Marios Costambeys

title.none: Armstrong and Wood, eds., Christianizing Peoples and Converting Individuals (Marios Costambeys)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.013 02.09.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Marios Costambeys, University of Liverpool,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Armstrong, Guyda and Ian Wood, eds. Christianizing Peoples and Converting Individuals. International Medieval Research, Vol. 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2000. Pp. iv, 346. ISBN: 2-503-51087-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.13

Armstrong, Guyda and Ian Wood, eds. Christianizing Peoples and Converting Individuals. International Medieval Research, Vol. 7. Turnhout: Brepols, 2000. Pp. iv, 346. ISBN: 2-503-51087-6.

Reviewed by:

Marios Costambeys
University of Liverpool

The habitual flaws of collections of conference papers are well-known, and it would be clichéd to list them here. It should be said straight away, in fact, that this volume suffers from such shortcomings less than many of its ilk: the feeling that papers were extracted from a 'bottom drawer' is largely absent (though see below). This may be all the more heartening since it brings together papers not from a single-issue conference but from the sprawling annual International Medieval Congress at Leeds University, in this case that held in 1997. The book's theme of 'conversion' (not just to Christianity, despite the title) is sustained through most of its pages robustly enough that the diversity of contexts covered is generally illuminating rather than confusing or superfluous. 'Conversion' had been chosen as a special thematic strand of the 1997 Leeds congress to mark the 1400th anniversary of Augustine's arrival in Kent. As it turned out, the conversion of the English was, if anything, underrepresented there, and it is the subject of only one paper in this book. Other geographical regions receive far more attention. Indeed, it is the geographical range of this book that most impresses (entailing a concomitant chronological range, since different places were converted at different times), and may prove most useful as it offers comparative and/or alternative examples of conversion to the grand narrative of western history.

The bulk of the articles in this volume can be divided into two categories: those that examine methods of conversion, and those that investigate traditions of conversion recorded in, for the most part, much later sources. I shall deal with each in turn.

Outstanding among those articles dealing with methods of conversion is that by Walter Pohl on the conversion of the Lombards. After giving what is easily the best summary of historiography on the subject that I have seen, Pohl criticizes the readiness of historians to attach labels such as 'pagan' and 'Christian' too readily to whole peoples: these are not unproblematic or discrete categories, but tend to reflect modern assumptions about religious belief. Pohl lifts the lid on references to paganism among the Lombards to reveal the biblical and classical models on which they, or the practices to which they refer, are based. The evidence for Lombard Christianity in the first century or so of their domination in Italy is much sounder, but also more complex. Crucially, religious belief or allegiance was often either reinforced or obscured by political loyalties. Thus, for instance, for as long as they were in alliance with the Byzantines against the Lombards, the Franks could emphasize the latters' heterodoxy, but the rhetoric changed when the Franks came to ally themselves with the Lombards after 590. Gregory of Tours never mentions Lombard Arianism. In fact, as Pohl reveals, there were a number of ambiguities in the religious stance both of the Lombard rulers and of their subjects. Italy had a complex religious complexion that encouraged compromise. For Italian clerics, 'a pagan king favouring ecclesiastical unity seemed better than a fervent Arian, and tacit acquiescence with supporters of the Three Chapters was better than unity at all costs' (57). Unity of the kingdom, he may have added, was preferred to unity of the church. The almost complete lack of any church councils in Italy is another indication that, in contrast to Francia, the notion of an Italian or Lombard 'national' church was entirely absent, at least in the first century or so of Lombard rule.

In attempting to explain why no attempt was made by either their Byzantine or their Khazar neighbours to convert the Bulgars of the Crimea (to Orthodox Christianity or Judaism respectively), Thomas S. Noonan outlines a useful model of conversion that identifies two forces motivating missions: competition between one religion and another, and the interest of the ruler in bringing about the conversion of his own people. Obviously, this raises the question of how a 'religion' was defined. It was because the Byzantines put themselves in a different religious category from 'Catholics' that they sought to bring the peoples of central Europe and the Balkans into their religious orbit, even before the formal schism of the eleventh century, but no such motivation existed in the Crimea.

