The Bible Teaches The German Nations (500-800 A. D.)
( Originally Published 1914 )
FROM the fourth century on the Germans, tribe by tribe, crossed the Danube and the Rhine and entered the boundaries of the Roman empire. Here part of them settled near the frontier, part took service in the Roman army. But the more numerous they became, the more hostile they were. At last the Roman empire in the West broke down, German kingdoms taking its place. It is a long and cruel history, this period of "Volkerwanderungen" as it is usually called in German, the period of the great migrations. And only after some centuries did the new Roman empire of German nationality come to be established by Charlemagne.
At first the Germans made a brilliant start in taking over Roman civilisation. The Goths had been Christianised and civilised at an early period. While it is true that the Visigoths under Alaric captured Rome and did not refrain from plundering it, the behaviour of the Vandals under Gaiseric was even worse, so that for all time to come their name is connected with the most brutal pillage. But the noble tribe of the Ostrogoths under their celebrated king Theodoric—called Dietrich von Bern in the German songs—tried another plan; they adopted Roman civilisation as far as possible and endeavoured to combine both nations under one dominion. Theodoric had as his minister or secretary of state a member of the Roman nobility, the most cultivated man of letters of the time, Cassiodorus. We have his collection of reports and letters, and we may infer from them how much, aside from his training in the Roman law school, he was influenced by his Christian belief and Biblical reading. Later on, when he retired into the monastery which he had founded on his estates at Vivarium, all his devotion was given to the study of the Bible. He is the man who inculcated on Western monasticism that love for scholarship which has been ever since a characteristic of the Order of Saint Benedict. Cassiodorus was a Roman, of course, but we have ample evidence that even among the Goths the Bible was read and studied. There was a Gothic translation of the Bible, which is supposed to have been made in the fourth century by Ulfilas. In order not to encourage the warlike spirit in his people he is said to have omitted the books of the Kings, wherein so many wars and battles are described. The educational aspect of the Bible as teaching the German nations comes out here distinctly. We are able to trace the history of the Goths by their Bible, which, having been translated in the East from Greek manu-scripts, shows traces of a Latin influence, evidently introduced when the Goths settled in Italy. There still exist some copies, among them the famous Codex Argenteus, now at Upsala, which in its silver writing on purple ground, is a wonderful specimen of luxurious calligraphy, giving testimony to the degree of civilisation which these Ostrogoths had taken over from Rome (Plate VIII).
There was, however, one great difference between the Germans and the Romans; the latter were Catholics, the former Arians. This religious difference is responsible for many troubles and persecutions brought by the Germans upon the population of the conquered land. The Germans had a church organisation of their own; they had their own clergy, and this clergy was well trained in Bible reading. We find the remarkable fact that the German Arian bishops show an even larger knowledge of the Bible than their Roman Catholic colleagues. The complaint was often heard that the watchwords of Catholicism, as, for example, homoûsios, had no Biblical foundation, while, on the other hand, the Arians were always ready to fill their creeds with Biblical phrases. These Germans had a profound reverence for the holy Scripture and bowed down to it. It was only by Scriptural proofs that the Catholic clergy of Spain succeeded in converting the Arian king to their faith.
Theodoric built at Ravenna some churches which still exist. Here we see mosaics exhibiting the life of Jesus in a very simple way, but with that un-mistakable touch of awe which is so characteristic of German piety. How different are the pictures which were added after Ravenna had become Byzantine! They are highly ceremonial, representing, among others, the emperor Justinian and the em-press Theodora with all their suite.
