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The Middle Ages
The Church In The Early Middle Ages
The Church In The Early Middle Ages
As Europe gradually emerged from the destruction of the Roman Empire, the
church became one of the mainstays of civilization. During the pontificate of
Gregory I the Great (590-604), the medieval papacy began to assert its
authority. Gregory's achievement was to go beyond the claim of papal primacy
in the church by beginning to establish the temporal power of the papacy.
Gregory the Great and the Early Medieval Papacy, 600-1000
A Roman aristocrat by birth, Gregory witnessed and commented on the
devastation of Rome as the city changed hands three times during Justinian's
long struggle to retake Italy from the Ostrogoths:
Ruins on ruins .... Where is the senate? Where the people?
All the pomp of secular dignities has been destroyed ....
And we, the few that we are who remain, every day we are
menaced by scourges and innumerable trials. ^5
[Footnote 5: Quoted in R. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe: From
Constantine to Saint Louis (London: Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd., 1957), p.
Concluding that the world was coming to an end, Gregory withdrew from it to
become a Benedictine monk. In 579 the pope convinced him to undertake a
fruitless mission seeking Byzantine aid against the Lombards, who had invaded
Italy a few years before. After Gregory was elected pope in 590, he assumed
the task of protecting Rome and its surrounding territory from the Lombard
threat. Thus Gregory was the first pope to act as temporal ruler of a part of
what later became the Papal States.
Gregory the Great also laid the foundation for the elaborate papal
machinery of church government. He took the first step toward papal control of
the church outside of Italy by sending a mission of Benedictine monks to
convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. The pattern of church government Gregory
established in England - bishops supervised by archbishops, and archbishops by
the pope - became standard in the church.
The task of establishing papal control of the church and extending the
pope's temporal authority was continued by Gregory's successors. In the eighth
century, English missionaries transferred to Germany and France the pattern of
papal government they had known in England; and the Donation of Pepin, by
creating the Papal States, greatly increased the pope's temporal power. The
papacy's spiritual and temporal power was restrained, however, with the onset
of feudalism. Beginning in the late ninth century, the church, including the
papacy, fell more and more under the control of secular lords and kings.
Missionary Activities of the Church
The early Middle Ages was a period of widespread missionary activity. By
spreading Christianity, missionaries aided in the fusion of Germanic and
classical cultures. Monasteries served as havens for those seeking a
contemplative life, as repositories of learning for scholars, and often as
progressive farming centers. The zeal with which the monks approached their
faith often extended beyond the monastic walls.
One of the earliest Christian missionaries to the Germans was Ulfilas (c.
311-383), who spent forty years among the Visigoths and translated most of the
Bible into Gothic. Ulfilas and other early missionaries were followers of
Arius, and so the Arian form of Christianity was adopted by all the Germanic
tribes in the empire except the Franks and Anglo-Saxons. As we saw earlier,
the Franks' adoption of Roman Catholicism produced an important alliance
between Frankish rulers and the papacy.
Another great missionary, Patrick, was born in England about 389 and
later fled to Ireland to escape the Anglo-Saxon invaders. As a result of his
missionary activities in Ireland, monasteries were founded and Christianity
became the dominant religion. In the late sixth and seventh centuries a large
number of monks from the Irish monasteries went to Scotland, northern England,
the kingdom of the Franks, and even to Italy. The Irish monks eagerly pursued
scholarship, and their monasteries became storehouses for priceless
When Gregory the Great became pope, the papacy joined forces with
monasticism to take an active role in the missionary movement. Gregory sent a
Benedictine mission to England in 596. Starting in Kent, where an
archbishopric was founded at Canterbury ("Kent town"), Roman Christianity
spread through England, and finally even the Irish church founded by St.
Patrick acknowledged the primacy of Rome.
The English church, in turn, played an important part in the expansion of
Roman-controlled Christianity on the Continent. Boniface, the greatest
missionary from England in the eighth century, spent thirty-five years among
the Germanic tribes. Known as "the Apostle to the Germans," he established
several important monasteries, bishoprics, and an archbishopric at Mainz
before he turned to the task of reforming the church in France. There he
revitalized the monasteries, organized a system of local parishes to bring
Christianity to the countryside, and probably was instrumental in forming the
alliance beween the papacy and the Carolingian house. Roman Catholic
missionaries also worked among the Scandinavians and the western Slavs.
