An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—Beowulf and the Christian Compromise

[In support of my next post in the Idiot’s History series, I am posting the full text of a paper my son, Jeremy Dunford, wrote for a history course at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.]

Stemming from the roots of Judaism, Christianity developed in the wake of Jesus of Nazareth. Throughout the first millennium following his death, the new religion cyclically spread and morphed to fit the time period and people who became enveloped by the ever-growing phenomenon. As pagan traditions were integrated into monotheistic Christianity, the core foundations of the religion managed to remain steadfast until end of the Dark Ages. Around this time, grand transformations in how the Europeans interpreted and lived out the teachings of the Church began to occur. By comparing the historical texts that connect Christ to the Christendom of the High Middle Ages, we can clearly discern that the shifts that occurred were fundamentally in line with classic Christian tradition to a point, but by the time of the Crusades had completely obliterated the philosophies of Christ and Augustine. Pagan ideals that emphasized physical wealth eventually overcame the righteous nature that had defined followers of Christ since the time of the Pax Romana. The centrality of Christian piety remained a constant across the earlier centuries, but between the Dark Ages and High Middle Ages its definition drastically changed from one of selfless sacrifice to one of zealous materialism.

The strong Jewish ancestry of Christianity is shown in the Old Testament. In Exodus, the Hebrews name themselves as God’s “chosen people,” the first recipients of His law and constituents in the Covenant. Essentially, the Covenant says that God will bless His people so long as they obey His law, made explicit in the Ten Commandments. The concept of sin, introduced in Genesis and later expanded upon by Saint Augustine, is defined as the usage of man’s free will to violate God’s laws and breach the Covenant. Original Sin, the origin of evil illustrated in Genesis by the eating of an apple from the tree of knowledge, can be simply described as man acting selfishly to fulfill his own desires rather than living life in the name of God. As the first to present the concept of ethics, the Hebrews symbolized the shift from this-worldliness to the supernatural that would be developed in the Christianity that followed.

Thousands of years after prophets first began to preach of a Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth expounded Old Testament philosophies and taught what would become the apex of Christian doctrine. According to the Gospel of Mark, the greatest commandment of all is to, “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Central to the early Christian worldview were the notions of selflessness and living as a vassal for God’s grace. The Beatitudes, outlined by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, were meant to curb the worldly, egocentric vices of pride, revenge, and greed. Jesus’ teachings especially appealed to the poor, meek, downtrodden, and persecuted who felt left out by Rome’s grand successes.

As Lactantius describes, Greed is the source of evil and is the principal cause for the degeneration of society. Thus, as Jesus commanded, generosity towards the needy is the basis for achieving social justice and bringing order to the earth. Concern for the common good was of primary moral importance, and it was on this point that Saint Augustine based his most famous work, City of God. Augustine’s central premise is that when human beings turn away from God to follow their own appetites (in effect succumbing to original sin), they fall into evil and cannot possibly find true happiness (happiness here is equated to an afterlife in heaven). He says that, “When a man lives ‘according to man’ and not ‘according to God’ he is like the devil,” and that while human nature inherently involves the capacity for sin, we can overcome our natural immoral desires to work for God and attain eternal salvation. As opposed to the City of Man, there exists in the City of God, “a piety which worships the true God…and all of the citizens are personally immortal with an immortality…which even human beings can come to share.”  Happiness, he says, cannot come from man alone but only through God in the afterlife; to sin is to live according to oneself and thus lose God. Pagans claimed that happiness was achievable in this world, but Augustine argued that the only perfect world is heaven with God. He asserts that it is in swallowing our pride (the foundation on which sin is built) and complying with the laws of God that we might be saved by Jesus Christ and gain entrance to this City of God.

Once Constantine reunited the Empire, made Christianity legal in 313, and officially established Christian dogma with the Nicene Creed in 325, the spirit of Christendom spread like wildfire. A vivid example of how Christendom was achieved in the Dark Ages is the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. When Rome abandoned the Britons, they were a newly Christian society that was now vulnerable to powerful pagan Germanic tribes. As Bede describes, Christian monks slowly assimilated the newcomers to their religion through slow integration. While Beowulf includes certain values such as pride, material wealth, and desire for fame and glory, its message has a clear Christian tone of selfless piety. The writer’s expression of the story is plainly steeped in a deeply pagan tradition (empathizing with his readers), yet he focuses on distinctly Christian ethics, signaling his attempt to quicken the expansion of Christianity to the Viking commoners.

