Christianity Through the Ages by Kenneth Scott Latourette
Richard Heard, M.A., M.B.E., M.C., was a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge and University lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge (1950). Published by Harper & Row, New York, 1965. This material was prepared for Religion-Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: Deepening Twilight, A.D. 500-950
For the four and a half centuries which spanned the years from A.D. 500 to A.D. 950 Christianity seemed to be fading from the world scene. The dates are only approximate. Twilight had begun before the end of the fifth century. Occasionally it appeared to brighten, but it continued to deepen. By A.D. 950 the worst was over, but losses as well as gains were registered after that year. Had a man from Mars been able to pay periodic visits to the earth during these centuries, he would probably have said that Christianity was doomed. In A.D. 500 Christendom was almost completely identified with the Roman Empire. The winning of the allegiance of that realm by Christianity and the growth of the Catholic Church and the bodies which dissented from it had been two of the most remarkable developments in the history of religion. But by that time several other religions rivaled Christianity in geographic expansion and inner vitality. Manichaeism, younger than Christianity, was more widely spread, for by that year or soon thereafter its adherents were scattered across Eurasia from the Western Mediterranean into China. Buddhism, between five and six centuries older than Christianity, was making what looked like a triumphal march across South and East Asia and by A.D. 500 was potent not only in the land of its birth but also in Ceylon, Burma, Siam, Cambodia, Central Asia, China, Korea, and Japan. Hinduism was vigorous in India and Confucianism flourished in China. Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Hinduism continued to enlarge their geographic boundaries. After a period when it seemed to be eclipsed by Buddhism, Confucianism enjoyed a marked revival; even more firmly established than before in China, its native habitat, it was spreading in Korea and Japan. As we are to see in a moment, a new religion, Islam, was capturing much of the Mediterranean basin, was displacing Zoroastrianism in the erstwhile Persian Empire, and was gaining footholds in Central Asia. Of the religions with major followings among civilized peoples, only Christianity appeared to be waning.
The decline of Christianity between A.D. 500 and A.D. 950 can be ascribed to at least three factors. First and foremost was the progressive weakening of the Roman Empire. In the generation which saw the birth of Jesus Augustus Caesar, climaxing his predecessors’ accomplishments, gave to the Roman Empire a unity which was to persist. During most of the first two centuries of that unity prosperity mounted but was deceptive. In the third century illness was already painfully apparent. No one date can be given for its fatal termination. Long after A.D. 500 the Empire continued, with Constantinople as its center, and with a gradual transition to what is called sometimes the Eastern Roman Empire and sometimes the Byzantine Empire. Not until A.D. 1453 was the Byzantine Empire ended by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. In the West the attenuated shadow of the Roman Empire endured until 1806.
A second factor was the inroads of barbarians from the North. Pressure had long existed, as was seen in the capture of Rome by the Gauls in 390 B.C. It again became acute in the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era. Many of the barbarians, mostly Germanic, were permitted to settle within the borders of the Empire and were not easily or quickly assimilated. In A.D. 378 the Goths defeated and slew the Emperor Valens in the Battle of Adrianople, slightly west of Constantinople. In the fifth century the West Goths (Visigoths) established themselves in Spain; the Vandals, defeated by the West Goths in Spain, moved into North Africa and with their fleets ravaged the Western Mediterranean; the East Goths (Ostrogoths) made themselves masters of Pannonia on the upper Danube; the Burgundians moved into Gaul; the Franks began that conquest of Gaul which in succeeding centuries made them the dominant Germanic power in Western Europe; and Anglo-Saxons moved into Britain. Also in the fifth century the Huns, an Asiatic people, were a destructive scourge. The sixth century saw the creation of the Ostrogothic kingdom with headquarters in Ravenna and the attempt of its great monarch, Theodore, to create a constructive working arrangement between his people and the Roman citizens. But no sooner was one group of barbarians partly assimilated than a fresh horde appeared and for a time disorder again mounted. The last of the northern peoples to ravage the civilized South were the Scandinavians. Late in the eighth century they began raiding the coasts of Ireland and Great Britain. In succeeding centuries they repeatedly plundered the coasts of Western Europe and Italy, established themselves in England, Normandy (named from the "Northmen"), and Sicily, attacked Constantinople, and swarmed along the rivers of Russia, with centers in Novgorod and Kiev. At the outset most of the barbarians were pagans. As we have seen and will remind ourselves a little later, on entering the Empire many of the Germanic peoples were Arian Christians, and were separated from the Roman population, which was Catholic.
