Monday, April 06, 2009
The Rise of Christianity Part 2: It's All About The Women
As I wrote in Part 1 of this series, "in order for the Church to survive and prosper, it needed the Germanic kings who occupied the former Roman territories to convert to Christianity and be baptized in the Church."
Of course, in order to get these Germanic kings to open themselves up to the prospect of conversion to Christianity, the faith had to be presented to them with a pretty face. In other words, the first stage in getting a Germanic king to embrace Christianity was for him to be presented with a Christian bride.
Returning to the Frankish king Clovis, the starting point for his conversion, and the subsequent conversion of the Franks, began with Clotild, his Catholic Burgundian wife. The historian Edward James, in his book The Franks, summarizes the narrative of Gregory of Tours, whose Ten Books of Histories is one of the major source writings for the period.
"Clovis's Burgundian wife Clotild wanted him to agree to baptize their first son, Ingomer. Gregory devises a little sermon for her to preach to her husband, which made the same points that early medieval preachers tended to make to pagans: your gods are bits of stone or wood; they were men, not gods; they set examples of immorality...The child was baptized, and promptly died. Undaunted, Clotild had her second son baptized, and when he too fell ill she prayed and the child recovered: a sign from Heaven."
It was some time afterwards that Clovis allegedly decided to be himself baptized following a battle against the Alemmani, in which he supposedly had called on Jesus Christ for aid and promised to be baptized if he was victorious. The likely story is that Clovis had already considered conversion to Christianity before the battle, but that he needed a suitable pretext before making his intentions public, in the same way that Abraham Lincoln was waiting for the right moment, the repulse of Robert E. Lee at Antietam, to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. After all, when you are a manly Germanic king, you can't expect your people to cast off their old gods just because it will make your wife happy. But Clovis's agreement to be baptized undoubtedly made conversation at the Merovingian family dinner table a lot less contentious.
Following the conversion of the Franks (at least superficially, but more on that in a future post), the Frankish kingdom itself became a new source of royal Christian brides to be dispatched to new pagan kings as part of a strategy to bring them into the community of Christian kingdoms. Thus, a Christian Frankish lady named Bertha was married to Ethelbert of Kent in the latter half of the sixth century. Writes Richard Fletcher in The Barbarian Conversions, "[w]e do know that Bertha's kinsfolk had been able to insist that Ethelbert permit his wife to practise her religion. She came to Kent accompanied by a bishop named Liudhard."
"Bertha would have known of her great-grandmother's part in the conversion of her husband Clovis. She may well have received a hortatory letter reminding her of it...when she went off as a bride to Kent. Her assistance in the conversion of Ethelbert was acknowledged by Pope Gregory in a letter he sent to her in 601."
The story repeats itself with Edwin of Northumbria, who married Ethelburga, a Christian princess from Kent, the aforementioned kingdom of the Christian convert Ethelbert. "Diplomatic presents of rich apparel, gold embroidered, cunningly hinted at the splendid trappings of Christian civilization. Queen Ethelburga was firmly reminded of her duty as wife and queen to bring about Edwin's conversion." Well, it certainly adds a whole new meaning to the phrase 'missionary position'! Edwin finally succumbed and was baptized on Easter Sunday in the year 627.
It seems clear that the marriage of a Christian princess to a pagan king played an important role in getting the king to convert to Christianity. The princess would be accompanied by her own retinue, including her own priest to minister to her and her attendants, thus providing a foothold for the Christian faith in the king's court. As to how much the king's resistance to conversion was broken down by his Christian queen's pleading and cajoling is difficult to say. There were other factors at work of course. By marrying a princess from a Christian kingdom, a pagan king became increasingly drawn into a network of political and trading relations with Christian kingdoms such as the Franks. Ultimately, a pagan king would proclaim his conversion to Christianity and be baptized because he found it to be advantageous to do so. Since there was no aggressively proselytizing alternative faith, and the Catholic Church carried with it the prestige of being a Roman institution, adopting Christianity was a way of formal joining the club of "civilized" nations. And an important first step in the process of conversion was marrying a Christian princess from one of those Christian kingdoms.
Coming soon: The Rise of Christianity Part 3: The Sacred Oak of Geismar