The Middle Ages did not begin in the year 500, although that date is often used in a shorthand way, a usage to which only the pedantic will take exception. Yet the world and western Europe, in particular, were little changed between 499 and 501. It makes more historical sense to see a period of time during which the ancient world was ending and the medieval world beginning. This age of transition, in which old and new were intermixed, lasted for several centuries, and the historical reality that emerged was essentially different from that which preceded, as different as the world of Charlemagne was from the world of Theodosius I. Even putting dates to this age of transition is hazardous, but dates placing these two historical figures at either end would fit the historical realities, very roughly from 400 to 750 (some call this period Late Antiquity.) At the end of the fourth century the historical focus was on the Mediterranean Sea and the lands of the Roman Empire along its entire littoral. Its southern boundary was the Sahara desert and its northern boundary at Hadrian’s Wall in Britain and along the lines of the Rhine and Danube Rivers from the North Sea to the Black Sea. In the eighth century that political and cultural world no longer existed. The Roman Empire that existed by that time was but a fragment: the eastern part of the old empire north of the Mediterranean Sea. This region – Iberia excepted – was under the political control of Germanic peoples. And the southern, eastern and even the western shores of the sea were controlled by a new and powerful force, Islam, whose world stretched from the Pyrenees to the Punjab. In the next chapter we shall briefly view the East, the attempts of Justinian to sew together that which was irreparable, and also the extraordinary emergence of Islam. But our main focus must be on western Europe, for the Middle Ages were a phenomenon of western Europe, although, to be sure, there were relations with neighbours, Byzantium and the Eastern Church to the east and Islam to the south and south-west. The geographical boundaries of medieval Europe had the Mediterranean as its southern boundary and, in time, extended beyond the Arctic Circle to the north. Its western boundary was the Great Sea and its eastern boundary the easternmost lands of the Germans, yet both of these boundaries were to expand. Any cultural map of medieval Europe from the tenth and eleventh centuries onwards would have to include Iceland and southern Greenland, and the eastern line moved further eastward – a medieval Drang nach Osten – as Slavic peoples adopted Latin Christianity.
The peoples in these lands were not the same at the beginning and end of this transition. The Romans and the Romanized people inhabited the Roman Empire, whereas medieval Europe had a decidedly Germanic element. Some scholars define the Middle Ages as the fusion of three elements: Roman, Germanic and Christian. An absolutely crucial phenomenon was the entrance and settlement of Germanic tribes within the old empire in the West. The empire after 487 – and some would say even earlier – had little effective power in the West. When the barbarian migration ended, political unity in the West was no more and a plurality of successor states had come into being under Germanic kings, and, when larger political ambitions were voiced, they were in the Germanic tones of Frankish kings. If the Roman world can be described as having an east–west axis, then the medieval world can be said to have a north–south axis that linked the Mediterranean peninsulas with lands to the north, even, in time, with the Scandinavian lands to the far north. These were changes not of a day but of centuries.
A word about terminology. Anthropologists see the complex elements in these peoples whom we call German and warn of the danger in calling these people ‘German’, whereas ‘German-speaking’ better respects their differences and their own social structures, where ethnic purity should not be assumed. Where the word ‘German’ is used here, let it be understood in this latter sense.
It would be easy to see the migration of Germanic peoples into the Roman Empire as the end result of events which took place in central Asia in the late first century AD. It might be said that, if the Chinese had not inflicted a devastating defeat on tribal peoples called the Hiung-nu (Huns), the Middle Ages would never have occurred. This domino theory of history sees a series of events leading from this defeat of the Huns to the dismemberment of the Roman Empire. The Huns, fierce warriors on horseback, licking their wounds, headed westward and eventually (and, indeed, abruptly) appeared in south-eastern Europe in the fourth century. To escape their fury the people who were in their way – various groups calling themselves Goths – moved westward, eventually into the empire, as did other similarly pressed Germanic peoples. The integrity of the empire was lost, and new structures replaced the old. So the domino theory goes.
There is, no doubt, some truth in this scenario and those events can be so described, but history as it unfolds is very rarely a sequence of simple causes: monocausality reduces the study of history to meaningless simplicities. Other factors occurred at every stage in these developments, and there were always pressures – economic, social and military – which could force peoples to move on. And there were inevitable minglings of peoples, which makes ethnic identities among migrating tribes difficult to verify. Although a sequence of migrations can be plotted on the map, the historian must allow for unmappable complexities and multiple causes.
