Toward a New Order:

The Rise of the Catholic Church and the New Christian Kingdoms

(click here for outline)


              This lecture will mark the start of the second major period of our survey of Western Civilization — the Middle Ages or the Medieval Period.  Now, historians are often confronted with the problem of “periodization”.  By defining major historical periods, be it the Ancient, Medieval, or Modern Period, historians make the past more manageable.  But at the same time, they are also giving certain meaning to the past.  Even though they usually note the continuities in society, politics, and culture from one period to another, once they begin talking about a new period they are inevitably suggesting some kind of major break.  They are implicitly arguing that there is something fundamentally new about the new period that separates it from the previous period.  And by doing that, historians might begin to overlook, or at least marginalize, continuities.  So, while we need historical periods to make sense of the past and to make it more manageable, we also need to be aware that historical periods are themselves intellectual and even cultural constructions, analytical devices devised by historians.


              Still, I would argue that the decline of Greco-Roman civilization and the rise of a new, Germano-Christian civilization did bring about fundamental changes in Western culture and society that justify the need for a new period.  Above all, the Christian culture that emerged triumphant in the fourth and fifth centuries represented a fundamental breach with Greco-Roman culture.  It marked the final end of an age of reason and civic identity, which had been in decline for several centuries, and the beginning of an age of religious faith and religious identity.


Medieval Christians believed – in principle at least – that individual’s primary goal should be to cultivate their faith and do their best to overcome sin while still living in the City of Man.  While rational thought and the methods of Greco-Roman philosophy could sometimes help people to know God and the truths that He Revealed, faith – absolute, blind faith – in those truths remained the most important way to do so.  In short, in the emerging Christian world spirituality and religious faith triumphed over the rational-philosophic tradition of the Ancient world.


In addition to this crucial change in worldviews, Medieval Europe, at least for its first 700 years, was marked by a decline in trade and urban culture.  It was more rural and less cosmopolitan.  And while it continued to draw on many Greco-Roman traditions, it was arguably influenced more the culture of the Germanic tribes that had flooded the Roman Empire during the fifth and sixth centuries.


This lecture will examine the rise of this new, Medieval Christian Europe from roughly 450 to 800, when many of its basic traits were firmly in place.  Our inquiry will be guided by two major questions.


1) How did Medieval Christendom represent a fusion of Christian, Roman, and Germanic cultures?


2) How was this fusion cemented in the alliance between the Church and the Germanic Kingdoms?



I. The Legacy of Rome and Germanic Culture


Now, as we saw a few lectures back, Diocletian and Constantine had split the Empire into an Eastern and Western half.  The Eastern half, where Constantinople chose for his capital, was the wealthier, more urbanized, and more secure of the two.  It survived as The Byzantine Empire for nearly a thousand years after the collapse of the Western Empire.  The success and indeed flowering of the Byzantine Empire rested on an effective fusion of Christian religion, Roman administration, and Greek culture. 


This fusion is best seen during the rule of the emperor Justinian, who rose to power in 527 and ruled with the help and council of his wife Theodora, formerly, it’s said, an exotic dancer.  After a period of instability, Justinian reestablished a system of standardized, universally valid law that was based on the Roman model.  He also fostered a close relationship with the Church.  While he ruled autocratically in the tradition of Constantine, he could count on the Church to keep the general population’s attention focused on cultivating its spirituality. 


At the same time, the Byzantine Empire carried on the intellectual traditions of the Greeks.  In contrast to the Western part of the Empire, which for several centuries could only hope to preserve this intellectual and cultural heritage, the Byzantine Empire continued to apply and develop this the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition further in science, math, literature, art, and philosophy.  At least until the Italian Renaissance in the 13th century, Byzantium was culturally far more creative and sophisticated than Western Europe.


With this successful blend of Christian, Roman, and Greek culture and traditions, the Byzantine Empire experienced a cultural, political, and even military revival under Justinian.  He even managed to retake Italy from the Germans, although his control only lasted a few years.  But perhaps most importantly, Byzantium proved strong enough to hold off the rising tide of Islam, a new monotheistic faith that which had begun to expand westward in the seventh century.  Until 1453, the Byzantium Empire served as a barrier to the expansion of Islam into Europe. 


Now, while the eastern half of the Empire remained fairly stable during the fifth century, the Western Empire was wracked by invasions of Germanic tribes, plague, internal political upheaval, and economic and demographic decline.  After the sack of Rome in 476 by the Visigoths, one of many Germanic tribes, the Roman Emperor (Romulus Augustulus - you read about him in Are We Rome) was deposed.  Most historians, as you should now know, would probably argue that the Roman Empire didn’t really fall completely.  In fact, the first Germanic kingdoms set up in Italy attempted to maintain Roman institutions like the Senate, the Roman civil service, and even Roman law and tax systems.


