Robin Chapman Stacey

title.none: Russell, Germanization of Christianity

identifier.other: baj9928.9406.004 94.06.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robin Chapman Stacey, University of Washington

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Russell, James C. The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation. New York Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp. xiv + 258. $35.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-19-507696-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.06.04

Russell, James C. The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation. New York Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp. xiv + 258. $35.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-19-507696-6.

Reviewed by:

Robin Chapman Stacey
University of Washington

That the Germanic peoples had an impact on the Christian faith to which they became "converted" in the early middle ages has long been recognized. Like many other peoples in different times and different places, the Germans reshaped their Christian heroes and beliefs in an image substantially their own. The staunchly heroic warrior-Christ whose comitatus gathers beneath the blood-stained rood is a far cry indeed from the gentle beardless aristocrat of the Hinton St. Mary mosaic. Traditionally, however, scholarly accounts of the development of Christianity have acknowledged the Germanic contribution without according too much prominence to it. Historians have tended instead to stress more obviously confrontational or institutional sources of religious change, most associated usually with the high middle ages: doctrinal debates, papal pronouncements, and the like.

James C. Russell's new book, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, argues by contrast for a degree of Germanic influence on church doctrine and practice far greater than has previously been acknowledged. So profoundly in his view did the Germans transform the faith they had supposedly adopted by Boniface's death in 754 that he is reluctant even to term it unequivocally "Christianity". Only if "a relativist or subjectivist definition of Christianity is adopted, in which the essence of Christianity is not considered immutable, or in which religious affiliation is determined primarily by self-identification" may it "be argued that the Germanic peoples were Christianized by this time". And even so, "it would be necessary to specify that the form of Christianity with which they became affiliated was a Germanized one" (p. 214). The Germans had as much impact on their new religion as their religion had on them, and it was their radically reinterpreted version of the faith that was transmitted to western Christendom under the influence of the Ottonians.

Russell situates this "reinterpreting" of Christian belief and ritual not in active attempts by Germanic peoples to resist or reformulate the message disseminated to them but rather in the sociohistorical circumstances attendant on the conversion itself. The book is divided into two parts of roughly equal length, the first of which Russell uses to construct what he terms a "sociohistorical model" of religious change. Social or ideological structures particular to a given society may, he argues, incline that society to a specific form of religious expression; similarly, psychological factors (e.g. anomie or alienation arising from increasing urbanization or perceived "status dissonance") may also affect the types of cult to which individuals and communities are drawn. Societies marked by alienation or despair, or in which the bonds of community or family are weak, are predisposed by these sociopsychological characteristics towards what Russell calls "world-rejecting" religions—cults which are, in other words, soteriological and/or eschatological in nature and "universal" in their message and intended audience. (Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity are all offered as examples of such religions.) Conversely, societies which are relatively stable, enjoy a high degree of familial and communal cohesion, and deemphasize individual priorities in favor of group identification and interests, incline towards "world-accepting" "folk religiosities"—cults in which the locus of the sacral is the folk community itself. (Confucian ancestor worship, Shintoism, Arabian tribal cults, and Celto-Germanic paganism are the main examples here.) Such "folk-religious" societies, Russell argues, have no interest in soteriological promises of redemption in another world. If adherents of "world-rejecting" religions like Christianity are therefore ever to succeed in converting persons living in such cultures, they will have to modify their essential message in order to "accomodate the predominantly world-accepting ethos and world-view" of those societies (p. 103).

In the second part of the book, Russell applies the model he develops in part one to the conversion of the Germans. Crumbling social structures and urban Angst made inhabitants of imperial Rome receptive to Christianity's promises of ultimate redemption in a world removed from the one in which they lived. The Germanic peoples, on the other hand, with their vigorous native folk religiosity, cohesive social structure, and strong sense of "in-group" identification, were most unlikely candidates for conversion. Germanic paganism did not even have a concept of sin, and missionaries thus had little chance of convincing the Germans amongst whom they worked of the necessity of redemption from it. Moreover, Christian eschatology stood in stark opposition to the Germanic sense of time and heroic action. Faced with such a sharp disjunction in cultural perceptions, and with the likelihood of failure if these differences were not overcome, the missionaries opted instead to downplay the soteriological aspects of their faith and to accomodate their message as much as possible to the priorities of their audience.

Initially, this accomodation was intended only as a temporary measure. However, early conversion efforts were not followed up by effective education in the soteriological fundamentals of the faith, and there was thus little consciousness among the Germans of the radical transformation in "world-view" a conversion to "authentic" (p. 101) Christianity ought to entail. As a result, what had begun as the temporary tailoring of a difficult message became over time a permanent permutation of the essentials of Christian doctrine. Christ became the ultimate warlord and guarantor of earthly victory; saints were increasingly depicted as heroic warriors in the service of the faith. Relics began to be used in much the same semi-magical manner as the pagan cult objects they had displaced and grew enormously in popularity as a result. Even more significantly, the religiopolitical unity of the Germanic pagan period found new expression in the "Christian" institutions of Eigenkirchen and sacral kingship. In this manner then, Russell argues, did Christianity depart from its essential nature in the early middle ages to become a syncretized, "Germanized" faith.

