The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity by James C. Russel

I have read The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity – A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation by James C. Russel. It is a scholarly work full of references and valuable historical insights. The book contains seven chapters:

  1. Transformations of Christianity
  2. Conversion, Christianization, and Germanization
  3. Sociohistorical Aspects of Religious Transformation
  4. Sociopsychological Aspects of Religious Transformation
  5. Germanic Religiosity and Social Structure
  6. Germanization and Christianization 376-678
  7. Germanization and Christianization 678-754

Note: In this case, Germanisation refers to Germanic and not German (as I discussed in Podcast Episode 29. Fehu, Uruz, the Primordial Beast).

Indo-European Religion vs Christianity

In the introduction of the book, the author discusses the different worldviews of the Indo-European religions (Greek, Roman, Germanic etc.) and Christianity. He notes (with the risk of over-generalising) that the former is folk-centred and world-accepting, and the latter is soteriological (relating to salvation) and eschatological (relating to death and judgement) – hence world-rejecting. I agree with this assessment – I have discussed the life-affirming nature of Paganism many times before. Another interesting difference that he points out is the following: the Germanic peoples at the time of their encounter with Christianity had a high level of group solidarity – this stood in sharp contrast to the urban and rootless social environment that Christianity flourished in (i.e. an environment in which alienation and normlessness prevailed).

The Power of the Christian God

The author notes that Anglo-Saxon missionaries did not emphasise the soteriological and eschatological aspects of Christianity. Rather, they sought to emphasise the power and omnipotence of the Christian God, as well as the temporal rewards he could bestow upon those who accepted him through baptism. In a similar manner, Christ was often depicted as a warrior to appeal to the Germanic peoples. Moreover, the Germanic peoples had a magicoreligious view of religion:

‘According to this “magicoreligious character” it was expected that Christ would intervene in the affairs of individuals and groups in direct response to specific prayers or rituals.’

James C. Russel – The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. Page 191.

Thus, Jesus was remodelled into a God that could help his worshippers here and now, as opposed to being presented as someone who would safeguard the soul after death. This makes perfect sense when taking the life-affirming weltanschauung of the Germanic peoples into consideration.

The Christian Pantheon

The author notes that the Germanic view of the divine survived into the Christian era, albeit in a transformed manner:

‘The worldly, magicoreligious, heroic, folk religiosity of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples was transferred from Odin, Tiwaz, Thor, and Freyja, and the shrines and amulets dedicated to them, to Christus Victor, his loyal saints, and their shrines and relics.’

James C. Russel – The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. Page 188.

Pictured below: a humble poet at Heliga Birgittas bönegrotta (roughly translated from Swedish to: the prayer grotto of St. Bridget of Sweden) – i.e. a shrine dedicated to a saint.

The Germanisation of Christianity

The following quote summarises the Germanisation of Christianity in a great way:

‘The early medieval Germanization of Christianity, in most cases, then, was not the result of organized Germanic resistance to Christianity, or of an attempt by the Germanic peoples to transform Christianity into an acceptable form. Rather, it was primarily a consequence of the deliberate inculturation of Germanic religiocultural attitudes within Christianity by Christian missionaries. This process of accommodation resulted in the essential transformation of Christianity from a universal salvation religion to a Germanic, and eventually European, folk religion.’

James C. Russel – The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. Page 39.

This basically means that Christianity was presented in such a way that it would fit seamlessly into the Germanic societies. Since it was presented in a manner attractive to the Germanic peoples, Christianity also stayed heavily Pagan for a long time.

‘The sociopsychological response of the Germanic peoples to this inculturated form of Christianity included the acceptance of those traditionally Christian elements which coincided with Germanic religiosity and the resolution of dissonant elements by reinterpreting them in accordance with the Germanic ethos and world-view.

James C. Russel – The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. Page 39.

The Christianity of the Middle Ages

The author refers to John Van Engen who, in his article The Christian Middle Ages, makes the case that mediaeval folk were only superficially Christianised, and that Christian faith and practice first took hold among the European masses during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation movements. This supports the popular argument often seen that Catholicism is a particularly Pagan form of Christianity. This is, of course, a contested topic, but it is worth keeping in mind when formulating a spiritual path for the future.

Religiocultural View of War

The author shares a quote by J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, in which the latter states that the Germanic Pagans viewed war as a religious undertaking in which the Gods were interested. Ragnarök is perhaps the most notable example of this. As we noted in our review of Julius Evola’s Revolt Against the Modern World (review), this view was present during the Middle Ages as well. The following quote by Saint Bernard illustrates this quite well:

‘Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. What a glory it is for you to emerge from the battle crowned with victory! But what a greater glory it is to win on the battlefield an immortal crown… What a truly blessed condition, when one can wait for death without any fear, yearning for it and welcoming it with a strong spirit!’

Saint Bernard – De laude novae militiae

The Crusades were, one could argue, more of a Pagan (i.e. an expression of the Indo-European spirit) than a Christian undertaking. The Crusades could actually be a good example to emphasise the extent to which Christianity had been transformed in Europe.

The Situation in Greece and Rome

The author notes that Christianity had already been thoroughly Indo-Europeanised prior to its contact with the Germanic peoples. After all, Christianity grew in an environment dominated by Graeco-Roman culture.

‘Both Greek and Roman influences contributed toward some degree of an Indo-Europeanization of Christianity, not by actively seeking to do so, but as the passive result of the rapid expansion of Christianity to include people in whom the traditional world-accepting Indo-European world-view remained alive and meaningful.

This prior Indo-Europeanization of Christianity may have eased its acceptance within a Germanic society which retained the traditional Indo-European world-view long after it was supplanted in the classical world.’

James C. Russel – The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity. Page 133.

Therefore, the Christianity that the Germanic peoples encountered was not only presented as something quite different than what it was in its beginning (a salvific religion for the lower, urban masses), but it was also already transformed due to its encounter with other Indo-European cultures.

Another aspect that is important to keep in mind when discussing Rome and Christianity is that Christianity gained popularity in a Rome that was no longer very Roman. The author shares the following quote by Ramsay MacMullen:

‘There was little “Roman” left in the Roman empire. Rather, the “un-Roman” elements had come to the fore, and now controlled the world in which they lived.’

Ramsay MacMullen – Enemies of the Roman Order.

As I have mentioned many times before, the Rome that fell to Alaric in 410 was not the same entity (bioculturally) as the Rome that conquered the world in previous centuries. In regard to Hellenic influence on Christianity, it must be noted that Neoplatonism had a strong impact on Christian metaphysics.


The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity is, in my humble opinion, a must-read for any European Pagan or Christian. It is of utmost importance to understand just how Pagan Christianity has been historically. It is also important to emphasise the fact that the Christianity that has been in Europe during the last millenium is not the same as the Christianity one encounters today. I will elaborate at length on this topic in my upcoming book (which is coming mid-2023).

The book is 214 pages and is academic in its style (i.e. heavily footnoted and with plenty of references). This makes it both a concise read as well as giving plenty of suggestions for further research on one’s own. Good stuff!

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