The Germanic peoples who in the 370s lay in the path of the Hunnic horde had migrated south from homelands near the Baltic Sea over several centuries. Although these peoples had not been clearly differentiated there, the migrations produced more clearly defined groupings, called ‘tribes’ in our historiography. The Goths – a reminder of remote origins remains in the name of the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea – should not be seen on the eve of the Hunnic invasions as existing in a clear-cut division of two groups, Ostrogoths and Visigoths. These terms are anachronistic. They were not used in contemporary sources, where the peoples are simply
Map 2 Germanic settlement pattern c.534
commonly called Goths. Two groups are indeed known to us, but it would be rash indeed to think that there were not other Gothic peoples. The groupings that appear are (i) the Tervingi, who lived west of the Dneister River in Moldavia and perhaps in part of Wallachia, and (ii) the Greuthungi, who were in the steppeland north of the Black Sea and east of the Dneister. The Goths were a people who, no doubt with significant indigenous populations, lived in the lands between the Danube and the Don Rivers. It was these people, the Goths, whom the Huns met as they invaded the rich lands of the modern Ukraine in 376. More particularly, it was parts of these people living in the eastern regions of these Gothic lands who were stunned by the fierce – ferocious and beast-like, say hardly impartial sources – horde of the Huns. In desperation, refuge was sought within the confines of the empire, and in that year most, but not all, of the Tervingi and some of the Greuthungi, who had fled west, were allowed to enter the empire. Perhaps it was because the emperor Valens was distracted by troubles on the Persian frontier that he agreed that these Goths could cross the Danube and settle in northern Thrace. He further agreed to provision them in return for their military service when required. (The descendants of these Goths who crossed the Danube into Thrace in 376 would soon be called Visigoths, and we may now conveniently call them by that name.) Almost immediate discontent – not enough food soon enough – turned into violence. This caught Valens’s attention, but Roman miscalculations continued and the imperial army was defeated at Adrianople by these Visigoths (378), the emperor falling with his soldiers. While modern historians dispute the significance of this battle, its contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus had no doubt and prophetically called it ‘this irreparable disaster, whose consequences will long weigh upon the destinies of the empire’. Thereafter, Germans were to be a constant feature within the Roman Empire, and, whatever the arguments of some modern historians, the world was never the same after Adrianople.
The Roman Empire towards the end of the fourth century, before the Gothic incursions across the Danube and their military successes, was little different in size and shape from the empire of 200 years earlier. The external boundaries were virtually the same. The northern boundary, the great stretch of the Rivers Rhine and Danube with a system of fortifications (limes) standing between them near their headwaters, was always the most difficult frontier to maintain. It was extended at one point to include the province of Dacia, from which Romania traces itself. The major changes concerned internal divisions, chiefly the work of Diocletian (284–305): the one empire had two emperors, one in the West in Rome and the other in the East in Constantinople, each with a Caesar assisting. These internal administrative divisions notwithstanding, the empire was intact in 376. Yet by the early sixth century it was a different world. From 476 there was no emperor in the West, and the Eastern emperor had only nominal authority west of the Adriatic. In the West itself, Germanic kings ruled where once ruled Augustus, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimus Severus and Constantine. The Vandals, their name now, perhaps unfairly, having a pejorative meaning, had crossed the upper Rhine, pillaged their way through Gaul and Iberia before settling in North Africa. Behind them, as it were, came the Visigoths, who, several decades after Adrianople, marched into Italy, briefly ‘sacked’ Rome (410) and, for want of food, moved into south-western Gaul before being pushed by the Franks into what became their historical home, Visigothic Spain. The Ostrogoths – i.e., the Grethungi and others – followed later still, and the emperor adeptly sent them westward, where by 500 they ruled Italy, their leader there calledpatricius and never imperator. Those Germans living east of the Rhine were of a different sort, particularly the Franks, who were to become major players in medieval history. The Franks crossed the Rhine and, in various groupings, settled in northern parts of Roman Gaul. By 500 they had a single ruler, Clovis, whose land stretched from what is south-western Germany across Gaul to the Atlantic waters of the Bay of Biscay. Other Germanic peoples were taking control of once Roman lands, as, for example, the Burgundians in the Rhone valley. Britain had been abandoned by the Roman legions (c.410), and its native Celtic people (the Britons) were left with little defence against invading Anglo-Saxons.
This much different situation of the early sixth century should not tempt us to conclude that Roman culture was stamped out in a West now ruled by Germanic kings: it was not. That Theodoric, the Ostrogothic king of Italy, never attempted to use the title of emperor is telling. Earlier, according to the historian Orosius, the Visigothic king Ataulf, who had married Placidia, sister of the emperor,
decided to seek for himself the glory of restoring the fame of Rome in all its fullness and of adding to it by the power of the Goths, for he wanted to be remembered by posterity as the restorer of the Roman Empire, since he could not alter it.
Latin, its classical purity now well in decline, was still the dominant tongue, and the languages spoken today in these places, with only minor exceptions, are Romance languages, offsprings of Latin (Italian in Italy, French in France, Spanish and Portuguese in Iberia). No one would argue that the parts of Romania ruled by German kings experienced a golden age, but a period of cultural decline might well have occurred even without the coming of the Germans. Probably never large in number – estimates yield conflicting results – the Germans were never more than a minority in Italy, Iberia and southern Gaul.
