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Home » Church History » “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch » Chapter 10: “Latin Christendom: New Frontiers (500 – 1000)” – Part I

Chapter 10: “Latin Christendom: New Frontiers (500 – 1000)” – Part I




At a time when the papacy and the monarchy shared powered and were almost interchangeable in their agenda, and given the last pope was for the first time pupated by the local emperor, Pope Gregory is in a league all his own, He was unique for three reasons. He cared little for who was in charge, or politics. He used to be a monk, but he emphasized serving others. He went from being in seclusion before his papacy to suggesting mission trips to other countries and preaching to lay people.


The importance of a Pope was defined from 400- 600 A.D. because the WesternChurch’s need to survive. Because of the political upheaval by the Arians from the North and the divide between the Eastern Orthodox vs. Western Latin Catholics about the nature of Christ, (which was only slightly patched over by the Council of Chalcedon),  the Western Catholic Church’s response was to take a middle ground approach and focus on the role of the Bishop of Rome. By lucky happenstances, Emperors such as Theoderic in a Byzantine city, Ravenna, promoted the Western Catholic Church and worked along with the Pope to rule the people. The church in France survived because of the Emperor Clovis and his family ascribing to Catholicism and the authority of the Pope for 1,300 years. Pope Hormisdas tried to restore East and West relations by re-enstating the authority of the Pope in Rome claiming his inheritance in St. Peter and that all churches should be under his authority. Emperor Justinian tried to unite the East and West as one with political intentions. He manipulated the next Pope, Vigilius, to add three chapters to an imperial edict that contradicted what was decided at the Council of Chalcedon. So, for the first time since the days of Constantine I, there was now a division in the Church’s leadership’s attitude toward the emperor. Yet Emperor Justinian’s military strength faded with the wars in the 6th century and the church had to redefine itself again in the midst of political upheaval. Unlike in the East, where Churches in the great cities had competing claims, there was no rival to the pope’s position in the West. It is in this atmosphere that Pope Gregory the Great came to power.


Gregory is unusual, exceptional and a positive tale of Christianity. He considered this constant political upheaval as a sign of the last days, therefore his papacy was characterized by a sense of urgency to serve those here and now and who cares about who is in power He ignored the Byzantine representatives and made peace with the invading Lombards in the region because political power was always changing within his lifetime. It is highly unusual that Gregory chose to be Pope after serving as a monk. He saw a chance to make greater spiritual progress serving others than in a monastery because it was so difficult to maintain contemplative serenity and an ability to expound good news amid the messiness of every day life. He gave himself the title of “Servant of the servants of God.” Even as a monk he was incredibly generous and funded his monastery all with his family’s money.  He is also responsible for the launch of missions to Ireland.  The battered prestige of the Bishop of Rome was restored and the extended by Pope Gregory the Great!                 




The impact of Bede (around 672 – 735), “the greatest historian of his age in all of Europe” as MacCulloch describes him as, had in the developing the English mindset in years to come was very interesting.  A century after 597, Christianity had more or less fully taken over the kingdoms of Britannia.  Then, as MacCulloch writes, “By the tenth century, out of the diversity of these Christianized Anglo-Saxon kingdoms emerged one of the most coherent political units in Europe, a single monarchy of England.” (loc. 6629)  It was Bede’s work, ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the gens Anglorum’ – ‘people of the Angli’ which provided the ideology of this kingdom in the years to come.  It was through this work that gave rise to the idea (i.e. myth) of ‘the English race’.


Within this work he gave this “’people’ a pride in their common special identity, paradoxically based on their common loyalty to Rome” (loc. 6634) and venerated Pope Gregory I as the apostle of the English instead of Augustine.  All this loyalty to Rome was just a reflection before Bede’s time the Church of England had already pledged allegiance to Roman obedience well before the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms united.  This is all very novel to me to see England’s strong Roman Catholic roots.  It will be interesting to see how the split with the Church of England and the Catholic Church comes about later on and how this will affect England’s relationship with the Church in history, particularly with the Irish – events of which that still last till this day.


