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Book Review: The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation by James C. Russell

The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation by James C. Russell (ISBN 0-19-510466-8)

If the title didn’t already clue you in on this, this is a very dense book (here’s the google book excerpt to demonstrate). Which makes sense, as this is an expansion of the author’s doctoral dissertation. However, this density, among other aspects, means that a book like this can be highly appreciated by some, and greatly disappointing to others. My review is from the perspective of someone who is interested in European history/culture for both personal hobby and pagan religion/culture purposes.

The main purpose of the book is to show how Christianity, and the European cultures (primarily German tribes in the case studies selected) influenced and changed each other. As the title suggests, the author is in support of the idea that Christianity was modified to suit the Germanic tribes (and Celtic tribes too, it was hard to tell them apart back then), rather than the people adopting the Christian belief systems as it was initially.

As mentioned by Dr. Russell, the book is divided into two parts, with the first being used to set up and explain the players in the game of Christian history. There is a lot of discussion on the early Christian church’s interactions with Greece, Rome, and the rest of the Mediterranean world, which is used as a model to compare to later interactions. The second half of the book zooms in on the efforts to spread Christianity above the Alps through the Roman empire, and focuses heavily on the Germanic tribes and later Germanic or Germanized states.

In the first 2 chapters, the author provides an overview and some definitions to initiate the set-up of his religious transformation model. He starts with contemporary instances where Christianity is trying to convert people through missionaries (such as in Africa and East Asia), and why they are not successful. He touches upon aspects of these cultures that share traits with the old tribes of Europe, primarily the Germanic ones. The main aspect he finds is that lack of any need that Christianity could serve to fill, as stable societies and clans tend to not want to give up the good life in order to be saved and taken away to another, unknown world.

This eventually leads into his discussion of Greece and Rome in Chapter 3, and the nature of world-rejecting (the belief that existence occurs beyond the world or state of being we see; this includes Christianity, Islam, Wicca, and Buddhism) vs. world-accepting religions (basically, what we see is what we get; this is present in lots of traditional pagan cultures). A brief history of Classical Greece and Rome is utilized to explain how they went from their (supposedly) original Indo-European culture to the Mediterranean types. This is important because this sets them up to accept Eastern mystery religions that included newly formed Christianity into its ranks (thanks to Alexander the Great). This also shows how the early Churches came to incorporate philosophies, such as Plato’s and Aristotle’s that was not mentioned in their scriptures.There is a lot of philosophical and religious terminology that is defined in this chapter.

He ends his focus on Greece and Rome in Chapter 4, after describing how the spread of the empires and increased urbanization ultimately destabilized the societies (and therefore their political religions) and allowed Christianity to take root as a viable option to non-mainstreamers, with its initial focus on being a brother/sisterhood catering to the poor of society.

Chapter 5 starts the second half of his dissertation, discussing Germanic culture in greater detail than in his 1st chapter (particularly the warrior, king and kinship traditions). He essentially describes the Germanic tribes at the time of the Roman empire (some of which stayed officially true up to the Middle Ages) and what obstacles the newly organized Church had to deal with in order to incorporate the tribes into their empire.

Chapter 6 and 7 go in chronological order from 376 A.D. to 754 A.D. and describe in detail how the Church leaders managed to modify their ideologies in order to bring the lords and kings of the pagan tribes to their side. Conflicts and dramas galore, enough to fuel soap operas for years to come. Even after baptism occurred, the majority of the population in Europe, according to Russell’s sources, didn’t know (and probably didn’t care) about Christian orthodoxy, they simply followed the cult* patterns that were enforced by law to appease the bishops. Much of the religious life ended up being a syncreticism of Christianity and their cultural religion with a very pagan base. There is quite a heavy focus on the Franks (Merovingian and Carolingian kings) due to their long association with the Church, and some mention of the Gothic tribes that once ringed the Roman empire can be found.

The main Germanic tribes acknowledged are those on the Continent (particularly Gaul), rather than the modern UK or Scandinavia, and very little referencing the Iberian peninsula outside of the Visigoths. This is an excellent book to help get at the heart of what it meant to be pagan vs. Christian, or to have a pagan worldview in the European sense (it would be rude to assume that other academically pagan cultures in the world had the same cultural values as the European tribes). The references are numerous and heavy, with the majority of sources drawing upon old texts, letters, and laws to give insight into how people thought at the time. The way Russell presents the evidence allows for flexibility in interpretation as well, which means that his personal bias does not rigidly control the texts. He is not trying to hide or twist anything that may undermine his own hypothesis. Since this is a history dissertation that focuses mainly on the shifts and uses of political and social power, this is not a book to pick up if you want details on traditions and customs of the people themselves. There are only brief references to festivals that serve as an example of how the Church culture changed through Germanic influence. The main reference is to the Catholic liturgy adopting the agricultural seasons (Winter, Summer) into their originally Roman-based list of holy days.

If you love European history and want to know how the Western world came to be, this is a book to add to your collection. If you are trying to reconstruct European religions/cultures, then this is definitely a must-have to your collection. If you don’t enjoy having modern assumptions of religion and culture be smashed, then this is not the book for you. There is no dancing around bushes in this book, and details that may make some uncomfortable are stated quite plainly. Personally, I love history AND breaking misconceptions, so this book is a win-win for me.

5 ivory-tower scholars out of 5

*I am using the academic and correct form of “cult” in this statement, not the Hollywood/Sensationalist media version that turns the stupidity of drunken teenagers into news headlines. Essentially, most every religious group is a cult or has cults and it is not a derogatory term.

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Hungarian History videos

I found a possible new resource to use for information: youtube. These two videos below are wonderful to watch for those interested in Hungarian legends and tales (with the timeline referring to what’s generally understood about the history of the Magyars).

The narrator is speaking Hungarian, but you should be able to follow the animation well enough to get the idea. At the very least, the animation and music is beautiful, and I look forward to when the account puts up the 3rd video in the series.

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Filed under Sagas Legends Folklore