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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER XIV THE CHURCH AND THE HEATHEN

The Church And The Empire by D. J. Medley


[Sidenote: Hungary and Poland.]

From the time of Otto I it was the policy of the German Kings to Germanise and Christianise the nations on their eastern border, as a preparatory step to including them in the Empire. Otto had exacted homage from the rulers of Hungary, Poland, and Bohemia, but under his successors they broke away; and although, meanwhile, Christianity was accepted by the rulers in all three countries, Hungary and Poland both established their independence politically of the German King, and ecclesiastically of the German Metropolitan of Mainz or Magdeburg. Henry III reasserted the political influence in Germany; but it was to the interest of the Pope to encourage the independent attitude of the Churches in Hungary and Poland so long as they recognised the Roman supremacy. But even politically Gregory VII told Solomon, King of Hungary (1074), that his kingdom |belongs to the holy Roman Church, having been formerly offered by King Stephen to St. Peter, together with every right and power belonging to him, and devoutly handed over.| A similar claim, of which the basis was much more doubtful, was made to Poland.

[Sidenote: Bohemia.]

The Czechs in Bohemia were less fortunate. Boleslas Chrobry, i.e. the Brave, of Poland (992-1025), had aspired to rule over an united kingdom of the Northern Slavs, but had to be content with the independence of his own Polish kingdom. Bretislas of Bohemia (1037-55) had a similar ambition; but he could not shake off the German yoke, and his bishopric of Prague remained a suffragan of the Metropolitan of Mainz.

[Sidenote: Adalbert of Bremen.]

North of Bohemia, in the country lying between the Baltic, the Elbe, and the Oder, Otto had established a series of marks or border-lands in which he had built towns, introduced German colonists, and founded bishoprics which he had grouped round a new Metropolitan at Magdeburg. Here for nearly a century and a half the House of Billung did much to keep under the surging tide of paganism. It was the ambitions of Adalbert, Archbishop of Bremen (1043-72), which for a time caused a serious heathen reaction in this quarter. He was the rival of Hanno of Koln for influence at the Court during Henry IV's minority. As the most northern German Metropolitan he aspired to set up a patriarchate in Northern Europe. He met with considerable success in Scandinavia.

[Sidenote: Scandinavia.]

The Christianisation of Denmark had been completed under Cnut, who also ruled over England (1014-35). Norway was also being rapidly converted; but the forcible methods of King Olaf, who afterwards became the patron saint of his country, roused discontent. Cnut added Norway to his dominions, and was anxious to make his realm ecclesiastically independent. He established three bishoprics in Denmark, but did not get his own metropolitan, and his empire fell asunder at his death. Adalbert made a close alliance with Swein of Denmark, and thus kept the Danish Church dependent. Harold Hardrada struggled against Adalbert's attempts to assert his power in Norway. Sweden had accepted Christianity under Olaf Stotkonung, i.e. the Lap-King, who died in 1024. But until towards the end of the eleventh century heathenism continued to maintain itself, and the difficulties of the Christian party were considerably increased by the assertive policy of Bremen. Adalbert's schemes were wide-reaching. He sent bishops to the Orkneys, to Iceland, and even to Greenland, of which the last two lands had been converted by missionaries from Norway and ultimately became subject to the Metropolitan of Norway.

[Sidenote: Wends.]