The third factor was the conquests of the Arabs, the bearers of a new religion, Islam. The Arabs took advantage of the near-exhaustion of the Roman and Persian empires. For centuries the two realms had been chronic enemies. The borders between them were mastered now by one of the rivals and now by the other. Early in the seventh century the Persians took Antioch, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Egypt. Under an able Emperor, Heraclius, the Romans drove the Persians back and moved into Mesopotamia. At that juncture the Arabs, inspired and united by Islam, moved out of their native peninsula and by the middle of the eighth century overran Syria, Palestine, Egypt, most of the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and Crete, erased the Persian Empire, and established their capital at Baghdad. Thus within a little more than a century about half of Christendom came under the rule of zealous adherents of the faith taught by the Arab prophet.
In their conquests the Arabs were helped by divisions among the Christians. Some of the dissidents from the Catholic Church were inclined to welcome the new masters, for in them they hopefully saw protectors against the church which had the support of the Roman Empire. In the lands under Arab rule Christianity did not immediately disappear. Some conversions to Islam were forced, but in general the Arabs tolerated Christianity. However, they put its adherents under discriminatory disabilities: they did not allow Christians to serve in the Arab armies, they required them to wear a distinguishing garb, they placed on them a special tax, and they forbade them to give such public expressions to their faith as religious processions or the ringing of loud bells. In consequence, many Christians became Moslems. In most of the Arab lands the churches survived. But they were on the defensive and in many places developed the characteristics of ghetto communities. In North Africa they eventually disappeared. In the advance of Islam Christianity suffered proportionately the greatest numerical losses in its history. Not even Communism was to master so substantial a percentage of the earth’s surface in which Christians were a majority of the population.
Persistence in the Dwindling Roman Empire
Christianity persisted in the remnants of the Roman Empire. For a time under Justinian, who reigned from 527 to 565, that realm had a brief revival. North Africa and parts of Italy and Spain were retaken from the Germanic invaders. Justinian was a great builder: his most notable architectural achievement was St. Sophia, the cathedral church of Constantinople and the most noble example of a new kind of Christian art. Justinian was deeply religious and interested himself in theology. He was an orthodox adherent of the Chalcedonian creed, but in this he differed from his Empress, Theodora, who was an ardent advocate of the non-Chalcedonians. He sought to compose the differences on the issues discussed at Chalcedon. Under him what has been called the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church was convened (553) and made official an interpretation of Chalcedon which, Justinian hoped, would reconcile the Chalcedonians and the moderate anti-Chalcedonians. At first the Bishop of Rome dissented and was held in exile in Constantinople, but he later declared the Council legitimate and was permitted to return to his see. Justinian’s effort did not win all the anti-Chalcedonians and caused unhappiness in much of the Catholic West. Justinian sought to eradicate the remains of paganism, persecuted the Manichaeans, and took vigorous measures against the Montanists and other Christians whom he regarded as heretics. He also enacted legislation to regulate the life of the Catholic Church. Among other measures, he prohibited the purchase and sale of ecclesiastical offices and the attendance of clergy at the theater and horse races and increased the functions of bishops in their respective dioceses, giving them the oversight of some public works and the enforcement of legislation against gambling.
The active concern of Justinian in ecclesiastical affairs accelerated a trend towards the control of the Church by the State. What was called caesaropapism usually characterized the relations of Church and State in those branches of Christianity which stemmed from Constantinople. By tradition, the Roman Emperors had made the control of religion one of their functions. Among their titles had been pontifex maximus ("chief priest") of the official cults. The Christian Emperors were not priests, but they too believed the regulation of religious affairs to be one of their prerogatives. This was the case under the continuation of the Roman Empire in the East and has been characteristic of Russia and the Balkan countries whether under Christian, Moslem, or Communist regimes. As a consequence in the East the Church centered its efforts on worship and did not seek to control the State or to make its voice heard in the ranges of collective life outside the sacraments and individual morals. Yet the Church was not as subservient to the State as the pre-Christian official cults had been. It developed a measure of autonomy, even though limited. A phase of the other-worldly emphasis of the Eastern wing of the Catholic Church was the prominence of monasticism. In general that monasticism proved to be more contemplative than monasticism in the West; the latter was more activistic.
In contrast, in the West, where the Empire disintegrated much earlier than in the East and was followed by governments without the prestige which accrued to the Empire, the Catholic Church was much less controlled by the State and a conflict of functions was chronic. From time to time the State succeeded in mastering the Church. But the Church struggled to effect its independence and sought to bring conformity to its standards in what might be called "secular" issues.