The coming of the Germans posed serious issues for the Catholic church. When these peoples entered the empire, none of them was Catholic: they were either Arian or pagan. Crucial in the first stage of the conversion of the Goths and others to Christianity was the mission of Ulfilas (c.311–83). He was part Greek and part Goth, and on his Greek side he was Christian. His grandparents had been taken away from their native Cappadocia and abducted by the Goths to their lands to the north. It was the bilingual, Christian Ulfilas who was the pivotal figure in the early Christianization of the Germans. In 341, while at Constantinople with an embassy of Goths, he was made a bishop with a mission to convert his fellow Goths. To say he was a Christian is to tell only part of the story: he, in fact, was an Arian Christian and an Arian bishop and an Arian missionary to his fellow Goths. Their conversion to Arian Christianity contained the seeds of future problems. Besides his missionary successes, Ulfilas accomplished two remarkable feats: he created the written Gothic language by inventing its alphabet and then he translated the Greek Bible into Gothic. When the Visigoths entered the empire in 376, they were led by Fritigern, a convert, and they had Ulfilas in their company. That their holy book was in the German language and their religious services were also in the same language – not as surprising as it may seem, since the West had services in the vernacular, i.e., Latin – served to facilitate the conversion of their German brothers to Arian Christianity, as they, in turn, entered the empire. Thus, the Ostrogoths in Italy practised what the native Christians considered a heretical form of Christianity. And so it was in North Africa that the Arian Vandals harshly persecuted Catholics. The Visigoths, while in southern Gaul and later in Spain, were long faithful to the religion of Ulfilas.
Two societies, then, were to be found in the West in the fifth century, one Germanic and Arian and the other Roman and Catholic. That there were hostile relations between these two societies is clear enough. Arian Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 and sent a chill through the empire, yet, in truth, they stayed only a short while before moving on in their quest for food. After their settlement in Spain, the Visigoths continued to profess Arianism for over 100 years. Also, it is true that St Augustine died at Hippo in North Africa while the Arrian Vandals besieged his city and that the Vandals decimated the higher ranks of old Roman, Catholic society in their new land. Yet all was not hostility, and remarkable men and achievements give an irenic tint to the picture. Theodoric, the Ostrogothic king of Italy (493–526), while at Ravenna, built the finely decorated church of S. Apollinare Nuovo. In general, he tolerated Catholic Christianity. During the period of Ostrogothic rule in Italy, eminent Catholic writers wrote works which were to resonate for centuries.
Boethius (c.480–524), representing the full flower of Christian Rome, the scion of a senatorial family, was appointed magister officiorum by Theodoric in 522. His imprisonment in the following year on charges of conspiring with the Byzantine emperor against the king (which he strongly denied) gave the world the classic Consolations of Philosophy, which would later be found in virtually every medieval library. It was among the first books translated into vernacular languages – by King Alfred into Old English, by Chaucer into Middle English and by Queen Elizabeth I into modern English. At its end, Philosophy tells Boethius, ‘It is not in vain that you place your hope in God, nor are your prayers to him in vain. … Your life is known by the judge who knows all.’ In the event, Boethius was brutally executed at Pavia as a traitor. In danger of being lost to sight because of the brilliance and dramatic circumstances of the Consolations is the scheme that Boethius started, but never finished, of translating the works of the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato into Latin. He lived long enough to do the logical works of Aristotle, but his execution deprived the West of Greek thought at that time, a loss which was not made good until the twelfth century. It is not entirely idle to speculate how vastly different the intellectual life of the Middle Ages would have been if Boethius had lived to complete his work. Sir Richard Southern has called him ‘the schoolmaster of medieval Europe’.
Theodoric, in need of Latinists to compose official documents, took on another member of the senatorial class, Cassiodorus (490–c.583). His Variae is a collection of documents which he composed for the Ostrogothic king; they reveal a skilled rhetorician. Royal employment was but a prelude to his founding the monastery of Vivarium in Calabria, where he was to write the influential Institutiones (c.562). A description of the curriculum for his monks, the Institutiones exercised a profound influence on the history of the West. By dividing his treatise into two parts, the first concerning biblical study and the second concerning secular study of the seven liberal arts, Cassiodorus allowed, probably not by design, the separation of religious studies from secular studies. Knowledge of the liberal arts could have a place on its own, separate from religious knowledge. The full title of this work underlines this distinction: Institutiones divinarum et saecularium litterarum (Institutions of divine and secular learning). Only three of the surviving manuscripts of the Institutiones have both parts, the rest have either part one or part two, thus emphasizing this bifurcation. To a very large extent the position of the liberal arts in the medieval schools and, indeed, the modern universities owes much to this sixth-century Christian Roman intellectual.
