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23.01.04 Grzybowski, The Christianization of Scandinavia in the Viking Era

23.01.04 Grzybowski, The Christianization of Scandinavia in the Viking Era

Adam of Bremen’s Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae Pontificum (“Deeds of the Bishops of the Church of Hamburg[-Bremen]”), composed and annotated by its author in 1073-1081, recounts the history of that most northerly continental archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church in the eleventh century. In particular, Adam celebrates Hamburg-Bremen’s legatio gentium (mission to the peoples) of pre-Christian Scandinavia after the see’s first foundation in the later eighth century, first at Bremen, then at Hamburg, eventually being joined in 845 under one missionary archbishop, Ansgar. Adam’s four books offer valuable information on the countries they purport to cover, but Grzybowski focuses not so much on the literal historicity of Adam’s account or even its accuracy in describing northern peoples in this period, but on the work as an ethnographic document in its own right, a primary resource for reconstructing its author’s worldview and value system in his own day and age. In this goal, Grzybowski has been inspired by the historical anthropology of Hans-Werner Goetz, tracing Adam’s place in the history of ideas and, in particular, describing his historical imagination as it emerges in the process of writing. The study is thus a valuable contribution to medieval historiography in general and even something of a cautionary corrective to the fairly widespread acceptance by many scholars (including this reviewer) of the essential accuracy of Adam’s reports.

Chapter 1, “Before Christianization,” reviews Adam’s received ideas, actual information and dismissive assumptions about pre-Christian belief and practice among three distinguishable language communities--Saxons, Slavs, and Scandinavians--whatever these groups’ own ethnic or political divisions and emic self-perceptions. Grzybowski insists that the author has relied upon learned conventions in his depiction of pagan peoples from the start, noting that “[a]lthough most historians tend to give special attention to Adam’s description of the pagan temple and ritual in (Old) Uppsala, it is in his depiction of Saxon paganism, which he borrows from Tacitus’s Germania, as quoted in the Translatio Sancti Alexandrii by Rudolf of Fulda, that we first find the fundamental elements that will characterize his whole treatment of the non-Christian religious cultures of the north” (4). Grzybowski concludes that Adam is simply not interested in detailing what he considers to be benighted or nefarious indigenous beliefs, offering only a few purpose-made images of pre-Christian ritual spaces or doctored rumors of pagan religious praxis as a kind of “straw demon” to be toppled by the spiritual heroism of Hamburg’s missionary saints. Adam himself explains his attitude: “As it seems useless, in my judgment, to scrutinize the doings of those who did not believe, so it is impious to pass over the deliverance of those who first believed and to leave unmentioned those through whom they did believe” (41). If his brusque notice of past Saxon paganism is derivative and formulaic, Adam is even more nonplussed by the contemporary, if only partial, apostasy of neighboring Slavic-speaking peoples only four days’ journey from Hamburg. He avoids mention of any particular practices they may have continued to observe in their island temple at Rethra, since this is also a town he admits to be not only law-abiding among its own citizens, but even rather friendly and hospitable to continued commerce with his own Christian Saxons.

Gryzbowski questions the reliability of Adam’s account of the great heathen templum or triclinium (feasting room) at Old Uppsala, a building which Adam explicitly reports to include images of the familiar northern gods Thor, Wodan and Fricco, this last a variant designation of the divinity known as Yngvi-Freyr or simply Freyr (the Lord) in Old Icelandic sources. Gryzbowski writes:

In this passage, almost all the elements [Adam] presents as

characteristic of northern paganism come together to form a

quasi-­Idealtypus regarding paganism itself. There is a temple,

idols, and sacrifices of animals and men. There are incantations,

drinking rituals, and a sacred grove. The idols are of three

deities that match three of the most common topoi regarding

pagan gods in Christian literature: a god of war [Wodan], a

god of lust [Fricco], and a god of nature [Thor]. According to

Adam, the northern pagans also worship men of old, whom they

elevate to the status of deities; that is, pagan religion presents

euhemeristic traits. Finally, there is also a festival occurring on a

cyclic basis in which every person has to participate, and from

which those already Christianized can abstain only by buying their

way out. The whole image that Adam creates in this extended

description seems to be too perfect and to fit too easily into a

generalized idea of paganism, not to raise some doubts regarding

its veracity (36).

