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The Xenophile Historian

A History of Christianity


600 to 1000

This chapter covers the following topics:
The Challenge from Islam
The Church's Role in the Recovery of the West
Paulicians and Iconoclasm: the Eastern Church
The Cities Beneath Cappadocia
Charlemagne and Christendom
The Church Backslides and Splits
The Recovery of Christendom
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The Challenge from Islam

The most important event in world history between the fall of Rome and the reawakening of Europe in the 15th century is the rise of Islam. The early seventh century saw the tenets of Islam laid down by its founder, Mohammed, and the unification of Arabia under him. Up to this point the Arabs had been used to fighting among themselves for water, camels, gold, and anything else they might need, but when it became clear that their new unity would not die with Mohammed, they chose to make war on the rest of the world instead. The century following Mohammed's death, 632 to 732, saw Islam grow at an explosive rate, converting an awesome human mosaic from Spain to Pakistan. Syria was overrun in 636, Israel in 638, Egypt in 641; the last Persian king was killed in 651. This left all of the Middle East except Turkey in Moslem hands.

The Arab victories are astonishing on the surface. Both the Byzantine and Persian empires could field armies many times larger than those of the Moslems; their soldiers wore heavy armor and had siege equipment, while the Arabs had neither. But neither empire was what it used to be. They were exhausted from a fruitless 25-year war, which had just ended in 628, and morale was poor. Heraclius was past his prime, while Persia was weakened by a series of dynastic intrigues and murders that caused eleven kings and two queens to rise and fall from the throne in only four years (628-632).

Another important factor was the discontent of the peoples ruled by the empires. The Monophysite Christians in Syria and Egypt resented being treated like heretics, and were tired of supplying money and men to fight wasteful foreign wars. Pagans and Zoroastrians converted readily to the new faith, because they found it easier to understand than Christianity, and converts who joined the Arab armies were told that Islam gave them a win-win proposition; those who fight and win receive riches in this world; those who are killed in battle immediately go to Paradise. When Byzantines, Persians and Arabs were put in comparison, the Arabs looked politically cleaner, more just and more merciful. Wherever the Arabs went, they never encountered a hostile guerrilla movement, or anything else that we would call popular resistance. In the areas they took over, the Arabs offered three choices: Islam, pay tribute, or death. The second option was seen as a welcome relief, since taxes were less than what they had been under the empires and non-Moslems were exempted from military service. In the end the Arabs were seen as liberators; Islam's expansion was accomplished as much by conversion as by outright conquest.

The late seventh and early eighth centuries saw Islam expand to include most of the countries that are Moslem today. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia were conquered in the east, while North Africa and Spain were added in the west. For the Church, this marked the end of North African Christianity, which had been so productive previously. Spain would eventually be recovered for Christendom, but that took seven hundred years of warfare between knights and Moors, known to us as the Reconquista; the last part of Moorish-ruled Spain would be conquered in January 1492, a few months before Columbus set sail.

After Spain the next logical target was France, but here the Moslems finally met their match. The countryside of France was hilly forest, not the clear plains of North Africa and the Middle East, meaning it was an environment the Arabs were ill-suited to fight in. Furthermore the Franks, unlike the Syrians, Egyptians, etc., did not see themselves as an oppressed people, and under Charles Martel they put aside their petty squabbles, defeated the invaders at Tours (732), and chased them back into Spain. In the east the Arabs besieged Constantinople twice (672-677 and 717-718), but failed to take it, thanks to the superior Byzantine navy, which had "Greek fire," a primitive flamethrower that incinerated all enemy ships.

Both the battle of Tours and the sieges of Constantinople saved Christendom from complete conquest at the hands of the Moslems. Had either the Franks or Byzantines failed in their defense, it is unlikely that any other Christians would have resisted for long, and there would be a Koran in every hotel room today! Pagan tribes in northern and eastern Europe like the Vikings, Slavs, Bulgars and Magyars probably would have accepted Islam willingly under such circumstances; now they would become Christians instead. Thus, Europe was protected for the entire Middle Ages. When Constantinople finally fell to the Turks in the fifteenth century, Europe was ready to go on the offensive.

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The Church's Role in the Recovery of the West

The Church was the only institution of the Western Roman Empire that was still in one piece after the Empire's collapse, and at first it was too deeply involved in the ailing society around it to avoid contracting its diseases. Incompetence, venality and even immorality became commonplace among the clergy, brought on in part because of the way bishops were appointed. Theoretically each bishop was elected in a regional church council and approved by the people in his district. But as time went on the Church grew richer and stronger, in part because of the gifts bestowed on it by the wealthy and the pious. By 700 it owned an estimated one third of all land in the Frankish kingdom, in an age when land was the only real source of wealth. Under these conditions important offices in the Church became desirable jobs which the kings handed out to favorite courtiers or ambitious Frankish aristocrats. Most of them were semi-literates who knew little of Christian doctrine, tradition or liturgy; some were greedy, willful and nepotistic.

