The barbarians, detesting their swords, turned to their ploughs and now cherish the Romans as comrades and friends, so that now there may be found among them certain Romans who prefer poverty with freedom among the barbarians than paying tribute with anxiety among the Romans . . . throughout the East and the West the churches of Christ were replete with Huns, Suevi, Vandals, and Burgundians.
Despite Orosius’s contention, it is not known exactly when or how the Burgundians converted to Christianity. In his essay "Christianity and the Northern Barbarians," E.A. Thompson explained that Orosius’ statement that the Burgundians were converted to Catholicism by A.D. 417 "is generally discounted and may be dismissed" and that, no matter how the Germans were converted, the actions of Roman missionaries played only a very small part. Thompson concluded that, although many Catholic bishops worked among the Germans when they entered the Empire as foederati, they were not converted at this time. (NOTE: To clarify, I use the term "Catholic" to explicitly mean Orthodox Christianity or Roman Catholicism, "Arian" to explicitly mean heretical Arian Christianity, and "Christianity" as a more general term).
Barbarian warriors serving in the Roman army may have brought Christianity back to their tribes with them. Additionally, the Christian hostages held by the barbarians were probably the most influential force in their conversion. Paul Lacroix, in Science and Literature in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, explained that by the end of the fourth century, it was common for Christian churches and monasteries to open their doors to the sick. (The first leper houses were usually built near churches). As such, there was an association between Christians and healing, who saw to "[t]he wants both of the body and soul." Thus, Christians were able to leverage their healing expertise (more likely in a passive, rather than an evangelical manner) as a way to expose their pagan neighbors to the faith.
Another way that Christianity entered the barbarian world was through commerce and trade. Missionaries traveled the trade routes where they often persuaded local chieftains, usually with a few gifts, to allow them to preach in the village without repercussions against either themselves or any new barbarian converts. The most successful would secure permission to build a church and thus help to ensure that the barbarians would continue to be exposed to Christianity. Often, these missionaries were supported by not only the Church, but also the emperor who saw political opportunity in religious conversion. Yet, all of these instances were scattered and uncommon. The first serious, or at least well-documented, attempt at proselytizing amongst the Germans did not occur until the middle of the fourth century, when Ulfilas was sent to preach in the Goth lands.
Ulfilas, though descended from a Cappadocian family, had been raised a Goth and sent as a youth to Constantinople as a hostage. In Constantinople he converted to Arian Christianity, was consecrated a bishop at the age of thirty (A.D. 341) and was sent by Eusebius of Nicomedia to proselytize and spread Arian Christianity among the Goths. J.B. Bury held that Ulfilas was sent to preach Arian Christianity to all in the Goth lands. However, an alternative view was put forth by E.A. Thompson, who asserted that Ulfilas was sent to minister only to those Christians already in the Goth lands, such as Roman prisoners or their descendents, and not to convert pagan Goths. As such, Thompson continued:
[T]he Churches of the fourth and fifth centuries delayed for a curiously long time to send bishops to their captive sons and daughters beyond the frontier; and they made little or no organized or planned effort to save the barbarians from the fire everlasting.Eventually, Ulfilas was forced to leave the Goth lands because of persecution from Goth leaders. However, only some of the Arian Christian Goths followed him to new lands in Moesia, within the borders of the Roman Empire. Other Arian Goths refused to leave and, despite persecution and martyrdom, Arian Christianity gained a foothold among the Goths. Eventually, the other Germanic tribes, including the Burgundians, converted to Arianism.
Ulfilas is best known for both inventing the Gothic alphabet and translating the Bible into Gothic. Equally important was that he was not a Catholic but followed the Arian heresy developed by the bishop Arius of Alexandria in the fourth century. Arians held that neither Jesus nor the Holy Spirit were co-equal with God. Additionally, Jesus had been created by God and was not eternal. This was contrary to the Catholic position that Christ was ‘fully God, fully man,’ that He had always existed and always would and that he had assumed human form to instruct and to suffer and die for humanity.
The Roman Emperor Constantine called the First Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 in an attempt to resolve the conflict and Arianism was condemned, though only temporarily. Under the reign of the Arian Emperor Constantius II Arianism became ascendant though his successor, the pagan emperor Julian (the Apostate), encouraged conflict between Catholics and Arians. The ascension of Valens in A.D. 364 returned Arianism to preeminence in the eyes of the empire and it was during his reign that Ulfilas journeyed to the Goth lands and planted the seeds of Arianism.
In A.D. 379, the Catholic Theodosius I assumed the reign of the East and he called the First Council of Constantinople in A.D. 381 at which Arianism was outlawed throughout the Roman Empire. Outside it, however, Arianism had taken hold amongst the Germanic tribes, over whom Rome held no power to dictate religious preferences.