But the real mischief of Adalbert's ambitious schemes was apparent east of the Elbe. He founded the bishopric of Hamburg, and held it in addition to Bremen. He sent bishops to Ratzeburg and Mecklenburg across the Elbe. He encouraged Henry IV's schemes against the Saxons in order to diminish the power of the House of Billung, who were his rivals in that quarter. The various tribes of the Wends -- Wagrians, Obotrites, Wiltzes -- had been drawn together into one kingdom under Gottschalk (1047-66), himself a Christian, who founded churches and monasteries, and has been likened to Oswald of Northumbria in that he interpreted the missionaries' sermons to his heathen subjects. This dominion had been established under the protection of the Saxon dukes. But Henry IV's quarrels with Saxony distracted the attention of the Billungs and their followers; and Gottschalk's death was followed by a heathen reaction in which, together with the extirpation of other marks of Christianity, the bishoprics were destroyed, and among them Adalbert's own foundation of Hamburg. This was the beginning of the end. Adalbert's successor had to be content with Bremen alone. Moreover, in the investiture struggle he was loyal to Henry IV; and since Eric of Denmark declared for the Pope, Urban II made the Danish prelate of Lund the Metropolitan of the North (1103). This arrangement caused discontent in the two other Scandinavian kingdoms, and ultimately Eugenius III sent Cardinal Breakspear, the future Hadrian IV, on a mission which resulted in the establishment of Nidaros or Drontheim as the see of a primate for Norway, and of Upsala in a similar capacity for Sweden. It may be mentioned in connection with this point that Finland owed its conversion to Sweden very shortly afterwards, though the Swedish attempts in Esthonia failed.

[Sidenote: Their final conversion.]

Meanwhile among the Wends Gottschalk's son revived his father's authority and contact with German civilisation; but after 1131 the Wendish kingdom fell to pieces, and from that moment we can mark the steady advance of German power to the Oder. The Billung line of Saxon dukes had become extinct in 1106, and Henry V had given the ducal name to Lothair, who succeeded him as Emperor, and who as Duke aimed at building up a strong dominion in north-eastern Germany. As Emperor he took up the civilising role of Otto the Great and encouraged the Germanisation of the Slavs. The actual work was done by his chief adviser Norbert, whom he had almost forced to become Archbishop of Magdeburg. He acted in conjunction with Albert the Bear, a descendant in the female line of the Billung dukes and Margrave of the Northmark, who himself founded bishoprics among his immediate neighbours the Wiltzes. Albert's soldiers prepared the way for Norbert's Premonstratensian canons, and bishoprics were founded with so little regard for division of territory, even in Poland and Pomerania, that both Gnesen and Lund found themselves for a time subordinated to Magdeburg. Two names are especially associated with the conversion of the Wends. In 1121, under the patronage of Lothair who was not yet Emperor, Vicelin began his work among the Wagrians, and in 1149 he became their Bishop with his see at Oldenburg. He died in 1154. It was under the auspices of Henry the Lion, now Duke of Saxony, that Berno preached to the Obotrites, converting the Wendish Prince and becoming Bishop of Mecklenburg. The gradual advance of German colonisation had weakened the Wendish resistance and prepared the way for this restoration of Christianity. Henry the Lion finished the work. In alliance with Waldemar II of Denmark he repeated with greater completeness the work of founding bishoprics, establishing houses of Premonstratensians, whose missionary activity was now shared by the Cistercians, building towns and introducing colonists, until the whole country between the Northmark and the Baltic was included in his Saxon duchy.

[Sidenote: Pomerania.]

The fall of Henry the Lion was not followed by any anti-German reaction; and meanwhile the work of conversion had been going forward among the Slavs beyond the Oder. The first attempts of the Poles to influence their troublesome Pomeranian neighbours failed. The ultimate success of a mission was due to a German. Otto, a native of Suabia, began as a schoolmaster in Poland. From chaplain to the Polish Prince the Emperor Henry V made him Bishop of Bamberg (1102); and, when Boleslas III had subdued part of Pomerania and found his bishops unwilling to attempt its conversion, he offered the task to Otto of Bamberg who, although an old man, undertook it with the consent of the Pope and the Emperor. He paid two visits -- in 1124 and 1128 -- both to Western Pomerania, and established the bishopric of Wollin. The conversion was naturally imperfect, but the country never relapsed. The fierce islanders of Rgen could not then be touched, but ultimately gave way in 1168 before the combined secular and spiritual weapons of the Danish rulers.

[Sidenote: Livonia.]