Fortunately for the West, the Church possessed remarkable powers of self-regeneration, and as the official clergy declined recovery came from a group that went to the opposite extreme: the monks. The first monk to become a pope was a Benedictine--Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great (590-604). When Gregory was elected pope, he probably was not expected to be more than a short-lived caretaker; he was 49 years old, balding, frail, and suffering from a variety of ailments; he also continued to practice the humility of a monk, calling himself "servant of the servants of God." But he was also strong-willed, bold and energetic, and he had acquired much political experience. In his youth he was prefect of Rome until the age of 33, when he suddenly gave up both his work and his fortune to join the priesthood. Gregory's talents were too valuable to be left unused in a cloister for long. He was pressed into service first as a deacon of Rome, then as papal envoy to Constantinople. After that mission he served as abbot of his monastery until a plague carried off Pope Pelagius II, and Gregory was elected despite his protests against serving in the world again.

By playing off the Lombards against the Eastern Roman Empire, Gregory succeeded in winning partial independence from both. He was also tireless in pursuing two goals: the conversion of non-Catholic barbarians, and the placing of Western Europe's churches under direct Papal control. His success in all these endeavors insured that the Western Church would be a truly international one, making him the first of the medieval-era popes who ruled with the power of a king, and whose activities allowed the growth of Papal power in the following centuries.

But Gregory's greatest success was far away from Rome; he started the reconversion of pagan England. According to one story of questionable origin, he became interested in the Anglo-Saxons when he saw some blond-haired youths on sale in a slave market in Rome. Upon hearing that these attractive unfortunates were Angles, Gregory remarked, "Not Angles but Angels, had they but the Gospel." In 596 he dispatched a group of Benedictine monks led by Augustine, a member of Gregory's own St. Andrew's monastery. But in France the monks heard another tale about the people Gregory called "Angels"--that they drank human blood and especially enjoyed the Christian variety. This rumor sent Augustine hurrying back to Rome, where the pope heard him out but refused to cancel the mission.

Augustine and his party finally arrived in England in 597, and without losing a single drop of blood, they quickly won an important convert. King Ethelbert of Kent had made himself susceptible to Christianity by marrying a pious Frankish princess, and his baptism opened many doors. The Italian missionaries were allowed to preach and build churches all over Kent and the surrounding pocket-sized kingdoms that acknowledged Kent's overlordship. Augustine set up his headquarters at Canterbury, and became the first bishop of the English Church.

The Church's second major base in England also came about because of a royal mixed marriage. Edwin of Northumbria chose for his queen Ethelbert's Christian daughter; he was willing to convert if the Church insisted on it, but first put Christianity to a test. Edwin was planning an attack on Wessex, another of England's seven kingdoms at this time, and expected it to prove whether Christianity was stronger than paganism. The king won and called a council to win over his followers. They all listened to an influential monk named Paulinus, and gave in to baptism when Paulinus used one of Christianity's most effective tools--the promise of a blessed afterlife. Soon after this mass conversion, Paulinus became archbishop of York.

By the end of the seventh century, most Anglo-Saxons had become Christians, but it was not a smooth conversion. In most places both Christianity and paganism were enforced at sword point by a royal protector, and the death of that king allowed the other side a chance to make a comeback. For example, Mercia, the central English kingdom, was a strong holdout for paganism under the reign of King Penda (626-655), but upon his death Mercia switched sides, advancing Christianity instead of hindering it. Another challenge came from the disunity of the clergy--there were Irish as well as Italian missionaries. On Iona, a tiny islet off the west coast of Scotland, an Irish priest named St. Columba (520-597) set up a monastery which became the advance base for Irish missionaries to Britain. By the seventh century they were traveling all over Scotland and England, especially Northumbria. But Ireland had never been a part of the Roman Empire, and the church started there by St. Patrick in the fifth century developed with no contact or influence from Rome. By now cultural differences between the footloose Irish and the transplanted Italians ensured that they would not see eye to eye; the tug-of-war between them for control of the English churches impaired the work of both and spread confusion among their Anglo-Saxon converts.

