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22.09.08 Mehdorn, Prosopographie der Missionare im karolingischen Sachsen

22.09.08 Mehdorn, Prosopographie der Missionare im karolingischen Sachsen

The early history of Christianity in Saxony is a history of missionary bishops, priests, and monks, not a history of fixed and stable bishoprics. The conversion process therefore was emerging more from individual choices than from a centrally organized plan. This book tries to sketch this process by investigating the people involved in it using a prosopographical method. The author has identified 50 men--Christianization seems to be a very male activity in this study--who were somehow involved in the process of bringing the Christian religion to Saxon men and women in the turbulent period in which Frankish domination went hand in hand with religious change, both of them sometimes enforced by brutal military means.

Before providing the 50 mini biographies that form the core of this book, the author provides a historical introduction in which he outlines the early phases of the introduction of Christianity in the regions beyond the Rhine by the Anglo-Saxon missionaries Willibrord and Boniface, stressing the similarities between these two figures rather than their differences. Then he briefly discusses the military confrontations between the Franks and the Saxons, which developed into a long and brutal war under Charlemagne. This war is often depicted as a religious one, a Missionskrieg in German, yet it started out more as a series of border skirmishes; only after it had led to a full-blown conflict was it legitimated by religious means. The introductory chapter finishes with a discussion of the establishment of an ecclesiastical structure in geographically defined dioceses under Louis the Pious and Louis the German in the period of integration of the Saxons into the Carolingian empire.

The core of the book is a collection of 50 biographies. If there is information available, they deal with the available literary and archeological sources, birth and descent, education, the mission itself in terms of motivation, geography and practice, relations to secular authorities, and finally, death and remembrance. Some of the men involved in missionary activities in Saxony are well-known and well-attested personalities, such as Ansgar of Bremen, Ebo of Reims, or Liudger the founder of the monastery of Werden who as a missionary bishop also laid the foundation for the later bishopric of Münster. They receive ample treatment, up to 50 pages in the case of Ansgar (42-91). Some such as Egisrik, who is only mentioned in passing in the Vita Willehadi as one of the disciples of the missionary, or Hartrich who is mentioned only in a late medieval chronicle as a bishop from Saxony although there are some contemporary sources that refer to a bishop Hartrich without further geographical indication, receive less than one page. Nine of the personalities are ultimately removed from the list because of their (highly) fictitious character. They are only used when considering the ways in which later periods reflected on the missionary period. Geographically the biographies center around places such as Bremen, Corvey, Fritzlar, Halberstadt, Herford, Hersfeld, Hildesheim, Minden, Münster, Osnabrück Paderborn, Verden, and Werden.

Going through 50 shorter or longer biographies, which necessarily entail some repetition, does not, of course, guarantee exciting reading. But what can we conclude from them? First of all, it seems that mission in Saxony was indeed a continuation from the earlier work of Willibrord and Boniface, as many of the missionaries came from the regions in which these two Anglo-Saxon monks and missionaries had been active. Particularly Liudger and his family put a strong Frisian stamp on the mission in neighboring Saxony. Frisians probably were well equipped to act in this way because of the similarities between Frisia and Saxony in terms of the landscape and language. That many of the men about whom we have texts informing us about their missionary activities were of noble standing, will probably not surprise anyone. Ebo of Reims, who was not only involved in the mission to the Danes but after his deposition from the archbishopric of Reims and subsequent expulsion to Fulda was installed as bishop in Hildesheim, is the only one who would have been of unfree extraction. While his depiction by Thegan, the biographer of Louis the Pious, as stemming from a family of unfree goat-herders, is certainly biased, I am less certain that we can disregard the letter of Charles the Bald in which he indicates that Ebo received his freedom from Charlemagne, but Mehdorn seems to be certain that Ebo was a freeborn man. Most of the missionaries received a monastic upbringing although not everyone became a monk. Boundaries between a monastic status and a clerical or canonical one were less clear, as well as those between a priest and a bishop. A priest like Willehad apparently could found churches and appoint (and anoint?) priests, things normally reserved for a bishop.

Most texts indicate the Carolingian rulers as the patrons of missionary activities; and Charlemagne especially was seen as the great instigator of the mission to Saxony. This was partly the result of looking for an authoritative past and not necessarily of the great emperor’s actual involvement. When missionaries were acting in the field, outside of existing diocesan structures, papal approval was sought. In the early phases missionaries were generally appointed for a specific group of people, for the Nordalbingi (Ansgar) or the Wigmodiens (Willehad). Missionaries worked from small ecclesiastical centers, often a small monastic community, of which only occasionally archeological evidence has been unearthed. Only during the process of the integration of Saxony in the Frankish empire, after the end of the violent confrontations between Franks and Saxons, do we observe an institutionalization of the church in Saxony. Dioceses become clearly defined geographical entities around a fixed episcopal see.

The documentation does reveal only very little about what the missionaries actually did to convert and educate the local population. Although the conversion of the Saxons is often related to the employment of secular violence, Gewaltmission, the sources all emphasize the voluntary character of missionary activities. The missionaries did their best to convince their audiences and there is no reference to the use of military force. The sources speak about preaching, baptizing, building churches, founding monasteries, and only references to the destruction of pagan shrines imply the use of force, but in the written sources there is not a Frankish soldier in sight.

Apart from the missionaries Liudger, Ansgar, Lebuin, and Willehad, none of the missionaries were later regarded as saints. Apparently, the translation of relics from Francia and Rome into Saxony in the ninth century was able to fulfill the demand for saints in this region. The missionaries were, however, important in the cases where the bishopric was in conflict with other parties about landed wealth or certain privileges. In those cases, a fictitious past was called in to strengthen the church’s claims.

The book, a reworked doctoral thesis from the university of Bonn, carefully engages with the sources and the mainly German historiography. In contrast to the recent study of the process of Christianization in Saxony by Ingrid Rembold, it focusses less on providing a narrative or a wider context and more on giving a solid overview of the documentation of the main missionaries. [1] As such it provides interesting insights into the process of conversion in Saxony although as a result of its focus on missionaries, it is somewhat one-sided. The works by Mehdorn and Rembold nicely complement each other and the inclusion of this book in the series Hilfsmittel is fully appropriate.



1. Ingrid Rembold, Conquest and Christianization: Saxony and the Carolingian World, 772-888, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018) reviewed for TMR by James Palmer; this book is cited by Mehdorn yet, understandably, not fully digested; see also Robert Flierman, Saxon Identities, AD 150-900 (London: Bloomsbury 2016), not used by Mehdorn.