Norman Christianity - Sarah Woodbury

Norman Christianity

Today we’ll be talking about Norman Christianity.

Dan: In an earlier video, you said the Normans were descended from Vikings, who were pagan. But they weren’t pagan when they conquered England?

No, they had converted to Christianity in the same time period as most of the Danes from whom they were descended, such that by 1066, when Duke William fought Harold at the Battle of Hastings, his people had been Christian for a hundred and fifty years.

To recap, because I think it’s worth repeating, the Normans are called “Norman” because they came from Normandy, a province in France. But as we said in a prior video, ‘Viking’ is an occupation, not an ethnic group. They are descended from the same Danish diaspora that invaded Ireland, Britain, Sicily, and western Russia. They were eventually either defeated or assimilated in all these places, and the same is true in Normandy. In 910, the Frankish King Charles made a deal with this particular group of Vikings, led by a man named Rollo, that they could keep Normandy if they would agree to be part of Charles’ empire (making their leader a duke rather than a king) and convert to Christianity. Which they did.

Dan: Basically, he bought them off so they would stop attacking his lands.

It is a tried and true method of making allies of enemies!

And in this case, it ‘worked’ after a fashion. The Danes became Normans, adhering to Christianity and abandoning their prior pagan traditions—But not their culture. An 11th century monk and historian described them as: Specially marked by cunning, despising their own inheritance in the hope of winning a greater, eager after both gain and dominion, given to imitation of all kinds, holding a certain mean between lavishness and greediness, that is, perhaps uniting, as they certainly did, these two seemingly opposite qualities. Their chief men were specially lavish through their desire of good report. They were, moreover, a race skillful in flattery, given to the study of eloquence, so that the very boys were orators, a race altogether unbridled unless held firmly down by the yoke of justice. They were enduring of toil, hunger, and cold whenever fortune laid it on them, given to hunting and hawking, delighting in the pleasure of horses, and of all the weapons and garb of war.

They also continued their open-mindedness about making deals. In the case of their church, one of the ways that William got the pope to go along with his conquest of England was by promising to impose a complete reorganization of the English Church and reform the ‘irregularities’ of the Anglo-Saxon Church, which had developed its own distinctive customs. We saw that in Wales too.

For example, even though bishoprics existed, worship was very ‘localized’, with many small Saxon churches serving the local population. After the conquest, not only were the vast majority of clerical positions filled by Normans but they built massive stone churches, to imply that their spiritual power was as great as their temporal one. William’s first Archbishop of Canterbury, a monk named Lanfranc, instituted reforms within the priesthood itself as well, including requiring celibacy of all priests. This was made easier by the fact that he’d replaced the Saxon clergy with Normans ones, who were predisposed to accept more central control.

Next week we’ll be talking about one of the first Norman churches in England, Battle Abbey.


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