Chapter Two: The First and Greatest Recession (A.D. 500 – A.D. 950)

The Unquenchable Light
by Kenneth Scott Latourette

Chapter Two: The First and Greatest Recession (A.D. 500 – A.D. 950)

The great advance which had made Christianity the formal faith of the most populous cultural center on the globe was followed by a long period of decline which for a time seemed to presage the end of the influence of Jesus. As in the case of many great movements, boundary dates are difficult to determine and at best are only approximate. Earlier ones might be defended for both the beginning and the end of the recession.

The disheartening losses were associated with the decay of the Roman Empire. For that decay Christianity seems to have been in no way responsible. Both at the time and later the blame has been repeatedly laid at the door of Christianity. The fact that the growth of the latter coincided roughly with the rapid increase of the visible signs of the dissolution of the Greco-Roman world has appeared to many to indicate cause and effect. The factors which made for the decline of Rome were many and complex and even now scholars do not fully agree as to what they were. It is clear, however, that at least some of them had begun to operate before Christianity became prominent and possibly before the birth of Jesus. The most that can legitimately be said against Christianity is that it did not arrest and reverse the process. On behalf of Christianity it must be recorded that it was the source of most of such new cultural achievements as were registered in the Roman Empire after the second century. The emergence of the Christian Church, of Christian theology, and of Christian art shows that what was lacking in the Mediterranean world was not native ability but a sufficiently powerful impulse to stir that ability to creation. It must also be recalled that it was largely through Christianity that such of the cultural heritage of Greece and Rome as survived was preserved and transnutted to future generations.

Although Christianity was not its cause, the decay of Rome seemed to threaten the end of that faith. Christianity was put in jeopardy by its very success. Through its first great triumph it had come to be so closely associated with the Greco-Roman world that the disintegration of the one might well be the precursor of the demise of the other. Christianity appeared to be identified with the fading remnants of a passing culture.

The collapse of Rome and the losses to Christianity were hastened and accentuated by foreign invasions. The decay of Rome was due primarily to internal factors. It was accelerated and made spectacular by pressure from without. From time immemorial the fertile and salubrious Mediterranean Basin had been subject to incursions from its periphery. During the years of its might the Roman Empire was able to halt these at the frontiers. Beginning with the latter part of the fourth century invasion after invasion penetrated the weakened defenses and wrought havoc in the crumbling world. The long series is usually said to have begun with the defeat of the imperial armies and the death of the Emperor Valens at the hands of the Goths in a battle at Adrianople in A.D.

378. This was followed, in A.D. 410, by the capture and sack of Rome by Alaric and his Visigoths, an event which brought dismay throughout the Empire. In Southern Gaul and Spain the Visigoths soon erected a kingdom. Other peoples, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Alans, Suevi, Burgundians, Franks, Lombards, Angles, Saxons, and Huns, entered in the fifth and sixth centuries. Fortunately for Christianity, some of these were already adherents of that faith before they established themselves in the Empire. Others, however, were frankly pagan. The later invaders were entirely non-Christian. Wave followed wave. No sooner had partial recovery been registered than another incursion followed, bringing fresh disasters. In the sixth century, because of the Angles and Saxons, Christianity disappeared from much of Eastern Britain. In the sixth century the Uighurs, from Asia, established themselves in Central Europe. In that same century the Avars were the most powerful force in Central Europe and in the seventh century were strong enough to attack the chief center of Greco-Roman culture, Constantinople. In the seventh century came the Bulgars. They settled in the Balkan Peninsula and also proved a menace to Constantinople. In the seventh century the Slays were moving into the Balkan Peninsula and were even effecting settlements in Greece. Late in the eighth century the Vikings, from Scandinavia, began ravaging the coasts of Europe from Germany and the British Isles into the Mediter~ ranean as far east as Constantinople. Before many decades they became the rulers of parts of Ireland, Great Britain, Gaul, and what was later Russia. Each fresh wave of invaders brought fresh destruction, and especially to such centers of culture and repositories of wealth as churches and monasteries.