To settle this dispute, King Oswiu of Northumbria called a grand conference at Whitby in 663. The two rivals staked their arguments on a small but crucial disagreement over how to calculate the date of Easter, but Oswiu used politics to make up his mind. He knew that whether or not they were right, the independent Irish did not have a single ally, royal or ecclesiastical, while the Italians were backed by the pope, whose authority over all Christians was admitted even by the Irishmen. Thus, the Celtic churches of Britain and Ireland were reluctantly brought back into the Roman fold.

The eighth century saw the Anglo-Saxon Christians make a reverse invasion of the Continent. As newcomers to the faith themselves, they practiced it more carefully than those who had been Christians all their lives, and their enthusiasm attracted many who heard them preach. They were led by Winfrith of Crediton (680-754), better known by his Latin name of Boniface, who began the missionary journey by crossing over to Frisia in 716. As in England, Irish monks had gone this way as early as the sixth century, but while they had the religious fervor and a strict organization, they lacked resources and the strength of numbers. Boniface lacked neither. The English Church gladly sent him all the Benedictines he needed, and the black-robed monks quickly fanned out to the east and south, founding monasteries as they went. Chief among these was Fulda, which reportedly had 4,000 monks in it soon after it was founded. So many Bavarians and Thuringians were converted by Boniface and his brothers that he is now regarded as the true founder of the German Church, and in 732 Charles Martel made him archbishop of Mainz, in effect putting him in charge over all Christians in the eastern Frankish territory (Germany).

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Paulicians and Iconoclasm: the Eastern Church

The little affection which Syria, Armenia, and Egypt held for Constantinople was obvious when they fell first to the Persians, then to the Arabs, with hardly any resistance from the locals. The Byzantine emperor, Heraclius, tried to make peace with the Monophysites in those provinces by promoting a compromise doctrine, Monotheletism, which suggested that the union of God and man in Jesus did not submerge the identity of either component, but to the world it manifested itself as one divine-human energy. Monotheletism did nothing to reconcile the schismatics and it irritated the loyal provinces of the Empire, so when the Monophysite areas were lost to Islam and the emperor no longer had anyone he needed to compromise with, he abandoned it.

As we saw previously, the Church was organized so that it was led by five patriarchs, each in a major city: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. Among them the patriarch of Rome, now called the pope, claimed to be foremost and the others went along with this, but they did not regard this as having much practical significance. In fact, the ultimate religious authority was wielded by the emperors. After the Arab conquest of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria, their patriarchates became insignificant. With only Constantinople and Rome left in the ring, Rome's claim that it had preeminence over the whole church became practical politics. Rome cleverly linked her cause with a campaign to oppose imperial direction of religious affairs.

The fall of the West freed the pope from the emperor's control. When Justinian, the greatest Byzantine emperor, re-occupied Italy in the mid-sixth century, he deposed a pope who did not toe the imperial line, and it looked as though the old days had returned. But the bulk of churches under the pope's authority still lay outside the Empire in countries like France, so therefore most papal activity was beyond the emperor's control. What’s more, the weakening of the Empire the and distance between Constantinople and Rome reduced the possibility of interference. Near the end of the seventh century, Constantinople sent an official to arrest the pope and he was found hiding under the pontiff’s bed. All this meant that the pope did not have to follow the twists of imperial politics as closely as the patriarch of Constantinople did. Because it wavered less in doctrine than the Eastern Church, the Papacy appeared to outsiders as a truer spokesman for Christ than the patriarchate that functioned as a state department.

After Justinian's death a new barbarian tribe, the Lombards, invaded Italy; the emperor's hold on north and central Italy gradually slipped, and the almost isolated pope assumed the office of imperial governor over Rome. He thus achieved effective freedom without an open break with Constantinople.

The break came with the iconoclastic (image-breaking) decrees of Emperor Leo III in 727. The emperor was shamed by the image-hating and monotheistic Moslems and thought that their success was God's punishment for errors taught by the Church, so he ordered the destruction of all religious pictures and statues, which had become so numerous and so venerated that to outsiders they must have resembled idols. But this was easier said than done; the Christians of the eastern Church had become very attached to their icons, which they claimed had the power to work miracles. An angry mob pulled down and murdered the official who climbed a ladder to replace the icon of Christ over Constantinople's Bronze Gate with a simple cross. Then whole sections of the empire revolted, and Leo had to "retire" the patriarch and replace him with one who favored his own views.

