Europe in the year 1000

“But do not ignore this fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.”

2 Peter 3.8

“The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith.”

Hilaire Belloc

1

THE RETURN OF THE KING

The Whore of Babylon

“All these will I give you,” said Satan, showing Jesus the kingdoms of the world, “if you will fall down and worship me.”1 But Jesus, scorning empire, refused the temptation. And Satan, confounded, retired in great confusion; and angels came and ministered to the Son of Man. Or so, at any rate, his followers reported.

The kingdoms shown to Jesus already had a single master: Caesar. Monarch of a city which had devoured the whole earth, and trampled it down, and broken it to pieces, “exceedingly terrible,”2 he swayed the fate of millions from his palace upon the hill of the Palatine in Rome. Jesus had been born, and lived, as merely one of his myriad subjects. The rule proclaimed by the “Anointed One,” the “Christ,” however, was not of this world. Emperors and their legions had no power to seize it. The Kingdom of Heaven was promised instead to the merciful, the meek, the poor. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”3 And Jesus – even facing death – practised what he had preached. When guards were sent to arrest him, his chief disciple, Peter, “the rock” upon whom it had been prophesied that the Church itself would be built, sought to defend his master; but Jesus, healing the man wounded in the ensuing scuffle, ordered Peter to put up his weapon. “For all who take the sword,” he warned, “will perish by the sword.”4 Dragged before a Roman governor, Jesus raised no voice of complaint as he was condemned to death as an enemy of Caesar. Roman soldiers guarded him as he hauled his cross through the streets of Jerusalem and out on to the execution ground, Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. Roman nails were hammered through his hands and feet. The point of a Roman spear was jabbed into his side.

In the years and decades that followed, Christ’s disciples, insisting to the world that their master had risen from His tomb in defiance of Satan and all the bonds of death, not surprisingly regarded the empire of the Caesars as a monstrosity. Peter, who chose to preach the gospel in the very maw of the beast, named Rome “Babylon”;5 and it was there that he, like his master, ultimately suffered death by crucifixion. Other Christians arrested in the capital were dressed in animal skins and torn to pieces by dogs, or else set on fire to serve the imperial gardens as torches. Some sixty years after Christ had departed from the sight of His disciples, a revelation of His return was granted to a disciple named John, a vision of the end of days, in which Rome appeared as a whore “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs,” mounted upon a scarlet beast, and adorned with purple and gold – “and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations.’”6 Great though she was, however, the doom of the whore was certain. Rome would fall, and deadly portents afflict mankind, and Satan, “the dragon, that ancient serpent,”7 escape his prison, until at last, in the final hour of reckoning, Christ would come again, and all the world be judged, and Satan and his followers be condemned to a pit of fire. And an angel, the same one who had shown John the revelation, warned him not to seal up the words of the prophecy vouchsafed to him, “For the hour is near.”

But the years slipped by, and Christ did not return. Time closed the eyes of the last man to have seen Him alive. His followers, denied a Second Coming, were obliged to adapt to a present still ruled by Caesar. Whore or not, Rome gave to them, as to all her subjects, the fruits of her world-spanning order. Across the empire, communities of Christians spread and flourished. Gradually, step by tentative step, a hierarchy was established capable of administering these infant churches. Just as Jesus had given to Peter the charge to be shepherd of His sheep, so congregations entrusted themselves to “overseers”: “bishops.” “Pappas,” such men were called: affectionate Greek for “father.” Immersed as they were in the day-to-day running of their bishoprics, such men could hardly afford to stake all their trust in extravagant visions of apocalypse. Though they remained passionate in their hope of beholding Christ’s return in glory, they also had a responsibility to care for their flocks in the present. Quite as much as any pagan, many came to realise, they had good cause to appreciate the pax Romana.

Nor was justification for this perspective entirely lacking in Holy Scripture. St. Paul – although martyred, as St. Peter had been, in Rome – had advised the Church there, before his execution, that the structures of governance, even those of the very pagan empire itself, had been “instituted by God.”8 Indeed, it struck many students of the apostle that the Caesars had a more than incidental role to play in his vision of the end of days. Whereas St. John had portrayed Rome as complicit with the Beast, that demon in human form who was destined, just before Christ’s return, to establish a tyranny of universal evil, seducing men and women everywhere by means of spectacular miracles, chilling their souls and dimming the Church beneath a tide of blood, Paul, it seemed, had cast the empire as precisely the opposite: the one bulwark capable of “restraining” Antichrist.9Yet such an interpretation did not entirely clear up the ambivalence with which most Christians still regarded Rome, and the prospect of her fall: for if the reign of Antichrist was self-evidently to be dreaded, then so also might it be welcomed, as heralding Christ’s return. “But of that or that hour,” as Jesus Himself had admonished His disciples, “no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”10 That being so, many Church fathers concluded, it could hardly be reckoned a sin to hold Rome’s empire in their prayers.

For redeemed though they hoped to be, even the devoutest Christians were sinners still, fallen and fashioned out of dust. Until a new heaven and a new earth had been established upon the ruins of the old, and a new Jerusalem descended “out of heaven from God,”11 the Church had no choice but to accommodate itself to the rule of a worldly power. Laws still had to be administered, cities governed, order preserved. Enemies of that order, lurking in dank and distant forests, or amid the sands of pitiless deserts, still had to be kept at bay. As the fourth century of the Christian era dawned, followers of the Prince of Peace were to be found even among the ranks of Caesar’s soldiers.12 Later ages would preserve the memory of Maurice, an Egyptian general stationed at the small town of Agaunum, in the Alps, who had commanded a legion entirely comprising of the faithful. Ordered to put to the sword a village of innocent fellow Christians, he had refused. And yet, as Maurice himself had made perfectly clear to the infuriated emperor, he would have found in an order to attack pagan enemies no cause for mutiny. “We are your soldiers, yes,” he was said to have explained, “but we are also the soldiers of God. To you, we owe the dues of military service – but to Him the purity of our souls.”13

The emperor, however, had remained toweringly unimpressed. He had ordered the mutineers’ execution. And so it was that Maurice and the entire legion under his command had won their martyrs’ crowns.

Ultimately, it seemed, obedience to both Christ and Caesar could not be reconciled.

A New Rome

But what if Caesar himself were a servant of Christ? Barely a decade after Maurice’s martyrdom, and even as persecution of the Church rose to fresh heights of ferocity, the hand of God was preparing to manifest itself in a wholly unexpected way. In AD 312 a pretender to the imperial title by the name of Constantine marched from Gaul – what is now France – across the Alps, and on towards Rome. The odds seemed stacked against him. Not only was he heavily outnumbered, but his enemies had already taken possession of the capital. One noon, however, looking to the heavens for inspiration, Constantine saw there the blazing of a cross, visible to his whole army, and inscribed with the words, “By this sign, conquer.” That night, in his tent, he was visited by Christ Himself. Again came the instruction: “By this sign, conquer.” Constantine, waking at dawn, obeyed. He gave orders for the “heavenly sign of God” to be inscribed upon his soldiers’ shields.14 When battle was finally joined outside Rome, Constantine was victorious. Entering the capital, he did not forget to whom he had owed his triumph. Turning his back on a whole millennium of tradition, he offered up no sacrifices to those demons whom the Caesars, in their folly and their blindness, had always worshipped as gods. Instead, the dominion of the Roman people was set upon a radically new path, one which God had clearly long been planning for it, to serve Him as the tool and agent of His grace, as an imperium christianum – a Christian empire.

“And because Constantine made no supplications to evil spirits, but worshipped only the one true God, he enjoyed a life more favoured by marks of worldly prosperity than anyone would have dared imagine was possible.”15 Certainly, it was hard for anyone to dispute that his reign had indeed been divinely blessed. In all, Constantine ruled for thirty-one years: only a decade less than the man who had first established his fiat over Rome and her empire, Caesar Augustus. It was during the reign of Augustus that Jesus had been born into the world; and now, under Constantine, so it seemed to his Christian subjects, the times were renewing themselves again. In Jerusalem, earth and rubbish were cleared from the tomb in which Christ had been laid. A Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “surpassing all the churches of the world in beauty,” was raised above it, and over Golgotha, the hill of the crucifixion.16 Simultaneously, on the shores of the Bosphorus, what had formerly been the pagan city of Byzantium was redeveloped to serve the empire as a Christian capital. Constantine himself, it was said, marking out the street plan of his foundation with a spear, had been guided by the figure of Christ walking before him. Never again would pagan temples be built on Byzantine soil. No palls of smoke greasy with sacrifice would ever drift above the spreading streets. Graced with the splendid title of “the New Rome,” the capital would provide the first Christian emperor with the most enduring of all his memorials. Ever after, the Romans would know it as “the City of Constantine” – Constantinople.

The Roman Empire in AD 395

A seat of empire, to be sure – but hardly a monument to Christian humility. The leaders of the Church were unperturbed. Scarcely able as they were to credit the miracle that had transformed them so unexpectedly from a persecuted minority into an imperial elite, they raised few eyebrows at the spectacle of their emperor’s magnificence. Since, as St. John had seen in his vision, the New Jerusalem would not be descending to earth until the very end of days, it struck most of them as a waste of time to preach revolution. Far more meritorious, the world’s fallen state being what it was, to labour at the task of redeeming it from chaos. It was order, not egalitarianism, that the mirror of heaven showed back to earth.

What were the saints, the angels and the archangels if not the very model of a court, ranked in an exquisite hierarchy amid the pomp of the World Beyond, with Christ Himself, victorious in His great battle over death and darkness, presiding over them, and over the monarchy of the universe, in a blaze of celestial light? A Christian emperor, ruling as the sponsor and protector of the Church, could serve not merely as Christ’s ally in the great war against evil, but as His representative on earth, “directing, in imitation of God Himself, the administration of this world’s affairs.”17 In the bejewelled and perfumed splendours of Constantinople might be glimpsed a reflection of the beauties of paradise; in the armies that marched to war against the foes of the Christian order an image of the angelic hosts. What had once been the very proofs of the empire’s depravity – its wealth, its splendour, its terrifying military might – now seemed to mark it out as a replica of heaven.

