When we look at the swirl of peoples, cultures, and languages that made up mainland Europe at the time of Pope Gregory the Great, we can pick out names that we recognize either plainly or vaguely, the progenitors of many of the European nation-states of today: the Angles, the Saxons, the Serbs, the Huns, the Bulgars, the Magyars, the Celts, the Poles. Christianity tended to find fertile ground among these peoples. In places where most lives still tended to be nasty and short, where might often seemed the only right, the Christian promise of a better world waiting after this one, combined with the temporal charity and justice it embraced when it was at its best, was a heady brew indeed. Christianity didn’t spread because it was forced upon the peoples of Europe, although this was attempted from time to time; it spread because it gave them consolation and hope, made them feel that there was meaning amidst the chaos of their lives. An eighth-century monk named Bede, who wrote a history of early Christianity in the British Isles, tells how a counselor to the king of Northumbria convinced his liege to convert from paganism to the new religion:
Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counselors. In the midst, there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly through one door of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while, but of what came before this life or what follows we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.
Pope Gregory’s — and Catholicism’s — huge problem was that the version of Christianity most such peoples were accepting was the heretical one known as Arianism. This was to a large extent orthodox Christianity’s own fault: the predecessors to Gregory had too often neglected the European mainland. Prior to him, Rome’s evangelizing gaze had mostly been directed southward to the Mediterranean Sea, home to the biggest, richest cities of the old empire, the heart of civilization. The mainland to the north was the home of the barbarians, to be exploited in the early centuries of the Roman Empire, to be feared in the later ones, but always to be seen as the savage, benighted Others. This prejudice does much to explain why Arianism, which tended not to be so discriminating, was the first version of the faith to make inroads among these people who were so hungry for the Christian promise of ultimate justice.
If he hoped to stem the tide of Arianism, Gregory would have to lean heavily on those continental allies he did possess. The most valuable of these was a people known as the Franks, whose heartland lay around the city of Paris.
The Franks are emblematic of the febrile times in which they lived, when Europe was still very much in the process of sorting itself out; although they would later lend their name to the nation of France, the language they spoke had more in common with modern German. Then, too, they had a reputation for being fierce and enthusiastic fighters, like such other Germanic tribes as the Visigoths, the Vandals, and the Ostrogoths. The Franks, however, were destined to become known as the powerful friends of Rome rather than its despoilers, presaging the nation of France’s own long and tight relationship with Catholicism, a bond arguably stronger over the full course of history than that of any other land outside of Italy.
The reason for this state of affairs reaches back to Clovis I, who became at the turn of the sixth century the first king to unite all of the Franks under his rule. He is still known to all French schoolchildren as the founding father of their nation. (Transcribed into French from the original Frankish with a Latin stop in between the two, Clovis’s name winds up as “Louis,” the name of no less than eighteen later French monarchs.) At the prompting of his queen, who was already a Christian, this Clovis converted from paganism to that faith. And importantly, the Christianity he chose was not the Arian stripe popular at the time among many of the people around him, but rather Catholicism.
He became the tip of the Catholic spear in the struggle against Arianism by conquering a large swath of territory from his base around Paris, expanding eastward as far as the Rhineland of Germany and southward almost as far as modern France’s border with Spain. Like the Roman Emperor Constantine before him, Clovis credited his many battlefield victories to the direct intervention of Jesus Christ in support of his side. The kingdom of Francia which he left behind after his death in 511 ebbed and flowed and split in two for a while on at least one occasion, but never wavered in its staunch Catholicism.
Eight decades after Clovis’s death, Pope Gregory sent missions to rejuvenate the orthodox faith throughout Europe. With the support of Francia, that firmest of all the existing Catholic enclaves in Europe, they ventured as far west as the islands of Britain and Ireland, where they were largely successful in their conversion efforts, and as far north as the windy wildernesses of Scandinavia, where they were largely rebuffed for now.
Gregory was no mindless zealot; he could also be pragmatic and diplomatic when the situation called for it. Like Pope Leo before him, he saved Rome itself from being sacked at least once, by negotiating an accord with an Arian people called the Lombards who had become the latest Germanic tribe to take over the northern half of Italy, but now agreed to leave the city of Rome mostly alone. Gregory’s well-publicized charity and selflessness — he continued to live in Rome as he had in the monastery, dressing in coarse robes, eating only the most basic foods around the same crude table as his ostensible servants — caused him to be seen as a living saint even by those who did not consider themselves orthodox Christians, aiding the missionary cause immensely. The Arians had no comparable figure, and they paid the price for it. Even among the Lombards, for example, more and more people began to convert to Gregory’s version of the faith.