The result was that the West (where images were not as common, so iconoclasm was not understood) and the East (where images were excessively adored) joined together in opposition to the emperor and his puppet patriarch. The pope denounced iconoclasm, excommunicated Leo III, and put the icons under papal protection, but his scheme to gain control over the eastern Church backfired. The autocracy in the East was strong enough to carry out the iconoclastic decrees in spite of all opposition. To deal with the pope, the emperor retaliated by transferring the south Italian districts, which were still under Byzantine rule, to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Then because central Italy was solidly for the pope, the emperor stopped defending the area against Lombard attacks. The pope declared he would win back all of Italy "for the Empire," but he would retain political control over it until iconoclasm was renounced and papal supremacy was accepted. It did not work as planned, since he did not have the troops to back him up, only his personal power of persuasion. Consequently the pope's bid to lead the whole Church failed; with the eastern Church firmly under Byzantine control the pope was left as the lord of a state too small to stand on its own in a barbarian-infested environment.

Under Leo III and his son Constantine V, those who supported icons were persecuted vigorously; often they were excommunicated, mutilated, and sent into exile. The iconoclastic decrees were extended to abolish the cult of saint-worship, by ordering the destruction of relics and condemning prayers made to the saints. To the iconoclasts, the only acceptable Christian symbols were the cross, the Bible, and the elements of the Lord's Supper.

The strongest supporters of icons were the monks, who had made a living by making and selling them. Between 730 and 760 one of them, John of Damascus, wrote what later became the official defense of icons. He agreed that it was wrong to worship an icon, but pictures of Jesus, Mary, the Apostles and the angels are useful tools for teaching Christianity to new believers. Furthermore, it is okay to give icons respect and reverence, since the same would be done if the people they represented were here. For this, the Orthodox Church today venerates John as the last of the great teachers who put down in writing who a Christian is and what he should believe, the last of the so-called "Church Fathers."

The seventy years after Constantine V saw a seesaw struggle. The next emperor, Leo IV (775-780), was not as determined an iconoclast as his predecessors, and his widow Irene favored the other side; during her 22 years on the throne the iconoclastic policies were overturned and the position presented by John of Damascus became the official one. But then came a quarter century of military defeats, diplomatic humiliations, and economic hardship. Thinking the icons were to blame, Emperor Leo V (813-820) brought back iconoclasm, vigorously deposing and imprisoning those Church leaders who spoke out in favor of icons. The last iconoclastic emperor, Theophilus (829-842), even decreed death or exile to anyone who spoke out against iconoclasm. This was going too far and it made the emperor too unpopular, so in 843 a new council was called, which again undid all the rulings against icons, and condemned all iconoclasts except the former emperor Theophilus. Ever since that time the Orthodox Church has celebrated the first Sunday in Lent as the "Feast of Orthodoxy," commemorating the end of the iconoclastic controversy.

Many of the iconoclasts came from a movement that launched an unsuccessful reformation of the Orthodox Church. Their founder was Constantine of Mananali, a refugee from Moslem-dominated Syria who established his own congregation in Armenia around 660. He saw the Moslems as God's punishment for the sins of the Church, and that only complete reform would save Christianity. Like the Manicheans and the Gnostics, he believed that there was a good god and an evil god, and that all material things should be shunned, because the evil god had created them. He also went a step further than the Gnostics and declared that only part of the New Testament--the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles of Paul--was inspired by the good god; the evil god inspired the rest of the New Testament, and all of the Old. Sacraments such as baptism, the Lord's Supper, and marriage were dismissed as worldly institutions. Constantine changed his name to Silas, and other members of the group likewise called themselves after friends of Paul, like Timothy and Titus, so nowadays we call them Paulicians.

"Silas" was stoned to death by order of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV, but the sect flourished during the iconoclastic controversy; some historians think that Emperor Constantine V may have been one of them. After iconoclasm was rejected by the government the Paulicians organized into an army, and allied themselves with the Moslems in the frequent wars fought between Byzantium and Islam. This made them a dangerous subversive movement in the eyes of Constantinople. They were defeated by Emperor Basil the Magnificent in 872, but they remained a notable military power for a century longer, so the surviving Paulicians were moved to Bulgaria, where the only enemies of the empire were other Christians, namely Bulgars and Slavs. As a result their ideas were introduced to the Bulgars and Slavs by a Slav named Bogomil ("gift of God"), and the Bogomil sect lasted in Armenia, Bosnia and Bulgaria until the fifteenth century, when the Turks converted them to Islam (that is where today's Bosnian Moslems come from).

In size of the area it encompassed, Christianity reached a low point in the early eighth century, having lost over half of the territories containing Christians to Islam. All that was left to the Church was the British Isles, France, Switzerland, part of Germany, Italy, Greece, Asia Minor and Ethiopia. By conquest or conversion, Christianity was brought to the Germans, Picts, and Anglo-Saxons, but this was a small gain to set against the loss of North Africa, Syria and Spain.

