The Teutonic and Scandinavian Religion
Viking Age Online Library Release #1
8. Relation of this System to Christianity.
The first German nation converted to Christianity was that of the Goths, whose teacher was Ulphilas, born 318, consecrated a bishop in 348. Having made many converts to Christianity among his people, a persecution arose against them from the pagan Goths; and in 355, in consequence of this persecution, he sought and obtained leave to settle his Scripture in Greek and Latin, and made the first translation of the Bible into any German language. Fragments of his Gothic version are preserved at Upsal. This copy, called the Codex Argenteus, was captured by the Swedes at Prague during the Thirty Years War. This manuscript is of the sixth century, and, together with some palimpsests, is the only source of our knowledge of this ancient version.*
Ulphilas was an Arian, and died confessing his faith in that form of Unitarianism. Neander says it is to the credit of the orthodox historians that they do not on that account abate anything of their praise of Ulphilas for his great labors as a missionary, confessor, and doctor. His translation was, for a long time, used all over Europe by the various tribes of German descent.
Ulphilas, therefore, led the way in that work which resulted in one of the greatest events of modern history; namely, the conversion of the German race to Christianity. It was by various families of this Teutonic stem - Goths, Vandals, Saxons, Lombards, Burgundians, Franks - that the Roman Empire was overthrown. If they had not been converted to Christianity before and during these conquests, what would have been the fate of European civilization? The only bond uniting the modern and ancient world was the Christian faith, and this faith was so adapted to the German character that it was everywhere accepted by them.** The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons by Augustin (A.D. 597), of the Germans by Boniface (A.D. 718 - 755), of the Saxons (A.D. 803), and the universal downfall of German heathenism, was a condition sine qua non of that union of Latin and Greek culture with the German vitality, which was at the root of modern European civilization. Previous to this the Visigoths were converted, as we have seen; then the Ostrogoths; then the Vandals and Gepidæ, - all in the fourth century. The franks became Christians in the fifth century, the Alemanni and Lombards in the sixth. All of these tribes were converted by Arian missionaries, except the Franks. But the records of these missions have perished, for the historians were Catholics, who, says Milman,*** perhaps destroyed, or disdained to preserve, the fame of Arian conquests to a common Christianity. It was a surprising spectacle, says he, to behold the Teutonic nations melting gradually into the general mass of Christian worshippers. In every other respect they were still distinct races. The Conquering Ostrogoth or Visigoth, the Vandal, the Burgundian, the Frank, stood apart from the subjugated Roman population, as an armed or territorial aristocracy. They maintain, in great part at least, their laws, their language, their habits, their character; in religion alone they are blended into one society, constitute one church, worship at the same altar, and render allegiance to the same hierarchy. This is the single bond of their common humanity.
The German races also established everywhere the feudal system, that curious institution, which has been the subject of so much discussion, and has perplexed the readers of history by its incongruities. These perplexities, however, may perhaps be relieved if we see that the essential character of this institution was this, that it was an army permanently quartered on a subject people. This definition contains the explanation of the whole system. The Germans had overrun and conquered the Roman Empire. They intended to possess and retain it. But being much fewer in numbers than the conquered people, how could they do this? Suppose that when the Confederate States had been conquered by the Union Army it had been determined to hold them permanently as a conquered territory. It could be done thus. First, the original inhabitants must be disarmed and put under stringent laws, like that of the curfew, etc. Then to every private soldier in the Union Army a farm, say of fifty acres, would be assigned, on condition that whenever summoned by the captain of his company he would present himself armed to do military duty. In the like manner the captain would receive, say a hundred acres, on condition of appearing with his company when summoned by his colonel. Then the colonel would receive five hundred acres, on condition of appearing with his regiment when summoned by the general. The general (dux, duke) must appear with his brigade when summoned by the commander-in-chief (imperator, emperor), and he would hold perhaps a thousand acres on this condition. All this land, thus held on condition of military service, would be held in fee, and would exemplify the actual foundation of the whole feudal system, which was simply an arrangement by which a conquering army could hold down the conquered nation.
Of course, such a system as this was one of tyranny and cruelty, and during several centuries it was tempered and softened only by the mediatorial influence of the Christian Church. This was the only power strong enough to shield the oppressed and to hold back the arm of the tyrant. Feudalism served, no doubt, some useful purposes. It was a method of riveting together, with iron nails, the conquerors and conquered, until they could come into a union of a better kind.