Under Justinian’s successors questions of doctrine continued to vex the Catholic Church and to attract the attention of the Emperors. The coming of the Arab menace made desirable united resistance by Christians and the attempt to rise above the traditional controversies. The issue most debated was the relation of the divine and human in the will of Jesus. For a time the Bishop of Rome supported the thesis that in Christ only one will (thelema) existed. But later Roman Pontiffs affirmed that in Christ were two wills, human and divine; since Christ was both divine and human, to say that He had only one will, and that divine, would place a limitation on His full humanity. In 680 and 681 the so-called Sixth Ecumenical Council was convened in Constantinople by the Emperor. It affirmed that Christ had two wills, the divine and the human, but held that the two were always in harmony. This continued to be the position of the Catholic Church, both East and West. In the eighth century an Emperor revived the issue. In the Lebanon a substantial number of Christians, usually called Maronites, adhered to monotheletism --the theory of only one will in Christ -- and held to it until in the twelfth century they made their peace with Rome.
Theological activity continued in the Eastern wing of the Catholic Church. He who is regarded as the last great theologian of the East was John of Damascus, of the first half of the eighth century, but his chief contribution was not in fresh areas but in a comprehensive systematization of orthodox views.
The major dispute in the Catholic Church in the decades following the Sixth Ecumenical Council was what is known as the Iconoclastic Controversy. That controversy began in 726 and raged, at intervals, until 843. It had to do with the use of images, or icons, in worship. The practice had long been common but from time to time opposition arose. Was the employment of images idolatry or a non-idolatrous aid to worship? The Emperor Leo the Isaurian opened the campaign forbidding their use. Several factors added to the bitterness engendered by his act, among them resentment against the attempt of the Emperor to control the Church. Women and monks were particularly vehement in their advocacy of the icons. John of Damascus vigorously supported them. Theodore of Studius, one of the most influential figures in the monasticism of the Eastern branch of the Catholic Church, was also emphatic in his advocacy. The Western wing of the Catholic Church was not as much disturbed by the controversy as was the East but participated in it. In 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council met, holding the majority of its sessions in Nicaea. The Council approved the use of icons but regulated the manner in which they were to be honored. At least two synods in the West denounced the findings of Nicaea. Not until the eleventh century did Northern Europe recognize the Nicaean gathering as an Ecumenical Council. As evidence that the Church wished to assert its independence of the State, we may note that the Seventh Ecumenical Council forbade the appointment of bishops by the lay power and ordered that in each ecclesiastical province an annual synod be held.
From Constantinople as a radiating center, Christianity spread on the geographic periphery of the Eastern portion of the Empire and among some of the barbarians who had occupied territories formerly within its borders. For example, during the reign of Justinian missionaries carried the faith up the Nile Valley into Nubia, and much of that area became Christian. In North Africa, after the re-conquest of the region from the Vandals by Justinian’s armies, many Berbers accepted the faith. Much of Central Europe and the Balkan Peninsula had been occupied by Slavs. Constantine (also known as Cyril) and Methodius, both from Greece and so under Constantinople, were prominent in winning many of them to the faith. Constantine devised a written form of their language and began the translation of the Gospels. In the seventh century the Bulgars, an Asiatic folk of Turkish or Hunnic stock, occupied territory north of Constantinople. In the latter part of the ninth century their monarch, Boris, was baptized and many of his people followed him. Missionaries came from both East and West to instruct them. The church which arose among the Bulgars conformed to Chalcedonian orthodoxy, but in administration it was independent of both Rome and Constantinople.
The Widening Rift between the Western and Eastern Wings of The Catholic Church
In theory, until well beyond the tenth century the Eastern and Western wings of the Catholic Church remained one. Supposedly the imperial administration and the Catholic Church were respectively the civil and the religious aspects of the Christian commonwealth, the Roman Empire. But by the middle of the tenth century East and West were drifting apart. The Latins were increasingly distrustful of the Greeks. In most of the West the Emperors ruling from Constantinople had little or no authority. The coronation of Charlemagne as Roman Emperor in 800, of which we are to speak, did not constitute a formal breach, for the Emperor in Constantinople recognized him as a colleague, and a long-standing tradition sanctioned the division of the imperial administration between the East and the West. Some of Charlemagne’s successors also were crowned as Roman Emperors, but the Roman Empire was still regarded as one realm which ideally embraced all Christians regarded as orthodox by the Catholic Church. However, in actuality in the West the civil administration of what was called the Roman Empire had long ceased to include any but fragments of its former territories.
The waning of Roman imperial authority in the West was accompanied by other contrasts between the Western and Eastern wings of the Catholic Church. Rivalries existed between the Bishops of Rome and the Bishops of Constantinople. In the West the term filioque was added to the Nicene Creed. That creed had originally said that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The West added "and from the Son." The change seems first to have been made in Spain as an attempt of the Catholics to counter the Arianism which flourished among the West Goths and to emphasize the Nicene contention that the Son was of "the same substance with the Father, begotten and not made." Filioque spread slowly in the West, but the Bishop of Rome early accepted it. Differences in ecclesiastical customs developed. The Latin priests were celibate and confirmation was only by a bishop. The Greek priests were married and confirmation was by a priest. However, no persistent overt break occurred until later.
