Well, it looks like I will have to make an addition to my author’s note on my second book, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, lengthening this 110,000-word manuscript about a Saxon family rebuilding their lives after losing their home, their husband/father, their freedom, and their faith. (Had to get that pitch in somewhere.)
The book opens with Charlemagne’s first war against the Saxons in 772, during which King Charles’ Franks destroyed the Irminsul, a pillar sacred to the Saxons. In my version of the aftermath, many Saxons accept baptism right away, without any time to reflect, let alone learn anything about their new religion. My main character, a peasant woman named Acha, is angry with her gods for their abandonment and accepts the rite so that the conquerors will not steal her family’s farm and give it to Christians.
A couple of online critiques noted that converts in the early Church were educated before they took the vow, and the critics asked if events could have happened with the haste as I portrayed.
My answer: Maybe. For purposes of the plot, I needed the baptisms to be that fast, but there is circumstantial evidence that baptisms may have been rushed in this period.
In their annals, the Franks complain repeatedly of the Saxons breaking their oaths and reverting to pagan ways, burning churches, and committing other atrocities. The wars between the Franks and the Saxons went on for more than 30 (nonconsecutive) years. A second piece of evidence is letters from Alcuin, a scholar in King Charles’ court, arguing that converts should be educated before they’re baptized, which implies they weren’t. He makes the case against forced baptisms and pleads for learned and pious teachers.You can almost hear his frustration in this 796 letter: “If the light yoke and sweet burden of Christ were to be preached to the most obstinate people of the Saxons with as much determination as the payment of tithes has been exacted and the force of the legal decree applied for faults of the most trifling sort imaginable, perhaps they would not be averse to the baptismal vows.” (From Charlemagne: Translated Sources by P.D. King, intended for students and scholars but a great book for novelists and history buffs; any mistakes or misinterpretations are mine and mine alone.)
In the early Church, converts accepted baptism for no other reason than that they believed. It got much more complicated by the eighth century, when a letter from Charles describes priests performing litanies barefoot and abstaining from wine and meat in the hopes that God would grant them victory. Conversion was a political act as much as it was a religious one, an act of submission to a conquering king as well as God. If a vanquished pagan swears an oath to follow a Christian king, by whom does he swear? Not the pagan gods, whom medieval Christians saw as devils, but the victor’s one, true God and His saints.
Even in Charles’ time, the concept of being educated in one’s new faith was not new. Jesus told parables about seeds needing to be planted in good soil and houses needing to build on a solid foundation. What happened between the Franks and the Saxons gives real-life examples of when the foundation–education–is lacking. The events also serve as a cautionary tale for when politics and religion mix.