Lecture 12: Christianity and European Identity in the West, 400-1000

Christianity shaped the minds and cultures of Europe’s emerging peoples between 400 and 1000. In past lectures I have stressed how Christianity worked differently in the East than in the West. In the East the church was subordinate to the Byzantine Emperor, providing him with political legitimacy. In the West, however, Christianity was a refuge for those Romans who lamented the fall of the Western Empire. In a world where Roman culture was perceived to be under attack, the church became Rome’s last protector. Nonetheless, in this lecture I want to pursue a different theme, namely how the western church’s attempts to bring barbarian tribes under its religious tent shaped what Europe became.
Rome’s political and cultural disintegration undermined traditional notions of time and space, and the church offered to people who felt lost a coherent substitute. Ancient peoples lived in a much more complicated universe than our own. For them the unseen universe was a complicated as the visible one, full of mythical creatures, gods, and other spirits. Christians were no different in this respect, but they added an important element: their belief that God made a second covenant with all humanity allowed them to imagine a large community stuck between these two worlds. Christian churches may initially have been small and scattered, but the people’s prayers and the Word’s expansion promised a larger community that partook of both the natural and the supernatural.
This points our attention to two characteristics that ran right through the medieval church. The first was that individual churches spread the idea of a close relationship to God. Christians may have been awash among pagans, and trapped in a world of evil, but church services bridged the gap between the imperfect world of man and the perfect world of God. In this way everything became connected, God and church, saints and sinners, the living and the dead. The second characteristic was the broadening sense of a specifically Christian community. As the church spread across Europe, its religious ceremonies went with it, bringing more peoples into a common ritualized world. This would be particularly important in bringing places such as Scandinavia and Eastern Germany into a European world.
This Christian sense of community changed how people experienced the passage of time. In the ancient world the pagan or Jewish calendar determined which days were most important. The new Christian sense of community with both the living and the dead, however, meant that each passing year inscribed the Christian journey through time with new meaning. Hence, regular commemorations of beloved bishops, local martyrs, and saints soon appeared, with each commemoration of these holy people accentuating the sense of communion with the unseen, holy world. For Christians the holy dead acted bridged this world with the next, allowing the entire community to feel God’s presence.
Christian Holy Time’s expansion was not a problem as long as Christians existed on the margins of Roman society. As Christianity moved to the center of the Roman world, however, the problem of Christian versus Roman festivals became acute, since there were now two competing systems of time. During most of the fourth and fifth centuries Christians felt no real conflict. They often celebrated both Christian and pagan festivals, though they shunned those festivals that seemed most profane. Yet, within this shunning we begin to see the roots of a larger issue: although Christians felt themselves to be in communion with the holy, they divided the world into sacred and profane spheres. This distinction held no importance for ancient Romans and Greeks, but during the fifth century setting the boundary between sacred and profane became a central problem for almost all Christians. In 490, for example, the Pope in Rome informed his flock that Christians had to make up their minds and choose either pagan or Christian festivals. Inherited festivals were always tainted by ancient superstition, and true Christians only celebrated truly Holy Festivals. Thus, slowly and in piecemeal fashion, the Christian world annexed older Roman conceptions of time by replacing old festivals with new ones. These included, of course, Christmas and Easter, but also saints’ days and other remembrances of Holy moments.
Cultivating a new time went hand-in-hand with a new sense of space. This was done through the memory of martyrs and saints. During the fifth century the bodies of martyrs were exhumed and reburied within local churches, usually under the altar. A mania for relics ensued, as each church tried to gain some sacred relic for itself in order to anchor the memory of a martyr’s suffering in the public consciousness. In this way churches rapidly became not only places where one worshipped God, but also where one was surrounded by dead saints and martyrs. Some even became sacred pilgrimage sites, as in the case of the church of St. James at Compostela. In addition, as this trend spread, Christians now had a sacred topography; that is to say, a particularly Christian map of Europe began to emerge. In addition, the feel of cities themselves began to change. In the ancient world the city’s center comprised its pagan temples and a civic center. In the new Christian world, however, the city centered on great basilicas, many of which still dominate Europe’s skylines. Thus, we see the origins of that peculiarly medieval artifact the cathedral.
My discussion thus far has been general, emphasizing the broad pattern of Christianization that had emerged by the fifth century. Now, I am going to consider the ways that this Christian world was exported from the Roman Empire into Northern Europe. At this point, we need to keep two things in mind. First, the call to proselytize is very strong in the Christian church. If Jesus’ message is for all people in the world, then it is a Christian duty to spread that message. Some of Christianity’s most powerful saints and martyrs were, in fact, killed while fulfilling their duty to preach to the heathen. Second, in the early medieval world Christianity was a security imperative. Tribes that had not been converted were more likely to pursue aggressive policies against their neighbors—at least in theory. Charlemagne attacked the Frisians and the Saxons, in part, because they threatened his Empire’s lifeline, the Rhine. Once these tribes were defeated and converted, the threat disappeared. The same process appeared again in the late ninth and tenth centuries. As the eastern Franks pushed beyond the river Elbe, they had to subdue the Slavs, the Danes, and the Bohemians until all were securely Christian. So what we see here are two powerful drives that influenced not only the way Christianity spread but also the way states spread in the early Middle Ages.