Smaller Eastern Churches Curbed by Moslem Arab Conquests
The Eastern churches which separated from the Catholic Church continued through the four and a half centuries covered by this chapter. As we have noted, their refusal to remain in the Catholic Church stemmed ostensibly from their rejection of the Chalcedonian creed, but it was also and chiefly due to ethnic particularism and to unwillingness to be dominated by the Greeks and the Byzantine ecclesiastical structure which predominated in the Eastern wing of the Catholic Church. In theory they adhered to Nicaea but protested that Chalcedon was an heretical departure from it. All resembled the Catholic Church in having bishops and monasteries. The chief anti-Chalcedonian schisms from the Catholic Church were the Copts, the Armenians, the Syrians (or Jacobites), and the Nestorians. On all of them the Moslem Arab conquests brought restrictions.
By the time of the Arab domination of Egypt the Coptic form of Christianity had become the national religion of Egypt and the liturgy and other religious literature had been put into Coptic, the vernacular. The Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Church was in communion with the Copts. The introduction of the faith to Ethiopia had taken place before the sixth century. Secure in its mountain strongholds, Ethiopia was not overrun by the Arabs. But within a generation of the Arab conquest a large proportion of the Copts accepted Islam. Many remained true to the faith, however, and numbers, highly educated, were given official posts by their Moslem masters. Some so employed may have been responsible for the creation of what is called Arab architecture. In the eighth century the Arabs added to the restrictions on the Christians and instituted persecutions which augmented conversions to Islam.
The Armenian Christians were seldom entirely free from persecution. The Sassanid rulers of Persia succeeded in extending their suzerainty over Armenia and as a symbol of acquiescence to their rule endeavored to force their official faith, Zoroastrianism, on the Christians. They met with such stubborn resistance that in time they granted religious liberty. Late in the sixth century Persia was constrained to cede part of Armenia to the Byzantine Emperor. The latter managed to bring the Church in his sphere to conform to Chalcedon, and a schism in the Armenian majority anathematized Chalcedon. After they had subdued Persia, the Arabs deemed wise the continuation of the toleration of Armenian Christianity which had been granted by the Sassanids. Late in the seventh and in the eighth century Constantinople, presumably as a phase of its imperialism, attempted to bring all the Armenian Church to conform to Chalcedon. However, in 719 a synod re-affirmed the Opposition of that church. Then, as later, many Armenians were merchants in other lands, notably in Mesopotamia, Persia, and Central Asia. Frequently they held to their faith and in the cities of their sojourn established congregations of their church.
Syrian Jacobites also engaged in trade and industry in other lands. From them Christian minorities arose in Mesopotamia and farther east. For example, they had an ecclesiastical structure in Persia.
Nestorians were the chief representatives of Christianity in Central and East Asia. Nestorian merchants and missionaries lived in several of the main caravan centers in Central Asia. Before the coming of the Arabs they won many converts, chiefly among the Turks and the Hephthalite Huns. Their major rival was Manichaeism. In 635 they planted the faith in Ch’ang-an, the capital of China. China was then ruled by the second and most powerful Emperor of the T’ang Dynasty and was the strongest realm on the planet. Ch’ang-an was the largest city in the world and attracted foreigners from many parts of Asia. Nestorianism spread widely in T’ang China, but only among minorities; Central Asians were usually at the heart of its communities. It suffered from the restrictions placed on Buddhism and other foreign faiths in the ninth century, and in 980 monks sent to strengthen their fellow believers in China could find none of the latter. Both the Zoroastrian Abbasids and the Moslem Arabs persecuted the Nestorians, but the Arabs employed many of them as physicians, accountants, astrologers, and philosophers. Nestorians made the early Arabic translations of the Greek philosophers.
Invading Barbarians Gradually Won by The Catholic Church in Western Europe
From the perspective of later centuries, the most significant developments in the history of Christianity from A.D. 500 to A.D. 950 were in Western Europe. At first sight this is surprising. The inroads of the northern barbarians overwhelmed the western portion of the Roman Empire and in that region threatened to eradicate civilization and the faith. During at least eight centuries wave after wave of invasion menaced such recovery as had been achieved in the interval between the successive incursions, and the prospects both of a high culture and of Christianity seemed grim. The invaders were most unpromising material for the Gospel. They were vigorous and possessed native ability, but they admired the warrior, were hard-fighting and hard-drinking, and seemed to despise the Christian virtues as the traits of weaklings and to view with scorn the story of a crucified Savior.
