St Gregory the Great to St Boniface

The years from the accession of Gregory the Great as pope (590) to the death of St Boniface (754) witnessed the fashioning of the set on which would be played out the story of the church in the Middle Ages. To suggest this does not imply that no dynamics followed. On the contrary, dynamics there indeed were aplenty, but the general context had been established by the middle of the eighth century: an active papacy, allied with the Frankish kings, and a Christian population throughout all western Europe except Scandinavia. Saving the place of the Frankish kings, which will be treated in the next chapter, here we shall see the development of papal power, the movement of Christianity into the islands off Europe’s north-west shores and from there back to large parts of the Continent, and the role which learning played. No better starting place than with Pope Gregory I.

Gregory the Great

It might seem idle to raise the question, Who was the greatest pope of the Middle Ages? Many candidates will appear in these pages, yet the historian knows that the measure of greatness reveals something of the historian’s own values, and, in any case, different times require different human qualities of leadership. That having been said, a strong case might be made that at the head of any such list should be the name of Pope Gregory the Great (590–604). A near contemporary description of Gregory is unique for popes of the early Middle Ages. A picture of him was made at his death, and it was described by John the Deacon, who saw it in the ninth century:

His figure was of ordinary height and was well made. His face was a happy medium between the length of his father’s face and the roundness of his mother’s face, so that with a certain roundness it seemed to be of very comely length. His beard was like his father’s, of a rather tawny colour and of moderate length. He was rather bald, so that in the middle of his forehead he had two small, neat curls, twisted towards the right. The crown of his head was round and large, his darkish hair being nicely curled and hanging down as far as the middle of his ear. His forehead was high, his eyebrows long and elevated. His eyes had dark pupils and, though not large, were open, under full eyelids. His nose from the starting point of his curving eyebrows was thin and straight, broader about the middle, slightly aquiline and expanded at the nostrils. His mouth was red, his lips thick and subdivided. His cheeks were well-shaped, and his chin of a comely prominence from the confines of the jaws. His colour was swarthy and ruddy … His expression was kindly. He had beautiful hands with tapering fingers, well suited for writing.

(Consul of God, p. 44)

A modern artist might indeed be able to reconstruct a fair likeness of the only pope to whom history has given the sobriquet ‘the Great’. Gregory came from a distinguished Roman family, influential in affairs civil and ecclesiastical. His great-grandfather was Pope Felix III (483–92), and he was collaterally related to Pope Agapitus I (535–36). Responding to the exigencies of the time, Gregory, as a young man of the aristocratic class, served in the civic administration of the city of Rome, almost certainly becoming prefect in 572. When his father died in 574, he used what must have been a substantial inheritance to found six monasteries in Sicily and turned the family home on the Caelian Hill in Rome into a monastery dedicated to St Andrew. There, at the monastery of St Andrew, Gregory became not abbot but monk-founder. The near crippling circumstances of the times did not allow him the quiet life of a monk. The pope made him a deacon and his closest adviser. Gregory adopted the title ‘servant of the servants of God’ (servus servorum dei), a title which he later used as pope and which has been used by popes ever since, if not always with the same appropriateness.

A few words must be said about the state of Italy at the time of Gregory. It will be recalled that Justinian’s wars against the Ostrogoths were prolonged (535–54) and left in their wake widespread devastation. Rome itself was besieged three times in 546. Milan was almost entirely levelled. At the end of the war a Pragmatic Sanction was imposed by Justinian: Italy would now become a province of the empire ruled from Constantinople by an exarch at Ravenna (not Rome). Before the details of this settlement could be worked out, the Lombards took over much of Italy, establishing themselves in the north and in the two southern duchies of Spoleto and Benevento. The results left the city of Rome and its environs connected only by a narrow corridor (the Via Flaminia) to the territory held by the exarch in the north-east. In a fluid situation, with the Lombard lust for land far from satisfied and boundaries far from fixed, the parts of Italy still under imperial control stood in dire peril from the Lombard invaders. With the meagre imperial forces largely concentrated along the corridor, Rome itself was left with sparse defences.

In this situation the pressing need of assistance from the empire was clearly seen, and Pope Pelagius (579–90), whose predecessor died while Lombards had the city under siege, almost immediately upon his election sent his deacon Gregory, the future pope, to Constantinople with a message pleading with the emperor to come to the help of ancient Rome:

So great are the calamities and tribulations we suffer from the perfidy of the Lombards, in spite of their solemn promises, that no one could adequately describe them … The Empire is in so critical a situation that, unless God prevails on the heart of our most pious prince to show his servants the pity he feels and to grant them a commander or general, then we are lost. For the territory around Rome is completely undefended and the exarch writes that he can do nothing for us, being unable himself to defend the region around Ravenna. May God bid the emperor to come to our aid with all speed before the army of that impious nation, the Lombards, shall have seized the lands that still form part of the Empire.

Gregory’s mission failed, not least because the emperors, stretched almost beyond their resources in the East, were simply unable to provide much help. In 582 the new emperor, Maurice (582–602), sent as exarch the able Smaragdus to reorganize defences and to try for an alliance with the Franks against the Lombards. When Gregory returned to Rome in 586, he again served as deacon to Pope Pelagius. But the difficulties of the city were soon compounded by the affliction of the plague that had been present in the Mediterranean basin since the time of Justinian. Concurrent flooding of the Tiber, reducing much of the city to marsh, heightened the human tragedy and sense of Armageddon. Pelagius himself died, a victim of the plague. Without waiting for imperial consent the Romans elected the deacon Gregory as pope. Viewing the ancient capital of a once great empire, the new pope lamented:

We see what has happened to her. She who was once the mistress of the world has suffered misfortunes incalculable in number and intensity: her people are desolate and threatened by external enemies. Everywhere there is only ruin, nothing but ruin … We, the remnant, are menaced by the sword and by trials without number … We no longer have a Senate, no longer a people. For those still living only sorrows and tears … Rome is deserted and in flames.

The Roman Gregory found not only his city in anguish, but Italy had ‘its cities destroyed, its fortifications in ruins, its countryside depopulated and the earth a wasteland’.

This pope, who, as legate, in Constantinople had lived like a monk and who now, as pope, turned the Lateran Palace virtually into a monastery, undertook the task of saving Rome and Italy from the threats to its civil and religious life. His register survives, containing 854 letters, which show his efforts to manage – almost, at times, to micro-manage – this task. When the Lombard duke of Spoleto threatened Rome, it was Gregory who took control, dispatched troops and tactical advice to the imperial commander in the field. When in 592 the exarch refused to appoint commandants at Lepe and Naples, which were key to the imperial defences of Rome, it was Gregory who sent Leontius and Constantius to take charge of the imperial garrisons. When, at the same time, the garrison in Rome was near mutiny for lack of pay, it was Gregory who paid them from the church’s treasury. When the Roman defences proved inadequate, it was Gregory who bought peace by paying 500 pounds of gold from church funds. When the civil authorities were unable to feed the Romans, the pope did. When the exarch Romanus appeared uninterested and even indifferent to securing a general peace with the Lombards, it was Gregory who negotiated with the Lombard king but, refusing to make a separate peace, waited until 598, when the new exarch agreed. In addition, the Patrimony of Peter, the lands held by the popes, now enlarged by the acquisition of the estates of the Arian churches after the defeat of the Ostrogoths, enabled Pope Gregory to relieve the sufferings of people in Italy and in Sicily. Not even the harshest critics of the medieval popes suggest that Gregory took advantage of the situation to enlarge the power of the papacy. On the contrary, it was a reluctant Gregory who stepped in to ensure public order in the most desperate of circumstances. Of other medieval popes whom we shall meet in this history it can be said that they made power plays with little spiritual justification, but not of the monk-pope in the Lateran Palace. This extension of papal authority into civil matters and far beyond the city of Rome, the result of exigencies of the late sixth century, meant that the popes had become secular rulers, one of the defining characteristics of the medieval papacy. In time, the area over which the popes ruled de facto would grow and become known as the Papal States. Gregory’s tomb in St Peter’s bore the inscription, ‘Consul of God’ (consul dei).