Even more serious was the Arab invasion of the seventh and eighth centuries. While pagan peoples were pressing in from the North and the Northeast, the bearers of a new religion were conquering the South and the Southeast. As we are to see in a moment, Christianity proved strong enough to assimilate the pagans. At least it eventually obtained their outward allegiance. The reverses which it suffered at their hands were only temporary. Islam, however, proved a different problem. In the seventh and eighth centuries Moslem Arabs conquered about half the coast of the Mediterranean, or, in other words, about half the area in which Christians constituted a majority of the population. In the lands in which it acquired political dominance Islam slowly strangled Christianity. In territories ruled by Moslems Christian churches survived for shorter or longer periods. Indeed, in several areas they are still to be found. In some regions, as in Spain, Portugal, Sicily, and, much later, the Balkans, where political power passed again into the hands of Christians, Islam eventually was either eliminated or weakened. Where Moslems continued in control of the state, Christianity suffered. Even in our own day the decline of some of the Christian enclaves continues. Never, not even to the Russian Revolution or to the skepticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has Christianity suffered such heavy numerical and territorial losses to any one enemy, and, indeed, to all enemies combined, as it has across the centuries to Islam.

The reasons for these losses are not far to seek. First of all was an extraordinary political situation which gave the Moslem Arabs their initial opportunity. When the Moslem Arabs, in the first enthusiasm of their new faith, tested out the defenses of their neighbors, the two strongest states of the Near East, the Byzantine and Persian Empires, had recently fought each other to the point of exhaustion. The Persians had penetrated the Byzantine realms as far as Palestine and Egypt. The Byzantine forces, staging an amazing recovery, had overwhelmed the Persians. Then, when the Arabs attacked his empire, the Byzantine ruler, Heraclius, seized by one of his strange fits of inertia, did nothing to stop them. Moreover, Syria, the logical outpost against the Arab advance, was unhappy under Byzantine rule and was disaffected, and in Egypt, the next Christian territory to fall, the attempt of the Orthodox Byzantine rulers to stamp out the prevailing Monophysitism had engendered dissension. Once having gained momentum, the Arab Moslem tide rolled on until it had engulfed the north coast of Africa, practically all of the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and part of Southern Gaul. In its intrinsic nature Islam had its greatest single asset. With a firm and simple belief in God which could be understood by the humblest and least educated, with a fiery confidence in Mohammed as the supreme prophet of God, with reverence for Jesus but declaring that Christians had misrepresented him, that he was not the unique Son of God, and that to Mohammed had been given a later revelation, with the type of fatalism and belief in heaven which reinforced ardor in battle, Islam proved the faith of warriors. Many Christians became convinced that its claim to be a later revelation than Jesus was borne out by its astounding military successes. Moreover, Islam, while permitting and even encouraging conversion, punished apostasy from itself with death. One might become a Moslem, but once a Moslem one must never again change his faith. While not usually compelling Christians to renounce their faith, Moslems placed them under such disabilities that many Christians were glad to renounce the Christ for the Prophet.

Christianity has proved more resistant to Islam than has any other faith—unless it be Judaism and Hinduism. The Zoroastrianism of the Persians all but disappeared or sought refuge in India, but the Christian churches in the former Persian realms lived on under the Arabs and even flourished. Christianity, and through it Jesus, made contributions to Islam. It was Christians who translated much of Greek literature, including the philosophers, into Arabic. Christian artisans seem to have done much to shape the type of architecture which bears the Arab name. Moslem mysticism and asceticism owed much to contact with the Christians.

However, where the Moslems remained in control, as we have said, the Christian churches dwindled. In North Africa the churches which had given such famous names to the faith as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine completely disappeared. Their collapse was probably accelerated by the fact that they had their chief strength in the Greek and Latin elements in the population and had never been deeply rooted in the Berber stock. The former vanished and the latter persisted. Slowly choked by Islam, Christianity gradually faded in about half the area in which at the dawn of the sixth century it was the professed religion of the majority.

It must be noted, moreover, that Christianity, after having been introduced into China in the seventh century, presumably by the Nestorians, had disappeared from that empire by the middle of the tenth century. So far as we can ascertain the reason, it is to be found partly in severe persecutions which were visited on Buddhists as well as Christians and partly in the alien nationality of the Christians and of the Christian leadership. We are not sure that any Chinese became Christians—although it is probable that some did. The monasteries were small and, so far as we know, manned by foreigners. With the decadence of the T’ang Dynasty, in whose prosperous years Christians, with other foreigners, had been attracted to China, the alien groups seem to have dwindled.