Yet in retrospect the outcome is understandable. In the East Christianity was handicapped by its close association with the Roman (later Byzantine) Empire. There the Church, while not as fully subservient to the State as its pagan predecessors had been, was often a tool of a nominally Christian but essentially non-Christian regime. Moreover, from the seventh century onward that regime was confronted by aggressive Moslem enemies and with difficulty maintained a slowly losing rear-guard defense against them.
In contrast, in Western Europe the Catholic Church was more nearly independent of the State than in the Byzantine realms. It was, therefore, less handicapped in giving expression to the Gospel than in the East. The independence was not complete. As Christianity was adopted the rulers attempted to use the Church for their purposes. But many of the leaders of the Church were not happy with that control and from time to time escaped from it. Although the Church, even when emancipated from the State, only partially embodied the Gospel, on the whole it more nearly shaped the civilization which emerged among the former barbarians in the West than it did in the East. In the disorder accompanying the break-down in Western Europe of the Roman Empire and the associated culture the Catholic Church became the tutor of the invaders. It stood for law and order. Such education in letters and arts as survived was carried on through it. It embodied and transmitted much of the Roman heritage, modified and partly molded by the Gospel.
The fact that the Patriarch of the West, whom we must now call the Pope, was the Bishop of Rome, furthered that achievement. As a city, Rome dwindled in population. Its inhabitants lived amid the physical remnants of former greatness, and the public buildings fell into ruin, despoiled by invaders and the remaining citizenry. However, as the barbarians became Christian and either through their conversion or by abandoning Arianism became members of the Catholic Church, they looked to Rome as the geographic center of their faith, made pilgrimages to its shrines, and regarded the Popes as the successors of Peter and as possessing the authority which, they were taught, had been entrusted by Christ, as His representative, to Peter. The eventual capping of Trajan’s Column with a statue of Peter was doubly significant. It was a symbol of the triumph of Christianity in the realm of the Caesars. It was also, unwittingly, witness to the penetration of the Catholic Church by Romanitas, the Roman tradition. In the West the Catholic Church was henceforth in actuality, even though not officially, the Roman Catholic Church.
Before the end of the seventh century the Roman Catholic Church had triumphed over Arianism. That achievement was part of the process of assimilating the Germanic invaders -- Goths, Vandals, Lombards, and Burgundians -- to Romanitas. During the early stages of their conquest the Germanic peoples held to their own laws, in contrast with their subjects, Roman citizens who were governed through Roman laws. Their adherence to Arianism was associated with their purpose to maintain their ethnic and cultural identity. As time passed they conformed to such Roman civilization, badly garbled, as survived, and conformation included incorporation in the Roman Catholic Church.
The steps by which in the West the barbarians were won to the Christian faith were evidence both of the close association of the Catholic Church with the State and of the embodiment in the Church of a spirit independent of the State. On the one hand, the faith was adopted by a people as a whole at the instance of the secular ruler. The prince was baptized and his subjects followed, either willingly or at his behest. On the other hand, the large majority of the missionaries were monks, men who had in theory made a full commitment to Christ.
In the brief summary to which we must condense the record, we can call attention only to a few examples which are fairly typical. As we have noted, in 496 Clovis, the King of the Franks, was baptized. His warriors followed his example. His descendants, the Merovingians, were the first ruling house of the Frankish realms. Some of the Romano-Gaulish clergy helped in the instruction of the converts, but much of the advance towards Christian standards of life was accomplished by Irish monks. During the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, up to the beginning of the Viking raids, Ireland was very little troubled by the invasion of pagans. Its peoples adopted the Christian name. Monasticism flourished. From the monasteries many went forth, some as individuals to live as hermits, and others in groups, often of twelve with a leader in imitation of the Apostles and Christ. Many were active as missionaries to non-Christians. Others sought to raise the level of Christian living among those nominally of their faith. Among other devices, they compiled elaborate penitentials as a guide to hearing confessions and giving pastoral care.
Pagans on the island of Great Britain were won in part by missionaries from Ireland and in part by monks dispatched from Rome. The Anglo-Saxon invasions had reduced to paganism much of the former Roman Britain. The descendants of the Roman provincials retreated westward and there maintained the faith inherited from the days when the Empire was ostensibly Christian. In the North were peoples who had never been under Roman rule, and had never been Christian. To them and to the Anglo-Saxons came monks from Ireland, the most notable being Columba (c. 521-597). He established himself on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, whence Christianity was carried to peoples in Scotland and to Anglo-Saxons in the North-east of England. In 596 Pope Gregory the Great sent a contingent of monks from Rome. One of them, Augustine, became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Through these pioneers and their successors sent from Rome many of the Anglo-Saxons were converted and a hierarchy was organized. Much of the organization of the Roman Catholic Church in England was accomplished by Theodore of Tarsus (602-690), a monk commissioned by the Pope (668) to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Although arriving in his mid-sixties and living well into his eighties, when most men find it necessary to slow down, Theodore traveled extensively through the island, creating dioceses, consecrating bishops, and improving the education of the clergy and the public worship.