Living at the end or, indeed, after the end of the period of classical culture, Gregory was not, as is sometimes said, its opponent. He did chastise the bishop of Vienne for teaching boys the pagan classics, and he showed no interest in learning either to speak or read Greek, although he lived in Constantinople for six years. The latter can be explained by the superior attitude of educated, aristocratic Romans towards all things Greek. Classical learning was a separate matter. Not its enemy, Gregory, living in the most turbulent of times, thought that classical learning should be used to serve the Christian faith. His own Latinity knew neither the subtlety nor the sonority of classical Latin. It was practical, direct, unnuanced. A staple part of the medieval library was to be his bookPastoral Care(Regulae liber pastoralis). Although intended for bishops, it became a classic guide to the spiritual life and care of souls, its impact impossible to measure. King Alfred had it translated into English in the late ninth century and sent copies to all his bishops. This treatise and other works attributed to Gregory, particularly a collection of miracle stories of Italian saints (called the Dialogues), caused Gregory the Great’s name to be placed with Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome as a Father of the Church, the fourth and last in the West. That his name has been wrongly associated with Gregorian chant since the ninth century diminishes in no way his place in history.

Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons

The story was told in England in the early eighth century about the motivating reasons that impelled Gregory the Great to send Christian missionaries to England. In its earliest form (c.710) the story by an anonymous monk or nun of Whitby Abbey in the north of England runs that, before he became pope, Gregory was eager to meet some fair-skinned and light-haired boys or youths who had come to Rome. He asked them what people they belonged to.

They answered, ‘The people we belong to are called Angles.’
‘Angels of God’, he replied.
Then, he asked, ‘What is the name of the king of that people?’
They replied, ‘Aelli.’
Whereupon Gregory said, ‘Alleluia. God’s praise must be heard there.’
Then he asked the name of their own tribe.
They answered,‘Deire.’
Gregory replied, ‘They shall flee from the wrath (de ira) of God to the faith.’

(Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, p. 91)

A charming story, and probably nothing more. But what lies behind it is probably an incident found in Gregory’s own letters. In September 595 Gregory ordered his administrator in Gaul to buy English boys of 17 or 18 years of age on the slave market so that they could be brought to Rome and taught in monasteries, quite possibly with a view of sending them on a future mission to their own people. It is easy to see how this historical episode, well grounded in fact, could have been elaborated, distended and even distorted during the next century till a writer at Whitby gave this version. Within three decades of the telling of the story, a monk from the north of England, Bede of Wearmouth, told the same story in a slightly different version. These later tales, hardly historical, nonetheless witness the English devotion to the pope who first sent missionaries to their people and who, in the words of the Whitby writer, ‘will present the English people on the Day of Judgement’. More generally, it should be said that these latter tales err in exaggerating the mission of Augustine, a monk of Gregory’s monastery on the Caelian Hill, who in 597 was sent by Gregory to England, and in thus belittling the historical significance of other Christian missionaries to Britain.

The island to which the Italian missionaries came had had Christian inhabitants for hundreds of years. The Romano-British Christians must have formed a considerable part of the population, when, in the early fifth century, pagan, barbarian, Germanic peoples came from Frisia and more remotely from lands near the Jutland peninsula as peaceful inhabitants of the so-called Saxon Shore, coastal areas along the east and south coast of Britain. Later, the Saxons were joined by kindred but less peaceful peoples, and, in the first half of the fifth century, the Romans abandoned the Britons to their own devices. Centuries of hostilities followed between Britons and Anglo-Saxons, the fortunes of war fluctuating from one side to the other. The mingling of peoples no doubt occurred, but the hostilities were far from over at the time of Augustine’s mission to Kent in 597. The picture of the Celtic Britons pushed to the west – to Cornwall, Wales and Strathclyde – belongs to a future time. In the 570s, shortly before Augustine’s arrival, the pagan West Saxons were fighting the Christian Britons for Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath and continued campaigns for some time in the upper Thames, Severn and Avon valleys. To the west, the lands of Dorset and Somerset were still controlled by British princes. In the very year of Augustine’s coming, 597, a new pagan king of Wessex took power, and he continued the struggle of the pagan West Saxons against the Christian Britons. The situation in other parts of the country was also fluid, and in Northumbria the British presence was to remain a factor for some time, its importance difficult to measure.

Augustine arrived in Kent not unexpectedly. Pope Gregory, in 596, had written to two Frankish princes that ‘it has come to our ears that by the mercy of God the English race earnestly desire to be converted to Christianity.’ In Kent, the Christian Bertha, a former Frankish princess and now wife of the local pagan king, lived at Canterbury and worshipped in a church once used by Romano-British Christians, almost certainly the present St Martin’s church or another church on the same site. The dramatic meeting of Augustine with King Ethelbert on the Isle of Thanet, held at the king’s insistence in the open air lest the visitors unleash evil spirits, may have been merely part of a carefully choreographed ritual. In Kent conversions followed swiftly. Gregory the Great wrote in July 598 to the patriarch of Alexandria that

the English race, who live in a corner of the world, have until now remained, unbelieving, worshipping sticks and stones, but, aided by your prayers and prompted by God, I decided that I ought to send a monk of my monastery to preach to them. With my permission he was made a bishop by the bishops of the Germanies and with their help he reached their people at the end of the world, and now letters have just reached me about his safety and his work … At the feast of Christmas last … more than 10,000 Englishmen are reported to have been baptized by our brother and fellow bishop.

The precise figure of 10,000 should be understood not literally but as meaning a very large number. The date of King Ethelbert’s conversion is not known, but by 601 he was almost certainly a Christian. In England, as elsewhere, the conversion of the king was generally followed by the conversion of the tribal aristocracy.

