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The Heliand as a Source for Carolingian Society and Values

Discussion in 'World History' started by LightSpectra, Feb 15, 2011.

  1. LightSpectra

    LightSpectra me autem minui

    Mar 31, 2007
    The Heliand as a Source for Carolingian Society and Values
    by LightSpectra


    In the 9th century A.D., the Christian Gospels were translated into the Old Saxon language by the Franks for the purpose of evangelizing the indigenous peoples of the recently conquered territory of Saxony. The translation is known as the Heliand. Its unique renderings of, and changes to, the orthodox account of the story of Jesus tells a great deal about early medieval Saxon society, and what notions were highly valued by the Franks so as to associate them with Christ. The militarization of several Christian concepts tells of how significant warfare was to the Franks and Saxons, and the Heliand's terminology is also indicative of early medieval views of religion and superstition.

    The author of this text is unknown, but several details can be inferred from the text: “Whoever he was, he was an enormously gifted religious poet capable of profound intercultural communication. He rewrote and reimagined the events and words of the gospel as if they had taken place and been spoken in his own country and time, in the chieftain society of a defeated people, forcibly Christianized by Charlemagne… [by] the power of his imagination the unknown poet-monk (perhaps ex-warrior) created a unique cultural synthesis between Christianity and Germanic warrior-society…”1

    His intent in composing the Saxon Gospel is “putting the gospel in Northern terms: so that the Saxons will be able to have a clear- minded grasp of their new faith. By clear-minded, [the author] indicates that they will not have to vacillate between their older Germanic beliefs and the new Mediterranean ones, but that they will hear the meaning of the new religion in their own terms.”2

    Translator G. Ronald Murphy argues in favor of an audience that “was probably to be found in mead hall and monastery. The epic poem seems not to have been designed for use in the church as a part of official worship, but is intended to bring the gospel home to the Saxons in a poetic environment in order to help the Saxons cease their vacillation between their warrior-loyalty to the old gods and to the ‘might Christ.’”3

    Military Values

    The terminology used in the Saxon Gospel is almost entirely based on war. God is referred to as “the Ruler, our dear Chieftain.”4 Prophets and apostles of God are referred to as “warrior-companions.”5 Simon Peter is noted as “the earl famous for his strength.”6 Cities and places are often given the designation as “forts.”7 The wisemen that come to worship Christ at his Nativity are “thanes” and “word-wise warriors.”8 John the Baptist preaches to “Middlegard.”9 Hell is “the region of Hel,” in reference to a mythological Germanic villain named “Hel.”10 The wealthy are “earls.”11 The Jewish Sanhedrin is “the clan-gathering of the Jewish warriors.”12 All of this is perhaps due to the primitiveness of the Saxon language, but nevertheless shows how much the Saxons valued military worth.

    After Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus, the author of the Heliand gives a conclusion to Song 49 that emphasizes that the Christian God is one of divine providence with power over life and death: “Thus the King of Heaven, the mighty divine Power, can protect everyone's life-spirit and help everyone against the hatred of the enemies -- everyone to whom He grants His gracious favor.”13

    Thus implying that the Franks' victory over the Saxons should be taken as evidence of the supremacy of the Christian God over the Germanic pagan deities. The fundamental intent of the Heliand militarizing the Gospels, in fact, appears to be a cultural appeal to the indigenous peoples of Saxony for them to peacefully and happily adopt Christianity.

    The Carolingians' deep respect for ancient Rome is displayed early on in the Saxon Gospel: “At [this] time the Christian God granted to the Roman people the (a) greatest kingdom. (b) He strengthened the heart of their army so that they had conquered every nation. Those helmet-lovers from hill-fort Rome had won an empire. Their military governors were in every land and they had authority over the people of (c) every noble race.”14 (Annotations added.)

    The implications behind this passage are that (a) the Romans were the height of civilization, (b) the source of Roman success was pure courage granted directly from God, and (c) that “every noble race” was under the authority of the Empire. This last point is particularly fascinating, given that the Romans controlled Gaul -- which was the base of the Frankish Kingdom before they extended into Germania -- whereas the Romans never conquered Saxony, which seems to indicate that the Saxons were therefore not a “noble race” and the Franks were.

