Germanic Christianity

Germanic Christianity

The Germanic peoples underwent gradual Christianization in the course of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. By the 8th century, most of England and the Frankish Empire was de jure Christian, and by AD 1100, Germanic paganism had also ceased to have political influence in Scandinavia.


In the 4th century, the early process of Christianization of the various Germanic people was partly facilitated by the prestige of the Christian Roman Empire amongst European pagans. Until the decline of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes who had migrated there (with the exceptions of the Saxons, Franks, and Lombards, see below) had converted to Christianity. [Padberg 1998, 26] Many of them, notably the Goths and Vandals, adopted Arianism instead of the Trinitarian (a.k.a. Nicene or "orthodox") beliefs that came to dominate the Roman Imperial Church. [Padberg 1998, 26] The gradual rise of Germanic Christianity was, at times, voluntary, particularly amongst groups associated with the Roman Empire. From the 6th century, Germanic tribes were converted (and re-converted) by missionaries of the Roman Church.

Many Goths converted to Christianity as individuals outside the Roman Empire. Most members of other tribes converted to Christianity when their respective tribes settled within the Empire, and most Franks and Anglo-Saxons converted a few generations later. During the later centuries following the Fall of Rome, as the Roman Church gradually split between the dioceses loyal to the Patriach of Rome in the West and those loyal to the other Patriarchs in the East, most of the Germanic peoples (excepting the Crimean Goths and a few other eastern groups) would gradually become strongly allied with the Western Church, particularly as a result of the reign of Charlemagne.


In the 3rd century, East-Germanic peoples migrated into Scythia. Gothic culture and identity emerged from various East-Germanic, local, and Roman influences. In the same period, Gothic raiders took captives among the Romans, including many Christians, (and Roman-supported raiders took captives among the Goths).

Wulfila or Ulfilas was the son or grandson of Christian captives from Sadagolthina in Cappadocia. In 337 or 341, Wulfila became the first bishop of the (Christian) Goths. By 348, one of the (Pagan) Gothic kings (reikos) began persecuting the Christian Goths, and Wulfila and many other Christian Goths fled to Moesia Secunda (in modern Bulgaria) in the Roman Empire. [Auxentius of Durostorum, "Letter of Auxentius", quoted in Heather and Matthews, "Goths in the Fourth Century", pp. 141-142.] [Philostorgius via Photius, "Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius", book 2, chapter 5.] Other Christians, including Wereka, Batwin, and Saba, died in later persecutions.

Between 348 and 383, Wulfila translated the Bible into the Gothic language. [Auxentius of Durostorum, "Letter of Auxentius", quoted in Heather and Matthews, "Goths in the Fourth Century", p. 140.] [Philostorgius via Photius, "Epitome of the Ecclesiastical History of Philostorgius", book 2, chapter 5.] Thus some Arian Christians in the west used the vernacular languages, in this case including Gothic and Latin, for services, as did Christians in the eastern Roman provinces, while most Christians in the western provinces used Latin.

Franks & Alamanni

The Franks and their ruling Merovingian dynasty, that had migrated to Gaul from the 3rd century had remained pagan at first. On Christmas 498 [497 or 499 are also possible; Padberg 1998: 53] , however, Clovis I following his victory at the Battle of Tolbiac converted to the "orthodox" faith of the Roman Church and let himself be baptised at Rheims. The details of this event have been passed down by Gregory of Tours. The Alamanni became Christians only after a period of syncretism during the 7th century, by gradual emulation of the new religion of the Merovingian elite.The Lombards adopted Roman Christianity as they entered Italy, also during the 6th century.

In the 8th century, the Franks became standard-bearers of Roman Christianity in Western Europe, waging wars on its behalf against Arian Christians, Islamic invaders, and pagan Germanic peoples such as the Saxons and Frisians. Until 1066, when the Dane and the Norse had lost their foothold in Britain, theological and missionary work in Germany was largely organized by Anglo-Saxon missionaries, with mixed success. A key event was the felling of Thor's Oak near Fritzlar by Boniface, apostle of the Germans, in 723.

Eventually, the conversion was imposed by armed force and successfully completed by Charles the Great (Charlemagne) and the Franks in a series of campaigns (the Saxon Wars), starting in 772 with the destruction of their Irminsul and culminating in the defeat and massacre of Saxon leaders at the Bloody Verdict of Verden in 787 and the subjugation of this large tribe.


Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England began around AD 600, influenced by the Church of Rome from the south-east and the Hiberno-Scottish mission from the north-west. The first Archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine took office in 597.The last pagan Anglo-Saxon king, Arwald, was killed in 686.


Scandinavia was the last part of Germanic Europe to convert and most resistant. From the High Middle Ages, the territories of Northern Europe were gradually converted to Christianity under German leadership, and made into nation states under the Church's guidance, finalized in the Northern Crusades.

Later, German and Scandinavian noblemen extended their power to also Finnic, Samic, Baltic and some Slavic peoples.


