- Ansgar, Rimbert and the Forged Foundations of Hamburg-Bremen by Eric Knibbs
The standard “textbook” history of the early medieval origins of the archdiocese of Hamburg-Bremen has been, until now, a relatively straightforward one: in the early 830s, Emperor Louis the Pious installed the missionary bishop Ansgar as archbishop in a new metropolitan see at Hamburg. Ansgar had recently helped establish Christianity among the Danes and Swedes, and his archbishopric’s jurisdiction encompassed the lands beyond the Elbe River, including Scandinavia. Following Hamburg’s destruction by the Vikings in 845, the archbishop’s seat was transferred further south to Bremen, and the two dioceses united into one metropolitan province with a unique “double-see.”
The primary source for this narrative is the Vita Anskarii (Life of Ansgar), a detailed hagiography penned sometime before 876 by Rimbert, one of Ansgar’s close companions and his successor as archbishop. Rimbert’s work weaves together a rich assortment of material in support of Angsar’s legacy, from personal recollections to visions and dreams, as well as imperial and papal privileges establishing Hamburg as an archdiocese. Most modern scholars working on the history of Hamburg-Bremen and the northern mission have accepted Rimbert’s account as broadly accurate, even if they have quibbled about the reliability of various documents surviving in the Life and in other sources that shed light on the early formation of the diocese. Eric Knibbs’s new monograph makes a compelling case, however, that this consensus is in need of fundamental revision and that Rimbert’s narrative is, in fact, a complex tapestry of forgery and misdirection aimed at creating the appearance of a continuous historical tradition for the double-diocese and the Scandinavian mission, going back to the early years of Louis the Pious (814–840).
In a careful and critical rereading of the relevant ninth-century texts, in particular the surviving papal and royal privileges transmitted in the Life of Ansgar, Knibbs fleshes out an alternate chronology for Hamburg-Bremen and the Scandinavian missions—one that, he argues, had been effaced and rewritten, first by Ansgar himself and then, more substantively, by his protégé Rimbert. Stripped of their anachronistic interpolations and alterations, the documents suggest that Ansgar had never been more than a papal legate authorized to preach to the Danes and Swedes, much like the Anglo-Saxon Boniface in the first half of the eighth century. Ansgar attempted to use a small settlement at Hamburg, at the mouth of the Elbe River, as a base of operations for a mission to the north, but these efforts collapsed during the Frankish civil war in the early 840s: Hamburg itself was sacked and abandoned in 845. A few [End Page 163] years later, Louis the German invested Ansgar with the see of Bremen in northern Saxony, but the northern mission was never effectively relaunched.
Instead, Ansgar attempted to consolidate his meager achievements by parlaying his position as a bishop and erstwhile papal legate into that of an archbishop with a see at Hamburg that oversaw his old mission fields in the north. To do so, he assembled a dossier of his papal and royal privileges, which he carefully altered to make it appear that his status as archbishop, as well as the foundation of a metropolitan see at Hamburg, all dated from the reigns of Louis the Pious and Pope Gregory IV. While Knibbs argues that Ansgar did receive the pallium—the ornamental scarf granted by the pope to bishops with metropolitan status—from Pope Nicholas I around 864, he still remained formally only bishop of Bremen. His successor Rimbert, who was legitimately confirmed as archbishop of Hamburg, used Ansgar’s interpolated dossier as the basis for a more ambitious revision of his see’s history and rights. To that end, Rimbert’s Life claimed that Ansgar had been made an archbishop as early as 831, and that Pope Nicholas’s pallium privilege of 864 had united Bremen and Hamburg into one metropolitan province. This cannot have been...