Alcuin of York wanted the Christian mission in pagan Saxony to succeed, but in the 790s, he was deeply troubled by how it was carried out.
Letters from the Northumbrian scholar who led Charlemagne’s Palace School might be as close as we get to the Continental Saxons’ side of the decades of bitter wars. The Saxons themselves had no written language as we know it, and the Church, aided by King Charles (Charlemagne), did whatever it could to obliterate a religion it equated with devil worship.
Neither side is innocent. The Saxons burned churches and killed indiscriminately, the latter perhaps as a thanksgiving to the war god. As for the Franks, in 782, Charles issued a capitulary that among other things called for the death of anyone who didn’t convert to Christianity.
In 789, Alcuin was optimistic about the spread of Christianity and for good reason. The Saxon war leader Widukind had accepted baptism four years before, and the peace thus far held. Alcuin asked a friend how the Saxons took his preaching, and a few months later, he praised Charles for pressuring the Saxons to convert whether it was with rewards or threats.
Three years later, Charles’s wars with the Saxons had restarted. Other contemporary sources complain that the Saxons broke their oaths. The entry in the Lorsch annals invokes Proverbs and compares the Saxons’ reverting to paganism, burning churches, and killing priests “as a dog returns to its vomit.”
Alcuin took a more nuanced approached in 796. Writing to Arno, a former student and bishop of Salzburg, Alcuin advised, “And be a preacher of compassion, not an exactor of tithes … It is tithes, men say, that have destroyed the faith of the Saxons.”
1883 illustration by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
The year before, emissaries of an Avarian governor came to Saxony, where the Franks were at war again, and promised to submit to Charles and accept baptism. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that Charles and his magnates talked about spreading Christianity to the Avars, whom the Franks had fought off and on since 788. Perhaps, Arno was already a candidate to lead the spiritual mission.
In 796, the Franks had a major victory over the Avars. With Avarian leaders killed in internecine conflict, the Franks broke into a stronghold and took its riches, probably centuries of plunder. The Avarian governor, identified only as the tudun, and his companions accepted baptism.
Was Alcuin trying to prevent repeating the mistakes made with the Saxons in addition to changing the Christian mission there? Again and again that year, Alcuin pleaded for a different, gentler approach to spreading Christianity, even taking his message to King Charles. He pointed out the apostles did not exact tithes from the newly converted and said it was better to lose the wealth than the soul.
In a letter to Meginfrid the chamberlain (although the real audience is King Charles), Alcuin outlined how the process should work: teach first, then baptize, then expound on the Gospel. “And if any one of these three is lacking, the listener’s soul cannot enjoy salvation. Moreover, faith, as St. Augustine says, is a matter of will, not of compulsion. A person can be drawn to faith but cannot forced to it.”
1830 painting of Charlemagne’s court, with Alcuin presenting manuscripts (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Alcuin himself was well educated. Born around 735, he had directed the school at York for 15 years before joining Charles’s court.
“If the light and sweet burden of Christ were to be preached to the 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 their baptismal vows,” he wrote to Meginfrid, adding that missionaries should be learned men, “preachers, not predators.”
Arno was, in fact, assigned mission territory in Avaria and later appointed archbishop. Perhaps another letter to him from Alcuin is as much a warning as a lament: “It is because the wretched people of the Saxons has never had the faith in its heart that it has so often abandoned the baptismal oath.”
Charlemagne: Translated Sources by P.D. King
“Alcuin” by James Burns, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907). Retrieved from New Advent.
“Salzburg” by Cölestin Wolfsgrüber, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912). Retrieved from New Advent.
Charlemagne by Roger Collins
Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Walter Scholz with Barbara Rogers
This post was originally published Sept. 23, 2014, at English Historical Fiction Authors.