G. F. (George Frederick) Maclear.

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from heathenism to Christianity. In this spirit,
therefore, he advised Augustine to deal cautiously
with the heathen festivals which were celebrated in or
near the temples ; he would not have them abolished
altogether, but suggested that on the anniversaries of
the Martyrs, whose relics had been placed in the
temples now converted into churches, booths should
be erected, and the people permitted to celebrate
their feasts in honour not of the old pagan deities^
but of the True God, the Giver of all good.

Gregory, whose spirit is said to have yearned towards
the old heathen sages who had died without hearing
of the work of Christ, considered that he had found a
precedent for the advice he now gave In the divine
system of educating the Jewish people after their
departure from Egypt. *' They had been wont," he
remarks, " to sacrifice to false gods ; they were not
forbidden now altogether to abstain from offering
sacrifice. The object only of their worship was
changed, and the same animals they had been wont
to sacrifice to idols, they now sacrificed in honour of
the Lord their God."

Grant that he may have regarded the Jewish sacri-
ficial system from far too low a point of view, still, in


the circumstances of the Anglo-Saxons just emerging
from heathenism, there was much to remind him of
the Jewish nation in its long contact with idolatry in
Egypt. The latter, unfitted, as the very genius of
their language attests, for abstract thought or meta-
physical speculations, absolutely required material
symbols, and with a Book of Symbols they were
mercifully provided.

The same mode of proceeding, Gregory was of
opinion, was requisite in the case of the Anglo-Saxon
converts, and if existing ceremonies could only be
exalted and purified, a gradual ascent might be sup-
plied towards understanding higher truths. Where,
as in England, and probably on the Continent, every
town had its religious establishment, the Mediaeval
missionaries, themselves in many cases but lately con-
verted, may be pardoned for the natural desire to
make as much as possible of the rcligio loci, and to
avail themselves, so far as it was practicable, of old

Architectural reasons may very probably have pre-
vented in many cases a compliance with Gregory's
advice, but its spirit was obeyed, wherever the Teu-
tonic missionary went forth to evangelize Teutons.
And independently of the sound principle which was
thus taught, *' that the evil spirit can be cast out of
institutions without destroying them," the early mis-
sionaries must have found that it is easy to destroy
the image or fling it into the stream, but very hard
to extirpate a faith, and eradicate time-honoured


They to whom they preached were, as we have
ah'eady seen, worshippers of all above them and
around them ; in the skies, the woods, the waters,
they found their oracles and sacred books ; they
revelled in spirits of the grove and of the fountain, of
the lake and of the hill ; they believed devoutly in
divinations, and presages, and lots. Imagine, then,
one w^ho from his earliest years had lived and moved
in the atmosphere of a faith like this, which identified
itself with all the associations of nature and the world
around, which taught him to hear voices from another
world m the forest roaring round his cottage in the
wintry night, or on the lake where he flung his net ; —
imagine such an one, out of deference to the will of
his chief, or the stern command of the conqueror, in an
age of '' implicit, childlike, trusting, fearing, rejoicing
faith," exchanging his early creed for that of the
Christian ; and can we wonder that the old ideas long
retained their sway, or that councils were obliged to
denounce, and the missionary to inveigh against,
lingering traces of well-worship and tree-worship,
against divination and witchcraft ?

Can we wonder that in an age when the old
divinities were still regarded as real powers, which were
not entirely bereft of all influence over their apostate
votaries, even after they had bowed before the uplifted
cross, or been signed with the same symbol in the
baptismal stream, the missionary was tempted, almost
unconsciously, to meet heathenism halfway, and to
Christianize superstitions he found himself powerless
to dispel ?


Can we wonder that many, unable to resist the
glamour of old beliefs, in the midst of which their
forefathers '' had lived and moved and had their
being-," were still prone at times to offer the ancient
sacrifices, and, as we gather from the letters of Boni-
face, to resort to the old magic and soothsaying ?
When we remember that as late as the fifteenth
century the Church was engaged in eradicating the
remains of Sclavonic heathenism, and protesting
against a rude fetishism and serpent worship, it is
surely no matter of surprise that the boundary line
between the old and the new faith was not very
sharply defined, that a continual interchange long
went on between Christian legends and heathen

It was no settled policy on the part of the fore-
fathers of European civilization, but the spirit of the
age itself, which refused to disjoin the judicial assembly
from its old accompanying heathen rites ; which kept
heathen festivals on Christian holidays., and celebrated
heathen festivals, purified of their grosser elements,
under a Christian guise; which exchanged the remem-
brance cup once drunk at the banquet in honour of
Thor and Woden for a similar salutation of the
Apostles, and in place of the image of Frigga caused
the staff of some saint to be carried round the corn-
fields to drive away the fieldmice or the caterpillars ;
which preserved the heathen names of the days of the
week, and inextricably united the name of a Saxon
goddess with the most joyous of the Christian
festivals : names which have survived all the inter-


vening changes of thought and feehng, and remain to
the present day the undying memorials of the period
of tvvihght between heathendom and Christianity.

IV. Our retrospect has, from the nature of the case,
been chiefly concerned with the more legitimate
efforts made during the earlier period of the Middle
Ages to propagate the Gospel. But during the later
period we noticed how other agencies besides the
holy lives and eloquent tongues of devoted men,
besides the monastic colony and the missionary
school, were employed to complete the circle of
European Christendom, We saw how the genuine
missionary spirit became tinged with fanaticism, and
was succeeded by violent and coercive propagandism.

