This week we look at the Vita Ansgarii, the Life of Anskar – a hagiographical account of the Frankish mission to convert the ‘Vikings’ in Scandinavia to Christianity during the 9th century and St Anskar, nicknamed ‘The Apostle of the North’.#ComissionsEarned this post includes Amazon Affiliate links – as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Anskar (or, alternatively, Ansgar), is an interesting character. Born in 801 in Saxony, he served most famously as a missionary to Scandinavia in an attempt to covert the ‘heathens‘ beyond the borders of Saxony, for which he is given the epithet ‘Apostle of the North’.
Our major source on Anskar’s life is the Vita Ansgarii, a hagiographical text (ie., the biographical genre recounting saintly lives). Written by Rimbert, Anskar’s successor as archbishop of Bremen-Hamburg, this is clearly an exaggerated and openly motivated work of praise. This does not, however, completely detract from its historical worth – all texts are ‘biased’, and we are interested instead in what the construction of that ‘bias’ tells us about its author and audience. If you’re interested in reading the text yourself, I would recommend the Robinson translation as the most accessible (and cheap) modern version of the text, available on Amazon here.
First, what about the narrative: what actually happens in the text? Anskar is said to have lived a rather spectacular early life, even by saintly standards, experiencing visions of both God and Christ (on separate occasions). These are recounted in some impressive detail, along with a stress on the religious zeal that burnt within Anskar – indeed, the text is notable for its focus on visions. However, his life is changed forever when he volunteers for a mission into Scandinavia at the bequest of the outlawed King Harald, to help spread the Christian faith. Following a similar mission to Sweden for King Bjorg, Anskar returns to Saxony and is made archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, in an attempt by Loius the Pious to establish an ecclesiastical seat in charge of converting the North. From here, despite numerous setbacks (not least the Danish raid into Frankish territory in 845 and the collapse of Frankish unity), Anskar is said to have continued his missions in Denmark and Sweden, notably constructing a church at Hedeby.
Palmer convincingly argues that we are to understand the Vita Ansgarii as a deliberate attempt by Rimbert to inspire support in the continuity of the northern mission. The strong emphasis on visions that the texts foregrounds is understood ‘to illustrate ideas of predestination, divine retribution and the rewards of constancy of faith’ in a deliberate manner (Palmer, 239). It is also possible that the text serves the explicit political function of justifying the unification of Hamburg and Bremen that Anskar’s archbishopric overlooked (Loc. cit).
The Vita Ansgarii is a valuable early medieval text, and one that is often overlooked, especially by English audiences primarily focused on the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. Its narrative provides an interesting look into the role of missions in the Frankish context, along with a glimpse into the political and social workings of contemporary Scandinavia. While the ‘reliability‘ of the source is questionable, not least because of its clearly motivated hagiographical genre, the text is equally useful as a reflection of its author, Rimbert, and the socio-political context he was writing the text for.
Palmer, J. T., ‘Rimbert’s Vita Anskarii and Scandinavian Mission in the Ninth Century’ The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 55 /2 (2004), pp. 235-236.
Robinson, C. H. (trans.), Lives of Early and Mediaeval Missionaries; Anskar, the Apostle of the North 801-865