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.