Naturally, the Christ to whom Constantine and his successors compared themselves bore little resemblance to the Jesus who had died in excruciating and blood-streaked agony upon a rough-hewn cross. Indeed, whether in the meditations of theologians or in the mosaics of artisans, He began to resemble nothing so much as a Roman emperor. Whereas the faithful had once looked to their Messiah to sit in awful judgement over Rome, now bishops publicly implored Him to turn His “heavenly weapons” against the enemies of the empire, “so that the peace of the Church might be untroubled by storms of war.”18 By the fifth Christian century, prayers such as these were turning shrill and desperate – for increasingly, the storms of war appeared to be darkening all the world. Savages from the barbarous wilds beyond the Christian order, no longer content to respect the frontiers that had for so long been circumscribed by Roman might, were starting to sweep across the empire, threatening to despoil it of its fairest territories, and to dismember a dominion only lately consecrated to the service of God. Was this the end of days come at last? Christians might have been forgiven for thinking so. In AD 410, Rome herself was sacked, and men cried out, just as St. John had foreseen that they would, “‘Alas, alas for the great city!’”19 Still waves of migrants continued to flood through the breached frontiers, into Gaul and Britain, Spain and Africa, the Balkans and Italy; and this too, it struck many, St. John had prophesied. For the end time, he had written, would see Satan gather to himself nations from the far ends of the world; and their numbers would be like “the sand of the sea.”20 And their names, St. John had written, would be Gog and Magog.

To emperors struggling to hold together their disintegrating patrimony, such talk was pure sedition. To their servants in the Church as well, desperate to see the imperial centre hold, the strident anti-Roman sentiments of St. John’s Revelation had long been an embarrassment. In 338, a council of bishops had sought to drop it altogether from the canon of Holy Scripture. In the East, where the more prosperous half of Rome’s empire was at length, and with colossal effort, shored up against collapse, the Book of Revelation would not be restored to the Bible for centuries. Even as the western half of the empire crumbled away into ruin, an emperor remained sufficiently secure behind the massive battlements of Constantinople to proclaim that God had granted him authority over the affairs of all humankind – and to believe it. Whatever the barbarians might be who had overwhelmed the provinces of the West, they were self-evidently not Gog and Magog – for the end of days was yet to come, and the Roman Empire still endured.

This conviction, simultaneously vaunting and defiant, would remain constant throughout the succeeding centuries, even in the face of renewed calamities, and the dawning recognition, hard for any people calling themselves Romans to accept, that the empire was no longer the world’s greatest power. Smoke rising from the passage of barbarian war bands might repeatedly be glimpsed from the walls of the very capital; enemy fleets might churn the waters of the Bosphorus; frontiers and horizons might progressively contract, as Syria too, and Egypt, and Cyprus, were lost to the New Rome: and yet the citizens of Constantinople, no matter what the tides of disaster lapping at them, still trusted to their destiny. Like the Jews, they presented themselves as God’s elect, both afflicted and favoured on that account – and, like the Jews, they looked to the future for their ultimate deliverance.

So it was, some time in the seventh century, and amid an unprecedented series of defeats, that startling prophecies began to circulate. Written, it was claimed, by Methodius, a saint who had been martyred some three hundred years previously, these appeared to lift the veil, just as St. John’s vision had done, from the end days of the world. No matter that Methodius himself had been executed on the orders of a Caesar, the writings attributed to him endowed the Roman Empire with an altogether more glorious role than it had been granted in Revelation. Teeming although its pagan enemies already were, Methodius warned, its greatest test was still to come. The hour of Gog and Magog, long dreaded, would come at last. Imprisoned for aeons on the edge of the world behind great walls of brass, these were barbarians of unspeakable savagery, devourers of “the vermin of the earth, mice and dogs and kittens, and of aborted foetuses, which they eat as though gorging on the rarest delicacies.”21 Against the eruption of such monstrous foes, only the emperor in Constantinople – the last Roman emperor of them all – would stand firm; and in the end he would bring Gog and Magog to defeat. That great victory achieved, he would then travel to Jerusalem; and in Jerusalem, the Son of Perdition, Antichrist himself, would be revealed.

And then the last emperor, Methodius prophesied, would “go up and stand on the hill of Golgotha, and he would find there the Holy Cross, set up just as it had been when it carried Christ.” He would place his diadem on the top of the Cross and then raise up his hands in prayer, delivering his monarchy into the hands of God. “And the Holy Cross on which Christ was crucified will be raised to heaven, and the crown of kingship with it”22 – leaving the last emperor dead on Golgotha, and all the kingdoms of the earth subject to Antichrist, steeped in that profoundest darkness that would precede the dawn of Christ’s return.

So it was to come: the last great battle of the world. Small wonder that Methodius’s prognostications should have attracted attention even in imperial circles. They may have been lurid and intemperate, yet they could offer a hard-pressed emperor precisely what St. John, in Revelation, had so signally withheld: reassurance that the Roman Empire would continue in heaven’s favour until the very end of days. More flatteringly, indeed – that the death of its last emperor would serve to precipitate the end of days. Had not St. Paul, when he spoke of Rome “restraining” Antichrist, implied as much? No matter how shrunken the dominion ruled from Constantinople, its rulers needed desperately to believe that it remained the fulcrum of God’s plans for the universe. What in more prosperous times had been taken for granted was now clung to with a grim resolution: the conviction that to be Christian was synonymous with being Roman.

Posterity, as though in mockery of Constantine’s pretensions, has christened the empire ruled from his foundation “Byzantium,” but this was not a name that the “Byzantines” ever applied to it themselves. * Even as Latin, the ancient language of the Caesars, gradually faded from the imperial chanceries, then from the law courts, and finally from the coinage, the citizens of Constantinople continued to call themselves Roman – albeit in their native Greek. Here was no faddish antiquarianism. Rather, the prickliness with which the Byzantines, the “Romaioi,” guarded their name went to the very heart of their self-image. It offered them reassurance that they had a future as well as a past. A jealous concern with tradition was precisely what marked them out as a Chosen People. It served, in short, to define their covenant with God.

The City of God

It is true that the identification of Christendom with empire was not entirely without its problems. A certain degree of awkwardness arose whenever the Romaioi were obliged to have dealings with Christians beyond their frontiers. Imperial lawyers had initially spun the optimistic formulation that all of Rome’s former provinces, from Britain to the furthest reaches of Spain, remained subject to the emperor. In the earliest days of their foundation, some of the barbarian kingdoms established in the West had been perfectly content to play along with this fiction – and even those that did not had on occasion been flattered into accepting certain tokens of subordination. After all, trinkets and titles from a Roman emperor were never readily to be sniffed at.

In AD 507, for instance, a confederation of Germanic tribes known collectively as the Franks, axe-throwing pagans who had seized control of much of northern Gaul, had won a great victory that extended their sway southwards as far as the Mediterranean – and Byzantine agents, hurrying to congratulate them, had awarded Clovis, their king, the sonorous if wholly empty title of consul. A year later, and Clovis had shown himself even more an enthusiast for things imperial by accepting baptism.* What precise role the ambassadors from Constantinople might have played in this decision we do not know; but it must surely have struck them as a development rich in promise. For, by their own lights, to be a Christian was to be a Roman.

Not by the lights of the Franks, however. Although Clovis’s people had plunged after their king into the waters of baptism, and although, a century later, missionaries dispatched from Rome would begin persuading the pagan English too to bow their necks before Christ, no submission to a mortal power was implied by these conversions. Just the opposite, in fact. Kings who accepted baptism did so primarily to win for their own purposes the backing of an intimidatingly powerful god: so it was, for instance, that Clovis, as a symbol of his newly Christian status, had taken to sporting “a salvation-giving warhelmet.”23 The very notion of tolerating an earthly overlord was anathema to such a man. Neither Clovis nor his successors had any wish to see a global empire re-established.

And already, by the seventh century, memories of Rome in the West were fading into oblivion. Massive still, beyond fields returned to scrub or marsh or forest, or above the huddled huts of peasants long since freed of imperial exactions, or framing perhaps even the high gabled hall of a chieftain and his carousing warriors, Roman buildings continued to loom against the sky – but as the wardens now of an order gone for ever, slowly crumbling before the passage of suns and rains. All the complex apparatus of bureaucracy, the same that in Constantinople still served to feed the emperor, his armies and his taxes, had collapsed utterly into ruin, leaving, amid the rubble, only a single structure standing. The Church in the West, had it followed the course of its eastern counterpart and insisted that Christendom was indeed synonymous with the rule of Rome, would surely have shared in the general ruin. As it was, it endured; and by enduring, preserved something of the imperious spirit of what had otherwise been left a corpse.

“To rejoice in the vast extent of an earthly kingdom is behaviour that no Christians should ever indulge in.”24 So had pronounced Augustine, a bishop from north Africa, during the calamitous final century of the Western Empire’s existence. But what of God’s kingdom? That was quite a different matter. Bishops in the West, no longer able to rely upon a universal empire to shield their flocks from danger, could find in the writings of Augustine a theology infinitely better suited to their tattered circumstances than anything originating from the palmier days of the pax Romana. The great division in the affairs of the world, Augustine had argued, lay not between civilised and savage, Roman and barbarian, but between those earthly dominions of which Rome had been merely the most prominent example and a dominion incalculably greater and more glorious: the City of God. Within the infinite walls of the heavenly Jerusalem, all might hope to dwell, no matter what their origin; and the entrance way to this city, its portal, was the Church.

A glorious role indeed. Great empires, borne upon the surging flood tides of human sinfulness, might rise and conquer and fall; “but the Heavenly City, journeying on pilgrimage throughout our fallen world, summons people from every nation, speakers of every language, taking no account of how they may differ in their institutions, their customs, or their laws.”25 Here, for all Christians in the West, whether in the old imperial provinces of southern Gaul, where bishops descended from senators still sat proudly amid the carcasses of Roman towns, or upon the mist-swept fringes of the world, where Irish hermits raised prayers to the Almighty above the ocean’s roar, was a message of mission and hope. Everywhere, across the whole, wide span of the fragmented, tormented world, was the City of God.