Along with the blows dealt by invaders from without went a decline in the inner life of the Church. This decay in morale was neither steady nor uniform. Here and there were revivals. In the Byzantine East an upswing began in the ninth century. In Western Europe, however, the end of the ninth and the opening of the tenth century witnessed a nadir in the vigor of the Church. Irish monasticism, from which had issued currents of life to the British Isles and Frankish domains, had been brought to a low ebb by the prolonger Norse invasions. The decline of the Carolingian power had left ahd Papacy, to which Western Europe looked for spiritual leadership a prey to the worldly nobility of Rome. A series of Popes sat on the throne of Peter the scandal of whose lives was not offset, as was that of some of the most infamous of the Pontiffs of the fifteenth century, by the outward splendor of their court. In Western Europe Christianity seemed dying from within.

The four and a half centuries after the year 500 made clear that the vitality inherent in Christianity as the legacy of Jesus was not alone sufficient to insure the ad and survival of the faith. An adverse environment might check it or even kill it. However, the losses of Christianity in this period, while severe, are by no means the complete picture. There were also gains. Advances were made in winning fresh peoples and new territories to the Christian faith of the pagan barbarians who invaded the Mediterranean world from the North and Northeast all who permanently settled in that region became adherents of Christianity, although the conversion of some was de1 until after A.D. 950. In Western and Central Europe, even in what was, in general, a period of seeming Christianity was carried northward beyond former borders of the Roman Empire and of the faith. In the years when fresh invasions were sweeping new waves of pagans in destructive raids into nominally Christian areas and Arabs were bringing about half of what had been Christendom under the sway of the Crescent, Christianity was recouping some of its losses by conversions in that very Mediterranean Basin and on the borders of what had been the Roman Empire among peoples which until then had been largely on entirely outside its influence. In Gaul the Franks, who made themselves dominant in that area and who later constituted the nucleus of the Carolingian Empire, were baptized and became champions of the faith. The approximate date of the baptism of the first Christian king of the Franks, Clovis, was A.D. 496. Late in the sixth century and in the course of the seventh century the Angles and Saxons, who had wiped out much of the Christianity of Britain, accepted the faith which had once been their prey. From them went missionaries to the Continent. In the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries such of the Germanic peoples in Western Europe as had not been converted earlier were won. Among these were the Fnisians in the Low Countries, the Hessians, and, last of all, the Saxons. Before A.D. 950 some of the Vikings had been baptized. The Avars were converted, largely in the latter part of the eighth and in the ninth century. Beginning at least as early as the seventh century, the conversion of the Slays had its inception. It was several centuries before the process was completed. In the ninth century a large proportion of Moravians and the Bohemians were baptized. In the ninth century occurred the conversion of many of the Slays in the Balkan Peninsula, including the Serbs. The ninth and the first part of the tenth century witnessed the conversion of the Bulgars. Here was an amazing achievement, of prime importance for the future of Christianity.

It was not only among the invaders of the Mediterranean Basin that advances were registered in these dark centuries. Christianity also spread southward and eastward. Beginning in the sixth century, it gained footholds up the Nile, in Nubia. It augmented the hold which it had earlier acquired in Ethiopia. Jacobites and Nestorians and even Greek Orthodox were to be found in Central Asia. The Nestorians, as the chief of the churches in the Sassanian and then the Abbasid realms, led in the propagation of the faith in the East. In the sixth century Christian communities existed on the Oxus. There were Christians among the Hephthalite Huns and the Turks. Christianity became strong in the cities of the valley of the Jaxartes. It moved eastward across the mountains into the Tarim River Valley and in the first half of the seventh century was planted in China. Manicheaism, which honored Jesus and in which Christian influences were present, was widespread in Central Asia and was represented in China by small communities. Christianity continued in India, although we know too little of its early history there to be clear whether in these four and a half centuries its gains offset its losses. As early as the sixth century there were Christians on Socotra, not far from the entrance of the Gulf of Aden, and by the ninth century that island is said to have been Christian.

