Or, How an Englishman became the patron saint of Germany and how a Benedictine monk set in motion what would lead to the Lutheran Reformation. Festschrift for his festival day.
What a guy! For starters, the patron saint of Germany is an Englishman. Now how did that happen? Here's the story.
What's an Englishman?
Winfred -- that's his real name -- was born to a wealthy family
(funny how that happens a lot in what become "great" saints) in Wessex
around 672 or so. What's Wessex? We English love contractions for
stuff; Wessex is a contraction for West Saxons. Judas, isn't Saxony
in Germany? Yeah, it is. We English are basically a German people,
with some Roman stuff from before, and a bunch of stuff from later,
largely French. Although the main kind of French, Normans, are
basically German too, as are the Vikings who were always raiding and
Those Vikings were probably looking
for some decent food, if you've ever had lutefisk or other
Scandinavian food. Unfortunately our food isn't that great either,
which is probably why the coastal raids were so fierce -- they were
ticked, came all this way and the food is still crap, so they trashed
A bunch of us German types came in about
the time the Romans were losing their grip and the original peoples
were losing what was left of theirs too. So, you had Wessex, the
Kingdom of the West Saxons in the western modern United Kingdom
(which really is a union of formerly separate kingdoms), Sussex, the
Kingdom of the South Saxons, and Essex, the Kingdom of the East
Saxons. Essex is just South of East Anglia, which is where my people
came -- hey, we were invited, the locals were having trouble holding
off the Scots after the Romans left -- from Anglia, in modern
Schleswig-Holstein, a state in modern Germany.
for the record, there's seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and eventually
they became a united Kingdom of England, which word comes from us,
Angle-land. They are: Wessex; Sussex; Essex; East Anglia; Mercia
(they were some bad dudes, but I ain't getting into that now);
Northumbria; Kent. Collectively, they are traditionally called the
The Missionaries Are Coming!
here's Winfrid in Wessex. Against his father's wishes, he takes off
to a Benedictine monkatorium -- one extreme to another. In 716 he
sets out to convert the Frisians, since his language, which we now
call Old English, wasn't all that different than theirs. OK, what's
Frisia? Well, it's die deutsche Bucht, howzat -- means the German
Bay, or cove or bight, the German coastal area on the southeast corner
of the North Sea.
Trouble is, there was a war on
between Charles Martel and the King of Frisia, so he and his company
went back home. They came back though. This time he had the support
and protection of Charles Martel. Whozat, came up twice now? Well,
Charles Martel, Latin name Carolus Martellus or Charles the Hammer,
Karl Martell in German, was King of the Franks and grandfather of
Charlemagne, aka Carolus Magnus, aka Karl der Grosse, whose
Carolingian Empire became the Holy Roman Empire (Imperium Romanum
Sacrum, or das heiliges römisches Reich) with the blessings of the
bishops of Rome, some of them in turn put there by the empire, call
it a symbiotic relationship. Wanna spice it up at your next
let's-impress-each-other cocktail party? Call France West Francia and
Germany East Francia, which is pretty much what they are.
the object of the game was for the Christian Carolingians to conquer
the non-Christian Saxons, which of course meant making them
Christian too. Now just a bleeding minute, didn't we just go over
Saxons being in England? Yes we did, but, two things. For one, some
of them stayed home, and for another, it's often hard telling in
accounts from those times whether "Saxon" means literally people from
Sachsen or is a reference to Germans generally.
Winfrid Takes On Thor.
in 723, under royal and military protection, a famous thing
happened. Winfrid -- who was not yet known by his Benedictine
(everybody who's anybody is a Benedictine, you know that) name
Boniface, from the Latin Bonifacius, meaning well-made -- thinking of
Elijah in the Bible story, goes up to a sacred tree, near Fritzlar
in the modern German state of Hesse, that was a major religious site
to Thor in the native German religion, and chops the bleeder down,
saying if Thor were real he could strike him dead.
didn't happen, and the story is that on seeing that all these
Germans, from outside the former Roman Imperial boundaries, became
Christian. Then the next year (724) he builds a chapel from wood
from the oak. Then he set up a bishop -- guess you didn't need a
papal appointment -- and established a Benedictine monastery in
Fritzlar, and its first abbot, Wigbert, built a cathedral on the site
of Boniface's chapel on the site of Thor's Oak. The bishop died and
it became part of the bishopric of Mainz, which is the old Roman
Imperial provincial capital called Moguntiaticum.
Thor Loses Big Time, Boniface Becomes First Of Germans Via The "Pope".
had been bishops in Moguntiaticum since Crescens around 80AD,
although the first one with any verifiable record is Marinus in 343.