More difficult to assess is the historical importance of the contemporary of Boethius and Cassiodorus, the monk Benedict of Nursia (c.480–c.550). Although St Benedict is frequently hailed as the ‘Patriarch of Western Monasticism’, it is highly doubtful that such a title can be justified by historical evidence. Why such a sobriquet in the first place? Traditional historiography described this holy man in a version which was long received. He came, it is said, to Rome from near Spoleto as a young student, but, appalled by the excesses of the city, he went off to live as a hermit at Subiaco in the Sabine hills near Rome. Later he founded the best known of Christian monasteries at Monte Cassino on a hill above the town of Cassianum near Naples, a monastery unnecessarily destroyed by allied forces in 1944. His posthumous fame rests solely on the Rule of St Benedict, which, in time, was to become the blueprint for the monastic order in the Middle Ages and beyond. The rule describes the life of cenobitical monks – they ate together a common meal (coena) – under the kindly authority of an abbot. It was a life of dedication, yet a life of moderation, avoiding extremes of laxity and severity. The rule strikes the modern reader as sensible, discreet, practical and, in a word, liveable. We read, ‘And so we establish a school for God’s service (dominici scola servitii), in which we hope we are founding an institution where there is nothing harsh or burdensome (nihil asperum, nihil grave).’ He outlined a stable community with a life lived in prayer (opus dei, the work of God) and work. The abbot should mitigate the rule for the aged and infirm. This rule with its lofty idealism and pragmatic flexibility recommended itself to the ages. It is on this subsequent success of the Rule of St Benedict that hinges the historical place of Benedict of Nursia. What we know about his life is largely, almost singly, derived from his biography written by Pope Gregory the Great about 593, over four decades after Benedict’s death. A work of hagiography, Gregory’s life attributes miracles to Benedict – he made water flow from rocks – and gives the essential lines of his life, summarized above. About the rule, Gregory merely commended it for its discretion and clarity, but he showed no indication that he was familiar with it. The sixth-century abbot Benedict would be but a minor footnote to the history of that period were it not for his rule. Yet St Benedict did not write the Rule of St Benedict as it now stands. Very large sections of this rule were taken substantially from the older Rule of the Master and other sections contain striking parallels and echoes of the older rule too. The most famous parts of the Rule of St Benedict (e.g. the prologue, the chapters on obedience, on silence, on the steps of humility) are not the work of St Benedict. Hugh Lawrence writes that ‘all the essentials of St Benedict’s Rule are to be found in the works of his unknown predecessor’. Of course, it must be granted to St Benedict that he organized what became known as his rule and added some notable contributions of his own to the work of the Master and that this rule became the model for monasticism in the Middle Ages. Benedict’s historical place belongs somewhere between patriarch of western monasticism and a minor Italian abbot.
Conversion of the Franks
It was as pagans, not Arian Christians, that the Franks entered the Roman Empire in the fifth century. Theirs was not an immigration en masse into Roman lands. They expanded from lands north and east of the Rhine: the Salian Franks from the lands near the saline sea (the North Sea) north of the upper Rhine, and the Ripuarian Franks from the lands east of the banks (ripa) of the middle Rhine. The former entered into the Roman province of Belgica Secunda, establishing themselves at Tournai, where among their early chieftains was Merovech, whose name was given to the dynasty (i.e., Merovingian). The Ripuarians crossed the Rhine in the area now called the Rhineland and Luxembourg, taking such cities as Cologne, Trier and Metz. The two branches of Franks became united under the Merovingian king Clovis. Few moments in European history were truly as momentous in their consequences as the conversion of the Frankish king Clovis to Catholic Christianity (c.500), about the sincerity of which contemporary sources leave little doubt. It is unfortunate that much of what we know of Clovis comes from the description given by Gregory of Tours in his Histories of the Franks, a hostile secondary source written more than six decades after the death of Clovis. There we see a cruel, treacherous, cunning perpetrator of ruses and assassinations, the very stereotype of the worst kind of barbarian. Primary sources, the only truly reliable evidence for him, show another Clovis: the embodiment of the synthesis of Roman, Germanic and Christian attributes, who, in a remarkable way, did much to shape the emerging medieval world. By moving south, first, to the lands between the Seine and the Loire and, later, by defeating the Arian Visigoths (507), thus incorporating much of southern Gaul, Clovis gave the general contours to what was known as Francia and now France, which, thanks to Clovis’s conversion (c.500), can claim to be ‘the eldest daughter of the church’. His contemporary Geneviève constructed a substantial church at the burial site of St Denis near Paris, and, at her grave on the hill that still bears her name (Mont Ste Geneviève) on the left bank of the Seine, Clovis built a church, where in 511 his body was buried: the person whose conversion ensured the eventual conversion of other Germanic peoples to Catholic orthodoxy.
Roman Gaul was long a Catholic province, and, thus, to the Romans, the Frankish converts were fellow believers rather than hostile heretics. There had long been bishops in Christian Gaul; they and their flocks could view the Franks as liberators from the Arian Visigoths. Notable among these bishops was Caesarius of Arles (d. 542), a dedicated pastor of souls, some of whose sermons still survive. In the year in which Clovis was to die, Caesarius called the Gallo-Roman bishops to a council at Orléans. The Franks did not overturn nor did they attempt to overturn the existing ecclesiastical organization: each bishop ruled over a diocese (parochia), which corresponded to the Roman city (civitas). By 575 the son of a senatorial family, Gregory, became bishop of Tours, within whose jurisdiction came the bishoprics of Le Mans, Rennes, Angers, Nantes and four others. For the years 575 to 591 Gregory’s Ten Books of Histories – only centuries later called History of the Franks – is a contemporary account of Francia and, especially, of the church in Francia. The conversion of the Franks was attained only in a limited sense by the ceremony of baptism: what in fact occurred, in Rosamond McKitterick’s words, was ‘a very gradual process by which the very complexion and context of Frankish society, its religion, ethics, law and social institutions, became completely transformed’.
