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Christianity Spreads

From the 600s, the spread of Christianity in Europe involved Christian culture meeting non-Christian culture and the two amalgamating. Richard Fletcher's The Barbarians Conversions writes of Danes continuing to venerate idols after formally becoming Christians. He describes a settler in Iceland who was "baptised and professed faith in Christ" but vowed to the pagan god Thor for sea journeys and difficult undertakings.

The spread of Christianity in Europe benefitted from it being a part of Europe's wealth establishment. Fletcher writes:

We should bear in mind too that though ninth century Christendom was weak and vulnerable there was also much about its style and trappings that was impressive, even awesome.

Fletcher writes of what Gibbon called the 'union and discipline of the Christin republic' as "one of the prime explanations of the growth of Christianity in the Roman world," and he adds that "The varied paganisms which expanding Christianity encountered were lacking in union and discipline. Christians were organized," writes Fletcher, "Pagans were not." He adds:

The willingness to commit wealth to the church was, for the aristocratic elite who possessed nearly all of it, as much a way of establishing a new Christian identity as was, for the rulers, the founding of bishoprics, the issue of written codes of law or the wearing of pope-given crowns.

A spread of Christianity with an establishment connection happened in Anglo-Saxon England, where the pagan king of Kent, Ethelbert (ruled 589-616), married Berta, the daughter of Christian Frankish (French) king. Pope Gregory sent along a group of monks to Kent to evangelize, and King Ethelbert approved, overcoming his fear that the evangelists would do witchcraft against him.

Marriage contributed to Christianity's spread again when the Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria, Edwin, married King Ethelbert's daughter, and she took with her to Edwin's capital (York) one of the missionaries from Kent. Edwin promised that if Christianity gave him a military victory he would convert. He won his war and converted for himself and his subjects.

Years before, Christianity had moved to Ireland with those escaping the Anglo-Saxon invasions into Britain, and later, in the mid-600s, Christian missionaries went from Ireland to England. There, various kings were inclined to welcome a religion whose scriptures supported monarchy, and they found Christian monotheism better suited to monarchy than a religion with a plethora of different gods.

On the continent through the 600s, cultural diffusion did its work among the Lombards, while some of them continued to follow pagan practices such as sacrifices to the gods of their sacred woods. The diffusion involved Lombards leaving Arian Christianity and for the belief held by the Catholic church that God is a Trinity.

Around the year 830, Christianity came to Czech aristocrats with the arrival of Christian missionaries. The Czech aristocrats were attracted to the way of life of the Christianized Frankish aristocracy. For the Czechs, according to Wikipedia:

The adoption of the new faith was initially the personal decision of individual aristocrats.

The Bulgarians were in contact with the Christianity of their neighbor, the empire of Constantinople. In the late 600s to the mid-800s the Bulgarians were holding on to their pagan beliefs. Then their king, Boris I (r. 852-89) decided that he wanted Christianity for his state. In 864 he was baptized by Constantinople's priests. After prolonged negotiations with the Church hierarchies in both Constantinople and Rome, Boris managed to create a Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and he used the newly created Cyrillic script to make the Bulgarian language the language of the Church.

Bulgaria's King Simeon I (r. 893-927) led a series of wars against Constantinople to gain official recognition of his Imperial title and the full independence of the Bulgarian Church, and with his victories, Constantinople finally recognized the Bulgarian Patriarchate.

Christianity arrived in pagan Poland as a result of contacts with neighbors such as the Czechs. In 966, the ruler of Poland, Duke Mieszko I, and much of his court, were baptized, and Mieszko ordered his realm to be Christian.

Conversion of the Magyars happened between 957 and 1038. Hungary is said to have become Christian when Stephen was crowned king in the year 1000 or 1001. Stephen developed the Church of Hungary independently of Roman church by creating his own archbishopric, six bishoprics and three Benedictine monasteries, and he encouraged the spread of Christianity with severe punishments for ignoring Christian customs.

As for the Scandinavians, it took awhile for Christian ideas to be seen as acceptable replacements to the traditional mythology and worship that had provided them with their notions of security. Christian missionary efforts in Denmark in the 700s had failed. A visit to Denmark in 823 won the baptism of a few persons, and there were two return visits but without any recorded success. The Danes did not worship stone or wooden idols and the missionaries and the missionaries had no such idols to destroy. What did help spread Christianity among the Danes was the Vikings bringing back Christian slaves or future wives from raids. Another Christianizing influence was the mass emigration of Danes to England and Normandy and the intermarriage there with those who were Christian.

In Denmark, religious sites were located at sacred springs, woods or isolated hilltops, and Christian missionaries asked to build chapels in those places. Over time, the religious significance of the sacred places transferred to these chapels. After more than two centuries of contact (by the reign of Canute IV, 1042-86), Denmark can be said to have become a Christian country. But still, people did not want to offend the local spirits. Offerings to the spirits continued with Christians associating the spirituality involved with a local saint, and life went on much as it had before.

Christianity had a foothold in Norway around the year 1050 and became dominant there a century later. The first Swedish king to convert to Christianity was Erik the Lawgiver, who reigned in 1156-60. And Christianity in Finland followed a growing Swedish influence there.

In England, Christian the king of Wessex, Alfred the Great (r. 871-99), saw Viking attacks as God's punishment. He created a system of Christian learning that he hoped would help Christianity to begin to capture the imagination of the ordinary people. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation:

In the 10th Century, lords began to provide small chapels on their land where local people could use the services of a priest. This sowed the seeds of the parish system, still in existence today.

According to the BBC:

...it would be wrong to think of medieval Christians as devout church-goers who flocked to church every Sunday. Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University suggests that on average people would go to church just a few times a year, when there was a real spectacle to take part in.

It is said that it was the Norman Conquest that cemented the power of the church in England. By the time William of Normandy and his fellow Norman aristocrats invaded England (1066), the Normans (Vikings who settled in Normandy) had absorbed the Christianity of the Franks along with adopting the French language.

In the 1100s, conversions to Christianity spread in the Baltic region. A Slavic mix of pagan peoples called Wends were pushed aside by Christianized German, Danish and Polish migrants. In 1147 a crusade against the Wends authorized by the Roman Catholic church caused great loss of life among the Wends. In the coming centuries the Wends were unable to hold back German colonization and their towns became important commercial centers in northern Germany.

And Christianity was expanding in Spain against the Muslims, the so-called Reconquista , to be completed by Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella in the 1400s.


CONTINUE READING: Crusades against Islam and Heretics

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