These were the first centuries of German invasion. The ancient civilisation, championed by the Roman church, was still strong enough to impose itself upon these invaders. Time went on and civilisation more and more lost its energy. Especially in Gaul, in the kingdom of the Merovingians, intellectual darkness spread all over the country. There was no layman who could read, hardly any member of the clergy. We hear of great monasteries, which were rich royal foundations, where no complete Bible was to be found. We see the troubles of a missionary like Boniface. In order to procure the necessary books, he has to apply to his English lady friends, who send him copies of the books he wants, finely written by their own delicate hands. It was a time when a book, a Bible, was a treasure, and to own one was a fact to be recorded by a biographer. This enables us to trace the history of more than one famous manuscript. We are surprised to find what journeys they made. One was sent from Naples to England, and then a century later again removed to the German shore and finally treasured among the rarities of the Fulda library. Another manuscript, now at Florence, came originally from the monastery of Cassiodorus in the extreme south of Italy and found its way to the monastery of Mount Amiata, near Florence, only by a round-about route through the famous English monasteries, where it was copied. The few scholars of that period had to go a long way before they could get a copy of the Bible worth their attention, and they had to go a long way to find a monastery with hands able to copy manuscripts.
A new epoch begins with Charlemagne, who has a real right to the name of the Great. If one wants to know a great man, one has only to see what attention he pays to minor things. It is simply wonderful how this German king, who restored the old notion of the Roman empire, whose dominion contained France, Germany, Spain, Italy, was taking care of the schoolboys and fixing his eyes on the way in which the Bible was being copied in the monasteries of his vast realm. In one of his ordinances he complains that they use unskilled boys for copying the most sacred book. It needs, he says, grammar—nay, good grammar—to understand what you are copying. It is no religion to pray to God in ungrammatical language and to have his holy Scriptures in a grammatically incorrect text. From the fact that the monasteries in their letters of application used a bad style he infers that Bible reading here was being neglected. Therefore, Charlemagne tried, in the first place, to bring the schools of his kingdom to a higher standard. Each monastery had to have a well-conducted school for the monks and for the young people who were sent there for education (as they are now sent to public schools). At his own court he had the Schola palatina and the great emperor himself went there often and took lessons together with the boys. But he did not stop here. His intention was to secure a really good, trustworthy text of the Bible. He therefore invited scholars from everywhere; even some Orientals are said to have shared in the work. The leading man, the chairman of the Committee for the revision of the Bible, as we should say at present, was Alcuin, a monk from England, who by his great learning had won the confidence of Charlemagne and was appointed by him abbot of the famous monastery of Tours. Here, at the school of Tours, most of the work of revision was done (Plate IX); through Alcuin's influence the revision was mainly based on the text current in England. That this was the best text available at that time is now generally acknowledged by all competent scholars. This was not so in Charlemagne's time; other scholars, Frankish bishops, disapproved of Alcuin's work. They thought the revision would have come out much better if conducted according to the text prevailing in Spain. So Theodulf, bishop of Orleans, issued a version of his own (Plate X). It is always instructive to see how men were the same in former times as they are now: scholars seldom agree one with another. The result was that henceforth two forms of the Latin Bible were used through the next centuries—in the North, Alcuin's revision, in the South, the revision made by Theodulf.
Charlemagne would not have cared so much for the text of the Bible had he not esteemed the Bible to be the one great text-book for his people. He himself was filled with Biblical notions. In his private circle, a club for promoting classical reading, he was called David. And it was, indeed, the Old Testament idea of the theocratic king which governed his mind. The king chosen by God and elected by the people, the king a representative of God and the head of the people, the king a valiant warrior and a royal psalmist at the same time, this was his ideal, in which old German notions were combined with Old Testament views. While revering the priest, he always felt himself superior even to the bishop of Rome. He willingly accepted the rôle of a defender, of a protector; he never would have accepted his crown from the hand of a priest. Nothing is so alien to Charlemagne as the later mediaeval theory of the two swords, both given by God to Saint Peter, the one spiritual, kept by him-self and his successors, the other worldly, given by them to the emperor. No, he had his sword from God directly, and his royalty included the power and the duty of looking after the church's affairs as well. The Bible tells of a king of Judah, called Josiah, who, on being informed that the book of the Law given by Moses and hidden for a long time had been re-discovered, forthwith ordered everything to be re-formed and restored according to this law. That served as the model for Charlemagne's own ecclesiastical work. Being the king, he felt responsible for the purity of worship and of doctrine. There-fore, when the question arose in the East if worship was due to the pictures of Christ and the saints, and the bishop of Rome did not please him in his answer, Charlemagne himself, assisted by Alcuin and other theologians of his staff, wrote a treatise on the subject, which he himself thought to be decisive, the so-called Libri Carolini, a document of a rather Puritan character, showing the austere spirit of early Western theology. When in Spain a discussion began about the divine nature of Christ, he again interfered, sending his theologians to discuss the matter according to the true teaching of the Bible—as is said expressly in their instructions—and after they had decided he even took political measures against those whom he believed to be heretics. We can scarcely understand his attitude in those cases without keeping in mind that he felt himself a new David and a new Josiah.
Sometimes it is a true evangelical spirit which pervades his ordinances for the church. In a proclamation of 811 he says: "We will ask the clergy them-selves, those who are not only to read the holy Scriptures by themselves but are to teach them to others also: who are those to whom the apostle says, Be my imitators? or who is the man of whom he says, No soldier on service entangleth himself with the affairs of this life?—or how to imitate the apostle and how to do service to God? What is it to leave the world? does it mean simply not to wear weapons and not to be married publicly? does it mean to enlarge one's property daily, oppress the poor and induce men to perjury?" Charlemagne is particularly strict about avoiding perjury, not only in the solemn form of public oath, which is taken on the holy Gospel or on the altar or on the relics of the saints, but in common conversation as well. He tries to intro-duce Matt. 5 : 16, "Even so let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven," as the motto for every Christian's life. That is quite evangelical. But it is from the Old Testament that the tenor of his laws comes. They all have a strong mark of se-verity, in particular the so-called Saxon laws, which were imposed upon the Saxon tribes when after a very hard resistance they were finally defeated and subdued. Through this law runs, like a bloody thread, the frightful menace: morte moriatur, by death shall he die. This sounds harsh, but it is nothing else than the adaptation of a well-known Biblical phrase (Ex. 19 : 12; 21 : 12: "He shall surely be put to death," R. V.). That is an example of Biblical phraseology. But the Bible influenced the legislation of Charlemagne also in content. I choose three instances: in all three cases the work of Charlemagne was prepared for by church councils. Christianity had begun by voluntarily adopting Old Testament laws; then the church had made their observance compulsory; now Charlemagne gives to the ecclesiastical ordinances the sanction of the state and inflicts penalty upon trespassers. The first in-stance is Sunday; it was called the Lord's Day; from the sixth century synods and councils had tried to make the people keep this day in a more solemn fashion. They did not refer to the Old Testament commandment at first; they did not even demand that all manual work should be stopped. The frequent repetition of the decree seems to prove that it was rather unsuccessful even in this limited form. Now the government interferes, and its injunctions secure at once to the Lord's Day the strictest observance. It is remarkable that Charlemagne expressly refers to the Old Testament commandment. It is according to the Bible that the day was counted from sunset to sunset. This is the beginning of the Sabbatarian question in the West, the East preceding the West, as we have seen, by about two centuries.
Our second instance is the tithe; it was to be paid, according to the Bible, by all the other tribes to the tribe of Levi, who served at the temple. Now Christians began to pay voluntarily a tithe to their priests, accommodating themselves to the Old Testament rule; but by and by the clergy derived from the Old Testament a right of asking for the tithe. The farmer had to pay his tithe to his parish priest. Charlemagne proclaimed this as a law of his king-dom, referring expressly to God's commandments.
The third instance is given in the prohibition against taking interest. It is said in Deut. 23 : 19: "Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother." Ecclesiastical authorities took this as forbidding to take any interest in lending money, and they tried to impress this prohibition upon the minds of the Christian people. Here, again, Charlemagne gave his sanction to this ecclesiastical view and made the prohibition against taking interest a part of the public law. It is obvious that the economic life of the nation was deeply influenced by this compulsory adoption of Old Testament laws.
