Skip over navigation

Early Middle Ages (475-1000)

Christianity, 325-650s: Conversion, the Papacy, and Monasticism I

Political Arrangements in Europe towards the Second Millennium

Christianity, 650s-950s: Conversion, the Papacy, and Monasticism II

Christianity and the Church are themes running through almost every aspect of early medieval political, social, and of course, religious history. Though legalized by Constantine and made state religion by Theodosius, Christianity's course from the 330s to 800 was eventful and precarious. The key issues involved A) establishing proper doctrine B); relations among the Roman Papacy, Constantinople, and Western kings; C) elaboration of a church hierarchy, administration, and polity; D) conversion of pagan Europe; and E) the development of monasticism in a way to invigorate the Church as a whole.

The first century of Church history is filled with intellectual dilemmas and doctrinal disputes. The first to emerge has been called Arianism, after the Alexandrian priest Arius who enunciate the doctrine that Christ was "neither co-eternal with nor equal" to God in divinity. In short, Christ was on a lower level. Though condemned by the local bishop, a controversy ensued, necessitating the 325 Council of Nicaea, presided over by Emperor Constantine himself. Arius' ideas were condemned and he was exiled, though he was later restored to his position by Constantine, who himself moved closer to the Arian position by the end of his life. Arianism was more attractive to Easterners, for whom it was more philosophically straightforward. For the next fifty years, Eastern Emperors and their church vacillated regarding doctrine, and only in the 381 First Council of Constantinople was Arianism definitively and finally condemned. It never caught on in the West at all, except for the Goths, who were converted to Christianity by the eastern priest Ulfillias when Arianism was in vogue.

From the 420s, two related controversies particularly wracked Eastern Christianity. Upon becoming Patriarch of Constantinople in 428, the Antiochene Nestorius weighed in on the issue of divine vs. human elements in Christ. For him, there were two natures and two persons in Christ, and no mingling. He was deposed at the Eastern Church's Council of Ephesus (431) for this view, with the strong efforts of the bishop of Alexandria, Cyril, who was supported by Rome. His counter, however, went too far in that it upheld One Nature in One Person. This is the inseparability and indistinguishability of divine and human in Christ. While Nestorius resigned his position, Cyril softened his stand and remained Bishop. That was not the end of either view. Particularly in Syria and other eastern areas, the 'Two Nature' idea survived as Nestorianism. Regarding Cyril's 'One Nature', it was taken up in the 440s by Dioscorus, his successor as Alexandria Bishop, and became known as Monophysitism. The Second Council of Ephesus in 449 followed the Alexandrian approach and established it as orthodoxy, with the Constantinople Bishop being deposed. In 451, Emperor Marcian took an interest in the matter, and held the Council of Chalcedon in 451, at which Monophysitism was condemned again and the idea of Two Natures Coexisting in One Person was promulgated as official doctrine. Though a defeat for the Egyptian clerics, the new orthodoxy never took hold there, and Monophysitism later matured into Coptic Christianity, the majority Egyptian religion until the advent of Islam in the 600s. Furthermore, for the next sixty-five years, successive Eastern Emperors would espouse various views between the two doctrines, with East-West theological agreement not restored until the rule of Emperor Justin I in 518.

These controversies were related to questions of preeminence in the Church itself. By the death of Constantine, there were four primary geographical foci to the Church's hierarchy: Rome, Alexandria (Egypt), Antioch (Syria), and Constantinople. They were all theoretically equal, having been founded by Peter or his legates. It was not long before their archbishops began to assert primacy vis-à-vis each other. From the beginning of the fifth century, Rome began to surge forward. Its chief rival was Constantinople. As the capital of the remnant of the Roman Empire that was officially Christian, the latter city and its Patriarch could already claim significance. Further, in line with precedent set by Constantine, Eastern Emperors had seen their church as an extension of their royal prerogatives, supervising appointments and meddling in doctrine. Part of this entailed insisting upon Constantinople's importance in the Church hierarchy. This was natural, in that Eastern Emperors generally viewed themselves as purposefully Christian sovereigns, with the duty of fighting paganism and upholding right doctrine.

Rome's claim was somewhat different: its bishops, the Popes, came to insist on their See's preeminence and ability to define doctrine for all of Christendom. Relying on Christianity's early sacred history, advocates for Rome, held that St. Peter had been invested with supremacy over the Church by Christ himself. In turn, Peter had been Bishop of Rome, and all Popes were his successors, inheriting his prerogatives and superiority. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (248-58) had first articulated such an idea, and Pope Damasus had made it official Western policy in 382, responding to the Constantinople Council of a year earlier, when Rome had not been sufficiently recognized. The idea was that Roman primacy did not rest on any decision of a group of clerics, but on Christ's 'promise' to Peter.

