on September 1, 1999
Scholar James Russell has given us an important work with this detailed study. Subtitled "A sociohistorical approach to religious transformation," it is an exceedingly well-researched and documented analysis of the conversion of the Germanic tribes to the imported and fundamentally alien religion of Christianity during the period of 376-754 of the Common Era. Russell's work is all the more dynamic as he does not limit his inquiry simply to one field of study, but rather utilizes insights from sources as varied as modern sociobiological understanding of kinship behaviors, theological models on the nature of religious conversion, and comparative Indo-European religious research. Dexterously culling relevant evidence from such disparate disciplines, he then interprets a vast array of documentary material from the period of European history in question. The end result is a convincing book that offers a wealth of food for thought-not just in regards to historical conceptions of the past, but with far-reaching implications which relate directly to the tide of spiritual malaise currently at a high water mark in the collective European psyche. The first half of Russell's work provides an in-depth examination of various aspects of conversion, Christianization and Germanization, allowing him to arrive at a functional definition of religious transformation which he then applies to the more straightforward historical research material in the latter sections of the book. Along the way he presents a lucid exploration of ancient Germanic religiosity and social structure, placed appropriately in the wider context of a much older Indo-European religious tradition. Russell completes the study by tracing the parallel events of Germanization and Christianization in the central European tribal territories. He marshals a convincing array of historical, linguistic and other evidence to demonstrate his major thesis, asserting that during the process of the large European conversions Christianity was significantly "Germanicized" as a consequence of its adoption by the tribal peoples, while at the same time the latter were often "Christianized" only in a quite perfunctory and tenuous sense. Contrary to simplistic models put forth by some past historians, this book illustrates that conversion was not any sort of linear "one-way street"; a testament to the fundamental power of indigenous Indo-European and Germanic religiosity lies in the evidence that it was never fully or substantially eradicated by the faith which succeeded it. As Russell shows, a more accurate scenario was that of native spirituality and folk-tradition sublimated into a Christian framework, which in this altered form then became the predominant spiritual system for Europe. Russell's Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity is wide-ranging yet commanding in its contentions, and academia could do well with encouraging more scholars of this calibre and fortitude who are able to avoid the pitfall of over-specialization and produce works of great scope and lasting relevance. Make no doubt about it, this is a demanding and complex book, but for those willing to invest the effort, the benefits of understanding its content will be amply rewarding, and of imperative relevance for anyone who wishes to apprehend the past, present and future of genuine European religiosity.
on July 27, 2001
I stumbled upon this book while researching for a study of the conjoined paganization/Christianization of Medieval literature. What a find! As the reviewer above mentioned, Russell's strength lies in the amazing range of his scholarship. This intellectual breadth, however, does not detract from Russell's more focused, balanced, and lucid examination of key points (e.g., anomie as a factor in social religious conversion, fundamental worldview clashes between Christianity and Germanic converts, etc.). Russell covers a lot of ground in a mere 200+ pages. Moreover, his final assertions are modest enough to be credible, and yet daring enough to remain highly interesting. Plus, from a research perspective, the bibliography alone is worth a handful of other books. This book has been normative in my decisions about the contours of any future scholarship I pursue. Alas, I was left hungering for a continuation of many of the themes, to which Russell often just alludes (e.g, the imbibed Germanic ethos as the animus for the "Christian" Crusades, the contemporary implications of urban anomie for our globalizing world, etc.). Of course, such stellar scholarship cannot be rushed. Surely Russell's next inquiry is worth the wait!
on December 2, 2013
All my life it seems I've been wrestling with this conflict, that the core documents of the Christian faith are obviously profoundly world rejecting, and yet the Catholicism into which I was born in New Orleans was essentially world-affirming and embracing with its sensuous rituals, its accommodation of art and music and Dionysian urges and its long European traditions and customs. Well, this brilliantly written and highly accessible book tackles the big question of how this Middle Eastern religion, Christianity, which is indeed world denying and world rejecting came to be what it is today in the West: and essentially the author explains his theory that it was the Germanization of Christianity that was responsible. When the Frankish tribes converted under Clovis, accommodations were made for the values and ideas of these Germanic tribes that essentially embraced their customs and ways resulting in a new mutation of the basic faith. ---
(Note: Ellis Rivkin, the great Jewish historian, has written eloquently about how Judaism and Christianity are mutational religions and I think this book, though it does not refer to Rivkin, explains one of the major mutations.).
The book goes on to discuss with impressive clarity how this Germanization affected the faith down through the ages, during the Reformation and on right up to Vatican II and beyond. Very well worth reading and study. Downright enjoyable. A delight to study and absorb. ------
If the big questions fascinate you, if you love historians who seek to embrace the great arc of history, if you are intrigued by the contradictions at the heart of Christian faith and its evolution in history, if you value eloquent and accessible prose you may love this book. I first opened it in 1996, and now I'm reading it all over again, having re-discovered it on my shelves, and it's giving me fresh insights and endless pleasure. Highly recommended. See other reviews here for more detailed descriptions of Russell's ideas.
on August 6, 2013
Really explains the misplaced "Warrior Mentality" within the Christian Religion. Also shows how the "New Faith" was used to subjugate the Germanic Tribes yet could not irradicate the Old Faiths and ended up unintentionally usurping and warping much of the Old Lore. A must read for any serious student of the PreChristian Religions and their effects on Christianity.
on May 10, 2013
Christianity becomes a heroic contender in the worlds religions as it passes through the Germanic psyche, becoming a religion of sacrifice, charity, and fighting spirit!
on September 6, 2013
I'm still reading the book (I have the last chapter and conclusion to go) so take this as you will.
