Saint Ansgar (801 – 865)
Oscar was the son of a noble family, born near Amiens. After his mother’s early death, Ansgar was brought up in Corbie Abbey, and made rapid progress in his education. According to the Vita Ansgarii (“Life of Ansgar”), when the little boy learned in a vision that his mother was in the company of Saint Mary, his careless attitude toward spiritual matters changed to seriousness (“Life of Ansgar”, 1). His pupil, successor, and eventual biographer Rimbert considered the visions of which this was the first to be the main motivation of the saint’s life.
Ansgar was a product of the phase of Christianization of Saxony (present day Northern Germany) begun by Charlemagne and continued by his son and successor, Louis the Pious. When Saxony was no longer the focus of Christianization, what is now Denmark fell under the sweeping missionary gaze, with a group of monks including Ansgar sent back to Jutland with the baptized Jutish king Harald Klak. Ansgar returned two years later after educating young boys who had been purchased because Harald had possibly been driven out of his kingdom. In 822 Ansgar was one of a number of missionaries sent to found the abbey of Corvey (New Corbie) in Westphalia, and there became a teacher and preacher. Then in 829 in response to a request from the Swedish king Björn at Hauge for a mission to the Swedes, Louis appointed Ansgar missionary. With an assistant, the friar Witmar, he preached and made converts for six months at Birka, on Lake Mälaren. They organized a small congregation there with the king’s steward, Hergeir, as its most prominent member. In 831 he returned to Louis’ court at Worms and was appointed to the Archbishopric of Hamburg.
This was a new archbishopric with a see formed from those of Bremen and Verden, plus the right to send missions into all the northern lands and to consecrate bishops for them. Ansgar was consecrated in November 831, and, the arrangements having been at once approved by Gregory IV, he went to Rome to receive the pallium directly from the hands of the pope and to be named legate for the northern lands. This commission had previously been bestowed upon Ebbo, Archbishop of Reims, but the jurisdiction was divided by agreement, with Ebbo retaining Sweden for himself. For a time Ansgar devoted himself to the needs of his own diocese, which was still missionary territory with but a few churches. He founded a monastery and a school in Hamburg; the school was intended to serve the Danish mission, but accomplished little.
After Louis died in 840, his empire was divided and Ansgar lost the abbey of Turholt, which had been given as an endowment for his work. Then in 845, the Danes unexpectedly raided Hamburg, destroying all the church’s treasures and books and leaving the entire diocese unrestorable. Ansgar now had neither see nor revenue. Many of his helpers deserted him, but the new king, Louis the German, came to his aid; after failing to recover Turholt for him, in 847 he awarded him the vacant diocese of Bremen, where he took up residence in 848. However, since Hamburg had been an archbishopric, the sees of Bremen and Hamburg were combined for him. This presented canonical difficulties and also aroused the anger of the Bishop of Cologne, to whom Bremen had been suffragan, but after prolonged negotiations, Pope Nicholas I approved the union of the two dioceses in 864.
Through all this political turmoil, Ansgar continued his mission to the northern lands. The Danish civil war compelled him to establish good relations with two kings, Horik the Elder and his son, Horik II. Both assisted him until his death (Wood, 124-125). He was able to secure recognition of Christianity as a tolerated religion and permission to build a church in Sleswick. He did not forget the Swedish mission, and spent two years there in person (848-850), at the critical moment when a pagan reaction was threatened, which he succeeded in averting. In 854, Ansgar returned to Sweden. Now king Olof ruled in Birka. According to Rimbert, he was well disposed to Christianity. On a Viking raid to Apuole (current village in Lithuania) in Courland, the Swedes prayed, and with God’s help they plundered the Curonians. Ansgar died and was buried in Bremen in 865. His life story was written by his successor as archbishop, Rimbert, in the Vita Ansgarii.
Although a historical document and primary source written by a man whose existence can be proven historically, the Vita Ansgarii (“The Life of Ansgar”) aims above all to demonstrate Ansgar’s sanctity. It is partly concerned with Ansgar’s visions, which, according to the author Rimbert, encouraged and assisted Ansgar’s remarkable missionary feats.
