heathen religions were a part. One of the most important aspects of a folk religion is the folk group itself. A key feature of Indo-European religion is what is often called ‘ancestor worship’, but is really a tribal bonding process that recognises and honours those members of the tribe that have gone before and attaches great significance to the bonds between its living and dead members. This is the basis of an ethnic religion, in which adherents are not just members of a religious community, but are part of the same blood family with blood ties that go back to the distant past. The tribe or folk group thus becomes the basis of the religion, the folk related not just to each other and to their ancestors but to the very gods themselves. The sacredness of the community is expressed in ritual ceremonies that celebrate its relationship with its own exclusive gods and which ‘promote a strong sense of in-group identification and loyalty’ Pearson, R: Introduction to Anthropology 1974. An example of this is the Greek polis, which was originally perceived as a living community, based on ethnic kinship in which as much societal life as possible revolved around the extended family. According to Plato in Laws, the polis religion ‘is not tuned to the needs of the individual... but rather shapes the community, pointing out and expressing its functions through its gods’. This concept of polis would appear to have grown out of the Indo-European tribal institutions and religion.
Like the ancient Greeks, the Germanic people are part of the wider Indo European or Aryan family, although very significant differences have clearly emerged between the different branches of this group. Despite this, it is still possible to identify Indo-European social and religious characteristics which form the basis of social structure and religious mythology and practice of all Indo European peoples. Identifying the impact of these characteristics on medieval Christianity helps to define and quantify the impact of pre-Christian Germanic religion and culture on it. Edgar Polome (Essays on Germanic Religion), for instance, identifies a number of these characteristics. He considers Indo European society to be ethno-centric and patrilineal, essentially based around the patrilineal extended family. Kindred was the cornerstone of this structure – a grouping together of families into clans claiming descent from a common ancestor. Clans were grouped into larger structures or tribes, also based around some common ancestor. Ethnic solidarity was the means by which the tribe or clan defended itself against outsiders and maintained its own security and social systems.
It is generally thought that the oldest Indo European mythology saw a supreme god expressed as Sky Father, who was the creator of the cosmos, protector of the clan and often as the primal ancestor. The Roman historian Tacitus says of the lowland Germanic peoples, ‘In ancient songs, the only kind of record or annal they have among them, they celebrate the god Tuisto born of the earth. To him they attribute a son Mannus as the origin of their people, to Mannus three sons and founders from whose names those nearest the Ocean may be called the Ingaeuones, those in the middle the Herminiones and the rest the Istaevones’.
Honour and loyalty
At the heart of the warrior system lay the Saxon notion of honour. This is honour in the sense of glory, splendour or everlasting fame. It was a notion of external approval and praise being granted by the Chieftain and tribe for acts of great courage performed on behalf of the tribe. This externalised concept of honour stemmed from a desire not to be publicly shamed and can be contrasted with the Christian concept of internalised honour based on guilt and personal sin. Central to the Indo-European social system was the idea of war and the heroic warrior cult as a religious practice. This was probably because of the central importance of the warrior to defending the homeland and to winning more territory for the expanding tribe to farm. Thus, the warrior and farming classes were closely inter-related and depended on each other. The warrior code was itself central to the social bonds that defined the tribe and gave it such strength. This was a system based on honour, bravery and the winning of eternal glory. The poem Norse Havamal puts it succinctly: ‘Cattle die, kinsmen die, thyself will soon die; but fair fame will never die for him who wins it’.
Nowhere else was this ethos as strongly embedded into social structure as it was in the Saxon and wider Germanic social system. Warriors were bound to their Lord by an oath of loyalty that they could not break. They would be expected to fight for and defend their Lord in battle even if that meant their own death. In fact, surviving a battle in which the King was killed was a great shame to the warrior. However, the King was bound to his warriors by the same code – bound to gain favour from the gods in both battle and agriculture. This ‘favour’ with the gods formed the basis of the Saxon notion of holiness to which the words holy, healthy and hail were originally applied. As the process of Christianisation took hold, so the concept of holiness changed to one of personal holiness.