From the middle of the twelfth century the cities of Bremen and Lubeck had established trading connections with Livonia. Following in the wake of the traders (1186) an Augustinian canon, Meinhard by name, preached Christianity under permission from a neighbouring Russian Prince, and he was made Bishop of Yrkill, on the Duna, under the Archbishop of Bremen. His successors, however, impatient at failure, organised a crusade from Germany. The third Bishop, Albert, took the recently founded trading centre Riga as his bishopric, and organised the knightly Order of the Brethren of the Sword (1202), to be under the control of the Bishop. He aimed at an united spiritual and temporal power in his own land, and in 1207 he accepted Livonia as a fief from King Philip of Suabia. But Albert's chief foes were those of his own household. The Knights of the Sword strove for independence and tried to establish themselves in Esthonia. Albert appointed his own nominee as Bishop there, who should act as a check upon the knights. Innocent III, however, gave the ecclesiastical supervision of Esthonia to the Danish Archbishop of Lund. But when the Danish King attempted to follow this up by asserting a political authority his forces were defeated by the Esthonians. German influences prevailed; Albert took Dorpat, made it the seat of a new bishopric, and organised the whole country ecclesiastically until his death in 1229; although it was not until 1255 that Riga became the Metropolitan of the Livonian and Prussian Churches. The Order of the Sword ceased to resist, and in 1237 it merged itself in the Teutonic Order in Prussia. The conversion of Livonia was followed by that of Semgallen in 1218, and finally the inhabitants of Courland, threatened on all sides, accepted baptism (1230) as the only alternative to slavery.

[Sidenote: Prussia.]

Between these lands and Pomerania lay the savage Prussians. Among them Bishop Adalbert of Prague, the Apostle of Bohemia, had ended his life by martyrdom in 997: and subsequent efforts, whether of bold missionaries or of victorious Polish Kings, equally failed. At length in 1207 some Cistercian monks from Poland obtained leave from Innocent III to make another attempt on Prussia. They were well received, and Christian of Oliva was consecrated bishop. But the rulers of neighbouring lands, notably Conrad, Duke of Masovia, which lay just to the south, schemed to turn these converted Prussians into political dependents, and Christian welcomed their armies as a means of hastening on the nominal change of religion. A crusade was set on foot; but the natives resisted with success, and began to destroy the monasteries established in the country. Consequently, in 1226 Duke Conrad invited some members of the Teutonic Order to help him. In 1230 came a large number of the knights, and a devastating war which lasted for more than fifty years (1230-83), ended in the nominal conversion of the remaining inhabitants.

During the war German colonists were placed upon the conquered lands and towns were founded -- Konigsberg (1256) in honour of Ottocar of Bohemia, who lent his aid for a time; Marienburg (1270), which became the headquarters of the Teutonic Order. Indeed, it was the Order which reaped the benefit of the conquest. In 1243 Innocent IV divided the country ecclesiastically into four bishoprics, which were placed afterwards under the Livonian Archbishop of Riga as their Metropolitan. One of these four -- Ermland -- freed itself both ecclesiastically from Riga and politically from the Teutonic knights, and placed itself directly under the Pope. The others were less fortunate, and the Order successfully resisted the joint efforts of the bishops and the Pope to place them in a similar position.

[Sidenote: Missions in Asia.]

The spread of Christianity among the tribes upon the Baltic coast, imperfect though it was, led to permanent results. In the second great field of missionary activity during this period the work of the Roman Church was more interesting than effective. It is difficult now to realise that in the fourteenth century emissaries from Rome had nominally organised large districts of Asia as part of the Christian Church. Nor was theirs the first announcement of the Gospel in those regions. Christians of the Nestorian or Chaldean faith could claim adherents from Persia across the Continent to the heart of China, and had even converted several Turkish tribes.

[Sidenote: Prester John.]