In spite of the prodigious numerical losses, the largest proportionately which Christianity was to know, and in spite of the wars, the disorder, and the collapse of the empire with which Christianity had been most closely associated, by A.D. 950 Christian communities were scattered over a broader area than they had been in A.D. 500. With them, the influence of Jesus had become more widely disseminated.

The causes of the expansion of Christianity in these difficult centuries were varied. Some of them were more obviously opposed to the spirit and teachings of Jesus than had been any of the agencies of spread in the preceding five centuries. Others, if not so manifestly contrary to what Jesus had stood for, were not intrinsically friendly to it.

Much of the conversion occurred as part of the assimilation of barbarians to the culture of the regions which they had invaded. While mastering a region, the conquerors wished to enjoy it and to take advantage of the civilization which was there. By the sixth century the Roman provincials were generally Christian. Naturally the barbarian invaders from the North and Northeast tended to drop their paganism and to assume the Christian name. This factor seems to have made powerfully for the conversion of the Slays who settled in Greece and Macedonia. It appears to have been potent in the conversion of the Franks. Undoubtedly it was largely responsible for the exchange by the Goths of their Arian Christianity for the Catholic Christianity which prevailed about them.

The expansion of Christianity often coincided with a time of prosperity of a realm which was professedly Christian. Thus the revival of the Roman Empire under Justinian was accompanied by the spread of Christianity on the borders of his territories, notably into Ethiopia, in North Africa, in Arabia, and in the Caucasus. The Carolingian monarchy, in the eighth and ninth centuries the strongest political force in Western Europe, and a champion of Catholic Christianity, was partly responsible for the halting of the Moslem Arab advance from the South and the conversion of some of the peoples on its northern and eastern marches. A renewal of the power of the Byzantine Empire in the eighth century was to some degree accountable for the acceleration of conversions in the Balkan Peninsula.

The zeal and leadership of civil rulers was often very important. As the espousal of Christianity by Constantine and his successors had speeded up the conversion of the Roman Empire, so the adoption of Christianity was hastened or made possible by the favor of many another monarch. Although Clovis did not employ force to induce his Frankish followers to conform to his example, his baptism gave a powerful stimulus to that of his nation. Again and again in Great Britain the conversion of one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms followed upon that of its king. The Carolingians accorded active backing to missionaries among the Frisians and in the Rhine Valley. Their motive may have been partly religious, but obviously the acceptance of Christianity from agents who were under their aegis would make for the extension of their authority. The support of Christianity, therefore, became a method of Carolingian imperialism. More than one Slavic prince engineered the conversion of his subjects. The conversion of the Bulgars was accomplished largely because of the initiative of their king, Boris, and the leadership of his great son, Simeon.

Among the Slays the desire of the Germans to spread their authority was a complicating factor. It may have been fear of German aggression which led the Moravian Slavic prince, Rastislav, to send to Constantinople for missionaries. Certainly Cyril and Methodius, who came in response to this appeal, met persistent and bitter opposition from the Germans, including particularly the German clergy. Again and again German priests and monks insisted that missions among the Slays on their eastern borders must be conducted by them, and opposed the use of translations of the sacred books and the liturgy into Slavonic, presumably because it would encourage Slavic political and ecclesiastical independence of their rule.

Occasionally armed force was employed to insure the acceptance of baptism. Famous was the use of it by Charlemagne among the Saxons. Both Charlemagne and the Saxons evidently regarded the reception of baptism as tantamount to acquiescing to his authority and becoming incorporated into his realms. After he had reduced them to submission, the Byzantine Emperor Basil I compelled the Serbian pirates of the Narenta Valley to be baptized.

We must remember, moreover, that more than once force saved Christianity from grave territorial losses. It was the Battle of Tours which stemmed the Moslem Arab advance. The armies of the Byzantine Empire were long a bulwark against the Moslem tide which, but for them, might have engulfed much of Western Europe. However incompatible the spirit of Jesus and armed force may be, and however unpleasant it may be to acknowledge the fact, as a matter of plain history the latter has of ten made it possible for the former to survive.

