The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation, by James C. Russell
Russell begins his specific examination of the acceptance of Christianity by the Germanic people, the first covering the period 376 – 678. This covers the period from the Germanic entrance into the Roman Empire until the Anglo-Saxon mission by Bishop Wilfrid of York to Frisia.
When speaking of Christianity in this context, there are two prominent theologies: Germanic Arianism and Frankish Catholicism. Seeking refuge from the Huns, the Visigoths negotiated with Valens, the Arian Christian emperor of the Eastern Empire: Arianism was adopted in exchange for asylum.
In Christianity, Arianism is a monotheistic Christological doctrine which asserts the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who was begotten by God the Father at a point in time, is distinct from the Father and is therefore subordinate to the Father….The Arian concept of Christ is based on the belief that the Son of God did not always exist but was begotten by God the Father.
Several characteristics can be noted from this first encounter, characteristics that would repeat for even centuries into the future: political leaders vouched for their subjects regarding Christianization; Christianity was associated with Roman culture and the Roman polity; there was little or no religious instruction prior to baptism.
By the middle of the sixth century, several tribes – to include the Bavarians, Thuringians and Lombards – accepted the Arian form of Christianity; others – including the Franks, Alamanni and Saxons – remained unaffected.
Yet Valens suffered defeat and death in the battle of Adrianople; with him, Arianism was on the wane in the empire. The Arian heresy suffered condemnation in the Council of Constantinople in 381.
Why did the leaders of most of the Germanic peoples accept the Arian form of Christianity, just as this heresy was in the process of being extirpated throughout the Roman Empire?
Some believe it is due to the Arian belief that the Son is subordinate to the Father – a characteristic easily understood and accepted by a hierarchical culture. Others believe that Arianism spread because it wasn’t Roman – in this manner, less of a possibility that the Germanic tribes would be absorbed into the Universal Church – and therefore into the empire.
It was Clovis, ascending to the throne in 481 as the king of the Franks, who was recruited by the Roman Catholic Church to be their champion; Clovis saw that through the Roman Church he could find a means to consolidate an empire. The Franks were, perhaps, more predisposed to become affiliated with Roman Christianity as their relationship with the Roman Empire was more gradual and less antagonistic than it was for the Visigoths.
…the overall relationship between the Franks and the Romans in the century preceding the baptism of Clovis in 496 was one of relative harmony. …it may be argued that the Franks perceived their greatest potential military threat as coming from the neighboring Germanic peoples rather than from the Romans.
Aside from baptism, Clovis was almost certainly not a Christian in any meaningful sense; yet his baptism committed the Merovingians to the Church. Paganism was tolerated throughout. After Clovis died, the process of Christianization stalled for almost 80 years, until the arrival in Gaul of the Irish monk Columbanus, in about 590.
During this period, little more was enforced beyond the sanctification of Sundays and holy days. However, two important developments did occur:
…the Eigenkirchensystem, or “proprietary church system,” and the Eigenklostersystem, or “proprietary monastery system.
Privately developed and maintained churches and monasteries. In such a system, the feudal lord held proprietary rights, most importantly the right to nominate the ecclesiastic personnel. Through this, Columbanus succeeded in establishing a series of monasteries on the property of northern Frankish aristocrats – all the leading families had one or more of their members attracted to this new monasticism.
Still, this does not imply nor suggest that something approaching Christianity as it was understood in Rome was taking form. The Merovingian kings did little to impose doctrinal orthodoxy; instead they were more concerned with “orthopraxy,” adhering to the cultic and ritual observances of Christianity.