Civilizing the Barbarians

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Why did the Franks, Saxons, and others work so hard to copy Rome and to adopt chunks of Roman culture (as transmitted through the Christian church?) At first, they didn’t. The Franks of Charlemagne and the Franks that ran the last Romans out of what is now northern Germany and the Netherlands were 350 years apart and very different in some ways. In others, well, it took a great deal of unceasing, patient (and not so patient) work by people who still believed that the old ways were good, and that they had a mission to save the souls of the pagans, which also meant teaching them to read and write. And the pagans came to believe that the old ways could give them power and authority.

In short, it was long and complicated and messy. Welcome to human history.

The first archaeological and written evidence for the presence of the people later called the Franks appears in the late 300s to early 400s, in Roman accounts. The accounts are not positive. The Franks are a new flavor of barbarian tribe sweeping down from the east and north, pushing back the last of the Legions from the northern Rhine valley. They were pagans, primitive, war-like, and numerous, according to the few surviving written accounts. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Franks did tend to take over former Roman settlements, re-built things to their tastes, or didn’t, and their material culture overlaid the older Roman material culture (i.e. you start finding more of the Franks’ stuff than the Roman stuff.)

But at some point, the Franks settled down to an extent and started converting to Christianity, at least officially. This would happen over and over. Germanic peoples, Franks, Slavs, Vikings, Burgundians, Magyars, swept into Europe, terrorized everyone, raided churches and monasteries, threatened the end of the world, and then settled down, converted, and became staunch defenders of the faith. Only up in the eastern Baltic is the story a little different. There, Christianity seems not to have taken deep root, so that even into the Twentieth Century, pagan practices continued in the same places and probably the same ways as before Boniface et al set foot in the marshes of Prussia, Finland, and Estonia.

So what was the key? What lured the new arrivals into conversion? Dogged persistence, for one thing. The western church kept sending out missionaries, and sending out missionaries, the Irish kept coming and coming, and eventually some of the Franks et al quit killing the missionaries and started leaving them alone, or listening to them, and coming around to their way of thinking. Sort of, because not all of Christian theology as espoused by Rome and Tour got adopted. Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, converter of the Saxons, scourge of the Avars, had multiple wives because he was a Frankish warlord as well as a Christian. His bishops must have ground their teeth, but compared to the greater threats, well, bigamy wasn’t that serious of a problem. You wonder how many people converted just to get the priests and monks to be quiet and leave them alone.

When a chieftain converted, often his people converted as well, for certain values of belief. Archaeology and the plaints of priests and monks complaining about lingering pagan practices both suggest that officially, everyone followed the faith of their clan lord/chieftain/war-band leader. However, they kept making little sacrifices and used the old charms as a form of insurance, just in case.

As the Christians spread, and as Christians became advisors to various war lords and kings, the idea of Rome also spread. Rome had ruled the known world. Rome was the super power. Who wouldn’t want to be the emperor of Rome? And if that meant accepting the church of Rome, well, obviously Rome’s tribal god had defeated the other tribal gods, so perhaps there was something to this Christianity after all. The emperors in Constantinople certainly thought so, and anyone who ventured into that city and attended worship would have been overawed, especially if they managed to get into the Higha Sophia or other great churches.

Oddly, Christianity’s emphasis on the value of the individual before G-d also fit into the Germanic ideas about wergeld and value. Now, in Germanic law, your cash value depended on your place in society, but even slaves had a right to compensation and had certain protections. Christianity said that all people were valued by the Most High, and that each soul was precious to the Lord, no matter slave, free, king, woman, or warrior.

However, the appeal of Rome and of Rome’s god also fueled resistance to Christianity, or in some cases pushed groups to favor Eastern over Western Christianity. There was no separation of Church and State. If you accepted the western church, you accepted the western kings and Holy Roman Emperor. That was part of the package, at least from 800-1150 or so. The Poles and Bohemians and Magyars didn’t always agree with the package, and several times petitioned the Popes for their own bishops and other administrators. They liked the church but not the emperor. The Baltic pagans too made that part of their argument against converting: they liked their tribal gods and independence. The Russian Orthodox Church did not push for conversion the way the Western Church did in the Middle Ages, which inclined some Slavic groups more towards the east than the west.

