Louis the Pious and the Conversion of the Danes
Session: Early Medieval Europe I
Alice Hicklin (University of Cambridge)
This paper was part of a very interesting session on the Early Middle Ages. The papers covered Eastern European Infant Burial, the archaeology of medieval feasting and conversion. This paper contrasted the conversion policies of Charlemagne versus those of Louis the Pious. It was a fascinating paper.
The character of the conversions prior to Louis’s time was violent. Saxons were subjected to extremely harsh punishments for showing any Pagan practices. At the turn of the 9th century the Franks and Danes became neighbours as the Saxon kingdom was absorbed. Alcuin wrote to an unknown abbot about converting the Danes and that the conversion process was not going very well. Charlemagne had a lukewarm attitude about converting his neighbours to the North which could have been due to their relative strength but a concerted effort was made to curb the Danes on the border.
“While the emperor was still at Aachen, considering an expedition against Godofrid, he received news that a fleet of two hundred ships from Denmark had landed in Frisia, that all the islands off the coast of Frisia had been ravaged, that the army had already landed and fought three battles against the Frisians, that the victorious Danes had imposed a tribute on the vanquished, that already one hundred pounds of silver had been paid as tribute by the Frisians, and that Godofrid was at home…Inflated by the vain hope of victory, this king boasted that he wished to fight the emperor in open battle .”(trans. Scholtz, pp. 91-2)
Religious attitudes shaped Louis’s reign. Louis was known for his piety and his unparalleled enthusiasm for religious life. Despite for his concern for religious improvement, he initially set out with political aspirations, not religious conversion. In 814, Godfrid son’s secured their dominance. He sent waves of troops to help establish Harald as King of Denmark in 815,816 and 817. Baptism however, was not a condition of support for kingship. Five years later, Louis’ attitude about his role and the role of religion changed. Louis’ understanding of his duty as Emperor now included his role of spreading God’s word on earth. He selected a bishop for this mission of conversion. Ebbo of Rheims was given a Papal Bull by Pope Paschal I to become Papal legate and preach to the Danes. From the late seventh century onwards, missionaries had turned to Carolingian kings for financing missions and not the papacy. By 823, Paschal’s relationship with Louis reached it’s nadir. He attempted to reassert papal independence and the power of the papacy over kings. Paschal was made pope three years into Louis’ reign. In 825, Louis agreed to a peace with the sons of Godfrid. Louis then began to openly court Harald’s rivals and now demanded his suboordination politically and spiritually.
Harald’s baptism is well documented, and presented as Louis’ crowning achievement, although it is more connected to Ebbo, it’s Louis who is heralded as the intercessor of this change.
“The emperor held two assemblies. One was at Nijmegen because Horic, son of Godfrid, had falsely promised to appear before the emperor…In the meantime the kings of the Danes, that is, the sons of Godfrid, deprived Harald of his share in the kingship and forced him to leave Nordmannia (trans. Scholz, p.137)”
The unity of the two groups was always emphasized in the baptism although the Frankish group had the upper hand. In 827, Harald was exiled from Denmark. In 827, Louis arranged to meet with Horic, one of Godfrid’s sons. The meeting was convened as an attempt to secure Horic’s conversion as well although Horic didn’t attend which must have been a huge snub to Louis. Charlemagne’s attempts at conversion of the Saxons were violent and the disparity between how Louis and Charlemagne approach conversion were very apparent. Louis’s reign provides an isolated example of ninth century evangelization that was supported by the Papacy and a peaceful conversion that was well before its time.