But these first Germanic kingdoms of the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and others, soon collapsed, and with them the institutions and many of the traditions of Roman civilization.  Urban life declined still faster, centralized administration and Roman bureaucracy began to disintegrate, and Roman culture began to be replaced by the culture of the Germanic tribes that flooded into the former Empire. 


What, though, distinguished this Germanic culture?  It’s an important question, as Germanic culture would become an integral component of the culture of Christian Europe for the next thousand years. 


Germanic culture and society was, to put it mildly, extremely primitive when compared to Roman culture.  It’s hard to put it another way! It was not based in urban centers, but was largely rural in nature and rooted in villages. As a result, once the Germanic tribes became dominant in the Roman Empire, trade, and commerce declined dramatically. 


The Germanic tribes had only a semi-literate culture, and were not – to say the least – interested the kind of humanist literature and rational philosophy that characterized Greco-Roman culture.  The two and a half centuries between 500 and 750 AD, that is, during the height of the Germanic Kingdom of the Franks, thus saw very little in the way of creative intellectual or cultural production. Writing and literacy, two key things we associate with civilization, became much less common.  It hardly needs to be said that these tribes also lacked the cosmopolitan outlook of the people who had inhabited the urban areas of the Greco-Roman world.  


Germanic (male) identity was based up cultivating a sense of honor, courage, and fighting — which together made up a strong warrior ethos.  You will see this very clearly in the Song of Roland, your next reading.  While these values were important to the Romans as well, the Romans also placed a great deal of emphasis on learning and their civic identity and civic ethos – which were entirely foreign to the Germans. In the German world, there was no universal concept of citizenship that had defined the Roman Empire.


In contrast, in Germanic society people’s primary loyalty was not, as it had been in the Greco-Roman world, to the state, but was instead given first and foremost to one’s kin.  A German tribesmen’s identity, moreover, was rooted in membership in a tribe or clan, which was essentially a large extended family.  And although there were Germanic kings, the reach of their power was limited.  While these kings could command the loyalty of people from other tribes through kinship ties, they had only limited control over the administration of law, order, and bureaucracy in their kingdoms. 


Instead of a state authority arbitrating legal disputes on the basis of some standardized system of written law, Germanic law was for the most part private:  people, in effect, took law into their own hands, and based their legal reasoning on a set of established customs and traditions, not a codified system of law.  This often led to blood feuds, which, as you might imagine, did little to foster stability and order.


Slowly, however, Frankish kings, especially after coming into contact with Roman traditions, did begin to see the benefits of establishing a more uniform, and eventually even codified system of laws.  They were, as you’ll see in a minute, influenced not least of all by their relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, which itself had adopted some of the legal and administrative traditions of the Romans.  Thus in the seventh and eighth centuries Frankish kings began creating law codes, simple, but better than nothing!


But Germanic Law – even when codified - remained based on customs and traditions, not on abstract concepts of universal or natural law for all people like Roman law (remember ius gentium and ius naturale?).  Moreover, instead of presenting and arguing evidence at a trial, Germans conducted trials by ordeal.  For example, they might tie up a defendant and throw him in the river.  If they sank, they were innocent. If they floated, they were considered guilty.  If you’re beginning to feel that Western Civilization is taking a step backward, you’re not alone! :)  Philosopher kings these guys were not.


One important practice that did become more standard in time was the levying of a special fine known as, Wergeld for a variety of transgressions, especially murder.  For example, if you killed someone of a certain rank, you would have to pay his family a certain fee.  That may sound strange, but it was better than beginning a blood feud that could last for generations and lead to the deaths of countless more family members on both sides.  Progress, Germanic style, you might say.


Another way was to make any crime against a person of the king’s realm a crime against the king as well.  Thus an element of private law was maintained, but it was used to end private law among individual parties.  Private law never disappeared completely in the medieval period, but slowly more uniform, and eventually codified law codes supplanted it.  The old Germanic warrior ethos, however, with its concepts of honor, loyalty, and courage, remained strong throughout the medieval period.  Indeed, this warrior ethos was even elaborated on further over the next five hundred years, and provided a foundation for knightly culture and chivalry.