Justice, with the Germans, was to a large extent exercised by means of the ordeals. We scarcely realise the importance these proceedings had at that time. People believed in a divine power bringing out guilt and innocence by means of these curious trials. It was but natural that the Bible, representing the divine oracles, should be present at the ceremony, that both parties should revere and kiss it. But people did more; they made the Bible itself a means of deciding between guilty and innocent. They had a particular kind of ordeal which they called determining by means of the Gospels, and another which was called the ordeal of the Psalter, a copy of the Psalter being swung over the head of the suspected person.
I have referred to the palace school. This had its continuation in a graduate school, if we may so call a Bible circle among the theologians attending the court. These theologians, headed by Alcuin himself, were first-rate Bible scholars. They knew great parts of the Bible by heart; they had read all accessible commentaries of the fathers. They had ideas of their own, too, but they were traditionalists to such an extent that they would not say any-thing of their own unless it was said and supported by the fathers. When asked to write brief commentaries on Biblical books, because the patristic commentaries were too large and comprehensive for the students of this time, they simply gave extracts from the fathers and carefully avoided adding any-thing of their own. One went so far as to take even the connecting words from the works of Saint Augustine; another, whose mental energy was too strong to keep him within the boundaries of pure traditionalism, excuses himself whenever he introduces an interpretation of his own.
In these studies the ladies and gentlemen of the court took part. It is very interesting and often amusing to see what kind of questions they bring before Alcuin as the great oracle of learning. One lady reading her Psalter was puzzled by the words in Psalm 116, "All men are liars." How can babies be liars before they begin to speak, or dumb men? "The sun shall not smite thee by day nor the moon by night" (Psalm 121:6) seemed to be incompatible with the fact that the moon never burns. A scholar who had come from Greece troubled the court by putting the question: To whom was paid the price with which we were bought according to I Cor. 6:20; 7 :23. Charlemagne himself has other questions. He is troubled by finding that the hymn sung by Christ and his disciples after the Last Supper has not been recorded by any of the Gospels. I wonder if he really was satisfied by Alcuin's answer. After a very learned explanation of the term hymn, Alcuin gives, first, three views of different interpreters: (1) That there was no special hymn, only a general praisegiving; (2) that they had sung the twenty-second Psalm; (3) that it was some Jewish prayer. Then he proceeds to establish his own solution: that it is, in fact, the prayer of Jesus, re-corded in John 17, which was meant by the word hymn here. Incidentally, he makes some important remarks upon the harmony of the Gospels: "Al-though we see in the Gospels some things told similarly, others in a different way, we nevertheless believe that everything is true." That was the leading idea for the criticism of the fathers, and it was the same for nearly all the mediaeval centuries. Historical criticism, directed upon the Gospels, would have seemed to show intolerable lack of piety or certain evidence of heretical views.
Theological thinking does not go beyond the limits of Biblical doctrine. Scarcely one or two men dare to think in their own way or speculate on such problems as darkness and nothing (that is, what was before the creation) or on the nature of miracle. There was hardly any attempt at scientific theories. And the best men, indeed, as, for instance, Alcuin, were proud of basing their theology entirely on Biblical ideas.
The one great event in the expansion of Christianity among the German nations is the mission of Saint Augustine to England. When Pope Gregory found some Anglo-Saxon youths at the slave market of Rome and perceived that in the North there was still a pagan nation to be baptised, he sent one of his monks to England, and this monk, who was Saint Augustine, took with him the Bible and introduced it to the Anglo-Saxons, and one of his followers brought with him from Rome pictures showing the Biblical history, and decorated the walls of the church in the monastery of Wearmouth. We do not enter here into the difficult question of the relations between this newly founded Anglo-Saxon church and the old Iro-Scottish church. Differences of Bible text had something to do with the pitiful struggles which arose between the churches and ended in the devastation of the older one. The one point which interests us here is the fact that both Iro-Scottish and Anglo-Saxon monks were driven into missionary work by the Bible. When, in the service, they heard read from the Old Testament or from the epistle to the Hebrews that Abraham and the patriarchs had all left their home, their parents, their native country, and had gone to a foreign land which they did not know, simply in order to please God, then they felt bound to do the same. When at the mass the Gospel was read, "And every one that hath left houses or brethren or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold and shall inherit eternal life," then they hurried away, not knowing where to go, looking only for a far-distant and desert place. It was this ascetic view of the Bible which drove the Iro-Scottish monks over the sea to France, Italy, Germany, which made them preach the gospel to the Germans who had not yet heard of it. It was this same motive which caused Willibrord and Boniface to cross the North Sea and come to preach among the Frisians and Saxons. Boniface is said to have received the deadly stroke from a pagan while holding his Bible over his head. They still show the copy at Fulda.