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The Cities Beneath Cappadocia

This is a good place to mention an extraordinary discovery in eastern Turkey. Because of its location between Asia and Europe, Turkey has seen many invading armies cross it, disrupting the natives' lives to say the least. In most places with such a problem, the answer is to fortify houses and cities, but Cappadocia lacks both timber and building stone, so the Cappadocians dug underground hideaways instead.

People living in the area were defending themselves this way as early as the second millennium B.C.. Most of the construction, however, took place between the second and tenth centuries A.D. It was done by local Christians, who had many enemies to hide from; pagan Romans, Persians, and Moslems were the main ones. For a while they even had to hide from the Byzantine government, when the iconoclastic movement tried to do away with icons and monasticism.

These cities rank with the greatest engineering achievements of the ancient world. A typical one extends 240 feet into volcanic rock, is divided into eight levels, and covers an area of two square miles, with ten miles of tunnels traveling away from it in all directions. Lining the passageways are hundreds of rooms used for living quarters, storerooms, wine cellars, workshops, livestock pens, chapels, meeting places, and hospitals; there were even temporary crypts to hold the dead until it was safe to bury them outside. Nine-foot-wide vents provided air and kept a constant temperature of 55 degrees F., while numerous wells took care of the need for water. To keep invaders out, niches in the walls held huge wheel-shaped stones that could be rolled out to block passages. If that failed, there were also secret escape tunnels leading to the surface, but it does not look like they ever had to be used. Thirty-eight such cities have been found so far.

Of course nobody wanted to live underground permanently, even if the subterranean communities were made as comfortable as possible. They probably were only used so long as hostile forces were making trouble aboveground, and as soon as they were gone, the Cappadocians returned to a more normal life on the surface. A community like the one described above could hold 20,000 people in it; the largest had room for 60,000. Archaeologists estimate that up to half a million people lived in them at one time or another. A stronger testimony of the human desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness would be difficult to find.

The religious inclinations of the Cappadocians were also turned underground. In weird valleys that resemble scenery on the moon more than anything on earth, they hollowed out cone-shaped mountains to form 1,000 churches and monasteries. Nearly every square inch of the walls inside these structures is covered with frescoes. Some of these pictures are superbly realistic, comparing favorably with Renaissance works; others are distorted in a style that looks modern enough to have been painted by Picasso or Chagall. Together they make up the world's largest collection of Byzantine art.

The end of this lifestyle came when the Turks conquered most of Asia Minor in 1071; they tolerated the Christians so long as they paid their taxes. No longer needed, the underground cities were abandoned and forgotten, to be rediscovered in 1963 when a farmer's cellar collapsed into one of the tunnels. Many of the churches remained in use until 1924, when the Christians, mostly ethnic Greeks, were exchanged by the Turkish government for Turks living in Greece. Efforts have been made to preserve the churches, but because there are so many of them, not all can be saved. Many have been exposed to the elements by erosion; others have fallen prey to graffiti, fire, or acts of vandalism. Some are now used as stables, dovecotes, granaries or workshops. Still others have been fitted with glass windows and wired for electricity, to serve as apartments, restaurants and hotels. Even so, enough of the ancient structures have been restored to give tourists a good look at the remarkable accomplishments of the people who lived in eastern Turkey more than one thousand years ago.

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Charlemagne and Christendom

When Constantinople abandoned central Italy during the iconoclastic controversy, the Lombards started making trouble again. The Pope had no wish for a Lombard king as overlord, so he called on the Franks to save him. The most powerful man in the Frankish kingdom at this time was Pepin II, the son of Charles Martel. Pepin was king of the Franks in all but name; descendants of Clovis still sat on the throne, but they were do-nothing weaklings. Since nobody could imagine the Frankish kingdom without someone from the family of Clovis as its king, the handling of the kingdom's day-to-day affairs went to "mayors of the palace" like Pepin. Pepin was already in good graces with the pope for cooperating with St. Boniface in reforming the Frankish Church, so in his growing friendship with the Church, Pepin saw a solution to the kingship problem; if he could get God's approval, it would be all right to replace the royal family with his own. In 751, with the aid of Boniface, he sent a letter to Pope Zacharias that contained a loaded question: Should one man hold the title of king when another man holds the power?