This concept of loyalty to the warlord and folk group was so central to Saxon society and world view, and so different to the cosmopolitan Christian world view, that the early missionaries simply could not directly oppose it. Instead, they sought to present their religion in a way that was compatible with this world view and then sought to slowly adapt society to true Christian values. However, although this code was to some extent adapted by the advent of Christianity, it remained extremely strong and continued to form the basis of Saxon society witnessed through the development of both the feudal system and of the military orders and chivalry. A principle way that this occurred was through the portrayal of Christ as a victorious Saxon warlord or warrior hero such as Beowulf. Poems such as ‘Dream of the Rood’ and the ‘Saxon Gospel’, The Heliand, portray this very clearly.
Indeed, authors such as Lars Lonnroth (writing in the American Scandinavian Society in 1917) find in Saxon Christianity a sympathy for the old codes of worldly honour and loyalty to the family and tribe, even a reserved approval of the revenge principle. For instance, the C13th treatise called ‘the King’s Mirror’ from Moral Values in Icelandic Sagas advises:
“keep your temper calm though not to the point of suffering abuse or bringing upon yourself the reproach of cowardice. Though necessity may force you into strife, be not in a hurry to take revenge; first make sure your effort will succeed and strike where it ought”.
In a similar vein, St Odo, abbot of Cluny monastery (d. 944), radically redefined the concept of a virtuous and saintly life by explicitly including the warrior ethos and lifestyle. In defence of this, he states “truly, no one ought to be worried because a just man sometimes makes use of fighting, which seems incompatible with religion”. Here was a clear attempt to not just integrate the warrior ethos into the Christian ethos, but to adapt it to the basic principles of Christian morality – warfare for a higher or just cause and not just for its own sake or for temporal glory.
Russell believes that many of the pre-Christian Germanic values were absorbed into medieval Christianity and that this suggests that many of its own core values, such as cosmopolitanism, its world rejecting ethos and pacifism were either rejected out of hand or significantly adapted to the Germanic world view. In other words, the core values of Germanic Christianity were quite different to those of Judaeo-Christianity to which the Churches are currently seeking to return.
World accepting Germanic religion versus world rejecting Christianity
The interaction between Christianity and Indo-European ‘world accepting’ religions did not begin with its expansion into the Germanic lands. By the time of Christ, the classical religions of Greece and Rome had absorbed eastern mystery cults such as Mithraism. As such, their original Indo-European religiosity had become diluted, but nevertheless was still apparent. The meeting of Christianity with these religions had a profound effect on its early development and on some of its main theological positions. This was the point at which Christianity ceased to be a Semitic religion, an off shoot of Judaism, and became something quite different and fundamentally European. The impact of Greek pagan philosophers such as Plato and the Roman hierarchical and legal structures on the development of early Christianity are two examples of this process. As Christianity spread northwards into Europe, it encountered successive waves of increasingly homogenous peoples with increasingly ‘pure’ Indo-European based folk religions. Thus, by the time it encountered Germanic folk religion, it had already been affected by its sister religions of southern and central Europe. Indeed, according to Russell, the most significant effects of the Celto-Saxon Indo-Europeanization of Christianity were the emergence of a sense of a specific European Christianity, which encompassed both a spiritual and political context and included a magical or folk religious undercurrent that pervaded early medieval Christianity.