In his study of the missions to the Frisians and Saxons (begun, as he rightly notes, not by the Anglo-Saxons but in the early seventh century by the Franks), Wolfert van Egmond utilizes a different model of conversion, as set out by Ludo Milis. Conversion, Milis thinks, tends to proceed in three phases: outward behaviour changes first (e.g. with baptism), then a new moral code is presented, and finally that morality is interiorized, so that it acts constantly to shape individual behaviour. Van Egmond argues that in eighth- and ninth-century Frisia and Saxony the factories of conversion were the monasteries, in which select individuals could be re-shaped through Milis's stages speedily and efficiently in a sealed environment. Through tools such as hagiography (the importance of which van Egmond emphasizes), committed Christians were produced who would spread the word to the world beyond the cloister.

In 'Signs of conversion in early medieval charters', Zsolt Hunyadi scours the charter for indications of the methods used in the effort to convert the Hungarians. He begins with books, especially those belonging to the Pannonian chorepiscopus Madalwin and listed in a charter of 903; to this can be added similar book-lists from monasteries founded in Hungary in the eleventh century. Evidently, however, Hunyadi has not yet had time to work out in detail the sources of these texts, or the possible significance of their presence in a still-christianizing Hungary. He proceeds to list other indications in charters that may reveal the depth of penetration into Hungary of ecclesiastical structures and Christian values (he does not distinguish the two): ecclesiastical terminology, toponyms revealing the existence of local churces, personal names, burials, the foundation of private churches and the (perhaps related) presence of the peculiarly Hungarian type of ecclesiastical serf, signs of parochial organization. This is all useful, but evidently only a first step.

While some articles are happy to try to define the methods of conversion employed, others hint at the extent of their success. The laws of the eleventh- to thirteenth-century Hungarian kingdom, laid out with clarity by János Bak, reveal both the limited demands made on the newly-converted, and, slightly paradoxically, signs (for instance in the spread of the ordeal) that Christian values and beliefs were becoming accepted by the population. Many of the provisions that Bak lists are paralleled in the law codes of earlier, christianizing 'barbarian' kings. This is one area in which comparisons might simply add depth to the picture. In the case of Bak's remarks on pious donation, on the other hand, a comparative context is downright necessary. Laws prohibiting 'making deals with the mass in return for a gift' (I would like to have seen the Latin here) may indeed by 'implicit proof of...belief in Christian ritual' (p. 123), but they have to be placed in the context of a European tradition of do-ut-des that stretches back into pagan antiquity and has resonances in many past and present societies around the world. A footnote indicating some appreciation of the current burgeoning concern with 'the gift' is surely a minimum requirement here.

Anna Kuznetsova considers the evidence of four saints' Lives -- those of Cyril/Constantine, Methodius, Bishop Gerhard of Marosvár, and Stephen of Perm -- for missionary methods in central and eastern Europe. But again, while disputations with pagans, the use of the vernacular, and invocations to God for aid in battle all find parallels elsewhere, Kuznetsova does not really examine the extent to which either the methods themselves or the descriptions of them were borrowed from earlier, generally west European, exemplars.

Marie-Luise Favreau-Lilie examines the basic contradiction between the crusading and missionizing ideals in the case of the crusades against, and the missions to, the Baltic peoples. The missionary drive of the Cistercians, and after them the Dominicans and Franciscans, was constantly undermined by the policy of the knights of the Teutonic Order. The consolidation of the latters' rule in the area required the exploitation of the local population, which was much easier if they remained infidels. That exploitation in turn increased resentment and made the missionizers' job more difficult. The conclusive depriving of freedom to the Prussians after the quashing of their major revolt in 1260 effectively ended any hope of their christianization before the Reformation.

The ineffectiveness of coercion is also the keynote of Benjamin Ravid's study of forced baptism of the Jews in Christian Europe. The very length of his survey indicates that across the centuries forced baptism was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a highly ineffective method of conversion.

The article on Jewish converts in England by Reva Berman Brown and Sean McCartney notes a paradox similar to that in the status of the Prussians in the lands of the Teutonic knights. Jews were generally too valuable to the English kings for their conversion to be deliberately encouraged. Those who did convert -- generally, the authors imply, to escape royal exactions -- were housed in the Domus conversorum in London (on the site on Chancery Lane where the PRO stood until recently). The authors have scoured the Pipe and Calendar Rolls to present a useful little collection of incidences of Jewish converts. Again, though, their central theme is the tenacity of Judaism, even in the face of considerable social and economic pressure.