Commerce was a factor. The spread of Jacobite and Nestorian Christianity in Central Asia largely followed the trade routes. Christianity was strong among the merchant population of the cities of Mesopotamia. Christian merchants, journeying eastward, carried their faith with them. It is more than a coincidence that Christian communities existed in such caravan centers as Merv and Samarkand. Christian merchants were among the pioneer representatives of Christianity in Scandinavia. The planting of Christianity in Southern Arabia seems to have come as a concomitant of commerce. The strength of what was known as Syrian Christianity in the regions of India in which were the marts of sea-borne commerce is probably evidence of the close connection of the origin of that faith with the trade with Mesopotamia.

Sometimes what many Christians would call superstition led men to the baptismal font. Miracles were confidently believed and reports of them aided the spread of the faith. For instance, the visit of the English Bishop Wilfrid to the Frisians in A.D. 678 and his preaching coincided with an unusually large catch of fish and peculiarly fruitful harvests. These were attributed to his presence and encouraged the reception of baptism.

It was not alone factors indifferent or even antagonistic to the temper of Jesus and his message which accounted for the spread of Christianity in these parlous centuries. Within Christianity and deriving ultimately from Jesus was a vitality without which the faith would not have persisted or have won fresh converts.

The active missionaries who preached, baptized, and taught the neophytes were usually monks. Monks, it will be remembered, were Christians who, at least in theory, had given themselves fully to the commands of Jesus. Obeying what they believed to be his behest, they had left all to follow him. To be sure, monasteries often lost their pristine devotion and became centers of easy living and even of vice. Many were attracted to them by the hope of security and quiet in a disorderly age. However, this decay in devotion was usually after the initial hardships of breaking ground for the faith and founding the monastery had passed. In the pioneer stages, it was usually the more sincere and singlehearted who bore the brunt of missionary effort. They did not perfectly conform to the standards of Jesus. Some of them were attracted by the opportunity for adventure or were moved by dissatisfaction with their lot in the parent monastery. Yet in general it was those who were most ardently loyal to Jesus as they understood him who were the outstanding pioneers and who were most honored by succeeding generations. The very fact that their memory was revered tended to perpetuate the life which they were believed to have embodied. Thus Martin of Tours, who, to judge by the number of churches named for him, was an inspiration and model of many an ecclesiastic and layman, was remembered by a friend and admirer as never angry or annoyed or mournful and as having nothing in his mouth but Christ and nothing in his heart but piety, peace, and pity. It was just at the dawn of this period, so generally a time of recession for Christianity, that one of the great monastic movements came into being. It was in the sixth century that Benedict developed the rule which long gave Western monasticism its characteristic form. The Benedictine rule, with its alternation of work and worship, was more activistic than was most of Eastern monasticism. The Benedictine houses which were dotted over much of Western Europe became centers of learning and of the arts of peace and often were aggressively missionary. They strengthened the tradition, probably in part an expression of the practical Roman spirit and partly derived from Jesus himself, which made Christianity in the West a more effective force for molding civilization than was Christianity in the East. Gregory, later named "the Great," who had been caught up in the first flush of the Benedictine movement and had devoted his inherited wealth to the poor and the Church, sent the famous contingent of Roman monk-missionaries to Britain. The Irish monks who had so large a share in the conversion of many of the peoples of Great Britain and of the Continent and did much to revive the Christianity of Western Europe professed to leave home and go upon their wanderings "for the name of the Lord" or "for the love of the name of Christ"—or at least these were among the motives ascribed to them by their biographers. Two of the greatest Irish missionaries, Columban in the Frankish domains and Columba in Scotland, made their original excursion from their homeland with twelve companions, presumably in imitation of Jesus and his apostles. Willibrord, the outstanding English missionary to the Frisians, drew his inspiration from the Irish, and his original band to the Low Countries numbered twelve. The monk Boniface, the chief missionary in the Rhine Valley, turned his back upon assured ecclesiastical position in England for the perils of a pioneer and left a profound impression of courage, selflessness, and beauty and strength of life. It was Anskar, a monk who had already been one of a ground-breaking group in the land of the recently converted Saxons, who became the head of the perilous Frankish enterprise for winning the piratical Scandinavians.