There were some attempts to preserve Greco-Roman intellectual traditions.   That is, there was – at least in comparison with the Ancient world - very little original, creative thought, but simply an effort to preserve these traditions.  Anicius Boethius (480-525), for example, a Roman nobleman, translated and interpreted several of Plato and Aristotle’s works.  His philosophical reflections during this time of upheaval and cultural barrenness kept some of the Greco-Roman traditions of rational inquiry and philosophical reflection alive. But Boethius is often considered the last scholar of the Greco-Roman tradition, the last thinker to find solace primarily in philosophy and rational thought, not Christian faith.  Boethius’s translation and commentaries on Greek philosophy were all the medieval scholars had to go on until the 12th century, when they begin to come into contact with Islamic scholars who had a much greater appreciation of the classical thinkers of antiquity.


Monks and other men of the cloth also copied ancient manuscripts in monasteries.  This is wonderfully depicted in Sean Connery’s film “The Name of the Rose,” which I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it. But again, this was primarily a process of intellectual preservation, not creative intellectual production.  Nevertheless, while monks didn’t use ancient texts to produce knowledge, they at least helped preserve them for later thinkers to do so.



II.  Reestablishing Order (450-814)


              Amid this general chaos of the fifth century, the Catholic Church was slowly becoming a force for order in, you might say, The City of Man (Augustine). As I noted in the lecture on the origins of Christianity, in many cities bishops began asserting their authority in secular — that is, worldly — affairs, and assumed some of the administrative functions of the collapsing Roman bureaucracy.  Above all, the bishops of Rome – or the popes - continued to extend their growing power in both religious and temporal – or worldly — affairs.  While their position remained tenuous as Germanic military kings and their troops held sway in Rome, by the end of the 6th century they had begun to consolidate their power base and assert their authority over other Christian communities. 


By far the most important of these early popes, and arguably the most important pope in history, was Gregory the Great.  Gregory is often considered, along with Augustine, one of the key fathers of the Church. You might have heard of the “Gregorian Chant.”  Gregory didn’t invent the Gregorian Chants, but Church propaganda credited him with doing so.

Gregory used Roman administrative techniques to strengthen the Church and its hold over municipal politics in Rome and accumulate and administer Church property.  By the end of his rein as pope, the papacy became a huge landowner and increasingly wealthy.  That wealth translated into growing temporal – or worldly power. 


In addition, Gregory established the papacy’s authority over all other bishops.  Moreover, he instrumentalized monastic orders so that they would become agents of paper power.  He gave his support above all to the Benedictine Order, the most important monastic order of the early Middle Ages.  His goal was to harness the religious energy of the monks to service the church.  Monks thus became the pope’s emissaries throughout Christendom, thereby expanding its reach and its ability to control religious life.


But perhaps most importantly, Gregory continued to cultivate strong ties to the Frankish kings, who were emerging as the most important Germanic leaders.  He made it his goal to have a strong alliance with them so that they would function as protectors of the Church.


 Already in 490 BC the Frankish King Clovis, who evidence shows was a brutal thug of a king, had converted to Christianity.  Like Constantine, he believed that a vision of Christ had rescued him on the battlefield. (That’s what they all say, of course!)  He also understood that Christianity and a relationship with the Church would improve his ability to exercise power in a still highly decentralized, unstable realm.  Subsequent Frankish kings were also Christian, and a mutually beneficial relationship between them and the Church began to emerge.  In return for their military and political protection, the popes would officially bless the secular authority of the Frankish kings. 


This relationship was cemented during the reign of the Merovingian King (a Frankish dynasty) Charles Martel.  Not only did Martel conquer many new lands in the name of Christianity, converting them in the process, he also defeated a Muslim army at the Battle of Tours in France in 732 .  The Muslims, already in control of much of Spain, tried to cross into France.  By stopping them, he earned the support of the pope.  Recently, the historian David Levering Lewis, in his book God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, has argued that the failure of Islam to conquer Europe was one of the greatest disaster’s in European history. The fact that the Muslim armies were halted at Tours, Lewis argues, helped produce “an economically retarded, balkanized, and fratricidal Europe . . . that made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism, and perpetual war . . . [It was] one of the most significant losses in world history and certainly the most consequential since the fall of the Roman Empire.” (quote from a New Yorker review of Lewis’s book) In other words, Europe would have been much better off if it had been able to experience the enlightened, sophisticated, and tolerant rule of a much more advanced Islamic civilization than suffer under the barbarous Germanic-Christian culture emerging in the middle ages.  Pretty strong stuff!


