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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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