Ammianus gave no hint that the Burgundians had abandoned their pagan religion or priesthood when he wrote his history circa A.D. 395, so it must be assumed that they were still pagan upon entering Gaul in A.D. 406. Despite Orosius’ contention that the Burgundians were Catholic by A.D. 417, it seems improbable that a Catholic missionary would have journeyed through Germany and bypassed other tribes to specifically preach to the Burgundians. Additionally, the Gallic Chronicle implies that all of the major Germanic tribes were Arian by A.D. 451.
Most historians have come to believe that the Burgundians actually converted to Arianism sometime prior to A.D. 436, probably when they were settled as foederati in Germania I. This would justify the story told by the historian Socrates that the eastern Burgundians, those who had stayed on the eastern shore of the Rhine when most of their brethren crossed over into Gaul in A.D. 406, had become Christian around A.D. 430. Although the relationship between the two branches of Burgundians remains unknown, it is probably safe to assume that both groups were converted at about the same time.
The question of who converted the Burgundians remains a mystery lost in the mist of time. Some have theorized that a pocket of Roman Arians along the Rhine converted the Burgundians. Yet, it is more likely that a group of Visigothic missionaries preached to and converted the Burgundians some time after A.D. 418 and the founding of the kingdom of Toulouse. Since any such mission at this time would have had to deal with the Huns, any belief that a large group of Visigothic missionaries went traipsing about the Rhine, surrounded by Huns, is probably an exaggeration. This does not exclude the possibility that a smaller group of Visigothic missionaries could have performed the task.
Most of the conversions were more likely the result of a slow, religious osmosis. By settling in Roman lands, surrounded by Romans, Germans were exposed to Christianity. Nonetheless, a people that linked riches, success and the like to their religion could not help but recognize the benefit of praying to the god of their prosperous neighbors. “The move into a new economic and social world was necessarily followed by a move into a new spiritual world.” Though the Burgundians adopted Arian Christianity, it was still to the Christian God that they prayed and from whom they expected to reap the benefit. James C. Russell showed that, from the beginning, in A.D. 376, when the Goths negotiated with the Arian Christian Emperor of the Eastern Empire Valens to enter imperial lands, religion was used as a political tool. According to Russell, it was a way "in which political leaders vouched for their subjects" and it also showed that Roman culture was associated with Christianity. In other words, one could not be Roman and not be a Christian.
That the majority of the Germanic tribes followed heretical Arianism was probably not an accident. As it had fallen out of favor within the empire, it had increased its influence among the Germanic people outside of the empire. In the case of the Visigoths under Theodosius, the barbarians preferred the decentralized, mostly locally governed Arian Christianity over the organized and centrally governed Catholic faith, which they believed would intrude upon their traditions and tend to weaken their social identity. So, while the barbarians adjusted to, even mimiced, the Roman lifestyle, they did not completely embrace Roman culture. The same attitude has been ascribed to the Burgundians. By adhering to what was regarded as a heretical form of Christianity, the already outnumbered Burgundians only increased their isolation amidst a sea of Gallo-Roman Christians.
Any bonds, be they genealogical or religious, that the Burgundians felt with their Gallo-Roman neighbors were not strong enough to prevent the Gallo-Romans from complaining of Burgundian territorial encroachment. By about A.D. 435, the Burgundians had made many attempts to expand their kingdom by invading the province of Upper Belgica, apparently in the belief that Rome had either weakened or was distracted elsewhere. It was unfortunate for them, at the time, the Roman general in Gaul was Aetius, an extremely capable man.
UP NEXT: Aetius and the Fall of the First Burgundian Kingdom
Orosius, Seven Books of History.
E.A. Thompson, “Christianity and the Northern Barbarians,” in The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, ed. Arnaldo Momigliano (London: Oxford University Press, 1963).
Paul Lacroix, Science and Literature in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (New York: Frederick Unger Publishing Co., 1878).
Bury, Invasion of Europe.
C. Warren Hollister, Medieval Europe: A Short History, 8th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 19-20.
Roger Collins, Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000, 2d ed. (New York: Palgrave, 1999).
Chronicle of 452.
Otto Maenchen-Helfen, The World of the Huns, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).
Wolfram, Germanic Peoples.
Musset, Germanic Invasions.
Socrates, 7.30.3, Chronica Minora, ii. 491, in Thompson, “Christianity and the Northern Barbarians.”
James C. Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
E.A. Thompson, The Visigoths in the Time of Ulfila (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966) in Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity.
Pierre Riche, Education and Culture in the Barbarian West: From the Sixth Through the Eighth Century, trans. John J. Contreni, with a foreword by Richard E. Sullivan (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 218-19, in Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity.
E.A. Thompson, A History of Attila and the Huns (London: Oxford University Press, 1948; reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975).