This was an opportunity every pope had been hoping for since Gregory the Great. By giving Pepin the answer he wanted, Zacharias would put the most powerful man in the West in his debt, and get the help he needed to keep the Lombards away. Since Pepin had already proved himself a suitable ruler, in both political/military accomplishments and in his private life, the pope answered in his favor: "It is better that he who possesses power be called king than he who has none." This gave Pepin the argument he needed when he convened a meeting of Frankish nobles and got himself "elected" king of the Franks. King Childeric III was symbolically shorn of his long blond hair and placed in a monastery, where he conveniently died within a year.

Pepin spent the rest of his reign repaying the Pope for the favor. He told the Lombards to lay off Rome and when they failed to do so, crossed the Alps and brought them to heel. It was a vigorous, if barbaric kingdom that he passed to his son Charles in 768.

Charles has gone down in history as Charlemagne, meaning "Charles the Great" in Latin. This is because he was a determined and successful soldier, a talented statesman, and a patron of learning all rolled into one. There were 54 military campaigns during his 46-year reign, in which he defeated the Lombards, conquered the Saxons in Germany, destroyed the Avars in Hungary and established supremacy of a sort over all of the Slav tribes on the east frontier, from the Sorbs of the Oder River to the Croats on the Adriatic. Most of the time he declared he was advancing the cause of Christianity, though a few high-minded clerics deplored his method of conversion, calling it "baptism with the sword." He was least successful when he attacked the Moslems of Spain; all he got there was the county of Barcelona and the Pyrenees mts. ("the Spanish March").

By the middle of his reign Charlemagne had brought almost all of western Christendom under his rule. People were impressed and the pope was probably impressed most of all. In the year 800 Charlemagne attended Christmas mass in Rome and Pope Leo III sprung a surprise. He placed a crown on Charlemagne's head, and proclaimed the Western Roman Empire restored as a "Holy Roman Empire," with Charlemagne as its first emperor. Though somewhat alarmed, Charles went along with the idea. Eventually (812) even the Byzantine emperor recognized his title.

Theoretically only an emperor in Constantinople could bestow the imperial crown upon anybody else, but in 797 a legal loophole appeared; the Empress Irene deposed and blinded her son, Leo VI, so she could rule by herself. Although there was no law saying that a woman could not run the empire, it had never been done before, so some--including the pope--felt that the throne was vacant so long as Irene had it. That gave Charlemagne and the pope the legal justification to use the title of emperor in the 800 coronation. Charlemagne probably intended to reunite the East and West through a marriage with Irene, but the pope shrewdly crowned him first, making it look like the title of emperor was a gift from the papacy. Whatever chance Charlemagne had of doing things his way ended in 802, when Irene was overthrown in favor of an emperor who was both male and legal.

Actually the whole thing was nonsense. Charlemagne could not in any way be mistaken for a Roman, and after the coronation he still ruled in the same old German way, uniting men through ties of personal loyalty rather than by laws. Moreover, Charlemagne's views on the Papacy were quite Byzantine, and the pope, feeling that it would be unwise to provoke trouble, meekly accepted a secondary position until after Charlemagne's death. When the Holy Roman Empire broke up a generation later, the popes found it easy restore their independence. The pope's personal property in central Italy was first known as the Patrimony of St. Peter, and later as the Papal State. Charlemagne's descendants found that the pope, not content to be the equal of any emperor, was moving on ahead.

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The Church Backslides and Splits

The extreme claims now being made by the popes were expressed in a document called The Donation of Constantine. Supposedly written when Emperor Constantine the Great moved from Rome to Constantinople, it stated that he was leaving rule over the whole West to the Vicar of Christ, namely the pope. All kings in Western Europe were thus nothing more than tenants of the pope's land, and their position had to be ratified by him. The fact that this formality had never been observed before did not seem to bother folks, nor did anyone ask why Constantine had neglected to draw up his will until four hundred years after his death. The Carolingians (Charlemagne's family) may not have liked this, but by seeking the pope's blessing when they usurped the throne of Clovis and by allowing the pope to proclaim them emperors of the West, they had put themselves in a difficult position. Yet the darkness of ignorance is a two-edged sword; if it allowed men to accept an obvious forgery, it also meant that men were too illiterate and life was too chaotic for any document to have much effect. For example, papal authority over the Church had never been challenged by the Carolingians, but with the disintegration of the feeble institutions that passed for a government under Charlemagne there was no way to turn papal prestige into actual power; papal commands could not be heard above the clang of arms; papal calls to the kings for peace were answered with the suggestion that the pope ought to mind his own business. The independence of the pope became that of a Roman bishop; as confusion increased even that was lost and the pope became the puppet, not of some great king that could at least maintain the dignity of the pope's office, but of the minor nobles of central Italy. Two hundred years after cutting itself off from Constantinople, the Papacy found itself helpless.