The Arian Visigoths, now pushed south of the Pyrenees by the Franks, established themselves in Spain as a minority in a Hispano-Roman, Catholic population. Before the sixth century was out, there was accomplished what the sword of Clovis had not, the conversion of the Visigoths. Their great king Leovigild (568–86), faced with the conversion of his son Hermenegild (579), launched a persecution against Catholics. His successor, Recared I (586–601), was converted shortly after his succession, and he then summoned bishops, Catholic and Arian, to a meeting at his capital at Toledo. There at the Third Council of Toledo (589) Catholicism became the official religion of the Visigothic state. Although some Arians refused conversion, the Visigoths, in general, quickly adopted the Catholic faith. An aspect of Visigothic rule that was perhaps not a precedent strictly speaking was the treatment of the Jews, which reminds one of a later chapter in Spanish history. King Sisebut (612–20) gave the Jews the choice between baptism and banishment. Those who remained – the banished fled to Gaul – constituted a majority of the Jews, and they became the first in a long line of crypto-Jews. The scholarly archbishop of Seville, Isidore, opposed this order and, with other bishops, succeeded in having it overturned at the Fourth Council of Toledo (633). The effect was only temporary: subsequent councils of Toledo (notably the Sixth in 638 and the Eighth in 653) renewed anti-Jewish canons. Before the light of Visigothic Spain was extinguished by Islam (711–19), it had been dimmed for some time. The only recent light of any brilliance was Isidore of Seville (d. 636), who knew, often through intermediaries, many of the great works of the ancient and early Christian worlds. With his greatest work, Etymologies, Isidore joined Cicero, Augustine, Jerome, Boethius and Cassiodorus as one of the most popular authors of the Middle Ages. Extant today in over 1,000 manuscripts, Etymologies contained much more than the etymological derivations of words: it was a virtual encyclopedia of what was known at the time. Its 20 books treat such subjects as medicine, law, the liberal arts, God and his angels and saints, the earth and universe as well as pastimes, food, drink and furniture. It has been called ‘the basic book of the entire Middle Ages’. Bede, in far-off Northumbria a century later, borrowed heavily from Isidore for his De natura rerum (On the Nature of Things). Yet Isidore was more than a compiler of extant knowledge; his use of sources, particularly with regard to moral behaviour, reveals a practical emphasis. This bishop of Seville has enjoyed a long life in his writings, a life that in Europe lasted till the Reformation and in Spain in some ways into modern times.
Conversion of the Irish
Events at the uttermost extremity of Europe were to have enormous influences on medieval history. The Romans had conquered Celtic peoples in much of Britain – fortifications across the Forth–Clyde isthmus marked the northern frontier – but never attempted to extend their sway over the island they called Hibernia. Despite the boast of the Roman general Agricola that he could take Ireland with ‘one legion and
Map 3 Early Christian Ireland
some auxiliaries’, the land which the Romans on a clear day could see to the west remained outside the Roman world. The Celtic people living there, the Scotti, who later expanded from the north-east of Ireland across the narrow waters to the land that was to bear their name, played a remarkable part in the development of the Christian church. About the time that Christianity arrived in Ireland only one thing is certain: it was before the coming of St Patrick. History and myth are not easy to separate in this story. The best modern opinion identifies two separate missions to Ireland. The earliest (from 431) was by the bishop Palladius, who was sent as bishop to Ireland by Pope Celestine to care for Christians already there. His mission was concentrated in eastern Ireland (later to be called Leinster). The second mission was by the bishop Patrick, sent by his fellow bishops from Britain in the second half of the fifth century. He was active particularly in the west of Ireland (modern Co. Mayo and surrounding regions). Some conflation of the accounts of these two missions occurred in the seventh century. Patrick’s influence has become the dominant one in the conversion narrative owing in large part to the fact that Patrick, unlike Palladius, left writings, especially his Confessions. From his writings we learn that the Christian Patrick was from Britain, the son of a Roman official, that at age 16 he was carried off into slavery in Ireland, where he remained for six years, that he escaped and that, back in Britain, he heard in a dream the voices of the Irish calling him back. He confesses further that he baptized thousands, ordained countless priests, received the sons and daughters of kings as monks and virgins, and in one place he described himself as ‘bishop to the Irish’. Yet he came not as a missionary but as a pastor to the Christians already there and only later preached in the places of the heathen. Patrick made the friendship of local kings, and he also created bishops as Palladius no doubt had also done. Had Palladius written an autobiographical work, one can speculate that he rather than Patrick may have become known as the Apostle of Ireland.
