To the modern eye the European Middle Ages were palpably Christian, with all those cathedrals and crusades. But in the minds of the Renaissance scholars who invented the term, the adjective ‘middle’ meant that the Middle Ages began with the fall of the Roman Empire c.400, and for a substantial fraction of that time ‘medieval Christendom’ was largely not Christian at all. Of the area ruled by the late medieval Popes, more than half was unconverted before AD 1000. Even the peoples most self-consciously Christian by that date, like the Franks and Anglo-Saxons, had not been Christian when they migrated from Germany, or for several generations afterwards. The Christianisation of rural Francia, for instance, probably ended around 750: that is, two and a half centuries after the migration – as long as the period that separates us from Madame de Pompadour.
What were the future medieval Christians doing and thinking all that time? No one knows. Christianity and literacy went together, so the pre-Christian age is dark by definition, apart from a few glimpses offered by archaeology and precarious surmise. The only certainty is that these peoples became Christian. That is certain not just because we can deduce it from the later cathedrals but because, in the Dark Age, conversion to Christianity is usually the first fact recorded about them: recorded in the Lives of the pioneer evangelists and in accounts de conversione. Of the latter, the more elaborate metamorphosed into the great early medieval histories, like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is at core a record of the conversion of the English.
These conversions, taken together, were very numerous and happened along a vast cultural coastline, stretching from Spain to the Steppes by way of Iceland, Norway and everywhere in between where a strong, recognisable Roman Christianity had not survived (as it did in much of Italy and southern Gaul). The conversions also covered a wide chronological range. The Goths, whose fifth-century conquests were to make them ephemerally a Western European people, absorbed their first Christianity in the late fourth century, the Baltic peoples, by contrast, in the 13th century – the Lithuanians as late as the 14th. While the literary remains of these conversions are meagre, especially at the beginning of the period, their ensemble forms a large corpus for one scholar to tackle, not least since each conversion, its memory nursed by national historians, has sprouted its own modern historiography.
It is this ensemble, stretching across a millennium and round thousands of miles of coastline, that Richard Fletcher has taken as his subject in The Conversion of Europe. What concerns him is not the conversion of this or that people but all medieval conversions (including conversions between Christianity and its two rival monotheisms, Judaism and Islam, which for all their different physiognomy have instructive comparisons to offer). Where the book is most useful is in its comparative approach. For Clovis in fifth-century Francia, for instance, as for Khan Boris in ninth-century Bulgaria, Sviatoslav in tenth-century Kiev, and others elsewhere, a ruler’s interest in the new religion could jeopardise his relationship with the nobility. Once the latter were enthused, on the other hand, they could be stupendously lavish in the building and endowing of churches: in the Spanish province of Braga before the millennium (where churches went up at the rate of one and a half per year for three hundred years), and in Normandy, Denmark and Northern England, after it.
What were people’s motives in becoming Christian? Fletcher indicates an enormous variety. One extreme can be illustrated by the well-known scene that followed the visit of the Roman missionary Paulinus at the court of King Edwin of Northumbria in 625. The King, Bede says, who had often sat alone ‘thinking about these things’, invited his nobles to do the same, and one, comparing human life to the flight of a sparrow through a lighted hall ‘from winter into winter’, recommended the new religion on the grounds that it promised to throw light on the mystery of human existence. Bede wrote this a hundred years after the event and it may reflect his wishful thinking. Even if it does, the story conveys an ideal of how conversion should happen. From the whole array of accounts it is clear that the missionaries were first and foremost preachers – the Lives say this expressly of at least a dozen of them (including Aidan, Wilfred, Boniface, Anskar). Their wish was to pour on their listeners a ‘rain of divine understanding’ – an image used by Clement of Ochrid, a bishop in Bulgarian Macedonia c.900.
The other extreme is illustrated by Charlemagne’s capitulary of Paderborn in 782, which decreed death to anyone who refused baptism, ate meat in Lent, practised cremation, or did anything else disrespectful to Christianity. It is true that Charlemagne’s forcible Christianisation of the Saxons, of which this law was part, met with steady opposition from church leaders at home, Alcuin of York being the most vocal. The Saxon campaign, in other words, was not the nec plus ultra of forced conversions: that honour goes to the Teutonic Knights’ campaign in Livonia. The Knights ‘yearned for battle like a hungry falcon’, intoned ‘the sword is our Pope’ and thought nothing of massacring the entire population of any town imprudent enough to cavil at the Gospel message. Kóscól, Polish for ‘church’, comes from the word for ‘castle’.
