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”.
- Farmer, David Hugh (1997). The Oxford dictionary of saints (4. ed. ed.). Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press. pp. 25. ISBN 0-19-280058-2.
- “Life of Anskar, the Apostle of the North, 801-865″. Medieval Sourcebook. New York: Fordham University. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/anskar.asp. Retrieved 2012-07-18.
- 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.