Christian Identity Formation Across the Elbe in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries

by Mihai Dragnea (Author)
©2021 Prompt VIII, 122 Pages


This book addresses the conversion of the Wends, and how Christian writers of the tenth and eleventh centuries perceived the submission of the Wends to the Christian faith. The main concern of the ecclesiastical authorities was to bring the apostate Wends back into the imperium Christianum: everyone who had accepted Christian baptism had to be prevented by all possible means from religious and political apostasy. More widely, the formation of a Christian identity is an excellent example of how conversion was a fluid set of propositions, discussed and rehearsed, influenced by many factors (not just canonical), and deployed in many contexts. This book’s task is to unravel how this dynamism played out against a marginal group.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Who Were the Wends?
  • 3. A Brief History of Christianity across the Elbe
  • 4. Wendish Idolatry in a Broader Context
  • 5. Divination and Fortune-Tellers in Christianity
  • 6. Horse Divination among the Liutici
  • 7. Rethra as the sedes ydolatriae of the Liutici
  • Conclusion
  • Index
  • Series Index

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List of Abbreviations

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Chapter One


During the Early Middle Ages, rulers from different regions in Western Europe aspired to the Roman idea of imperial hegemony over a territory. In the late eighth century, the Roman Church had difficulties in protecting its integrity. Its historical guardian, the Byzantine Emperor, was unable to protect the Papacy from any threat which might have come from Rome or from abroad. The Papacy needed a long-term support of a secular ruler and thus looked to the Franks. This situation led to the first fundamental shift in European politics before the Great Schism. On Christmas Day of 800, Charlemagne, the Frankish king was crowned by Pope Leo III in Rome. Those who were present in the basilica acclaimed him three times, and so he became ImperatorAugustus of the Romans. This action made the pope to accept some degree of subordination to Charlemagne.1

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Before 800, the relationship between regnum and sacerdotium has not been set correctly because the two concepts were not well defined in a political context. The most difficult issues the two rulers faced after the coronation was the quantity of power each was to have. Moreover it was unclear to what extent that power was to be temporal or spiritual. Leo, as the Bishop of Rome, was the spiritual ruler of the whole Western Christendom, and his power was related to Christian doctrine and sacraments, as well as the legitimate authority to govern the Church and appoint the clergy. Charlemagne saw these rights as belonging to temporal powers, because they were related to the administration and political system in general. In other words, Leo could not have exercised these rights without an organizational system that came from the temporal power. Having no choice, the pope made a compromise with Charlemagne, which led to the integration of the Western Church into the new Christian Empire. More exactly, the emperor represented the supreme temporal power in the Empire. At the same time, he acquired other previously papal prerogatives in Church administration and governance. He could have ordered bishops and priests to preach according to his imperial agenda, using the Bible as a moral justification. He could also set some regulations regarding the social conduct of monks and nuns in the monasteries, and protect the Empire from any threat. Charlemagne’s power came from God through the pope, and this legitimized his rule over the Christian Empire. In this conjuncture, the emperor gained administrative power in Church affairs, and in turn, the pope obtained a somewhat similar power in temporal affairs. The image of Charlemagne as a “ruler of all Christians” resulted from the merging of the two powers.2

In the Carolingian period, the idea of a “Christian empire” (imperium Christianum) was closely related with the war against all enemies from the outside and inside of Christianity. If the inner enemies were usually the “bad Christians,” who plotted against the ecclesiastical authorities and the imperial power, the outer ones were somewhat more diverse. The largest category of external enemies was that of “unbelievers.” In a broad sense, it included adherents of more or less monotheistic and prophetic religions. The label referred to people “without fate,” who actively opposed Christianity and its doctrine. The most important category was that of the Muslims, whose universal and expansionist religion clashed with Christianity. Other peripheral categories from the external enemies were described under various labels such as pagans or idolaters.3

