Sunday, July 31, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 31 ~ St. Ansgar

If the state of my own knowledge is any guide, which is certainly debatable, it seems that St. Ansgar’s name should be more familiar, because he was known as The Apostle of the North, i.e. Scandinavia. I came across his name some years ago when I did a bit of brief internet searching about the evangelization of the Nordic countries, and it was completely new to me. I didn’t do much more at the time than note his name and rough dates. And when I decided to write about him for this series I really didn’t expect to find much about him, perhaps some possibly legendary anecdotes to flesh out the few facts. I was certainly wrong on that last score.

After I became Catholic it became a source of interest and of course disappointment to me that most of northern Europe is Protestant. Owing to geography if nothing else, it had arrived late to the Church. In the case of Scandinavia the arrival was later by some centuries even than in Britain. But it had also left early—why? I can’t help wondering if there is something in the northern character that is inhospitable to Christianity. I don’t say only to the Catholic Church, as I think Protestantism as a living force began fading away there before Catholicism did in the south (historians, please feel free to correct me there).

Had I actually grown up in one of the Scandinavian or perhaps German Christian traditions I would probably have known more about Ansgar, as he seems to be quite well-known there and among American communities that originated there. He is in fact the patron saint of Scandinavia. If you do a Google search for Ansgar you’ll see many signs of this, such as a town in Iowa called Saint Ansgar, and a number of apparently Lutheran schools and churches.

And, contrary to my expectation of finding only a few scraps of biography, I found more information than I quite know what to do with, including a pretty lengthy and detailed Life of Ansgar thought to have been written by his follower Rimbert very soon after Ansgar’s death (see below). So rather than paraphrase the biographies found in places like Wikipedia, I’m going to give you a very brief summary, and then some specific stories.

Ansgar (also spelled Anskar and Anschar) was actually, in terms of modern geography, by birth a Frenchman, though of course the term is anachronistic. He was born in Amiens in 801. His mother died when he was still a small child, and he was brought up at Corbie Abbey, presumably by the monks. (Corbie is an interesting and sad story in itself: founded in the mid-7th century and apparently shut down and partly demolished by the Revolution in 1790.) Obviously a devout and capable young man, Ansgar at age 21 was sent as part of a group to found an abbey to be called New Corbie, later Corvey, in Westphalia (present-day northwest Germany). He soon began the missionary activity into Denmark and Sweden that would be the main focus of his life.

At 30 he was appointed Archbishop of the newly created archdiocese of Hamburg. Our image of Hamburg is of course that of an ancient and very large city, and my first image on reading that Ansgar was its bishop was that of a lofty prelate taking possession of a well-established and prosperous see. But Hamburg was little more than a village in 831, the first permanent building on the site, a castle, having been erected at the order of Charlemagne in 808. And there was of course a very good reason why it was a castle. All of northern Germany was subject to raiding from the Vikings, the very people whom Ansgar wanted to evangelize. We don’t have to use a lot of imagination to get a notion of what he was letting himself in for: just imagine a missionary walking into, say, Syria or Libya right now.

And he didn’t have to venture into Denmark or Sweden to encounter the Vikings. In 845 Hamburg itself was attacked and destroyed. Ansgar survived but was a bishop without a see for a while. (One source I found said this was the second major attack on the city, a previous one in 837 having destroyed the just-built cathedral.) The second half of his life, until his death in 864, was spent almost entirely in this northern region of what is now Germany, trying to run a diocese in a barely Christianized land while making efforts to evangelize the further north.

What strikes me most about the life of St. Ansgar is the contrast, or if you prefer the balance, between mysticism and pragmatism that he seems to have had. At every major step of his life he was guided by a dream or vision. This is the story, from Rimbert’s Life, of a very early instance of this.
He used to relate that when he was a boy about five years old, his mother, who feared God and was very religious, died, and that soon afterward his father sent him to school to learn his letters. When he had taken his place he began, as boys of that age are wont to do, to act in a childish way with the boys of his own age, and to give attention to foolish talk and jests rather than to learning. When he had thus given himself up to boyish levity, he had a vision during the night in which he appeared to be in a miry and slippery place, from which be could not escape except with great difficulty; beside him was a delightful path on which he saw a matron advancing, who was distinguished by her beauty and nobility, and was followed by many other women clothed in white, with whom was his mother. When he recognised her he wished to run to her, but he could not easily emerge from that miry and slippery place.
When the women drew near to him, the one who appeared to be the mistress of the rest and whom lie confidently believed to be the Holy Mary, said to him : “My son, do you wish to come to your mother?” and when he replied that he eagerly desired to do so she answered : “If you desire to share our companionship, you must flee from every kind of vanity, and put away childish jests and have regard to the seriousness of life ; for we hate everything that is vain and unprofitable, nor can anyone be with us who has delight in such things.”
Immediately after this vision be began to be serious and to avoid childish associations, and to devote himself more constantly to reading and meditation and other useful occupations, so that his companions marvelled greatly that his manner of life had so suddenly changed.