The English had a large part in the conversion of the Low Countries and Germany. In 690 Willibrord went to the Frisians, a people in what is now the Netherlands. He had the support of the Pope and the Franks. In 695 or 696 the Pope created him the first Archbishop of Utrecht. Significantly, for it is evidence of the rapid success of the mission in England, that was almost exactly a hundred years after the first Roman mission to the Anglo-Saxons. The most famous English missionary to the Continent was Winfrith, better known as Boniface (c. 672 or 675 to 754). A monk, a scholar, having gifts of administration, Boniface could have risen to a high post in the Church in England. Instead, he chose to go as a missionary to the Continent. He worked first among the Frisians, then farther up the Rhine among the Germans. Supported by the Franks and the Pope, he won many pagans to the faith and did much to improve the quality of the existing Christianity. He summoned many from England, both men and women, to aid him. In his late seventies he returned to his first field, Frisia, and there suffered martyrdom. An indication of his character was his dying request that no vengeance be wreaked on his murderers.
Late in the eighth century the conversion of the Saxons who had remained on the Continent was accomplished by Charlemagne, the greatest of the Frankish rulers. Charlemagne equated baptism with submission to his rule. The independence-loving Saxons resisted and again and again revolted. As often as they rebelled Charlemagne marched his armies into their country and forced submission. Charlemagne’s program included the sending of missionaries, through whom instruction and much of the creation of an ordered church life were accomplished.
Before the middle of the tenth century a beginning had been made in the conversion of the Scandinavians. The chief pioneer missionary was Anskar (801-865), who first went under appointment of Louis the Pious, the son and successor of Charlemagne. He was probably a Saxon, evidence of the rootage of the faith among that people. He made few converts. The adherence of the Scandinavians to the faith had to wait until the latter part of the tenth century and the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
The Development of Western Monasticism
A large proportion of the monks who shared in the conversion of the Germanic peoples in Western Europe followed the rule formulated by Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 544). Born of a good family north-east of Rome, as a youth Benedict went to Rome to study. Distressed by the vices of the nominally Christian population, in his teens he left the city and adopted the life of a hermit. His austerities brought fame: many who were seeking to follow the perfect Christian life came to him. It is said that from them twelve monasteries arose, each with twelve monks and an abbot -- as with the Irish peregrini in imitation of Christ and the twelve Apostles. When about fifty years of age Benedict moved to the summit of Monte Cassino, between Naples and Rome, destroyed a temple where the worship of Apollo was still maintained, and founded a monastery which became the mother house of the order bearing his name. He remained a layman, but some of his company were priests and maintained the observance of the sacraments. He had come to believe that the full Christian life should be lived in community rather than by solitary anchorites. For his rule he drew ideas from earlier regimens, including that of Basil of Caesarea. The rule discouraged extreme asceticism, but enjoined a poverty which forbade personal possessions, commanded chastity and obedience, and included labor (for idleness was held to be an "enemy of the soul"), communal worship, private meditation, and the reading aloud of religious books at meals. Obedience was to the abbot. Worship was called the opus Dei ("the work of God") and occupied four or five hours out of each twenty-four. Labor was largely in the fields, but later it came to include literary pursuits as well. The community was predominantly self-supporting. Clothing was simple but sufficient and sufficient hours of sleep were provided to maintain health. Physically the standard of living was no more austere than that of the average peasant of the day.
Benedict envisioned no comprehensive organization embracing many monasteries. Each community was independent and self-governing. Not for several centuries was a plan devised for cooperation among the several houses. However, Benedict’s rule won wide endorsement and hundreds of monasteries which took it as a model sprang up in Western Europe. They did not slavishly conform, but devised modifications to meet their particular needs.
The other form of monasticism most widely adopted in the West during this period was that of the Irish. In Ireland the Church was organized around the monastery. The bishops as bishops did not have administrative functions and were without dioceses. Unless they were abbots, they were simply members of the community who administered ordinations. However, apart from an Irish nucleus, the Irish tradition was not widely followed; the Benedictine rule prevailed.