It is important to understand that pre-Christian Saxon society, whilst sharing common Indo European origins, was fundamentally different to the pre-Christian Hellenistic societies that Christianity first took root in. Those societies had already become cosmopolitan, world rejecting and emphasised gnosis or esoteric knowledge. Saxon religion, at its point of contact with Christianity, was not philosophical but rather a national cult religion as both Greek and Roman religion had originally been. It was concerned with the here and now, with the day to day life of the folk, not with philosophising over the nature of the afterlife and how to attain it. It is also important to understand that it is from this perspective that Saxon and other Germanic societies came to terms with Christianity. Germanic religion at the time of conversion was actually very strong and vital. As with the Japanese of modern times, they saw little merit in the new religion and so resistance to it was strong. This is why the Church adopted a process of inculturation and hid the deeper meaning from the people. As a result, those magico-religious aspects of Christianity that had parallels with the heathen faith were emphasised, whilst its world rejecting and ethical side was played down. For this reason, Saxon Christianity emphasised the veneration of objects such as relics, Saints and the magical power of the mass. As Russell puts it, the world accepting, heroic, magico religious, folk centred Saxon world view led to a worldly, heroic, magico religious, folk centred Christianity.
Russell argues that whilst there is a general tendency for folk religions to be supplanted by universal ones, there are occasions where the universalist religion is re-interpreted in terms of the folk religion and culture. Such a situation occurred in Japan between Buddhism and Shinto and also in the Saxon lands. This situation appears to occur when a universalist religion expands into areas where the folk religious culture is solidly entrenched. One of the main reasons for this is that whilst a people may take on the trappings of a new religion, they are not necessarily truly converted to it. In other words, our ancestors may appear to have been converted to Christianity, but in practice this ‘conversion’ was only skin deep.
Failure of the Church to achieve a full conversion
The term ‘conversion’ does not simply refer to a change in one’s religious allegiance. In the New Testament, St Peter declares that people should repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38) and St Paul declares people should repent and turn to God (Acts 26:20-21). The English word ‘repent’ comes from a Latin translation of the Greek word metanoia to poenitentia, which mean both repentance and penitence. Indeed, the Christian concept of conversion implies a form of repentance from a state of sinfulness and thus the two concepts became intertwined. Furthermore, conversion in this sense implies something more than a one-off event such as being baptized. It implies an on-going and ever deepening process of conversion both at an individual and a societal level.
However, there was a relative absence of a concept of sinfulness in pre-Christian Germanic culture. An absence of any real notion of sin in the Christian sense means that early ‘converts’ to the faith would not have been able to repent of their sins in the sense implied by ‘conversion’. Thus, whilst ‘conversion’ to Christianity amongst the Germanic peoples did mean a change in religious allegiance, there has to be a real doubt about whether this constituted a ‘conversion’ in the real meaning of the word. Whilst individuals may have come to understand the deeper meaning of conversion through repentance, it is extremely unlikely this was true of an entire society. This is important because it means that the behavioural change implied through true conversion did not happen throughout Germanic society. People were baptised, absorbed some of the Christian beliefs and went to Church, but conversion did not go much deeper than a general adhesion to it. Indeed, there is evidence that well into the sixteenth century ordinary people in Saxony had only a very vague knowledge of Christian teaching, but still used sooth sayers, cunning women and other practioners of forbidden arts.
(MacMullen, R: Christianizing the Roman Empire 1984).
This disparity between Germanic and Judaeo Christian world views is also reflected in their different concepts of history. This can be seen by comparing the allegorical and moralistic orientation of Augustinian salvation history epitomised in ‘De Civitate Dei’ with the more objective Germanic depictions of historical events set out in say Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied and the Icelandic sagas. Whilst these works were written at a time when Christianity was apparently entrenched in their respective societies, none have the Christian vision of creation and last judgement as end points of time. Neither do they have a providential force acting in secular events. The fall, original sin, guilt, redemption or salvation play no role in them. The ethical integrity of the warrior heroes in these poems is that of the heathen not the Christian religion. Concepts of sin, redemption and salvation history were not simply Christian modifications of the older world view. They were fundamentally new and alien to it. However, this is how Christianity was dealt with by most Germanic people, including the Saxons. Christ was simply seen as another powerful god to be added to the existing pantheon, indeed maybe just another expression of existing gods such as Ingeld. Thus whilst orthodox Christianity is something fundamentally different to Saxon folk religion, what took hold in medieval northern Europe was not this form of Christianity but rather a Germanised folk Christianity that retained and adapted large elements of the pre-Christian heathen religion. Christianity requires a conversion of the soul, a repentance and an acceptance of ethical and doctrinal beliefs rather than just intercessory appeals to worldly problems. Germanic folk religion had little concept of the former, but a strong sense of the latter. This was carried into medieval Christianity. Even the Eucharist or Mass was re-interpreted in this way and private intercessory or votive Masses became a feature of Germanic Christianity. The mass therefore became one of a number of ‘good works’ that could intercede for good fortune, a view which marked a radical difference between the early and the mediaeval church of Northern Europe. To this extent, therefore, it can be argued that what actually took place was a syncretic development rather than any real Christianisation.