This initial success in but one, small part of the country emboldened the pope in 601 to reveal his organizational plan for the English church. The principal see was to be at London, and Augustine could consecrate 12 other bishops. In addition, a

Plate 3 St Martin’s Church, Canterbury. Reproduced by permission of the Courtauld Institute of Art.

bishop could be sent to York, and, if successful, he could create 12 bishops for his province. This stress on organization at such an early stage in the conversion process was indeed premature. Never did the archbishop of York have 12 subordinate bishops. More importantly, the choice of London must have been based on a recollection of its significance in Roman times, for at this time the Roman city of London was desolate and a small Anglo-Saxon settlement stood to its west. The later importance of London as a national capital should not be read back into the seventh century. And, most importantly, the Gregorian plans for church polity were premature, because within a generation of the coming of Augustine the mission came within an ace of failing. Ethelbert’s son, who succeeded his father in 616, reverted to paganism. At about the same time the three pagan sons of the late king of the East Saxons, who had converted, were openly hostile to Christianity. Meanwhile, Raedwald, king of the East Angles, who had been baptized in Kent, hedged his bets and kept in his place of worship one altar to offer sacrifice to Christ and another altar to offer sacrifice to the old gods. He died c.625, and, if the Sutton Hoo burial ship was associated with him, as seems quite likely, it bears no sign of the Christian faith save two silver spoons with SAUL and PAUL inscriptions and possibly silver bowls with cross designs, and it lies in a field of pagan burials. With Kent, Essex and East Anglia reverting to paganism, the three remaining Christian bishops – Laurence of Canterbury, Justus of Rochester and Mellitus of London, the latter expelled from London – decided to leave. Justus and Mellitus fled to Gaul, there to await events. Laurence lingered at Canterbury, where (the historian Bede tells us) by a miracle Kent’s new pagan king accepted baptism, and the two other bishops were recalled. Progress thereafter was slow, and the Christian inroads to other regions of the Anglo-Saxon settlements came not from Canterbury and the successors of Augustine but from other sources and over a period of many decades in the seventh century. Yet before they can be visited, two comments need be made about the Augustinian mission.

In the first place, there exist detailed instructions from Pope Gregory to his missionary about the process of acculturating pagans to a Christian way of life. The temples need not be destroyed – only the pagan shrines – but even they can be converted to Christian use. Do we hear not only the voice of the shepherd of souls but also the practical voice of the former Roman civil official? Substitute, he said, the sacrifice of oxen to devils with some other festivals, Christian feasts, at which they may kill animals in thanksgiving to God for generous bounty.

It is certainly impossible to eradicate all errors from obstinate minds at one stroke. The highest peaks are reached not by leaps but gradually step by step.

(Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk 1, ch. 30)

Gregory sounded this early note of caution and respected the process by which religious belief and practice were translated into cultural forms.

The second point that needs be made about the Augustinian mission concerns the treatment by Augustine of the native British church. To say his attitude was tainted by hubris and condescension would be putting a gentle gloss on this embarrassing aspect of his mission. The crucial episode bears telling if for no other reason than to illustrate the human problems which got in the way of the spread of Christianity. The Romano-Britons were not recent converts but bearers of the Christian name for centuries. They had withstood the attacks of the pagans for nearly two centuries before the Roman Augustine arrived on their shores, rebuking them for not converting their enemies. He insisted on a meeting, and one was held at the border of the British and English peoples, probably in the Severn valley. Augustine reproved the Britons for celebrating Easter at a different date from the Romans (although, as we now know, the Roman date had been adopted at Rome only fairly recently). The story that reaches us from the English historian Bede, almost certainly via a Kentish source, recounts how the Britons refused to yield to Augustine in this matter. Let the matter be settled by a sign from heaven, they both agreed. And then a blind man was cured not by the Britons but by Augustine. That this blind man was an Englishman may have made Augustine’s deed less impressive to the Britons. In any case, they could not alter so significant a custom without consulting the British people. Another meeting was planned. Seven bishops and many learned men of the Romano-British church were to attend. On their way to the meeting, they consulted with a holy anchorite. His advice was that they must follow Augustine if he is truly a man of God. How are we to determine this, they asked. Arrive at the meeting place after Augustine’s party, and, if he rises upon your arrival, know that he is of God, for he is ‘meek and humble of heart’. When they arrived, Augustine refused to rise, and the British believed him not of God and spurned his demands. In what must have been considerable anger, Augustine prophetically threatened them with destruction. And Bede, the Northumbrian monk, writing over a century later and apparently revealing his own anti-British feelings, seemed to take delight in the fulfilment of Augustine’s prophecy of doom against this ‘nation of heretics’, when he recounted that hundreds of unarmed British monks of Bangor were ruthlessly slaughtered. Whether Augustine walked with the swagger of a colonial officer we shall never know, yet his attitude, told by friendly sources, reveals an unattractive sense of superiority in a Christian missionary whose disciples and immediate successors, in the face of reversals, all but abandoned their mission.

If the final judgement must be that Augustine’s mission was less than successful – the reversion to paganism after his death and his alienation of Romano-British Christians are persuasive indications of this – he did establish a Roman connection, and the Augustine myth itself became established in the firmament of English Christianity. It must be further emphasized that much of the conversion in southern England was independent of Canterbury and Augustine’s mission. For example, when Christianity came to East Anglia, it came from Gaul, where an exiled English king had been baptized, and the first bishop of the East Angles came from Burgundy. And the ascetic tradition of the East Angles derived from the Irish monk Fursey. Christianity came to the West Saxons, again, not through Canterbury but through the missionary Birinus, probably of German origin, who baptized the king in 635 and who took his episcopal see at Dorchester. Even there in Wessex, mass conversion did not immediately follow the king’s conversion but was the work of time, to be measured not in years but in decades. This slow, almost hidden process best describes the spread of Christianity in the south of England. In the north there was a very different story.

Two stages marked the coming of Christianity to the north, the first a mission from the south, which was largely unsuccessful, and the second a mission from Ireland, which had astonishing success. In 625 the pagan king of Northumbria – i.e., the lands north of the Humber – married a Kentish princess, who was a Christian. She brought with her to the north a certain Paulinus, an Italian missionary sent to Canterbury by Gregory the Great in 601. Now consecrated a bishop, Paulinus met with almost immediate success. King Edwin accepted baptism at York in 627, and a member of his council, the high priest, said that ‘the temple and altars which we have dedicated to no advantage should be immediately desecrated and burned’. Paulinus, at one time, was said to be staying at the royal palace, spending his long days teaching the crowds who came to him and baptizing them in the River Glen. We can also see Paulinus baptizing in the River Swale, near Catterick. After almost six years of remarkable effect, the Paulinus mission, closely allied to the person of the North-umbrian king, ended abruptly in 632 with the death of King Edwin in battle. Paulinus fled south, abandoning the infant church of Northumbria. It must be emphasized that Paulinus’s mission was to the English in Northumbria, for there was clearly a British population there, its size difficult to estimate. While Paulinus was baptizing in the Glen, there may indeed have been villages of Christian Britons in other nearby valleys.