To understand how these two trends worked together we need to go back to the fifth and sixth centuries. During the fifth century, the Catholic Church had no real missionary policy for the barbarians. If bishops were posted outside the Roman Empire it was to minister to existing Christian communities, and not to create new ones. One example is Bishop Palladius, whom the Pope Celestine sent to Ireland to minister to a small Christian community there. One member of that community was a small Romano-British boy who had been taken in a slave raid on the English coast. His name was Patrick, and he later made a remarkable conceptual breakthrough, being the first man to argue that the Gospels’ message supported a mission to all people, regardless of where they lived. Patrick then set in motion the first great conversion of a people, the Irish. This was an important moment, because no one had yet tried to introduce an urban religion that was based in Latin and Greek to a tribal people that neither lived in towns nor understood these languages. This mission’s success became a model for other conversions.
The other great change came in the sixth century with Pope Gregory the Great’s (590-604) acceptance of all barbarians as legitimate targets for conversion. Not only did he preach to and convert the Lombards to Christianity, but he also sent a monk named Augustine to England to begin the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons as well. By the 680s the English kingdoms had all been “converted,” and Christianity was enforced through royal law. The village that Augustine settled in is now known as Canterbury, and its archbishop is the most powerful religious figure within the Anglican Church.
These different trends came together in Germany, as both Ireland and the Rome sent a series of missionaries east of the Rhine to convert the heathen Germans. One of these missionaries, an Irishman named Killian, traveled through southern Germany. He stopped in one place called Heilbronn, whose name means holy fountain, and the church organization he founded there still exists, worshipping in a medieval structure known as Killian’s Church. Killian was later killed while preaching in other regions of Germany. The most important of the missionaries was, however, Boniface, whom the Pope consecrated as something of a bishop without portfolio in 722. His job was not to run a particular church, but to convert all the heathen masses. In contrast to Killian, Boniface was English, from Devon, which meant that he did not trust Irish clerics, but he proved more than willing to borrow their ideas.
Boniface was monk and he believed that far from retreating from the world, a monk’s duty was to act in it to bring unbelievers into the church. This is a borrowing from Irish monasticism, which had emphasized the building of monasteries in the wilderness as a way of spreading the word. Two examples of this are St. Columbanus’ founding of monasteries in Burgundy and St. Gall’s work in Swabia. Following these examples, St. Boniface constructed a network of monasteries in Germany that threw the Christian frontier to the east of the Rhine. But Boniface is also important for creating a Christian network. He wrote tirelessly to other bishops in Germany to insure that they were preaching properly and carried on a vast correspondence with the Pope that covered marriage law, priestly mores, ordinations, the liturgy, whether nuns should be allowed to wash each other’s feet, and whether eating bacon fat was acceptable. Boniface was named Archbishop of Mainz in 754, and was killed that same year while trying to convert the Frisians, who lived in what is today the Netherlands and northeastern Germany. By that point, however, he had already constructed a new church that was deeply embedded within the old one in Rome. That tie would only be broken only 750 years later by another monk named Martin Luther.
The combination of the missionary instinct with imperial security concerns was of central importance to the next two centuries—and not always for the better. A good example of the ambiguous results that this alliance yielded is Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Saxons during the 780s and 90s. In addition to destroying Saxon military might, Charlemagne also required each Saxon to be baptized or face the death penalty. And along with the addition of new territory went the founding of archbishoprics to organize and manage the new lands. In this way, the Catholic Church won a great number of converts, but it was never clear what these conversions meant. Were these people really Christians? Christian clerics were not unaware of the problem. In fact some of them deplored these forced conversions precisely because Christianity was a religion of belief, not one of practice. In 796, one of Charlemagne’s advisers the monk Alcuin of York wrote a scathing critique of the entire policy, holding that Christianity could only be spread through careful teaching and free baptism.
What I want to highlight here is not that missionary work was either based on greed or holy feeling, but that both motives could interact in complicated ways at the same time. A good example is the founding of the Archbishopric of Magdeburg. In 937, Otto I founded the Monastery of St. Maurice at Magdeburg. Intending for it to become an archbishopric one day, he endowed it with vast lands and income rights, including the right to tithes from the local Slav populations. (I should not here that Otto I founded a powerful dynasty that controlled the Imperial crown. Historians refer to this dynasty as the Ottonians.) Otto’s actions were nothing short of theft, since no one asked the Slavs what they wanted to do. However, when the archbishopric was finally founded in 968, Otto appointed a monk named Adalbert to be archbishop largely, it seems, because this monk was fanatical about pastoral care. The desire to spread the Lord’s message and the greed for more land cannot be easily separated.