Through the course of this work, Ansgar repeatedly embarks on a new stage in his career following a vision. According to Rimbert, his early studies and ensuing devotion to the ascetic life of a monk were inspired by a vision of his mother in the presence of Saint Mary. Again, when the Swedish people were left without a priest for some time, he begged King Horik to help him with this problem, then after receiving his consent, consulted with Bishop Gautbert to find a suitable man. The two together sought the approval of King Louis, which he granted when he learned that they were in agreement on the issue. Ansgar was convinced he was commanded by heaven to undertake this mission, and was influenced by a vision he received when he was concerned about the journey, in which he met a man who reassured him of his purpose and informed him of a prophet that he would meet, the abbot Adalhard, who would instruct him in what was to happen. In the vision, he searched for and found Adalhard, who commanded, “Islands, listen to me, pay attention, remotest peoples”, which Ansgar interpreted as God’s will that he go to the Scandinavian countries as “most of that country consisted of islands, and also when, ‘I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth,’ was added, since the end of the world in the north was in Swedish territory”.
Statues dedicated to him stand in Hamburg and Copenhagen as well as a stone cross at Birka. A crater on the Moon, Ansgarius, has been named for him. His feast day is 3 February.
- Pryce, Mark. Literary Companion to the Festivals: A Poetic Gathering to Accompany Liturgical Celebrations of Commemorations and Festivals. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
- Tschan, Francis J. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.
- Wood, Ian. The Missionary Life: Saints and the Evangelisation of Europe, 400 – 1050. Great Britain: Longman, 2001.
- Life of Ansgar
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Jackson, Samuel Macauley, ed. (1914). New Schaff–Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (third ed.). London and New York: Funk and Wagnalls.
Saint Adalbert of Prague (956 – 997)
Birth and youth
Adalbert (Vojtěch) was born into a noble Czech family of Prince Slavník and his wife Střezislava in Libice nad Cidlinou, Bohemia. The Chambers Biographical Dictionary mistakenly gives his year of birth as 939. His father was a rich and independent ruler of the Zličan princedom that rivaled Prague (see Slavník’s dynasty). Adalbert had five full brothers: Soběslav (Slavnik’s heir), Spytimír, Pobraslav, Pořej, Čáslav and a half-brother Radim (Gaudentius) from his father’s liaison with another woman. Radim chose a clerical career as did Adalbert, and took the name Gaudentius. Adalbert was a well-educated man, having studied for about ten years (970-80) in Magdeburg under Saint Adalbert of Magdeburg. Upon the death of his mentor, he took the name Adalbert. Gifted and industrious, Adalbert soon became well-known all over Europe.
In 980 Adalbert finished his studies at Magdeburg school and returned to Prague, where he became a priest. In 981 his father, Prince Slavnik, and both his mentors died.
In 982, still not yet thirty years old, Adalbert became the Bishop of Prague
Although Adalbert descended from a rich family and could afford comfort and luxury, he lived poorly of his own free will. He was noted for charity, austerity, and zealous service to the Church. His duty was difficult even in baptized Bohemia, as the pagan creed was deeply embedded in the peoples’ minds. Adalbert complained of polygamy and idolatry, which still were not unusual among the Czechs. He also strongly resented the participation of baptized Christians in the slave
In 989 he resigned from his bishop’s cloth and left Prague. He went to Rome and lived as a hermit in St. Alexis Benedictine monastery.
Four years later, in 993, Pope John XV sent him back to Bohemia. Adalbert became the Bishop again. That time he founded a monastery in Břevnov, near Prague, the first one in the Czech lands. Nonetheless, the nobility there continued to oppose his ministry. Also, according to Cosmas’ chronicle, high clerical office was a burden to Adalbert, and in 994 he offered it to Strachkvas who was Přemyslid and Duke Boleslav’s brother. Strachkvas, nevertheless, refused.
In 995 Slavniks’ former rivalry with the Přemyslids
(allied with Vršovci
) resulted in the storming of Libice led by Boleslaus II the Pious
. During the struggle four (or five) of Adalbert’s brothers were murdered. Thus the Zličan princedom became part of the Přemyslids’ estate.
