There were all kinds of people in the early Middle Ages, and the ones of whom we hear the most are the warriors and kings and emperors and scholars. But there was another group of men without whom Roman and barbarian Europe would never have been transformed into Christendom. They were the preachers and teachers and missionaries of the Christian Church, whom the people of the Middle Ages called saints. They did not speak of themselves that way; no real saint ever thought himself such. But they lived to serve the Church and to fight heathendom and wickedness, and when they were gone the people who had known them best, recalling the beauty of their lives and the remarkable amount of good they had done, would say, "He was a saint"; and sometimes, if his place in the world had been very important, the Church would write his name in its catalogue of saints.
Such a one was Winfred of England, who was the great apostle to the Germans; though if you looked for his name in the annals of the Church, you would be more likely to find him described as Saint Boniface than Saint Winfred, for Boniface was his church name. But Winfred was his boyhood name and his Anglo-Saxon name, by which we like to call him, for it reminds us that he was of our own blood.
In Winfred's time parents chose for their boys, while they were yet children, whether they should be soldiers or landholders or churchmen and scholars. When Winfred was seven years old his father and mother decided that because he was so bright and quick, and so thoughtful too, he must be given to the Church. So little Winfred went to live in an Anglo-Saxon monastery,—just such a one as Alcuin left a century later to go over and teach Charlemagne's School of the Palace, for we have turned back in our history to a time before the days of Charlemagne or Alfred, to the year 680, when this "Apostle to the Germans" was born.
In the monastery Winfred learned many wonderful things. He found that the Anglo-Saxons had not always been Christians, nor had they always dwelt in England. His own forefathers had come over in wooden boats from Friesland, which was in the northern part of Europe, and they had been heathen barbarians. It was not two hundred years since they landed, and it was just ninety years since St. Augustine had sailed over from Europe to bring Christianity to Britain.
Two stories Winfred liked best of all those which the monks told him, and they were the two which were to decide his afterlife. The first was of some British boys with fair hair and blue eyes like his own, who had been stolen away by pirates and taken to Rome, where all were of southern birth and had dark eyes and black hair. They were offered for sale in the slave market, and as they stood there, Pope Gregory, the head of the Christian Church, who happened to be passing by had seen them and was struck by their appearance. "Who are they?" he had asked. "They are called Angles," their master replied. "Angels should they be called rather, for the fairness of their faces, if only their hearts were made pure by the true faith," the Pope had replied; and from the desire that came into his heart at the sight of these fair northern lads resulted Augustine's journey and the conversion of Britain to Christianity.
When this tale was finished Winfred would beg for his other favorite, the story of his Saxon forefathers: how they had been called by the Britons to come over and help to defeat the Picts and Scots; how they had left their wild country of Friesland, where they worshiped strange gods who dwelt in trees and rocks, and whom they thought to appease by offering sacrifices and wearing charms and repeating weird songs and spells; and how they had come over as warriors and remained to dwell in the land of Britain, and had been delivered from the religion of fear and cruelty.
"You should thank God daily, Winfred, that you are delivered from such heathendom," the old father would end his tale.
"Are the people who stayed in Friesland heathens now?" Winfred asked once.
"Alas, yes, my son. Though our good brother Benedict labors among them, they are still, he writes me, held in the bondage of fear."
Winfred made no reply, but at that hour he made up his mind that when he was a man he would go to preach Christianity to these barbarians of his own race and blood.
Places of high honor in the churches and schools were open to Winfred when he came to manhood, but he set his face steadfastly toward Friesland and the work of his boyhood purpose. But it was not to be as he had planned. As the eager young monk was entering the wild region of the Frisians, he was met by missionaries of his own faith, who were being forced by the heathen to depart with all their goods. The Frisians were at war, and no foreigner was allowed to remain within their borders.
It was not Winfred's way to turn back or remain idle. Seeing that his chosen work must be delayed for a time, he turned southward into Germany, and there he found German Saxons who were even as the Frisian forefathers of his boyhood tales. Every tree and stone, every hill and valley, were to them the dwelling places of angry spirits to whom sacrifice must be offered lest they sally forth and punish them. Goats and sheep and even human beings must be offered to appease these gods, and many signs and charms must be constantly practiced. It was a cruel religion, and the people listened with longing to Winfred's words about a kind and loving God who ruled the world. Sometimes they were almost persuaded to believe, but when night fell and the wind whistled in the forests and the rain and thunder came, they would slip away to the heathen altars and pray to the gods for forgiveness. "Your God is very beautiful and kindly," they would say to Winfred, "but he is not so strong as Woden or Thor."
Then Winfred saw that preaching was not enough. He let it be known that on a certain day he intended to cut down the Great Oak, the sacred tree of Thor, where the people had worshiped and sacrificed for generations, and which they feared almost as if it were the god Thor himself. An angry crowd was gathered about the sacred grove when Winfred appeared with his ax, but he walked calmly through their midst. The people expected to see him fall dead the moment he stepped within the holy circle, which no heathen priest dared enter. But they looked again, and there he stood, calmly hacking away at the holy oak. Then a thunderstorm arose, and the Saxons trembled with fear, thinking that their gods were speaking out their wrath in the crashes and reverberations of the thunder. But marvel of marvels! the lightning struck not Winfred, the impious blasphemer, but the oak itself. With one flash it completed Winfred's work, splitting the great tree into three fragments and bearing it to earth. Then the people shouted with one accord that Winfred's God was stronger than their gods, and that they would serve him henceforth.
Winfred made an oath which every one must take before he could become a Christian, which would show truly that he had put away the old religion of fear and superstition. This is the way it read: "I forsake the devil and all his family and all his works and words, Thor and Woden and Saxnote, and all those who are his companions." No little imp of darkness could slip in to trouble the believer after that.
Thirty years Winfred labored in Germany, and when he was an old man he could look out on a broad land dotted with Christian churches and schools and monasteries which he and his helpers had founded. But his heart was not satisfied. Far to the north lay the heathen land of Friesland where the gospel was not yet known. "At last," he said, "the time has come when I may leave this work and go to Friesland." With a few faithful followers he went away, when he was seventy years old, into this wild, barbarian land, and there he labored for five years, and many thousands believed and praised God that he had come. When the number of believers was so great that churches must be formed, he summoned them to come together on a June day in 755 and be received into the Christian Church. But as he and his followers were preparing for the service a great number of armed heathen appeared, and of all Winfred's company of fifty-two, not one escaped death at the hands of these savage barbarians. So Winfred died in Friesland, giving his life when he was an old man to carry out the dream of his boyhood.