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, starting with what an Englishman is anyway. Then, how it lead, had to lead, to a reformation.
What's an Englishman?
Well, 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 mixed in from before, and a bunch of stuff mixed in from later, largely French. Although the main kind of French, Normans, are basically German too, as are the Vikings who were always raiding and conquering stuff.
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 the place.
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.
Just 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 Heptarchy.
The Missionaries Are Coming!
Anyway, 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. Oh for the cat's sake, what is THAT? Well. it means the German Bay, or cove or bight; it's 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.
Anyway, 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.
So, 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.
Which 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".
There 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 (we'll get to what that is next paragraph). 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.
Holy 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 support 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 for you.
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 -- Reichsdeputationshauptschluss.
What Is THAT?
Relax, 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.
If you're 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.
For the 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", the whole bleeding Empire was run from there at times, I 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).
Oh 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.
The head 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.
Thanks 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.
PS. 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" was a box office smash hit as was the sequel in 2013, and a third one is being written! Hey, after you wow 'em with the East/West Francia thing, hit 'em with why you must see "Thor" movies on a Thursday!
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