Plate 1 Church and round tower, Clonmacnois, Co. Offaly. Reproduced by permission of the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Within 100 years of Patrick’s mission dozens of monasteries were scattered in every part of the island. Near the year 500 there was a bishop-abbot at Armagh and a woman, only centuries later said to be Brigid, had founded a community of holy women at Kildare, which only much later became a double community of men and women under an abbess. Perhaps more important was Darerca, who, early in the sixth century, established a community for women. About all this we would like to know much more, but, alas, reliable sources fail us. To mention only some founders of other monasteries known to have existed at a slightly later date: St Enda on the Aran Islands, St Kieran at Clonmacnois, overlooking the River Shannon on its east bank, St Finian at Clonard, St Brendan at Clonfert, St Kevin at Glendalough (‘the valley of the two lakes’), St Finbar on the island at Cork, St Columba at Durrow west of Dublin and also at Derry in the north. In no more dramatic place did Irish monks seek God in solitude than near the top of the 700 foot rock soaring out of the Atlantic eight miles from the Kerry coast: Skellig Michael with its bee-hive cells and oratories. Yet the view that Patrick imposed an ecclesiastical organization based on bishops which was soon replaced by one based on abbots can no longer be held. The post-Patrician Irish church had a more complicated structure. There were, indeed, great monasteries and their daughters, which together formed federations, but there were also churches allied to great families as well as ‘free’ churches. Bishops, probably following the lines of the tuaths (local tribal groupings), exercised a pastoral role over their churches and clergy. There was no master plan for organizing the Irish church: what happened was determined by local conditions, and that different structures existed should not surprise us.
The Irish monasticism of this period had three marked characteristics. First, the monks lived stark lives, exposed to the whims of nature and intensified by physical penances. Saints are reputed to have spent nights standing in ice-cold water, while reciting the psalms. Denying the body food, imposing hardships on the body by long vigils and by harsh pilgrimages would have produced an immediate and unmistakable impact as, indeed, would the vigilia crucis (standing in prayer with arms extended cross-like for long periods), repeated genuflections, self-flagellations and prolonged total fasts.
Second, the emphasis on penance. Penitentials, manuals for confessors, existed in Ireland in the sixth century and were to be introduced to the Continent by Celtic and English missionaries. Their appearance coincided with the practice of individuals confessing their sins to a priest followed by absolution and the imposition of a penance. Penitentials gave lists of appropriate penances for specific sins. For example in one Irish book of the late seventh century we read,
The penance for murders is seven years on bread and water.
The penance for a mother who kills her own child is twelve years on bread and water.
The penance for eating horse meat is four years on bread and water.
The practice of commuting penalties to prayers relieved some of their severity, but, later, the Franks were to object to the commuting of penalties to the payment of fines. For centuries such penitential books provided the clergy – or at least many of them – with practical instruction in the care of souls.
In this context of penances should be seen the peculiarly Irish practice of the Pilgrimage for Christ (peregrinatio pro Christo), by which monks would leave the security of their monastery to live in voluntary exile in strange places among strange peoples or in places where there were no people at all. It was this act of penance that brought not only monks like Columba to Iona and Columbanus to the Continent but also unnamed Irish monks to uninhabited places like the Faroe Islands, 190 miles north of the Shetland islands, and even to Iceland, far out in the North Atlantic, and, further still, according to legend, to lands to the west.
These peregrini were not missionaries in the ordinary sense, yet it would be incorrect not to call those who travelled east to the European mainland missionary monks. In Professor Riché’s words, they were ‘missionaries in spite of themselves’. On the Continent Columbanus took it as his duty ‘to visit the peoples and preach the Gospel to them’. So did his disciples. The mind boggles at the extent of the Irish monastic journeys to the East. Columba’s monastery on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland served as a centre for the conversion of the Picts. It was at that thriving monastery that some time later the Book of Kells, the finest example of insular manuscript illumination, was probably produced. If we can date Columba’s foundation at Iona to 563, as we perhaps should, then it was only a scant three score years before Iona answered the invitation of Oswald, king of Northumbria, to send monks into his kingdom. In 635 Aidan and the usual twelve monks left Iona and founded Lindisfarne, again on an island, off the north-east coast of England.
The extent of the travels of Columbanus is fairly well known to us. In 590 or 591 this monk of Bangor in Ulster went with twelve companions on their pilgrimage. Before his death in 615 Columbanus had travelled into what we today call France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy, meeting with kings and bishops and opening influential monasteries at Luxeuil, Corbie and Bobbio. These, in turn, spawned countless daughter monasteries. How many others were there who, while not so colourful and prominent as Columbanus, carried Irish monastic ways deep into the European mainland, we may never know. We know that Fergil was at Salzburg and Kilian at Würzburg and others at Regensburg and Vienna in the German lands. Still others were at Lucca and Fiesole in Italy, and perhaps St Cataldo, who died in Taranto in Apulia on his way to the Holy Land, was an Irish monk named Cathal.