Cassiodorus (c. 490-585), a contemporary of Benedict, founded a quite different kind of monastery, but one which was not widely reproduced. Of Syrian ancestry, he long held civil offices in Italy. In these posts he sought to bring Goths and Roman citizens together, thereby fusing the two cultures. At about the age of fifty he retired, founded a monastery, and assigned to its inmates study, editing, and writing. Through them many Greek classics were translated into Latin, and other works, religious and secular, were copied or compiled and were a means of transmitting to posterity much of the Greek and Roman knowledge that might otherwise have been lost.
The Developing Role of The Papacy
The Papacy had an important role in the perpetuation and ordering of the Roman Catholic Church, both in the West and in its later extensions. Its incumbents varied greatly, not only in ability but as examples of Christian standards of life. Before the sixth century several of the Popes had risen to prominence. As imperial power in Italy declined, some of them defended Rome against barbarian attacks. For the most part they took doctrinal positions which were adopted by the Catholic Church. Leo I, "the Great" (reigned 440-461), was outstanding. He protected Rome against barbarian invaders, notably the Huns and Vandals, asserted the authority of his see in the Catholic Church, with Roman clarity provided the formula adopted by Chalcedon as the orthodox statement of the relation of the divine and human in Christ, and suppressed much of heresy in the West.
A century and a half later another Roman, Gregory I (reigned 590-604), the only Pope to share with Leo I by general consent the title of "Great," and with Leo I one of several Popes officially regarded as a saint, did a great deal to shape the Roman Catholic Church and to make the Papal see the controlling center of that Church in Western Europe. A scion of a prominent and wealthy Roman family, he lived at a time when imperial Rome was falling into ruins and when the city’s importance was becoming exclusively ecclesiastical. His notable administrative gifts were representative of the best of the pre-Christian Roman tradition. The Emperor appointed him to head the civil administration of the city. He was strongly attracted to the ascetic life, was a warm admirer of Benedict of Nursia and wrote a life of that saint, devoted his inherited wealth to founding six monasteries in Sicily, and turned over the family mansion in Rome to a monastic community. He reluctantly consented to the popular election which elevated him to the Papal throne, but rose to the challenges of the office. In spite of chronic ill health he administered the vast estates of the Church, saw to it that the poor of Rome were fed, and renovated the church fabrics of the city. He raised armies, successfully withstood the attacks of the Lombards, the latest of the Germanic barbarians to invade Italy, made his authority respected in Italy, Sicily, Gaul, Spain, and North Africa, attempted to curb the abuses in the Church in the Frankish domains, inaugurated the Roman mission to Britain, preached frequently, endeavored to enforce clerical celibacy, prompted monasticism and improved the quality of life in some of the houses which were lapsing from their professed ideals, and was the author of voluminous writings on theology that were long standard in the West. The kind of chant called by his name seems to have been indebted to him. A phrase on his epitaph, consul Dei ("God’s consul"), is both terse and apt. In two words it epitomizes his perpetuation of the Roman administrative genius, now dedicated to God. He also employed a traditional description of the role of the Popes, servus servorum Dei ("servant of the servants of God"), as embodying his ideal for his high office.
A half-century after Gregory I, Nicholas I (reigned 858-867), also later canonized, insisted on the authority of his see in all the Catholic Church and over all governments. Among other achievements, he supported the appeal of a Frankish bishop against a powerful Frankish archbishop, compelled a great-grandson of Charlemagne to take back his divorced wife, excommunicated two bishops for supporting the divorce, and enforced his power over another archbishop who defied it.
The Papal claims were backed by a collection of documents, some genuine and some spurious, which appeared about the middle of the ninth century: the Decretals of Isidore. They depicted the Bishops of Rome as claiming prerogatives over the Catholic Church from the beginning, permitted all bishops to appeal directly to the Pope, and regarded bishops and Popes as of right free from secular control. They included the Donation of Constantine, composed about the middle of the eighth century and purporting to have Constantine as its author. The Donation of Constantine professed to describe that Emperor’s conversion, baptism, and healing from leprosy through Pope Sylvester I, and said that out of gratitude Constantine was handing over to the Pope and his successors the imperial palace in Rome and "the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts, and cities of the Western regions.’ In an uncritical age the Isidorian Decretals were accepted as genuine. During centuries of disorder the Papal power kept the Catholic Church in Western Europe from falling apart into a welter of tribal, royal, and feudal churches, dominated by secular princes.
