The Apostle of the North.
Translated from the Vita Anskarii by Bishop Rimbert his fellow missionary and successor.
CHARLES H. ROBINSON
The Life of Anskar, written by his companion and successor Bishop Rimbert, which we have here translated, contains nearly all that is known of his life and work. A brief summary of what is told us by Bishop Rimbert, supplemented by the information that can be derived from other sources, will serve as an introduction to a study of his work.
The Emperor Charlemagne, who died on January 28, 814, had waged a series of seventeen campaigns extending over thirty-three years (772-805) against the Saxons, his avowed object being to compel them to accept the Christian faith. In order to accomplish this end he denounced the penalty of death against all who refused to be baptized and threatened the same punishment against those who, in despite of Christian custom, ate flesh during Lent. His campaigns were conducted with great cruelty, and on one occasion he massacred in a single day 4,500 prisoners surrendered to him by Witikind whom he was endeavoring to convert to the Christian faith. As a result of his wars he had effected the nominal conversion to Christianity of the peoples inhabiting the country as far east as the River Elbe, and had included their territories within his dominions. The Danish and Scandinavian peninsulas, however, remained unaffected by his influence.
It had been his intention to make an effort to spread the Faith amongst the inhabitants of these lands, and with this object in view he had refused to allow the Church at Hamburg, which was in charge of a priest named Heridac, to be included in any of the adjacent sees, as he intended to establish it as an independent bishopric, in order that it should form a centre from which Missions to the northern peoples might be organized. The war in which he was engaged with the Danes and, subsequently, his own death prevented the accomplishment of this plan, but it was carried into effect by his son Louis the Pious.
A dispute as to the right of succession to the crown having arisen in Denmark, his help was solicited by Harald Krag, one of the disputants, and in 822 the ambassador whom Louis sent to Denmark suggested the establishment of a Mission among the Danes. Ebo the archbishop of Rheims, who was the Emperor's favorite minister, was asked by him to organize this mission and with him was associated Halitgar, bishop of Cambray.
As early as the eighth century the Danes became celebrated for their piratical expeditions and for their descents upon the coasts of England, Scotland and Normandy, and from the inhabitants of these countries as well as from their intercourse with the Franks, some knowledge of the Christian faith must have reached them. A writer in the Centuriatores Magdeburgenses says, “Our Lord Jesus Christ extended His kingdom amongst the Danes in this wise: He urged the Danish kings to attack the Franks, and by them the Danes were defeated and slaughtered, after which by bishops and certain steadfast teachers He converted them to the faith. Thus Willibald, during the reign of Charlemagne, won for Christ a certain number of Danes, as Honorius has stated”.
Willibald became Bishop of Eichstadt in 742. Saxo Grammaticus in his History of the Danes says that a Danish chief or king named Frotho VI was baptized in England and that he sent from England messengers to beg Pope Agapet to send missionaries to Denmark. The messengers however, died before reaching Rome. Agapet died in 536, and Agapet II in 936, neither of which dates appears to harmonize with the statement of Saxo Grammaticus. Willehad (d. 789), who was the first bishop of Bremen, says that he preached to the peoples north of the River Elbe; moreover a church existed at Meldorf in 776, which was afterwards destroyed by the Saxons. Of the missionary work organized by Ebo or Halitgar, practically nothing is known, but it would appear that as a result of their efforts the Danish king became favorably disposed towards Christianity. In 826 King Harald, with his wife and a large train of followers, visited the Emperor at Ingelheim, where he and his followers were baptized, and when he was about to return to his own land it was suggested that he should take with him a monk to act as priest and teacher.