This extraordinary spread of Irish monasticism on the Continent brought with it the Rule of St Columbanus. This Irish rule reflected Irish asceticism and emphasized severity, particularly physical severity. The Irish rule stated as its guiding principle, ‘The chief part of the monk’s rule is mortification.’ Violations of the rule were to be punished harshly:
He who fails to say grace at table or to answer ‘Amen’ will be punished with six blows. Also, he who speaks while eating, not because of the needs of another brother, will be punished with six blows.
If through negligence, forgetfulness or carelessness a monk spills an unusual amount of liquids or solids, he will be given the long pardon in church by prostrating himself without moving any limb while the other monks sing twelve psalms at the twelfth hour.
A monk who coughs while chanting the beginning of a psalm will be punished with six blows. Also, he who bites the cup of salvation with his teeth, six blows. He who receives the blessed bread with unclean hands, twelve blows. If a monk comes late to prayers, fifty lashes. If he comes noisily, fifty lashes … If he makes a noise during prayers, fifty lashes.
This physical severity did not recommend itself to monks on the Continent. Mixed monasteries, which combined the Columban and Benedictine rules, appeared in the sixth century, and, in the end, it was the more moderate and flexible Rule of St Benedict that prevailed and became the predominant form of monasticism in medieval Europe.
Third, the place of learning in the Irish monastery is universally acknowledged. The judgement of Bernhard Bischoff stands: ‘Ireland just a century after its conversion to Christianity became one of the dynamic forces shaping the future civilization of Europe.’ The extent to which Irish monasteries used original texts of classical and early Christian writers may not have been great – intermediaries were used, perhaps even to a large extent – but the significance of the Irish contribution to learning lies elsewhere, in two interrelated ways. In the first place, by the sixth century a way – a pedagogy – was developed in Ireland by which a foreign language, Latin, could be learned from books. The holy books – the Bible and the ceremonials – were all in Latin. It was not only the liturgical but also the theological language of the church to which they were converted. Hence, it was required for ministers of this religion to learn this utterly foreign language, and they learned Latin much as modern students learn it: through the study of grammar and word lists. Although Patrick, calling himself ‘a most uncultivated man’, had apologized for his Latin, Columbanus had no need to apologize: he had a vital, verbose and vigorous style, a style developed from the book-learning of Latin. This form of pedagogy created by the Irish was later brought to the court of Charlemagne by the English monk Alcuin and became a major influence on the subsequent learning of the universal language of the Middle Ages. And Irish monks contributed to Western civilization in another way: they not only studied manuscripts, they copied them. Their biblical and grammatical commentaries went with them to the Continent. The libraries at Bobbio, St Gaul and, later, Salzburg, which were to become manuscript centres, owed their existence and their considerable influence as transmitters of ancient learning to monks who had come as pilgrims from the westernmost part of the known world.
Before continuing the story of the conversion of Germanic peoples, we must look to the East and see the transformation there that defined the Middle Ages.
Alden Rollins has compiled two helpful works of reference: The Fall of Rome: A Reference Guide (Jefferson, NC, and London, 1983) and Rome in the Fourth Century: An Annotated Bibliography with Historical Overview (Jefferson, NC, and London, 1991). For an important work which is both learned and accessible see Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, A.D. 150–750 (London, 1971). Chris Wickham provides an important description and analysis of the social and economic history of this period in hisFraming the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400–800 (Oxford, 2005). R.W. Southern has written the enormously influential The Making of the Middle Ages (London, 1953 and frequently reprinted). Examining the changes within the Christian world from the fourth to the sixth centuries is Robert A. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge, 1990). For a description of the upheavals of the fifth century see Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford, 2005).
For the end of the Roman Empire in the West and the impact of the Germanic migrations see Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (Oxford, 2006), which argues that it was not internal problems that caused the Roman Empire in the West to end but the barbarian invasions. Guy Halsall provides a detailed political survey with anthropological and archaeological emphases in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376–568 (Cambridge, 2007). Describing residual paganism and the gradual assimilation of some pagan practices is Ramsay MacMullen’s Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to the Eighth Centuries (New Haven, 1997).
For the history of specific Germanic peoples see Thomas S. Burns, A History of the Ostrogoths (Bloomington, IN, 1984), Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths (tr. Thomas J. Dunlap; Berkeley, CA, 1988) and three studies by Peter Heather, Goths and Romans, 332–489 (Oxford, 1991), The Goths (Oxford, 1996) and ‘The Huns and the End of the Roman Empire in Western Europe’, English Historical Review 110 (1995) 4–41. For a work that discusses ethnic identity of ‘Roman’ and ‘Gothic’ in an increasingly complex society see Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489–554 (Cambridge, 1997) and for the period after their settlement in the old Roman Empire see the articles in On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages(Andrew Gillett, ed.; Turnhout, 2002). A collection of essays, many seminal to later debates, is From Roman Provinces to Medieval Kingdoms (Thomas F.X. Noble, ed.; London, 2006). Volume 3 of The Cambridge History of Christianity is Early Medieval Christianities, c.600–c.1100 (Thomas F.X. Noble, and Julia M.H. Smith, eds; Cambridge, 2008), which contains scholarly articles on significant aspects of this period. Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy is available in a Penguin Classics translation by V.E. Watts (Harmondsworth, Mddsx, 1969).
