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Light on the Dark Ages

No sooner had Christians “made it” in the ancient world than “it” collapsed all around them.

The Emperor Constantine declared his Edict of Toleration in 313, putting an end to Christian persecution by making Christianity an officially recognized religion in the Roman Empire. But it was evident, even then, that the Empire was beginning to totter. Constantine, who gave Christianity its license to operate, built up Byzantium as his capital, for more efficient administration of the East.

Still, the Empire continued to lose control, beset by rebellions within and attacks from barbarians at the frontiers. Religious squabbles, too, were no small matter, causing civil disturbances in the urban centers under Roman control. In 380, the Emperor Theodosius decided it was necessary to unify the Empire spiritually, and he declared Christianity, which had already won perhaps a majority of the people, as the official religion of the Empire. From then on, heresy and sacrilege became civil crimes. Citizens would be baptized — or lose their civil rights.

Yet these measures could not revitalize an Empire in decline. Early in the 5th century, Germanic tribes swept through the Roman province of Gaul (modern France). The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. In 455, Vandals seized the city. The last emperor of the West died in 476. Rome, once synonymous with world order, descended into anarchy.

And, to a great degree, so did western Europe. With the fall of Rome, came a gradual collapse of civil order. The law had no force. The military dissolved. Travel, communications and trade could no longer proceed peaceably as under Roman rule.

Christians might have worried that all their work would be undone. With the collapse of the Empire, wouldn’t the Empire’s official religion also collapse? Other practical problems presented themselves. How could evangelization proceed without safe travel? The early Church had been spread significantly by merchants following the trade routes. How, too, would bishops in outlying lands keep up communication with Rome?

Remarkably, the Christian faith continued to spread amid the chaotic aftermath of the Empire’s collapse. In a few centuries, almost all the barbarian tribes would, in one way or another, accept the Gospel.

Who were the barbarians? The word conjures up images of mobs of hairy, primitives bearing clubs. But that wasn’t quite the case. In the Roman view, barbarians were those who lived outside the Empire. The barbarian tribes — the Vandals, Goths, Bulgars, Saxons, Alamans and Lombards, among others — occupied lands in what are today’s Germany, France, Eastern Europe, the British Isles and North Africa. Many of the tribes had advanced cultures. Barbarians traded with Rome and served as mercenaries in the Roman military.

Many barbarians were Christians, of a sort. Members of the Germanic tribes had, in the fourth century, been evangelized by followers of Arianism, a then-popular Christian heresy that denied Jesus was God or co-eternal with the Father. Arianism found a stronghold among the barbarians, even after it had been fairly thoroughly rooted out in the lands of the Empire.

Though the heretics were, in a sense, political victors now, their victory had little effect on Catholic Christians. The Arians tended toward tolerance and rarely persecuted their opponents. But, at the same time, the Arian bishops were a weak cultural force, exerting minimal influence on the barbarian tribes.

Meanwhile, the Catholic bishops emerged as leaders in the cities of the former Empire. Most of the bishops were educated men, chosen for their sound judgment. In the absence of law and order, citizens tended to look to the bishops for civic leadership. In some cities, the bishop served as mayor and magistrate. The bishops of Spain and France set up vast networks for social welfare, so that the poor did not free-fall now that Rome’s safety net had disappeared.

Perhaps the archetype of this learned leader was Pope St. Gregory I — Gregory “the Great” — who reigned 590-604. He saw Rome in its ruin and looked with hope to the mission fields to the North and West, where he sent an increasing number of his monks. Gregory also urged the local nobility and landowners in these countries to actively evangelize their tenants — even if it meant raising their rent until they accepted baptism.

Yet, according to Richard Fletcher’s history of the period, “The Barbarian Conversion” (Henry Holt), the conversions proceeded steadily, peacefully and, for the most part, without coercion.

Fletcher does, however, question whether the conversions were sincere or very deep. The missionaries faced a motley mix of pagans, Arian heretics, and backslidden and badly catechized Christians. Most of the local pagan beliefs were informal and non-exclusive in their demands. Thus, some people thought of Christianity as another round of rituals to add to their accumulated pagan practices. A substantial number of homilies from the period condemn worship at pagan shrines and sacrifices to idols.