By the 450s, Rome-Constantinople conflicts had grown, as reflected in the doctrinal controversies mentioned above, where something like a Alexandria-Rome axis opposed a Constantinople-Antioch alliance. Part of the growing tension was related to objective circumstances: Pope Leo I could not count on Eastern support when the Huns threatened to sack Rome in 455, and in the absence of any real (Western or Eastern) imperial administration of Rome, the Pope himself was forced to take on several temporal responsibilities, increasing his own sense of esteem. That the senatorial aristocracy of Rome had been impoverished to the point that the Church was much wealthier by comparison strengthened its status as popular patron, and gave basis to the increasingly tenacious claims of Rome's bishops to preeminence. By this time too, Germanic invaders were more prevalent in the West, and revered Rome, not Constantinople. Furthermore, the proliferation of ecclesiastical positions in the West to which people were elected, and about which disputes arose, required a third, impartial party to arbitrate. The Bishop of Rome could do this, raising his status even further. Theologically, Leo built upon earlier Popes' articulations of Petrine doctrine through a legal interpretation based on Roman law whereby an heir inherited a testator's rights and obligations. Thus Peter's authority had been passed on to his successor Clement, who had passed it on continually, to Leo. Leo, then, and his successors had the right to define proper doctrine and lead the Church globally.

An example of the difference in perspectives emerged in 451, at the Chalcedon Council. Leo had prepared a doctrinal statement he called the Tome. It was to be read at Chalcedon and accepted as official because he, Peter's embodiment, had said it should be so. Eastern clerics did indeed accept it, yet only because it agreed with previous councils' ideas. That it emerged from the See of Peter was not the issue for them, creating a schism about the sources of authority within the Church. Leo's discontent was augmented by the same council, whose Canon 28 accorded Constantinople precedence over Alexandria and Antioch and increased the Imperial See's territory. His successor Gelasius I (492-496) excommunicated the Constantinople Patriarch Acacia when Zeno articulated a compromise doctrine of Christ's nature, and went on to state that "the sacred authority of the priesthood... is more weighty" than royal power. Strife increased when the Constantinople Patriarch began calling himself Ecumenical Patriarch by the 490s.

Intellectually, the two major challenges the Church faced during these years were a) explaining Rome's fall after it had gone Christian, and b) improving the spiritual-moral level of its flock and representatives. The sack of Rome in 410, and then in 455, had been a real problem for Christian thinkers. Conversion of the Empire not only did not help the longevity of the Empire, but it appeared, especially in conservative Roman eyes, to have hastened its fall. Indeed, in the 390s and even on the eve of the 410 sack, there had been some pagan revivals. Thus, various clerical writers began to expound non- linkage between Christianization and Roman fall. Orosius of Spain wrote Seven Books of History Against the Pagans in 418. For him, no matter how damaging Barbarian attacks on the Empire and Rome had been, the pagan period was far bloodier and more destructive. Also, the conversion of the Goths to Christianity had even ensured their relatively kind treatment of Romans during the sack. On a higher intellectual level and much more philosophical was Augustine's view, articulated in On the City of God (413-25). He invited Christians to de-link the Roman state and Christianity. It was not necessarily the agent that would realize Christian aims of world salvation. Indeed, secular institutions were irrelevant to this, as compared with individual human striving for perfection. This is an understandable view, as the Bishop of North African Hippo died while his city was under Vandals' siege.

In terms of improving the ethical standards of Christendom, people had been sensitive to this from the outset. The response took the form of monasticism, one of the most self-invigorating movements in Christendom from the 300s past 1000. Monasticism traditionally begins with St. Anthony in Egypt around the 260s. A wealthy young heir, he happened upon a Gospel text where Jesus indicates that to be perfect, one must make all possessions over to charity and live in poverty. He did so, moving to an abandoned fort on the fringes of the Egyptian desert. He tried to get himself martyred during the 313 Maximin era persecutions, after which he moved farther into the desert, in order to avoid admirers attracted by his self-mortification. Emulators in the ensuing years all concentrated on individual salvation. In the same vein, the fifth century's Stylites would seclude themselves atop pillars in Palestine and Syria. St. Simeon Stylites (388-460) lived near Antioch, and was even consulted by Imperial emissaries due to his presumed devotion.