The ninth and tenth centuries saw the political factions of Rome appoint popes of their own choosing, and because of that a number of degenerate characters who normally would not have qualified for the job sat on the papal throne. For example, in 896 Pope Stephen VI took revenge on his predecessor, Boniface VI, by having the dead pope's body dug up, propped in a chair, and put on trial; after conviction, the body was thrown in the Tiber River. A year later Stephen himself was overthrown, and strangled while in prison. In the early tenth century two of the most powerful nobles in Rome were women, Theodora and her daughter Marozia. Theodora had been the mistress of Pope John X; Marozia imprisoned him in 928, and he speedily died under her care. Marozia's illegitimate son then became Pope John XI, and afterwards her grandson became the treacherous John XII.

It was a similar story with the local church. All over western Europe church property was either looted and destroyed by raiders like the Vikings and Moslems, or it fell into the hands of the local nobility. Noblemen treated church offices as their own, rewarding friends or servants with them, or selling them to anyone with the money (a sin called simony). As one might expect, this produced a clergy that was ignorant, shirked its duties, and acted immorally.

On the top, things began to look up when Germany got its first strong king since Charlemagne, Otto I (936-973). Otto was successful for two reasons: he was a fine military leader and he allied himself with the local clergy. By promoting bishops and abbots to the rank of princes, Otto created a power to offset the unruly princes and dukes that ruled most of his loosely organized kingdom. In 961 he marched south and conquered Italy. The next year Pope John XII revived the title of Holy Roman Emperor for him. France was no longer part of the empire, but Otto had conquered many Slavs in the east who had never been under Charlemagne's rule. Otto's Holy Roman Empire, like Charlemagne's, was a pipe dream, and for the same reason: it had almost no administrative structure. But it was big enough to enjoy a reputation as Europe's main state for the next three centuries.

The pope must have been surprised when he found he could not control the emperor he had crowned. After making the Roman people promise that they would not elect a pope without his or his son's consent, Otto convened a synod which tried Pope John, found him guilty of many crimes, and deposed him. In his place they chose a layman, who in the course of twelve hours was ordained and given all the other ecclesiastical promotions needed to become Pope Leo VIII. Leo in turn died of a stroke while committing adultery one year later (964).

Though there was violence, corruption and confusion at the highest levels, one can get an incorrect perspective of medieval Christianity by dwelling on it too much. We must remember that as in our own time, countless men and women who do not appear in history books were touched by the spirit of Jesus, lived lives that were righteous and helpful, and did unselfish good deeds. It is through people like them that a better world became possible. When we dwell on the foolish and criminal behavior of a few, we tend to forget the clergy and lay people who thought and acted nobly. Their examples of courage, integrity and kindness may not be remembered by the historian, but have been put down in God's Book of Life more surely than the sins of those Church leaders who claimed infallibility.

With the end of Iconoclasm in 843, a formal reconciliation between Constantinople and Rome took place, but then minor doctrinal differences arose to keep East and West apart until the split became permanent. At first the issue was the relationship between Church and State, but as the power of the Papacy declined it switched to an argument over the Holy Spirit. Now that the Church had finished a centuries-long debate on the natures of God and Jesus, curiosity seems to have arisen concerning the third member of the Trinity. Did the Holy Spirit originate solely from the Father, as the East believed, or did it contain part of the essence of both Father and Son, as the pope now asserted? When the Papacy added three words, the so-called filioque ("and the son") to the part of the Nicene Creed that mentioned the Holy Spirit, Constantinople decided the western Church was a heresy beyond redemption. Although the formal split between Catholicism and Orthodoxy did not take place until 1054, for most of the two centuries preceding it the two main bodies of the Church were no longer on speaking terms with each other.

Part of the reason for this final split was the simple fact that East and West no longer spoke the same language. In the West Greek was now only understood by a few monks, and even Latin was on the way out, except in Church services and literature. The East had stopped using Latin when Rome fell to the barbarians, and now members of the Orthodox Church spoke only Greek, unless they were recent converts like the Slavs. Today all kinds of trouble can happen when misunderstandings take place, and in those days, when transportation, communication and education were so much worse than they are now, all it took to divide a nation was a difference in dialect or language between two places. That is why Charlemagne's descendants failed to hold their empire together, and it broke up into German-speaking, French-speaking, and Italian-speaking pieces in the course of the ninth century.