Those are the extremities. Points between them are almost infinite in number. Much more common than compulsion, for instance, was the threat of compulsion. The Icelandic parliament, the Althing, voted to accept Christianity in the year 1000 probably because its members knew this would remove the main excuse the current king of Norway had for invading them. Similarly, St Otto of Bamberg’s preaching mission to Pomerania in 1125 owed its success in part to the King of Poland’s promise of military back-up should it be needed. The point to remember, however, is that back-up might well have been needed: Otto had nearly been stoned to death on an earlier mission. Nor was this a freak case. In eighth-century Frisia, both Willibrord and Boniface had learned – Boniface too late – that their lives were in peril the instant they left the area of their political protection. This rule holds even where missionaries such as Boniface consciously strove not to provoke. Some did not strive, but allowed their preaching to turn to iconoclasm. On the model of Martin of Tours, several missionaries felled ‘sacred trees’, and an English evangelist in 11th-century Sweden met his death after smashing an image of Thor with a battle-axe. In Bede’s story of Edwin it was, significantly, the pagan priest who profaned his icons, while ‘the people thought he had gone mad.’
To the evangelists, political force was commonly needed for protection. That is why, even after a fire and sword campaign as in Saxony, Christianity could still think of itself as a religion of peace. In a violent world that may be a difficult belief to convey, but something like it can be read, with a little ingenuity, in the tenth-century Saxon poem ‘Heliand’, or even in the enigmatic carvings on the Franks casket in the British Museum. It is crystal clear in Ulfilas’s translation of the Bible into Gothic, where he omitted the Books of Kings on the grounds that the Goths were already warlike enough without the example of the old Jewish kings.
Conversion also involved economics. On a tactical level even the loftiest evangelists could use economic blackmail. Gregory the Great (Pope from 590 to 604) told a Christian landlord in Sardinia to jack up the rents of those tenants who remained pagans. A Salzburg missionary in eighth-century Carinthia converted the serfs, and invited them to eat prestigiously with him at table while obliging their lords to wait outside ‘like dogs’ – the excluded ‘rushed to be instructed in the holy faith’. Ruses of that kind apart, streetwise pagans knew Christianity offered rich pickings. Year by year, Danes would flock to Louis the Pious’s court at Ingelheim for an annual baptism ceremony, until – according to one story, at least – it transpired, amid recrimination, that they had only been coming to get the free baptismal outfit.
The economic side of conversion went further than cupboard love. Christianity was the long-term ‘best buy’. It is true that preachers occasionally had to rely on ad hoc miracles to prove this point, as when Wilfred of York’s preaching in Frisia, in 678, coincided with a bumper harvest. But miracles or no miracles, the fact was that in Northern Europe Christian societies were richer. Preachers knew this and deliberately drew attention to it. When Boniface’s mission on the Continent was just beginning, Bishop Daniel of Winchester recommended arguments he might use when reasoning with pagans: ‘If the pagan gods are almighty and beneficent, they reward their devotees and punish those who scorn them. Yet why, in that case, do they spare the Christians, who possess fertile lands, and provinces fruitful in wine, oil and many other riches, while leaving to them, the pagans, lands always frozen with cold?’ Economic superiority was partly a matter of technology, and the missionaries passed technology on, packaged up with the word of God. In the 680s, after his Frisian successes, Wilfred went on to teach the future inhabitants of Brighton (the text only says ‘the South Saxons’) how to use nets when sea-fishing. Two centuries later in Macedonia, Clement of Ochrid taught horticulture in the same spirit: ‘Since in the whole land of the Bulgarians the trees grew wild and there was a lack of cultivated fruits, he brought from the land of the Greeks all manner of cultivated fruit trees, and made fruitful the wild trees by grafting.’
The motives of converts were highly varied: those of missionaries going off into unknown lands were marginally less so. Patrick’s first acquaintance with Ireland was as a prisoner of war, as was that of Ulfilas with the Goths. Anskar’s arrival in Denmark came about because his host had been a political exile and took the apostle back with him. Another common occasion for missionary travel was the movement of royal brides, a regular long-distance human export. The Frankish-born Queen Bertha, who welcomed St Augustine to Kent in 597, and the Bohemian-born Duchess Dobrava, who brought Christian preachers to Poland in the 960s, are two of many examples.
Beyond all these circumstantial reasons for missionary travel stood a positive missionary ideology, gathering strength over the period. The ‘go and preach to all nations’ of Matthew 28:19 may have taken time to incubate, in the West at least. But from the time of Martin of Tours (316-97), missionaries built up their own heroic tradition. This is especially true of Bede’s History, with its portrayal of Gregory the Great’s initiative and its explicit programme for further conversion among continental Germans. Bede’s History impinged on a Carolingian world almost bare of historiography, and showed continental bishops what history was about and how they could contribute. It was not in vain: around 980 a bishop of Passau said he would convert the Hungarians (newly settled in what we call Hungary) ‘along lines I have learned from the deeds of the English’; and in the 1120s the author of the Íslendingabók, the record of Iceland’s conversion, almost certainly wrote with Bede’s History on his desk. The missionary tradition also built up a working library of handbooks with titles like The Correction of Rustics, or Responsa, the latter being sets of answers to awkward questions, like the responsa given by Pope Nicholas I in 866 to missionaries in Bulgaria: ‘Are tournaments permitted in Lent?’ No. ‘Is judicial torture to continue?’ It is cruel and useless. And a hundred more.
