Doing justice to God in the early middle ages

Revd Dr Robert Evans is the incoming chaplain at Christ’s College Cambridge.

It is a tremendous honour to have won the President’s Prize for 2019 and I am delighted to have an opportunity to share some of the thoughts that lay behind my paper.

When thinking about the Church and the law, it is important to remember that Christians throughout history have conceived of God Himself in legal terms. This goes right back to the Bible itself, which depicts God as a judge and a legislator (among many other images). The psalms, for example, depict a God who ‘judges the world in righteousness’ (Ps. 9.8). In fact, the apostles often framed the Christian message of salvation in legal categories – through Christ’s death on the cross, God justly cancels the ‘legal indebtedness’ of the guilty and declares them innocent (e.g. Col. 2.14).

The characterisation of God in such legal terms was very important in early medieval Europe. This is hardly surprising, given how seriously thinkers in those societies took the Bible. God’s legal character expressed itself in all sorts of ways: law-codes drew on Biblical commands, human courts saw themselves as implementing divine judgements, and rulers expected to give an account before Christ’s tribunal. There was also a pervasive belief that God acted in contemporary events to punish sin. The most well-known example of this concerns the Vikings, who were often seen as instruments of God’s righteous anger. In 1014, for example, the archbishop of York, Wulfstan, ascribed the ongoing Scandinavian attacks to ‘God’s anger at our sins’. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (version D) made a similar comment about William the Conqueror’s victory at the battle of Hastings in 1066. The Normans won the battle, ‘as God granted them for the sins of the people’. The English submitted ‘seeing that God willed not better things for our sins’. This seems a fairly straightforward way of interpreting history – people sin and then God punishes them, whether through military defeat or some other catastrophe.

To modern ears, however this language of God’s anger at sin or judgement of wrongdoing sounds quite strange and alien. It plays into the longstanding and deeply problematic view of the early middle ages as a ‘dark age’ – superstitious, primitive, and barbaric – during which writing about God’s judgemental anger contributed to a sense of fear and gloom, in which Christians were motivated only by the terror of judgement. Their God was supposedly the angry Judge of the Old Testament (perhaps even a thin disguise for the old war gods of paganism), rather than the loving Father of Jesus’ teaching. This was simply one of many ways in which early medieval churches were, it seemed, a deviant aberration from true Christianity, a decline from purity of the early church and before the light that dawned either with twelfth-century scholasticism or the Reformation (depending on denominational perspectives). [i]

More recent scholarship – including research by many members of the EHS! – has decisively overturned this image. [ii] The early middle ages are now rightly acknowledged as a period of enormous cultural, intellectual, and religious vitality. Just as Biblical scholars have pushed back against the dichotomy between a God of the Old Testament and the New, so too has research on early medieval exegesis shown that Christian thinkers were engaging with the whole of the Bible and a great deal of earlier Christian tradition (and were certainly not barely converted pagans). As we approach the language of God’s judgement in early medieval sources, we need to do so in a way that does justice to the complexity of these writers’ theology.

My research focuses primarily on the evidence of the Carolingian Empire, which dominated much of western Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries and whose elites took a keen interest in theology. My paper looked specifically at historical and legislative texts and how they depicted God’s judgement or anger at sin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these texts show a great deal of variety and complexity in how they depict God’s judgement. Some texts emphasised God’s judgement considerably more than others. Those that did depict God’s judgement varied considerably in their vocabulary and phrasing. These were no mere clichés but ideas on which writers reflected with great care, which raises several questions.

1. For example, it is important to ask how God’s judgement was described. Was He actively punishing sinful people? Or did the author simply allude to this by mentioning their characters’ sins? Or perhaps even by omitting God from the narrative?

2. Similarly, whom God was seen as judging? Was it the audience of these texts, who needed to change their ways? Was it other members of their community, who were endangering the whole group by their wrongoing? Or was it their enemies and persecutors, whom God would judge for their crimes?

3. Also important is how else God was described. Was God only depicted as angry at sin? Or was He also presented to audience as merciful and forgiving, ready to restore and protect the penitent from current catastrophes? Was His judgement a dominant theme in a given text? Or was it subordinated to His care and help?