It’s also interesting to see how persons or historians can use religion as a propaganda machine to create racial myths to unify and rally a group of people into a national identity.  It happened with the “creation” of the Jews in post-exilic times with the formation of the Torah, and much later on, the use of Christianity in support of the creation of the myth of the “pure” Aryan race in Nazi Germany, and the support of apartheid in South Africa.  Furthermore, when MacCulloch writes, “Thanks to Bede, and to the leadership of Archbishop Theodore, they could see themselves as a covenanted people like ancient Israel, a beacon for the Christian world.”  (6662), one can clearly see history repeating itself when politicians, pastors, and congregations utilize the same motif towards America today as a “chosen nation” to further their own agendas.  The powerful call to be a “chosen nation” or “chosen race” of people by God is still a very seductive (and oftentimes dangerous) idea that can emotionally charge large groups of people. Religion has and always will be a powerful force for shaping human identity.




Perhaps the two critical figures I find most fascinating from this time period of Christianity in Europe are Clovis and Pope Gregory I.  It’s not so much the figures themselves that are fascinating, but rather the foot prints they left on the Latin Church in Western Europe from the 5th and 6th century to today.  Following the fall of the Roman Empire in 420 A.D., Latin culture fell into a considerable decline and political instability ensued throughout the former Roman provinces.  Without a doubt much of Latin culture would have gone extinct if wasn’t for the Western Latin Church, which itself endured many sets of schisms, conflicts, and instability.  In the midst of all the madness, a powerful king with barbarian roots in northern Gaul now known as France pledged his allegiance to the Catholic Church most likely through the influence of his Catholic wife.


So who exactly is Clovis? (Image below: Ary Scheffer’s 19th century painting)



Talk to any educated Frenchmen and they will tell you he is often portrayed as the founding father of France.  Through force and coercion, Clovis united the disparate tribes and kingdoms of northern Gaul where Arian Christianity dominated and formed a united kingdom with its capital in the city of Lutetia now know as Paris.  His subsequent baptism to Catholic Christianity had tremendous implications for much of Western Europe.  The Latin Church gained a powerful political ally who helped defeat rival kings of Arian backgrounds and sway the Spanish Visigoths to embrace the Catholic faith.  From Clovis emerged the Frankish Merovingian dynasty, which survived for nearly 1300 years and where 18 monarchs were christened his name, “Louis”.  The alliance between the monarchy of France and the Catholic Church lead to the domination of Roman Catholic Christianity throughout much of Europe for centuries.  It would be fascinating to know what the influence of Arian Christianity would have been had it come to dominate Europe instead of Catholic Christianity, but much like other curious facets of history those speculations are best left to the realm of the unknown.  What I would definitely want to comment is how much of modern France both in its political and social manifestations seems so alien to its historical roots.  Christianity played a critical role in both the political and social life of France between the 6th and 19th century while today the influence of the church has declined so dramatically that its adherents are often castigated to the margins of French society.


While the Merovingian dynasty was busy consolidating its power in Gaul, another powerful and influential figure emerged in Rome by the name of Gregory the Great.  When Gregory became pope he practically disavowed all practices related to monasticism where his roots lie and re-energized the Catholic Church’s missionary work especially among the pagans of northern Europe that included present-day Ireland and Great Britain.  Other than being well known for his prolific writings, Pope Gregory instituted major liturgical reforms in worship services and strove to eliminate any unorthodox teachings as established by the Church.  Gregory is often remembered for establishing the popular mainstream Western plainchant now known as the Gregorian chant, but equally important was his role in restoring the power and prestige of the Papacy.  The pontificate of Gregory was marked by tremendous political and social upheaval in Italy, and his first task as pope was to establish peace with the Lombards, which irritated the Byzantine imperial court to no ends.  More importantly, Gregory directed the church clergy away from a life of contemplative monasticism to active ministry in the world.  Gregory developed an administrative system of charitable relief of the poor at Rome and the philosophy under which he devised this system is that the wealth belonged to the poor and the church was only its steward. He received lavish donations from the wealthy families of Rome, who, following his own example, were eager to expiate to God for their sins. He gave alms equally and as lavishly both individually and en masse.  By organizing the resources of the church into an administration of general relief, Gregory was keen to understanding the general principles of accounting, which would not be systemized for another few centuries.  He understood that expenses must be matched by income and to pay for his increased expenses he liquidated the investment property and paid the expenses in cash according to a budget recorded in the polyptici.  I post all this information to show how Gregory not only won the hearts and minds of the Roman people through his charitable deeds, but left a legacy of strong and competent administration in the Catholic Church which partially explains how the papacy managed to be the dominant form of government in Italy until the 19th century.


Gregory and his Dove, Image courtesy of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge Ms 389






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