About the middle of the twelfth century the report reached Europe of the conversion as early as the beginning of the eleventh century of the Khan of the Karait, a Tartar tribe, lying south of Lake Baikal, with its headquarters at Karakorum. The Syrian Christians, through whom the report came, misinterpreted his Mongolian title Ung-Khan as denoting a priest-king named John, and it was this distant Eastern potentate who came to be known in Europe as Presbyter Johannes or Prester John. It was the Syrian Christians who, in their desire to outvie the boastful arrogance of their Latin neighbours, together with many apochryphal tales invented a letter from this dignitary to some of the sovereigns of Europe, including the Pope. Equally fabulous seems to have been the report to Alexander III of a physician named Philip, that this shadowy personage desired reception into the Roman communion; for Alexander's answer apparently met with no response. In 1202 the tribe of the Karaites became the vassals of the great conqueror Ghenghiz Khan, who is said to have added to his wives the Christian daughter of the last Ung-Khan of the tribe. The kingdom of Prester John, however, lived on in fables, of which the best known relates how the Holy Grail, the cup consecrated by Christ at the Last Supper, had withdrawn from the sinful West and found refuge in this distant land.

[Sidenote: The Mongols in Europe.]

The conquests of Ghenghiz opened an entirely new chapter in the relations between Western Europe and the Mongols. Ghenghiz himself before his death in 1227 overran China, Central Asia, Persia, and penetrated as far west as the Dnieper. His successors entered Russia in 1237, conquered the Kipchaks about the Caspian Sea and pursued their fugitives into Central Europe, defeated the Poles, ravaged Saxony and Silesia, and overran Hungary (1240). It was fortunate for Europe that the death of the Great Khan in 1242 caused the Mongol leaders to withdraw their forces back to the East. The chief result of this Mongolian raid was that 10,000 Kharizmians fleeing before the Tartars entered the Egyptian service, and in 1244 captured Jerusalem for the Egyptian Sultan. At the time of the Tartar invasion the Papacy was vacant; but in 1243 Innocent IV was elected, and in 1245 at the Council of Lyons a crusade was mooted. But the renewal of the papal quarrel with Frederick II so far added to the general indifference that no crusade was possible. Louis IX of France alone forced his nobles to take the vow and fulfil it.

[Sidenote: Innocent IV's missions.]

To Innocent, however, is due the credit of inaugurating a new method of approaching Eastern nations. It was well known that Christians were to be found in the Mongolian armies; and the tolerant treatment accorded to them was construed as a favourable feeling towards Christianity itself. The truth was that for the purpose of reconciling all nations to their rule the Mongols tolerated all religions among their subjects. Already Mohammedanism and Buddhism competed with the Christianity of the Nestorians for the favour of the Tartar Princes. Their own religion has been characterised as a vague monotheism. Its lack of definiteness led the early missionaries in their enthusiasm to hope that its followers were in a state of mind to be easily persuaded of the superior claims of the Catholic faith. Anyhow there existed for some time quite an expectation in the West that the whole of Asia would one day acknowledge the spiritual rule of Rome. Pope Innocent, therefore, fully convinced of the friendly disposition of the Mongols, despatched two embassies to them. One was composed of John of Piano Carpini, a friend of St. Francis of Assisi, and three other Franciscans. From the Khan of Kipchak at the Golden Horde on the Volga they were passed on to the Great Khan, who ruled now from the old capital of the Karaites at Karakorum. Here they were received in friendly fashion by the newly elected Kuyuk, grandson of Ghenghiz. The other embassy, composed of four Dominicans, visited Persia; but they showed so much want of tact that their lives were endangered, and they returned with letters written in the name of the Great Khan, in which all princes of the earth were bidden to come and pay their homage. Immediately, then, these visits were without result; but they had opened the way for further communications.

[Sidenote: Louis IX's missions.]