4. Finally, it is important to ask why God was depicted as judging in these ways. Were the audiences of these texts seen by these authors as needing to be shocked out of their complacency? Or were they struggling to understand recent catastrophes and needed encouragement?

There was considerable versatility in how God’s judgement could be used. A good example of this is the anonymous Saxon poet, who in the 890s wrote an epic verse biography about Charlemagne (r.768-814). [iii] This poem is a later example than those used in my article but picks up many of the same themes and is worth considering.

The Saxon poet overwhelmingly emphasised God’s help to Charlemagne. This was primarily expressed in his wars against the Saxons and Avars. Battles are won ‘by divine help’ and the Empire sustained ‘by Christ’s pity’. God is a ‘good thing’ for Charlemagne and for his biography. Indeed, the first time God’s judgement appears, it is not on Charlemagne but on the Saxons, who had devastated the Rhineland, ‘doing evil…and burning churches’. When Charlemagne defeats them, the poet said that it was because ‘God thought it fitting to condemn such crimes committed against his people’. God’s help to Charlemagne on the one hand was also His judgement against the enemies of the Church on the other. This is a good reminder to ask whom God is described as judging in these sources.

Charlemagne and his people are not exempt simply because they are Christians. Charlemagne, in fact, avoids a war in Italy because he knows that shedding Christian blood will displease God. Nonetheless, God’s judgement on Charlemagne and his people has a different character. When the nomadic Avars attack the ‘Christ-worshipping’ Franks from the east, the poet wrote that this was ‘God castigating those dear to Him in His kindly manner’. When Charlemagne’s eldest son died, the poet wrote that ‘the Almighty often instructs those dear to Him with a whip…to give them the joy of eternal life’. The poet took seriously the reality of pain and suffering brought about by war and illness. His own audience had plenty of similar problems, whether Viking raids from the north, or a renewed threat from the east, this time by the Hungarians. God’s judgement was a helpful category for interpreting these events, but it needed to be applied in a way which was pastorally helpful. Suffering could be sign of God’s care for His people and it is significant that the poet drew on the language of Hebrews chapter 12, verse 6: ‘because the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and He chastens everyone He accepts as His son’ (and note that this is a New Testament text!). This is a good illustration of how quite subtle phrasing could make a big difference to the text’s message. The fact that God then helps Charlemagne prevails against the Huns shows that these examples of divine correction also need to be understood alongside God’s help and mercy, which was by far the dominant tone of the poem.

Such distinctions and subtleties can be found throughout early medieval culture and deserve our full attention. For these writers, God’s judgement was not a crude cliché, used to scare people into behaving correctly. Above all, God was seen as an active – indeed, the active – agent in contemporary history, without which it could not be properly understood. This meant that the whole of His character was relevant to early medieval Christians, both His justice and His mercy and love. This demanded careful reflection and application, depending on the needs of the community. The legal aspect of God’s character was simply one way in which thinking about God shaped a whole society.

The saxon poet
The Saxon Poet, Annals of the Deeds of Charles
Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Helmstedt. MS. 553, fol. 1r.
Utrecht Psalter
Utrecht Psalter, Psalm 9, verse 8: ‘And he shall judge the world in equity, he shall judge the people in justice’.
Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS. Bibl. Rhenotraiectinae I Nr. 32, fol. 5r.

i For an excellent survey and critique of this scholarly approach, see Mayke de Jong, ‘Ecclesia and the early medieval polity’, in Stuart Airlie and Walter Pohl (eds), Staat im frühen Mittelalter (Vienna, 2006) pp. 113-132.

ii For instance, Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge, 1989).

iii For two great discussions of this fascinating source, see Ingrid Rembold, ‘The Poeta Saxo at Paderborn: episcopal authority and Carolingian rule in late ninth-century Saxony’, Early Medieval Europe 21 (2013), pp. 169-196; Robert Flierman, Saxon Identities, AD 150-900 (London, 2017), pp. 154-60.

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