The wars of Charlem-agne against the Saxons are
the subjects of legitimate censure. That these wars
were carried on with relentless- severity, that the
Saxon territory was invaded from^ year to year, that
• on one occasion four thousand five hundred prisoners
were beheaded for sharing in an insurrection, that on
another ten thousand Saxons were forcibly removed
from their own country into the older Frankish terri-
tory, cannot be denied.

Still the peculiarities of Charlemagne's position
must not be overlooked. Other causes than the
simplelust of conquest promoted these wars. Anti-
pathies of race and divergences of religious belief
lent a peculiar bitterness to the conflict between the
Frank and the Saxon. Charlemagne knew well that
if these hardy pirates of the North gained the upper
hand, all order and security in Europe would be


at an end. At the root of the new civiHzation,
whereof he was the champion, lay the Christian faith.
In the Christian Church, he felt, were the only
elements of order, and he had strengthened his
own power by the most intimate relations with it.
It is no wonder, therefore, that he believed himself
bound, as a Christian king, to impose that faith, which
alone promised any definite union or concord, on
races that still clung to the blood-stained rites of

" That the alternative, ' Believe or die,' was some-
times proposed by Charlemagne to the Saxons,"
writes Sir James Stephen, '' I shall not dispute. But
it is not less true that, before these terms were ten-
dered to them, they had again and again rejected his
less formidable proposal, * Be quiet and live.' In
form and term, indeed, their election lay between the
Gospel and the sword. In substance and in reality,
they had to make their choice between submission
and destruction. A long and deplorable experience
had already shown that the Prankish people had
neither peace nor security to expect for a single
year so long as their Saxon neighbours retained their
heathen rites and the ferocious barbarism inseparable
from them. Fearful as may be the dilemma, ' Submit
or perish,' it is that to which every nation, even in our
own times, endeavours to reduce a host of invading
and desolating foes ; nor, if we ourselves were exposed
to similar inroads, should we offer to our assailants
conditions more gentle or less peremptory."^

1 Lecture i. p. 92.


These considerations may tend to modify our view
of Charlemagne's policy, but the wholesale and in-
discriminate mode of administering the rite of bap-
tism on the conclusion of his compaigns cannot
possibly be defended, and drew forth, as we saw, the
indignant expostulations of Alcuin, and men of
kindred spirit.

The violent efforts of the Norwegian princes to
enforce Christianity as the national faith have a
grotesqueness of their own, which relieves them
from the imputation of those darker motives which
prompted the Albigensian Crusades and the establish-
ment of the Inquisition. As for the violence of the
Viking, it may be pleaded that, however low and
unworthy the conceptions he had formed of the
Christian faith, his mode of enforcing his new creed
on his rough and hardy subjects was at least straight-
forward. He had believed once in the might of Thor's
great hammer, " the crusher and smasher," and force
was the only weapon he could conceive capable of
effecting his purpose. To expect maxims of toleration
from a Viking would indeed be absurd ; but the fact
that, in spite of the violence with which Christianity
was introduced into the Scandinavian and other king-
doms, the leaven was found able to work mightily, and
to do great things for their advancement, is surely an
encouragement as regards the future of modern mis-
sionary efforts. When we reflect how long a period
even the partial evangelization of Europe occupied,
how slow, how gradual was its progress, how at times
it seemed to have come to a standstill altogether, we


shall not be Impatient for Immediate results of
missionary work in modern times.

Whenever the Church effected anything real or
lasting, It was when she was content to persevere In a
spirit of absolute dependence on him who has pro-
mised to be with her always, even unto the end of the
zvorld ; when In the person of a- Columba, a Boniface,
a SturmI, an Anskar, a Raymund Lull, she was con-
tented to go forth and sow the seed, and then leave
It to do Its work, remembering that If '' earthly seed is
long in springing up, Imperishable seed Is longer
still." Whenever she failed in her efforts, It v/as
when she forgot In whose strength she went forth,
and for whose glory alone she existed, when she was
tempted to resort to other means and to try other
expedients than those which her great Head had
sanctioned when, Instead of patiently leaving the good
seed to grow of Itself, she strove to hurry its develop-
ment, and was Impatient of small beginnings and
weak Instruments.

For if the retrospect of the missionary efforts of
the Middle Ages teaches one lesson more than another,
it is the value of those " slender wires " on which the
greatest events are often hung, and the Importance of
not despising the day of small things. " Let any
one," writes the author of the '' Historical Memoirs
of Canterbury," '' sit on the hill of the little Church of
St. Martin at Canterbury, and look on the view which
Is there spread before his eyes. Immediately below
are the towers of the great Abbey of St. Augustine,
where Christian learning and civilization first struck


root in the Anglo-Saxon race ; and within which now,
after a lapse of many centuries, a new institution
has arisen, intended to carry far and wide, to coun-
tries of which Gregory and Augustine had never heard,

the blessings which they gave to us From

Canterbury, the first English Christian city — from
Kent, the first English Christian kingdom — has, by
degrees, arisen the whole constitution of a Church
and State in England, which now binds together
the whole British Empire. And from the Christi-
anity here established in England has flowed, by
direct consequence, first, the Christianity of Germany,
— then, after a long interval, of North America, — and
lastly, we may trust, in time, of all India and Austral-
asia. The view from St. Martin's Church is indeed
one of the most inspiriting that can be found in the
world ; there is none to which I would more willingly
take any one who doubted whether a small beginning
would lead to a great and lasting good, — none which
carries us more vividly back to the past, or more
hopefully forward to the future."-^

^ Stanley's "^Memorials of Canterbury," p. 39.



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Online LibraryG. F. (George Frederick) MaclearApostles of mediaeval Europe → online text (page 21 of 21)