This process by which kingdoms and religions spread created a permanent tension within the western Christian world. Criticism began to arise against the practice of forced conversions, as the expansion of Christianity began to be seen by some clerics as nothing more than a pretext for expanding political power. This situation existed in stark contrast to the situation in the Eastern Empire. As you will recall, there was little in the eastern world, since the church hierarchy was subordinate to the needs of the emperor. In the west, however, the relationship was never so clear, and it became murkier as both state and church melded into each other during the eighth and ninth centuries. I have already mentioned how lay authorities not only gained control over certain church properties but also believed that they had the right to control them. The structures of Germanic law and the imperial traditions of Charlemagne constantly allowed the nobility to access to the church. The church hierarchy never accepted this, especially since the nobility had a habit of placing their children in important positions within churches and monasteries. These noble churchmen were not always holy, which led to a decline in the quality of pastoral care. A similar trend became apparent in monasticism. The Rule of St. Benedict (568) had prescribed a series of forms and rules for regulating monastic life, but in the intervening centuries Europe’s increasing number of monasteries had moved away from these rules, leading to a perceived decline in the purity of monastic life. This decline, in turn, gave impetus to reform movements within the church that affected the nature of kingship.
The first movement for reform within the church was actually a product of the political disorders of ninth-century France that were caused by imperial decay and Viking invasions. During this time, bishops began to assume powers that had traditionally been the subject of kings, even claiming the right to start wars. At the same time, these churchmen also began to construct theories that limited church power, such as the Theory of the Three Orders, which divided society into those who fought, those who prayed, and those who tilled the land. The church claimed the right to determine when people should fight, even threatening nobles with excommunication if they attacked the defenseless, or outside prescribed wartimes.
The second movement was for monastic reform, the first example which was the Abbey of Cluny, founded in 909. Through a series of outstanding abbots such as Odilo (994-1049) and Hugh (1049-1109) Cluny reinvigorated Europe’s monasteries by calling for a return to discipline. Cluny expanded its influence through affiliations with other monasteries, though the relationship was never one of complete submission. Nonetheless, by affiliating officially with Cluny, a monastery gained leverage against some of the worldly pressures put on it by local nobles. Although Cluny never openly attacked the rights of kings over their churches, the process of affiliation held long-term political dangers. These dangers became apparent in the founding of another Abbey at Cîteaux under the guidance of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. This monastery specialized in founding subordinate houses in uncultivated areas. Nobles were usually willing to turn over land that was unproductive to the monks, believing that it was better to get a few pennies out of the monks than to earn nothing at all. The Cistercian abbeys differed, however, from Cluny in two important ways. First, they were hierarchically organized, which meant that it was difficult for nobles to intimidate a single house into doing what they wanted, since an entire structure of monks stood behind them. Second, the Cistercians practiced a series of high ideals that emphasized that man’s first duty was always to God. This limited the king’s authority over any individual, but particularly over those in clerical positions.
The final movement came from within the papacy. Structural weaknesses within the Empire had allowed the Popes to exercise ever more political authority. Whereas the Popes had been under the Ottonian thumb during the tenth century, doing essentially what the Ottonians told them to do, by the eleventh they began to intervene in matters outside of Italy as independent brokers. These interventions were rooted in the belief that the church had lost its way. In particular Popes opposed the practice of clerical marriage and of lay investiture (called simony). The discontent with worldly practices by priests and worldly interference in the church by kings came to a head during the Papacy of Gregory VII (1073-1085). Gregory brings together many of the themes that I have been discussing. He was a monk and a product of an austere reform movement. He attacked the appointments that Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV made to the church. Henry IV withdrew his obedience from the Pope in 1076, and the Pope promptly excommunicated him. This was a political disaster for the Emperor, since all the oaths that his subordinates had taken to him were now void. A reconciliation was effected a year later at Canossa in Italy, when the Emperor was forced to beg for forgiveness from the Pope, while kneeling in the snow. This was, however, only temporary, as Henry later had his own Pope elected.
The investiture controversy brings us to the end of this lecture, but it also points us to one of the basic and most fruitful tensions of the medieval world: the conflict between lay and religious power. Henry IV’s actions prompted a furious public campaign by the papacy to assert its control over the church and to set itself up as a moral arbiter. The campaign was largely successful, though some of the results were not always moral. The best example of resulting immorality is Europe’s crusades to the Holy Land. Nonetheless, from the eleventh century on, there was a constant rhetorical and practical battle between Emperors and Kings on the one hand, and Popes and Bishops on the other. This tension was characteristic of the new Christian world, and it was a major force behind Europe’s subsequent expansion around the globe.