But when Boniface, by now an "archbishop" becomes bishop in 745, the
place really took off. Boniface made several (three, I think) trips
to Rome and was granted the pallium. The archbishops of Mainz became
the Primas Germaniae, First of the Germans, the Pope's legatus natus
(representative by virtue of his office) north of the Alps.
crap what's a pallium then? It's a wool scarf worn by the pope as a
symbol of his supposed authority, which the popes later also gave to
some regional bishops to show their support of and from papal
authority. Silly enough, but these things were sold and the right to
wear them brought in millions to the papal fortune, and that's serious
business! So Pope Gregory II in 732 gives Boniface the pallium and
also authority over what is now Germany, whereupon Charles Martel
started setting up bishoprics all over with Boniface over them. Pope,
king, what the hell, all "apostolic succession". Boniface himself
said he couldn't have done it without the military and political
power of Charles Martel. He said it to Daniel of Winchester but
Godfrey was there by institutional memory and told me about the whole
thing, plus it's in all the history books if that isn't good enough
But there was still these frigging
Frisians, who still weren't converted. Bloody coastal areas anyway.
So in 754 he sets out to get them after all, but they weren't so hot
to be gotten, and he ended up getting killed. His remains were
taken to Utrecht, and then to Fulda, where Boniface's disciple Sturm
-- hey, didn't he have a brother named Drang (if you're laughing, a
special welcome to Past Elder) -- started a Benedictine monastery on
12 March 744, which lasted until Napoleon shut it down in 1802, in
what we call in German -- are you ready for this --
What Is THAT?
that's just the nickname! Its real name is Hauptschluss der
ausserordentlichen Reichsdeputation, howzat, which means the Main
Conclusion of the Extraordinary Imperial Delegation, which was the last
thing the Reichstag of the Holy Roman Empire really did, on 25
February 1803, before the HRE ended in 1806. Basically, caved to
Napoleon and secularised religious stuff.
thinking continuity, or hermeneutics thereof, forget it. Fulda
started up again as an episcopal see, meaning a bishopric, in 1829.
The German Catholic bishops still have their conferences there, but
this is not the old Fulda. Likewise, the current Catholic Diocese of
Mainz is not the old Archbishopric of Mainz; the latter ended and
the new one began in 1802 too and they ain't the Kurfuerstentum Mainz
no more either. Who the hell were they? One of the seven guys who
elected Holy Roman Emperors, that's who.
record, the other six electors besides the Prince-Archbishop of Mainz
were 1) the Prince-Archbishop of Trier (man I love Trier, Judas
Priest even Constantine was there, that's where he ditched his wife
and married another, whom he later had killed along with their son,
in a power deal as part of becoming "Great" and "Equal of the
Apostles", haven't been able to get that utterly captivating city out
of my mind since I was there in 1969, man I love Trier), 2) the
Prince-Archbishop of Köln (Cologne, couldn't understand bupkis of the
local dialect there), 3) the King of Bohemia (a Habsburg since 1526,
think Austria), 4) the Count Palatine of the Rhine (always a
Wittlesbach, the royal family of Bavaria, yay!, whose money started
the Benedictine place in Minnesota where I, well, I don't know
exactly what the hell I did there), 5) the Duke of Saxony (a Wettin
since 1423) and 6) the Margrave of Brandenburg (a Hohenzollern since
1415, think Prussia).
yeah, Boniface. His body is still there in the Fulda cathedral.
Before we get all misty about the "Apostle to the Germans" and all, we
should remember that the spread of Christianity through the Apostles
took no such course as the one described above. The Apostles' course
was anything but the increase of the state church right along with
the increase of the state to which it belonged. The above is not a
story of the triumph of the Gospel, because as Boniface himself said,
it would hardly have been possible without the triumph of the state.
To get misty about some triumph of the Gospel one must also get
misty about the triumph of the, specifically that, state. And its
prince-bishops. And the "pope" of Rome, who still bears the title of
the chief priest of the pagan Roman Imperial religion, pontifex
maximus, a title held by the Roman Emperor.
of state no longer carries that title, the church of Christ knows
neither such a title nor regional versions. The spread of
Christianity brought with it the same things that would later make
the Reformation necessary. As the church had become deformed so it
would need to be reformed. And so it was. While we might, and
should, admire the zeal, Christianity should never be spread in this
way, and the Christianity that is spread in this way is a deformed
Christianity that will eventually need to be reformed.
be to God that it was. This deformed Christianity is precisely
where, 800 some years later, it would be reformed, bringing the good
Boniface brought that we celebrate to-day to its true nature. Or
rather, IS being so reformed. The Lutheran Reformation is a process,
not a past historical fact. The authentic Gospel of Christ and his
Church is for all people, not just us Germanic types. And ironically
to-day it's as needed by some church bodies with "Lutheran" in their
names as it is by that state church now without its state, the RCC.
Old Boniface didn't totally get rid of the Thor, or in German
Donner, thing. The sacred oak may be gone, but we still have his
day, Thor's Day, or Thursday -- we English love contractions. In
German it's Donnerstag, same thing. And the 2011 movie "Thor" is a
box office smash hit and there's gonna be a sequel! Hey, after you
wow 'em with the East/West Francia thing, hit 'em with why you must
see "Thor" on a Thursday!
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