It's a good book; the premise is clearly stated and the author goes through supporting evidence, and I think he does a good job with it. Most readers will buy it for the second half, where Russell sets out to discuss the changes that Christianity saw when it expanded into continental areas, and he does so admirably. My main reason for buying this book was the first half, though, where Russell outlines his theory of religious transformation, both in the institutions of the religion, as well as the culture in general. I've already been able to pull out several quotes of his for my own dissertation. It's an acceptable theory, though somewhat dated in today's anthropology; it relies a bit too heavily on early- to mid- 20th century thinking and ignores post-modern critiques.
Russell's history is good, even if it angers some believers. (I've read several critiques of this book, mostly from those authors who approach it as a "history of the Church" view, and I disagree with most of them. Many critiques seem to stem from uncritical assumptions concerning the history of institutionalized Christianity, and a belief in a divinely inspired Truth(tm) as espoused by that Christianity. Ironically enough, their critiques ignore the fact that Russell also seems to uncritically accept Church history as written by Church members.)
I do wish he would have utilized more evidence from archaeology, which he seems to have ignored for the most part (at least up until the last chapter). It may have provided a more comprehensive view of ritual, as opposed to religious belief, that would have provided a fuller discussion of the evolution of religious practices during the period.
Finally, at least for me, the book reads a bit repetitively. There are at least 3 or 4 times a chapter where I stop, and think that he already made that point. Much of it reads like it's very well written free flowing stream-of-consciousness writing. There are no sub-headings, no divisions below the chapter level. It's a bit off-putting to me, since everything I've ever read academically has had numerous sub-headings (perhaps too many) covering every point. Keep that in mind, and expect to encounter some difficulty in finding natural stopping points between his various topics.
on March 3, 2015
Fantastic and well-detailed book that I would highly recommend to any library of lovers of history, heathens, or anyone interested in historical conversion from a religious viewpoint. I have referred to this book often, and have recommended it to more than a few friends.
on September 11, 2014
A scholarly overview of how the ancient pagan religions of Europe influenced and survived Christianity.
on July 30, 2009
For Western Europe and its colonial sons and daughters, it is all too easy to omit critical reflection upon our Christian heritage as received through our germanic culture. So, thank goodness that Mr. Russell has shaken us from our easy-going slumber with his study, "The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity" ("GERMANIZATION.")
The book is written with a non-polemical, matter of fact, academic tone. But, it can nevertheless be jarring to readers of broader germanic descent -- i.e., all of post-Roman Western Europe and its colonial extensions -- to examine the historical development of its religious peculiarities in light of the broader Greco-Roman and Oriental Christian Tradition, which, of course, pre-dates the reception of Christianity by the various germanic tribes that overran the western half of the Roman Empire and conquered all of Western Europe and colonized the New World. Indeed, it is all too easy for Western Europeans and North Americans to fall into the trap that the Christian traditions its cultural patrimony somehow represents normative Christian simply because it is the Christianity that we know and have been formed within.
While Christianity traditionally has managed to "indigenize" itself into both numerous and various specific ethnic groups (Hellenes, Arabs, Slavs, Celts, etc.), one of the costs of such a process is cross-inculteration, in which such indigenized Christianity sometimes takes on characteristics of the receiving ethnos to such an extent that and objective observer may fairly consider the Faith to have been somewhat corrupted or distorted in its new manifestation rather than having completely succeeded in "baptizing" the pre-Christian ethos. In short, sometimes, the tail wags the dog.
What Russell manages to achieve in GERMANIZATION is to convincingly identify the major aspects of the reception of Christianity into Western European--i.e., Germanic--culture that represent examples of the culture corrupting the cult, rather than the cult redeeming the culture. The eye-opening process of reading GERMANIZATION can be quite discomfiting, as he is demonstrating objective flaws in the received patrimony of Western Christendom, of which most of Russell's readers are bound to be heirs, whether they themselves are particularly religious or not. Hence, do not be surprised if GERMANIZATION touches some nerves.
The great virtue of GERMANIZATION, however, is that it enables objective readers within the germanic Christian tradition to better recognize the corruptions and imperfections that have arisen in germanic Christianity during the reception, incultration and cross-inculteration process. And, those that will, can embrace the freedom to resist, and even to purge, the corruptive germanizations from our Christian patrimony and thereby walk a more authentic Christian path.
on February 1, 2013
Russell's argument is that Christianity in the west was Germanized in order to facilitate an easier conversion process. Essentially, missionaries and Catholic church leaders allowed elements from Germanic cultures in the medieval west to continue on within Christianity. By doing so, people were more likely to convert to Christianity than if they were forced to give up all of the traditions in pre-Christian society. He uses examples not just from the medieval period, but is heavy on comparisons to modern religion and the variations of Christianity that have sprung up as a result of cultural influences.
Russell's work is long winded, but well laid out. I would warn readers to approach this work with caution. While Russell's theory is used in many academic circles, his work does contain racist implications, which I personally find insulting. This book, therefore, is one of those necessary evils for early medieval studies. Please keep in mind that other authors, such as Karen Louise Jolly, have made similar arguments without the negative aspects present in Russell's work.