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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 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.