For Visigothic Spain the reader will find useful E.A. Thompson, The Goths in Spain (Oxford, 1969); Edward James, ed., Visigothic Spain: New Approaches (Oxford, 1980) and Roger Collins, Visigothic Spain, 409–711 (Oxford, 2004) as well as the latter’s The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710– 797 (Oxford, 1989). Peter Heather, ed., The Visigoths From the Migration Period to the Seventh Century: An Ethnographic Perspective (Studies in Historical Archaeoethnology, vol. 4; Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1999) is a remarkable series of essays, including two on the early history of the Goths. A learned study of one aspect of the influence of Visigothic learning is Jocelyn N. Hillgarth’s article, ‘Ireland and Spain in the Seventh Century’, Peritia 3 (1984) 1–16. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville is available in English translation (trs S. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, O. Berghof; Cambridge, 2006).
For the Franks see J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Long-Haired Kings (London, 1962), Edward James, The Origins of France (London, 1982) and The Franks (Oxford, 1988), Patrick J. Geary, Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World (New York, 1988) and Ian Wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450–751 (London, 1994). For Clovis, of particular use is William M. Daly’s important article, ‘Clovis: How Barbaric, How Pagan?’, Speculum 69 (1994), 619–64. Gregory of Tour’s History of the Franks is available as a Penguin Classic (tr. Lewis Thorpe; Hammondsworth, Mddsx, 1974). The reader will find useful Martin Heinzelmann, Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century (tr. Christopher Carroll; Cambridge, 2001). For Gregory and others historians see Walter Goffart, Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550–800) (Princeton, 1988).
The best introduction to monasticism is C.H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism (3rd edn; London, 2000). There are many English translations of the Rule of St Benedict, among which that in booklet form (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 1982 and frequently reprinted) may be the most accessible. The locus classicus in English on the relation of Benedict’s rule to the Rule of the Master is David Knowles, ‘The Regula Magistri and the Rule of St Benedict’, Great Historical Enterprises: Problems in Monastic History(London, 1963), pp. 139–95. A challenge to the views presented in this chapter has been made by Marilyn Dunn, ‘Mastering Benedict: Monastic Rules and their Authority in the Early Medieval West’, English Historical Review 105 (1990), 567–94, to which Adalbert de Vogue has replied in ‘The Master and St Benedict: A Reply to Marilyn Dunn’, English Historical Review 107 (1992), 95–103.
For Ireland there is the masterful work of T.M. Charles-Edward, Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge, 2000); chapters 5 and 6 treat the missions to Ireland. The reader will find a judicious summary, analysis and translation of early sources in Liam de Paor, St Patrick’s World: The Christian Culture of Ireland’s Apostolic Age (Notre-Dame, IN, 1993). The often neglected role of women is studied in Christina Harrington, Women in a Celtic Church (Oxford, 2002). A charming book with great learning worn lightly is Ludwig Bieler, Ireland, Harbinger of the Middle Ages (London, 1963). Still of value is J. Ryan, Irish Monasticism: Origins and Early Development (2nd edn; Dublin, 1972). The approach of historians to the question of the organization of the early Irish church can be seen in three stages: (1) Kathleen Hughes, Early Christian Ireland: Introduction to the Sources (London, 1972), pp. 44–110; (2) Richard Sharpe, ‘Some Problems Concerning the Organization of the Church in Early Medieval Ireland’, Peritia 3 (1984), 230–70; and (3) Colmán Etchingham, Church Organization in Ireland, AD 650 to 1000 (Maynooth, 1999). Other useful works are H.B. Clark and Mary Brennan, eds, Columbanus and Merovingian Monasticism (Oxford, 1981) and the article by Donnchadh Ó Córráin, ‘Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland’, in The Oxford History of Ireland (ed. R.F. Foster; Oxford, 1992), pp. 1–43 (with a bibliography, pp. 282–85). The Rule of St Columbanus in facing Latin text and English translation can be found in the edition by G.S.M. Walker, Sancti Columbani Opera (Scriptores Latini Hiberniae, vol. 2; Dublin, 1957). The founding and early history of the Columban monastery at Bobbio are described by Michael Richter in Bobbio in the Early Middle Ages: The Abiding Legacy of Columbanus(Dublin, 2008). Richard Sharpe’s translation of Life of St. Columba by Adomnán of Iona is available as a Penguin Classic (London, 1995). Bernhard Bischoff’s wide-ranging essays are available in an English translation by Michael M. Gorman,Manuscripts and Libraries in the Age of Charlemagne (Cambridge, 1995). For penitentials see J.T. McNeill and H.M. Garner, Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation (New York, 1938) and Ludwig Bieler, ed., The Irish Penitentials (Dublin, 1963). For a later period see Sarah Hamilton, The Practice of Penance, 900–1050 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, and Rochester, NY, 2001).