Once it got serious about evangelizing on the mainland, the Catholic Church found it had a second huge advantages over Arianism: the very fact that it was based in Rome. “Everyone wanted to be Roman,” writes Diarmond MacCulloch. “The memory of the empire stood for wealth, wine, central heating, and filing systems, and its two languages, Latin and Greek, [that] could link Armagh to Alexandria.” Much of the Catholic Church’s appeal in contrast to other stands of Christianity stemmed from its Roman-ness: its orderly, ritualistic pomp and circumstance, and not least the language of Latin that it still clung to doggedly, even as that tongue was fast falling out of daily usage everywhere else, being supplanted by other, purportedly cruder languages, more symbols of a fallen age. A religion that promised its adherents a glorious future eternal life became inextricably associated with nostalgic reminiscences of a better world that had already passed away — this despite the fact that it had been a Roman governor who had crucified Jesus, a Roman emperor who had martyred Saint Peter, and a Roman Empire that had, according to Church accounts, relentlessly persecuted and slaughtered Christians for the first 250 years and more of their religion’s existence. If history teaches us anything, it is that humanity has enormous capacity for cognitive dissonance.
By popular demand, the leader of one European kingdom after another switched his allegiance to the theology of Rome; eventually this group included even the kingdom of the Lombards which had once menaced that same city. Had things gone just slightly differently, Western Christianity as a whole might very well be Arian Christianity today. As it was, though, Arianism was fated to slowly die away, doomed by the energy, cleverness, and charisma of Pope Gregory — and by the armies of Islam, which would soon conquer its strongholds to the south of Rome even more swiftly and surely.
The importance of what he set in motion belies the fact that Gregory was pope for only thirteen and a half years, from September of 590 until his death in March of 604, by which time his body was so wracked by the earthly rewards of his asceticism that, as he himself admitted, “every day I look forward to the relief of death.” He did not say whether he felt disappointed that the apocalypse he had so eagerly anticipated had failed to materialize during his lifetime.
As I just mentioned, the Christian lands on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, both Arian and orthodox, were now starting to fall one by one to the missionary and martial zeal of the brand new religion of Islam. The Byzantine Empire was hard-pressed; in 636, Muslim Arabs wrested away from it Palestine and its capital of Jerusalem, respectively the homeland of Jesus Christ and the city where he had been crucified. Ditto in 642 Egypt and with it Alexandria, the very city where Christianity had been molded into a coherent religion. By the early eighth century, the Muslim caliphates seemed like a well-nigh unstoppable force of nature, having taken over even Europe’s Iberian Peninsula, the location of modern Spain and Portugal.
Their next logical target was obvious: in 732, a Muslim army struck northward toward the heart of Western Europe. There it met a Frankish army, in a clash that would go down in history as the Battle of Tours. True to their reputation for martial prowess, the Franks threw back the Arabs, providing a novel experience to a people who had known little but victory on the battlefield since before the death of their Prophet Mohammad 100 years earlier. Edward Gibbon writes that, absent the Franks, “the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet [Mohammad].” As it was, the period of terrifyingly swift Muslim expansion ended. The borders between the Christian and Muslim spheres were set — borders that have largely held firm across Eurasia to this day, with movement happening only at the margins (as in the cases of the eventual Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula and the Muslim takeover of Constantinople).
In 751, an ambitious Frankish general named Pepin packed his current king off to live in a monastery and took over the kingdom of Francia himself. Needing to justify his actions, he turned to God — or rather to God’s self-proclaimed holy representative here on earth. He wrote a letter to the current Pope Zachary in Rome, making his case for the necessity of his rebellion and asking for the Church’s sanction. The pope granted it: “He decreed that Pepin should be made king,” as the official record says. The significance of this direct intervention in the political affairs of a budding European nation can hardly be overstated, even if it was explicitly invited by a self-serving would-be king. “The stage was set for kings to begin to regard themselves as in direct contact with God: approved and protected by the Almighty and entitled to think of themselves as his deputies on earth,” writes Dan Jones in his history of the Middle Ages. “And at the same time, the Church had been granted the right to judge the performance of French kings. The implications of this pact would be felt long into — and indeed, after — the Middle Ages.” In the shorter term, the alliance between Francia and Rome was about to transform the map of Europe.
