I recently ran across some old blog posts about the papers presented at the big Kalamazoo medieval history conference. It’s one of those things that’s simultaneously impressive and interesting, while pointing out that the vast majority of people with medieval history degrees don’t work in their fields, or indeed, in academia.
Anyway, apparently the famous Walter Goffart at the end of his career presented a pedagogical paper on how to introduce Christianity to college students, particularly in reference to the late Roman Empire/early Middle Ages, which was his field. He presented the basic concepts of Christianity and its social consequences in terms of seven concepts.
But one of his seven concepts was that Christianity kills those who don’t convert. And the criticism of attendees mostly focused on how they thought he should have emphasized the bloody black legend of Christianity even more. One poster even had the idea that obviously there had been much more killing during the first to third centuries, because obviously Christians being persecuted by the Romans had nothing better to do than sneak around as ninjas, eliminating the heretics; and that the Roman government that was always coming up with horrible stories about Christian misdeeds would not have brought this up on anybody’s persecution chargesheets.
Well, first of all, let’s think about the tolerant nature of Roman or Germanic paganism. Both Romans and Germans did a fair amount of killing over religious disagreements. Ask the Druids, too, who both killed and were killed over religion.
Second, let’s think about which major religion of the time period was engaged in taking over the entire Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe with fire and sword, sparing non-co-religionists only for the purpose of enslaving them instead. Garsh, I seem to remember one. Five letter word, starts with an I… oh, yeah, Islam.
So what is the real issue here?
The real issue is that Charlemagne massacred the Saxons. Why did he massacre them? Because he didn’t like them and their war techniques, since they were very destructive next door neighbors. Being able to complain about them not being Christians, or about them providing martyrdom opportunities to missionaries who had visited them, was just icing on the cake. “Converting” the survivors was not about Christianity so much as about sending in Carolingian administrators after the slaughter, declaring the survivors tax-paying subjects of Charlemagne (and incidentally, Christians), and then sending in some missionaries and monks to help out with the Carolingizing process.
Was this any of the traditional ways to convert a population?
Did Charlemagne get reprimanded by his own Christian contemporaries?
Yes. Especially those who didn’t work for him and lived outside his borders.
So yeah, maybe it’s a good thing that this Goffart guy has retired, but obviously there are a lot of like-minded bigots coming up behind him.