Not only because it had an immense impact on the history of Europe, the Baptism of Clovis deserves a second look. It may also serve to highlight two important characteristics of the Christianization of Europe. Clovis I' wife Clotilde was Roman Catholic and did have an important role in the conversion of her husband. [Padberg 1998, 47] Long before his own baptism, Clovis had allowed that his sons became baptised. [Padberg 1998, 48] However, the decisive reason for Clovis to adopt the Christian belief was the spiritual battle aid he received from Christ. [Padberg 1998, 87] In the Battle of Tolbiac he came in such difficulties that he prayed to Christ for victory. Clovis was victorious, and afterwards he had himself instructed in the Christian faith by Saint Remigius. [Padberg 1998, 52]

That a Commander-in-chief would attribute his victory to the Christian God is a recurring motive since the Constantinian shift. Although the New Testament nowhere mentions that divine battle aid could be gained from Christ, [Padberg 1998:48> ] the Christian cross was known as a trophy to bestow victory since Constantine I and the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

However, that a pagan like Clovis, could ask Christ for help also shows the adaptability of the Germanic polytheism. In the polytheistic Germanic tradition, "if Odin failed, one absolutely could try it with Christ for once". [Padberg 1998: 48 ] The Christian sense of religious exclusiveness, as obvious from the "First Commandment", ["I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me"; see: Ten Commandments] was unknown to the pagans. As a result, pagans could be pragmatic and almost utilitarian in their religious decisions. A good example for this are several Thor's Hammer with engraved crosses, worn as an amulet, that archaeologists have found in Scandinavia. [depicted in Padberg 1998: 128] Why settle for the protection of one God, if you can have two-in-one? Another exemplary event happened during Ansgar's second stay in Birka: A pagan priest demanded from the locals, that they did not participate in the cult of the foreign Christian God. If they did not have enough Gods yet, they should elevate one of their deceased kings, "Erik", to be a God. [Padberg 1998: 121] The baptism of Clovis I also highlights the sacral role of the Germanic king. A Germanic king was not only a political ruler, but also held the highest religious 'office' for his people. [Padberg 1998, 29; Padberg notes, that this is probably disputed research, but can be affirmed for the northern Germanic area] He was seen as of divine descent, was the leader of the religious cult and was responsible for the fertility of the land and military victory. Accordingly, the conversion of their leader had a strong impact on his people. If he considered it appropriate to adopt the Christian belief, this also was a good idea for them.

Unlike the history of Christianity in the Roman Empire, conversion of the Germanic tribes in general took place "top to bottom",Dubious|date=March 2008 in the sense that missionaries aimed at converting Germanic nobility first,Dubious|date=March 2008 which would then impose their new faith on the general population: This is connected with the sacral position of the kingFact|date=July 2007 in Germanic paganism: the king is charged with interacting with the divine on behalf of his people, so that the general population saw nothing wrong with their kings choosing their preferred mode of worship.Dubious|date=March 2008

Consequently, Christianity had to be made palatable to these Migration Age warlords as a heroic religion of conquerors, a rather straightforward task, considering the military splendour of the Roman Empire.

Thus early Germanic Christianity was presented as an alternative to native Germanic paganism and elements were syncretized, for examples parallels between Woden and Christ. A fine illustration of these tendencies is the Anglo-Saxon poem "Dream of the Rood", where Jesus is cast in the heroic model of a Germanic warrior, who faces his death unflinchingly and even eagerly. The Cross, speaking as if it were a member of Christ's band of retainers, accepts its fate as it watches its Creator die, and then explains that Christ's death was not a defeat but a victory. This is in direct correspondence to the Germanic pagan ideals of fealty to one's lord. This tie between the Christian religion and Germanic nobility is perceptible in the German Holy Roman Empire of the High Middle Ages, and the division from Roman Christianity was latent in the chronic power-struggle between the Emperor and the Pope, known as the Investiture Controversy.

From the 16th century this tension erupted in the Protestant Reformation (the last German Emperor to be crowned by the Pope was Maximilian I in 1493), which took hold almost exclusively of territories where Germanic languages are spoken (Germany, Scandinavia, Britain), while Romance speaking territories remained Catholic (with the exception of Geneva, where Calvinism originated).

List of missionaries

Christian Missionaries to Germanic peoples:

to the Goths
*Ulfilas (Gothic, 341-383)to the Lombards
*Saint Severinus of Noricum (5th century)
**Eugippusto the Alamanni
*Fridolin of Säckingen
*Columbanus (Irish, 6th century)
**Saint Gallto the Anglo-Saxons (see Anglo-Saxon Christianity)
*Liuhard of Canterbury (6th century)
*Augustine of Canterbury (597-604)
**Laurence of Canterbury
*Chad of Mercia (7th century)
*Saint Honorius (7th century)
*Aidan of Lindisfarne (7th century)to the Frankish Empire (see Hiberno-Scottish, Anglo-Saxon mission)
*Saint Trudpert (Irish, 7th century)
* Saint Rumbold
*Saint Boniface (English, 8th century)
**Saint Walpurga, Saint Willibald and Saint Winibald (English siblings assisting St Boniface)
*Saint Wilfried
*Saint Willibrord
*Saint Willehad
*Saint Lebuin
*Saint Liudger
*Saint Ewald
*Saint Suitbert of Kaiserswerth
*Saint Pirmin (8th century)
*Charlemagneto the Bavarians
*Saint Corbinian (8th century)to Scandinavia
*Ansgar (9th century)
*Adam of Bremen (11th century)


*Lutz E. von Padberg, 1998, "Die Christianisierung Europas im Mittelalter", Reclam
*James C. Russell, " The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation", Oxford University Press (1994), ISBN 0-19-510466-8.
*Richard E. Sullivan, "The Carolingian Missionary and the Pagan", Speculum (1953), 705-740.

ee also

*"Cuius regio, eius religio"
*Germanic paganism
*Protestant Reformation
*Christianization of Scandinavia

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