Conversion in Northern Europe in the Early Middle Ages.

When thinking about the process of conversion the circumstances which resulted in a change from one religion to another must be explored. For this case, the conversion process to Christianity in northern Europe in the early middle ages is the example that will be considered.

One of the main circumstances that allowed for a successful conversion to take place was the initial conversion of the king. The power that the king wielded allowed for resources to be harnessed to aid the spread the spread of Christianity and also meant that he could influence his retainers and fellow rulers to convert as well. This is apparent in the example of King Ethelberht of Kent, who used the bonds of loyalty present in Anglo-Saxon society to influence the baptisms of King Sigeberht of Essex and King Raedwald of East Anglia. In this period, the role of the king included that of a sacral one, which meant that he wielded influence over the religion of his kingdom. This could either be by introducing it relatively peacefully, such as in the case of Iceland, whereby, according to the Islendingbók, an agreement was reached between chieftains at the Althing – the parliament assembly – which resulted in Christianity becoming the formal religion of the country. Alternatively, it could also happen by more forceful means, such as in the case of the military conquests that were imposed by the Frankish armies in Frisia and Saxony. Here, war and conversion were intimately linked, with bishops accompanying the armies that were sent out, and then settling in communities in the areas which had been conquered and establishing monasteries there. As well as by war, the marriage of kings to already Christian princesses was another way in which kings could influence the conversion process. Ethelberht of Kent again provides a useful example of this. As part of his marriage to Bertha of Frankia, the princess was allowed to bring her chaplain Liudhard with her, which resulted in more favourable circumstances for conversion.

The king also played an important role in providing protection for the new church when it was introduced in these new areas as a new religion. In the First Saxon Capitulary in 782, provision is made for the protection of priests and missionaries. In another capitulary, further provisions for the protection of the ecclesiae are made, with people who treated priests with hostility being liable to having to pay double compensation. Furthermore, such legislation allowed for the tenets of the Christian faith to gradually be implemented further. Examples of this include moves made by King Earconbert of Kent, who introduced measures to eliminate idols in his kingdom. Financial backing and providing land also played another important role in allowing for the successful conversion of the people of northern Europe. This was because land was vital for allowing for the completion of monasteries, which in turn had a pivotal role in the allowing for conversion on a local by helping to integrate the new religion into the existing community. This was the case with Frankish kings such as Pippin, Carloman and Charlemagne. However, at the same time it must be remembered that the conversion of the Bretwalda did not necessarily mean that leaders on a local level could also in turn convert and encourage their populace to convert in return. This was the case with Haakon Sigurdsson, jarl of Lade, who remained a pagan despite the conversion of the Danish King, Harald Bluetooth, to the Christian faith.

Another factor important to consider in the successfulness of conversion is by the way that the power of the new Christian God over the existing pagan ones was portrayed. This often came about as part of victory in battle, with the kings promising to covert if they were given success in battle; for example, in the case of Edwin of Northumbria, who pledged to convert if he was given victory against the West Saxon army. The link between conversion and kings in battle is also apparent in the case of King Olaf ‘the holy’ Haraldson in the Battle of Stiklestad. In the case of the Norwegian king, his death in battle and subsequent sainthood had the effect of helping to unite the country and consolidate the position of Christianity. Demonstrations of power to validate the supposed superiority of Christianity were another factor that arguably influenced the successfulness of the conversion process in northern Europe. Battles between pagan figures such as the druids and the saints were a common way in which this was expressed; for example, the confrontation between St Patrick and a court druid named Lucetmael for control of the weather. Other examples of demonstration of power include came about through the medium of miracles, of which there are various examples. Types of miracles that were generally used included ones dealing with healing through the saints themselves, such as in the case of St Comgall, who healed a man’s blindness by dripping his saliva into his eyes.

The successfulness of conversion in northern Europe in the early middle ages was also arguably due to syncretic connections made between certain elements in the pagan religion and ones in the Christian one. This meant that the role performed by local gods and goddesses was replaced by the use of saints in order to meet the needs of the people who the missionaries were trying to convert. Being able to pray to the saints to intercede with God the Father on their behalf gave the indigenous pagan population of northern Europe a more personal and intimate connection with the Christian God. Moreover, pagan sites of worship were often adapted for Christian use. A good example of this can be found in the form of St Patrick claiming a previous pagan well in Corcu Theimne for the Church which had previously been a site of importance for local gods in the area. Measures such as these helped to make the conversion to Christianity and more fluid and easy process.

All of the issues that have been looked at here help to give an understanding of how successful conversion in northern Europe in the early middle ages came about. However, it must also be remembered that the process of conversion itself was often a lengthy processes, with a transitional period being apparent between the two religions. It is useful to think about the conversion processes in terms of several stages, often involving the experiences of the king. This includes the initial acceptance of the gospel, the decision to announce this publicly, before baptism and the entry into the community of Christians.


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