The more enduring mission to the north came from Irish monk-missionaries, and it is a story with an ending edged in sadness. When King Edwin’s enemies were overthrown, the English kingdom of Northumbria was re-established with Oswald as king. During Edwin’s time, Oswald, then heir to English opponents of Edwin, lived in exile (c.617–34) in the far north, where he received baptism from Irish monks. Now king, Oswald almost immediately sent to Iona, the monastery founded by Columba on an island off the Ross of Mull, for assistance so that ‘his people might learn faith in the Lord’. What Oswald got in response, in 635, was the remarkable Aidan, whom Bede was to call ‘a man of outstanding gentleness, devotion and moderation’. Aidan knew that he must first offer the people ‘the milk of gentle teaching, and gradually, as they grew strong on the nourishment of God’s word, they could live more perfectly and grasp the more sublime aspects of God’s commands’. King Oswald established the newly consecrated bishop Aidan on the high-tide island of Lindisfarne (known since the twelfth century as Holy Island), about five miles across the bay from the king’s chief seat at Bamburgh. One can see vividly (through Bede’s account) the picture of the Irish monk preaching the gospel to Oswald’s men with the bilingual king himself acting as interpreter. And other Irish missionaries came after Aidan to preach in Oswald’s kingdom. The enduring conversion of the north was being accomplished by Irish monks and a pious king. And it was from the nascent Northumbrian church that missionaries went south in 653 to convert the still pagan Mercians, whose first bishop was one of these Irish monks.

A major problem loomed. The ascetic and learned Irish monks had customs different from the customs brought from the Continent by other missionaries. Three major differences stood out: they concerned the date of Easter, the form of the tonsure and the rite of baptism. Nothing of detail is known about the third.

Tonsure, the form of shaving of the head of monks and clerics, was indeed slightly different, but this was not the matter of major moment. What mattered was the date of Easter, the principal Christian feast, which, since it was movable (based on lunar months), determined much of the church calendar. The dispute over Easter was neither new nor confined to Britain. It had deeply divided East and West for some time and had been addressed at the Council of Nicaea (325). From very early times it had been agreed that the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection should not be held on a weekday but on a Sunday. The question in dispute was quite simple: when the Jewish feast of Passover fell on a Sunday, should that Sunday be Easter or should Easter be celebrated on the next Sunday? The Irish held to the former, the Romans to the latter, but it was a Roman practice of only recent origin. Why this matter was raised in 664 at a ‘synod’ convened at Whitby is not clear. The discrepancy in the celebration dates of Easter between the Christians converted by the Roman mission and the Christians converted by Irish missionaries was nothing new. Differences had quite simply been lived with. But in 664 the tolerance ended, and two figures appear as the principal players in support of the Roman cause in the confrontation at Whitby. Ealhfrith, sub-king of Deira, was the ambitious son of King Oswy of Northumbria, and was eager to assert himself. The other figure, Wilfrid, had lived at Lindisfarne at the time of Aidan but later spent a year in Kent, several years at Lyons in Gaul and some time in Rome. He had returned to Northumbria as a convert to the Roman Easter. He met Ealhfrith, who quickly dispatched the Irish monks from Ripon and gave the monastery to his new friend, Wilfrid. Ealhfrith’s political ambitions and Wilfrid’s paschal convictions coincided. It seems likely that Ealhfrith’s purpose was to gain a degree of independence from his father and that Wilfrid’s purpose was to impose the continental customs. It was, then, Ealhfrith and Wilfrid who led the party in favour of the Roman usage. The Celtic party was led by the holy Colman, the Irish bishop of Lindisfarne, and the noble Hild, abbess of Whitby and one of the high-born women then ruling monastic communities made up of both men and women. The meeting at Whitby – which Bede called a ‘synod’ – was presided over by King Oswy: it was not national in scope but Northumbrian. Oswy’s own wife was a Kentish Christian, and, it was said, in years when the Irish and Roman Easters did not concur she was still fasting while her husband was feasting. To speak of the Irish tradition and the Roman tradition is probably to misspeak, for in 664 the southern Irish had already accepted the so-called Roman tradition as had the British monks at Bangor in Wales. What was at issue at Whitby was the Iona tradition, established by Columba and brought to Lindisfarne by Aidan and now defended by Colman. And what was called the Roman tradition was only a recent usage at Rome. In any case, Whitby did not signify an attempt by Rome to bring the Celtic church into its jurisdiction. Given the extremely passive exercise of papal jurisdiction at this time, a jurisdiction not rejected in Ireland, the event at Whitby should be seen as the local issue it was. The decision at Whitby in favour of the so-called Roman tradition was made not by a show of hands of the clergy present but by the king, who, it was said, preferred the tradition of Peter, holder of the keys of the gates of heaven, to the tradition of the apostle John, who held not those keys, whose tradition passed down through Columba. The story of the ‘synod’ ends with Colman, unable to comply, sadly leaving, a man of simple and austere life, a Francis of Assisi before his time, who walked the dusty trackways back to Iona. His simplicity and humility were not lost on the straightforward English monk-historian Bede.

How frugal and austere he and his predecessor had been, the place itself [Lindisfarne] over which they ruled bears witness. When they left, there were very few buildings there except for the church, in fact only those without which community life was impossible. They had no money from the rich; they promptly gave it to the poor. They had no need to collect money or to provide dwellings for the reception of worldly and powerful men, since these only came to the church to pray and to hear the word of God … The priests and the monks visited the villages for no other reason than to preach, to baptize, and to visit the sick, in brief, to care for their souls. They were so free from all taint of avarice that none of them would accept lands or possessions to build monasteries, unless compelled to do so by the secular authorities.

(Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk 3, ch. 26)

A generous epitaph to a simple form of the Christian faith, little bothered by matters of organization and power, committed to an uncomplicated understanding of the gospels. In contrast to his description of Colman, Bede’s cool, almost detached, words about Wilfrid leave little doubt in the mind of the reader who Bede thought was more Christ-like.

What the ‘Synod’ of Whitby meant on the broad canvas of the history of the church is a question with a range of answers. The participants saw the issues in terms of the debate about Easter and the subsequent departure of the Irish monks. Bede, writing two-thirds of a century later, gave it considerable attention, but his focus was largely on the computistics of the date of Easter, a subject which he raised to an essential sign of the unity of the church. What is clear to us, at our remove from the events, is that the English church was to become organized in the Roman fashion. Bishops with territorial dioceses would replace bishops of specific peoples. In 672 the Council of Hertford made clear the territorial nature of a bishop’s diocese, although some decades would pass before the system was fully in force: by 737 there would be four dioceses in the north and 13 in the south. It is also clear that England was now firmly in the Roman orbit, not that the pope consistently exercised active jurisdiction over the internal affairs of remote places such as England. Yet, when English missionaries, as we shall soon see, went to the Continent, it was under papal authority, and there they established a diocesan organization.

The transmission of learning

In 782, Charlemagne, king of the Franks and soon to be ‘emperor’, invited the deacon Alcuin from York, in the far-away English kingdom of Northumbria at the edge of the known world to join his court and to advise him on educational matters. Why did Charlemagne turn to Northumbria? What events lay behind this extraordinary selection? How to explain that, within 200 years of the advent of Christianity among the English, their school at York helped to reintroduce learning to the European mainland?

When Augustine arrived at Canterbury in 597, he came as a missionary of the Christian gospel, not as a scholar intent on establishing a school. He and his fellow monks brought very few books with them, and these almost certainly were liturgical books needed to conduct ceremonies of Christian worship: Mass books, psalters, etc. His mission, it is widely agreed, was purely evangelical in nature and did not advance the cause of learning. From where did the learning of the West come to the English?