Anskar, who was born in 801, was trained in the monastery of Corbey near Amiens and had been transferred with other monks to the monastery of New Corbey near Hoxter on the River Weser, which was founded in 822. By the time of Anskar the spiritual life of the Benedictine monasteries had sunk very low, but the Benedictine monastery of Old Corbey in which he had been trained and which owed its origin to a colony of monks who had come from the stricter Columbanian monastery at Luxeuil, had preserved its early tradition unimpaired. In the new monastery Anskar was placed in charge of the monastic school and, he was also accustomed to preach to the public congregation. From early childhood he had seen visions and dreamed dreams, which created in him the desire to lead a religious life, and his thoughts were perhaps turned in the direction of missionary enterprise by the accounts which must have reached him of the work accomplished by Boniface and his successors. His definite resolve to devote his life to this object dated, as his biographer tells us, from a time immediately after the death of Charlemagne, when he had recently taken the tonsure and had become a monk. About this time he had a vision in describing which Anskar says, “When then I had been brought by the men whom I mentioned into the presence of this unending light, where the majesty of almighty God was revealed to me without need for anyone to explain, and when they and I had offered our united adoration, a most sweet voice, the sound of which was more distinct than all other sounds and which seemed to me to fill the whole world, came forth from the same divine majesty and addressed me and said: Go and return to Me crowned with martyrdom”.
His biographer adds, “As a result of this vision, which I have described in the words which he had himself dictated, the servant of God was both terrified and comforted and in the fear of the Lord he began to live more carefully, to cleave day by day to good deeds, and to hope that by the mercy of God, in whatever way He might choose, he might be able to obtain the crown of martyrdom”. The greatest disappointment in after life which Anskar experienced was caused by the fact that his expectation of martyrdom founded on this vision was not literally fulfilled.
In another vision, which he saw before starting on his missionary journey to the Swedes, he heard a voice which said to him in reply to his question, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”. “Go and declare the word of God to the nations”. These visions are typical of many others by which Anskar’s life and conduct were influenced from his early youth. His first vision came to him when he was only five years old.
When then the name of Anskar was suggested by Wala the Abbot of Corbey and he was asked by the Emperor whether he was willing to go with the King of Denmark in order that he might preach the gospel to the Danish people, he replied that he was entirely willing. The task which he proposed to undertake appeared to be so full of danger and difficulty that his friends and fellow-monks tried hard to dissuade him from his purpose and, when he began to make preparations for his journey, only one, a monk named Autbert, was found willing to act as his companion.
The first two years (826-8) after his arrival in Denmark were not productive of great visible results, but he laid a foundation for subsequent missionary work by starting a school for the training of Danish youths who might become the evangelists of their own countrymen. The twelve boys with which the school opened were either purchased by Anskar or presented to him by the king. The school was established on the borders of Denmark at Hadeby or Schleswig. Two years later Harald, who had incurred the hostility of his subjects by his attempts to introduce the Christian faith, was driven from his kingdom, and Anskar’s work was interrupted. In 829 he left the mission work in Denmark in charge of a monk named Gislema and, at the suggestion of the Emperor, undertook a new Mission to Sweden.
This Mission was undertaken in response to a request which had been made to the Emperor Louis by some Swedish ambassadors who had represented to him that “there were many belonging to their nation who desired to embrace the Christian religion”. At the time of which we are speaking Sweden was inhabited by two distinct races, both of which were of Teutonic origin, i.e., the Sveas, or Swedes, in the north, and the Goths in the South.
During the eighth century the Sveas and the Goths were ruled by a single king. Their king, whose capital was Upsala, claimed divine origin as the descendant of Odin, and every nine years a great assembly of Sveas and Goths was held at this temple at which he took the lead. A belief in the survival of their ancestors formed part of the popular religion. Thus Bishop Wordsworth writes: “As the king was the national priest so every father of a family was regarded as a priest in his own household. Polygamy was not prohibited. The graves of the dead were near the houses and were places for religious worship and meditation. In these family howes, as they were called, the head of the family was wont to sit, according to custom, for hours together, no doubt to hold converse with the spirits of the departed and to look forward to the uncertain future. These howes were also places for games and athletic sports ... The use of the churchyard for festivals is clearly a relic of this custom, which prevailed also in England”.
Those to whom the Swedish ambassadors referred and who desired that a Christian Mission should be sent to their country, had probably obtained some knowledge of Christianity from Danish or other traders who had visited their shores. The Emperor on receipt of their request appealed to the Abbot of Corbey who once again suggested that Anskar should be invited to undertake the new Mission.