In contrast to solitary monasticism was a more communal approach to spiritual seclusion. Though at one time a hermit, Pachomius (295-350) began to organize large numbers of his disciples into communities. The communal, cenobitic monasticism was seen as a preparatory phase, but sufficed for many who could never ascend to the next level of solitude. This cenobitic monasticism is what caught on in the West. It began in more of an urban way, with aristocrats establishing house cloisters from the fifth and sixth century. As an example, Cassiodorus' son, with the same name, retired to a monastery he patronized in the 580s. Jerome became such a mentor in Rome, while John Cassian left Egypt for Constantinople, settling in Marseilles as a refugee from Church disputes in the 410s. Up until this time individual monasteries had been following their own rules. On the request of a local bishop, John wrote a rule-book entitled Institutes, based upon Greek rules from Basil of Caesarea (370s). The latter had been the founder of organized monasticism in the Eastern Church. Nearly a hundred years later, a unified code of monastic life was written by St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480- c. 543). Living in Italy during the seemingly apocalyptic period of Byzantine-Ostrogothic warfare, he wanted to create a rule of life for personal spiritual improvement within a corporate, communal framework. Unlike his Egyptian predecessors, essential to the Benedictine Rule was "nothing harsh nor burdensome." A monastery was to be a school for beginners, with monks remaining in one location--a vow of (territorial) stability. A rigorous daily schedule of prayer and work was to embody the key principles of humility, obedience (expressed through total submission to the abbot), and work in the fields, to prevent idle thoughts and laziness. For Benedict, rather than escalating asceticism, ordered spiritual focus was the way.

During the next century, the Eastern Church followed the direction of the Emperors, willfully or otherwise. The usurper Basiliscus of the 470s, as well as Anastasia past 510 in particular was Monophysite inclined, and this injured Papal-Byzantine relations, to the point that Rome excommunicated Constantinople in the 510s. With the advent of an Orthodox Emperor in Justin and Justinian, relations were reestablished, especially as Byzantine reassertion of power in the West was partly in opposition to Arian Goths. This points to the Catholic predicament. Since Constantine's beginning of patronage, the Church had become relatively wealthy, and one of the biggest land-holders in the West. Still, to the 520s, temporal power in Italy was held by heretics in the form of Theodoric's Ostrogoths. While usually cooperative with the Catholic administration, there was always tension, and when Theodoric began to see Roman-Byzantine religious rapprochement, he put pressure on the Catholic Church. Later, from the 540s to the 570s, almost all popes were imperial nominees chosen for their loyalty to Byzantium. Farther north, the Franks began to convert from the 500s, and the Papacy enthusiastically supported this through proselytizing missions. Frankish Christianization was a mixed blessing, however. On the one hand, Frankish kings reciprocated by providing estates to clerics, and using the Gallo-Roman, literate priests in their administration. Furthermore, Roman era privileges were extended. Only the Church could police and judge its officials, and Church establishments were often exempt from counts' exactions. On the other hand, the level of culture and civilization was much too low among the Merovingians to sustain a Christian flowering, and their warlike temperament encouraged them to ride roughshod over Christian morality.

In this century of undistinguished popes one emerges as a giant, typifying positive trends and laying the foundations for future grandeur. Gregory I, 'The Great', was born into a noble Roman family in 540. He lived through Justinian's campaigns as well as the Lombard depredations, entering into imperial service and becoming he Prefect of Rome by the 570s. In 574, he left secular life to become a monk. From 579-85 he lived in Constantinople as Rome's ambassador, returning to Rome to help in Church administration. In 590 he became Pope. The first, immense challenge facing him was the Lombard invasions. Civil administration was almost nonexistent in this period, so he assumed control of the city. During the total vacuum of imperial control, he made a truce with the invaders in 592, and then directed urban defenses when war re- ignited the following year. To provide for the Church and laity's material survival, he reorganized Papal Estates in the south, making them turn profits from their crops. Revenues relieved famines, endowed churches, as well as hospitals and schools. Gregory's next accomplishment was to enforce Papal supervision over all churches in Italy and southern Gaul through agents of the central church. Farther north was more of a problem, as Frankish Kings saw the church as their property. Upon building churches or monasteries, rulers would appoint priests, and tried to control Christian hierarchies. Gregory stood against this. Commanding priests not to marry, he hoped to end the familial alliances that produced Frankish control over clerics.

Finally, Gregory's patronage of missionary efforts in England had three major consequences: A) Christianization in the British Isles was uncharacteristically thorough in a relatively short time. B) Papal patronage meant that that region's churches would be tied to the Roman ecclesiastical hierarchy much more strongly than were those of Gaul and Spain at that time. C) As monastics after Gregory's own heart conducted the bulk of the missionary activity, Britain's most notable Christian personalities in turn would be particularly monastic missionaries. Irish and English monks, then, would go on to spearhead Christianity's spread in Eastern Germany as well as its deepening in Gaul's countryside. D) This meant that the more Eastern precincts in particular would also have a close allegiance to Rome and the Pope, as opposed to secular Frankish rulers.

This story's first phase begins in Ireland. Though never a part of the Roman Empire, Christianity had begun to proliferate there from the fifth century, based upon commercial and cultural interaction with more Romanized Britons. The major missionary thrust there is associated with the near-mythical figure of St. Patrick (390?-461). Possibly born among the Christianized west Britons, he was carried off to Ireland as a slave at a young age, after which he escaped to Gaul and spent twenty years in its burgeoning monastic centers. At his point (432) he undertook a further exile (a pattern followed by later Irish-English monks), returning to Ireland as a bishop and overseeing mass conversion there.