In essence, the opening passage depicting an all-powerful, omnipresent force to whom all creation owes its existence, perfectly in line with the Christian image of God that was developed in the Roman Empire, serves to offer insight into the audience for whom this poem was intended – the common people who could be hearing the Creation story for the first time and whom the writer hoped would come to understand Christianity, if not fully convert. God’s counter-character, Grendel, is directly juxtaposed to the, “Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, Head of Heavens and High King of the World” (180). Grendel evidently defies the pagan ideals of prideful boasts and cunning, strategic battle while also challenging Augustine’s Christian view that man should act solely for the purpose of serving God rather than fulfilling his own worldly appetites. The beast is simply living to literally fulfill his own appetites by eating men, thus embodying the exact animalistic evil identified by Augustine in City of God. The author of the poem thus drives home the Christian message of the immorality of living for one’s selfish desires, using exaggerated images of the savage slaughter of the Danes that would be considered evil by pagans and Christians alike.

On the other hand, the Great Hero demonstrates virtues that were idealized by the Anglo-Saxons. We find aspects of both pagan and Christian traditions portrayed in the writer’s characterization of Beowulf as proud to the point of arrogance, yet at the same time willing to trust in God and submit to a greater destiny that will ultimately decide his fate. For example, when introducing himself to Hrothgar, Beowulf says that, “every elder and experienced councilman among my people supported my resolve to come here to you…because all knew of my awesome strength” (415). The Germanics needed a proud hero to relate to, a man who flaunts his raw power and unmatched wit. They came from a lawless barbarian culture in which, as Tacitus described, valor and accomplishments were admired above all else. For the Anglo-Saxons to support Beowulf as their champion, the author needed to show his experience, credibility, and merit. Because prideful boasts, while not at all a Christian idea, were valued highly by the pagans, they were a necessary inclusion to the story for the audience to accept the concept of piety which the poet would later introduce.

In what some might call a conceited display of pure egotism, Beowulf renounces his weaponry so as to even the playing field when the time comes to grapple with the monster. In essence, he is welcoming the challenge from evil, firmly asserting his confidence not only in his own abilities, but in his God as well. With this act, Beowulf expresses his utmost assurance that he is fighting for the right cause, and that, no matter what unfavorable circumstances might confront him, he cannot lose with God on his side. He proclaims that, “Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgment by God…Fate goes ever as fate must” (440-455), and later, “May the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever He sees fit” (685). In one sense, fate is primarily a pagan attribute, as Christians believe that man was given the power to voluntarily disobey God’s will (deemed “sin”). Beowulf feels that all of his strength is God-given and every battle he wins is ultimately the result of God’s judgment. To a degree, he sees the outcome of each campaign as somewhat pre-determined, consequently deeming the specific details of his own actions insignificant. This might lead us to believe that the Anglo-Saxons followed in the footsteps of the ancient Sumerians (as portrayed in the Epic of Gilgamesh) who viewed fate as the dominating force in the universe and entirely disregarded free will.

Yet, as the poem continues, a distinctively Christian tone emerges and eventually consumes the pagan theory of fate. In living as though he is enmeshed within the greater framework of fate, Beowulf seems to exhibit signs of belief in the Christian idea that there are multiple parts to one Almighty God. He is constantly claiming that, while God’s will always wins in the end, God is working through him to achieve that end. It is almost as if the hero is indicating faith in a sort of “Holy Spirit” force that drives man to carry out the will of God. In most pagan traditions, the gods were directly involved in bringing their decrees to reality, but in Beowulf fate is realized through man. The author thus ties the two together:  it is not fate versus free will, but fate with free will. For Christendom to be achieved, the Anglo-Saxons must understand free will in terms that can be reconciled with their pre-existing beliefs. Beowulf’s expression of both signifies that God works indirectly through man to bring forth an ultimate fate; God cannot paint the image of fate Himself, so He needs man as His brush. After this combination cosmology had been accepted, the English could be fully converted to the ethical morality of pure free will that devout Christians believed to be truth.