Half-hearted and/or ineffective methods of conversion could be applied to Muslims as well as Jews. Properly contextualizing Pierre Dubois's early fourteenth-century De recuperatione Terre Sancte, Michael R. Evans shows that, in advocating marriage as a means of conversion, the author was in fact more interested in persuading Greeks to accept Roman Christianity than he was in converting Muslims. In the book's only non-English article, Ludwig Vones traces in French changes in the 'frontier' attitude in Spain. This attitude, he argues, had militated against the evangelization of non-Christians until the twelfth-century intellectual advances brought about new, more sympathetic, views of the Muslim enemy. This attractive explanation therefore depends on accepting that the much-controverted notion of the individual was a twelfth-century discovery; on that, however, the jury is surely still out.

Most of the other articles here are concerned with later traditions about conversion. Eva M. Synek looks at the tradition that Georgia was converted by the female saint Nino. Appearing first in Rufinus's continuation of Eusebius's ecclesiastical history, Nino then drops out of Georgian tradition until the seventh century. Synek argues that she was rehabilitated to provide Georgia with a tradition of conversion independent from that of Armenia. Nino's position was also hindered by the low social status accorded to women in Georgia; the cult received a corresponding boost during the successful regency of Queen Tamar in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century.

In 'Some historical re-identifications and the christianization of Kent', Ian Wood first examines references to shrines and/or temples in pagan England and Frisia. Since buildings do not seem to have had religious significance in pagan religion elsewhere in the Germanic world, and since both England and Frisia had once been Roman territory (albeit frontier territory, in Frisia's case), he argues that these temples were a product of Roman influence in those areas. 'Anglo-Saxon paganism was already modelled in part on Christianity, even before Augustine arrived' (30). This leads him to consider the important argument of Rob Meens (in Anglo-Saxon England 22, 1994) that in sections 8 and 9 of his Libellus responsionum, Gregory the Great was responding to questions that originated with Christians influenced by Irish and British Christian ideas of purity -- that, in short, Augustine had to deal with some English Christians who had been converted by the British before his arrival. While Wood calls into question whether the responses on purity need necessarily have related to problems raised by English rather than British Christians, he does accept the general point that Bede was probably wrong to suppose that the British made no effort to evangelize among the newcomers. As Pohl has stressed for the Lombards, we should not think of the religion of Germanic peoples as a fixed entity: 'instead of a static model of pagan versus Christian, in early Anglo-Saxon England we seem to be faced with non-stop religious development and fluctuation in which paganism and Christianity were never hermetically separate' (35).

Anne-Sofie Gräslund and Henrik Janson both consider the tradition that Uppsala was a central place in the christianization of Sweden. Gräslund shows that while the twelfth-century cathedral at Uppsala may have been built on a site of previous pagan religious significance, archaeology conducted at the site hitherto does not support Adam of Bremen's detailed description, in his Gesta of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, of an elaborate pagan temple there. Janson, on the other hand, calls into question the very existence of a pagan cult site at Uppsala, with the seductive argument that the Gesta of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen is in fact an imperialist tract relating to the Investiture Controversy. The pagan temple stands as a metaphor for the Lateran palace: 'The templum and domus of Uppsala was not a pagan temple in our sense, but a church resisting the sacred Roman Empire for reasons not very different from those of the Gregorians and other enemies of Henry IV' (88).

Derek Fewster points up the fundamental anachronism in most previous work on the conversion of the Finns -- an episode for which the primary evidence is virutally non-existent. He shows that the narratives of conversion constructed, mostly, by Swedish and Finnish historians and archaeologists are really reflections of modern Swedish and Finnish nationalist attitudes (diametrically different in each case). He does not seem to be aware, however, of how in tune he is with current research on other parts of Europe.

The tradition of the conversion of the Hungarians is the concern of László Veszprémy's 'Conversion in chronicles: the Hungarian case'. Responding to accusations by papal and imperial propagandists that the conversion of the Magyars was incomplete, Hungarian chronicles written between the end of the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries play down the conversion narrative. The story of King Stephen's baptism was so constructed as to minimize German influence, both over the conversion and over the concomitant organization of the Church in Hungary.