For King Pepin III, as he became known, expanded Frankish territory as aggressively and effectively over the next seventeen years as had Clovis two and a half centuries before him. He acceded to Pope Stephen II’s request that he drive out of Italy the Lombards, who despite their conversion to Catholicism were becoming increasingly troublesome again. That feat accomplished, Pepin gave the Church an extraordinary gift in 756: he “donated” to it much of the Lombard lands, a seahorse-shaped ribbon of territory stretching from somewhat south of Rome on Italy’s west coast, obliquely across the peninsula, and then along the east coast almost as far north as Bologna. The political entity thus created became known as the Papal States, and would persist under that name for some 1200 years. The pope was now the leader of a country all his own, one of considerable wealth, with an army of its own and all the other trimmings of national sovereignty. The Church had come a long, long way from the original Christian ethic of holding the divine and the temporal separate, of giving Jesus his due whilst also obediently rendering unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s. Now, the pope was starting to bear a distinct resemblance to Caesar.
Around this time, an enormously important, albeit unquestionably fake, document emerged. The “Donation of Constantine” is called by the Medievalist Johannes Fried, who has studied it extensively, “the most infamous forgery in the history of the world. Priests sometimes used it as a weapon of aggression, sometimes as a shield of defense.” In its most maximalist interpretation, which the Church didn’t hesitate to apply on numerous occasions, it meant that “no criticism of the papacy or accusation against it was possible.”
The Donation of Constantine purports to be a letter written by the titular first Christian emperor of Rome to Pope Sylvester I at some point between 314 and 335. In it, Constantine praises the pope and the Church effusively for his spiritual salvation, for curing him of leprosy, and for helping him to win many battles. By way of recompense, he makes a “donation”: “The pope shall have supremacy over Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, and all the churches of God in the whole world. The holy law shall rule where Saint Peter was martyred [i.e., shall rule from Rome]. Anyone who violates this shall be bound over to eternal damnation. And this imperial decree we confirm with our own hand and place over the body of Saint Peter, promising to preserve inviolably all its provisions.” For more than half a millennium to come, this document would provide as crucial an argument for the Church’s claim to papal supremacy as those two critical sentences in the Gospel of Matthew.
But why, you may be wondering, should the decree of a mere temporal emperor, dead almost 450 years already when his Donation first turned up, have carried so much weight? The answer is bound up in the intense nostalgia during the Middle Ages for those semi-mythical bygone days of universal empire, when the world was so much richer, more orderly, and more cultured. In this milieu, the imprimatur of a figure like Constantine was worth more to the pope’s claim to complete spiritual dominion than the testimony of anyone short of Jesus himself or one of the other saints of the Bible. The romanticizing of Classical times — the very word “romance” derives from “Rome” — gave the Donation of Constantine the force of veritable holy writ.
Given how convenient the document was for the Church’s agenda, one wants immediately to assume that it must have been forged inside that same institution. Johannes Fried, however, strongly suspects after following a trail of linguistic clues that it rather came from Francia; count it as one more result of the mutually beneficial alliance between the Franks and the popes. Other historians disagree. But regardless of where it came from, the Church made quick use of it. Already in 778, Pope Hadrian could write to Charles I, Pepin’s successor as king of the Franks, that
Just as in the time of the Blessed Pope Sylvester, God’s holy, catholic, and apostolic church was raised up and exalted by and through the bounty of the most pious Constantine of holy memory, the great emperor, who deigned to bestow power upon it, so also in these most happy times in which you and we live, may the holy church of God — that is, of Saint Peter the Apostle — burgeon and exalt and continue ever more fully exalted, so that all peoples who hear of this may be able to proclaim, “Lord save the king! And hear us when we call upon you!” For behold, a new Constantine, God’s most Christian emperor, has arisen in these times.