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The Ottonians inherited the idea of a “Christian empire” from their predecessors. Under Ottonian rule, the concept of empire acquired various meanings. It could be explained both in theory and practice. The most important imperial symbol was the city of Rome, the residence of the ancient emperors. The Ottonians were emperors because they were crowned in the Urbs Aeterna. St. Augustine, a well-known figure in the early history of the Latin Christendom, had positioned the church as the representative heavenly authority on earth. Therefore the pope was the most important figure first because he was the legitimate ruler of the sacerdotium and second because he had transferred the divine power from the Carolingians to the Ottonians (translatio imperii). The Ottonians were legitimate emperors because they ruled a multiethnic realm, on which they imposed their supremacy and sovereignty. This offered them more international visibility and also recognition of their power from various regional rulers. Some of these were tributaries, and the legitimacy of their rule over their subjects was recognized by the emperor. The Ottonians were also emperors because they protect the empire from any external threats. If the empire was a Christian monolith, the enemies outside it could not be Christians too.4

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In practice, the power of the Ottonians was based on land properties and titles held by their relatives. This worked as a sort of power family network. Within the Ottonian kingship it was important how the king interacted with the members of this large family known as familiares. During Otto I, there could be members of the familia regis or counsellors. Their influence in the territory was determined according to how close they were to the king.5 The Ottonian kingship, its role within the state and how it should be represented on earth, involved a reset of the ties with the Saxon magnates and the clergy. Otto had the biggest support in Saxony, in the eastern part of his realm. In most of the cases, the Saxon margraves were the most loyal supporters of the Ottonians. Thus the Ottonian power was strengthened by the margraves, who had to defend the eastern border. From the contemporary sources we find out that Otto I legitimized his imperial agenda through the expeditions of the Saxon margraves against the pagan Wends. By Otto’s goodwill, the Saxon ecclesiastical authorities crossed the Elbe and settled there for a time. The Wendish territory up to Oder was conquered by the Saxon milites and administrated by the margraves on behalf of Otto. The heroic milites became part of a “Christian army” (exercitus Christianus).6 A universal empire including both Christians and newly converted and functioned as a replica on earth of God’s heavenly order. With this ideological background, the Ottonian regnum became an imperium Christianum, which followed the Carolingian model.7

The holders of both powers (regnum and sacerdotium) saw themselves as the sole defenders of God’s orderly creation on earth. However the creation of a Christian identity of the eastern neighbors was the work of the church. The question that the Christian authors needed to answer was what it meant to be a Christian. In order to define paganitas, first was necessary to define Christianitas. Thus the pagans were described in contrast to the Christians. The main question raised in this book was about the nature of Christianity. Was being a Christian was only a question of faith and acceptance of sacraments, or did it also involve notions of a political nature? As this book will show, the inclusion of the newcomers in the imperium Christianum was made through baptism, one of the most important Christian sacraments. This proved to be a useful tool for the ecclesiastical authorities, because it was fundamental to Christian identity. Moreover it was widely practiced across the Elbe as a ritual of initiation and inclusion. By accepting the sacramentum of baptism, the Wends affirmed their place in Christianitas.


VIII, 122
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. VIII, 122 pp.

Biographical notes

Mihai Dragnea (Author)

Mihai Dragnea (PhD 2018) is associate researcher at the University of South-Eastern Norway, president of the Balkan History Association, and editor of Hiperboreea, the journal affiliated with the association. His interests and collaboration include cultural, social and political relations between Germans, Scandinavians and Wends during the High Middle Ages; the Viking Age; early Slavic ethnicity and state formation; and identity and conflict in the Balkans. His PhD dissertation entitled Mission Crusade in the Wendish Territory, 12th Century was published in Romanian (2019). A second short format book The Wendish Crusade, 1147: The Development of Crusading Ideology in the Twelfth Century was published in 2019.


Title: Christian Identity Formation Across the Elbe in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries
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132 pages