Fletcher multiplies examples of barbarians mixing religions: an East Anglian king erected a Christian altar in his pagan temple; a Spaniard consults both his Christian priest and the local pagan shaman, just to be safe.
The bishops took dramatic measures to make their point. St. Martin of Tours’ favored method of eradicating pagan worship was setting fire to shrines. In southern Italy, St. Barbatus melted down a golden image of a snake-god and used the gold to make a paten and chalice for Mass.

But, according to Fletcher, Gregory the Great suggested “adaptation,” rather than destruction, of pagan temples. The pontiff wrote to his English mission in 601: “The idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them.” Gregory tells the missionaries to encourage the locals to continue slaughtering their animals, as if for sacrifice, but now for celebration and praise of God instead. “Thus while some outward rejoicings are preserved, they will be able more easily to share in inward rejoicings.”

“It is doubtless impossible to cut out everything at once from their stubborn minds,” Gregory said. “Just as the man who is attempting to climb to the highest place, rises by steps and degrees and not by leaps.”
Gregory was right, of course. The old habits died hard. And, as Christianity became the norm in more barbarian territories — especially among the ruling classes — there were more material reasons for converting. Indeed, many missionaries tried to work a tribe from the “top down,” persuading the chief and other leaders first.

It worked — sort of — in Denmark, where each convert would receive a new suit of clothes after baptism. Fletcher quotes a ninth-century monk’s tale of a soldier who went through the water only to find that the clerics had run out of new suits. Handed a ragged old tunic, the soldier was so outraged that he confronted the emperor himself: “Look here! I’ve gone through this ablutions business about twenty times already, and I’ve always been rigged out before with a splendid white suit; but this old sack makes me feel more like a pig farmer than a soldier!” The monk lamented that more Danes came each year, “not for the sake of Christ but for mundane advantages.”

But there are worse incentives than bribery. The first Holy Roman emperor, Charlemagne, used coercion when he conquered the stubborn Saxons in 782, slaughtering 4,500 prisoners, then inviting the remaining barbarians to baptism. In Charlemagne’s Saxony, refusal to be baptized was punishable by death, as were eating meat in Lent, cremation of the dead and attending pagan rites. Charlemagne’s method would serve as a model for later forced mass conversions, such as those of the conquistadors in Spanish America. And, into the 20th century, the forced conversion of the Saxons has been blamed for historical disasters from the Protestant Reformation to the rise of Nazism. (The latter diagnosis came from no less than Sigmund Freud.)

Still, Charlemagne’s slaughter was the exception. We can better see the norm in missionaries such as the Irish monk St. Columbanus, who Christianized and tribes through France, across the Alps and into Italy. His colleagues and successors in Irish monasteries would spend the centuries of the Dark Ages carefully preserving classical learning by copying out manuscripts, then returning this heritage, with the Gospel, to the peoples of Europe. Their achievement was memorialized in Thomas Cahill’s bestseller, “How the Irish Saved Civilization” (Anchor).

Both Fletcher and Cahill’s books gained favorable notice and good sales. Both are reconsiderations of an age whose history has too often been distorted by anti-Catholic prejudice. Yet neither Fletcher nor Cahill is immune to this. Fletcher rarely misses an opportunity to question the motives of an act of charity or apostolic impulse in any saint, bishop, missionary or martyr. His book is heavy on sarcasm. Cahill, for his part, casts St. Augustine as the great villain in Church history, bequeathing Christians a legacy of sexual hangups and self-loathing, over against the fun-loving leprechaun St. Patrick, who, Cahill suggests, was something of a pagan at heart.

Yet Fletcher clearly understands that the barbarian conversion was not merely a matter of bowing to this shrine rather than that one. With Christianity, came a worldview and a moral code often widely at variance with those the barbarians had known. Some tribes had been polygamous; Christianity would put an end to that. Some practiced infanticide and marriage to near kin. As Christians, they would not.

And we can’t underestimate the radical shift that each convert had to undergo, from worshiping many fickle gods to worshiping just one jealous Lover.