There are several more stories similar to this. And yet he was clearly no other-worldly dreamer, as his dealings with various kings and chieftains of the North reveal.
We ought not to pass over in silence the fact that the Northalbingians on one occasion committed a great crime and one of a terrible nature. When some unhappy captives, who had been taken from Christian lands and carried away to the barbarians, were ill treated by these strangers, they fled thence in the hope of escaping and came to the Christians, that is to the Northalbingians who, as is well known, live next to the pagans, but when they arrived these Christians showed no compassion but seized them and bound them with chains. Some of them they sold to pagans, whilst others they enslaved, or sold to other Christians.
When the bishop heard this he was greatly distressed that so great a crime had been perpetrated in his diocese, but he could not devise how he might mend matters because there were many involved who were esteemed to be powerful and noble. When he was much distressed on this account there was granted to him one night the customary consolation. For it seemed to him that the Lord Jesus was in this world, as He had once been, when He gave to men His teaching and example. It seemed to him that He went with a multitude of the faithful and that he, the bishop, was with Him on His journey, glad and rejoicing because there was no opposition, but a divinely infused fear was upon the arrogant, and the oppressors were removed and a great quiet prevailed, so that there appeared to be no contradiction or opposition on the journey.
Having seen this vision he prepared to go to this people with the desire by some means or other to set free the unhappy men who had been sold and given over to an outrageous servitude and by the Lord's help to prevent anyone from committing hereafter so great a crime. On this journey the Lord so greatly assisted him and caused the fear of his power so to overawe those who were arrogant that, though these men were of rank and exercised harmful influence, none of them ventured to oppose his advice or resist his authority, but the unhappy men were sought out wherever they had been sold and were given their liberty and allowed to go wherever they desired. Furthermore, in order to prevent any deceit being practised thereafter they made an agreement that none of those who had defiled themselves by the seizure of these captives should defend himself, either by taking an oath or by producing witnesses, but should commend himself to the judgment of Almighty God, whether it was the man who was accused of the crime or the captive who accused him.
Thus did the Lord manifest on this journey the truth of the promise which He made to those who believe when He said, "Lo I am with you all the days even unto the end of the world." [Matt xxviii., 20] So prosperously and joyfully did he accomplish this journey that those who were with him said that never in his life did he have such a good and pleasant journey, for they said, "Now of a truth we know that the Lord was with us."

Notes to the text above say that the reference to “commend[ing] himself to the judgment of Almighty God” referred “to trial by ordeal, the commonest forms of which at this time were judicium aquaticum, judicium ignis, judicium sortis and judicium Eucharistiae. In the last mentioned ordeal it was believed that if the guilty party partook of the Eucharist he would fall down dead."

An example of inculturation of the Gospel, I suppose. I take judicium sortis to involve the casting of lots, which was heavily relied upon by these peoples when a decision had to be made.

I was stymied for a bit here trying to figure out who the Northalbingians were, as a Google search turned up almost nothing for the word. Finally I stumbled across an apparently more widely used spelling, Nordalbingian, and a brief Wikipedia article. The Nordalbingians were, as the Life suggests, essentially Ansgar’s flock. Their territory was at the door of Denmark, and they had only recently been converted. So it’s not surprising either that they engaged in the sort of pagan practices described, or that Ansgar was outraged by it.

How I wish we had some account of Ansgar’s activities written in a very detailed novelistic fashion, so that we could have a real sense of what all this was like. Simply traveling must have been a risk and an adventure. At some point Ansgar goes to Rome. It’s related that he went, the main events of his stay there, and that he returned, all in only a few sentences. I’d very much like to know what that was really like. How many difficulties were involved and accepted as just a normal part of travel, as we might accept having to drive a few miles out of the way to find a gas station?

All his accomplishments, however, are less revealing of his essential character than this statement attributed to him by a friend: “One miracle I would, if worthy, ask the Lord to grant me; and that is, that by His grace, He would make me a good man.”

I’ve had a pretty difficult time with this post, because there is so much that seems worth mentioning, and this is after all a blog post and shouldn’t be too long. I haven’t even touched, for instance, on Ansgar’s asceticism, which should be mentioned along with his mysticism and practical ability. Having spent a good deal of time already doing things like reading most of the Life, I will just stop here and give you links for further reading.

If you just want a brief account, but more than the bare facts I’ve given, there’s the Wikipedia entry.

The single best document I found is at a web site called Saintnook. It’s quite well-written; turns out it was written by Sabine Baring-Gould. It’s of moderate length (5000 words), and very nicely formatted for online reading.

The entire Life of Ansgar can be found in Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook. To my eyes it is not nearly as readable as the Saintnook document. There are long blocks of un-paragraph-ed text and the font is not the the most readable to my eyes (I added paragraph breaks to the above excerpts). There are some recurring typos, such as “lie” for “he”, that make me think the electronic text was obtained by using OCR on a paper one and not thoroughly corrected. But I was not able to find a more readable version online.

If you have a Kindle, there is a Kindle edition available at Amazon.

Both the above editions appear to be a translation by a Charles H. Robinson, whom I believe to have been an Anglican clergyman, but if so one not overly concerned with Protestantizing history. The same translation can be found in a variety of formats, including Kindle and ePub (both free), at Unfortunately the plain text version is quite plain, looking like a typewritten document, and not much more comfortable to read than the one at Fordham. The PDF is interesting, as it’s a scan of a print copy. Not especially comfortable for reading online, though.

Ansgar’s entry at ends on a sad note, and returns me to my opening thoughts about the loss of the North to the Catholic Church:
Though called "the Apostle of the North" and the first Christian missionary in Scandinavia, the whole area lapsed into paganism again after his death at Bremen on February 3rd [865].

But of course it ain’t over till it’s really over, and we don’t know when that will be.

Maclin Horton is the proprietor of his own blog Light on Dark Water from which sprang this series. You might want to check out the current series there, 52 Movies or last year's 52 AuthorsIn this series he has written about St HenrikSt. John Fisher, and St. John Kemble.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


  1. I wonder if Ansgar was one of the many saints mentioned in the novel Kristin Lavransdatter, which tells of a Christian Norway a few centuries after Ansgar's missionary efforts, and after the time that "this whole area lapsed into paganism." I remember that the pagan practices had not been completely given up by the people whose tales are told in that very historic novel. Next time I read it I will be sure to notice if his name comes up.

    I recently attended an Orthodox wedding in which the groom's baptismal name was Ansgar. So I was happy to learn about this saint. Thank you!

  2. We're reading Kristin for book club next month.