Now, this is all very interesting, and looking back, we can see that between AD 425 CE and 1492, Europe north of the Alps* and Iberia were converted and re-converted to western Christianity, at least officially.

So what?

So my question is: how do you convert the modern barbarians to civilization? Because the modern barbarians – peoples who do not value the individual, who have no regard for the past and no respect for anything not based on power, peoples who consider tradition at best cute and at worst something to be actively rooted out and eliminated – are once more moving across the land. How do we convert them? How do we preserve what is vital and sacred and persuade the barbarians to see things from our point of view? We can’t wait for a Charlemagne or Holger Dansk or Prinz Eugen or Otto the Great.

It is not easy. It takes sacrifices, and effort, and dogged patience, and nursing pockets of faith and learning and value. That may be one of the most important lessons late antiquity/ the Dark Ages can teach us today.

*The Orthodox didn’t ignore the Bulgars, Slavs, and others. They sent out missionaries, and in some ways were more flexible and patient. I’m thinking about Central and Western Europe, say from the eastern borders of what is now Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Italy.

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23 thoughts on “Civilizing the Barbarians

  1. C. S. Lewis apparently said that it was easier to convert the Pagans than the moderns of his day.

    IE There were more places of contact between Pagan religions and Christianity than there is between the “moderns” and Christianity.

    • I believe it. And back then, Christianity was novel and more than a touch mysterious. Today a lot of people assume they know all about Christianity already, and don’t want to be bothered.

    • Agreed.
      Odin was a nasty piece of work. The existence of an alternative that didn’t end in ice and fire, that showed itself to have more temporal power than the local “favored by Odin” chieftain, was enough to start the sand flowing.

      The lessons taken from this time to address “ye shall be as god” and “do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” most likely involve a lot of smiting.
      According to at least one of its founders, the Progressive Movement was deliberately set up as a secular religion intended to subvert and replace Christianity. That it was wildly successful requires only a glance at the mainline Protestant churches. The Social Gospel wing of the movement pretty much swept the field. As it predictably does if you manage to slip in the unquestionable assumption that The State is the embodiment of God’s Will. (And, of course, Catholicism has its own problems with Marxism and Liberation Theology.)

      The muslim threat we can deal with. Keep them confined, let them slaughter each other with great devotion.
      But the Nidhogg at the root of our tree…

      • “…deliberately set up as a secular religion intended to subvert and replace Christianity.”

        When Alma had a post about the effort to get students’ attention and make history “real” to them, I noted a man I knew who grew up in Nazi Germany and gave a talk on his experience in my history class really got my attention. One of the things he said was that the Nazi party spread its influence by consciously emulating the organizational structure of the Catholic church, to provide a structure that was familiar to many of the German people. They went to some length to replace and coopt the cultural trappings of Christianity.

        • Himmler was big on restoring churches from the Ottonian through Staufen dynasties and trying to use them for SS and similar rallying points, borrowing and overlaying. According to the information at Lorch (the Staufen’s dynastic church), he had the Christian stuff stripped out of the church and SS things put in. But as they were getting ready for the first big event, sunlight through the window in the choir threw a cross onto the back of the Nazi banner and completely hid the swastica. This was taken as a Sign and everyone left, removing the Nazi pictures, flags, and banners as they departed.

          Something about Fredrick Barbarossa’s god being mightier than Himmler’s god, perhaps?

  2. You could blame the failure to convert the eastern Baltic on the Western Church stabbing the Teutonic Order in the back. 🙂 (I don’t really mean the above to relate to the below.)

    That discussion on ATH about Finland’s Roma.

    One of the things I took away from that is a better appreciation for extremely harsh punishments. It is one thing to suppress banditry in a population that does not culturally endorse it, and another to suppress it in a population where it is a strong cultural mandate. Harsher punishments, wider punishments, and so forth are artifacts of trying to forcibly diminish a behavior in a culture that does not itself punish the behavior. Law from certain periods makes much more sense, beyond my personal tendency towards bloody mindedness.