There were two distinct streams meeting to make England one of the foremost centres of scholarly learning in eighth-century Europe, although we may not be able with precision to weigh their relative contributions. Both were significant, and the diminution of one or the other imperils our historical understanding. One stream came from Ireland, the other from the Continent, particularly from Rome. Together they produced a vibrant intellectual climate that fostered serious learning, making England, particularly Northumbria, arguably the pre-eminent centre of scholarship in western Europe and creating a decisive moment in the history of the Christian church. The details need to be seen.

The most obvious line of development came from Rome to Canterbury and thence to Northumbria. In 669, the new archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek biblical scholar, arrived from Rome, with the learned Hadrian, a North African abbot, who like Theodore had long lived in Italy, and the Northumbrian noble Benedict Biscop, who had been a monk on the island of Lerins off the south coast of Gaul. A school in the sense of a centre of learning was quickly established at Canterbury. No inventory of books survives for any of the English centres of learning tracing their descent from Theodore’s Canterbury, but the library at Canterbury must have contained the Bible, works of grammar and rhetoric as well as epitomes of classical and patristic learning. Aldhelm, one of his students at Canterbury, complained that, as a student, he had not enough time to learn everything he wanted to learn: law, prose and poetic literature, music, arithmetic and the mysteries of the heavens. He described Theodore ‘like an angry boar surrounded by a pack of smirking hounds’. More measuredly, Bede wrote of the school of Theodore and Hadrian at Canterbury:

They were both extremely learned in both secular and sacred literature and thus attracted a crowd of students into whose minds they daily poured the streams of wholesome learning. They gave their hearers instruction not only in the books of Holy Scripture but also in the art of metre, astronomy and ecclesiastical computation. As evidence of this, some of their students still survive who know Latin and Greek just as well as they know their native tongue.

(Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk 4, ch. 2)

Erudite teachers, a broad curriculum, eager students and learned books provide the essentials of any school, and these were all present at Canterbury in the last decades of the seventh century.

His name ‘Biscop’ might suggest that Benedict Biscop was of a priestly family; in any case, he was certainly from a noble, wealthy Northumbrian family. During the course of his life he travelled six times to Rome, the latter four journeys while he was involved with establishing new English schools. Among the founders of the school at Canterbury in 669, Biscop, after perhaps three winters there, undertook a journey to Rome: it was to set in motion events of far-reaching significance. Unlike his previous journeys, this was a journey in search of books, pictures and relics, but mostly books. At Rome he acquired a substantial number of books and, on his return journey, he collected a large number of books at Vienne, which he had asked friends to collect for him. His intentions seem clear: to return to England and establish a new monastery with relics for its altar, pictures for devotion and books for learning and liturgy. It was to his native Northumbria, from which he had been absent for 20 years, that Biscop went to found his monastery on land given him by the king of Northumbria on the north banks of the Wear River near its mouth. The Wearmouth foundation, in 673, was followed by a foundation, in 681, at Jarrow, overlooking the mud flats where the Don enters the Tyne, only a few miles from Wearmouth. Dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul and for some time a single community under one abbot, Wearmouth and Jarrow became key centres of learning in western Europe, producing in the first generation the Venerable Bede, considered the most learned man of his times.

Often forgotten in this run of events from Biscop to Bede was the great figure of Ceolfrid, who became first abbot of the combined monasteries in 688. Ten years earlier he had accompanied Biscop on the latter’s last trip to Rome. During his abbotship the library collection was doubled, and the number of monks, almost incredibly, rose to over 600. It was a long abbotship of 28 years and ended not with Ceolfrid’s death but with his retirement in June 716, when, laden with gifts, he left for Rome, never to see his native land again. He never arrived in Rome. Age and a difficult journey combined to weaken his physical strength, and in Burgundy on 25 September 716 Ceolfrid died. Some of his companions continued their way to Rome, where they presented Pope Gregory II with their gifts from Tyneside. Among them was a truly exceptional book: the Codex Amiatinus, so-called from the monastery of Monte Amiata, where it resided in the early modern period before finding its present home in the Laurentian Library in Florence. It is considered one of the most important manuscripts surviving from early medieval Europe. To the paleographer, who studies handwriting, it may provide links between the scriptoria of southern Italy and northern England, but to the cultural historian it is more: it is the earliest surviving complete Latin Bible and a clear window into the age in which it was made. The dedication reveals much. It is a poem in praise of the Petrine headship of the church written by Ceolfrid, this abbot from remotest Northumbria. He called himself ‘Ceolfridus Anglorum extremis de finibus abbas’ (‘Ceolfrid, abbot, from the outermost parts of the English’). An enormous book (or codex) for its time and, indeed, for most times, it has over 1,000 folios (i.e., leaves), and each folio measures about 20 inches high by about 13 inches wide. Some consider that this book represents the greatest achievement of Northumbrian learning.

The other towering achievement of Northumbrian scriptoria, the Lindisfarne Gospels, was a very near contemporary of the Codex Amiatinus. There may be some doubt whether this book of the gospels was produced at the island monastery of Lindisfarne, yet its Northumbrian origin is assured. It rivals the later Book of Kells for the splendour of its artistic decoration. Each of the four gospels is preceded by a ‘carpet page’ (a full page of decoration, carpet-like, fashioned largely of skilfully interlaced coloured ribbons) and a page with a portrait of the evangelist. Besides, virtually every page has decorated initial letters and border designs, and many pages contain miniatures, so called not because they are small but because they are coloured (from miniare, to colour). TheLindisfarne Gospels is now on permanent display at the British Library in London.

While these two great books were being fashioned, the north of England produced the greatest scholar of the age. Bede (c.672–735) was born on the estates of Wearmouth and at age seven was presented by his parents to the monastic community. When Jarrow was founded in 681, he went there, where he remained for the rest of his life, using the library developed by Biscop and Ceolfrid. Travelling little if at all outside his monastery, Bede composed a flood of works: 20 books of scriptural exegesis and six works on chronology as well as homilies, saints’ lives, histories, hymns, prayers, letters and much more. In short, he was a genius. The great twentieth-century historian Sir Richard Southern observed that Bede was ‘the first scientific intellect produced by the German peoples of Europe’ and that in Bede’s lifetime Jarrow had become ‘the chief centre of Roman civilization in Europe’. Bede is best known – perhaps unfairly to his other works – for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Its preface has almost a modern ring to it, as he describes there his efforts to get reliable evidence for his historical account. For him history is not the retelling of old stories, the passing along of traditional accounts. For Bede history is the attempt to recount the past as accurately as possible, acknowledging that to do so is the essential task of the historian.

The line which we are tracing from Theodore and Hadrian and Biscop and Ceolfrid does not end with Bede. Among Bede’s students was the son of the Northumbrian royal family, Egbert, who about 732 became archbishop of York. There at York he established a school, which would surpass even the school of his own training. To it would come the sons of the great northern families and books and even more books. Under Ethelbert (c.766–79), Egbert’s successor, the school at York had probably the best library in western Europe. Also under Ethelbert the school had its greatest student, Alcuin. Hence, it was in light of these events of a century or more in England that we should see Charlemagne in 781 inviting Alcuin from York in the north of England to the royal palace at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen).

