Among the German tribes it was the
Goths who had first come under the civilizing influence
of the Christian religion.
As some winged seed is wafted from
a fair garden into a dark, distant forest, and there
takes root and blossoms, so was the seed-germ of Christianity
caught by the wind of destiny, and carried from Palestine
to the heart of pagan Germany, where, strange to say,
it found congenial soil.
The story is a romantic one.
A Christian boy in Asia Minor, while straying on
the shores of the Mediterranean, was captured by some
Goths, who took their fair-haired prize home to their
own land, and named him Ulfilas.
The boy, with his heart all aflame
for the religion in which he had been nurtured, told
his captors the story of Calvary of Christ
and his gospel of peace and love; and lived to see
the terrible sacrificial altars replaced by the Cross.
The Goths had no alphabet, so Ulfilas
invented one, and then translated the Bible into their
rude speech. A part of this translation is now
preserved in Sweden and is the earliest extant specimen
of the Gothic language. This Gothic version
of the Lord’s Prayer, written by Ulfilas more
than fifteen centuries ago, bears such close resemblance
to the German and English versions that it can be
easily read by us to-day; and makes us realize our
own near kinship to those simple barbarians of the
In the year 375, thirty-five years
before the sacking of Rome, from the vast plains lying
between Russia and China there had poured into Europe
a terrible race of beings called Huns. They seemed
more like demons than men. Insensible alike
to fear, to hunger, thirst, or cold, they appeased
their ferocious appetites upon wild roots and raw meat.
These hideous men ate, drank, and slept on horseback,
their no less hideous wives and children following
them in wagons, as they ravaged through the Continent
The Huns, under the leadership of
Attila, swept everything before them; leaving a track
of blood and ashes through Germany.
The Goths deserted their lands and
homes on account of this brutish invasion and pressed
down into Italy and Southern Gaul; the Ostro-Goths
(or East Goths) becoming in time masters of Italy under
King Theodoric, while the Visigoths (or West Goths),
who were already in Southern Gaul, had overflowed
the Pyrénées and established a Gothic empire in Spain
(or Hispania, as it was then called).
It was not alone the Goths who were
swept before Attila and his Hunnish hosts. The
Vandals, the Burgundians, the Longobards were carried
by the same tide into Southern Europe; the Vandals
thence into northern Africa; while the Slavs from
the northeast in turn pressed down after them, and,
like the waters of the sea, occupied the lands which
they had deserted.
So this Hunnish invasion was a tremendous
upturning force in itself bearing no relation
to the future result more than the plow to the future
grain; but it was a terrible instrument, used in bringing
the German race into contact with higher civilizations,
where, in the alchemy of time, they were destined
to survive not as a nation, but rather as an element,
and where, in the great creative processes, they were
intended to re-enforce the decaying races of Southern
Europe with their rude but uncorrupted vitality.
Of the Huns themselves nothing remained
in Europe after the defeat of Attila, excepting in
Dacia, over which they had permanently spread, and
which was later called Hungary.
During this process of re-creating
the old races of Southern Europe, the Roman Empire
was perishing. Its conversion to Christianity
in the fourth century, under Constantine, was too
late to save it. For three hundred years pagan
Rome had been drenching the soil of Southern Europe
with the blood of Christians. Then this zealous
new convert not only espoused the religion of Christ,
but determined by her Church Councils what that religion
meant and what it did not mean, and made fierce war
upon heretics like the Gothic Christians, who knew
nothing about these strange doctrines of which Ulfilas
had not told them, nor concerning which did their
simple Gothic Bible say one word! (A conflict between
Trinitarianism and Arianism.)
The Roman Empire was the “Holy
Roman Empire,” now. When Constantine removed
his capital to Byzantium, it required two Emperors,
an Eastern and a Western, to govern the crumbling
mass. But as the temporal power declined, there
was at Rome a new and spiritual kingdom which was
expanding and claiming an empire over all Christendom.
The Bishops of Rome had become Popes. Gaul
or France was now governed by the German Franks.
And the Frankish Kings in France, and the Visigoth
Kings in Spain, and Christians everywhere must bow
to the will of the Pope.
But the Roman Emperors were becoming
less and less able to protect their dominions.
The Teuton Lombards had overrun Italy, and at last
the lowest point of degradation seemed to be reached,
when the Imperial Crown at Byzantium was grasped by
Irene, who deposed and blinded her own son in order
to reach the throne once occupied by Augustus.
Who could be more fit to fill this
august position at the head of Christendom than Charlemagne,
the great conqueror of men and defender of the Holy
The coronation of Charlemagne, King
of France and Germany, at Rome, in the year 800, was
a revolt of the West against the sluggard Emperors
at Byzantium; just as his father Pepin’s had
been, fifty years before, a revolt against the sluggard
Kings of France.
Not for 800 years had there been such
a commanding personality on the earth; not since Cæsar
hurled his legions into Gaul and Britain had there
been such a display of military genius and valor, and
perhaps never before such a breadth of intelligence
in controlling a vast and heterogeneous empire.
Thenceforth, Charlemagne and his successors
(when crowned by the Pope) were the successors of
the Caesars and the temporal heads of the Holy Roman
Empire. Excepting in name the once great empire
had ceased to be Roman. The rude barbarian race
which, in the time of Julius Cæsar, was buried in
the forests of Central Europe, was at the head of
Christendom; and under Charlemagne, a map of the German
Empire was a map of Europe.
Charlemagne acknowledged the Pope
who crowned him as his spiritual sovereign, while,
on the other hand, the Pope bowed before the Emperor
who appointed him as his temporal sovereign.
It was a magnificent, all-embracing scheme of empire,
of which the spiritual head was at Rome, and the temporal
It seemed as if, by this dual supremacy,
Charlemagne had provided for all possible exigencies
of human government. He rested content, no doubt
thinking he had embodied a perfect ideal in creating
a system which should thus co-ordinate and embrace
both the spiritual and temporal needs of an empire.
But as soon as his controlling hand was removed unexpected
dangers assailed his work.
In less than fifty years from his
coronation his three grandsons had quarreled and torn
the empire into as many parts. With this event
France commenced a separate existence as a kingdom
and the Imperial title belonged alone to Germany (treaty
of Verdun, 843).
It was the strong, rough arm of the
Goth which had hammered in pieces the Roman Empire
and brought these tremendous results for the Teuton
race; but it was the Frank which had survived as the
These Franks established a new system
of land tenure, which combined the two opposing systems
prevailing in North and South Germany. They
proclaimed that the land belonged to the Crown.
But the Crown, upon certain conditions, bestowed
it upon landholders who were called barons.
These barons might hold their land from generation
to generation, so long as these conditions were fulfilled.
They, in like manner, parceled out their lands into
farms, which were held by the class below them upon
like conditions of submission and fealty to them.
The people bound themselves to furnish military service
and food, and to work for their barons a specified
number of days in the year, and to receive in return
a certain protection, and a refuge within the castle
of their chief. The baron was responsible to
the count who was his superior, and the count to the
This was the feudal system, which
was a net-work of reciprocal duties. No man,
be he peasant or count, could call anything his own
unless he discharged his obligations and responsibilities.
The system met great opposition for
a time in South Germany; especially from Welf, Count
of Bavaria, from whom the historic Guelphs are descended.
But it survived, as we know, increasing in oppressive
weight and rigidity, until for centuries it crushed
the life out of Europe.