And as evidence for this, Augustine had turned, as had so many questers after divine secrets before him, to the vision of St. John. Specifically, he had turned to a passage controversial even by the vertiginous standards of Revelation. “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven,” St. John had written, “holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended.”26 And for the thousand years of Satan’s imprisonment, until he should again “be loosed for a little while,” to fight the last battle that would see evil defeated once and for all, there would be a rule of saints. But when? Theories as to that, over the centuries, had come thick and fast. Most, feverish with mingled dread and hope, had proclaimed the start of the Millennium imminent. Augustine, however, in a typically innovative manoeuvre, had looked, not to the future, but to the past for the true solution. The rule of saints, he had argued, was already begun. It had been inaugurated by Christ Himself, after His death upon the Cross, when He had descended into the depths of hell and there bound up Satan, in witness of His victory over sin. Within the City of God, where Christ had ascended to reign in splendour, the saints and the martyrs already sat about Him upon their thrones. The Church too, earthly though it was, and therefore unavoidably tainted, was shot through with the radiance of their glory.

St. John’s vision, Augustine had argued, contained no road map of what was to come. Rather, it offered guidance on what it meant to be a Christian in the here and now. To speculate when the world would end on the basis of Revelation was pointless. Why, not even St. John’s allusions to a millennium were to be taken literally. “For he intended his mention of ‘a thousand years’ to stand for the whole span of our world’s history. How else, after all, is one to convey an immensity of time save by deploying a perfectly round number?”27

The centuries passed. Kingdoms rose and fell. Christians who marked the times felt themselves to be living in an age of shadow. “Cities are destroyed, proud strongholds stormed, fair provinces emptied of people, and the whole earth become a solitude.”28 Yet though they mourned, those content to submit themselves to the inscrutable will of God did not despair: for still, proof against the breaking of the world, and illumined, however flickeringly, by the splendour of Christ in His undimmed glory, the Church continued to prosper. And so it seemed increasingly to its leaders that Augustine had been right: that the Millennium spoken of by St. John had indeed begun. Those who disagreed, turning to Revelation in the hunt for their own answers, were deluding themselves – or worse. Wild talk of saints ruling upon earth could not help but undermine those already charged with the task of “governing souls – which is the art to end all arts.”29 What bishops in Constantinople claimed for their embattled empire, a role as the vehicle for divine providence, even to the very end of days, when Christ would at last return to rule the living and the dead, bishops in the West claimed for themselves. A sense of urgency gnawed at them. “Once the world held us by its delights,” wrote one, gazing mournfully about him at the desolation of an emptied and crumbling Rome. “Now it is so full of disasters that the world itself seems to be summoning us to God.”30 Yet precisely for that reason – precisely because the end of times did indeed appear close at hand – so was it all the more essential that the Church not speculate as to the date. Those entrusted with the shepherding of fallen humanity could not risk infecting their flocks with extravagant terrors and enthusiasms. The sheep who in nervous anticipation of the Second Coming broke free of the fold might prove sheep forever lost. Only through the Church could the New Jerusalem be attained. Only through the Church could there be found a path to the rapture of Christ’s return.

No wonder, then, that its leaders should have felt, often to a dizzying degree, a sense of their own elevation above the common run of things. Some bishops, man’s sinful nature being what it was, duly succumbed to the temptations of pride and greed; others, burdened by the cares of office, found themselves gazing anxiously into their souls and yearning for solitude; but not one ever doubted that he was possessed of a sacred charge. Those same blessed hands that Roman soldiers had centuries earlier nailed to the Cross had once touched the heads of the apostles; and the apostles in turn had laid their hands upon the heads of their successors; and so it had continued, without break, down to the present. A bishop at his consecration, in witness of the awful trust being placed upon him, would be anointed with an unguent of prodigious holiness, blended of oil and a fabulously sweet smelling, fabulously expensive resin, balsam. Chrism, this concoction was called: a mixture of such remarkable power that it needed only to be sprinkled on a sea to purge its depths of demons, and on a field to bless its soil with fertility. Upon flesh and blood too, its effects were transformative: for as it passed through a man’s pores, penetrating his body, seeping deep into his soul, so did it serve to suffuse him with an eerie and numinous potency. A bishop adorned upon his head and hands with holy oil could know himself fitted to handle the very profoundest mysteries of his faith: to officiate at a Mass, transforming bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ; to confront and banish demons; to intercede with God. Anointed of the Lord, he was touched by the divine.

And even the humblest priest, consecrated in his own turn by a bishop, could be brought to share in the magic. Once, before the Church had begun its great labour of erecting a boundary between the sacred and the profane, the two had seemed interfused. Streams and trees had been celebrated as holy; laymen had laid claim to visions; prophets had read the future in ox dung; mourners had brought offerings of food and drink to tombs. Increasingly, however, the clergy had succeeded in identifying the dimensions of the supernatural as exclusively their own. By the eighth century, Christians uninitiated into the priesthood were losing confidence in their ability to communicate with the invisible. It was not only over the splendours of the City of God, after all, that the Church claimed to stand guard. Just as awesomely, its clergy patrolled the gateway that opened up to the realm of the dead, where angels or demons, heaven or hell, awaited the soul. No longer did people trust themselves to aid their departed kin as they embarked on this last dread journey. Only through the celebration of the Holy Mass, the Church had pronounced, could there be any hope of helping souls in the other world – and only a priest could conduct a Holy Mass.

Why, even the words he spoke while performing this miraculous ritual served to elevate him as a man apart; for in the West, unlike the East, whose missionaries thought nothing of translating their holy texts into any number of barbarous tongues, there was but a single sacred language. This was Latin; and its use was no less incumbent upon the clergy in Ireland or in the lands beyond the Rhine, where Roman rule had never penetrated, than it was upon their brethren in the former heartlands of the empire. For all the babel of jabberings spoken on the outer limits of forest or ocean, yet even Northumbrians or Thuringians or Frisians, if they had been properly consecrated to the service of Christ, could share in the common language that marked them out as priests.

Indeed, scholars from England who crossed the Channel were shocked to discover that the Latin spoken in Gaul appeared vulgar and decayed compared with the exquisitely frozen language that they had imbibed with such care from their school books. Even to those who had always fancied themselves native speakers of the “Roman tongue,” the antique Latin penned by Church fathers such as Augustine was becoming something dead. This, among priests who had the opportunity to learn it, only added to its appeal. A tongue unmangled by laymen could be reckoned all the more satisfyingly holy. As a result, even as the use of Latin as a spoken language declined in Italy, in Gaul, in Spain, to be replaced by bastard dialects, so the study of it by churchmen continued to flourish and spread. For the first time since the fall of Rome, an elite deployed across a vast extent of Europe could share in a common vocabulary of power. The Church in the West was be coming a Latin Church.

But not by any means a Roman one. True, Christian lands were formed of an immense patchwork of dioceses – and the boundaries of these dioceses, in the old imperial heartlands at any rate, dated all the way back to the time of the Caesars. It was true as well that when bishoprics were established in newly converted territories, beyond the borders of the ancient empire, it had become the custom to look to Rome for permission to establish supremos – “arch-bishops” – capable of co-ordinating them. Yet the Bishop of Rome himself, although widely acknowledged as the most senior churchman in the West, was no Constantine. He might command the respect of kings, but not their obedience; he might send them letters of guidance or advice or solace, but not instruction. Even had he aspired to impose his authority on Christendom, he lacked the means. “When all things are good,” Augustine had once written, “the question of order does not arise.”31 But shadow lay everywhere across the fallen world, even across dominions ruled by Christian kings – and so the question of order was one that the Church could hardly avoid. Chaos in a soul and chaos in a kingdom both sprang from the same self-evident cause: human evil. Robbery and oppression of the weak were bred of anarchy; and anarchy was bred of Satan, whose other name was Belial, a word which meant, learned doctors taught, “without a yoke.”32 Only at sword point, in a society collapsing into violence, could Satan be restrained, and the yoke of the law be restored.

Beyond all doubt, then, the trampling down of malefactors was to be reckoned a Christian duty – and yet it was still, even so, one hardly befitting a man of God. A bishop presided over his diocese as its father, not its constable. That role had to be shouldered instead by another, one better qualified to handle sword and spear – as indeed had been the case since the very earliest days of the Church. That Rome’s empire had splintered into nothingness did not diminish this regrettable truth. If anything, indeed, it made it more pressing. For centuries, the Church had been obliged to accommodate itself to a bewildering array of warlords. The more rulers it had converted, the more it had mutated in response to their various styles of rule. Though it claimed to be universal, it was the very opposite of a monolith. Like the West itself, it constituted instead a kaleidoscope of differing peoples, traditions and beliefs.

Even in Rome herself, the very mother of the Church, the pressures of worldly circumstance never ceased to weigh upon the city’s bishop. Back in the sixth century, armies dispatched from Constantinople had invaded Italy and restored to the empire its ancestral heartland. “The ancient and lesser Rome” had been incorporated into the dominion of “the later, more powerful city,”33 and her bishop had humbly acknowledged himself the subject of the far-off emperor. A Byzantine governor had moved into the city of Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast, administering as a province the emperor’s conquests in northern Italy, the Eternal City included; Byzantine titles and gewgaws had been lavished upon the Roman aristocracy; Byzantine fashions had become all the rage. The bishop himself, every time he celebrated a Mass, would pray for his absent master in Constantinople. Every time he wrote a letter, he would date it by an emperor’s regnal year.

And yet a sense of his own dignity never left him. Although excessive uppitiness might on occasion be punished by exile or threats of execution, the pre-eminence of Rome’s bishop as “the head of all Churches” was something that had been long and ringingly proclaimed by Byzantine law.34 Despite his best efforts, not even the Patriarch of Constantinople, leader of the Church in the empire’s very capital, had been able convincingly to rival it. Small wonder, then, that this authority should increasingly have tempted ambitious bishops in Rome to set themselves up as masters in their own city. They were, after all, at a gratifyingly distant remove from the emperor’s actual person – and the same crisis that in the seventh century had inspired Methodius’s prophecies of a last Roman emperor had served only to widen that remove. Greece had been infiltrated by savage barbarians from the North; the sea lanes preyed upon by corsairs; communications between Italy and Constantinople rendered perilous in the extreme. Byzantine officials in Rome, turning ever more native by the year, had fallen into the habit of obeying their bishop rather than the governor in Ravenna – and the bishop himself into the habit of issuing them with commands.