22 thoughts on “Light on the Dark Ages

  1. Michel:
    Fantastic info. I really learnt a lot about how Europe became Christian. Goes to show that Jesus kept his promise that he’d always be there with us.
    Is the book you cited on Barabarian conversion is still in print?

    But wasn’t Arainism still influential? If I remember correctly Aranism in Spain hadn’t died out until the 6th century.

    Some historians and others have often held that Christanity compromised itself when it convereted the ‘barbarians’

    Thanks again for an excellent post.


  2. St. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People is still one of the great texts that tells the story of Christianization.

  3. Thanks, Padre. You can tell your Bede’s on this blog any time.

  4. Arianism hung on in the Barbarian lands for a long time. One thing that brought on its eventual downfall was that the Arian bishops were never able to get their act together and exert the cultural influence the Catholic bishops did. They never had a Gregory. There are probably profound natural and supernatural reasons for this.

  5. Fletcher’s book is still in print. It’s right here.

  6. Mike:
    Thanks very much. Yeah I’ve often been struck how the heresies appear very vigourous but the roots are shallow and soon die out.

    A modest suggestion: you mentioned that Arthur’s piety would’ve been more patristic than medieval. OK I sorta get it but not completely. Could explain to us laymen the differences between the patristic period/piety and medieval?
    I’m aware enough that the medieval piety has its foundations in the patristic but I’m not quite clear how one led to the other.

    Thanks again!


  7. Wow! I could write a book. In fact, I have. For the early Fathers’ eucharistic piety, see my The Mass of the Early Christians. For medieval developments, see Praying In The Presence of Our Lord
    with St. Thomas Aquinas
    . Miri Rubin’s scholarly study Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture is great on the medieval developments, but absolutely awful and inaccurate on the patristic.

  8. One niggling point: Constantine didn’t divide the Empire in two; it was Diocletian (285-c. 310). Constantine moved the capital to Constantinople, effectively cutting his losses in the collapsing Western half of the empire.

  9. You’re right. Constantine drove the wedge, but Diocletian had set it firmly in place. I changed the post, so that I’m not putting out any misleading information. Thanks for the correction.

  10. I made sure I stopped at Durham Cathedral to pray at the tomb of Bede (and Cuthbert). I actually had to explain to a British family who Bede was! Cultural amnesia seems to be a growing problem.

  11. Mike:
    Thanks for the links! :)


  12. “The Arians tended toward tolerance and rarely persecuted their opponents. But, at the same time, the Arian bishops were a weak cultural force, exerting minimal influence on the barbarian tribes…
    But there are worse incentives than bribery. The first Holy Roman emperor, Charlemagne, used coercion when he conquered the stubborn Saxons in 782, slaughtering 4,500 prisoners, then inviting the remaining barbarians to baptism. In Charlemagne’s Saxony, refusal to be baptized was punishable by death, as were eating meat in Lent, cremation of the dead and attending pagan rites. Charlemagne’s method would serve as a model for later forced mass conversions, such as those of the conquistadors in Spanish America.”
    How could Christ who was murdered by soldiers, possibly approve of a Church which murdered people to enforce love for Christ? Murder is behaviour of Satan, so described by Christ. The cardinals’ red hat means their willingness “to shed blood for Christ”. That makes their master, Satan quite pleased.

  13. Christ came to save sinners, even murderers. He does not approve murder, but it should be no surprise to anyone that His Church has included all manner of sinners, even murderers. Wherever two or more are gathered, there are two or more sinners — whether you call the assembly the Catholic Church or anything else. We humans are never short of reasons for killing one another. Such killing is our doing, not Christ’s or His Church’s. And please get your facts straight: The Cardinal’s red hat symbolizes his willingness to have HIS OWN BLOOD shed for Christ.

