The Holy Roman Apostate

Observing the Havdalah ritual, 14th century painting

Bodo was once the shining star of the Carolingian court at Aachen during the reign of Louis the Pious. However, he would become a beacon of hatred for Christians throughout Spain and France after a fateful pilgrimage to Rome on which he committed an astonishing act. In a Europe beset by passions of antisemitism and persecutions against the “Chosen People of Israel” Bodo converted to Judaism and would become major presence in Muslim Spain only to be condemned to oblivion by future generations.

We are unsure of when Bodo was born, his family’s social status or anything about his early life. He first appears in 820 as a subdeacon in Aachan, the capital of the Carolingian Empire that had been established by Charlemagne a few years before and was now the home of the court of Louis the Pious who had succeeded as Emperor in 814. From this it is possible to guess that Bodo came from a family of some wealth and nobility as the church was generally a place for the younger children of the wealthy.

Bodo was described as being incredibly bright, blonde and in possession of Teutonic grace and charm. It was, presumably, thanks to these traits that he became a firm favourite in the imperial court. Under his imperial patronage Bodo advanced quickly through the ranks of the church to become a member of the clergy under Hilduin, the archchaplain of the sacred palace and head of the abbey of St Denys.

Despite the Emperor being described as “pious” his court was renowned for its licentiousness and moral decay. Hilduin, himself was implicated in several scandals. Later in life Bodo would admit that many women had succumbed to his charms in the sacred chapels of the palace in Aachen. This was also a time of intense religious discussion and an evolution of theology that would eventually see the Eastern and Western Churches split two hundred years later. Bodo recounted that he had seen fourteen different men express as many opinions on the issues of religious doctrines and practices. It was amidst this atmosphere of sexual depravity, cutthroat politics and religious debate that Bodo began to experience doubts about his faith.

In his disenchantment with Christianity Bodo started to get interested in Judaism. Judaism was a faith that had apparently been around since time immemorial; it had a strict code of conduct that was not subject to such fluctuation as Christianity and it enforced a rigorous monotheism and not the strange tripartite monotheism of the Christians. It is easy to see how this intelligent young man would come to the conclusion that Judaism, in all its simplicity, represented the true religion.

Bodo decided to give his own faith a final chance to redeem itself and prepared to go on a voyage to the Eternal City, Rome, in order to pray for guidance at the shrine of the Apostles. Louis graciously accepted the young man’s request and, outfitting him with a retinue and gifts for the Holy Father, sent him on his way.

It is unknown if Bodo ever even got as far as Rome. What is known is that by mid-May he irrevocably broke with his past and converted to Judaism (but not before selling his retinue to non-Christian slavers) renouncing his baptism and undergoing circumcision. In a profound transformation Bodo changed his name to Eleazar, grew out his hair, married into a Jewish family and even convinced his nephew to convert. Unable to return to his homeland the convert, Eleazar, journeyed to Muslim Spain where Jews were allowed more freedoms than in the Carolingian Empire.

His conversion apparently sent shock-waves throughout the imperial establishment. The Emperor and Empress were apparently grief stricken by the loss of their young protege. It would soon be the Christians of Spain who would be shocked by Eleazar who would, over time, become something akin to the Antichrist for them. As happens with many converts to a new religion, Eleazar became a zealot and sought to persuade the Muslim government to increase persecution of Christians or force their conversion to Judaism or Islam (which he saw as being more similar to each other than to Christianity). Eleazar’s actions provoked a prominent Spanish Christian to start a correspondence in which they debated the merits and faults of each other’s faith. It has been suggested that Paulus Albarus (sometimes called Pablo Alvaro) was, himself, a convert to Christianity from Judaism. This theory is hinted at in one of his letters in which he lets it be known that his is the blood of Isaac and Abraham. It would seem more likely that Paulus Albarus was half Jewish but raised a Christian as we know his father was a Visigothic Christian. His letters to Eleazar provide us with most of the information written in this article, however, Eleazar’s side of the correspondence has largely been lost due to bigotry in later centuries against its apparently blasphemous content.

Albarus was keen to point out the predictions of Jesus’ coming in the Old Testament and uses his own Jewish heritage to strengthen his argument that the Christians were the new “Chosen People”. Eleazar responds by pointing out how Jesus’ miracles are relatively minor compared to some of the Old Testament prophets and that if Jesus was worthy of worship for being born without Original Sin and being made by God, then surely the Christians should worship Adam and Eve in the same way. Eventually the patience of both men were worn too thin and the last correspondence ended with Eleazar accusing Albarus of being a “yapping dog” to which Ablarus called Eleazar a “snarling fox”.

The last thing that we hear about Eleazar comes from a petition sent in 847 by the Christians of Spain to the new king of the Franks, Charles the Bald, asking him to assist them in “removing the apostate” who had encouraged their persecution. We do not know the outcome of the letter but we never hear from Eleazar again.

In his previous life as Bodo this extraordinary character could have gone on to become a powerful figure in Western Christendom, perhaps even Pope. However, his conversion to Judaism was born from a deeply felt need to be spiritually at peace with himself. There can be no doubt that his conversion came for the right reasons, however, his actions as Eleazar can make him a thoroughly unlikable character but an important one nonetheless. In the long term he would serve as an example that would be used to up the abuse on Jewish communities in Western Christendom.


One comment

  1. Wow! He was not content with his conversion – he wanted to press others to do the same. Very interesting individual.

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