This line of descent, just described, from the coming of Theodore to Canterbury in 669 to the going of Alcuin to the Frankish court in 783 might seem clear enough and might even be drawn as follows:

Theodore/Hadrian > Benedict Biscop > Ceolfrid > Bede > Egbert > Ethelbert > Alcuin.

Yet such a straight, unambiguous line gives an inaccurate picture, for it tells only part of the story and assumes (wrongly) a single line of cultural transmission. There was another line that originated in Ireland, which is overlooked at the peril of historical distortion. From the early days of Christianity in Ireland an emphasis was placed on the value of learning, and great efforts were made to introduce biblical, patristic and even secular works into Irish monasteries. The influence of the Irish foundation at Lindisfarne in 635 continued long after the withdrawal of Colman in 664. The foundation at (Old) Melrose by Eata, a pupil of Aidan, was Irish in culture, and it was there that Cuthbert entered as a novice. When, in 664, Eata came to replace Colman as abbot of Lindisfarne, he brought with him Cuthbert as his prior. There they continued the Irish monastic traditions of Aidan and Colman. In a curious twist, when Colman left Lindisfarne after the ‘Synod’ of Whitby, 30 English monks went with him and soon established their own monastery on an island off the west coast of Ireland, which, when Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History (731), was a flourishing community of English monks following the Irish ways. Yet they were not the first English monks to make such a journey. A large number (multi) of English monks in search of learning and an ascetical life had already gone to Irish monasteries, where, in Bede’s words, ‘they were most gladly welcomed by the Irish and given food, books and instruction without any payment’. Bede names 11 of these monks; other sources name still others. There was, for example, the young Northumbrian noble Aethelwine, who after studying in Ireland returned to England and became a bishop. A brother of the great Abbot Ceolfrid of Wearmouth–Jarrow went to Ireland to study the scriptures, and he was among the many English monks in Ireland who fell victim to the plague of 664. Other English monks formed a community at Clonmelsh (in modern Co. Carlow), from which the successful mission of Willibrord to the Frisians set out.

Moreover, Irish influences were not limited to Northumbria. In East Anglia (c.630), the Irish monk Fursey established a monastery, again in Bede’s words, ‘in order to devote himself more freely to sacred studies’. In Wessex, Aldhelm, whom we have already met at Canterbury, had been taught by the Irish masters at Malmesbury, where he later (c.675) became abbot. Sir Frank Stenton has called him ‘the most learned and ingenious western scholar of the late seventh century’. At about the same time that Aldhelm was studying at Malmesbury, there came to Wessex Agilbert, who, although born in Gaul, had studied the scriptures in Ireland. He soon became bishop. And, again, in the 650s, Diuma, an Irish monk from Lindisfarne, became the first bishop of the Mercians. His successor was Irish born and trained. His successor, in turn, was English but Irish-trained. There, among the Mercians, in three generations the process of assimilation can be seen taking place.

The Irish line, in all this, is clearly unmistakable. The historical reality reveals that the glory of late seventh- and eighth-century English learning derived from two sources: one continental and one Irish. The two combined like the interlacing in the manuscript illuminations, the two so closely interwoven that one attempts to separate them at one’s peril. The historian, faced with this complexity, should perhaps be content to describe this culture and learning as ‘insular’, thus giving credit to undoubted Irish and continental influences and to native English genius. The further danger is that the historian, trying to separate these strands, might lose sight of what truly happened in England in the seventh and eighth centuries: the civilizing of the barbarian English by reason of their conversion to the Christian religion. It was the Christian missionaries, whatever their origins, who brought literacy, book learning, scholarship – the framework for a civilized society – to England. As it was to be elsewhere, Christianity was in England the means of introducing barbarian peoples to the civilizing effects of learning.

English mission to the Continent

Two names stand out in the story of the conversion of the Germanic peoples east of the Rhine to Christianity. They are Willibrord and Boniface, two English monks, who under papal authority set out on their missions. What is particularly striking is that it was from the English, themselves recently converted and with recent memories of paganism, that this general mission came to the Continent of Europe. It was led by monks, products of monasteries, where Latin was taught and the scriptures studied. With the waters of baptism scarcely dry on their brows English missionaries undertook the conversion of large parts of the Germanic peoples. How did this come about?

It was not by a grand design that English monks went to the Continent as missionaries. It was almost by accident, at least in the beginning. The irascible Wilfrid, whom we have already met at the ‘Synod’ of Whitby (664), his enormous northern diocese having been divided and himself deposed by Archbishop Theodore, decided to go to Rome to appeal and, in 678, set out on his journey. Something unplanned happened on the way. The direct route across the Dover Straits was closed to him, and so he sailed to the delta of the Rhine, in the modern Netherlands, then the lands of the heathen Frisians. He stayed there during the winter months of 678–79 and preached the gospel, gaining some converts. It was but a brief episode in a busy life, and, in any case, the converted Frisians soon reverted to paganism. In the next century Bede and others, no doubt wrongly, attributed to Wilfrid the origins of the continental mission. His was but a passing adventure, remembered more for his self-inflated image as a churchman than for its real effect. The true origins of the English mission are not to be found in England but in Ireland at the English monastery at Clonmelsh (Co. Carlow). The Northumbrian Egbert – to be distinguished from the later Egbert, archbishop of York – was in Ireland as a pilgrim, a voluntary exile, in 664, when the plague struck Ireland. He was spared, vowed never to return to England and died among the Irish 65 years later, in 729, at the age of 90. If we can trust the details of our sources, Egbert, while abbot of Clonmelsh, planned to go as a pilgrim-missionary to the Frisians. His motivation for the mission made no mention of Wilfrid: it was as a German that Egbert was moved to bring the Christian message to other German peoples. In the event, he never went. It was in 690 that the effective English mission began, when Willibrord and other English monks left Clonmelsh. The English mission thus originated in Ireland.

The part of continental Europe to which these English missionaries sailed lay just beyond the political control of the Franks in what was a fluid political situation. By the late seventh century the Merovingian kings, descendants of Clovis, their power now emasculated, were mere rois fainéants, do-nothing kings. Real power lay elsewhere, particularly in the hands of the mayors of the palace of these kings. The political dust was still in motion when Willibrord arrived in Frisia. Pepin II, a mayor of the palace (d. 714), had control over most of Francia and now also controlled western Frisia, including Utrecht, and he had the ambition to expand his power further north. Among the German peoples beyond Frankish control were not only the Frisians but also the Saxons, both of whom were still pagan. Even within the Frankish kingdom, where Irish monks had been active for 100 years, there still existed pockets – even large pockets – of heathenism. It was into this volatile situation that, in 690, Willibrord and 11 other English monks came from Ireland to preach the Christian gospel.