This is a fair point, though one that could be sharpened by an examination in greater detail of the considerable documentary, archaeological, and place-name evidence that supports the general (if likely exaggerated) accuracy of Adam’s report.

Grzybowski notes that Adam locates this temple at Uppsala in medio Sueonia (in the middle of Sweden), but this location is just shy of the northernmost frontier of all human societies he knows of, beyond which dwell only savage monstra and other quasi-human creatures: “Amazons, and Cynocephali, and Cyclops who have one eye on their foreheads; there are those [whom] Solinus calls Himantopodes, who hop on one foot, and those who delight in human flesh as food, and as they are shunned, so may they also rightfully be passed over in silence” (33). Adam does not consider any these creatures proper candidates for Christian evangelization or even further description at all. They are utterly alien, possibly soulless or demonic Others, occupying a peripheral space that corresponds to their liminal anthropomorphism. In other words, Adam is describing another formulaic imaginary he inherited through many intermediaries from classical ethnography going to back to Herodotus. He thus suggests that pagan Swedes are the last human group on earth to be targeted by Christ’s “Great Commission” to his disciples: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:19–20, Douay-Rheims). Hamburg-Bremen’s mission to the last nation on earth in space, Adam implies, will usher in the “consummation of the world” in time. This categorical imperative provides “the internal logic of the Gesta as a historical narrative” (40).

Chapter 2, “The Beginning of Christianization,” establishes Adam’s view of his archbishopric as a missionary enterprise from its first foundation and the basis of its ecclesiastical preeminence in his own day, a point he repeatedly makes to his work’s dedicatee, the current Archbishop Liemar (r. 1072-1101). In fact, in doing so, he downplays the earliest efforts of the Irish-trained Northumbrian Willibrord of Utrecht, Ebo of Reims and Halitgar of Cambrai, giving pride of place to Saint Ansgar, the first pontiff of the united Hamburg-Bremen see, whose successor Rimbert wrote a life of the missionary saint at the end of the ninth century. This Vita Anskarii is deliberately intended to obscure “the fact that Ansgar and Rimbert had forged multiple documents in an attempt to secure the foundation of Hamburg as a joint archbishopric together with Bremen, at a time when its position was being questioned by the archbishopric of Cologne, to which Bremen belonged before” (46).

Chapter 3, “Ongoing Christianization,” tracks Adam’s increasingly expansive vision of Hamburg-Bremen’s primal mission as the crucial catalyst, the very last step, in the unfolding of God’s purpose for the human race as a whole, thus justifying its contemporary spiritual authority over all northern territories, including those already largely Christianized or at least approaching a plurality or “critical mass” of baptized Christian converts. Grzybowski also addresses Adam’s carefully finessed treatment, his tip-toe acknowledgment, of missionizing efforts in these lands by Anglo-Saxon or Irish evangelists, a delicate subject since the bishopric of Hamburg-Bremen itself was first founded in 787 by the Northumbrian cleric Willehad, who was first ordained to missionize and minister to the “Old Saxons” of the lower Weser and Elbe rivers once Charlemagne had finally brought these groups firmly under Frankish hegemony. Separate missionizing efforts in Scandinavia mounted from Britain or Ireland without mandate from Hamburg-Bremen are vaguely acknowledged and distantly patronized as ancillary to the heavy lifting that should properly be left to his own archdiocese with a gracious nod to Saint Paul’s view of rival apostles: “And many of the brethren in the Lord, growing confident by my bands, are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear. Some indeed, even out of envy and contention; but some also for good will preach Christ...But what then? So that by all means, whether by occasion, or by truth, Christ be preached” (Philippians 1:14-18). Adam is thus willing to tolerate the preaching of insular bishops in Hamburg-Bremen’s hunting ground, but his complaisance “fades just as the ecclesiastical structures formed from this movement based on English preachers subtract from the influence of Hamburg,” since he is quick to criticize “these English preachers elsewhere, by pointing out that they would not willingly submit to the archbishop’s power” (29-30).

