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Published: April 28th, 2007 » Tags: History

Some of the most vivid examples of religion perpetuating empire can be found in the historic documentation concerning the Christian emperor Charlemagne and the conquest of the Saxons. Christian conversion - if the following documents are accurate representations of historic events - was not encouraged during the early medieval period, but rather forced upon a subjugated people.

The relationship between the Franks and the Saxons culminated in brutal war. Einhard, in his “Life of Charlemagne,” writes: “No war undertaken by the Frank nation was carried on with such persistence and bitterness, or cost so much labor, because the Saxons, like almost all the tribes of Germany, were a fierce people, given to the worship of devils, and hostile to our religion, and did not consider it dishonorable to transgress and violate all law, human and divine” (Einhard 145). The lack of Christianity among the Saxons seems to be the source of the prolonged conflict and strained relations between the two countries. Einhard again writes: “It [thirty-three years war] could doubtless have been brought to an end sooner, had it not been for the faithlessness of the Saxons” (Einhard 145). The end result of this conflict was the assimilation of Saxony into empire and the empire’s religion, which Charlemagne ruled over as emperor.

Charlemagne, as emperor, issued a number of reforms and ordered all the “unwritten laws of all the tribes that came under his rule to be complied and reduced to writing” (Einhard 150).

A 789 supplemental document referred to as “General Admonition” seems to be a product of this reform effort. Much of the numerical supplements refer directly to the status and execution of the proper empire religion and religious practices.

The Admonition begins with a regal announcement: “In the eternal reign of our Lord Jesus Christ, I, Charles, by the grace of God and the gift of His mercy king and rector of the kingdom of the Franks and devout defender and humble adjuvant of the holy church, to all the ranks of ecclesiastical piety and dignitaries of secular powers; the greeting of perpetual peace and blessedness in Christ the Lord, eternal God” (Charlemagne 151).

The supplements preceding the prologue are pointedly ecclesiastical with the exception perhaps of the first (61), which seems to take a serious stand for the empire’s state religion. The remaining seems to be rules relevant to the care and perpetuation of the religion itself, by its leadership (bishops and priests). The supplemental seems warranted, perhaps even conducive to the religion.

Charlemagne, in his Capitulary for Saxony 775-790, however, exhibits the characteristics of a megalomaniac bent upon the Christianization - and the forced maintenance of the conversion - of his empire’s conquered peoples.

The Capitulary begins with a supplement which depicts Saxony as conquered and in a mid-assimilation of sorts. The empire’s religion is in the process of being superimposed upon the culture. Charlemagne writes, “It was pleasing to all that the churches of Christ, which are now being built in Saxony and consecrated to God, should not have less, but greater and more illustrious honor, than the fanes the idols had had” (Charlemagne 153).

The supplement then moves into areas of drastic enforcement that would today be considered socially criminal and a terrible blight upon basic human rights.

The death penalty is levied against any human being who would be found guilty of certain empire and religious violations, such as: 1.) not participating in the holy Lenten fast; 2.) subscribing to former religion(s) and ritual(s); 3.) not participating in baptism; 4.) opposing Christianity; 5.) and/or showing one’s self unfaithful to the king (whatever that means).

Any member of the empire - willing or otherwise - who didn’t subscribe to the empire’s religion as per the law and written supplements would suffer the legal consequences, which, as is the case in the aforementioned examples, was often death. Needless to say, many peoples and cultures were militarily subjugated to the empire and its law.

The majority of techniques used to “encourage” people to convert to Christianity during this period seem to be totally derived from the empire’s militaristic power, subsequent subjugation, capital punishment, and human rights violations. This is not, however, the complete story, thankfully.

A shimmer of light and good work does exist in the bastardly shadow of Charlemagne’s brutal conquest and forced baptisms. An anonymous author saw a need to deliver the four gospels in the form of a poem; a poem literarily characterized by the Germanic cultural idiom. A work developed for a culture the empire was simultaneously attempting to erase. “A harmonization of the four gospels composed in Old Saxon, it presented Jesus’ life and ministry in terms that would particularly resonate with the chieftain society for which it was written” (Anonymous 271). This poetic harmonization is known as “The Heliand,” or “The Saxon Gospel.” The reading of it surely must have exposed the empire’s religion for the non-Christianity it inherently became when fused with unlimited social, political, and religious power.

In “Song 17,” from “The Instructions on the Mountain,” for example, the Saxons would have read the following Jesus narrative: “Now I say to you truthfully, with greater fullness for the people, that you are to love your enemies in your feelings, just as you love your family relatives, in God’s name. Do a great deal of good for them, extend friendly loyalty to them with a clear mind - love versus their hatred. This is long lasting advice for every man; this is how a person’s feelings against his enemy should be directed” (Anonymous 275). One can not look back at this history objectively and not imagine a conflict of Christian interpretation within Charlemagne’s empire between the powerful and the subjugated classes.

This period challanges an objective onlooker with both positive and negative techniques meant to encourage Christian conversion. The negative, unfortunately, over-shadows the positive, and severely so. Christianity was done zero favors by political savvy emperors who conquered people with raw brutality and forced baptisms. They attached blight to the Christian faith; the scars remain to this very day.

This sort of historical material serves as a very, very powerful reminder that should be taken seriously by Christians in America today. America is an empire, for good or ill. America is the global superpower. Our foreign policy is often packaged with our nationalistic religious expression of Christianity. “God Bless America” banners, posters, stickers, and mass-media advertisements, during a time of global and cultural conflict can be seriously detrimental to Christianity’s universality. A country as powerful as ours is a presidential signature away from cultural crime and religious imperialism. Global opinion places us even closer, it seems. Perhaps they are correct?

Works Cited:

Anonymous. The Heliand. Readings in World Christian History. Eds. John Wayland Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Maryknoll, N.Y. Orbis Books, 2004.

Charlemagne. General Admonition 789. Lts Ch111 History of Christianity Course Pack. Ed. Ann Thayer. Lancaster, PA: Grade A Notes.

Einhard. The Life of Charlemagne. Trans. Samuel Epes Turner. Lts Ch111 History of Christianity Course Pack. Ed. Ann Thayer. Lancaster, PA: Grade A Notes.

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