The missionaries, probably well informed of the political situation, arrived in Frankish-controlled Frisia, and it was under the protection and with the support of Pepin II that the mission was to thrive. Willibrord went almost immediately to Rome to get papal sanction for his mission. This readily given, he returned to Frisia, with relics in his bags to replace the idols of his converts. Success was immediate: Bede says that many Frisians were converted in a short time. Are we to believe that these English monks could preach in the language of the Frisians? The support of Pepin

Map 5 Conversion of the Germanic peoples (c.350–c.750)

must have been a major ingredient in all this. In retrospect, the decision made by Pepin and his council in 695 was to have far-reaching consequences in European history. In that year Pepin sent Willibrord to Rome to get authority to establish an ecclesiastical province. Authority was quickly given, and Willibrord became archbishop to the Frisians with his see at Utrecht and with the power to create subordinate dioceses and to consecrate bishops. With these events is marked a turning point in that relationship which was to be central to medieval history, the relationship between the Franks and the pope. A small enough turning, perhaps, but a precedent to be followed and to be enlarged by Pepin II’s son (Charles Martel), his grandson (King Pepin) and his great-grandson (Charlemagne).

Willibrord’s commission was clear: to establish Christianity among the Frisians. He is said to have preached widely, gained numerous converts, appointed subordinate bishops and established churches and monasteries. His successes were in west Frisia, in the lands between the Lek River and the Zuider Zee, leaving much of Frisia beyond his reach. Yet Willibrord, at one point, had the hope of converting the Danes and even visited their land, bringing back with him 30 boys to train. It all came to nothing, but the incident indicates something of the scope of Willibrord’s intention. Puzzling in this context was his founding of a monastery at Echternach, c.697, very shortly after his return from Rome as archbishop to the Frisians. Over 200 miles from Utrecht, Echternach cannot be associated with a Frisian mission. Willibrord’s secular supporters provided him with land (in modern Luxembourg), where the new monastery was built. Willibrord may have used Echternach as a place of retreat; it was there that he spent his final years and where he died, aged 81, in 739, almost 50 years after his arrival on the Continent. The scriptorium at Echternach from very early in its history produced illuminated books of very high quality: the Echternach Gospels rivals the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. Once thought to have been brought from Northumbria, the Echternach Gospels is now recognized (by its use of goatskin) as continental, undoubtedly a product of the scriptorium at Echternach, the work of monks trained in the traditions of their monastery at Clonmelsh in Ireland. The accomplishments of Echternach are not to be confused with the principal mission of Willibrord, which was to convert the heathen Frisians. He was successful in doing this at least among those Frisians subject to Frankish rule and in establishing an infrastructure of churches, monasteries and clergy to nurture the new Christian life. He did this with the assistance of secular Frankish rulers and under the authority of the pope, two elements essential also to the mission of St Boniface.

The man whose name was changed by the pope to Boniface was born Winfrid in the south-west of England, in Wessex, c.675. He stands out as the single most significant fashioner of the direction of the church in the eighth century. And there are historians who, with some persuasion, would make even grander claims. The name of Boniface is synonymous with the conversion of the Germans, although the nature of his role in this conversion needs close examination.

Whatever else must be said about Boniface’s mission to the Germans – and there is much – it has to be emphasized that his was a papal mission. From the very beginning he sought papal approval: he traversed the Alps in 719 to ask – and receive – Pope Gregory II’s permission to preach to the Germans. He returned to Rome to be consecrated a bishop in 722, when he took the oath of fidelity to St Peter and his successors. The oath was in the form used by bishops within the immediate jurisdiction of the pope in central Italy. It was unusual and, indeed, novel for a bishop of a far-away mission to swear in this way. Ten years later Pope Gregory III made him archbishop and sent him the pallium, the short woollen, scarf-like vestment which was the sign of authority over a province of the church. A reader of Boniface’s remarkable correspondence will encounter Boniface asking the pope’s advice, sending reports of his activities and humbly giving his loyalty to each new pope. Boniface was called missus sancti Petri (‘the legate of St Peter’). Hitherto, papal primacy, accepted as it was in the West, did not imply an active exercise of papal authority. The mission of St Boniface under the direct supervision of the pope transformed the role of the papacy from a mostly passive to a now much more active role in the leadership of the church in the West. If Boniface had done nothing else, he would still be considered a major figure in medieval history. But he did much more.

To us, the mission of Boniface is both clear and vague. It is clear in that it was a mission to the German peoples living east of the Rhine and north of the Danube. It is vague because he had no diocese, not even after he became an archbishop with a pallium, at least until very late in his life, when a see was established for him at Mainz. His was a roving commission to a people. From our vantage point, we can see that his activities were generally confined to the lands of Hesse and Thuringia. The leaders of Hesse had embraced Christianity only superficially, and their people were still heathen. The Thuringians had been converted to Christianity at an earlier time, but the lack of continued instruction allowed pagan practices to reassert themselves. Boniface’s challenge, then, was to convert and reconvert. With what must have been exceptional physical vigour and driving motivation he had quick success. Thousands, we are told, accepted Christianity. Of course, he had companions and, equally of course, he had reinforcements from Britain: ‘an exceedingly large number of holy men came to his aid, among them readers, writers and learned men trained in the other arts’ (Willibald’s Life of St Boniface, ch. 6). Monasteries of men and of women began to dot the countryside. Tauberbischofsheim, where his cousin Leoba was first abbess, became the nursery for abbesses of other houses. At Kitzingen on Main another English lady became abbess. Boniface’s countryman Wigbert was placed as the first abbot of Fritzlar. And near Marburg Boniface established an influential monastery at Amöneburg, and near Gotha the monastery of Ohrdruf. And the list goes on, ending with the crown in Boniface’s foundations, the monastery at Fulda (744), a monastery exempt from all local jurisdictions and subject directly to the pope. It was at Fulda that Boniface was to be buried and where within 80 years of his death there were over 130 monks.

Boniface, the missionary, faced the problems encountered by most missionaries, and he sought advice from the pope and from brother bishops. Bishop Daniel of Winchester wisely counselled him,

Do not begin by arguing with them about the origins of their gods, false as those are, but let them affirm that some of them were begotten by others, through the intercourse of male and female, so that you may at least prove that gods and goddesses born after the manner of men are men and not gods, and, since they did not exist before, must have had a beginning … These and many similar things you should put before them, not offensively or so as to anger them, but calmly and with great moderation.

(Letter no. 15)

Pope Gregory II took a sensible approach in advising Boniface about marital matters. Within what degrees of kinship is marriage forbidden?

Since moderation is better than strictness of discipline, especially towards so uncivilized a people, they may contract marriage after the fourth degree [i.e., beyond first cousins].

The pope went on to deal with Boniface’s question about a man whose wife, owing to disease, was unable to have sexual intercourse with him:

It would be better if he could remain in a state of continence. But, since this is a matter of great difficulty, it is better for him who cannot refrain to take a wife. He may not, however, withdraw his support from the one who was prevented by disease.

(Letter no. 18)

Boniface worried about the validity of baptisms performed by bad priests or in an unacceptable form (e.g. without invocation of the Trinity). To which the pope responded, that in such cases ‘you are to follow the ancient custom of the church, for he who has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit may on no account be baptized again’ (Letter no. 18). Boniface’s scruple even extended to baptisms performed by priests who, in their ignorance, used wrong Latin case endings, and the pope corrected him for needlessly rebaptizing in such cases (Letter no. 54).

