Seminary XXXVIII: complications in the conversion of Bavaria

The Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research wound up for this term with a visitor from afar, Maximilian Diesenberger of the Österreichische Akademie für Wissenschaften in Vienna, which I showed you pictures of a while back. They seem to recruit some fiercely bright people there, and Max was shown no exception by this, and of course has enough in print that no-one would have thought otherwise; I just mean to start by saying that this was a good paper, very carefully considered, full of interesting suggestions and all well in touch with the evidence. The title was “Christianizing Bavaria in the reign of Charlemagne”, so, back in funds, of course I was there.

Fifteenth-century woodcut of the martyrdom of St Emmeram, from Wikimedia Commons

Fifteenth-century woodcut of the martyrdom of St Emmeram, from Wikimedia Commons

Max was mainly working with sermon literature, of which there is a surprising amount from here, and other sorts of episcopal ephemera, inventories, brevia, scraps; he seemed to have had some dæmon finding useful manuscripts for him, though the main one he referred to was this one, Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Codex 420, which that library catalogue explains contains various saint’s lives and hagiographical writing. Using as his conceptual framework the idea that conversion is in some ways an ordering of space, Max explored what these sources could tell us about how the process and task of conversion was seen. I can’t attempt to convey everything he brought out, but some things are worth emphasising. Many of the saints’ lives, for example, especially that of poor Emmeram above, exist in plural versions. This means that we can compare the oldest Vita Emmerami with the later ones, and note that he like other saints of the Bavarian age of conversion never used to get beyond the River Enns, but after Charlemagne’s defeat of the Avars and the first moves into Pannonia from Salzburg, new versions of the Vitae are constructed that send the missionary saints into those areas too, to try and claim the territory by story-telling. This was the kind of thing Max was doing.

Other good chunky bits were these suggestions:

  • Those saints don’t initially get much further than the Enns because, although the west of Bavaria is converted early on, late-Roman sub-Roman sort of period, the east is arguably not really touched until the 700s, the era of these saints, and may well not be terribly Christianized as the Carolingians rise to power
  • This suggests that the dukes of Bavaria, despite their Carolingian connections, were very deeply identified with the new religion and its apostles – Duke Tassilo founded more monasteries in Bavaria than the Carolingians did en bloc, for example. (A weird comparison arises in my mind between the Agilolfing dukes and the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, arriving as questionable foreign impositions and ending their days as cornerstones of their nation’s identity as a new foreign power rolled over them… )
  • The Carolingians have to rearrange space to free themselves of this legacy, as well as the historiography;1 so rather than maintain the Bavarian metropolitanate at Regensburg where the Agilolfings had it, they start a new one at Salzburg. But the Agilolfings had probably moved it to Regensburg from Augsburg, to place it in their new eastern conversion zone, and Augsburg can be detected playing with texts that seem to remember this, bitterly.
  • Once the churches get into them, the old Avar territories are briefly zones completely free for the imagination. The few charters we have for land there (and there are some, at Freising predictably… ) give boundaries on things like ‘pagan graveyards’, it’s a land of legends and no-one knows what’s going on there at first. Annoyingly, of course, we still don’t. I compared it in questions to Pictland, in as much as it’s an area that we identify by a political over-rule seen by outsiders but which seems from material evidence to have been populated by many distinct groups who perhaps wouldn’t have seen themselves as a single group. I need to do more reading about the Avars.

One particular tension that Max brought out at length was between two approaches that we might epitomise as the Alcuin approach and the Arn approach, referring to Charlemagne’s leading scholar and the first new metropolitan bishop of Salzburg respectively. Alcuin thought, famously, that mission work should be accomplished by persuasion, humility, and not imposing tithe too early. Arn, who unlike Alcuin actually had to do some such work, however preferred a heavy institutional approach, and many of the writings Max was talking about are basically stories showing how important it is to give land to the Church so as to be saved. Now it is very very easy to take a modern anti-clerical view of this and say, with some reputable scholars and also with Terry Jones (who is a disreputable scholar, but scholar nonetheless), that this is just a profit motive and that no-one cares about the souls if they can get the lands.2 But in a hostile territory, whose conversion efforts are the more enduring, hey? The lone and charismatic missionary who, Hewald-like, wanders into pagan lands and stands up against their unholy customs with only the force of his preaching? (Max emphasised that many of these texts express an conviction that the biggest thing that made conversion effective or not was the quality of the preaching.) Or the place which gets land, whose men are always there because they live among you expressing their religion as well-defended power and wealth, who offer not a charismatic example but a comfortable one? How much of a mission can you run without a church? How can you have a church without upkeep? How do you therefore sustain a conversion effort without tithe? The harsh institutional extortion so lamented by Alcuin may have implanted the faith rather more durably… and the guarantee of treasure in Heaven may sound more plausible from someone who’s already got this world’s wealth when Apostolic poverty is still a new idea to you.

Baroque refurbishment of the medieval basilica of St Emmerams, Regensburg, from Wikimedia Commons

Baroque refurbishment of the medieval basilica of St Emmeram's, Regensburg, from Wikimedia Commons

1. If the Carolingian takeover of Bavaria is an interesting topic to you, you’ve probably already read both Stuart Airlie, “Narratives of Triumph and Rituals of Submission: Charlemagne’s mastery of Bavaria” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 93-119, and Warren Brown, Unjust Seizure: conflict, interest and authority in an early medieval society, Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past 2 (Ithaca 2001), but if you haven’t, they’re both really good.

2. For example, Jack Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge 1988); Robert Burton Ekelund, Robert D. Tollison, Robert F. Hebert, Gary M. Anderson & Audrey B. Davidson, Sacred Trust: the medieval Church as an economic firm (New York 1996); cf. Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy (Cornell 1983). As for Terry Jones, I’m mainly thinking of his TV series Medieval Lives, which aired when I was first teaching and was what my students would bring in reports of to taunt me with, but his book Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (London 1980) is a genuine scholarly contribution, whether you agree with it or not, and if you would rather doubt that the ex-Python could have a terribly sophisticated view of the Middle Ages, you could have a look at this interview on News for Medievalists and tell me if you still think he’s a charlatan. I don’t. Provocative and annoying, yes, but from knowledge.

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