It was about the year 1000 that the people of the North were converted to Christianity. This process of conversion was a long time going, and there were several relapses into paganism; so that precise time can be fixed for the conversion of a single nation, much less for that of the different branches of the Scandinavian stock separately situated in Sweden and Denmark, Iceland and Greenland, and colonized England and Normandy. A mission was established in Denmark, A.D. 822, and the king was baptized; but the overthrow of this Christian king restricted the labors of the missionary. An attempt was made in Sweden in 829, and the missionary, Anschar, remained there a year and a half; but the mission there established was soon overthrown. Uniting wisdom with his ardor, Anschar established at Hamburg schools where he educated Danish and Swedish boys to preach Christianity in their own language to their countrymen. But the Normans laid waste this city, and the Christian schools and churches were destroyed. About 850 a new attempt was made in Sweden, and there the subject was laid by the king before his council or parliament, consisting of two assemblies, and they decided to allow Christianity to be preached and practised, apparently on the ground that this new god, Christ, might help them in their dangers at sea, when the other gods could not. And thus, according to the independent character of this people, Christianity was neither allowed to be imposed upon them by their king against their will, nor excluded from the use of those who chose to adopt it. It took its chance with the old systems, and many of the Danes and Normans believed in worshipping both Odin and Christ at the same time. King Harold in Denmark, during the last half of the tenth century, favored the spread of Christianity, and was himself baptized with his wife and son, believing at first that the Christian God was more powerful than the heathen gods, but finally coming to the conclusion that these last were only evil spirits. On the other hand, some of the Danes believed that Christ was a god, and to be worshipped; but that he was a less powerful god than Odin or Thor. The son of King Harold, in 990, returned to paganism and drove out the Christian priest; but his son, Canute the Great, who began to reign in 1014, was converted to Christianity in England, and became its zealous friend. But these fierce warriors made rather poor Christians. Adam of Bremen says: They so abominate tears and lamentations, and all other signs of penitence which we think so salubrious, that they will neither weep for their own sins nor at the death of their best friends. Thus, in these Northern regions, Christianity grew through one or two centuries, not like the mustard-seed, but like the leaven, infusing itself more and more into their national life. According to the testimony of an eye-witness, Adam of Bremen, the Swedes were very susceptible to religious impressions. They receive the preachers of the truth with great kindness, says he, if they are modest, wise, and able; and our bishops are even allowed to preach in their great public assemblies. In Norway, Prince Hacon, in the middle of the tenth century, attempted to establish Christianity, which he had learned in England. He proposed to the great national assembly that the whole nation should renounce idolatry, worship God and Christ, keep Sundays as festivals, and Fridays as fasts. Great opposition was made, and there was danger of universal insurrection, so that the king had to yield, and even himself drink a toast to Odin and eat horse-flesh, which was a heathen practice. Subsequent kings of Norway introduced Christianity again; but the people, though willing to be baptized, frequently continued Pagans, and only be degrees renounced, with their old worship, their habits of piracy. The Icelanders embraced Christianity at their All-Thing in the year 1000, but with the condition that they might also continue their old worship, and be permitted the eating of horse-flesh and exposed infants. When the All-Thing broke up, the assembled multitudes went to the hot-baths to be baptized, preferring for this rite hot water to cold. The Scandinavians seem at this period to have transition state. One warrior says that he relies more on his own strength and arms than upon Thor. Another says, I would have thee know that I believe neither idols nor spirits, but only in my own force and courage. A warrior told King Olaff in Norway, I am neither Christian nor Pagan. My companions and I have no other religion than confidence in our strength and good success. Evidently Christianity for a long time sat very lightly on these nations. They were willing to be baptized and accept some of the outward ceremonies and festivals of the Catholic Church, which were considerately made to resemble their old ones.
Nevertheless Christianity met many of the wants of this noble race of men; and, on the other hand, their instincts as a race were as well adapted to promote and equal development of every side of Christian life. The Southern races of Europe received Christianity as a religion of order; the Northern races, as a religion of freedom. In the South of Europe the Catholic Church, by its ingenious organization and its complex arrangements, introduced into life discipline and culture. In the North of Europe Protestant Christianity, by its appeals to the individual soul, awakens conscience and stimulates to individual and national progress. The nations of Southern Europe accepted Christianity mainly as a religion of sentiment and feeling; the nations of Northern Europe, as a religion of truth and principle. God adapted Christianity to the needs of these Northern races; but he also adapted these races, with original instincts and their primitive religion, to the needs of Christianity. Without them, we do not see how there could be such a thing in Europe to-day as Protestantism. It was no accident which made the founder of the Reformation a Saxon monk, and the cradle of the Reformation Germany. It was no accident which brought the great Gustavus Adolphus from the northern peninsula, at the head of his Swedish Protestants, to turn the tide of war in favor of Protestantism and to die on the field of Lutzen, fighting for freedom of spirit. It is no accident which makes Scandinavian races to-day, in Sweden and Norway, in Denmark and North Germany and Holland, in England and the United States, almost the only Protestant nations of the world. The old instincts still run in the blood, and cause these races to ask of their religion, not so much the luxury of emotion or the satisfaction of repose, in having all opinions settled for them and all actions prescribed, as , much rather, light, freedom and progress. To them to-day, as to their ancestors,
Is life a simple art
of duties to be done,
A game where each man takes has part,
A race where all must run;
A battle whose great scheme and scope
They little care to know;
Content, as men at arms, to cope
Each with his fronting foe.
* Smiths Dictionary of the Bible. Neander, Church History, Vol. II, Appendix.
** See, for the conversion of the German races; Guizot, History of Civilization; Merivale, Conversion of the German Nations; Milman, Latin Christianity; Neander, History of the Christian Church; Hegel; Lecky, History of European Morals.
*** Latin Christianity, Book III. Chapter II.
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