This “new Constantine” Charles I, who had ascended to his throne following the death of his father Pepin in 768, would go on to become the single most influential monarch of the entire Middle Ages, assembling an empire the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again in mainland Europe until the time of Napoleon. As his biographer Janet L. Nelson writes, the man most commonly known today as Charlemagne — French for “Charles the Great” — was
by any standards extraordinary: a many-sided character whose 65 years of life and doings were driven by unremitting physical energy and intellectual curiosity. He was a man of many parts, a warlord who conquered an empire, a man of peace and a judge who promised “for each their law and justice,” a man who presided over church councils as a prince and defender of the Latin Church, a person who preached and practised both charity and love and knew the value of giving to the less powerful and the less wealthy, a person whose interests ranged from viewing the night sky and sending men to supervise the repair of Christian sites in the Holy Land to keeping in touch with kings and potentates from Ireland and northern Spain to Constantinople and Baghdad, a man of flesh and blood, a family man who had at least nine sexual partners, fathered at least nineteen children, and was grandfather to at least eleven more.
This man of many parts is sometimes called the Father of Europe, but a better title might be the Father of the Middle Ages as we think of them today — that time of kings, nobles, and peasants. For he instituted across his empire the Frankish hierarchy of power that we now call the feudal system, in which authority descended from the monarch himself down though the semi-independent but nevertheless troth-pledged noble landowners to the peasants who worked the fields.
By the year 799, Charlemagne’s empire encompassed most of modern France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands, a small piece of northern Spain, and those parts of the northern half of Italy that didn’t belong to his close ally the Papal States. An astute politician by any standard, Charlemagne now cemented his hold on his empire with an appeal to those two potent, interconnected cultural currents: the Church in Rome, and the ongoing nostalgia for the Roman Empire of old.
At the time, Leo III, the present pope in Rome, was enduring less halcyon days. The heart of the holy Church had often been a viper’s nest of intrigue, and the temporal political power it had been accruing in recent years had done nothing to relieve that state of affairs. Leo had clawed his way into his office in 795 in the face of powerful enemies, who were not prepared to stop their plotting now that he was their religion’s holy man of holy men. On April 25, 799, he was seized while leading a procession to Mass. A Church history of Leo’s reign claims that his attackers stripped him naked and tried repeatedly to put out his eyes and cut out his tongue, only for his sight and his voice to be restored each time through a miracle of God. Be that as it may, the conspirators opted in the end for the same gambit which Charlemagne’s father had once employed to rid himself of a pesky ruler: they packed Leo off to a monastery to live out his days as pope in name only, able neither to claim the status of martyr nor to interfere with their own plans for the Church.
Leo, however, foiled their plot by escaping the monastery. He made his way to Paderborn, the German city where Charlemagne currently had his court. After some tense discussion, Charlemagne came out with a statement of full-throated support for Leo, whom, he said, he intended to see restored to his rightful place in Rome. In light of what happened next, it is difficult not to conclude that yet another mutually beneficial deal had been negotiated there in Paderborn.
Leo went back to Rome with Charlemagne’s proclamation in hand, accompanied by a military escort also provided by his worldly patron. To further drive his support home, Charlemagne gave Leo almost 220 pounds (100 kilograms) worth of his finest gold and jewels to carry back with him. The conspirators quickly backed down when he arrived; they knew better than to pick a quarrel with the greatest Western emperor of many a century, one who would be able to crush them and their Papal States like an egg if he chose to do so. Leo was thus restored to his office enormously strengthened, and promptly embarked on a series of grand building projects to advertise his own glory alongside that of God.
In November of 800, Leo’s half of his bargain with Charlemagne started to become clear, when an army led by the latter marched south to set up camp just twelve and half miles (20 kilometers) outside of Rome. Leo rode out personally to meet it, an astonishing breach of his holy dignity; normally kings were expected to pay homage to the pope, not vice versa. But it was only the beginning of the Church’s humbling. Charlemagne soon declared that he would come to Rome to preside over a trial of Leo, at which both sides in the recent dispute would be allowed to state their case — a function for which he had no authority other than that provided by the might of his army. It was more than enough; the trial sputtered to a close almost before it had gotten going, thanks to a lack of prosecution witnesses ready to speak truth or libel to the power of a monarch who had shown so much favor to Leo. Leo’s former persecutors were condemned to death by Charlemagne, but the pope demonstrated his mercy by commuting their sentences to exile.