Inculcating a sense of the need for salvation was very difficult to achieve in a population that had no real concept of sin and therefore of a need to be saved from it. Thus, the central doctrine of Church teaching was essentially lost on the Germanic peoples who were sold the new religion more on the basis that Christ wielded stronger magic than the old gods. Thus, the Church had to convince the people that they needed salvation before they could bring that salvation to them. They did this by emphasising the notion of sin and of eternal damnation for those who did not receive salvation through the Church. This process directly led to the mediaeval obsession with these issues and a change from a world accepting culture to one that saw horror in this world and looked on the prospects of the next with fear.
The Celtic Church may have had a different response to this same question over how to introduce the concept of sin and repentance into a culture that had no real grasp of these concepts what this was. Although branded a heresy, the British monk Pelagius adopted an essentially Stoic position on the doctrine of free will and the essential goodness of nature which is only modified by sin rather than corrupted by it. In this he opposed the conventional position propounded by Augustine of Hippo who believed that nature, though created good, had become so corrupted by sin that virtue is impossible without grace. Augustine’s position was needed in order to argue that humankind cannot find salvation through its own efforts, only by the grace of God through Christ. Pelagius, therefore, was attempting to reconcile a world accepting Celto-Germanic position to that of the world rejecting nature of Judeao-Christianity.
The Germanization of Christian liturgy and observance
Josef Jungman goes further and states that in terms of worship, canon law, monastic life and theology, from the ninth century it was the countries to the north of the alps that took the lead. From the tenth century onwards, this tradition spread ever southwards and became the cultural standard in Rome itself (Jungman, J.: the defeat of Teutonic Arianism and the revolution in religious culture in the early middle ages.) Examples given by Jungman of this Germanization include an increase in private votive masses commemorating Mary and the Saints, the increased use of making the sign of the cross at mass and the introduction of silent prayer with folded hands – which is derived from the posture of a vassal pledging fealty to his lord. Devotion to the saints became more profound and widespread, a replacement of appeals to the old folk gods with appeals to the deified saints. He also attributes to Saxon influence the increased emphasis on representing events in Christ’s life in the mass as well as the weekly liturgical cycle. Also attributed to the process of Germanization is the emergence of Christmas as a rival festival to Easter and an increased stratification of clergy and laity, represented by a growing distance between alter and worshippers and the introduction of a communion rail.
Saxon Christianity also placed greater emphasis on objects, such as the cross, the real presence in the Eucharist, the blessed virgin and the scriptures compared to more subtle processes such as spiritual growth to perfection. Pre-Christian Germanic religion had a strong magical component and words were seen as powerful magic in their own right. Indeed, the word ‘Gospel’ has a double meaning. The better known one is from the Anglo Saxon words ‘God Spel’, meaning ‘Good News’. However, there is another meaning which goes deeper into the culture of the Anglo Saxon people receiving this Good News. For ‘Gospel’ can also be seen as deriving from the words ‘God Spel’, meaning God’s magic – literally God’s spell. This play on words was used by the Church to convince Anglo Saxon Kings that their God’s magic (the Bible) was more powerful than the Holy Runes of the Germanic peoples.