The early success of the Benedictines caused a sharp drop in their standards in the ninth and early tenth centuries. Communal life was abandoned, monks got married and shared the income of the monastery, and sometimes their lack of discipline made them a menace to the neighborhood in which they were living. The turnaround came in 910 when William the Pious, Duke of Burgundy, founded a new monastery at Cluny, which soon became a model for the strict observance of Benedictine rule. Unlike the other monks, the Cluniacs followed a rigid centralized organization; every monastery they started took its orders from Cluny; the abbott of Cluny grew to become the second most powerful man in the Western Church, answerable only to the pope. Zeal for reform spread, and as many as two hundred monasteries were placed under the control of Cluny. With the Cluniac reform the Western monastery became a more important part of the economy and society than its Eastern counterpart did. It served as an oasis of peace, learning and stability, irrigating the potentially fertile ground around it. Thus the Cluniacs were part of the reason for the upswing of prosperity that heralded the opening of Christianity's second millennium.

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The Recovery of Christendom

After 400 years on the defensive, Christendom got back its confidence in the ninth century. This showed in the launching of vigorous missionary activity into northern and eastern Europe from both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. The Orthodox won the first prizes; they converted the Danube Bulgars in 870 and the Serbs in 879, while a third mission, led by St. Cyril and St. Methodius, invented the Cyrillic alphabet and started work among the Slavs of Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic). The Catholics took over after Cyril and Methodius left, so in the end the Bohemians joined the Western rather than the Eastern Church. Around 879 the Croats and the Slovenes also became Catholics, forming a permanent division between them and their Serb cousins. The missionaries from Rome and Constantinople might have done even better if they had cooperated more and quarreled less. Nevertheless, it was encouraging that both churches were on the move again. At last Christendom had some gains large enough to offset its huge losses to Islam.

The Christian advance received a setback when the Magyars moved into the area. Driven from Russia by Turkic barbarians moving out of Central Asia, the Magyars settled on the plains of Hungary in 896. The Magyars had been on the Russian steppe long enough to learn horsemanship, so they began to raid their new neighbors. In 899 they mounted a really big raid against Italy; the army of the Kingdom of Italy was totally defeated by the nomads' tactics. For the next fifty years the Magyars were able to plunder the peninsula whenever they felt like it.

The arrival of the Magyars completed the misery of Western Europe. Moslem pirates attacked from the south, and Viking raids from the north were becoming so fierce that Church services regularly included prayers for deliverance from "the fury of the Northmen." The kingdoms of Christendom were now surrounded by barbarian enemies on all sides, and the continent was subjected to the worst raids since the fall of the Western Roman Empire. And in one way it was worse; even the Huns were awed enough by clergymen to leave Church property alone, but the Vikings made churches and monasteries their favorite targets, because they (1.) had lots of easily carried wealth in the form of gold and jewel-encrusted objects and (2.) because unlike castles, they were not likely to have armed men protecting the premises.

Magyar raiders hit Germany almost every year; the worst raid passed through Germany, France, Burgundy and followed Italy all the way to the heel before returning to the Danube (937). Some Magyar bands going west did not stop at France but went all the way to Spain. Not until Otto I trapped and destroyed the main Magyar army (the battle of Lechfeld, 955) was Europe freed from their devastations.

Once the Magyars were subdued both Churches made more impressive gains. As with the advances of the ninth century, many tribes converted because they saw it as the quickest way to become a modern, civilized people. In all of northern and eastern Europe the date for when a people accepted Christianity is one and the same as the date for when they became a civilized country. The Poles and Magyars held back for a while because they did not want to be under German archbishops. The German Emperor Otto III agreed that their objection was reasonable and saw to it that they got archbishops of their own. Thus Poland officially joined Christendom in 966, while in 1000 the duke of the Magyars was crowned Stephen I, first king of Hungary. The Vikings themselves were now starting to look civilized; Denmark, Norway and Sweden all had stable governments and were officially, if half-heartedly, Catholic by the year 1000. The Slavs in eastern Germany were conquered, rather than converted, as Charlemagne had done with the Saxons earlier, and the revival of Christian Spain was also a matter of conversion by sword rather than by word. In the east Russia became Orthodox (988), so now only really remote tribes like the Finns and Lithuanians continued to stick up for paganism.

Few centuries in European history started as dismally as the tenth, and few have ended so triumphantly. Many Christians feared that the world would come to an end in the year 1000; when the "Apocalypse" didn't happen, the result was a spirit of optimism that lasted for much of the eleventh century. What really ended in 1000 was the Dark Ages.

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© Copyright 2021 Charles Kimball

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