Perhaps a measure of imperiousness would have come naturally to any man who dwelt in a palace, the Lateran, that had originally been a grant from the Emperor Constantine, and who ruled as the effective master of the former mistress of the world. Early in the eighth century, indeed, plans were being drawn up – although never completed – to build him a second residence on the Palatine Hill: a site so associated with the age of the emperors that the very word “palace” echoed it. Yet the bishops of Rome did not derive their authority merely from the legacy of the imperial past. Their patrimony was something infinitely more awesome – indeed, so they proudly asserted, the most awesome of all time. Christ Himself, in naming Peter as His rock, had given to him the keys of heaven, with the power of binding and loosing souls everywhere on earth – and Peter, before his martyrdom, had ruled as the very first bishop of Rome.35 A trust more mystical and dreadful could hardly have been imagined. Peter’s successors, proclaiming themselves the apostle’s “vicarii,” or “deputies,” had long since laid claim to it as their own. In Constantinople, where it was the emperor who believed himself entrusted by God with the leadership of the Church, this cut predictably little ice: by the early eighth century, doctrines were being laid down by imperial fiat in the teeth of howls of protest from Rome.

In the kingdoms of the West, however, lacking as they did the dazzling pretensions of an ancient Christian empire, men were far more inclined to be impressed by the spectacle of a bishop on the throne of the chief apostle. Indeed, to see him as the very essence of a bishop. “Pappas” – that ancient Greek word for “father” – was still, in the eighth century, being claimed as a title by bishops everywhere in the East; but in the West, Latinised to “Papa,” by the Bishop of Rome alone. So far as the Latin Church was concerned, it had only the one Holy Father. It acknowledged just a single Pope.36

And the Bishops of Rome, bruised as they were by snubs from their imperial masters, were duly appreciative. “How regrettable it is,” a papal letter of 729 dared to sneer, “that we see savages and barbarians become civilised, while the Emperor, supposedly civilised, debases himself to the level of the barbarians.”37 Two decades later, and relations between Rome and Constantinople had turned frostier than ever. Divisions over subtle issues of theology continued to yawn. Trade links as well as diplomatic contacts had atrophied, leaving the papacy effectively broke. Most alarming of all, however, from the Pope’s point of view, was the failure of the emperor to fulfil his most sacred duty, and offer to God’s Church the protection of his sword and shield. Rome, long a frontier city, was starting to feel ever more abandoned. With the imperial armies locked into a series of desperate campaigns in the East, Byzantine efforts to maintain a presence in Italy had focused almost exclusively on Sicily and the south. The north, as a result, had been left fatally exposed. In 751, it was invaded by the Lombards, a warrior people of Germanic origin who for almost two centuries had sat ominously beyond the frontier of Byzantine Italy, waiting for their chance to expand at the empire’s expense. Ravenna, rich with palaces, splendid churches and the mosaics of saints and emperors, had fallen immediately. Rome herself, it seemed inevitable, would be next.

But hope still flickered, despite the negligence of Constantinople. The Pope was not utterly without protection. One year previously, a fateful embassy had arrived in Rome. It had borne an enquiry from a Frank by the name of Pepin, chief minister in the royal household and, to all intents and purposes, the leader of the Frankish people. Their legitimate king, Childeric III, although a descendant of Clovis, was but a feeble shadow of his glorious predecessor, and Pepin, eager to adorn his authority with the robes of monarchy, had resolved to thrust his master from the throne. Not wishing to offend against Almighty God, however, he had been anxious first to secure the Church’s blessing for his coup – and who better to turn to for that than the Vicar of St. Peter? Was it right, Pepin had duly written to the Pope, that a king without any power should continue to be a king? Back had come the answer: no, it was not right at all. A momentous judgement – and one, unsurprisingly, that had secured for Rome the pretender’s undying gratitude. The Pope’s ruling, it would soon be revealed, had set in train dramatic events. These would affect not only the papacy, not only the Franks, but all of Christendom.

God’s plans for the world had taken a startling and far-reaching turn.

Haircuts and Coronations

In 751, the same year that saw the fall of Ravenna to the Lombards, Pepin struck against the hapless Frankish king. Childeric’s spectral authority was terminated, not by death, but with a haircut. The Franks had long held a king to possess a mysterious communion with the supernatural, one that could provide victory in battle to their men, fertility to their women and fruitful harvests to their fields: a magical power dependent upon his having a luxuriant head of hair. It was hardly a belief calculated to delight scrupulous churchmen – but such considerations, back in the turbulent times of Clovis, had not weighed heavily. Two and a half centuries on, however, and the Franks had become a far more dutifully Christian people. The pagan affectations of their kings now struck many of them as an embarrassment. Few protests were raised when Pepin, having first snipped off Childeric’s resplendent locks, immured him and his son in a monastery. The usurper, however, wishing to affirm his legitimacy as well as his brute power, moved quickly to cover his back. A great assembly of his peers was summoned. The letter from the Pope was brandished in their faces. Pepin was elected king.

And yet election alone was insufficient to assure him of the authentic charisma of royalty. Although the Franks were Christian, they had never entirely abandoned their ancestral notion that kings were somehow more than mortal. Childeric’s dynasty, which claimed descent from a sea monster, had flaunted its bloodline as something literally holy: a blatant foolishness, bred of an age of barbarism, which only the gullible and ignorant had continued to swallow. Yet Pepin too, in laying claim to the kingship of the Frankish people, needed to demonstrate that his rule had been transfigured by the divine. The solution – naturally enough, for God had imprinted the pattern of the future as well as the past upon its pages – lay in the Bible. The ancient Israelites, oppressed by the depredations of their enemies, had called upon the Almighty for a king, and the Almighty, duly obliging, had given them a succession of mighty rulers: Saul, and David, and Solomon. As the mark of his elevation, each one had been anointed with holy oil; and Pepin, faithful son of the Church, now laid claim to a similar consecration. He would rule not by virtue of descent from some ridiculous merman, as Childeric had done, but “gratia Dei” – “by the grace of God.” The very same unction that served to impregnate a bishop with its awful and ineffable mystery would now imbue with its power the King of the Franks. Pepin, feeling the chrism sticky upon his skin, would know himself born again and become the mirror of Christ Himself on earth.

A momentous step indeed – and one that brought immediate benefits to all involved. If Pepin was clearly a winner, then so too was the Church that had sanctioned it – and especially that oppressed and twitchy cleric, the Bishop of Rome. In the late autumn of 754, a pope travelled for the first time into the wilds of Gaul. Ascending the Alps amid gusts of snow, Stephen II toiled up an ancient road left cracked and overgrown by centuries of disrepair, travelling through a wilderness of thickening mists and ice, until finally, reaching the summit of the pass, he found himself at the gateway of the Kingdom of the Franks. Below the road, beside a frozen lake, there stood the ruins of a long-abandoned pagan temple: a scene of bleak and menacing desolation. Yet Stephen, no matter what emotions of apprehension may temporarily have darkened his resolve, would soon have found his spirits reviving as he began his descent: for the way-stop ahead of him, his very first in Francia, offered spectacular reassurance that he was indeed entering a Christian land. Agaunum, where four and a half centuries previously the Theban Legion had been executed for their faith, was now the Abbey of St. Maurice: a reliquary raised in stone above the sanctified remains of Maurice himself. No people in the world, the Franks liked to boast, were more devoted to the memory of those who had died for Christ than them: for “the bodies of the holy martyrs, which the Romans had buried with fire, and mutilated by the sword, and torn apart by throwing them to wild beasts, these bodies they had found, and enclosed in gold and precious stones.”38 The Pope, arriving in the splendid abbey, breathing in its incense, listening to the chanting of its monks, would have known himself among a people ideally suited to serve as the protectors of St. Peter, that most blessed martyr of them all.

Nor was Stephen to be disappointed in his expectations. Six weeks after heading onwards from the Abbey of St. Maurice, he finally met with the Frankish king. Bursting into floods of ostentatious tears, the Pope begged Pepin to march to the protection of St. Peter, and then, just for good measure, reapplied the chrism. The Franks he ringingly endorsed as latter-day Israelites: “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people.”39 Nor did Pepin, self-assured in a way that came naturally to a warlord anointed of God, stint in fulfilling his own side of the bargain. In 755, Lombardy was invaded, and its king briskly routed. Two years later, when the Lombards made the mistake of menacing Rome a second time, Pepin inflicted on them an even more crushing defeat. The territories that the Lombards had conquered from Byzantium were donated in perpetuity to St. Peter. Arriving in Rome, Pepin personally and with a great show of sententiousness laid the keys of the cities he had conquered upon the apostle’s tomb. And as caretaker of this portfolio of states, he appointed – who else? – St. Peter’s vicar: the Bishop of Rome.

This was, for the papacy itself, a spectacular redemption from the jaws of catastrophe. That God in His infinite wisdom had ordained it appeared irrefutable. It was true, most regrettably, that there were a few too blinkered to recognise this, with officials from what remained of Byzantine territory in southern Italy voluble among them – but a succession of popes, confident in Pepin’s backing, blithely dismissed every demand for restoration of the emperor’s property. What were the arid pettifoggeries of diplomats when set against the evident will of the Almighty? The shocking manner in which the savage Lombards had presumed to menace the heir of St. Peter was an outrage committed not merely against the papacy itself, but against the whole of Christendom. No wonder that God had moved the heart of the Frankish king to such transcendent and gratifying effect. The surprise, it could be argued, was not that the papacy had been granted its own state to govern, but rather the very opposite – that no ruler had ever thought to grant it one before.

Or had the Pope’s archivists perhaps been overlooking something? Long centuries had passed since Constantine first established the Bishop of Rome in the Lateran – and who was to say what documents might not have been mislaid in all that time? Papal officials, keen to justify their master’s claim to his new possessions, appear to have spent the decade that followed Pepin’s victory over the Lombards ransacking the musty libraries of Rome. Certainly, it was at some point during the second half of the eighth century, even as the papacy was battling to keep hold of the grant of territories it had received from the Frankish king, that a remarkable and hitherto wholly unsuspected document was produced.* Its contents, from the papal point of view, could hardly have been more welcome. The foundations of the state donated to St. Peter, it appeared from the document, were far more venerable than anyone in the Lateran had dared to imagine. They had been laid, not by Pepin, but by the most glorious Christian ruler who had ever lived: Constantine himself. The content of the document added sensational details to the biography of the great emperor. A sufferer, it was revealed, from “the squalor of leprosy,”40 he had been miraculously cured by the then Bishop of Rome, a sage of towering holiness by the name of Sylvester. Constantine, submitting humbly to the will of Christ, had then headed off to install himself in Constantinople – but not before he had first adorned Sylvester in all the splendid regalia of empire, and surrendered to him and to the heirs of St. Peter for ever the rule of Rome, together with what were vaguely termed “the regions of the West.”41 The implication could hardly have been more pointed: the papacy, far from depriving the emperor of his property, had merely been reclaiming its due.

Its case was helped, admittedly, by the fact that even the most learned had only the haziest notion of who Constantine had actually been. Just as the great monuments of the emperors now stood as disfigured ruins, obscured beneath the spread of weeds and grass, so memories of the ancient past had long since faded into myth. In the West, unlike the East, there survived no contemporary account of the life of Constantine. Nothing to demonstrate that he had not, in fact, been a leper; that Pope Sylvester, far from presiding over the Church, had in truth been an ineffectual nonentity, much given to bleatings about his old age and poor health; that Constantine could certainly not have departed the Lateran for Constantinople, since he was yet to found the city at the time. Scholars in the West, far from uncovering these inconvenient details, never even imagined that they might exist to be exposed. Why should they have done? Great convulsions, the wise knew, only rarely ushered in novelty – for it was seen as the likeliest consequence of change that what had vanished would be repeated, repaired or restored. No dispensation of God stood revealed in the affairs of the world that had not, at some stage, been portended or foretold. It beggared belief, therefore, that a development as momentous as Pepin’s donation of a state to the Pope should not have been foreshadowed by a similar gesture back in ancient times. Had the “Donation of Constantine” not existed, papal officials might well have argued, it would have been necessary to invent it.

And in this they would have been very much in the spirit of their age. As the eighth century drew to a close, so men far beyond the purlieus of Rome felt themselves possessed of a new and stirring sense of mission. “Correctio,” they called it: the ordering of the disordered, the burnishing of the besmeared. Here was a programme to whet the ambitions of warlords as well as scholars, and to send men into battle beneath the fluttering of banners, the hiss of arrows and the shadow of carrion crows quite as much as into the mildewed quiet of libraries. Even as a succession of popes struggled to establish their supremacy in Italy, so from the North, beyond the Alps, momentous achievements were being bruited of the Franks.

In 768, King Pepin had died after a glorious reign, leaving behind him two sons, Charles and Carloman. These, as was the Frankish custom, had divided up their father’s lands, and ruled alongside each other for three uneasy years. Then, in 771, after an illness, Carloman had followed his father into the grave. Charles had immediately laid claim to his dead brother’s kingdom. He was not the man to squander the opportunity that God had so evidently granted him. Considerable though his dominions now were, he wanted more. A bare few months after Carloman’s death, and he was passing the Rhine, scouring the windswept heathlands of Saxony, embarking upon a ferocious campaign of pacification against “the brutish peoples” who lurked there “without religion, without kings.”42 The following year he invaded Italy, and five years after that he crossed the Pyrenees into Catalonia. By the 790s, he ruled an empire that stretched from Barcelona to the Danube, and from Lombardy to the Baltic Sea. Of all the lands of western Christendom, only the British Isles and a few small kingdoms in Spain still remained beyond the writ of the Frankish king. No wonder that monkish chroniclers, astounded by Charles’s continent-shaking exploits, would commemorate him as “le magne,” bastard Latin for “the great”: as “Charlemagne.”

Warfare had long been the activity of choice among the Franks. Back in the days of Childeric, it had served to win them Gaul, after all. Leaders who failed to provide their followers with the spoils of pillage rarely endured for long. No sooner had winter thawed into spring than the Frankish people, dusting down their spears, would prepare to follow their king out on campaign. Charlemagne, whose hunger for booty was insatiable, had inherited to the full the appetites of a primordial line of warrior-chiefs. Yet though he ruled as a Frank, and gloried in the name, Charlemagne was heir as well to traditions more awesome and sanctified still. Like his father, he had been anointed with the dreadful power of the chrism, nor ever doubted that he was a new David, that mighty King of Israel, whose enemies the Almighty had broken “like a bursting flood.”43 It was in the perfect consciousness of this that Charlemagne made the wastes of Saxony to flow with pagan blood; that he spread even among the barbarous Slavs who swarmed on the outer reaches of the world awful rumours of the wrath and terror of his name; that he returned every autumn from his campaigns with lumbering wagon trains of booty, spoils with which to strengthen the Christian order throughout his vast domains. Just as he had taken it upon himself to push back the frontiers of Christendom, so also, within its boundaries, did he aim for its reform and purification – its “correctio.”

Charlemagne himself had little doubt how this was best to be attained. God’s will obliged Christian men to show obedience to their earthly lords – and, above all, to their anointed king. There were few Franks disposed to contest this. Resentment of Charlemagne’s supremacy, although it never entirely faded away among the greatest of the Frankish lords, was strongly tempered by self-interest. Decades of lucrative warfare had brought Charlemagne unprecedented resources of patronage. The aristocracy, restraining a naturally rumbustious sense of independence, duly knuckled down to playing the part of loyal dependants.

The Frankish bishops too, eager to profit from the great labour of Christian reform, had no hesitation in proffering Charlemagne their submission. In 794, a council of Church leaders drawn from across the Latin West hailed him, in fateful terms, as “king and priest.” Such a formula was not original: it had long been applied to the emperor in Constantinople. Charlemagne, however, as master of Europe, and the Lord’s anointed to boot, felt no obligation to truckle to the exclusiveness of the distant Byzantines. Whereas they had merely preserved a Christian empire, he could argue, he was labouring to bring one back to life. After interminable centuries of chaos, it was the Franks who had restored to the West the benefits of order, and after darkness returned it to the light. “Once, the whole of Europe was stripped bare by the flames and swords of barbarians.” So wrote Alcuin, a scholar originally from Northumbria, in the north of England, a kingdom far removed from the limits of the Frankish Empire, but who had nevertheless been attracted to Charlemagne’s side much like a moth drawn to a lamp. “Now, thanks to God’s mercy,” he exulted, “Europe burns as brightly with churches as does the sky with stars.”44

Even the Pope himself, St. Peter’s own heir, had little choice but to acknowledge the Frankish king as head of “the Christian people.” Fifty years previously, the papacy had negotiated with Pepin almost as an equal – but its bargaining position, as the eighth century drew to a close, had been sorely eroded. Charlemagne, who instinctively regarded bishops as he did everyone else, as his servants, to be exploited and patronised as he saw fit, certainly made no exception for the Bishop of Rome. Back in 774, following his invasion of Italy, he had seized the heavy iron crown of the Lombards for himself, and, from that moment on, the ramshackle state entrusted by Pepin to St. Peter had been repeatedly trimmed back in the interests of Lombardy’s new master.

So too, and perhaps even more hurtfully, had the papacy’s claims to responsibility for the Church. In 796, when news of the election of a new pope, Leo III, was brought to him, Charlemagne was blunt in spelling out how the balance of responsibilities between the two of them stood. His own role, he wrote to Leo, was to defend the Church against pagans, to protect it from heretics, and to consolidate it across the whole span of Christendom by everywhere promoting the Catholic faith. The Pope’s role was to lead prayers for the Frankish king’s success. “And in this way,” Charlemagne concluded with gracious condescension, “Christians everywhere, Holy Father, will be sure to gain the victory over the enemies of God’s sacred name.”45

The Holy Father himself, perusing this manifesto, may well have felt less than thrilled by it. Nevertheless, whatever his private disappointment at the attenuated role granted the papacy in Charlemagne’s scheme of things, Leo made sure to conceal it. No less than his brother bishops of the Frankish Church, he appreciated that obsequiousness might bring its due reward. Accompanying Charlemagne’s letter, for instance, there had rumbled into Rome wagons piled high with treasure, gold looted from the pagans, which Leo had immediately set about lavishing on Rome’s churches, and on his own palace of the Lateran. Three years later, in 799, and he had even more cause to bank on Charlemagne. Even though his election had been unanimous, Leo had enemies: for the papal office, which until recently had brought its holder only bills and overdrafts, was now capable of exciting the envious cupidity of the Roman aristocracy. On 25 April, as the heir of St. Peter rode in splendid procession to Mass, he was set upon by a gang of heavies. Bundled off into a monastery, Leo succeeded in escaping before his enemies, as had been their intention, could blind him and cut out his tongue. Lacking any other recourse, he resolved upon the desperate expedient of fleeing to the King of the Franks. The journey was a long and perilous one – for Charlemagne, that summer, was in Saxony, on the very outer reaches of Christendom. Wild rumours preceded the Pope, grisly reports that he had indeed been mutilated. When he finally arrived in the presence of Charlemagne, and it was discovered, to general disappointment, that he still had his eyes and tongue, Leo solemnly asserted that they had been restored to him by St. Peter, sure evidence of the apostle’s outrage at the affront to his vicar. And then, embracing “the King, the father of Europe,” Leo summoned Charlemagne to his duty: to stir himself in defence of the Pope, “chief pastor of the world,” and to march on Rome.46

And to Rome the king duly came. Not in any hurry, however; and certainly not so as to suggest that he was doing his suppliant’s bidding. Indeed, for the fugitive Pope, humiliation had followed upon humiliation. His enemies, arriving in Charlemagne’s presence only days after Leo, had publicly accused him of a series of extravagant sexual abuses. Commissioners, sent by Charlemagne to escort the Pope back to Rome and investigate the charges against him, drew up a report so damning that Alcuin preferred to burn it rather than be sullied by keeping it in his possession. When Charlemagne himself, in the early winter of 800, more than a year after Leo’s arrival in Saxony, finally approached the gates of Rome, the Pope humbly rode out to greet him twelve miles from the city. Even the ancient emperors had only required their servants to ride out six.

But Leo, a born fighter, was still resolved to salvage something from the wreckage. Blackened though his name had certainly been, he remained the Pope, St. Peter’s heir, the holder of an office that had been instituted of Christ Himself. It was not lightly given to any mortal, not even Charlemagne, to sit in judgement on Rome’s bishop. In token of this, when the proceedings against Leo formally opened on 1 December, they did so, not within the ancient limits of the city, but in the Vatican, on the far side of the Tiber, in implicit acknowledgement of the rights of the Pope, and the Pope alone, to rule in Rome. Papal officials, displaying their accustomed talent for uncovering ancient documents just when they were most needed, presented to Charlemagne papers which appeared conclusively to prove that their master could in fact only be judged by God. Charlemagne, accepting this submission, duly pronounced the Pope acquitted. Leo, placing his hand on a copy of the New Testament, then swore a flamboyant oath that he had been innocent all along.

And now, having triumphed over his enemies in Rome, he prepared to snatch an even more dramatic victory from the jaws of all his travails. Two days after the Pope’s acquittal, Charlemagne attended Christmas Mass in the shrine of St. Peter in the Vatican. He did so humbly, without any insignia of royalty, praying on his knees. As he rose, however, Leo stepped forward into the golden light cast by the altar candles, and placed a crown on his bare head. Simultaneously, the whole cathedral echoed to the ecstatic cries of the congregation, who hailed the Frankish king as “Augustus” – the honorific of the ancient Caesars. Leo, never knowingly less than dramatic, then prostrated himself before Charlemagne’s feet, head down, arms outstretched. By venerable tradition, such obeisance had properly been performed only for one man: the emperor in Constantinople.

But now, following the events of that momentous Christmas Day, the West once again had an emperor of its own.

And it was the Pope, and no one else, who had granted him his crown.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

So it was that Charlemagne came to rule as a second Constantine. The emperor’s joy was not entirely unconfined. Though he was content to acknowledge the hand of God in his elevation, he was reluctant, as was only natural, to admit that he might owe anything to the Bishop of Rome. The whole coronation, Charlemagne would later declare, had come as a surprise to him, a bolt from the blue. Indeed, “he made it clear that he would not have entered the cathedral that day at all, although it was the very greatest of the festivals of the Church, if he had known in advance what the Pope was planning to do.”47 Here he spoke, not as an emperor, but as a proudly Frankish king: disdainful of the customs of other peoples; reluctant even to set aside his native dress; pointedly unwilling, when in Rome, to do as the Romans did. While his new title was glamorous, Charlemagne refused to be dizzied by it. He never forgot where his power base lay. He certainly had no intention of alienating his own people by appearing to be in hock to a foreign bishop.

Cause enough, then, for the new emperor to deny all foreknowledge of his coronation. Yet still an aura of mystery lingered around the ceremony. Had Charlemagne truly been as ignorant of Leo’s plans as he subsequently claimed to be, then it was all the more eerie a coincidence that he should have been in Rome, and in St. Peter’s, on the very morning that he was. Eight hundred years had passed to the day since the birth of the Son of Man: an anniversary of which Charlemagne and his advisers would have been perfectly aware. Over the preceding decades, the great programme of correctio had begun to embrace even the dimensions of time itself. Traditionally, just as popes had employed the regnal year of the emperor in Constantinople on their documents, so other churchmen had derived dates from a bewildering array of starting points: the accession of their local ruler, perhaps, or an ancient persecution, or, most extravagantly, the creation of the world. Such confusion, however, to scholars sponsored by the Frankish king, was intolerable. A universal Christian order, such as Charlemagne was labouring to raise, required a universal chronology. How fortunate it was, then, that the perfect solution had lain conveniently ready to hand. The years preceding Charlemagne’s accession to the Frankish throne had witnessed a momentous intellectual revolution. Monks both in Francia itself and in the British Isles, looking to calibrate the mysterious complexities of time, had found themselves arriving at a framework that was as practical as it was profound. From whose accession date, if not that of some earthly emperor or king, were years to be numbered? The answer, once given, was obvious. Christ alone was the ruler of all mankind – and His reign had begun when He had first been born into the world. It was the Incarnation – that cosmos-shaking moment when the Divine had become flesh – that served as the pivot around which all of history turned. Where were the Christians who could possibly argue with that? Not at the Frankish court, to be sure. Clerics in Charlemagne’s service had accordingly begun to measure dates from “the year of our Lord” – “anno Domini.”

The Empire of the Franks under Charlemagne and his successors

Here was a sense of time, Christian time, that far transcended the local: perfectly suited to a monarchy that extended to the outermost limits of Christendom. Charlemagne, crowned upon the exact turning point of a century, could hardly have done more to identify himself with it. Yet there was, perhaps, a further reason why he might have determined upon a coronation in AD 800 – nor was it one that he would have cared to publicise. Although shadow, on that fateful day in St. Peter’s, would have lain heavy beyond the flickering wash of the candlelight, yet it was not so heavy, perhaps, as the shadow of foreboding that lay across many people’s souls. If the moment of Charlemagne’s coronation had significance as the dawning of a new Christian century, then so also, according to a very different dating system, did it herald the ultimate in cosmic convulsions. Christ’s birth was not the only potential starting point for a universal calendar. It was possible as well, many had long believed, to measure the centuries from the very moment of the earth’s creation. Theologians back in Augustine’s day had taught that six long millennia would pass, and that then, upon the six-thousandth year of the world’s existence, the time of Antichrist would dawn, and the world be brought to an end. Not all Augustine’s own magnificent scorn had been able entirely to demolish men’s trust in these abstruse calculations. Over and again, preachers had emerged, willing to defy the disapproval of the leaders of the Church, and to remind people of the date long set for the coming of Antichrist. In the decades before Charlemagne’s coronation, it seems, such prophets had begun to teem in growing numbers. In 789, a royal decree had been issued, ordering that their letters, if seized, be ceremonially burned. The authorities had good cause to be jumpy. The supposed date of the end of the world, which back in Augustine’s day had been many centuries off, was now alarmingly imminent. Few who gathered in St. Peter’s to see Charlemagne crowned emperor would have been ignorant of it. Measured by the timescale that Charlemagne himself had done so much to promote, the appearance of Antichrist could be expected at any moment. To be precise – anno Domini 801.48

The year passed. Antichrist did not appear. It may be that the leaders of Christendom had never believed that he would. Yet still there remains the mystery of Charlemagne’s coronation, and why, astute statesman though he was, astute and fiercely proud, he should have been content to accept the crown from the hands of the Bishop of Rome. Perhaps not all his calculations had been political, after all. Charlemagne held no light sense of his mission. He and the learned scholars in his train, although they did not broadcast the fact, certainly shared in the widespread fear that the world was growing old – and that Europe’s master had a duty, “at this last dangerous period of history, to rule and protect the Christian people.”49 A fearsome responsibility, to be sure. Against the coming of Antichrist, what possible defences could there be? Holy Scripture provided just the single hint. “You know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time.” By this, theologians were still agreed, St. Paul had been referring to the Roman Empire. And now, in the very year anciently foretold as the date of Antichrist’s appearance, a Roman Empire had been refounded in the West. If truly a coincidence, then a blessed one indeed.

Not that Charlemagne, once crowned, had any intention of staying in Rome, to rule from there as a Caesar. The city remained an alien and perhaps unsettling place to him. A few months of imperious weight-throwing, and then he was off again, heading back north of the Alps. Just as he had come, so he left: as King of the Franks. Yet there were few in his train who would have doubted that something haunting had occurred to their master in the ancient capital of the Christian faith. Shadowy still it may have been, insubstantial as befitted a dead thing summoned from its grave, and yet the spectre of Rome’s vanished empire, battening on to Charlemagne’s greatness, had been supplied, after long and stony centuries, with a sudden wealth of nourishment. Only angle the mirror that the Frankish kingdom held up to its own pretensions, and the form of the revenant, seemingly undead, might there be glimpsed. In the wide-flung dominions won by the swords of the victorious Franks, but now newly christened a “Roman” empire; in the palace complex that Charlemagne, returned from Italy, had begun to raise at Aachen, far distant from Rome, it was true, but beautified with columns redeemed from the city’s marmoreal wreckage; in the image of the great emperor himself, that same haughty chauvinist who in real life had accepted only twice to wear the dress of a Roman, but who was portrayed on his coinage adorned with an antique robe and a laurel wreath. Though Charlemagne had always shown himself to be brutally practical in the cause of conquest, he was also a visionary – and his vision was of the distant past. Inevitably so, perhaps. Where else, save backwards, to that of Rome, could Europe’s master have looked for the ultimate pattern of a Christian empire? Its ghost shimmered always before him. Even on his very seal, its renewal was inscribed as his mission statement. To the Frankish monarchy, this was what building Christendom’s future had come to mean.

It was an authentically imperial presumption. So much so, indeed, as to seem a virtual spoil of war. “Ever since the time of Constantine the Great, the Roman Empire was held by the Emperors of the Greeks; but now, thanks to Charlemagne, it has been transferred to the Kings of the Franks.”50 So the propaganda ran: as flattering to everyone in the West as it was, of course, news to the outraged “Greeks.” Yet even they, who had greeted reports of Charlemagne’s coronation with a predictable mixture of fury and derision, were steeling themselves to conciliate the Frankish king. Constantinople was teetering on the edge of ruin. While the Franks had busied themselves subduing peoples “whose names not even the ancient Romans had learned,”51 the armies of the New Rome had been suffering a run of dismal defeats. Then, in 811, an emperor suffered the ultimate humiliation of being killed in battle by the Bulgars, a people so irredeemably savage that they swore their oaths over slaughtered dogs and mounted the skulls of their fallen enemies in silver cups. One year later, and Byzantine envoys made their grudging way to Aachen. Arriving there, they granted Charlemagne the ultimate in earthly approbation. Holding their noses as they did so, no doubt, and through firmly gritted teeth, the envoys from the New Rome hailed, for the first time, a barbarian king as “Basileus”: “emperor.”

But not, however, as a Roman. That, for the Byzantines – the Romaioi – was still a step too far. Ushered into Charlemagne’s presence, the envoys had found themselves in a throne room blatantly copied from that of their own master: a display of gauche vulgarity that would have served only to emphasise to them how profound, how unbridgeably profound, remained the chasm between the western upstarts and themselves. Diplomats from Constantinople had long experience of fathoming the murk of the savage mind. For centuries, they had been flattering and befuddling their neighbours with the appurtenances of civilisation. Now, in their dealings with Charlemagne, they found themselves with little choice but to push this strategy to the limit. Hailing him as “emperor,” distasteful though it was, could best be justified as a holding operation. After all, no matter how sedulously the Frankish king sought to ape the dignity of the Romans, a barbarian he remained – and the character of a barbarian was proof against any number of splendid titles. The Franks, lacking the awful and ancient traditions of governance to which the New Rome was heir, were bound to succumb sooner or later to their own base nature, and start brawling among themselves. Inevitably, the rickety dominion they had presumed to term an “empire” would then totter and collapse; the new highways they had built return to mud; all their fantasies of shaping Christendom melt and dissolve like mist. And once again, as was only proper, the Basileus would be obliged to acknowledge no equal save for himself.

And so it all came to pass. In 813, the aged Charlemagne crowned Louis, his son, as joint emperor: a pointed snub to the Pope, who was not even invited to the ceremony, and a seemingly ringing declaration that the future was to be as imperial as it was Frankish. Yet Charlemagne, despite passing on his dominions undivided, in the authentic manner of a Roman emperor, would rather not have done so. His original plans for the succession had been darkened bitterly by bereavement. Two sons, one after the other, had died only months previously. Had they lived, then Charlemagne, obedient to the primordial customs of his people, would certainly have divided his dominions into three. As it was, when he too, one year later, was summoned to meet his maker, he left behind him just the single heir. Louis ascended to the rule of the Frankish world unopposed. The empire of the West continued to acknowledge but a single master. Circumstance, for the while, had preserved it whole.

Yet still the potential for crisis festered. Despite the new king’s own best efforts, tensions between the fantasy of a Roman Empire and the very different realities of Frankish custom and society were not easily squared. Louis, like his father, was a prolific breeder; and his sons, unlike Charlemagne’s, tended to survive. Already, even before his death in 840, they had begun scrapping over their inheritance. After his death, they tore the West to pieces. In 843, Louis’ three surviving sons, Charles, Louis and Lothar, met in the town of Verdun, where this dismemberment was solemnly formalised. Charles received the western portion of Francia, while Louis received the German-speaking lands that stretched eastwards of the Rhine: a division that, in the long run, would prove an enduring and fateful one.

Lothar, meanwhile, the eldest son, had to be content with a peculiarly rackety inheritance: a tranche of disparate territories running from the Low Countries down through Burgundy and across the Alps into Italy. It was to Lothar as well that the imperial title had been awarded: a dignity already spectral, but soon to plum yet profounder depths of devaluation. Like father, like son: it was becoming the habit for Frankish kings to leave behind them heirs in threes, and Lothar, before he died in 855, had carved up his own patrimony into thirds to meet the needs of his own progeny. This had left Louis, his eldest son and successor as emperor, with only the kingdom of Italy as his inheritance, a perilously attenuated base from which to claim the sway of the Christian world. Already, in a desperate attempt to shore up his prestige, Louis II had submitted to being crowned and anointed by the Pope, as both his father and grandfather, in similar moods of beleaguerment, had already done: for Charlemagne’s successors, lacking the brutal self-confidence of the first Frankish emperor, had increasingly craved the validation that it was felt only St. Peter’s heir could provide. As a result, papal involvement in imperial coronations had become ever more a given, and all Charlemagne’s efforts to eliminate it lost to memory. A bare half-century on from the momentous Christmas Day of 800, and Leo’s shade could be well pleased. Only a pope, it was now accepted, had the power to bestow an imperial crown.

Yet a coronation, even one staged in Rome, was hardly sufficient in itself to make an emperor. In 871, a gloating missive from Constantinople arrived at Louis’ court, pointing this out in the most undiplomatic terms. No longer did the Basileus feel any call to kowtow to the Franks. The Romaioi, long pressed and harried by their enemies, were now everywhere back on the offensive. As their fortunes were resurrected from the nadir of the previous century, so also was their ancient birthright of regarding foreigners with contempt, which Charlemagne’s pre-eminence had briefly threatened, restored to them in all its traditional vigour. They naturally dismissed the shrunken figure of Louis II, a barbarian adorned in Roman robes, with a particular relish. No longer were they prepared to tolerate the right of anyone save their own master to the imperial title. The Basileus himself, in his letter to Louis, spelled this out in acerbic terms. There was, as there had always been, only the single empire – and the Franks had no claim to it.

Three decades on, and few even among the Franks themselves could deny that their imperial pretensions were in a state of chronic disrepair. The dominion raised to such heights of greatness only a century previously was everywhere collapsing. Kings and emperors ruled with all the authority of ghosts. The ancient wellsprings of prestige, drawn on to such effect by Charlemagne, appeared increasingly drained. In 901, the grandson of Louis II, determined to revive the fortunes of his house, had himself crowned emperor; four years later, and he had been captured by a rival warlord, blinded and banished to Burgundy, there to wither for the rest of his life. Never again would the family of Charlemagne lay claim to the dignity of an imperial title: a shrivelling of its fortunes rendered all the more terminal by the near-simultaneous extinction, in 911, of the royal line of East Francia. It was true that the great nobles of Germany, keen to perpetuate a sense of continuity with the glorious past, promptly looked for a replacement to Franconia, a princedom in the very heartlands of the kingdom – and whose duke was, as his title suggested, authentically and reassuringly a Frank.

This advantage aside, however, the newly elected king, Conrad I, brought few qualifications to the job: overshadowed by his peers, and increasingly, despite all his shrill protestations, ignored by them as well, he found his authority remorselessly bleeding away. Meanwhile, in the lands beyond his duchy, rival magnates sparred for advantage, warring with one another when not with their anointed king, all of them looking to profit from the confusion of the times. The kingdom itself, prey to such manoeuvrings, naturally enough continued to splinter. It appeared that half of the Frankish Empire was on the verge of a total disintegration.

And even in the western half, where a descendant of the line of Charlemagne still sat upon a throne, supposedly illuming his realm with the radiance of his prestige, a charisma granted of God Himself, the age was no less tempest-racked. The King of the Franks in the West, twin pillar of Christendom though he may have been, was quite as troubled by the ambitions of mighty princes as was his counterpart across the Rhine. Unsurprisingly so: for his kingdom had no settled borders, no shared institutions, not even a name. In many of the fairest principalities of the West – in Catalonia and Flanders, in Provence and Aquitaine – only the dimmest loyalty was still professed to the house of Charlemagne. Indeed, there were many among the leaders of the Franks, dukes with holdings quite as widespread as those of any king, and with treasure chests often deeper, who aspired to the royal dignity themselves. In a world without fixed frontiers, and an ever-weakening centre, there was much that seemed up for grabs. Wars duly blazed. In West Francia, as in the East, the shifting borders of great duchies were invariably traced with blood. Rare, however, was the struggle that proved more than local. Amid all the chaos and violence, a balance of power somehow held. “That this was so reflected not any lack of Frankish princes with the requisite nobility, courage and wisdom required to rule, but rather their very dignity and power, which rendered them all so evenly matched. None was able to put the others in his shadow. None was able to command the ungrudging submission of his fellows.”52 On such an inglorious basis, then, were the descendants of the house of Charlemagne, the “Carolingians,” enabled to keep their crown: the want of an alternative.

That a Christian land, if it were to flourish, did indeed require a king to rule over it was never for a moment doubted. Without one, so the wise had long taught, there could be no justice, no order, no peace. It was a king who served the Lord of the Heavens as His deputy, and whose duty it was, a most fearsome and burdensome one, to uphold for Him the world. Even in his very travails, if these were endured for the good of a suffering people, there might be glimpsed an imitation of the Passion of Christ Himself. And yet there was, for this reason, in the steady collapse of the royal authority established by Charlemagne, much more at stake than the future of the Frankish crown alone. To many Christians, the troubled condition of kingship in Francia appeared to speak of a sickness that might sap the order of the very universe, and menace God’s people wherever they lived. Only human sinfulness, poisoning the world so that “men behave like monsters of the deep, blindly devouring all those weaker than themselves,”53 could explain the evident scale of heaven’s anger. The landscape of Christendom, which under Charlemagne had been compared to a tapestry of blazing stars, appeared increasingly to be returning to blackness. As the tenth century since the Incarnation continued to darken, so men looked at the world about them, and dreaded the portents that they read there.

In the sky, for instance, phantom hordes might sometimes be seen, their ranks formed of swirling fire; and yet, since the turning of the century, there had been deadlier signs, and more terrifying hordes, unleashed upon the groaning earth itself. Back in 899, wild squadrons of horsemen, so strange and savage as to seem a sudden eruption from the nightmares of every civilised Christian, had descended upon the plain of Lombardy, and stripped it bare. “Of disgusting aspect, with deep-set eyes and short stature,”54 the invaders were rumoured even to have drained their victims of their blood. One year later, and the hoof beats of the mysterious barbarians had made all Bavaria shake. Soon, they were being heard as far west as Provence. Every year, somewhere in the decaying Frankish Empire, new fields, new villages, new monasteries were scoured and plundered utterly.

Against foes such as these, clouds of monstrous hornets, possessed of such speed as to seem barely human and the devilish ability to fire arrows even while on the gallop, resistance seemed futile. Not until the earth split open, the invaders were reported to have boasted, would they ever be brought to defeat. Their wretched victims were inclined to agree. Certainly, there were few among the local princes who seemed capable of making a stand. Even when the raiders were at their most vulnerable, withdrawing to their lairs on the Danube along rutted and muddy trails, their wagons piled high with loot, their trains encumbered by tethered and stumbling captives, they were rarely confronted. To survivors of their razzias, the scenes of devastation that were their inevitable aftermath – the countryside blackened, the churches still smoking, the corpses of those not fit to be enslaved left fly-blown amid the ashes – appeared visions conjured up from hell. That the invaders were in truth not demons but rather tribesmen from the outer limits of the world, a people known as the Hungarians, was widely acknowledged. Yet so too, among the overwhelming majority of those who bore the brunt of their attacks, was the notion that such a plague was in itself the symptom of an evil more than human. “For they say that this is the last time of the age, and the end of the world is near, and therefore the Hungarians are Gog and Magog. Never were they heard of before – but now, behold, it is the end of time, and they have materialised!”55

The monk who recorded these opinions did so in order to refute them. He wrote with a self-assurance that came naturally, perhaps, to a man ensconced at a safe distance from the devastation, in Auxerre, in northern Burgundy. Those more directly in the Hungarians’ path tended to be less sanguine. It was not only “the frivolous,” wild tongued prophets from beyond the ranks of the priesthood, who dreaded that “the last time of the world has dawned.”56 The Burgundian monk, attempting to calm such fears, did so in response to a letter from a bishop, no less, the Primate of Verdun, whose flock had repeatedly suffered from the depredations of the Hungarians. Surely, the bishop had asked in a tone of high panic, the end of the world was drawing near? The brethren of the monastery in Auxerre, famed as they were for their learning in the study of Revelation, were growing used to such anxious enquiries. Patiently, although with more than a hint of the long-suffering schoolmaster, they would admonish those who presumed to imagine that the mysteries of God’s plans for the future could ever be fathomed. “For to grieve over the end of the world,” as the Bishop of Verdun was reminded pointedly, “is the business only of Him who plants the roots of His heart in the love of the world.”57The orthodoxy of the Church, as it had been formulated many centuries previously by Augustine, still held. The terrors of the age were a summons, not to panic, but to repentance. They should be met, not with wild prophecies, but with prayer, and contrition, and penance, and good works. To imagine otherwise was the very height of sacrilege.

So it was that there was set up in the souls of dutiful Christians everywhere an excruciating tension. On the one hand, it was all too clear to them that “great calamities, the fruits of divine judgement, are everywhere increasing, heralding the end of the age of men.”58 Not since the very earliest days of the Church, when the return of Christ had been hourly expected, had a sense of the imminence of the end of days so utterly possessed the ranks of the faithful. That the world was hurtling towards the fiery ruin so long prophesied for it appeared to most Christians, amid all the violent tribulations of the century, self-evident.

For even if it were granted that the Hungarians might not be Gog and Magog, then what could the more general savagery of the times possibly portend if not the imminence of Antichrist? There were certain signs, after all, that not even the most sceptical could dispute. The empire of the Romans, refounded by Charlemagne to serve Christendom as its watchtower and its bulwark, was everywhere dissolving back into chaos. No other barrier to the coming of Antichrist existed. Whether the Son of Perdition would be born to the union of Satan and a virgin, as most presumed, or of a Jew and his daughter, as other learned men argued, the time of his triumph was certainly approaching fast. But when precisely? The yearning to pose this question was all the more terrible for the fact that the fate of all humanity so clearly hung upon the answer. Yet it could not be asked. The veil drawn by God across the future was not to be parted by mortal sinners. Even the angels were forbidden to know. The more palpable the proofs that a universal conflagration was at hand, the more strenuously it behoved good Christians to refrain from adducing the hour.

True, there were some who found the temptation too great to resist. One seeming clue, more than any other, haunted the calculations of these imprudent souls. St. John it was, in his vision of the binding of Satan, who had reported how the angel responsible for throwing the Evil One into a pit had “shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended.” “The thousand years”: how was this figure best to be interpreted? Abstractly, as Augustine had so forcefully argued, and the Church continued to affirm? Or, was it possible, some dared to wonder, that St. John had meant the number literally, after all? To Christians grown increasingly comfortable with dating years from anno Domini, this question was far more pressing than it might otherwise have been. Nine hundred years and more had passed since the blessed feet of Christ had walked the earth; and now the thousandth was drawing near.

No wonder, then, that there were those even in the ranks of the priesthood who looked at the approaching Millennium with a mingled dread and anticipation – and were prepared to admit as much. In one cathedral, for instance, in Paris, a thriving market town, there was a preacher who stood up in the presence of the entire congregation, and bluntly warned all present that Antichrist would be upon them “the moment that one thousand years are completed.”59 A second priest, startled by this dramatic lurch into unorthodoxy, moved quickly to demolish his colleague’s claim with multiple and learned references to Holy Scripture; but still the prophecies came, “and rumour filled almost all the world.”60

And rumour bred rumour in turn. Certainly, there existed no firm consensus as to the likeliest date of Antichrist’s birth. Whether as nervous whisperings, or as claims made in public letters, or as enquiries posted to learned monks, new hypotheses were regularly being floated. Ambiguity had haunted even the seemingly ringing pronouncement of the preacher in Paris: for was the Millennium to be measured from Christ’s coming into the world, or from His ascension into heaven? A perilous question to put to public debate – and an irrelevant one too, perhaps. For if the coming of Antichrist were truly at hand, then it little mattered whether it would occur on the anniversary of Christ’s birth or of His Resurrection. What did matter, and awesomely so, was the widespread sense that the rhythms of human life, and of the seasons, and of the very earth itself, which had continued unchangingly since the Creation, lay under a sentence of imminent termination: that at some point, either on or shortly after anno Domini 1000, all things would be brought to a fiery end. “The sons of mankind come and go in sequence, the old die, and the young who take their place wax older in their turn – and this is what it is to be human in this world, this Middle Earth.”61 But not, perhaps, for very much longer. Whether as a leaden anxiety, or as a tormenting apprehension, or as a passionate expectation, this conviction abided, and would not go away.

To many, indeed, in an age afflicted by seemingly insoluble crises, it promised a resolution. History, by the mid-tenth century, had become a nightmare from which the Christians of Francia were struggling to awake. Confidence in their ability to shape their own future had been largely abandoned. This was true not only of the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, but even of those in power. At the court of the King of the Western Franks, concerns about the imminence of Antichrist went right to the very top. By the late 940s, it seemed as though his arrival could not be long postponed. Signs of the ruin of West Francia appeared everywhere lit up by fire. Not only had the Hungarians, sweeping well beyond their customary haunts, penetrated almost to the far northeast of the kingdom, where the royal capital of Laon stood, but aristocratic feuding, savage as ever, had attained fresh peaks of sacrilege.

Laon itself, at one point, had been captured and plundered, and the king, Louis IV, briefly held a prisoner. No wonder, then, that his wife, the Saxon queen Gerberga, should have turned for advice, not to a great warlord, but rather to a churchman who was famed above all for his knowledge of Antichrist: Adso, the Abbot of Montier-en-Der. The celebrated scholar, in his reply to Gerberga, did not succumb to the temptation of giving a precise date for the end of days; but he did feel able to confirm that it was imminent. “In fact,” he informed the terrified queen, “the times we live in being what they are, there is no topic of more pressing urgency.”62 And for those of the royal house of the Franks more than for anyone: for it was they, and they alone, who stood between the world and Antichrist.

It was a sensational assertion – but one arrived at on the back of flawless logic, nevertheless. After all, if it was the Roman Empire that had served as the bulwark against Antichrist’s coming, and the Franks who were the heirs of the Roman Empire, then what could the collapse of their kingdom possibly spell if not the end of the world? Morale-boosting though Adso might have imagined this conclusion to be, it hardly served to ease the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of the Frankish king. Nor was the abbot done yet with piling on the pressure. “What I say is not a product of my own thoughts or fancy,” he insisted, “but due to my diligent research”63 – and Adso, in his library, had been studying St. Methodius. The vision of the ancient martyr, with its prophecy of a Roman emperor who would conquer the world before travelling to Jerusalem, laying down his crown upon the hill of Golgotha, and setting in train the Second Coming, had originally been translated into Latin in the eighth century; but it was only in Adso’s time that its implications had been fully grasped by scholars in the West. How arrogant the Greeks had been, how arrogant and grotesquely wrong, to have imagined that it was one of their emperors who would lay claim to Jerusalem! Rather, a Frank was destined [to] “in the last of days, be the greatest and last of all kings.” So Adso, with all the weight of his great scholarship, pronounced. “And this will be the end and the consummation of the Roman Empire – which is to say, the Empire of the Christians.”64

Almost five hundred years had passed now since the collapse of Rome’s dominion in the West. Ghoul-like, though, its spectre continued to haunt the dreamings of all those who sought to interpret God’s plans for the future of mankind. As in the age of Charlemagne, so in the infinitely more troubled age of Adso: no solution to the problems confronting Christendom could be conceived of saving a return to the long-vanished past. No climax to human history either. The shipwreck of things might be dreaded, yet it was simultaneously conceived of as a harbour: as the escape from innumerable tempests and violent waves. In the end would come a new heaven and a new earth, and the return of the Son of Man; but first, “although everywhere we look we see it lying in almost total ruin,” there would have to be the return to a Roman Empire.

It is hard to imagine a programme more expressive of paralysis and despair. Beyond the walls of Adso’s monastery, great princes feuded with one another, and fields were trampled by rival armies, and the borders of Christendom were lit by flames and dyed with blood. Still, as their only solution to this crisis of desolation, the subtlest and most learned minds in Francia whispered decrepit fantasies of global empire. Yet these same fantasies, even amid the general chaos of the times, had not entirely lost their ability to transfix kings as well as scholars. Adso, writing to Gerberga, had presumed that any future emperor was bound to be a Frank. The times, though, were changing – as Gerberga herself, a Saxon princess, might well have chosen to remind the abbot. For the Franks, even as Adso penned his letter, were no longer the only people to have been charged with the rule of a great dominion. To the east of their heartlands, on the very margins of Christendom, a new power was rising. A power capable, as time would prove, of securing the West against its most fearsome enemies, and of forging a new Roman Empire, even as all the while the Millennium drew ever nearer.

* The name was reserved by the native citizens of Constantinople for themselves.

* Although France officially celebrated the 1500th anniversary of Clovis’s conversion in 1996, a consensus has increasingly formed among historians that 508 is a much likelier date for his baptism than 496.

* The first certain use of the document by a pope occurred as late as 1054, but its origin in the events of the second half of the eighth century is almost universally accepted by scholars, with a majority agreeing that it must first have appeared in the 750s or 760s.

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