Temporary Revival Under The Carolingians
For a time in the eighth century and the early part of the ninth century recovery from the forces which had threatened to extinguish Christianity in the West appeared to be in progress. Although weakened, the Roman Empire still had a foothold and was presumably strengthened when, on Christmas Day, in the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by the Pope in St. Peter’s. The Pope’s act was symbolic of the fashion in which the Roman Catholic Church was perpetuating the Empire -- but an Empire which sought to embody Christianity. The outward conversion of the Germanic invaders had been all but completed. The raids of the Northmen, with the renewed inroads of paganism, had begun, but thus far only on the periphery. In the Battle of Tours (732) Charles Martel had checked the northern advance of the Arabs. In Western Europe the Moslem tide had come to its crest and had begun its slow ebb. That ebb was not completed until, in 1492, the Kingdom of Granada, the last political stronghold of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula, fell to Christian arms and in 1609 the Moriscos, the nominal converts from Islam, were expelled from Spain.
The recovery in Western Europe is associated with the Carolingians, the ruling house of the Franks. The Franks had the strongest realm in Western Europe. The Merovingians, the royal line which looked to Clovis as its founder, became progressively weaker. In the 750’s Pepin the Short, the son of Charles Martel, was proclaimed king in their stead and had the support of the Pope. The latter crowned him in 754, thus confirming an earlier coronation in 751. Here was a precedent for the Papal claim to remove and appoint secular rulers. Pepin also rescued the Pope from the threat posed by the Lombards and turned over to the Pontiff lands which he had taken from that foe, an act usually regarded, not quite accurately, as having inaugurated the temporal power of the Pope and the Estates of the Church. On his death (768) Pepin the Short was succeeded by his two sons, Charles and Carloman. The latter died in 771 and Charles was left as sole monarch.
Charles, better known as Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, then reigned alone until his death (814). Under his nearly halfcentury of rule the Frankish power reached its height. Charlemagne was genuinely religious. He rejoiced in Augustine’s City of God and set himself to make his realm the embodiment of its ideal. He continued a reformation of the Church which was already under way. He furthered the parish system, a form of territorial organization especially adapted to the spiritual care of a predominantly rural population. He perfected a system of tithes for the support of the clergy. He created bishoprics in the lands he conquered. He multiplied archbishops for the better administration of the diocesan bishops. He sought to improve the standards of Christian living of the clergy and through them of the laity: in theory all Christians were to know the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. He improved education and to this end called to his court the Englishman Alcuin, a relative of Willibrord. He repaired and constructed church buildings and sought to improve public worship. He considered himself an expert in doctrine and under him synods were held to define it. During his reign considerable theological activity developed, some of it displaying marked originality.
Yet Charlemagne fell far short of Christian standards. He was a semi-literate barbarian who had only partly met the demands of Christ. In his marital relations he was notoriously lax and he encouraged a similar laxity in his daughters. As we have noted in his attempts to impose the faith and his rule on the Saxons, he was cruel in his wars. He insisted on dominating the Church. Although many years after his death he was canonized, that action was only a local one and was never officially confirmed by Rome. But even local canonization -- with the implication that he was an ideal Christian -- was evidence of how far the Frankish populace was from attaining to Christian standards.
Moreover, in the life of high and low, superstition flourished. It was seen, among other ways, in the reverence paid to the relics of saints and martyrs. As an example, one of Charlemagne’s favorites, a scholar and Charlemagne’s biographer, prided himself on having obtained by theft relics from the vicinity of Rome and erected a shrine for them.
We must also recall that in the total world scene Charlemagne was a minor figure. In population, wealth, area, and culture the Carolingian realms were far inferior to the contemporary T’ang Dynasty in China or the Arab empire.
The Tenth-Century Nadir
After the death of Charlemagne darkness again descended, and by the middle of the tenth century Christianity had sunk to a lower nadir than, to the date when these lines were written, it was ever to know. In Western Europe the Carolingian empire fell apart. The raids of the Scandinavians mounted. In their longboats the Vikings ravaged the coasts and ascended the rivers, sacking monasteries. They established themselves in England and in parts of the Continent. In the last quarter of the ninth century Alfred the Great made headway against them in England, but after his death fresh inroads in North England were made by Scandinavians from Ireland. In the last part of the ninth and the first half of the tenth century the Magyars, pagan invaders from Asia, overran much of Central Europe, defeating the Germans, now Christian. They pressed up to the walls of Constantinople and were bought off by the Byzantine Emperor. Monastic life ebbed. In the welter which followed the waning of Carolingian might in Italy, in the first half of the tenth century the Papacy sank to the lowest level of weakness it ever reached. During much of the time the Papal throne was filled by scions of a family which dominated what was little more than a village housed in the ruins of former imperial grandeur. Between 897 and 955 seventeen Popes followed one another in rapid succession. John XI, Pope from 931 to 935, was placed in the office at the age of twenty-one. John XII, who reigned from 955 to 964, is said to have been the worst of the lot. At the age of eighteen he was both Pope and the secular ruler of Rome. In Asia, Christianity died out in its easternmost frontier, China.
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