The extermination of pagan practices proved not an easy task. Boniface’s biographer comments,

Some continued secretly, others openly, to offer sacrifices to trees and springs, to inspect the entrails of victims; some practised divination, magic and incantations; some turned their attention to auguries, auspices and other sacrificial rites.

(Willibald, Life of St Boniface, ch. 6)

One can picture Boniface, axe in hand, at Geismar, confronting a giant oak tree (the Oak of Jupiter), long the object of pagan worship, while a host of pagan worshippers angrily watched. He made a mere superficial cut, his biographer tells us, when a mighty wind toppled the sacred oak, and it landed divided in four equal parts, trunk to top. And the amazed onlookers accepted Christianity.

Unlike Wilfrid’s mission, Boniface’s had lasting consequences because he established a clear institutional structure which would ensure its continuation long after he and his fellow missionaries had passed from the scene. When he was made archbishop in 732, he neither had a diocese of his own nor any bishops under him. As late as 739 he was without bishops, but by 741 Boniface had eight suffragans. Four were in Bavaria, where, at the request of the local duke, he created territorial dioceses at Passau, Regensburg, Salzburg and Freising. Boniface was their metropolitan (i.e., archbishop). Also, he had suffragan bishops with territorial jurisdiction at Buraburg in Hesse, at Erfurt in Thuringia, at Würzburg on the Main and at Eichstätt in Franconia. Of these latter four bishops, three were fellow countrymen of Boniface. In 739 Pope Gregory III had warned him, ‘You are not at liberty to linger in one place when your work is done there.’ Perhaps as a concession to his age, then nearing 70, Boniface in 745 was made archbishop of Mainz, metropolitan of the ‘German church’ which he had created. With the cooperation – always – of the secular rulers he held synods of bishops to address the practical matters among German Catholics. These matters, important though they were, were less important historically than the establishing of the mechanism for dealing with them. A hierarchical structure was in place, and it marked the post-missionary phase in the history of these peoples.

As a final witness to his sense of vocation, Boniface in his old age left Mainz – provision for his successor assured – and returned to the mission field. In 753 he and companions journeyed to Frisia to preach in the lands beyond the Zuider Zee. Thousands apparently were converted, but, in June 754, Boniface and 53 others were slaughtered by heathens seeking booty. To the title of bishop, archbishop and legate were added martyr and saint.

A dispassionate view of the English missions to the Continent in the eighth century cannot escape concluding that they gave a shape and direction to the future history of the church. A strong church among the Germanic peoples and a firm link of these peoples to the papacy, with consequences, friendly as well as hostile, were to be hallmarks of the medieval church.

Further reading

On Gregory the Great the reader will find very useful Jeffrey Richards, Consul of God: The Life and Times of Gregory the Great (London, 1980). Other studies include Pierre Batiffol, Saint Gregory the Great (tr. John L. Stoddard; London, 1929); G.R. Evans,The Thought of Gregory the Great (Cambridge, 1986); Carole Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection (Berkeley, CA, 1988); and Robert A. Markus, Gregory the Great and his World (Cambridge, 1997). An interesting text is an early life of Gregory: Bertram Colgrave (ed. and tr.), The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great by an Anonymus Monk of Whitby (Lawrence, KA, 1968). About Gregory’s authorship of the Dialogues see Francis Clark, The Pseudo-Gregorian Dialogues (2 vols; Leiden, 1987), a view not unchallenged: see Paul Meyvaert’s rebuttal in Journal of Ecclesiastical History 39 (1988), 335–82. On broader issues see T.S. Brown, Gentlemen and Officers: Imperial Administration and Aristocratic Power in Byzantine Italy, A.D. 554–800 (Rome, 1984) and Jeffrey Richards, The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages (London, 1979).

On the English mission one should begin with Henry Mayr-Harting, The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England (3rd edn; London, 1991), and with Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (3rd edn; Oxford, 1971). For the pre-mission period see Charles Thomas, Christianity in Roman Britain to A.D. 500 (Berkeley, CA, 1981). On St Augustine see the essays in Richard Gameson, ed., St Augustine and the Conversion of England (Stroud, Glos, 1999) and Ian Wood, ‘The Mission of Augustine of Canterbury to the English’, Speculum 69 (1994) 1–17. John Blair in his The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society (Oxford, 2005) emphasizes the importance of minsters. Robin Fleming, Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400–1070 (London, 2010) describes in chapter 6 the English mission and the Christianization of the English, using valuable archaeological evidence. A thorough analysis of the issues involved in the Easter controversy is Maura Walsh and Dáibhi Ó Cróinín, eds, Cummian’s Letter De Controversia Paschali, Together with Related Irish Computistical Tract De Ratione Computandi (Toronto, 1988). On the dispute about tonsure see Edward James, ‘Bede and the Tonsure Question’, Peritia 3 (1984), 85–98. About the early schools see Michael Lapidge, ‘The School of Theodore and Hadrian’, Anglo-Saxon England 15 (1986), 45–72. The modern controversies about the putative Lindisfarne scriptorium can be followed in the journals Peritia and Anglo-Saxon England. On the Codex Amiatinus see the scholarly article by Karen Corsano, ‘The First Quire of the Codex Amiatinus and the Institutiones of Cassiodorus’, Scriptorium 41 (1987), 3–34. An excellent introduction to an allied manuscript is Janet Backhouse, The Lindisfarne Gospels: A Masterpiece of Book Painting (London, 1995). A more detailed but accessible work is Michelle P. Brown, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (London, 2003). On Bede the literature is vast. One will find helpful such items as R.W. Southern, Medieval Humanism and Other Studies (New York, 1970),ch. 1; Peter Hunter Blair, The World of Bede (London, 1970); George H. Brown, Bede the Venerable (Boston, 1987). Nothing can replace reading the actual text of Bede’s history, which exists in many English translations, for example, Bertram Colgrave,Ecclesiastical History of the English People, edited by Judith McClure and Roger Collins (Oxford, 1994), and Leo Sherley-Price, A History of the English Church and People (Penguin paperback, 1955 and later printings). Another facet of Bede’s genius – his biblical exegesis – can be seen in Innovation and Tradition in the Writings of the Venerable Bede (Scott De Gregorio, ed.; Morgantown, WV, 2006).

Essential to a study of the English mission to the Continent is W. Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford, 1946). The remarkable correspondence of Boniface is accessible in several English translations, most notably in Ephraim Emerton’s frequently reprinted The Letters of Saint Boniface (New York, 1940). C.H. Talbot, tr. and ed., The Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany: Being the Lives of SS. Willibrord, Boniface, Sturm, Leoba and Leben (London and New York, 1954) has valuable texts. For the role of women in the conversion process see Rosamond McKitterick, ‘Anglo-Saxon Missionaries in Germany: Personal Connexions and Local Influences’, in a collection of her papers, Books, Scribes and Learning in the Frankish Kingdoms, 6th–9th Centuries (Aldershot, Hants, and Brookfield, VT, 1994).

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