    The United States was able to get violent crime as low as it did because of a shared culture or cultures, which leaned heavily on common denominators. So the ‘multicultural’ lie that says that the overculture of the Americans was uniform, instead of a fusion of assimilation, and new additions need not change, also undermines the foundations of our now traditional minimal force policing. Third World Muslims are not the real issue. Even Mexican Nationalist Catholics with no regard for America are not. The issue which is the serious problem is the religious Socialists and the thieving culture they have bred.

    Something to pray about.

    Part of things is that we have extensive theoretical documentation for only part of what makes America America, and what makes America work. We’ve all read the work the founders put into the Constitution. But formal agreements are only a portion of the whole. The other part is culture, which makes an agreement something which can be done in practice. A lot of discussion went into the decisions embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. But they didn’t discuss the implementation of culture to anywhere near the same degree. Okay, there are lots of records of opinion, debates, ideas about child rearing, etc. But the portion of the population not literate enough to want to make such records is a part of the whole culture. Culture is not something that humans can design to a plan, and is not something they can fully document even if they wanted to. If we want to preserve the functioning of the old government, we must be able to explain to the barbarians what the culture underlying the government was, and why and how the culture and law could function together. But trying to do that will no more work unfailingly to plan than the mad social reform schemes of the communists. Make the effort, and have faith, but not faith in the works of man alone.

    • For all the differences, even within the groups of English and Scots-Irish, that were the first two waves of immigration, there were enough commonalities that certain basics could go almost without being articulated, almost. By the time the third wave of Southern Europeans, Slavs, and others began after 1870 or so, the dominate culture was able to absorb them and smooth out most differences, especially those that could damage society. The Italian Mafia might be an exception, but even they agreed that they were outside society’s norms, if not outside their own norms. The US was darn close to being multi-ethnic and mono-cultural in terms of large-scale social contracts and understandings. People might not agree with those understandings, but they were known.

      And then Marx’s disciples and their hangars-on decided that those norms and understandings had to go, along with the culture that had sustained them… *Sigh* I have this mental image of a monk seeing dust clouds from attacking raiders on the horizon. He sighs, rubs his temple, and thinks, “Here we go again. Your Grace may be sufficient, oh Lord, but forgive me if I wish we didn’t need it quite so often.”

      I’m thinking that in addition to St. Michael, Saints Boniface and Lioba might be good role models.

  3. However, they kept making little sacrifices and used the old charms as a form of insurance, just in case.

    This still happens in some cultures – or in some cases, it’s gotten smudged together or considered ‘acceptable’ locally because they don’t conflict in local psyche. Probably one of the best pop culture reference I can give as an example is Sailor Mars – Catholic schoolgirl, but also part of the local Shinto priesthood as a miko. It’s kinda fascinating.

    • Going to a Catholic school does not make one Catholic. Though, Japan’s syncraticism seems quite strange to this American.

      Rei’s situation, at least in some of the canons, may not be conclusive evidence of syncratic practice.

      She is estranged from her father, a politician, who is likely responsible for the school. I’ve seen no canon evidence of any strong convictions on her father’s part. She isn’t alienated from her maternal grandfather, the Shinto Priest. There are different possibilities for what happens to her long term.

      • American example. There was a, I think, Bishop. I think it was the Episcopal church that disciplined her for claiming that Islam, Christianity, and IIRC Buddhism were the same religion.

  4. “the barbarians – peoples who do not value the individual, who have no regard for the past and no respect for anything not based on power, peoples who consider tradition at best cute and at worst something to be actively rooted out and eliminated …”
    This is not just wrong: it is pretty much the opposite of the truth.
    The Germanic people, when they were barbarians, valued the individual much more than after “civilization”. (which is why I have chosen a Viking nom de plume…) It took several centuries, and the struggles between popes and emperors (i.e. the effective separation of Church and State), before Europeans recovered some love of freedom.
    The same goes for the Romans: they valued individual freedom more when they were barbarians, i.e. before being “civilized” by the Greeks.

    It must be said, though, that the meaning of “barbarism” and “civilization” has changed: the Greeks called themselves civilized and the Persians barbarians, even though Persian “civilization” was older, because they (the Greeks) lived in city-states where individual freedom was not subject to the whims of a monarch, while the Persians lived under a monarch. European kingdoms of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, all the way to the French Revolution, were not civilized in the Greek sense — and it is debatable whether we are.