Russell's model for religious transformation is an interesting one, and one on which contemporary missionaries will wish to reflect at length. Historians of religion may also find it fruitful to contemplate the relationship between a given cult and the social or psychological characteristics of the society in which it is found. Medieval historians are likely to have some reservations about the degree to which his model captures the essence of the conversion years. Not all would agree, for example, with his picture of the Germans of the migration period as a homogeneous, stable and socially cohesive group. Kingship itself was undergoing considerable change in this period ( reges, duces, and the like), and recent work has stressed the extent to which the social and political identities of these peoples as a whole were also "under construction". Indeed, one could use Russell's model to argue that social instability of this sort might actually predispose the Germanic peoples to conversion, rather than the other way around. In this case, the encounter between Roman Christianity and Germanic paganism might appear less a sociohistorically mandated clash of world-views in which certain elements triumphed over others than a long-term forging of a common religiocultural identity by two traditions equally in crisis.

Related to this is another aspect of Russell's argument likely to prove controversial among historians. Both Christianity and, for lack of a better term, "Germanism" appear as very static concepts in this work. Russell acknowledges the possibility of what he terms "relativist" definitions of Christianity—definitions of the faith that stress fluidity and ongoing reinterpretation rather than the existence of an absolute standard by which what is "truly" Christian can be distinguished from what is not. However, he rejects such "relativist" definitions in favor of an understanding of Christianity that prioritizes the soteriological and eschatological aspects of Christian doctrine over all other characteristics (p. 35). That he should adopt such a position is not surprising; the aim of the book is to show that "authentic" Christianity was first departed from and then ultimately transformed by the missionaries and their converts, and it is therefore necessary to have a fixed standard by which to measure the nature and degree of Germanic "straying". However, this approach raises legitimate questions as to whether Christianity was ever as fixed and settled as he suggests. The meaning of Jesus's words regarding kingdoms "not of this world" was no clearer to his followers than it was to his critics. Salvation itself might have looked quite different had Christianity remained within the Jewish environment in which it originated, or had Paul and his ilk not existed to spread Jesus's message so quickly among the Hellenized cities of the East. And if even this key aspect of Christian doctrine was open to discussion and reinterpretation, how settled then can we view the "essence" of the faith itself as being?

Equally difficult is the issue of "Germanism". On one level Russell's main argument—that Germanic priorities and perceptions exercised a tremendous influence on Christianity as it developed in the middle ages—is certainly right. On the other hand, the danger with such generalizations is that as soon as one pushes at all on the framework the whole model comes toppling down. What exactly is a "Germanic" institution? Do holy warfare and crusade represent instances of the Germanic heroic ethic refashioning "authentic" Christianity which Russell, citing the Sermon on the Mount (p. 122), sees as inherently pacifist in nature? Well, on one level, maybe—but as Augustine and others demonstrate, the problem is rather more complicated than that. Are Eigenkirchen Germanic because they pick up on the desire of Frankish nobles for sacral reinforcement? In part certainly—but then as Peter Brown has shown, conflicts between aristocrats attempting to privatize the holy and bishops determined to preserve public access to it in order to cement their own position were a vital part of the late Roman scene as well. Russell attempts to get out of this problem by asserting that it is not necessary for the developments he assigns to Germanic influence to be unique to the Germans (p. 167). However, one wonders then what exactly he sees himself as tracing.

Indeed, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this obviously thoughtful book is its failure to go beyond vague assertions of Germanic origin to consider the true complexity of the institutional and doctrinal developments he has set himself to describe . For all intents and purposes, Russell's exploration of the Germanic "transformation" of Christianity never goes beyond the list of examples offered in chapter two (pp. 40-44). That this should be so is due in large measure to the nature of the book itself. This is not a work of history. Its intent is not to examine the actual development of Christianity in the early middle ages but rather to construct a model by which to understand how such development might have occurred. As such, the book does not draw to any significant extent on primary sources; it is instead a pastiche of secondary works drawn together into a sociohistorical model of religious change. And while the range and quality of the author's reading is impressive, it is not coincidental that many of the passages he cites are from older works that lend themselves better to such sociological generalizing. To say this is not to disparage the interest of Russell's model or the intelligence of his work. It is, however, to warn historians that they might find less in this book than its title would lead them to expect—and to alert those interested in the sociology of religion, or in contemporary religious change, that they might find a good deal more.