In addition, Beowulf’s main goal in life appears to be achieving fame and glory on this earth, undoubtedly pagan objectives. While acknowledging that, physically, “all of us…must make our way to a destination already ordained where the body…sleeps on its deathbed” (1003), he seeks eternal life through legends and tales of his epic accomplishments. Beowulf is showered in gifts honoring his triumphs, which he graciously accepts. These rewards are earthly, and it seems as though Beowulf does not recognize the Christian concept that one’s true recompense comes through everlasting life with God in Heaven. Again, as Bede’s process of slow assimilation suggests, the idea of an afterlife may have been completely unfamiliar to the pagan barbarians. Christian missionaries had to relate to the worldly views of the Anglo Saxons before introducing such a wildly outlandish proposal.

Much later in the poem, Beowulf displays a very Christian selflessness. Upon his deathbed, he announces, “To the everlasting Lord of All, to the King of Glory, I give thanks that I behold this treasure…that I have been allowed to leave my people so well endowed on the day I die” (2794).  At this point, he could potentially be considered a Christ-like figure. In death, both leave their respective people free from the clutches of evil and rejoice in the fact that they have fulfilled their duty by truly contributing to the common good of humanity. The author thus attempts to create a Christ figure for the English since they could not yet read the Bible. It was in writing down a relatable story in their own language (Old English) that they could spread the new ideas amongst themselves without having to hear monks read alien Bible stories in Latin. The result would be exactly what the missionaries had hoped for – Germanic peoples being introduced to Christianity in the language of their own culture and terms they could understand.

For most of the poem, contrasting pagan and Christian concepts appear to balance each other in emphasis. But in his final speech to Wiglaf, Beowulf makes it clear that even more than any personal reward of power, wealth, or fame, he wants to depart from this world knowing that he used all of his God-given talents to help mankind thrive. Most pagan societies would place utmost importance on personal achievement, but Beowulf embraces the unmistakably Christian philosophy of caring for others before oneself. Contrary to pagan beliefs, Beowulf is revealed to have lived as if his own true happiness came from devoting his life to making others happy. Instead of scoffing at this concept, the pagan audience is open to it because it is placed within framework of God’s will. The author has thus accomplished his goal, successfully presenting Christianity through a pagan lens and slowly leading his audience from admiration of pride to ultimate acceptance of Augustine’s Christian piety as heroic. The pagan aspects of the story served as a permeable buffer between the writer’s pagan audience and his own Christianity.

As the Dark Ages progressed into the High Middle Ages, Christianity drastically altered in both practice and principle. While millions of pagans were converted when Christianity mixed with paganism, the influence was not a one-way street. Certain pagan values such as militancy and material prosperity were adopted into a new sense of piety that proved to be the driving spirit of the Crusades.  Nothing in Jesus’ or Augustine’s Christianity would have allowed for such brutal massacre or such worldly desires, yet in 1099, as described by William of Tyre, the crusaders butchered the inhabitants of Jerusalem, showing no mercy and leaving no survivors. Concealed in the veil of “God’s will,” crusaders’ passion overtook their Biblical foundations. After killing all and sundry, the pillagers selfishly claimed any possessions that they wanted, completely discarding the principles of moderation and sacrifice. These were not starving peasants, but wealthy lords who were claiming more for themselves. Without the promise of land, they probably would never have left to fight in the first place. Their greed vanquished any remaining ounce of true Christian character. Moreover, immediately after killing and raping the people of Jerusalem and stealing all of their possessions, the crusaders knelt to pray. Clearly they were under the impression that they were working for God, assuming that, because they had been sent by Pope Urban, this was the will of the Church. Since the Church defined what “Christianity” meant at any given time, Christianity itself was now a religion of self-interested rich men looking to get richer by any means possible while hiding under the mask of doing God’s will. This could not be farther towards the opposite end of the spectrum from those to whom Christianity originally appealed – the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden.

Historians agree that the “Dark Ages” for European culture ended around the turn of the millennium. The darkest days for Christianity, on the other hand, lasted much longer. By the time of the Crusades, the Christianity of Jesus and Augustine had been so greatly influenced by pagan materialism that greed replaced piety, acquisitive militancy replaced mercy, and corrupt misconceptions of God’s will replaced the testament of the disciples. Francis of Assisi recognized this overwhelming materialism at the forefront of Christianity and dedicated his life toward reestablishing the spirit of sacrifice on which it was founded, marking a decisive turning point in the Church’s history and setting it on course to restore its former virtuous glory.

Copyright 2010 by Jeremy Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Jeremy Dunford (


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This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!

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