But back to Charles Martel...  Charles Martel was not much of a Christian himself — he was called “The Hammer” because of the merciless way he dealt with his enemies.  Still, along with several other warrior Frankish kings, he helped consolidate Christendom under the spiritual leadership of a pope backed by strong kings.  These early German kings were primarily interested in Christianity as a source of legitimacy and unity for their kingdoms.


While the Roman church was growing stronger in the West, it also grew increasingly separated from the Eastern Church in terms of doctrine.  Gregory, for instance, introduced the notion of purgatory, which the Eastern Church never accepted.  More importantly, the Eastern Church’s made the use of idols — for example, paintings and other symbols of Jesus, Mary, and God — an important part of its liturgy (religious service).  The Roman Church rejected this practice of iconoclasm.  Eventually, the rift over this issue became so great that the pope and the patriarch of the Eastern Church, his counterpart, excommunicated each other in 1054.  This created the “Great Schism”, which to this day divides the Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches.


Now, the early alliance between the medieval Roman Church and the Frankish kings reached its highpoint during the Carolingian dynasty, which after the death of Charles Martel supplanted the Merovingian dynasty.  Pepin the Short, the first Carolingian king, received his legitimacy directly from the pope, who anointed him.  His son, Charles, or Charlemagne, was similarly supported by the Church.  After he took over from Pepin, Charlemagne restored order in Rome and gave protection to the pope.  In return, the pope crowned him Holy Roman Emperor in 800.  By doing so, he established the concept of a universal Christian Empire in which secular and spiritual authority were inextricably linked.


Now just a word about Charlemagne.  Charlemagne might be considered early medieval Europe’s greatest “Great Man.”  (Remember Hegel’s “great man” theory of history – he embodied the Zeitgeist!) A tireless warrior king, Charlemagne conquered most of Western Europe. Moreover, he always made it a point to firmly install Christianity wherever he went – in some cases by the sword – just ask the Saxons what happened to them when they said “no thanks” to Charlemagne’s offer of Christianity.  And he also held off invasions from Hungarian tribes in the East and Muslim armies in the South through both war and skilful diplomacy.  Charlemagne held together his large realm largely through the force of his personality and his own personal rule — he traveled constantly to keep things in order, while also using the nobility to help run things when he was away.


And even though he was first and foremost a warrior king, he did have great respect for the arts and learning.  He supported the creation of several new schools that would train new members of the clergy who would then go out into his realm and shore up Christianity, which he, unlike earlier Frankish kings, did believe in firmly.  More importantly, he felt that an educated clergy would be more effective in administering the sacraments and, perhaps more importantly, administering his rule. 


Charlemagne gathered around him at court leading scholars and supported them in their efforts to recover and bring together lost texts into a single canon, or “crucial collection,” of works. These scholars, while not contributing anything new intellectually themselves, did help establish the basis for the liberal arts curriculum.  Two centuries later, this curriculum, along with religious studies, would blossom at medieval universities across Europe.  But perhaps most importantly, this slight revival of learning that we call The Carolingian Renaissance ended what had for two centuries been a kind of cultural dark age that begin with the collapse of the Roman Empire.


The stabilization and cultural revival under Charlemagne was not, however, accompanied by a revival of urban life, trade, or commerce.  What towns there were remained small and dominated by the Church.  Carolingian society remained predominantly rural.  But the church reached down to the smallest villages, all of which now were organized into parishes.  Religious teachings may have remained foreign — Church service was conducted in Latin, which 99% of peasants could not understand.  Although many peasants slowly peasants came to think of themselves as Christians, most peasants knew not the first thing about Christian doctrine.  In fact, some scholars have argued that it was not until the Protestant Reformation that the European peasantry truly began to understand the key principles of Christianity, and maybe not until later than that.  Until then, peasants’ religious life remained a mixture of Christian and pagan rituals and customs.


Now, as happened with Alexander’s great empire, the Christian Empire created by Charlemagne did not survive him for very long.  In the Treaty of Verdun (832), Charlemagne’s successors divided up the Empire, creating what would become the basis of Germany and France.  And as we’ll see on Tuesday, beginning in the tenth century a new series of barbarian invasions from the North brought a new period of instability to Europe.  The relationship between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperors also soured in the coming centuries as well.


But despite these disruptions, by the end of Charlemagne’s reign we can see the outlines of a new Christian culture and society had emerged.  Institutionally, it was underpinned by a tightly organized Roman Catholic Church, which, despite coming conflicts, had found a strong ally in the Germanic kings, that is, the secular authorities that assumed political control in what was the former Roman Empire.  Roman traditions remained in the law and bureaucracy, but people’s identity rested above all in a fusion of Germanic culture and Christian religion.