The chief agency for the perpetuation and propagation of Christianity in these dark centuries was that unique creation of the Christian spirit, the Church.

In some respects the Church profited by the collapse of the Roman Empire. In the East, in the Byzantine realms, where the power and tradition of the Roman state survived in a continuous succession from the C~sars, the Church, true to the traditional position of the official religion of the Empire, was kept subordinate and ancillary to the state. To be sure, it maintained much of the structure which it had developed before it was adopted by the state, and, in general, it was less subservient than the state cults which had preceded it. Not all of its independence was quenched. Yet it tended to be an arm and tool of the state. In contrast, in Western Europe, where the political structure of the Empire suffered more than in the East and in several regions disappeared, the Church survived and took to itself some of the powers and functions of the Empire. It had an ecclesiastical structure more comprehensive geographically than that of any single state and acknowledged allegiance to a single directing head, the Bishop of Rome. For generations the Byzantine Emperors preserved their hold on diminished portions of the Roman domains in the West. Charlemagne attempted to revive the Empire in the West and he and some of his successors bore the imperial title. In the tenth century Otto I was crowned Emperor, a step which is usually regarded as the inauguration of the Holy Roman Empire. Yet the Byzantine dominion in the West dwindled and neither Charlemagne nor the Holy Roman Emperors obtained the extensive control over the Church which their Byzantine counterparts exercised in the East. In spite of some palpably unworthy and weak men who obtained the See of Peter, the power of the Papacy increased, enhanced by the decay of the imperial authority and by its double heirship to the great tiame of Rome and to the prestige of Peter and Paul and built up by an occasional Pontiff of outstanding ability. Even apart from the Papacy, although in practice that separation was not made, the Church in the West remained the most stable institution in an age of disorder when civil authorities came and went and violence was rampant. Thus in the first centuries of the invasions of Gaul the bishops, recruited largely from the GalloRoman aristocracy, stood for order and were the protectors of the weak. It was chiefly through the Church and its monasteries that such education and learning as survived was handed down to later generations, that the poor were succored, that the marriage tie was given sanctity, that the sick were cared for, that travelers were sheltered, and that morality was inculcated. To be sure, ecclesiastical offices were often the prey of men who were attracted by their power and wealth. Both higher and lower clergy often grossly caricatured or in effect spurned the Christian ideal. In times of grave civil disorder the morale and quality of the Church sometimes sank to a low ebb. Yet the Church went on, the most nearly stable and inclusive institution in an age when war was chronic and only a few of the strongest princes could establish, and then only temporarily and over a limited area, some semblance of order.

This perseverance of the Church was due primarily to its inward spiritual strength. It was not from the momentum acquired in the days when the Roman Empire was intact. Had the latter been the explanation, the Church would have collapsed with the Empire or at best would have survived it but a few generations. The Church went on, the source of continuing life and even in the Dark Ages the wellspring of new movements. In spite of temporary recessions it was a growing power. That this was the case must be ascribed to the strength of the original impulse out of which the Church arose. It was due, in the last analysis, to Jesus himself.

It is, however, significant that this impulse from Jesus issuing in a vigorous church was most potent in the conditions peculiar to ‘Western Europe. It persisted in the Byzantine Empire, but not so markedly, apparently because it was handicapped by a strong even though ostensibly friendly state. It was unable to make much headway in the Persian realms where the espousal of Zoroastrianism by the state restrained it. In general it lost ground in areas where Islam held the reins of political power. It was in Western Europe, where it faced a much weaker paganism, was associated with the prestige of Roman civilization, and, while often favored by civil rulers, did not have to confront a continuously powerful state which controlled all phases of life, that the influence of Jesus was most marked. Inner vitality was essential to survival, but it was not enough. The environment also had to have favoring features. In this age of the major recession of the faith it was the combination of inner vitality and environment which made possible the persistence and the growing power of Christianity in Western Europe. It was in the one area in which states professedly friendly to Christianity were not strong enough to bring the Church completely to heel that the influence of Jesus was most effective. It was from this area that it chiefly went on to future ages and that it had its major geographic expansion.