After a dangerous voyage, during which he and his companion Witmar were robbed by Vikings, he reached Birka, a port on an island in Lake Malar, now called Byorko, which lies about eighteen miles west of Stockholm and twenty-two miles south of the old city of Sigtuna (Signildsberg). At this time Upsala, which was about twenty miles north of Sigtuna, was the chief centre of heathenism. It contained a gilded temple surrounded by a sacred wood on which the bodies of men and animals that had been sacrificed to the gods were constantly hanging. The temple which contained images of three of the national gods of Sweden, Thor, Wodan and Sicco, was not destroyed till seventy years after the death of Anskar. Anskar was well received by King Biörn, who, after consulting his people, gave him permission to preach. He remained in Birka for two winters and then returned to report to the Emperor the progress that had been achieved; whereupon the Emperor decided to make Hamburg a centre from which to develop missionary work in the north and arranged that Anskar should be consecrated as its bishop. The town of Hamburg, of which Anskar thus became the first archbishop, was founded by Charlemagne in 808, who had been about to make it the seat of a bishopric when he died. His scheme was carried into effect by his son Louis in 831 and, three years later, a charter was issued, which was confirmed by Pope Gregory IV raising the see to the rank of an archbishopric which was to include not only the surrounding districts, but Iceland, Greenland, and the whole of Scandinavia. Anskar, who became the first bishop and afterwards archbishop, founded here a monastery and a school. In 847 it was decided at a synod held at Mainz that Hamburg should be attached to the bishopric of Bremen, and that the seat of the archbishop should be at Bremen. Soon after his appointment as Archbishop of Hamburg Anskar consecrated his nephew Gautbert as a bishop for Sweden. He labored there as a missionary for several years, but in 845 was attacked and driven out of the country by the heathen. In the same year the city of Hamburg was attacked and pillaged by an army of Northmen led by Eric King of Jutland, who laid waste the whole country and destroyed nearly all the Christian churches. For several years Anskar wandered over his desolated diocese, till in 849 when he became Archbishop of Bremen, he succeeded in winning the favor of Eric King of Jutland and obtained his permission to restart missionary work in Denmark. He then built a church at Schleswig, where he had formerly established a Christian school. Schleswig was situated on the borders of Denmark and its inhabitants had frequent intercourse with the Christian towns of Dorstede and Hamburg. At this place many who were secret Christians openly professed their faith, and joined with the new converts in Christian worship.
After Gautbert had been expelled from Sweden missionary work remained in abeyance for seven years, but in 851 Anskar sent thither a hermit named Ardgar, who labored there for over ten years. In 853 Anskar, whose missionary zeal had been increased by another vision in which the late Abbot of Corbey had appeared to him and had told him that he was destined to carry salvation even unto the ends of the earth, set out once again for Sweden. On his arrival at Birka he found the king and his subjects engaged in debating how they might do honor to a new national deity whom they had recently recognized. In reply to Anskar’s request that he might be allowed to preach the Christian faith to his people, the king decided that lots should be cast in the open air in order to discover whether it would be right to accede to his requests. The lots having proved to be favorable, Anskar was allowed to lay a proposal before a general assembly of the people, at which, after a long discussion, which is graphically described by Rimbert, it was finally decided to allow the Mission to continue its work. He remained in Sweden for over a year, and on his return to Hamburg in 854, left Erimbert a nephew of Gautbert in charge of the Mission.
During his absence in Sweden the prospects of missionary work in Denmark became overclouded. Eric, King of Jutland, who had formerly supported Anskar, had become unpopular with his pagan subjects, and in a battle which lasted for three days he and nearly all his chief men were killed, and his one descendant, Eric II was left as regent over a small portion of Jutland. His chief counselor was a man named Hovi who persecuted the Christians and put an end to Christian worship at Schleswig, but in course of time Hovi was superseded and the Christian missions which Anskar had inaugurated were once more permitted to develop. Anskar moreover, received from the king a grant of land at Ripa in Jutland on which he built a second church.