Two days later, on Christmas Day, 800, Pope Leo III paid the last of his debt to his august patron. At Mass that morning, he and Charlemagne stood together beneath the flickering light and shadow of a thousand candles burning inside Saint Peter’s Basilica, the biggest church in Rome (although not the building that goes by that name today). Leo sprinkled Charlemagne’s brow with holy oil, picked up a magnificently jeweled crown, and placed it on his head. Then he knelt at his feet while the parishioners around him gasped. “Hail to Charles the Augustus, crowned by God the great and peace-bringing emperor of the Romans!” he thundered. With these words, he made Charlemagne the first Holy Roman Emperor, uniting the glory of the Church with the nostalgic cachet of the ancient Roman Empire. (“Augustus” had been the name of the very first Roman emperor, the same one who reigned at the time of Jesus’s birth.)
Charlemagne’s Medieval hagiographers claimed afterward that he had had no idea Leo was about to do such a thing, that he would never have entered Saint Peter’s had he known. Needless to say, this claim is hard to believe. His coronation seems far more likely to have been the product of a bargain struck a year or more earlier in Paderborn. The logistics of the ceremony alone would surely have demanded careful planning. And once it was a fait accompli, Charlemagne didn’t exactly shrink from the lengthy list of honorifics that Leo had bestowed upon him.
“The coronation was of great benefit to both sides,” as the modern historian of the papacy Richard P. McBrien writes. If anything, this is a decided understatement. The pope’s stamp of approval established a legal and philosophical basis for an empire that had heretofore been a credit to Charlemagne’s military prowess alone, leaving him able to look upon the Byzantine emperor to the east as a peer, or perhaps even as his junior; his own empire was by now much larger than the Byzantine one, which had been sadly diminished by the inroads of Islam. Meanwhile the crowning of the year 800 had rejuvenated a theory of the legitimacy of government which dated back to the earliest pharaohs of ancient Egypt if not before, one to which Leo had now given the Church’s unequivocal sanction: the theory that monarchs were chosen and favored by God himself, meaning that to rebel against them was literally to defy God. I trust that the implications for realpolitik require no elaboration.
For the Church’s part, Leo had hitched its wagon to the rising power of the age, although he had also sacrificed a fair measure of his independence if not his dignity to bring it off. In the years to come, Charlemagne, an inveterate reformer with ideas about just about everything, inserted himself repeatedly into the internal workings of the Church, promoting favored candidates for various Church offices, even convening councils on thorny theological questions and lobbying for changes to the hallowed Nicene Creed. Leo’s surviving letters to Charlemagne, begging for help with this or that petty problem, make it all too clear who was the junior partner in the relationship, even if Leo does still deign to affect the royal “we.”
Charlemagne died in 814, Leo two years later. But the Holy Roman Empire they had concocted between them would persist for another thousand years, passing through many different hands and lineages, the territory it encompassed shifting constantly.
In its early heyday, this self-conscious echo of the past began the slow process of lifting Western Europe out of the hardscrabble chaos of the past few centuries and awakening in it a sense of its potential. In Aachen, a city near the center of Charlemagne’s empire that served as the closest thing this peripatetic monarch had to a permanent capital, he set up the greatest publishing hub Western Europe had seen in many a century, filled with hundreds of scribes busily copying manuscripts for the benefit of their posterity. It is true that their labors were devoted more to the preservation of old knowledge than the production of new. “We must not overestimate the intellectual quality of the age,” writes Will Durant. “This scholastic resurrection was the awakening of children rather than the maturity of such cultures as then existed in Constantinople, Baghdad, and Cordova.” Charlemagne himself might be seen as a symbol of his empire’s state of intellectual development; he tried earnestly to learn to write properly in his latter years, but never quite succeeded. Nevertheless, copying was an important act in itself, vital for the preservation of existing knowledge and thought. It kept at least some portion of the heritage of the Classical past alive in Europe, just when it was on the verge of disappearing entirely.
Charlemagne’s reign also gave to Europe the legendary figure of Roland, a brave and noble knight who fought with the emperor’s armies, and at the last bravely died in his service. On the one hand, Roland was the first glimmer of a new literature and ethic of chivalry that weren’t to fully dawn for a few hundred years yet. On the other, he was a mythical hero for the new age that could stand comfortably alongside the likes of Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas. Indeed, Roland’s exploits were typically sung aloud to the illiterate common people, just as Homer had once done it.
And yet, crucially, Roland was a Christian hero, chaste and true. Like the institution of the Holy Roman Empire itself, he thus tied together two previously disparate threads. And then too, he signified a Church that was coming around to the idea that an armed soldier of God might be worth just as much as a peaceful martyr to his cause — or perhaps even more.
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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)