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I have read histories that tell of St. Boniface and other Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks working in the Rhine valley among Germanic tribes converting them to Christianity. I understand that this work was supported by both the pope and the Frankish kings, most notably Charlemagne who viewed their efforts as complementary to his military battles in extending his empire and influence.

What I do not understand is why the pagan Germanic chieftains wanted any part of this new religion. They had their established system (Woden, sacred oaks, etc). Why did they buy into Boniface and others' claims? What arguments did the monks make? Were there geopolitical rather than religious reasons that pushed them toward Christianity? I understand that earlier people like Visigoths and Ostrogoths had an admiration for the Roman civilization and wanted to participate in it, but that makes much less sense in the 6th and 7th century than in the 4th. I can understand why certain classes in Roman society adopted Christianity, but to the Saxons, Frisians, and Thuringians, who did not settle in Roman-Christian areas, wouldn't it be the religion of the enemy (the eastward encroaching Franks)?

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The Saxons only accepted christianity after Charlemagne conquered them. It's funny you should mention Boniface, as he was killed in Frieslân for propagating Christianity (or to rob him). That being said maybe you should split up your answer in Germanic tribes who came to rule former roman territories and those who did not. –  Jeroen K Feb 16 at 23:16
@JeroenK Exactly. Boniface was killed, yet within a hundred years, the tribes up and down the Rhine were converted. I was specifically thinking of tribes that were more-or-less untouched by Roman rule and who did not take over previously Roman territories. Maybe I'll edit it to more clearly be about Saxons, Frisians, and others in today's Germany. –  Mike Feb 16 at 23:43
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1 Answer

One important thing to keep in mind is that Religion is a marker of culture.

The Goths, Franks, and Vandals converted for rather practical reasons. They had conquered territories from Rome (modern Italy, Spain, France, and North Africa) where the basal populations they were trying to rule were all Christian. They were never more than a ruling elite in these areas, and from a financial standpoint had everything to gain and little to lose by pacifying their subjects as quickly as possible. Attempting to wipe out the local culture when they took over would have guaranteed strife for generations, and might have destroyed much of the machinery that kept the goodies flowing upward.

So what they did instead is embrace the currently fashionable heracy (Arianism), allowing them to install their own local pope answerable to them. The exception there is the Franks, who manged to make themselves powerful enough in France that they had nothing to fear from owing liturgical allegiance to a foreign pope.

The second important factor I think is the cultural bloc that Christianity represented. At this point you have the central and most populous and prosperous kingdoms in Europe being Christian. Fellow Christian kingdoms would have enjoyed preferences in trade and international relations that were quite compelling. It would have been much like being part of the EU today. For peripheral areas like England, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe, the trade benefits alone would have made it worth it. This is why Eastern Europe areas that tended to have stronger trading ties with Constantinople generally converted to Eastern Orthodoxy rather than Western Europe's Catholicism.

I would imagine not being a perpetual target for Crusades also had its attractions.

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Crusade fear is a bit anachronistic. Christian Rome tackled barbarians outside their border the same way regardless of religion. Even the Christian/Aryan gap did not become a problem with external tribes until after the Fall of the West. –  Oldcat Feb 21 at 0:36
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