In Chapter 4, “Christianization, Ethics, and Identities,” Grzybowski concludes his study by reemphasizing the particular conceptual prism through which Adam came to view the history of his archdiocese and its rulers over the prior three centuries, especially the current status of its troubled legatio gentium, its self-proclaimed mission to bring the peoples of northern Germany and Scandinavia into the Christian fold. Adam cherished this heritage and was anxious to revive it after the death of Archbishop Adalbert in 1072, a forceful leader who, he felt, had compromised these efforts with his own political ambitions and rivalries closer to home. In fact, Adam cares much more about critiquing his own recent archbishops and assessing the extent to which they furthered efforts to evangelize the north than the lives of any prospective converts per se. It is also interesting to note that “Magister Adam,” who had been invited to lead the cathedral school at Bremen by Adalbert himself, waited until that archbishop’s passing before beginning a critical account of his patron’s character and career. In these appraisals, Adam affects some balance in his portrayal of earlier pontiffs’ personalities and achievements, but more frequently damns them with faint praise or grudging compliments in order to give sharper teeth to his more serious complaints. Grzybowski shows how Adam consistently suppresses positive points about those who failed, in his view, to put their heart and soul into the legatio gentium. Of Archbishop Adalbert, in particular, Adam suggests that his virtues--generosity, intelligence, zeal--only fed his vices, an incorrigible ambition and overweening self-regard that ultimately undermined his effectiveness. Adam’s narrative becomes warmest and most compelling, however, when he describes the earlier lives of those involved in the Scandinavian missions directly, like Saints Ansgar and Unni, and the various ethical or other challenges they faced in the field. Adam also offers some valuable insights into the subsequent relations between competing cultural or ethnic groups once they had come under the pastoral care of his archdiocese. And finally, Grzybowski demonstrates clearly how Adam’s perspective was shaped by his progressive view of human history learned from Augustine and Orosius. In this sense, Adam’s account of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen replicates and epitomizes universal history from Creation to Fall to Redemption, illustrating in brief compass the successive dispensations of God’s grace through time, though stalled in his own day by inattention, apostasies, and other failings that require that the constant revival of his church’s original mission.

To Adam, the legatio gentium was the raison d’être of his archdiocese, its foundational purpose and the very source of its early success and continuing authority. Adam saw this mission as undermined in his own day by Christian leaders themselves, bad actors who were hindering rather than furthering the progress of faith in the north. Among these he included not only his own recent archbishops like Adalbert, but Christian Saxon nobles who were thwarting the full conversion of the Slavs in an effort to justify their acquisition of new lands. Adam’s ultimate aim in his work is thus visionary and reformist, that is, “to reinvigorate the tired mother” of his archbishopric, “a mother spent of strength”--to revive its original wellspring of spiritual purpose that once gave it real potency in illo tempore. In its archbishops’ shoving matches with other pontiffs--including the Pope in Rome--Hamburg-Bremen has squandered its core strength. Even so, he is proud of his church and its ancient heritage, offering a vision of the future in Book IV that gives Hamburg-Bremen a pivotal role in God’s plan for humankind. By Christianizing the northernmost extremities of earthly space, his own church will precipitate the end of time, the coming of a new heaven and a new earth. This is the ultimate purpose of Hamburg-Bremen’s legatio gentium. Rather than a merely partisan or archival review of his foundation’s past, or a secure source of information about the pagan peoples it purports to describe, Adam of Bremen offers an inspirational blueprint for the once and future glory of his archdiocese in the unfolding of God’s plan for the human race as a whole. The author is to be congratulated for supplying such an insightful and succinctly expressed analysis of Adam’s authorial agenda.