The Preservation of Knowledge
One of the great contributions of the monasteries was the preservation of
the learning of the classical world and that of the church. Learning did not
entirely die out in western Europe, of course. Seeing that the ability to read
Greek was quickly disappearing, the sixth-century Roman scholar Boethius, an
administrator under the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, determined to preserve
Greek learning by translating all of Plato and Aristotle into Latin. Only
Aristotle's treatises on logic were translated, and these remained the sole
works of that philosopher available in the West until the twelfth century.
Unjustly accused of treachery by Theodoric, Boethius was thrown into prison,
where he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting execution. This
little work later became a medieval textbook on philosophy.
Cassiodorus, a contemporary of Boethius who had also served Theodoric,
devoted most of his life to the collection and preservation of classical
knowledge. By encouraging the monks to copy valuable manuscripts, he was
instrumental in making the monasteries centers of learning. Following his
example, many monasteries established scriptoria, departments concerned
exclusively with copying manuscripts.
During the early Middle Ages most education took place in the
monasteries. In the late sixth and seventh centuries, when the effects of the
barbarian invasions were still being felt on the Continent, Irish monasteries
provided a safe haven for learning. There men studied Greek and Latin, copied
and preserved manuscripts, and in illuminating them produced masterpieces of
art. The Book of Kells is a surviving example of their skill.
An outstanding scholar of the early Middle Ages, the Venerable Bede (d.
735), followed the Irish tradition of learning in a northern English
monastery. Bede described himself as "ever taking delight in learning,
teaching, and writing." His many writings, which included textbooks and
commentaries on the Scriptures, summed up most knowledge available in his age.
Through Alcuin later in the century, Bede's learning influenced the
Carolingian Renaissance. Bede's best work, the Ecclesiastical History of the
English People, with its many original documents and vivid character sketches,
is our chief source for early British history.
d profited from certain
monopolies. He operated the only grain mill, oven for baking bread, and wine
and cider press on the manor, and he collected a toll each time these services
The Life of the Peasants
On the manors of the Middle Ages the margin between starvation and
survival was narrow, and the life of the peasant was not easy. Famines were
common; warfare was a consant threat; grasshoppers, locusts, caterpillars, and
rats repeatedly destroyed the crops. Men and women alike had to toil long
hours in the fields. A medieval poem vividly describes the life of a peasant
I saw a poor man o'er the plough bending ...
All befouled with mud, as he the plough
His wife walked by him with a long goad, ...
Barefoot on the bare ice, so that the blood
And at the field's end lay a little bowl,
And therein lay a little child wrapped in rags,
And twain of two years old upon another side;
And all of them sang a song that sorrow was
They cried all a cry, a sorrowful note,
And the poor man sighed sore, and said
"Children, be still." ^4
[Footnote 4: Quoted in E. M. Hulme, History of the British People (New York:
Century Co., 1929), pp. 121-122.]
The difficulties of peasant life were reflected in the home, a cottage
with mud walls, clay floor, and thatched roof. The fire burned on a flat
heartstone in the middle of the floor; and unless the peasant was rich enough
to afford a chimney, the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof. The windows
had no glass and were stuffed with straw in the winter. Furnishings were
meager, consisting usually of a table, a kneading trough for dough, a
cupboard, and a bed, often either a heap of straw or a box filled with straw,
which served the entire family. Pigs and chickens wandered about the cottage
continually, while the stable was frequently under the same roof, next to the
The peasants, despite their hard, monotonous life, enjoyed a few
pleasures. Wrestling was exceedingly popular, as were cockfighting, a crude
type of football, and fighting with quarter-staves, in which the contestants
stood an excellent chance of getting their heads bashed in. Around the porch
of the parish church the peasants often congregated to dance and sing on the
numerous holy days. The church preached in vain against "ballads and dancings
and evil and wanton songs and such-like lures of the Devil." The peasants
refused to give up these amusements, a small enough compensation for the
constant exploitation they suffered.