It was known in the East that Louis IX of France was preparing to set out on crusade; so that when he halted with his army in Cyprus he was visited by an envoy purporting to come from Kuyuk and seeking an alliance against Mohammedans. Louis sent two Dominicans to a Christian monarch, as he supposed, armed with suitable presents; but Kuyuk was dead, and the presents were treated as tribute. Perhaps in consequence of this failure Louis turned his army against Egypt instead of Syria; but the envoys returned to find him after the disastrous Egyptian campaign in Palestine, where he spent four years. In consequence of their report he sent to Kuyuk's successor, Mangu, a Franciscan, William of Ruysbroek or Rubruquis. It was afterwards reported to the Pope that Mangu and another Tartar Prince had been converted. Such fabricated stories were only too common. Rubruquis has left us much information about the Tartar Court; but his public discussions before the Khan with Nestorians, Mohammedans and Buddhists led to no practical result.

[Sidenote: Tartars and Mohammedans.]

On the death of Mangu (1257) his dominions were divided between his two brothers. Hulagu, who became Khan of Persia, overthrew the Caliphate of Bagdad; but the further progress of the Mongol armies was stayed by the Mohammedan General, Bibars who, as a consequence of his success, shortly became Sultan of Egypt. Henceforth the Mongols of Persia constantly sought an alliance with the Christians of the West against the Mohammedans as represented by Egypt, the one Mohammedan power which as yet had opposed them with success. Thus in 1274, at the second Council of Lyons, two Persian envoys invited the cooperation of Christendom, and, perhaps by way of raising the expectations of such contact, submitted to baptism; but the hostility of Greeks and Latins and the selfish projects of Charles of Anjou prevented any response. The long anarchy in Egypt which followed the death of Bibars (1277) was too good an opportunity for the Mongols to lose; but Kelaun secured the power in Egypt in time to repeat the exploits of Bibars. But the remaining Latin princes in Syria had veered between the Mohammedans and Mongols, and Kelaun determined to complete the destruction of such an alien element. By 1291 the kingdom of Jerusalem was wiped out. Europe watched with comparative indifference the easy triumph of Mohammedanism. Not so the Mongols. Arghun, who became Khan of Persia in 1284, made three definite efforts towards an alliance which would mean a new crusade. In 1287 the Vicar of the Nestorian Patriarch of China brought letters to the Pope and visited the Kings of France and England; in 1289 a Genoese resident in Persia brought the news of Arghun's intended invasion of Syria and his professed desire for baptism; in 1290, to a yet more pressing call the Pope returned a somewhat hopeful answer. But it was too late. Arghun died in 1291, and although his eldest son, Ghazan, ultimately took up his father's projects and even decisively defeated the Egyptian army in Syria (1299), his losses forced him to return to Persia. It was reported that he had died a Christian and in the Franciscan habit, but there is no proof of this.

[Sidenote: Chinese missions.]

The more purely missionary efforts which were being made contemporaneously with the events just related, were directed chiefly to China which, on the death of Mangu, had fallen to the lot of Kublai Khan. The opportunity for these was opened out by the relations already established with the Mongolians on other grounds. The first missionaries found Nestorian Christians who were subjects and others who were captives acting as clerks, artisans and merchants at the Tartar Court. Besides these, others in search of fortune or adventure occasionally found their way from the West. Such were two Venetians, Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, who, having traded with the Tartars of the Golden Horde (1260), were led by force of circumstances further into Asia, until they reached China. Kublai sent them back to Europe with a request to the Pope for at least a hundred well-instructed persons who should initiate his subjects in Western lore. They returned practically alone; but Nicolo's son Marco accompanied them. They remained for seventeen years in the service of the Khan (1275-93), and Marco Polo has left a very celebrated account of his travels. This establishment of friendly feeling was followed by a definite mission of Franciscans, headed by John of Monte Corvino, who had already organised the missions in Persia. He was welcomed by Kublai's successor, and was allowed to preach. Despite the violent opposition of the Nestorians he made converts and built churches. In 1307 he became the first Archbishop of Cambaluc or Peking, while subsequently no less than ten suffragans were grouped under him. Scarcely less remarkable was the organisation in Persia of the archbishopric at Sultanyeh and six subordinate sees. But this development belongs almost entirely to the following period.

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