The Role of Latin in the Christianisation of Germanic Europe

Written by Dyami Millarson

The role of Latin in the Christianisation of Northwestern Europe was threefold:

  1. it allowed the clergy to cross linguistic barriers
  2. it allowed the clergy to read old Church documents
  3. it allowed the Church to learn from the Roman Empire

Latin is the sine qua non which made the Christianisation of Northwestern Europe possible. Without the language of the Roman Empire, Christianity would likely not have spread so far and wide. Latin boosted the missionary efforts of the Church.

The Church could stay connected with all its missionaries and give them proper directives as they shared a common language. Not only did they all manage to speak a common language, but they also wrote a common language.

While the Church had a common written and spoken language, communication with all its missionaries on the ground was made possible. These missionaries might be able to speak local languages, but they also mastered Latin.

The communication infrastructure of the Church was simply very efficient. They could easily cross linguistic barriers without second thought. It didn’t matter where their missionaries came from in Europe as long as they knew Latin.

The Church possessed all the knowledge of the Roman Empire. This gave them a huge strategic advantage. They had an absolute monopoly over written history and thus they possessed man’s most powerful tool of propaganda.

The Germanic peoples didn’t have the written knowledge of the Roman Empire at their disposal. If they had, after defeating the Roman Empire on the battlefield, properly dispersed all of the written imperial knowledge over Germania prior to the conversion efforts of the Church, one can only wonder about how the course of history could have been changed in its entirety.

Writing is a powerful weapon, and that is what we ought to learn in hindsight from what happened during the Christianisation of Northwestern Europe.

Perhaps if clergy members had defected en masse to Germanic paganism and made the “secret written documents” of the Church publicly accessible for their pagan brethren, the pagan Northwestern Europeans could have developed a consistent strategy that matched that of the Church, which possessed the knowledge of the Roman Empire, and thus reversed the trend.

The Germanic peoples were dealing with a massive form of information asymmetry, which meant that all the odds were stacked against them. Furthermore, the communications of the Church were by far the most superior.

While we have explored two dimensions of the Latin language just now, there is also the dimension of being able to read centuries-old documents in Latin. This allowed the Church to easily communicate (its mission) across the centuries.

Up to this day, one can easily read the earliest Church documents as long as one knows Latin. The Church had access to ancient history, it had access to the future and it had access to all its most dedicated members at any time.

The Church did not only possess knowledge of the Roman Empire, but by commanding its language, they possessed the ability to expand the religious borders of the old Roman Empire with the written and spoken word alone.

The Church had modelled itself after the Roman Empire and so they possessed its communication infrastructures completely. The most important is that they were able to learn from how the Roman Empire functioned as a bureaucracy.

So this sums up why linguistic knowledge can be such a game-changer. Since the Germanic peoples hadn’t put tremendous efforts into learning the spoken and written Latin language and dispersing the Roman imperial documents over their native lands for study by its elites who also functioned as priests, they had essentially lost the chance to prevent the conversion efforts of later ages.

The military successes of the Germanic peoples initially caught the Church off-guard, and had the Germanic peoples been more linguistically interested after their conquests, they could have consolidated the power of their cultural religion.

While the Empire was crumbling and the very existence of the Church was threatened by the invading non-Christian hordes from all sides, the Germanic peoples soon lost the initiative due to lack of linguistic foresight.

Had the Germanic peoples taken note of all the communications of the Roman Empire and made this knowledge their own, they could have significantly strengthened their tribal homelands and prepared them for the future.

This was essentially a problem of knowledge transfer and the Church filled in the void that had followed after the Germanic conquests. In fact, by not seizing the opportunity to gain control over all Roman knowledge, the Germanic peoples enabled the Church to uproot the Germanic victories and eventually figure out how to turn the tables on the Germanic victors.

Language plays a much more important role in history than people realise, and particularly the Latin language has played a very important role.

Proto-Germanic or something akin to Proto-Germanic could have served a very similar function as Latin if the Germanic peoples had properly studied Latin and its inextricable relationship with the Roman Empire.

Latin is a gateway to classical history, and all of this knowledge could have been translated into a common Germanic language at the time. If this knowledge had been committed to writing in this common Germanic language, it could have inspired many generations to come under the premise that they should keep learning the Germanic language originally used for translation and analysis.

In essence, the Germanic peoples could have easily replicated the success of the Roman Empire because all of the resources of the Roman Empire were at their disposal upon their military successes over the crumbling Empire.

While this is a story of missed linguistic opportunities, it also highlights how important it is to study foreign languages and cultures properly. The Latin language was the vehicle of the Roman Empire and there was certainly a lot to learn.

Even if the Germanic peoples possessed very valuable knowledge of their own, they had nothing to lose from studying Latin and they only had everything to gain; it could not be overstated that they ought to have made more of an effort to study the language of the Roman Empire and send materials back to their Germanic brethren up north in order to study the language and its culture properly.

Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight and they didn’t have that at the time, but that means that we should be so wise as to learn from the past and draw lessons that we may use for shaping the destiny of polytheism, for which nothing is more important than ensuring its own intergenerational continuity. The instinct of any religion is to survive, for the survival instinct of humans is linked to it.

1 Comment

  1. Jolly Spirit says:

    Language plays a very important role both in the past and in the present. As you said, if the Germanic people used language to preserve and utilize the knowledge of the time in the past, they might have been more successful than the Roman Empire. Even if we can’t change the past, we can learn from the past.

    Liked by 1 person

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