    Another perceptible message to the Saxons can be found in the Sanhedrin's motive for executing Jesus. Whereas in the Bible, it is given that the Jews were upset at Jesus for the crime of blasphemy, in the Heliand, it is instead fear of Roman intervention: “Too many of this clan will believe His teachings. Then people will come at us [Israel] with armies of cavalry and our overlords will be warriors from Rome. After that, we will either live dispossessed of our kingdom or we will suffer the loss of our lives, heroes and our heads!”15

    The use of the term “armies of cavalry” is fascinating -- while the Romans did have highly trained equitis, it was infantry that made the backbone of the imperial military. By contrast, heavy cavalry became the decisive unit by the middle ages, hence making this passage a cultural modernization. Murphy comments:

    “There is, of course, no mention at all of cavalry at this point, or any point, in the four gospels. Charlemagne had so developed the cavalry, that the Franks possessed the best mounted forces ... in the Northern world. Neither the Saxons nor the Vikings fared well against organized cavalry formations, especially once their lines became ragged. The author's deft and brief insertion of the fear of cavalry, brings the speaker's words into emotional accord with the military feelings of the Saxons, and into the political fear common to both peoples, Saxon and Jewish, of being ruled by warriors 'from Rome.'”16

    Furthermore, the Heliand strongly suggests that the most fitting way to die is in battle. When Jesus predicts his death to the apostles, Thomas silences his companions' lamenting and says: “We should not criticize His action or obstruct His will in this matter, we should continue on, stay with Him, and suffer with our Commander. That is what a thane chooses: to stand fast together with his lord, to die with him at the moment of doom. Let us all do it therefore, follow His road and not let our life-spirits be of any worth to us compared to His – alongside His people, let us die with Him, our Chieftain!”17 The expected humility of a Christian is combined with the glory of dying in war in this passage, and thus can be taken as a development in proto-chivalry.

    Following the aforementioned, Peter's three denials of Christ are expanded, because disloyalty is a serious vice in Saxon culture. Murphy comments: “Shame is considered in the Heliand, as in the High Middle Ages, to be a sign of mature knightly virtue, demonstrate the presence in the warrior of deeply held feelings of loyalty... because of this Germanic tradition the author is able to keep all of peter's behavior in his gospel-story.”18

    But despite the Franks' profound respect for military success, it is evident in other parts of the Saxon Gospel that war per se is frowned upon. In one of Jesus' eschatological discourses, he says: “There will be battles among kings with huge armies on the move. Many will meet a painful death -- their clear war-fare -- (it is a horrible thing that people ever start such murder), then there will be an enormous dying of human beings which will come over the whole world...”19

    Additional evidence of the Franks' dislike of war is the unusual extension of the story of Jesus being arrested in Gethsemane. The Gospel of Luke records that: “And they that were about him, seeing what would follow, said to him: ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear.”20 The Saxon Gospel's account is instead: “Simon Peter, the mighty, the noble swordsman flew into a rage… he strode over angrily, that very daring thane, to stand in front of his Commander, right in front of his Lord. No doubting in his mind, no fearful hesitation in his chest, he drew his blade and struck straight ahead at the first man of the enemy… His ear was chopped off.”21

    To this, Jesus responds in the Heliand: “If I wanted to put up a fight against the attack of this band of warriors, I would make the great and mighty God, the holy Father in the kingdom of heaven, aware of it so that He would send me so many angels wise in warfare that no human beings could stand up to the force of their weapons. No human army, however huge, could ever stand fast against them nor afterwards still be in possession of their life-spirits. But, the ruling God, the all- mighty Father, has determined it differently....,”22 thus implying that success in battle is a result of divine providence, and that the God of Christianity is indomitable in battle when he thus wills it.

