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13.10.11, Krutzler, Kult und Tabu

13.10.11, Krutzler, Kult und Tabu

How far can we trust reports of Germanic pagan practices that are written down by an Anglo-Saxon Christian missionary who in all likelihood never witnessed any of them and who wrote in a language quite foreign to the pagans who practiced them and who addressed them to a pope whose view of the Germanic people would to a large extent be influenced by the classical Latin literature on them? This is the basic question Krutzler is asking in his intriguing and most learned book. From the very beginning he is aware that the distance between the reality and report may be unbridgeable. The main witnesses Krutzler interrogates are the letters written by and to Boniface and Willibald's Vita Bonifatii. On first glance, these sources seem quite trustworthy since Boniface actively engaged with pagans and since the Vita Bonifatii is written relatively close to the lifetime of Boniface. By digging slightly deeper, however, Krutzler soon uncovers problems. Some of these are the following: Boniface was not likely to have participated in e.g. sacrifices to Donar or Wotan and would therefore at best have heard rumours about them, which he in turn reported to the pope; his letters are in Latin, and hence removed from the language in which the sacrifices took place; in order to explain the Germanic gods, Boniface did not use the Germanic names of the gods, but Latin designations which may, or may not, have corresponded to the characteristics of the Germanic gods; since Boniface was a learned man corresponding with another learned man, he relied on frameworks such as Tacitus's Germania which may, or may not, have resembled the reality of eighth century Germany. Krutzler carefully examines each of these obstacles and as a result some of his pronouncements are not as straightforward as one might hope but are hedged in with subjunctives, maybes and perhapses. Krutzler goes even further since it is by no means clear whether "pagan" in the above mentioned sources always refers to actual pagans and not to lapsed or even to heretical Christians. In a syncretistic society newly-converted Christians may still want to consult the future in divination ceremonies which a missionary such as Boniface may consider "pagan," but which they themselves might consider part of their Germanic cultural heritage without any religious overtones. Despite all these complications, however, at the end of the book our knowledge of Germanic pagan practices is enriched despite--or maybe because--of all the academic caution surrounding his presentation.

In its first chapter, the book speaks about the primary sources used, and in the second it examines--as far as possible--the biography of the writers of these primary sources, which aside from Boniface himself are Daniel of Winchester, Popes Gregory II, Gregory III, and Zacharias, and Willibald. In chapter 3, Krutzler surveys the various Germanic tribes, i.e. the Alemanni, Bavarians, Hessians, Thuringians, Friesians, Saxons, as well as Borthari, Nistresi, Wedreci, Lognai, Suduodi and Graffelti, which seem to be subgroups of the Thuringians and Hessians, and he also briefly speaks of the Slavic-speaking Wends. Chapter 4 lists the topoi which had been associated with barbaric nations ever since Aristotle, Poseidonios, Caesar, Tacitus, and Seneca, i.e. their wildness, warlike nature, toughness, aggressivity, lawlessness, and lack of sobriety, to mention but a few. Chapter 5 then comes to speak about specific pagan idols and practices, concentrating on rituals performed in sacred groves or at sacred fountains, as well as on various forms of divination and on human and animal sacrifices. This section, running from pages 59 to 263 constitutes the bulk of the book. It is followed, in chapter 6 with a discussion of animals whose consumption was forbidden to Christians such as the horse, the beaver, the hare, and, among the birds, the stork, the crow, and the jackdaw. Chapter 7 deals with the grades of consanguinity within which marriage is forbidden or allowed, as well as with the number of wives a Christian could have. Chapter 8, finally, entitled "Results," sums up the various findings strewn throughout the book. Despite the methodological problems, Boniface's correspondence does open a window into the actual reality of the Germanic people living on the eastern side of the Rhine in the eighth century, especially since, as Krutzler shows throughout, archaeological evidence supports the claims made in the Anglo-Saxon missionary's correspondence.

Krutzler's approach to his topic is impressively encyclopedic. He seems to leave no stone unturned in his attempt to find out about e.g. the rituals at sacred groves or the reasons for a prohibition against consuming horsemeat. At times, the wealth of information can be overwhelming and, at least at first, the reader cannot always be certain why, for instance, the practices of the pagan Celts, Greeks, and Romans are listed. What, one asks, does this have to do with the pagan Germanic practices in the eighth century? Almost always, however, Krutzler ties the seemingly loose threads together. A first reference to the Greeks in connection with e.g. eating hare seems farfetched, yet Krutzler can demonstrate that whereas Pope Zacharias forbade the eating of hare, archbishop Theodore of Canterbury, who came from Greece and whose teachings would have significantly influenced Boniface, allowed it. The reason for Theodore's permissiveness is to be sought not in religious rules, but in his cultural background. Similarly, one at first wonders about the very learned excursus into various Celtic pagan practices, only to find out that pre-Christian cultural Celtic attitudes formed Christian Irish attitudes and these found their way into Irish penitentials which, in turn, were brought to the missionary area in which Boniface was active. Maybe, in the manner of an encyclopedist, Krutzler piles on too many examples, but none of the many references to other pagan or non-pagan nations ever stands unconnected to his main narrative.

