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 '14 at 23:16
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    @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 '14 at 23:43
  • "I can understand why certain classes in Roman society adopted Christianity"... Can you? The more I think about it, the more I see that there is some characteristic of the polytheism that I'm unable to grasp. I cannot put myself into position of the ordinary men so rapidly, consistently and persistently converting to a monotheistic religion previously alien to them. But the same scenario just repeats over and over through the history; why do you think the reasons were different? – kubanczyk Apr 25 '14 at 21:54
  • @kubanczyk - the party line taught in Soviet schools was that they embraced it since it helped pacify the oppressed classes (mostly slaves) by promising them a better lot in afterlife – DVK Apr 29 '14 at 16:13
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    @kubanczyk The Christian religion is not as monotheistic as you may think. It often and readily adopted polytheistic costumes: the roles of saints, adoption of pagan holidays etc all helped this softening up. Also, it is irrelevant as many of such conversion were not voluntary or unmotivated by social/monetarily gains. – Greg Nov 17 '14 at 1:59

As far as I know, for a Germanic tribe to immediatly convert to Christianity did not explicitly mean that all of the tribe members would convert, in fact, most of the time only their leaders would, and it would be enough for the parties which demanded the conversion to be satisfied: here I am clearly implying that converting to Christianity would most likely be not a self-taken decision (unless you were as crazy as e.g. Constantine) but mainly done for political or diplomatic reasons. Moreover, it would probably be only symbolic, and traditional pagan customs would still be performed and even merged into the practice of the Christian denomination of choice.

Let's imagine and place ourselves around the middle of the fourth century. Rome is still a contiguous nation, at least viewed from outside, and they still hold power throughout most of Gaul. We're a Germanic tribe seeking to be included into the foederati, and we're required to convert to Christianity. Of course, most of us don't even speak latin, and obviously we would not participate in the (very roughly speaking) inter-national diplomacy that our King is performing in order for us to move into the prosperous land of the Empire. He's the one there talking to the Romans.

It makes sense to think that leaders were, then, the first to convert, along with their closest officials; then followed by the general populace by means of authority or maybe customs (now, over the course of many years). What I'm trying to say here is that conversion to Christianity, for a Germanic tribe at least, would be a top-down affair; and would be mostly motivated by the desire to be part of the Empire, culturally and physically; hold productive land, or simply increase in power.

  • Good points, +1. One question, though: why do you think Constantine was crazy? – Felix Goldberg Apr 19 '14 at 16:21
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    It was kind of a joke, really. I think Constantine's conversion was mostly a natural product of historical randomness. Humans have always been humans, and maybe Constantine was going through a quarter life crisis or something of the sort :) – JS Rolón Apr 19 '14 at 18:58
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    Are you aware of the fact that he actually converted only on his deathbed? :) – Felix Goldberg Apr 19 '14 at 23:33
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    He accepted Baptism on his deathbed, because he had sins to wash away. He was publically Christian for long before that, and on some kind of fence even earlier. – Oldcat Apr 21 '14 at 16:51
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    I'm not familiar with any requirement for foederati to be Christian. If their had been, you would think that more of the tribes would have been mainstream rather than Arian heretics. The Alan and Hun auxiliaries were Pagan even in the days of Justinian. – Oldcat Apr 21 '14 at 16:56

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 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 heresy (Arianism), allowing them to install their own local pope answerable to them. The exception there is the Franks, who managed 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 '14 at 0:36
  • @Oldcat Actually the Crusades bit is right on the spot, except they weren't called that there and then - Charlemgane's recurring attacks on the pagan Saxons are a case in point. – Felix Goldberg Apr 19 '14 at 9:13
  • The second paragraph seems to be a bit off - what local pope? Apart from that, good answer and I'd love to upvote once the clear up the local pope part. – Felix Goldberg Apr 19 '14 at 9:14
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    @FelixGoldberg - When talking about the Goths and Vandals, this is centuries earlier than Charlemagne when Rome dominated the region. A large part of the Goths and Vandals converted before even entering the Empire. Even the Frankish conversion, after Rome fell was not because of any fear of a "Crusade" or pogrom. And the Saxons did not convert because of a fear of Crusades, but because those same Crusades killed too many of them to resist any longer. – Oldcat Apr 21 '14 at 16:49

What motivated the Kings of pagan tribes to move to Christianity? Christianity was more compatible with Hierarchy and structures the relatively unlimited power of divine right kings rather than the relativity more democratic or meritocratic pagan traditions. The medieval church was a good ally of Kings. A certain congruence of values between Kings and Bishops.

The adoption of Christianity by Germanic tribes was an event driven by the Political leadership. Thus the answer lies in what advantages did Christianity have over paganism for this leadership? This at a time when the leadership of these tribes is pushing towards a more centralized and powerful Kingship, Christianity (as the early medieval church) was more compatible and more philosophically inclined to support the more centralized King's power than paganism.

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    This is a bold conjecture but I doubt whether it really passes muster; can you point out specific instances where conversion has demonstrably increased a king's power? If not, then this is a theoretical construct and as such it is also suspect for I doubt that unruly barbarians really were impressed by bishops' sanctions. Their descendants - yes, but that is a different kettle of fish, and can hardly have figured in the original decisions to convert. – Felix Goldberg Apr 19 '14 at 16:30
  • No I cant, but the emergence of stronger central monarchies is happening at much the same time, Christianity as the medieval church was much more compatible with a more centralized monarchy than the more egalitarian pagan traditions. I'm saying it's more a sympatico sort of vibe between these emerging more centralized Kingdoms and Christian Church – pugsville Apr 20 '14 at 2:09
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    Your chronology is off by centuries, arguably a millenium. While understanding the chronology is not sufficient for a deeper understanding of historical roots and causes, it most definitely is necessary. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 20 '14 at 14:12
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    There are good points here that fit the time period of Henry the Fowler (r. 936-973) and Otto I of Saxony (r. 936-973). Unfortunately, this hypothosis does not fit as well to the time period in discussion - from about 678 with St. Wilfred of York to about 785 with the defeat of Witikind the Saxon. – Mike Apr 20 '14 at 17:26
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    Chronology I dont give a chronology so how can it be off. The "centralization" of power happened many times, but it inst the crux of the argument, I saying the philosophy of Christianity at the time was more in favor of the Kings power than the earlier paganism. These conversion were mainly top down, and the leaders were making a political decision that must have advantaged them in some way. – pugsville Apr 21 '14 at 15:08

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