    Loyalty and Social Order

    An important theme in the Saxon Gospel is the notion of sustaining the social order. Given that the Saxons were repeatedly revolting against Carolingian rule during the 9th century, it is not difficult to conclude that the author of the Heliand wished to imply that it is pious to accept Frankish rule over Saxony. For instance, a discourse of Jesus not found in the orthodox Christian Gospels includes the passage: “every man should very willingly pay the debts and taxes he is assessed to his worldly lord, and so gladly! … In doing this, a man can carry out the will of God and also have the respect of his worldly lord.”23

    Another interesting twist is the fact that in the Biblical Gospels, Jesus' imperative “give unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's” is from the perspective of a Jew that suffered hardships while Judea was a client Roman state. In the Saxon Gospel, the situation is reversed: the Franks are imposing their imperial authority over the conquered Germans. Thus, the necessity to obey the authorities is highly emphasized in the Heliand:

    “After that, [the tax collecting thane] addressed Simon Peter and said that he had been sent for the purpose of reminding each and every man of the head-tax which everyone had to pay as revenue to the imperial court. 'No man has the slightest hesitation about immediate payment of the tax in their choice jewels, except for your Master alone, who has not done it! My lord will not like that very much when it is made to known at court to him -- the noble emperor, Caesar!”24

    While the tax collecting thane is widely hated, Jesus does not rebuke him. Instead is an original miracle story, where Jesus commands Simon Peter to cast a hook into the sea, to catch a fish that has golden coins in its mouth. The moral of this anecdote is given by Jesus: “No one should ignore his lord or think poorly of him in his feelings, but rather everyone should be kind and generous in his attitude toward his lord -- and serve him humbly. In doing this, a man can carry out the will of God and also have the respect of his worldly lord.”25

    Obviously, this is convenient to the Franks; it again implores the Saxons to accept the Frankish social order in humility and without complaint.

    Scholar James E. Cathey has argued that specific terminology used during the Sermon on the Mount is indicative of strong religious tendency towards personal loyalty: “Given ... the validity of a concept of the fourth petition whereby 'Christ is our bread' and whereby asking for the daily bread is also an expression of the desire for 'constancy and inseparability from His body,' then perhaps we can construct a bridge between this Christian yearning and a pre-Christian consciousness of allegiance, the ethos relating the faithful underlings and followers to a great leader.”26

    Further evidence of this is the description of Judas' betrayal of Christ. During Jesus' agony in the garden, when the sorrow of the apostles are described, the author of the Heliand adds a parenthetical sentence: “(Every man should feel such sorrow when he has to leave a beloved lord and give up one so good!),”27 to which translator Murphy comments: “This observation by the author seems to be a general comment, a defense of the virtue of loyalty. Judas represents those of the opposite attitude in the Heliand, those who 'change lords' too easily.”28 Indeed, treason appears to be the deepest of all sins in the Saxon Gospel, as shown by the end of Song 61: “The deserter [Judas] bowed down, putting his head into the deadly rope to strangle and hang himself, and chose his punishment: the hard oppression of Hel, hot and dark, the deep valley of death -- because he had been unfaithful to his Chieftain.”29

    This conclusion is explicitly stated by the author, when at the conclusion of the Last Supper, he writes: “This is the woeful situation of people who, under heaven, change lords.”30 Murphy writes of this line: “This is obviously a strong warning to the Saxons, by characterizing vacillation between religions as a betrayal of one's loyalty to the Chieftain. Once that feudal bond is broken by a thane, the Heliand warns, he has no right to expect the Chieftain's reciprocal duty of help and support against enemies.”31

    A curious anecdote in the Saxon Gospel, not found in the orthodox Christian Gospels, is one where Jesus is asked by a Gentile woman to heal her daughter. Jesus responds to this by saying: “I am to take care of Israel’s hereditary clansmen first, to see that they have a property attitude toward their Lord. They need help! ... warrior-heroes do not believe in their Lord – even though it is from here that help is to come for all the foreign peoples!”32 The woman's sincerity is confirmed, to which Jesus then says: “It is well, woman, that you are of such good will! … Everything will be done concerning your daughter’s life just as you asked me.”33 The sentence, “even though it is from [their Lord] that help is to come for all the foreign peoples,” seems to imply that the early medieval model of lords and vassals is an almost inherently Christian concept, and ergo should be obeyed as part of the social structure designed by God.

