The slow completion of the conversion of northwestern Europe

The remarkable spread of Christianity in the hundred years after 950 brought into nominal adherence to the faith most of the major peoples of Western Europe who had thus far been outside its fold. The one important exception was the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula and these, as we have seen, were dwindling. Yet in 1050 by no means all those who dwelt in Western and Central Europe thought of themselves as Christians. In addition to the Moslems in the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily and the Jews, small and widely scattered minority, there were still frankly pagan enclaves. They were principally along the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic. Chief among them were the Slavs north and east of the Elbe (Wends the Germans called them), the Pomeranians, the Lithuanians, the Prussians, the Estonians or Ests, the Letts, the Finns, and, in the extreme North, the Lapps.

After the middle of the eleventh century the geographic advance of Christianity in Western and Central Europe continued but at a much less marked pace. As we have repeatedly reminded ourselves, the effect of nominal conversion upon the majority of the peoples who had been won in the preceding hundred years was slight and the deepening of the faith through instruction, the recruiting and training of clergy, the development of dioceses and parishes, and the administration of the Church's sacraments was slow. In some lands, notably in Poland and Hungary, the first wave of conversion, associated as it was with vigorous and sometimes violent and ruthless expansion of the royal power, was followed by a pagan revival. Recovery always came, hut it might be retarded. By the year 1350 conversion had been accomplished in all Western and Central Europe except for the Lithuanians, the Finns, the Jews, and the Moslem remnants in Spain. Beginnings had been made in all these and before long the Lithuanian pagan majority was to accept baptism.

Efforts for the conversion of the Wends commenced in a large way in the first half of the tenth century. Divided into many tribes, the Wends then occupied most of the later Germany east and north of the Elbe. The German rulers attempted to extend their control over them and their territories. This led to chronic warfare which was often waged with savage cruelty. Since the Germans professed to be Christians, both they and the Wends regarded baptism as a symbol of submission to German authority and the issue was compounded by racial bitterness. Otto I extended his domains, somewhat superficially, eastward to the Oder. He sought the conversion of his newly acquired Wend subjects. To this end he founded two bishoprics in Wendland and placed them under the Archbishopric of Magdeburg, inaugurated for this very purpose, on the left bank of the Elbe, looking across the river into Wend territory. After death had removed his strong hand, the Wends revolted and directed part of their spleen against the bishops, symbols as they were of German rule. German authority was later restored, but when it declined the Wends once more rose. Again and again the cycle was repeated. Some of the Wends were baptized, but the territory which had been theirs became solidly committed to Christianity only through the immigration of Germans, a process which required centuries.

The conversion of the Pomeranians, a Slavic people on the Baltic with their capital at Stettin, was accomplished during the twelfth and the fore part of the thirteenth century. In it Poles, Danes, and Germans had a part, but Germans were the chief agents. In the first quarter of the twelfth century a king of Poland invaded the region, captured some of the cities, and as a price of peace required the populace to pay him tribute and to accept baptism. His chief emissary for inducing the Pomeranians to fulfil their promise to be baptized was a German, Bishop Otto of Bamberg.

Otto was an organizer, a man of affairs, who had been Chancellor of the Holy Roman Empire. At this time probably in his sixties, he had the fearlessness and energy of youth. Twice he journeyed into Pomerania, both times in the 1120's, taking with him a band of assistants. He went unarmed, but with impressive pomp, with the endorsement of the Pope, and the second time with the authority of the German king. Under him numbers were baptized, but not until the close of the century do there seem to have been many Pomeranian priests. German and Danish monastic communities and the German farmers whom they encouraged to come to till their lands did much to complete the assimilation of the Pomeranians to the Christian faith.

It was in the latter part of the twelfth and the fore part of the thirteenth century that Christianity was firmly established among the Finns. This was largely through the Swedes, but it was an Englishman, Bishop Henry of the Swedish see of Uppsala, who, martyred, is esteemed the founder of the Finnish church. It was, however, a Swedish conquest which began in 1249 that led the majority to an outward conformity to the Christian faith. The Swedes also had missions among the Lapps, in the extreme north of the Scandinavian Peninsula, but by the middle of the fourteenth century only a minority had been won.

Late in the twelfth and early in the thirteenth century the Danes were especially strong in the Baltic. Through them conversions were made among the Ests, south of the Gulf of Finland. The Swedes and the Russians from Novgorod also had a part in bringing the Ests to accept the Christian faith. Indeed, there was unseemly rivalry among these nationalities in using baptism as a means of gaining support for their interests.

Except for the Lithuanians, the majority among the Baltic peoples south of the Gulf of Finland became Christians through the Germans. Early contacts with Germans were commercial. German merchants frequented the Baltic ports. Accounts brought by merchants led an elderly German monk, Meinhard, to go to the lower Dvina and preach to any who would listen. He was soon consecrated bishop for that area. The second of his successors, Albert, founded the city of Riga near the mouth of the Dvina and inaugurated (1202) a crusading order with the name, singularly inappropriate for Christian missionaries, Knights of the Sword, officially and slightly less offensively, Fratres Militiae Christi. By this time Crusades, of which we will have more to say in the next chapter, had become an honoured phase of the activities of Western Christendom and orders which combined monastic vows with the career of the soldier had come into being to further them. The Knights of the Sword conquered a fairly extensive area and required of pagans a pledge to accept baptism as a symbol of submission.

The Prussians, a non-Germanic people, were very resistant. Late in the tenth and early in the eleventh century they killed several missionaries. Undiscouraged, other missionaries came and baptisms followed. In the first half of the thirteenth century the Teutonic Knights undertook the task. They, too, had arisen from the Crusades, originally for the purpose of serving Christians in Syria and Palestine. In 1225-1226 they were called by a Pole for aid against a tribe of Prussians. Here they found their main field of endeavour.

After a half century of fighting they conquered the land. They then ruled it for several centuries. Under them the Prussians outwardly conformed to the Christian faith.

The Teutonic Knights attempted to subjugate the Lithuanians, but the latter resisted both them and their religion. It was not until 1386 that as the price of an alliance with the Poles against the Knights the Lithuanians agreed to mass baptism and the destruction of their pagan temples. Obviously even then the conversion was superficial and pagan practices survived at least as late as the seventeenth century.

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