    Regard for the past: barbarians have always had that, it’s just that they had no way of writing down history, so it was all legends. And how wrong can you go by saying that barbarians have no respect for tradition??

    Respect for power: this, certainly the barbarian Romans and Germans did have: they saw a man without power as a man subject to the arbitrary whims of one or more other men. Same as the Second Amendment.

    • Thanks for commenting!

      The paragraph you are quoting as “the opposite of the truth” refers to the modern barbarians, not the barbarians of the Volkerwanderung. I am referring to those individuals and ideologies that favor the collective and the imagined perfect future over what I consider civilization. I’ve edited it to clarify that, and I apologize for not being a lot clearer.

      • Thank you, sorry if I misunderstood, but I believe that what i said is something important to keep in mind, and am glad that it does not contradict what you say, in fact it pretty much agrees with it — although at least some modern barbarians have a lot of respect for _their own_ traditions!

  5. If there is a Transcendent Immanence that creates all things, and only those things, that do not create themselves, does this Transcendent Immanence create itself? If it does, it doesn’t; but if it doesn’t, then it does.

    This is Epimenides of Crete’s “paradox of contradictory self-reference”– a formally undecidable proposition, not amenable to rational examination and debate. Aquinas fails, Luther fails, Bertrand Russell fails– but what truly fails is human logic, in and of itself.

    As ever in such cases, the existential “solution” is not a matter of Aristotelian if-then “reasoning to a conclusion” but of Faith alone: We are born to learn. What we learn is Love. What is Love but giving, a self-respecting individual’s life well-lived, dedicated to bequeathing a legacy of Life and Love to deserving posterity. No-one says that this is easy; the cost of humbling, meritorious self-sacrifice to the benefit of one’s family and descendants –thus to their past, present, and future Human Community writ large– may well be life itself.

    Though Kurt Godel’s 1932 “Consistency Theorem” resolved Epimenides by turning paradoxical self-reference upon itself, his intellectually profound proof –a complete set of axioms is necessarily inconsistent, a consistent set of axioms is incomplete– has no bearing on spiritual reality.

    Barbaric tropisms are brutish, trivial; civilized awareness accords neither with crass materialism (“getting-and-spending”), mysticism (“sights unseen”), nor romanticism (things “long ago and far away”), but with an ineffably self-emergent Divine Rule: “Being exists in essence as Potential, for not in Being but Becoming lies The Way.”

    Si monumentum videre, circumspice.

  6. Please do not use CE. Common Era is pointless in that it means the same thing as AD, the existence of Christianity is the only thing these frames of reference have in common, so it offers no real improvement. If you can’t bring yourself to say AD just say “X years ago” or just the year without attachment. Most people will know what you mean.

  7. when the British occupied India the custom was to burn widows on their husbands funeral pire, the British tried to stop it and were brushed off “it’s tradition and you said we could keep or traditions”, finally a British governor said very well you keep you traditions and we shall keep ours and our tradition is to HANG MURDERS, it only took one
    sometime it takes brute force to effect change

  8. It helped that Christians were, mostly, militarily stronger than the pagan invaders and orthodox Christians were mostly stronger than the heretics. Hence they were able to repeatedly prevail, even during the final stages of decay of the Western Empire. Then the Franks picked up the mantle in the West, whereas the Eastern Empire survived to provide a model of a successful Christian polity.
    Until around 1100 the Roman Empire was more civilized and, on balance, militarily stronger than the barbarian polities and used its prestige to promote Christianity and Graeco-Roman culture. Before the Mongolian invasion, there wasn’t any prolonged period when pagans ruled over Christians — and even then the Christians prevailed in the end, in the 15th century.
    The merits of European culture were by and large obvious to the barbarians; no Genghis-Khan-like dilemma about whether to exterminate the Christians or keep them to pay taxes. The barbarians had no significant hangups about converting, gift exchanges, matrimonial alliances, trade, etc..
    The obvious exception is that the Muslims (Persians, Arabs, and Turks) were often militarily stronger than the Roman Empire. Hence they did not convert to orthodox Christianity and ended up creating a different culture.

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