Ireland was almost entirely non-urban. Thus, the basic unit of church organization was not the bishopric, but the monastery. Small affairs scattered throughout the region, their monks were not alien to a population whose pagan druids and filids had also espoused rigorous self-denial. Clan- based monasteries with a powerful abbot emerged in Bangor, Derry, and Durrow by the end of the sixth century. The process spread to Scotland as a second phase. Practicing exile, St. Columba (521-597) set up a monastery on the Scottish coastal island Iona, and from the 560s traveled through Scotland converting Picts. Also significant is that Irish ecclesiastics embraced the new Latin culture with a fervor typical of a new-comer. Learning Latin better than continental counterparts, they would go on to preserve much of the literary tradition, while maintaining aspects of practice and ritual calendar indigenous to Ireland.

Irish missionaries then spread to Frankish Gaul. About 590, St. Columbanus (530?-615) arrived at the Merovingian Guntram's Burgundy court. The latter supported his foundation of monasteries in the region. Quarrels with Brunhilde and his refusal to recognize Theuderic's illegitimate children resulted in Columbanus' expulsion from Frankish lands. He eventually arrived in Lombard Italy, where King Agilulf supported his founding of the Bobbio monastery in 615. In all of these cases, the monasteries and the Irish monks that migrated to them in increasing numbers targeted the countryside, recognizing its persevering paganism under thin Christian veneer. Soon indigenous Christians joined these same monasteries, which remained focused in Burgundy, around the Seine, and near Strasbourg for most of the seventh century. During this era, any missionary activity among Eastern Germans was still undertaken by native Gallic monks, key among them Amandus, patronized by Dagobert I in the 620- 30s and Austrasian Mayor Grimoald in the 640s, who prompted him to become Bishop of Maastricht in 648. Though he was also empowered by Pope Honorius I (625-38), the local clergy, resented his conversionary-reforming project, and he resigned.

Part of this third phase that ultimately strengthened continental efforts was the conversion of Anglo-Saxon England. Politically, England was divided into seven statelets established after the Anglo-Saxon invasions. These included Kent, Wessex, Northumbria, and Mercia as the most important. Irish monks had already made some limited inroads by the 570s, and after King Aethelbehrt of Kent had married Frankish King Charibert's daughter, the former had been required to allow a Frankish bishop and retinue into his kingdom. It was the Pope Gregory, however, who gave the greatest push to English conversion. He sent a monk named Augustine (d. 605) to Kent in 597, whom Aethelbehrt allowed to preach from a monastery in Canterbury. The King and his people soon converted to Roman Catholicism, and Augustine became Archbishop of Canterbury. East Saxons then converted around 604, with a bishop posted to London. Though Essex and Kent kings reverted to paganism after Aethelbehrt's 616 death, they soon returned to the faith under Kent's Eadbald and Eorcenberht (616-64).

Christianization spread northward in the 620s when King Edwin of Northumbria married Eadbald's sister and agreed to accept the new religion. A Roman missionary Paulinus went north and began proselytizing. When the pagan Mercians invaded Northumbria in 632, the process was slowed until 633, when Oswald (633-642) defeated the Mercians. He, however, invited a Celtic monk to preach, and when the King's son Oswy succeeded to the throne he married a Kentian princess raised according to the Roman rite. Thus in the 650s-660s, both Irish and Roman missionaries were converting in England. Given differences in ritual observance, the King held the Council of Whitby in 664, where the decision was made to follow the Roman rite.

This meant that continuing Gregory's aims, the English-Irish church would be closely tied to Rome. In 669 Pope Vitalian sent a new Archbishop to Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus. While the English church had been largely monastic up until now without rigid dioceses, Theodore established these. Furthermore, being from Eastern Rome, he was in touch with the original sources of classical learning. His assistants the Abbot Hadrian (from Africa) and Biscop, were just as erudite, and invigorated classical learning in Britain, through Hadrian's Canterbury school, and Biscop's monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow. Traveling frequently to Rome, Biscop brought scores of books to England, stimulating production there. Christian culture in England, therefore, was superior to anything west of Italy. As well, at Whitby the clerics decided that they had the authority to missionize in Gaul as Roman representatives. This would prove important in the eighth-century fourth phase of British-led conversion in Frankish lands, when English monks would supersede their Irish brethren. In retrospect, then, though he thought he was witnessing the apocalyptic end of days, by his death in 604, Gregory had laid the foundations of Rome's supremacy in the west based on more thorough Christianization, emerging Papal states, and a strong central ecclesiastical organization.

More Help

Previous Next

Follow Us