Methods and traditions of conversion come together in Neguin Yavari's eloquent examination of conversion to Islam, reflected in particular in the conversion stories of Shaykh Abu Ishaq Kazaruni (963-1033). Western medievalists will hear many resonances in Yavari's observation that 'the conversion stories in the vita of Shaykh Abu Ishaq do not shed any light on the spiritual transformation of infidels. It is, rather, the shaykh's charisma, and his revealed supernatural qualities, that dazzle onlookers into submission' (245). The shaykh is in fact an evangelizer among Muslims as much as a converter of infidels. He is portrayed emulating Muhammad himself, and Yavari is explicit about the parallels between this portrayal and the Christian conception of sainthood, as expounded by Peter Brown.

James D. Ryan examines the motivations of the Franciscan and Dominican missionaries to central Asia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. He emphasizes the marginal role that the papacy played in these missions, and finds an awareness among the missionaries of the 'top-down' process of conversion, with efforts aimed at the Mongol rulers in the hope that their peoples might be converted through them. Felicitas Schmeider notes how contacts with the peoples of east Asia led to a new sense of urgency impelling missionary activity as the vastness of the task of conversion to be accomplished 'at the eleventh hour' became apparent.

The theme of 'conversion' only has real coherence, however, in the first three-quarters of this book. The final quarter comprises articles on the theology of conversion, and of conversion in art. The connection of these with the previous articles is rather tenuous. The bulk of the book is about changes of religion: the conscious, explicit and/or formal acceptance of a different set of beliefs by groups, communities, peoples. This is, of course, rather different from the inner 'conversion' of the soul. Both types of change are sub-sets of the broad group labelled 'conversion', and the distinction between them is not simply a semantic one. Nevertheless, to fit essays on inner 'conversions' properly into the main theme of this book requires far more discussion than is offered here of the different kinds of conversion that individuals and groups could experience (just about the only statement in this vein is Wolfert van Egmond's re-statement of Ludo Milis's three-phase model of conversion to Christianity, pp. 38-9). In fact, the articles on theology demonstrate the full elasticity of the term 'conversion'. This is already apparent in the Augustinian language of conversion. The use of Augustine's ideas about the conversion of the will by the thirteenth-century theology masters in Paris is discussed by Donald Mowbray. Patrick Quinn's first article is the most relevant to the overall theme, outlining Aquinas's general view on conversion before noting that the theologian's views on compelling unbelievers to convert are not 'philosophically coherent' (p. 275). His second article exposes the limitations of Aquinas's philosophy with regard to the need for divine enlightenment in order to attain truth. Bert Roest's examination of the concept of conversion in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Franciscan texts is informed by Karl Morrison, whose Understanding Conversion (Charlottesville, 1992) highlights the intertwining of the process of conversion with the monastic ideal (which was not simply a twelfth-century phenomenon). Peter O'Brien argues interestingly that medieval intellectuals 'cloaked the truth they knew about Islamic civilization in order to avoid persecution in Christian Europe' (304). Western thinkers were initially (i.e. in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) confident that ultimate truth lay on their side because of divine revelation. But gradually 'as supreme wisdom eluded them, they could not produce the ends to justify the means. Instead, mounting cynicism took root that there were no ends, just means' (17). Such cynicism, O'Brien argues, lay behind the philosophy of influential Renaissance thinkers like Machiavelli. O'Brien will doubtless expand on this provocative argument elsewhere, but this book seems an odd place in which to broach it.

The art-historical papers feel rather tacked-on. Ute Engel argues that the decorative programme of Worcester Cathedral was developed under the patronage of King John and Henry III to reflect John's deathbed 'conversion' to piety. Mary Casey examines attitudes to the spiritual conversion of Jews as reflected in scenes drawn from the apocryphal Infancy of Christ Gospels depicted on the fourteenth-century red clay Tring Tiles.

As far as the reader can tell, the editorial touch has been light here. Most of the articles still bear the imprint of the orally-delivered originals. In addition, some of those by non-Anglophones read rather clumsily or stiltedly, though it must be said that this rarely hinders comprehension. One final point: it is deeply disappointing, not to say frustrating, that in the deal that those behind the International Medieval Research series struck with Brepols, no provision was made for a proper index in this volume. This is especially a drawback in a book the chief utility of which is the possibility it offers to compare developments across different areas and time periods.