    There appears also to be a sense that the author of the Heliand wishes to suggest that the Saxons' forceful conversion to Christianity is, in a way, a providential victory for both of them. When Jesus is captured at Gethsemane, the Jewish soldiers “wrapped His hands together with iron handcuffs and His arms with chains,” which “seemed to imply a memory of Frankish soldiers' behavior towards the Saxons. The same memory may be being evoked in these verses, especially since Christ is taken prisoner with the iron manacles and chains that many of the audience may once have worn when they were converted to Christ and the empire.”34

    That is, the author is reminding the Saxons that Christ suffered the same humiliation that they did, but it was for the good of mankind that Christ was willingly captured and executed by the Sanhedrin.

    Magic and Superstition

    The Heliand reveals “various distinct traces of Germanic magic. These traces can be identified quite clearly in one case (the sole instance commonly mentioned by scholars), namely in the devil's use of a 'magic helmet' to conceal himself from Pilate's wife.”35 The Saxon Gospel's treatment of magic rites is worthy of close observation, given the Judeo-Christian condemnation of sorcery: “No doubt the author could have retained the dream device used in the New Testament for this scene (he had no difficulty using the dream sequence for the warning of the Magi to return to their country by another route), but he seems to have wanted to use this harmless device from Germanic mythology to make the devil seem more at home, as it were, in Germanic Christianity!”36

    Implicit in the text is “the Germanic belief in secret spells and in their intrinsic performative ability. The author seems to say that if many people were to learn the secret instructions given to the waiters [at the wedding feast at Cana] or the secret words, the spell that Christ used to change water into wine, then, with or without his consent, there would not be a lake or stream in all of Germany whose drinking water would be safe from being transformed into the finest vintage by those who had overheard the spell!”37

    Given the Frankish belief that victory or defeat in battle is a matter of divine providence, the Heliand's positive attitude towards magic is odd. For instance, during the Sermon on the Mount, one of Jesus' disciples asks him to “teach us the secret runes,” which prompts Jesus to give the Lord's Prayer.38 In this part of the text, “the scribe has been careful to use both the runic and the Latin letters for PATER. This amazing conflation of Christian prayer and Germanic rune magic ends with an exhortation to the reader 'advocating the use of the Lord's Prayer as an effective war-spell in battle.'”39

    Thus, “t seems then the author had found magic aplenty in the biblical world when he looked at it through Germano-christian eyes ... It is not too far a jump then to seeing the written Gospel itself as God's spell, and finally even Christ as a performative word, the magic word, of God. It is, I am sure, not by accident that everywhere in the Heliand Christ is described as being mahtig, possessing powers, and as performing every miracle, like a wizard, thurh is selbes craft 'by his own power.'”40


    The transformation of the Biblical Gospels into a story of a mighty and wise Germanic war-king is indicative of a great number of beliefs held by the Franks and Saxons in the 9th century: the importance of military virtue, the dislike of war, the necessity of social order and loyalty, and the non-condemnation of magical runes are profoundly insightful into the tenets of the era. Parables and anecdotes not found in the orthodox Gospels, but are original to the Heliand demonstrate the manner in which the Franks attempted to convert the indigenous Saxon peoples through implicit threats, the respect that the Frankish peoples had for ancient Rome, and in general how they reconciled their militaristic beliefs with Christianity.


    Cathey, James E. &#8220;Give Us This Day Our Daily 'rad'.&#8221; The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 94, No. 2 (Apr., 1995): pp. 157-175. JSTOR, <www (dot) jstor (dot) org/stable/27711135> (accessed April 18, 2010).

    Murphy, G. Ronald, trans. the Heliand: the Saxon Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    Murphy, G. Ronald. &#8220;Magic in the "Heliand".&#8221; Monatshefte, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Winter, 1991): pp. 386-397. JSTOR, <www (dot) jstor (dot) org/stable/30166472> (accessed April 18, 2010).

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