Were these conversions really conversions at all – apart from being conversions to a measure of literacy? For nobles, the conversion was partial. Like their pagan ancestors, bishops normally went around with armed retinues; they often hunted (Bishop Milo of Trier was killed by a wild boar); and occasionally tortured and mutilated their slaves, to judge from canons forbidding it. St Boniface shared his martyrdom – or whatever it was (the party was overcome by bandits) – with 53 domestici. Levels of consumption tell a similar story. Wilfred celebrated the dedication of Ripon cathedral with a feast lasting three days and nights (paid for by himself). Monastic rules imposed penances for inopportune drunkenness (a condition accounting for the deaths of no fewer than three Christian prelates mentioned in these pages). As for Christian belief, no students of early medieval religion will be surprised to learn that much of it was alloyed with paganism. Fletcher aptly says the pagan-Christian distinction was in practice often ‘fuzzy’.
Contemporary literary sources sought to show the opposite. For them, conversion was from black to white; and by demonstrating that the religious change was radical before the conversion, Fletcher tacitly raises a question he does not answer, which indeed he says at the outset is unanswerable: the nature of the religion the pagans were converted from. Fletcher’s defeatism on this question is dismissive of work by De Vries, Nilsson, Turville-Petre and others, and of evidence he himself cites, with no more than an improvised judgment on whether we are to believe it or not. European paganism has a claim on the historian which is more than that of curiosity. If religion was shown to have been fuzzy before the conversion as well as after, the conversion could be reinterpreted as merely a critical stage in a religious evolution. It is true we do not know much about Northern paganism, but we know enough to confirm that this was sometimes the case, and that some paganism had been moving in a Christian direction before the missionaries came along. Thor’s hammer, in Scandinavia, became more and more cross-like as the dread moment of conversion approached.
The establishment of an evolution of this kind would expose a whole new side of Fletcher’s subject, one partly identified by the Russian historian A.J. Gurevich, who, in Categories of Medieval Culture, argued, on the basis of philology, that the early Germans had a severely limited capacity to conceive abstract space and time. In the context of Gurevich’s theory, an evolutionary interpretation of Christian conversion would invite the hypothesis that the reason Christianity succeeded was that it offered means for a better mental articulation of space and time. A glance at the data is enough to give this hypothesis its baby-food, at least. The ability of Christianity to articulate concepts of time is illustrated by all that history-writing. Christian history drew whoever heard it – or even fragments of it (like the ‘AD’ dating system used by Bede) – away from the island of time to which Lévi-Strauss assigned his ‘savage mind’. It connected that savage mind to a whole gallery of predecessors going back to the Creation of the world and including Jews, Greeks, Romans and earlier converts to Christianity. As for concepts of space, it is enough to recall the explanation given by the late Lucien Musset for the acknowledged swiftness of the Christian conversion among Scandinavian migrants. According to place-names and other evidence, Scandinavian paganism was attached to particular landscapes, with their sacred rivers, mountains and trees. Devotees of such a religion, Musset observed, only had to migrate to lose their religious anchorage: they would have no mental recourse faced with a religion whose mythology and structure embodied a wider and more flexible relationship between a man and the earth around him. (The martyr’s relic, imported from Rome, became the new local anchor, but it was one joined by a web of legend and canon law to the city of cities.) Where Daniel of Winchester, in other words, drew attention to the wealth of Christians as proof of God’s favour, the historian can say it was also proof of a quality inhering in Christianity, as distinct from those paganisms: namely, that it could articulate higher human mental capacities.
Fletcher’s panorama provides further encouragement to the Musset hypothesis by providing examples throughout the book of Christianity’s two-way tendency in ordering the relations of men to land. On the one hand, we see how the missionary church, which had been fluid at first and scornful of territorial frontiers, gradually became territorial as mobile bishops settled into fixed sees and developed a grid of parishes. The same church is shown, on the other hand, encouraging movement by individuals, as pilgrims, envoys, brides and traders plied up and down routes within the protective territorial grid. This world was as far as could be from that of nomads like the Lapps, who never accepted Christianity. How could they? To be Christian, after all, you have to have bread and wine.