Chapter 7, while still impressively thorough, differs somewhat from the other chapters in that Krutzler engages more in a philological discussion than in an amassing of evidence (though he does this as well listing a multitude of synods dealing with the topic of the degrees of consanguinity at which marriages are permitted). Marriages in (pagan) Rome and in the Christian world were generally allowed in the seventh degree (="gradus") of consanguinity, which corresponds to the descendants of one person in the fourth generation, or, put differently, the children of cousins could marry each other, while the cousins could not. Pope Gregory III, however, forbade marriage "usque ad septimam...generationem" (letter 28 in Boniface's correspondence), and this seems an unwarranted tightening of the marriage laws from the fourth to the seventh generation. Krutzler, however, can show that "generatio" is here used as a synonym of "gradus," and does not mean "generation." Germanic laws, in general, were laxer than the Roman laws, and at least the early Church gave the Germanic people greater freedom on account of their "barbarity," which in this context is to be understood as their lack of documentation as to who is related to whom. This chapter orients itself very strongly on laws and synods; here a brief look at some of the hagiographic or historical writings in which saints turned their backs on royalty who were married to close relatives or to their father's second wife might have been useful. Bede, for instance, in the Historia Ecclesiastica, which Krutzler cites elsewhere, condemns Eadbald, the son of the Kentish king Aethelbert, not only for lapsing back into pagan customs, but also because "fornicatione pollutus est tali, qualem nec inter gentes auditam apostolus testatur, ita ut uxorem patris haberet"--"he was...guilty of such fornication as the Apostle Paul mentions as being unheard of even among the heathen, in that he took his father's (second) wife as his own" ( Historia Ecclesiastica II:5; transl. Leo Shirley-Price). Aethelbert died in 616, somewhat more than a century before Boniface, but despite ecclesiastical condemnation such forbidden marriages seems to have persisted, at least in Anglo-Saxon England--or, if they did not exist, they could be used to discredit a person--since according to Asser, Aethelbald married Judith, the second wife of his father Aethelwulf in 855 "contra Dei interdictum et Christianorum dignitatem, necnon et contra omnium paganorum consuetudinem"--"against God's commandment and Christian dignity, and also against the custom of all pagans" (Asser, De rebus gestis Aelfredi, c. 17). Even a century after Boniface's death, some of the Christian marriage laws, especially among people who were not related by blood, seem to have been ignored--and a look at the actual practice of Germanic royalty rather than at synods and laws would have helped to connect some of the ecclesiastical prohibitions with actual lives lived.

One minor shortcoming of this otherwise admirable book is the lack of an index. The multitude of laws, persons, synods, animals, and nations cited becomes an almost impenetrable thicket without an index. Admittedly, the list of contents is very detailed, and thus one can quickly find the main discussions on e.g. animals whose consumption is prohibited, but any second or third references to this topic are lost in what I called the encyclopedic approach above. Krutzler himself might have benefitted from an appendix, because he would have become aware of verbatim repetitions as e.g those on pages 135 and 216 where a paragraph on Adam of Bremen's report on a spring in Sweden at which humans were sacrificed appears in identical words (once to support his discussion on sacred groves and springs, the other time to support that of human sacrifices); a cross-reference rather than a verbatim repetition might have sufficed. The book could also have done with a somewhat more careful proofreading to avoid errors such as "fränkische Niederlage der Franken"--"Frankish defeat of the Franks" (41, who is defeating whom?) or "angelsächsisch hleótan, altenglisch hlēotan" (172, as though Anglo-Saxon and Old English were two different dialects or languages) or "Gregor von Nazinaz" rather than "Nazianz" (245, though this mistake may have been caused by the computer's "autocorrect" which always presumes to know better than the author).

Despite the lack of an index, though, this is an impressively learned book amassing mounds of evidence some of which at times seems irrelevant, but which Krutzler always manages to integrate into his overall presentation. This book teaches us a lot about the pagan practices of the Germanic people in the eighth century, and, as Krutzler convincingly shows, despite being written in Latin by a Christian who never could be present at these practices, the letters do reflect a pagan reality.