The Germanic concept of time
Germanic and Christian concepts of time are completely different. The former developed from the North European cycles of nature and gave rise to a sense of the cyclical nature of time. Germanic religion saw time in terms of things that had already come to pass, things that were now and things which were coming to pass. Fundamental to understanding this concept is the notion of Wyrd which is sometimes explained the Saxon equivalent of fate. Wyrd is the force of the past that helps to form the present and the present that is yet to come – the nearest the Saxons had to a concept of future. Thus, the present and the present yet to come are influenced by the past. The Sisters of Wyrd represent these aspects of time; that which was, that which is and that which should be. The third sister, Sculd, represents this notion of future as that which ‘should’ be, as a result of what has been and what is.
The Germanic and Christian concepts of Hell
Germanic heathen religion certainly had a concept of the afterlife. Our modern word hell comes from that heathen religion, but its meaning is very different. Usually using just one ‘l’ to distinguish the two, the original ‘hel’ was seen as a place of healing and regeneration. Indeed, the word ‘hel’ is etymologically linked to our words healing, health and whole. In other Germanic languages, it means ‘light’. Something very odd happened with the process of Christianization, resulting from the need to inculcate a sense of sin requiring salvation through grace. As the Middle Ages progressed, so the pre-Christian notions of the afterlife as one of purification and paradise was gradually replaced by a Judaeo-Christian concept of it as a terrifying place of eternal torment. Medieval Christians became obsessed with this imagery and with the need of salvation to avoid it. To understand this, is to understand the most important influence on the mind of the medieval European. Another key change to the Germanic world view caused by the Christianizing process was the replacement of pre-Christian notions of fate and destiny (Wyrd) with a world view based on sin, repentance and salvation. We therefore see a situation in which the pre-Christian ideas of the afterlife as a pleasant place of regeneration and purification gave way to Judaeo-Christian ideas of an afterlife dominated by a hell of eternal torment and the consequent world view of sin, repentance and salvation to avoid it. Whilst salvation came from God through Christ, it was the Church that determined ones chance of achieving it, giving it a powerful hold over people’s lives and leading to the mediaeval custom of selling indulgences.
The development of Germanic Arian Christianity
Not all Germanic Christianity was Saxon. Arianism was first put forward by Presbyter Arius of Alexander (a Greek living in modern day Egypt) who lived between 250 and 336. He believed that the Logos (Christ) was not consubstantial or co-eternal with God the Father, being of a similar rather than the same nature to Him and being begotten by Him at some time before creation, but nevertheless that there was a time when He did not exist. This view conflicted with the Trinitarian position that held that the Father, the Logos and the Spirit to be separate personalities within a single unity of the Godhead; each consubstantial and co-eternal. Commonly known as the ‘Arian heresy’, this position became very popular within the Eastern Church. The Council of Nicaea, which produced the Nicene Creed repeated in Churches throughout the world, was specifically held to counteract Arianism. Whilst it eventually withered away, Arianism and its many off-shoots has never gone away and today forms the basis of non Trinitarian traditions such Unitarianism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, what is important to this study is that as it was declining within the Eastern Churches, Arianism took hold within several Germanic societies, though not amongst the Saxons. As we shall see though, the Germanic Arians were not defined so much by the non Trinitarian doctrine of Arius, but rather by a folk adaptation of it that enabled Germanic societies to maintain their separateness from Roman Catholicism. It is this adaptation of an alien creed into an ethno-centric Germanic folk faith that is interesting to this study rather than to the doctrinal issues themselves.
The first major contact between Christianity and a Germanic people occurred in 376 when the Visigoths, who had occupied the former Roman province of Dacia (modern Romania) in the previous century, crossed the River Danube into the Roman province of Moesia (in modern day Western Romania, Serbia and northern Bulgaria) seeking refuge from the advancing Huns. Russell considers that the leader of one of the larger Gothic tribes, the Tervingi, negotiated with the Arian Christian Emperor of the Eastern Empire and adopted his religion in return for asylum. The Gothic ‘conversion’ was therefore primarily political and, as we saw above, was not a real conversion in the deeper meaning of the word.