Again, it was the Bible which determined Charlemagne to use force against the Saxons in order to bring them to baptism and Christian faith. Saint Augustine had discovered the passage in the Lord's parable of the great supper, where the servant is told to go out into the highways and hedges and "constrain" them to come in. This coge intrare, he explained, might excuse the using of secular power for the purpose of bringing heretics back to the church or of causing pagans to join the church. Charlemagne knew no better than to suppose that this was the true meaning of the saying of our Lord, and so he felt in conscience bound to use military force and the full strength of the law in christianising the Saxons.
But it was the Bible itself and not Charlemagne's sharp sword and his cruel law which brought over the wild Saxon tribes into Christendom. They had among themselves a poet who had the gift of singing the gospel into their hearts. Charlemagne him-self was fond of the national songs; he loved his German language as much as he esteemed Latin. He was convinced that a man ought to pray to God in his native tongue. There are not only three sacred languages, he says, in which to pray and to praise God—Hebrew, Greek, Latin—you may praise him in your German as well. Therefore he arranged that a priest should translate the Biblical lessons and the sermon to the people who did not understand Latin. He would probably have approved a German translation of the Bible; but the clergy were not prepared to do this. They took Latin as the basis of civilisation, and only a few of them had any regard for the uncultivated people. There are preserved some few attempts at translating parts of the Bible into German; they attest what might have come out of this Carolingian movement if the bigotry and narrowness of Charlemagne's son Louis had not stopped it. Among the Saxons a fresh and vigorous spirit was still alive. Having been introduced to Christianity by brute force of war, they embraced the gospel, trying to make it their own by putting it into the form of their national song. We do not know the name of the poet; he seems to have been a clergyman, instructed in the best commentaries of his time, such as were available at the monastery of Fulda. For the framework he used a Gospel harmony which is contained in the famous Codex Fuldensis of the Vulgate, originating at Capua (in south Italy) and brought probably by Boniface himself from England to Fulda. This Gospel harmony he translated freely into some six thousand Saxon verses. His poem is one of the finest assimilations of the Gospel history to national German feeling, to be compared only with Dürer's engravings and Eduard von Gebhardt's paintings. Christ is the heavenly king; the apostles are his loyal kinsmen; he wanders with them through the Saxon wood; he stops at a native spring; all Oriental character has gone, but the gospel has lost nothing. It is as fresh and as real as it ever had been. The fact our author detests most is Christ's betrayal by one of his own men; nothing is so bad as this according to the German mind. Christ on the cross is not suffering; he dies as a victorious warrior. When he says, "I thirst," he expresses by this the fact that he is thirsting after the souls of men, to bring them into paradise. It is wonderful how the gospel has penetrated the German soul in order to produce a harmony like this.
This "Heliand" by the anonymous Saxon poet we shall admire even more if we compare it with the other attempt at bringing the life of Christ into German poesy, It is by Otfried of Strassburg, whose "Christ" is a very Iearned elaboration, partly in German, partly in Latin, therefore undoubtedly much preferred in the literary circles of that time, but infinitely inferior to the "Heliand" in freshness and popular quality.
It is remarkable that there is something similar to the "Heliand" in the Anglo-Saxon poem, the " Genesis." The theory has been successfully started and proved by later discoveries that both have the same origin. The Saxons of Germany and the Saxons of England were not so far away one from the other that they could not have intercourse and exchange (Plate XI).
However this may be, it is evident that the Bible had an influence in teaching the German nations from the beginning, and that the new civilisation which was to be built would have the Bible as one of its foundations.