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Christianisation of the Piast Monarchy in the 10th and 11th Centuries

Christianisation of the Piast Monarchy in the 10th and 11th Centuries

By Roman Michałowski

Acta Poloniae Historica, Vol.101 (2010)

Poland

Introduction: Which facts testify to the beginning of the Christianisation process of a given country and which ones indicate its conclusion? This is a question which was posed by Barbara Yorke in her work on early medieval England. In her opinion, the process of Christianisation starts with the conversion of the fi rst monarch and ends at the time when there are no more pagan rulers on the throne. In accordance with these principles, the author assumes that the Christianisation of England began with the baptism of the king of Kent, Æthelbert, that is most probably in 597. During the course of almost one hundred years however, there was a kaleidoscopic pattern of the occupation of the thrones of individual Anglo-Saxon kingdoms by pagan and Christian rulers and also pagan rulers who later accepted Christianity and Christian ones who committed apostasy. This continued until the 680s, when a pagan assumed power for the last time, which marked the end of the period of the Christianisation process.

Yorke also focused her attention on some other facts allowing a determination of whether and to what extent a ruling house of the period was attached to Christianity. The most important among those facts is the phenomenon of the destruction of pagan sanctuaries. This, to be precise, did not always happen in the first generation after the conversion. In Kent, for example, those mentioned sanctuaries had not been liquidated until forty years after the baptism of the first king, during the reign of his grandson, despite the fact that there was no vacancy on the bishop’s throne during that whole period. This testifies to the detachment which Christian rulers maintained from their new religion. On the other hand, there are recognised cases which prove their far reaching identification with the faith of Christ. For example, from the beginning of the 630s onwards, some monarchs happened to step down from the throne to join a religious order. There was also an increasing tendency for rulers to send their daughters to nunneries. Towards the close of the seventh century every Anglo-Saxon kingdom had its own monastery where female members of the royal family served God. A final factor are the canonisations which were taking place already in the 7th century: kings, especially martyrs who had died on the battlefield, and females from the royal family, were venerated as saints.

The concept of Christianisation which is used by Barbara Yorke could be considered as minimalist. She does not ask whether also common people accepted the new faith and whether this was a profound change. She considers opinions and religious practices of the monarch and his family as the crucial indicators.

This is the approach to the subject which will be adopted in this article. This does not mean that the author does not recognise the importance of research into the problem of evangelisation, conversion, and Christianisation of the whole Polish people. However, for such an early period such a study encounters hindrances which are difficult to overcome. Written sources are too scarce, and the archaeological material which is used for this purpose is hardly ever possible to interpret unambiguously. On the other hand, the analysis of the process of Christianisation focused on an individual ruler makes a good point of departure because in the conditions created by early medieval Europe the new religion spread across previously pagan countries thanks to the conversion of the monarch.

Click here to read this article from Acta Poloniae Historica

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