On his return to Hamburg, he devoted himself to ministering to the needs of his own diocese. A number of Christians who had been carried off as slaves by some of the pagan tribes in the north had escaped into Northalbingia (i.e., the country north of the River Elbe), and had either been retained as slaves or sold to other slave-holders. Anskar, who was greatly distressed that this had occurred within his own diocese, went at once to the chiefs who were responsible and, after an impassioned appeal, persuaded them to release all their captives.
As his life drew to its close he was much distressed that the vision which he had seen many years before, in which, as he thought, it had been foretold that he would die a martyr's death, had not been literally fulfilled. Shortly before his death, however, he had another vision which assured him that it was through no fault of his that the crown of martyrdom had been withheld. At the same time his friends reminded him that the hardships and dangers which he had experienced had in effect made his whole life one continuous martyrdom. He died on February 3, 865, at the age of 64, more than half his life having been spent in missionary work in Denmark and Sweden and within the limits of his own diocese.
Anskar lived in an age when small regard was paid to conscientious objectors, whether in the sphere of religion, or politics, but, unlike other notable missionaries of later date such as Bishop Christian of Prussia, or—to take a more notable instance—Francis Xavier in India, he made no attempt to invoke the aid of the civil power in order to overcome opposition to his teaching or even to protect his own life. The latter missionary, whose life-long self-renunciation and passionate devotion to our Lord equaled those of Anskar, felt no scruples in seeking and obtaining authority from the King of Portugal to punish with death the makers of idols, and on many different occasions urged the Viceroy of India to employ force in order to hasten the conversion of India. Anskar's attitude in regard to the use of force corresponded rather with that of Raymund Lull, who wrote, “They think they can conquer by force of arms: it seems to me that the victory can be won in no other way than as Thou, 0 Lord Christ, didst seek to win it, by love and prayer and self-sacrifice”.
The work which he accomplished was that of a pioneer. Nor can it be claimed on his behalf that the Missions which he founded developed by a natural process of expansion into National Churches. Like several of the greatest missionaries in later times, such as Raymund Lull, Henry Martyn, and Livingstone, his life was saddened by many disappointments and by the knowledge that the task which he had desired to accomplish remained at his death unfulfilled. Thus the author of the Chronicon Corbeiensis for the year 936, referring to the Christians in Sweden, states that the Christian religion which Anskar, Rimbert, Gautbert, and Nithard had preached was well nigh extinct and that the worship of idols prevailed. Adam of Bremen, referring to a period half a century or more after the death of Anskar writes, “Let it suffice us to know that up to this time all the kings of the Danes had been pagans, and amid so great changes of kingdoms or inroads of barbarians some small part of the Christianity that had been planted by Anskar had remained, the whole had not failed”. But though the visible results which attended his labors tended to disappear after his death, his work was far from being transitory. His zeal, his heroism, his faith, his far-reaching designs and above all his saintly life proved a help and inspiration to those who were to come after him and contributed not a little to the establishment of the Christian Church throughout Northern Europe.
Anskar's immediate successor, who was also his biographer, made several missionary journeys in Denmark and in Sweden during the twenty-three years of his episcopate. In order to ransom Christians who had been captured by the Northmen he parted even with the gold and silver vessels of his church and with the horse which he kept for his own use. Archbishop Unmi the successor of Rimbert died at Birka in 936 whilst engaged in a missionary tour. His successor at Bremen, Adaldag, ordained a Dane named Odinkar as a bishop for Sweden and ordained a number of bishops for Denmark.
The Life of Anskar, which is known to have been in existence in the time of Adam of Bremen, was lost soon afterwards and was rediscovered by Philip Caesar in the middle of the seventeenth century. Thus Baronius wrote in 1391, “Rimbert, the successor of Anskar, whose sanctity equaled his own, committed to writing some of Anskar’s more remarkable doings and wrote a book that contained his life, but, alas, we have to deplore its loss. All that we possess of it are the notes which Adam of Bremen has embodied in his Chronicle”.