After the tragedy he could not stay in Bohemia and escaped from Prague, despite the Pope’s call for him to return to his episcopal see. Strachkvas was eventually appointed to be his successor. However, when he was going to assume the Bishop office in Prague, he suddenly died during the ceremony itself. Circumstances of his death are still unclear.
As for Adalbert, he went to Hungary and baptized Géza of Hungary and his son Stephen in the city of Esztergom. Then he went to Poland where he was cordially welcomed by Bolesław I the Brave. After the short visit Adalbert went to Prussia with a Christian mission.
Mission and martyrdom in Prussia
Adalbert of Prague had already in 977 entertained the idea of becoming a missionary
. After he had converted Hungary, he was sent by the Pope to convert the heathen Prussians
. Boleslaus the Brave
, duke of Poland (later king), sent soldiers
with Adalbert. The bishop and his followers – including his half-brother Radim (Gaudentius) – entered Prussian territory and went along the Baltic Sea
coast to Gdańsk
It was a standard procedure of Christian missionaries to try to chop down sacred oak trees, which they had done in many other places, including Saxony. Because the trees were worshipped and the spirits who were believed to inhabit the trees were feared for their powers, this was done to demonstrate to the non-Christians that no supernatural powers protected the trees from the Christians. (See: Iconoclasm)
When they did not heed warnings to stay away from the sacred oak groves, Adalbert was martyred in April 997 on the Baltic Sea coast east of Truso (currently Elbląg, Elbing), or near Tenkitten and Fischhausen (see external link map St. Albrecht) It is recorded that his body was bought back for its weight in gold by Boleslaus the Brave.
Canonization and memory
A few years later Adalbert was canonized as Saint Adalbert of Prague. His life has been written about in Vita Sancti Adalberti Pragensis by various writers, the earliest being traced to imperial Aachen and Liège/Lüttich‘s bishop Notger von Lüttich, although it was assumed for many years that the Roman monk John Canaparius wrote the first Vita in 999. Another famous biographer of Adalbert was Saint Bruno of Querfurt who wrote his hagiography in 1001–1004.
Notably, Bohemian rulers (i.e., Přemyslids) initially refused to ransom Saint Adalbert’s body from the Prussians who murdered him, so it was purchased by Poles. This fact may be explained by Saint Adalbert’s belonging to the Slavniks family; it highlights the strength of the two clans’ conflict. Thus Saint Adalbert’s bones were stored in Gniezno and helped Boleslaus the Brave to improve Poland’s position in Europe.
According to Bohemian accounts, in 1039 the Bohemian duke Břetislav I looted the bones of Saint Adalbert from Gniezno in a raid and moved them to Prague. According to Polish accounts he took the wrong relics, those of St Gaudensius, while Saint Adalbert’s relics were hidden by the Poles and remain in Gniezo. In 1127 the decapitated head, which was not in the original purchase (according to Roczniki Polskie) was found and moved to Gniezno. In 1928, one of the arms of Saint Adalbert, which Bolesław I had given to Otto III in the year 1000, was added to the bones preserved in Gniezno. Today Saint Adalbert has two elaborate shrines claiming to contain his remains, in the cathedrals of Prague and Gniezno, and which bones are authentic is not clear. For example, the saint has two skulls – one in Prague, a second in Gniezno (stolen in 1923).
The massive bronze Gniezno Doors of Gniezno Cathedral, of about 1175, are decorated with 18 reliefs of scenes from the saint’s life, the only Romanesque church doors in Europe to contain a cycle illustrating the life of a saint.
April 1997 was the thousandth anniversary of Saint Adalbert’s martyrdom. It was commemorated in the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Russia and other countries. Representatives of Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Evangelical churches pilgrimaged to Gniezno, to the saint’s tomb. John Paul II visited Gniezno and held a ceremonial divine service in which heads of seven European states and about a million believers took part.
In Kaliningrad Oblast, near Beregovoe village (former Tenkitten), where Adalbert’s death hypothetically took place, a ten-meter cross was established.
Saint Bruno of Querfurt (974 – 1009)
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