  14. My error, but cardinals are willing to cause Catholics to die in battles, and very rarely their own death.
    “Such killing is our doing, not Christ’s or His Church’s.” Yes, there is a distinction between His Church and the universal church, as between Christ and Satan. Jesus said “..your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning..”
    John 8.44

  15. No cardinals I know. You’ve been reading too many comic books.

  16. This is the first site I found:Cardinal Seán’s BlogCardinal Seán shares his reflections & experiences.

    22 November 2006
    Message To Archdiocese of Boston Brothers & Sisters In The Military, Their Families And Our Military Chaplains…………Also This Week: Tributes To & Reflections On Those Serving Our Country By Fr. Rich Erikson & Others
    Posted in: Main — Cardinal Sean @ 4:33 pm
    A message to our Archdiocese of Boston brothers and sisters in the military, your families and the chaplains, priests and religious who serve those in the military.

    As Thanksgiving and the Christmas Season is upon us, I have given much thought to, and have prayed for, our brothers and sisters from the Archdiocese of Boston now serving in the military, overseas and in the United States, their families and to the many priests and religious who serve as military chaplains and serve to attend to the spiritual and religious needs of those in the armed forces.

    I encourage everyone in the Archdiocese to be mindful of your circumstances and service and to pray for you each and every day, not just when we read the news online, pick up a newspaper or watch television.

    To our brothers and sisters serving in the military:

    While our country navigates its way through the murky waters of war and international conflict in the name of freedom and peace, we thank you and pray for you each and every day, especially during this time of year when so many of you are away from home and separated from your families.

    The heavy burden of ensuring, maintaining and fostering peace and freedom falls on your shoulders here on earth. That indeed is a heavy burden. Your service is often heroic. Throughout the history of our country, we have witnessed the sacrifices of the men and women who protect and serve our nation to ensure that we may enjoy the privilege of freedom, including the religious freedom that brings us hope, strength and personal peace in our lives. We are grateful for your many sacrifices.

    We are mindful of those who have given their lives and for those who continue to serve our country so valiantly. We also pray for the many servicemen and servicewomen who have returned home from distant lands after suffering physical or psychological harm. Our chaplains have told me that our present conflict has resulted in a very high number of amputees. May God grant you courage and strength.”
    In World War II, Cardinals of the Nazis and Allies sent Catholics to kill Catholics, and bomb churches of the mother of Christ. If Christ was sheltering in such a church, Cardinals would support killing him.

  17. If you’re trying to make a case for Christian pacifism, this isn’t the way to do it. You’re calling your opponents “fools,” which Jesus said is tantamount to murder. If you’re going to start eliminating churches that harbor any violent men, you’ll pretty soon be standing alone in your own place of worship. Martin Luther and John Calvin were as violent as any cardinal ever was. The problem isn’t with the college of cardinals or the Catholic Church. The problem is with the human heart. Moreover, the most articulate voices of Christian pacifism have been Roman Catholics. I edited a collection of essays by one of them, John J. Hugo. Mr. Welch, you can do much better than this. Take a deep breath.

  18. I appreciate the discussion, but you are the one attributing “fools” as a term. Objectively, the Protestants have acted as murderously as Catholics , I agree. Anglicans are
    “catholic,apostolic”, hence Episcopals, then Baptists, etc etc. Truly, Jesus spoke of the narrow road and few finding it.
    The Kaiser Wilhelm church ruins stand in Berlin as a record of church doctrine, not just “human nature”. If you were the Prince of Peace, would you accept or reject the Catholic Church?

  19. The Prince of Peace established the Catholic Church. And he established it as a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.

  20. Then your patron is Sinner Peter? Satan has great faith that God exists, as Satan discussed scripture with God and Christ. Satan would be in your Catholic hospital of sinners?
    Human mistakes are different from 1700 years of consistently murderous dogma. That makes the Vatican a hotel for sinners, with no prescribed medication .

  21. I’ll stay in the hospital, with Mother Teresa, St. Peter, and St. Francis. They make for better company than any of us will find if we make a church of one. The medicine is there, if the patient chooses to take it. But we’re all free to refuse treatment. And I think this is probably a good place to end this thread. I wish you well, Mr. Welch.

  22. Cool!!! I am a physics major, but I have been dying to know everything about the early medieval ages, especially the conversion to christianity. It can be slightly frustrating at times, because some modern scholars don’t even seem to understand what Christianity is about in the church across the street, much less what happenned 1000 years ago…
    Does anyone have anymore book recommendations, and caveats, etc.?

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