Charter A Week 38: Paganism and Response in Normandy

Huh, I guess we’re getting to Normandy earlier than I’d anticipated. Anyway, we saw a few weeks ago that one of the criticisms levelled at the early Normans was that they were disloyal to their new Christian faith. This wasn’t just polemic (although it was definitely also polemic). Archbishop Guy of Rheims – probably the only bishop left in post in early tenth-century Normandy – was also having problems. He apparently wrote a panicked letter to his neighbour Archbishop Heriveus of Rheims, who in turn wrote to Pope John X, who, in his turn, wrote back:

PU no. 38 (914) = JL no. 3553

Bishop John, servant of the servants of God, to Our most reverend confrere Heriveus, archbishop of Rheims.

Very freely receiving the honey-sweet letters of Your Fraternity and Your Reverend Sanctity and very diligently considering them, We became both very sad and fiercely joyful. To explain: We grieved over such calamities and such pressures and difficulties as have befallen your region (as the statement of your letters made plain), not only from pagans, but also from Christians. We rejoiced, though, over the race of the Northmen, which has been converted, by the inspiration of divine clemency, to the faith. Once it delighted to prowl in search of human blood, but now, by your exhortations, with the Lord’s co-operation, it rejoices that it is redeemed and to have drunk of the divine blood of Christ. For this, We give tremendous and profuse thanks to Him from whom all which is good comes forth, submissively entreating that He might confirm them in the firmness of true faith and cause them to know the glory of the eternal Trinity and lead them in to the unspeakable joy of His visage.

Now, concerning what should be done about those things which Your Fraternity has made known to Us – that is, what should be done with those who are baptised and re-baptised, and live like pagans after baptism, killing Christians, butchering priests and sacrificing to idols and eating to the sacrifices after the pagan custom – those who are not novices in the faith should be tried by the full force of canonical judgement.

As for those who are unwrought in the faith, We commit them entirely to the scales of your judgement to be tried. You have this people near your borders, and you are better placed than anyone to diligently attend to and recognize both their habits and acts and way of life. This, though, should be done gently. Your Industry knows full well what the sacred canons judge decree for them. But it should not come to pass that the unaccustomed burdens which they carry should seem, God forbid, unbearable to them. They will fall back to the former man of their old life, whom they had improved, owing to the plots of the Ancient Enemy. If some, however, are found amongst them who prefer to soften themselves in accordance with the canonical statutes and expiate such sins as they have committed by worthy laments, do not hesitate to judge these people canonically; being in this way being vigilant towards them in everything, so that when you come before the tribunal of the Eternal Judge with the manifold fruit of souls, you may deserve to gain eternal joy with the blessed Remigius.

On another note, We received the gift which Your Sanctity deigned to send to Us, with that love and affection with which you sent it. May Divine Majesty grant you and all who are subject to you such a life in this world as, by the intercession of the blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, might loose the chains of all your sins and lead you to the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven without any offence.

We bid Your Sanctity farewell, and to intercede for Us with pious supplications before the most pious of Lords.

800px-three_kings_or_three_gods
This image, which is a Swedish tapestry from the c12th, may or may not have much to do with what c10th vikings believed; but as I upload this I’m in a rush and it’s a pretty picture. (source

The conversion of the Northmen to Christianity was a long-term project, and from the mid-910s we have not only John’s letter to Heriveus but also Heriveus’ letter to Archbishop Guy of Rouen, giving him advice and excerpts from the canons about various disciplinary issues. Lying behind much of this is Gregory the Great, and especially his letter to St Augustine of Canterbury giving similar advice about newly-converted pagans; and both Heriveus and John advise a tread-lightly approach.

One thing which I don’t think scholars have previously picked up on: I don’t think this letter is entirely about converts. At the beginning of the letter, John refers to disturbances in northern Neustria wreaked by Christians as well as pagans, and although there is something of a trope about this, we know it happened. If you remember Bernard of Gothia, one of the three Bernards, his brother Imino was accused of plundering the area around Évreux in a Viking-like fashion by Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims.

In this light, I don’t think John is simply drawing a distinction between more- and less-experienced converts to Christianity. It seems to me that he’s giving Guy and Heriveus carte blanche to deal with ‘those who are not novices in the faith’ – which could mean long-time converts but could also mean those who were born to it – as they would with anyone who raided or despoiled Church property. It is even possible that there was some ‘conversion’ the other way, from Christianity to paganism; or, at the very least, that northern Neustrian Christians didn’t object to eating meat which had been sacrificed to pagan gods, and that this was also a problem for the two archbishops. (In the ninth century, Pippin II of Aquitaine had been accused of living like a Northman and it is clear that this was a major problem in the Frankish world.)

In short, this letter does not only testify to the canny, long-term conversion strategies of those in charge of winning the Neustrian Norse for Christianity. It also testifies to the problems besetting the future Normandy at this point – even if the king could dispose of property there, there were evidently major disruptions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s