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Medieval Sourcebook:
St. Boniface and the Conversion of Germany


The conversion of Germany to Christianity took place in a number of stages. Some of the later ones, in which Charlemagne forcibly baptized whole peoples were violent. Earlier, however, Anglo-Saxon monks, working in close association with the papacy, spread Christianity. Among them was St. Boniface (ca. 680-755), from Devon, who played a major part in the conversion of Germany. These three documents illustrate aspects of the both the work of conversion and activism of the popes

Letter of Pope Gregory II to Boniface, 719

Gregory, Servant of the Servants of God, to the Devout Priest Boniface

Knowing that thou hast from childhood been devoted to sacred letters, and that thou hast labored to reveal to unbelieving people the mystery of faith, . . - we decree in the name of the indivisible Trinity, through the unshaken authority of Peter, chief of the apostles, whose doctrine it is our charge to teach, and whose holy see is in our keeping, that, since thou seemest to glow with the salvation-bringing fire which our Lord came to send upon the earth, thou shalt hasten to whatsoever tribes are lingering in the error of unbelief, and shalt institute the rites of the kingdom of God.... And we desire thee to establish the discipline of the sacraments, according to the observance of our holy apostolic see.

Oath of Boniface to the Papacy, 722

I, Boniface, bishop by the grace of God, promise to you, the blessed, Peter, chief of the apostles, and to thy vicar, the blessed Pope Gregor-y, and to his successors, by the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, the indivisible Trinity, and by this thy most holy body, that, God helping me, I will maintain all the belief and the purity of the holy Catholic faith, and I will remain steadfast in the unity of this faith in which the whole salvation of Christians lies, as is established without doubt.

I will in no wise oppose the unity of the one universal Church, no matter who may seek to persuade me. But as I have said, I will maintain my faith and purity and union with thee and the benefits of thy Church, to whom God has given the power to loose and to bind, and with thy vicar and his successors, in all things. And if it comes to my knowledge that priests have turned from the ancient practices of the holy fathers, I will have no intercourse nor connection with them; but rather, if I can restrain them, I will. If I cannot, I will at once faithfully make known the whole matter to my apostolic lord.

Willibald: Life of Boniface

Miracles were an important aid in converting people from pagan gods.

Many of the people of Hesse were converted [by Boniface] to the Catholic faith and confirmed by the grace of the spirit: and they received the laying on of hands. But some there were, not yet strong of soul, who refused to accept wholly the teachings of the true faith. Some men sacrificed secretly, some even openly, to trees and springs. Some secretly practiced divining, soothsaying, and incantations, and some openly. But others, who were of sounder mind, cast aside all heathen profanation and did none of these things, and it was with the advice and consent of these men that Boniface sought to fell a tree of great size, at Geismar, and called, in the ancient h of the region, the oak of Thor.

The man of God was surrounded by the servants of God. When he would cut down the tree, behold a great throng of pagans who were there cursed him bitterly among themselves because he was the enemy of their gods. And when he had cut into the trunk a little way, a breeze sent by God stirred overhead, and suddenly the branchtop of the tree was broken off, and the oak in all its huge bulk fell to the ground. And it was broken into four huge sections without any effort of the brethren who stood by. When the pagans who had cursed did see this, they left off cursing and, believing, blessed God. Then the most holy priest took counsel with the brethren: and he built from the wood of the tree an oratory, and dedicated it to the holy apostle Peter.

From James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History: Vol. I: (Boston:: Ginn and co., 1904): "Letter of Gregory II and Oath of Boniface," 105-106, "Willibald's Life of Boniface," pp. 106-107.

 


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

(c)Paul Halsall Feb 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu