The most momentous event in the religious history of these centuries was not the quarrel of the Greek with the Latin Church, but the rise of Islam as a challenge to Christianity in both East and West. The religion of Christ had hardly consolidated its victories over the pagan Empire and the heresies when suddenly its most fervid provinces were torn from it, and with alarming ease, by a faith that scorned both the theology and the ethics of Christianity. Patriarchs still sat, by Moslem tolerance, in the sees of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria; but the Christian glory was departed from those regions; and what Christianity remained in them was heretical and nationalist. Armenia, Syria, and Egypt had set up church hierarchies quite independent of either Constantinople or Rome. Greece was saved to Christianity; there the monks triumphed over the philosophers, and the great monastery of the Holy Lavra, established on Mt. Athos in 961, rivaled the majesty of the Parthenon, which had become a Christian church. Africa still had many Christians in the ninth century, but they were rapidly diminishing under the handicaps of Moslem rule. In 711 most of Spain was lost to Islam. Defeated in Asia and Africa, Christianity turned north, and resumed the conquest of Europe.

Italy, bravely but narrowly saved from the Saracens, was divided between the Greek and Latin forms of Christianity. Almost on the dividing line was Monte Cassino. Under the long rule (1058-87) of Abbot Desiderius the monastery reached the zenith of its fame. From Constantinople he brought not only two magnificent bronze doors, but craftsmen who adorned the interiors with mosaics, enamels, and artistry in metal, ivory, and wood. The monastery became almost a university, with courses in grammar, classical as well as Christian literature, theology, medicine, and law. Following Byzantine models, the monks executed exceptionally fine illuminated manuscripts, and copied in a beautiful book hand the classics of pagan Rome; some classics were only thus preserved. In Rome the Church, under Pope Boniface IV and his successors, instead of permitting the further disintegration of pagan temples, reconsecrated them to Christian use and care: the Pantheon was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and All Martyrs (609), the temple of Janus became the church of St. Dionysius, the temple of Saturn became the church of the Saviour. Leo IV (847-55) renewed and embellished St. Peter’s; and through the growth of the papacy and the coming of pilgrims, a polyglot suburb grew around that group of ecclesiastical buildings which took its name from the ancient Vatican Hill.

France was now the richest possession of the Latin Church. The Merovingian kings, confident of buying heaven after enjoying polygamy and murder, showered the bishoprics with lands and revenues. Here, as elsewhere, the Church received legacies from penitent magnates and devout heiresses; Chilperic’s prohibition of such bequests was soon canceled by Gunthram. By one of the many pleasantries of history, the Gallic clergy were almost wholly recruited from the Gallo-Roman population; the converted Franks knelt at the feet of those whom they had conquered, and gave back in pious donations what they had stolen in war.28 The clergy were the ablest, best educated, and least immoral element in Gaul; they almost monopolized literacy; and though a small minority led scandalous lives, most of them labored faithfully to give schooling and morals to a population suffering from the greed and wars of their lords and kings. The bishops were the chief secular as well as religious authorities in their dioceses; and their tribunals were the favorite resort of litigants even in non-ecclesiastical concerns. Everywhere they took under their protection orphans and widows, paupers and slaves. In many dioceses the Church provided hospitals; one such hôtel-Dieu—“inn of God”—was opened in Paris in 651. St. Germain, Bishop of Paris in the second half of the sixth century, was known throughout Europe for his work in raising funds—and spending his own—to emancipate slaves. Bishop Sidonius of Mainz banked the Rhine; Bishop Felix of Nantes straightened the course of the Loire; Bishop Didier of Cahors constructed aqueducts. St. Agobard (779-840), Archbishop of Lyons, was a model of religion and a foe of superstition; he condemned trial by duel or ordeal, the worship of images, the magical explanation of storms, and the fallacies involved in the prosecutions for witchcraft; he was “the clearest head of his time.”29 Hincmar, the aristocratic primate of Reims (845-82), presided over a score of church councils, wrote sixty-six books, served as prime minister to Charles the Bald, and almost established a theocracy in France.

In each country Christianity took on the qualities of the national temperament. In Ireland it became mystic, sentimental, individualistic, passionate; it adopted the fairies, the poetry, the wild and tender imagination of the Celt; the priests inherited the magic powers of the Druids and the myths of the bards; and the tribal organization favored a centrifugal looseness in the structure of the Church—almost every locality had an independent “bishop.” More numerous and influential than the bishops and priests were the monks who, in groups seldom numbering more than twelve, formed half-isolated and mostly autonomous monasteries throughout the island, recognizing the pope as head of the Church, but submitting to no external control. The earlier monks lived in separate cells, practicing a somber asceticism and meeting only for prayer; a later generation—the “Second Order of Irish Saints”—diverged from this Egyptian tradition, studied together, learned Greek, copied manuscripts, and established schools for clerics and laity. From the Irish schools in the sixth and seventh centuries a succession of renowned and redoubtable saints passed over into Scotland, England, Gaul, Germany, and Italy to revitalize and educate a darkened Christianity. “Almost all Ireland,” wrote a Frank about 850, “comes flocking to our shores with a troop of philosophers.”30 As Germanic invasions of Gaul and Britain had driven scholars from those lands to Ireland, so now the wave returned, the debt was paid; Irish missionaries flung themselves upon the victorious pagan Angles, Saxons, Norwegians, and Danes in England, and upon the illiterate and half-barbarous Christians of Gaul and Germany, with the Bible in one hand and classic manuscripts in the other; and for a time it seemed that the Celts would win back through Christianity the lands they had lost to force. It was in the Dark Ages that the Irish spirit shone with its strongest light.

The greatest of these missionaries was St. Columba. We know him well through the biography written (c. 679) by Adamnan, one of his successors at Iona. Columba was born at Donegal in 521, of royal stock; like Buddha he was a saint who could have been a king. At school in Moville he showed such devotion that his schoolmaster named him Columbkille—Column of the Church. From the age of twenty-five he founded a number of churches and monasteries, of which the most famous were at Derry, Durrow, and Kells. But he was a fighter as well as a saint, “a man of powerful frame and mighty voice”;31 his hot temper drew him into many quarrels, at last into war with King Diarmuid; a battle was fought in which, we are told, 5000 men were killed; Columba, though victorious, fled from Ireland (563), resolved to convert as many souls as had fallen in that engagement at Cooldrevna. He now founded on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, one of the most illustrious of medieval monasteries. Thence he and his disciples brought the Gospel to the Hebrides, Scotland, and northern England. And there, after converting thousands of pagans and illuminating 300 “noble books,” he died, in prayer at the altar, in his seventy-eighth year.

Kindred to him in spirit and name was St. Columban. Born in Leinster about 543, he does not enter history till we find him, aged thirty-two, establishing monasteries in the wilds of the Vosges Mountains of France. At Luxeuil he instructed his novices:

You must fast every day, pray every day, work every day, read every day. A monk must live under the rule of one father, and in the society of many brethren, that he may learn humility from one, patience from another, silence from a third, gentleness from a fourth…. He must go to bed so tired that he will fall asleep on the way.32

Punishments were severe, usually by flogging: six stripes for coughing when beginning a psalm, or neglecting to manicure the nails before saying Mass, or smiling during services, or striking the teeth on the chalice at communion; twelve for omitting grace at meal; fifty for being late at prayers, one hundred for engaging in a dispute, two hundred for speaking familiarly with a woman.33 Despite this reign of terror there was no lack of novices; Luxeuil had sixty monks, many from rich families. They lived on bread, vegetables, and water, cleared forests, plowed fields, planted and reaped, fasted and prayed. Here Columban established the laus perennis, or unending praise: all day and night, through relays of monks, litanies were to rise to Jesus, Mary, and the Saints.34 A thousand monasteries like Luxeuil are a pervasive element in the medieval scene.

The stern temper that framed this rule allowed no compromise with other views; and Columban, who banned disputes, found himself in repeated quarrels with the bishops—whose authority he ignored—with secular officials—whose interferences he repelled—and even with the popes. For the Irish celebrated Easter according to a reckoning practiced by the early Church but abandoned by her in 343. In a consequent conflict with the Gallic clergy these appealed to Gregory the Great; Columban rejected the Pope’s instructions, saying, “The Irish are better astronomers than you Romans,” and bade Gregory accept the Irish mode of calculation or be “looked upon as a heretic and repudiated with scorn by the churches of the West.”35 The rebellious Irishman was expelled from Gaul (609) for denouncing the wickedness of Queen Brunhild; he was put by force on a vessel bound for Ireland; the ship was driven back to France; Columban crossed the forbidden land and preached to the pagans of Bavaria. He could hardly have been as terrible a man as his rule and career picture him, for we are told that squirrels perched confidently on his shoulders and ran in and out of his cowl.36 Leaving a fellow Irishman to found (613) the monastery of St. Gall on Lake Constance, he painfully crossed the St. Gotthard Pass, and established the monastery of Bobbio in Lombardy in 613. There, two years later, in the austerity of his solitary cell, he died.

Tertullian mentions Christians in Britain in 208; Bede speaks of St. Alban as dying in the persecution by Diocletian; British bishops attended the Council of Sardica (347). Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, went to Britain in 429 to suppress the Pelagian heresy.37William of Malmesbury avers that the Bishop, presumably on a later visit, routed an army of Saxons by having his British converts shout “Hallelujah!” at them.38 From this vigorous condition British Christianity pined and almost died in the Anglo-Saxon invasions; we hear nothing of it again until, at the end of the sixth century, the disciples of Columba entered Northumberland, and Augustine, with seven other monks, reached England from Rome. Doubtless Pope Gregory had learned that Ethelbert, the pagan King of Kent, had married Bertha, a Christian Merovingian princess. Ethelbert listened courteously to Augustine, remained unconvinced, but gave him freedom to preach, and provided food and lodging for him and his fellow monks in Canterbury. At last (599) the Queen prevailed upon the King to accept the new faith; and many subjects followed their example. In 601 Gregory sent the pallium to Augustine, who became the first in an impressive line of distinguished archbishops of Canterbury. Gregory was lenient to the lingering paganism of England; he allowed the old temples to be christened into churches, and permitted the custom of sacrificing oxen to the gods to be gently transformed into “killing them to the refreshing of themselves to the praise of God”;39 so that the English merely changed from eating beef when they praised God to praising God when they ate beef.

Another Italian missionary, Paulinus, carried Christianity to Northumberland (627). Oswald, King of Northumberland, invited the monks of Iona to come and preach to his people; and to help their work he gave them the island of Lindisfarne off the east coast. There St. Aidan (634) founded a monastery that glorified its name by missionary devotion and the splendor of its illuminated manuscripts. There and at Melrose Abbey St. Cuthbert (635?—87) left behind him loving memories of his patience, piety, good humor, and good sense. The holiness of such men, and perhaps the peace and security they enjoyed amid recurrent wars, brought many neophytes to the monasteries and nunneries that now arose in England. Despite occasional lapses into the ways of common men, the monks gave dignity to work by their labor in woods and fields; here too, as in France and Germany, they led the advance of civilization against marsh and jungle as well as against illiteracy, violence, lechery, drunkenness, and greed. Bede thought that too many Englishmen were entering monasteries; that too many monasteries were being founded by nobles to put their property beyond taxation; and that the tax-exempt lands of the Church were absorbing too much of England’s soil; too few soldiers were left, he warned, to preserve England from invasion.40 Soon the Danes, then the Normans, would prove the worldly wisdom of the monk.

Strife found its way even into monastic peace when the Benedictine monks of southern England, following the Roman ritual and calendar, came into contact and conflict with the Irish monks and calendar and liturgy in the north. At the Synod of Whitby (664) St. Wilfrid’s eloquence decided the issue—technically, the proper day for Easter—in favor of Rome. The Irish missionaries pugnaciously resigned themselves to the decision. The British Church, unified and endowed, became an economic and political power, and took a leading role in civilizing the people and governing the state.

Christianity came to Germany as the gift of Irish and English monks. In 690 the Northumbrian monk Willibrord, who had been educated in Ireland, crossed the North Sea with twelve adventurous aides, fixed his episcopal seat at Utrecht, and labored for forty years to convert the Frisians. But these realistic lowlanders saw in Willibrord the hand of his protector Pepin the Young, and feared that their conversion would subject them to the Franks; moreover, they were not pleased to be told that all their unbaptized forebears were in hell. A Frisian king, having learned this as he stood on the brink of baptism, turned away, saying that he preferred to spend eternity with his ancestors.41

A stronger man than Willibrord renewed the campaign in 716. Winfrid (680?-7 54), an English noble and Benedictine monk, won the name of Boniface from Pope Gregory II, and the title of “Apostle of Germany” from a pious posterity. Near Fritzlar in Hesse he found an oak tree worshiped by the people as the home of a god; he felled it; and the populace, amazed at his survival, flocked to be baptized. Great monasteries were set up at Reichenau (724), Fulda (744), and Lorsch (763). In 748 Boniface was made Archbishop of Mainz; he appointed bishops, and organized the German Church into a powerful engine of moral, economic, and political order. Having accomplished his mission in Hesse and Thuringia, and seeking to crown his career with a martyr’s death, Boniface gave up his proud episcopate, and entered Frisia resolved to complete the work of Willibrord. He had labored there a year when he was attacked by the pagans and slain. A generation later Charlemagne brought Christianity to the Saxons with fire and sword; the obstinate Frisians thought it time to yield; and the conquest of Rome’s conquerors by Roman Christianity was complete.

The final triumph of the faith in Europe was the conversion of the Slavs. In 861 Prince Rostislav of Moravia, noting the entrance into his realm of a Latin Christianity that ignored the vernacular in its liturgy, applied to Byzantium for missionaries who would preach and pray in the vulgar tongue. The emperor sent him two brothers, Methodius and Cyril, who, having been reared in Salonika, spoke Slavonic with ease. They were welcomed, but found that the Slavs had as yet no alphabet to fully express their language in writing; the few Slavs who wrote used Greek and Latin characters to represent their speech. Cyril thereupon invented the Slavonic alphabet and script by adopting the Greek alphabet with the values that Greek usage had given it by the ninth century—B sounded asV, H as I (English E), Chi as the Scotch ch; and he devised original letters for Slavonic sounds not expressible by Greek characters. With this alphabet Cyril translated into Slavonic the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament, and the Greek liturgical texts, thereby inaugurating a new written language and a new literature.

A struggle now ensued between Greek and Latin Christianity to see which should capture the Slavs. Pope Nicholas I invited Cyril and Methodius to Rome, where Cyril took monastic vows, fell ill, and died (869); Methodius returned to Moravia as an archbishop consecrated by the Pope. Pope John VIII allowed the use of the Slavonic liturgy, Stephen V forbade it. Moravia, Bohemia, and Slovakia (these constituting the Czechoslovakia of today), and later Hungary and Poland, were won to the Latin Church and rite; while Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia accepted the Slavonic liturgy and alphabet, gave their allegiance to the Greek Church, and took their culture from Byzantium.

Political calculations influenced these religious transformations. The conversion of the Germans aimed to incorporate them firmly into the realm of the Franks. King Harald Bluetooth imposed Christianity upon Denmark (974) as part of the price that the Emperor Otto II demanded for peace; Boris of Bulgaria, after flirting with the papacy, went over to the Greek Church (864) to win protection against an expanding Germany; and Vladimir I made Russia Christian (988) to win the hand of Anna, sister of the Greek Emperor Basil II, and to obtain part of the Crimea as her dowry.42For two centuries the Russian Church acknowledged the patriarch of Constantinople; in the thirteenth century it declared its independence; and after the fall of the Eastern Empire (1453) the Russian Church became the dominant factor in the Greek Orthodox world.

The victorious soldiers in this Christian conquest of Europe were the monks, and the nurses in this war were the nuns. The monks helped the peasant pioneers to bring the wilderness under cultivation, to clear the forest and the brush, to drain the swamps and bridge the creeks and cut the roads; they organized industrial centers, schools, and charity; copied manuscripts and collected modest libraries; gave moral order, courage, and comfort to bewildered men uprooted from their traditional customs, cults, or homes. Benedict of Aniane labored, dug, and reaped amid his monks; and the monk Theodulf, near Reims, drove the plow so faithfully for twenty-two years that after his death it was kept as an object of veneration.

Periodically, after superhuman exaltations of virtue, devotion, and energy, monks and nuns relapsed into human nature, and in almost every century a campaign of monastic reform was needed to lift the monks again to the unnatural heights of their rule. Some monks enlisted in passing moods of piety and self-surrender, and were maladapted to the discipline after their ecstasy waned. Some were oblates, who had been brought to the monasteries and vowed to the monastic life by their parents when they were children of seven or more years of age, sometimes when they were infants in the cradle; and these vicarious vows were held irrevocable until, in 1179, papal decrees allowed their annulment at the age of fourteen.43 In 817 Louis the Pious, shocked by the lax discipline of French monasteries, called a national assembly of abbots and monks at Aachen, and commissioned Benedict of Aniane to re-establish the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia in all the monasteries of the realm. The new Benedict labored sedulously; but he died in 821, the wars of the kings soon disordered the Frank Empire, and Norman, Magyar, and Saracen raids despoiled hundreds of monasteries. Monks wandered homeless into the secular world; and those who returned after the wave of devastation had receded brought with them worldly ways. Feudal lords seized monasteries, appointed their abbots, appropriated their revenues. By 900 the monasteries of the West, like almost every institution in Latin Europe, had sunk to the lowest point in their medieval history. Some clergy, secular and regular, said St. Odo of Cluny (d. 942), “do so set to naught the Virgin’s Son that they commit fornication in His very courts, nay in those very inns which the devotion of the faithful hath built in order that chastity may be kept safely within their fenced precincts; they so overflow with lust that Mary hath no room wherein to lay the child Jesus.”44 It was from Cluny that the great reform of the monasteries came.

About 910 twelve monks had established a monastery there in the hills of Burgundy, almost on the German-French frontier. In 927 Abbot Odo revised its rule towards a moral rigor combined with physical lenience: asceticism was rejected, baths were recommended, diet was generous, beer and wine were allowed; but the old vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity were to be unremittingly enforced. Similar institutions were opened elsewhere in France; but whereas each monastery had heretofore been a lawless law unto itself, or had been loosely subject to local bishop or lord, the new Benedictine monasteries allied with Cluny were ruled by priors subject both to the abbots of Cluny and to the popes. Under Cluny’s abbots Mayeul (954-94), Odilo (994-1049), and Hugh (1049-1109) the movement for monastic affiliation spread from France to England, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Italy, and Spain; many old monasteries joined the “Cluniac Congregation”; by 1100 some 2000 “priories” acknowledged Cluny as their mother and ruler. The power so organized, free from state interference and episcopal supervision, gave the papacy a new weapon with which to control the secular hierarchy of the Church. At the same time it made possible a courageous reform of monasticism by the monks themselves. Disorder, idleness, luxury, immorality, simony were brought under firm rule; and Italy beheld the strange sight of a French monk, Odo, invited to Italy to reform Monte Cassino itself.45

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