Perhaps the most famous exponent of Gothic Arianism was Bishop Wulfila (Ulfila) who had the bible translated into Gothic Germanic. Arianism was spread to many other Germanic tribes over the course of the next few centuries, though not all. The reason many Germanic tribes did accept Arianism had much to do with the fact that it was not the official religion of Rome, which was Trinitarian Catholic Orthodoxy. If they had accepted this version of the faith, they would have been quickly absorbed into the Roman culture, something they had been resisting for centuries. They would also have lost some of their freedom of organisation and tribal power as Priests would have been subject to the Roman power structures, ultimately the usually Italian Pope. Arianism as practised by the Gothic and other Germanic tribes was not as centralised, being organised into more local and independent Churches.
Theology, specifically the Arian denial of the Trinity, was not a central concern to the Germanic Arians. Germanic people in general as noted above, were not especially interested in the convoluted theological arguments of the eastern Churches. They were more interested in the practical benefits of the new religion and these were essentially social and political. Because of this, and because of a lack of any real conversion, Arian Christianity was slow to penetrate the pagan cult practice so long a part of agrarian life. It allowed them the advantages of being part of the wider Christian world whilst retaining a great deal of distinctiveness, their Gothic identity and pride in their ancestors.
Martin of Braga’s catechetical guide, De Correctione Rusticorum (c.574), reveals an interesting insight into ecclesiastical concerns about the considerable heathen survival and recidivism amongst the common folk of the Germanic Suevic Kingdom. Russell argues that, in terms of universal and folk religions discussed above, Germanic Arianism can be considered ‘ a thoroughly indigenous reinterpretation of a universal religion, a Germanization of Arian Christianity’.
As this article has unfolded, it has become difficult to avoid a number of conclusions. The first and most obvious is that contrary to received wisdom, the introduction of Christianity into the Germanic lands produced a fusion of sorts and to the development of a unique folk Christianity that was fundamentally different to the original Judaeo Christianity that evolved in the middle east. This fusion produced a form of Christianity that was strongly influenced by Saxon notions of honour, heroism, social structure and devotion to magico religious practices such as votive masses. However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that some aspects of the original pagan religion were incorporated into this folk Christianity in a way that became quite negative and even terrifying. The pagan notion of the afterlife was a place of refreshment and healing, but it became a place or torment and fear for medieval Saxon Christians.
Saxon Christianity was also characterised by hierarchical social structures and unswerving loyalty to one’s superiors. This can be both very effective and very damaging to an organisation depending on the calibre of the leadership. It also led to monarchy as a natural system of Government – not the constitutional monarchies of modern Europe, but the dictatorship of earlier centuries.
One of the most profound consequences of this fusion is that of militarism and the incorporation of the warrior cult. The heroic nature of Saxon culture was in itself a positive aspect of Saxon Christianity and the Church sought to use these codes to the good by defining an ethical basis for warfare.
Whilst medieval Christians became obsessed with death and the horrors of hell, a modern faith inspired by this fusion can draw more directly from the pre-Christian Germanic ‘world accepting’ ideas that the world is not inherently bad and that we should enjoy life in the here and now and not worry too much about what waits us in the afterlife. Furthermore, it can and should, look to the original meaning of hel rather than the place of torment it was turned into. The notion of hel as a place of regeneration fits in better with the view of time as being cyclical and the ‘birth, death, rebirth’ cycle that follows from this.
Any modern faith that draws from the syncretism of Saxon Christianity can also be more open about spirit beings, Elfs, land and water spirits. It can honour our ancestors and see them as being able to intercede for us in the next world. Saxon notions of folk and identity, linking ourselves to our ancestors and those of us yet to come, is also an extremely important legacy that our pagan past has brought to Saxon Christianity. In short, the notion of a folk centred ethnic religion that grew out of the contact between Christianity and our ancestors’ pre-Christian traditions is something that will appeal to many people in our modern day.