Constructing Christendom 1: What is it and whence did it come?

Notre Dame (what better symbol of 'Christendom'?)
Notre Dame (what better symbol of ‘Christendom’?)

Many people have been speaking for the past few years about the Fall of Christendom, about how we now live in the Post-Christian West. Today I was doing some reading and thinking about the origins of ‘Christendom’.

What is it, though?

Christendom is the idea that for centuries in Europe and certain non-European kingdoms (think Ethiopia and Armenia) — besides those places formally colonised by Europe — there was a confluence of power, persons, and Christianity. Christians were kings or lords or emperors or presidents. Christians were chamberlains or generals or composers or philosophers or poets or architects.

In Christendom, as it is imagined, Christians hold power and influence in the political and cultural life of the realms. Typically, this is constructed in negative ways these days — bishops who make or break politicians, popes who wage wars, devout Christian slavetraders. The other side, also sometimes stressed, is emperors and kings making or breaking bishops, monasteries, and cathedrals.

Of course, the confluence of Christianity and western culture was much more fertile than that. ‘Christendom’ could allow for the construction of beautiful cathedrals and the composition of oratorios, the development of affordable or free education and healthcare through the Church’s charitable ministries.

And the persistence of something to hold onto when everything else may be going to pieces.

Constructing Christendom

Constantine

The man usually targeted for making this a reality is the Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337, saint of the week here). He legalised Christianity, he granted favours to the Church, he built lots of churches, he helped fund the Church’s charitable works, he called the Council of Nicaea, he is thought to have founded Constantinople as a purely Christian capital (its level of Christianness is disputed). He is also falsely accused of all sorts of things, such as persecuting Gnostics, burning apocryphal Gospels, hiding the fact that Jesus was married, making Jesus a God for the first time, increasing the power of the bishops and stealing it from local presbyteries, and so forth.

From Constantine onwards, goes the Christendom narrative, the Empire and the Church were welded together ever more tightly, as when Theodosius I (r. 379-395) outlawed paganism in 381, and culminated in the East with the alleged theocracy — or caesaropapism — of Justinian the Great (r. 527-565) and in the West with Pope Leo III (r. 795-816) crowning Charlemagne (r. 768-814) Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, 800.

But wait! How do we get from Constantine to Charlemagne?

The development of Christendom in western Europe is tied up intrinsically with the political shift from the centralised government of the Roman Empire to the scattered polities that arose in its place.

The theology of Christendom is as old as Constantine, visible in the works of Eusebius of Caesarea such as In Praise of ConstantineThe Life of Constantine, and The Preparation of the Gospel. Later, in the 400s, Orosius (385-420) in Spain, writing in the shadow of Alaric’s sack of the Eternal City in 410, would argue that the pax romana ushered in by God’s chosen emperor, Augustus (r. 31/27 BC – AD 14) was part of a divine plan that culminated with the century following Constantine. Church and Empire were to be intertwined henceforth forever!

Except that, after bouncing around in Spain for a while, the Vandals conquered Roman North Africa, 429-439. Rome’s breadbasket and many of her wealthiest provinces were not only gone but were in the hands of Arian Vandals who set about busily persecuting the Nicene church there. Orosius didn’t live to see that; his mentor Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo Regius in Africa, did, just barely.

[Augustine is an important figure for how we should look at these ‘disasters’, but that would make this even longer than it already is. So we’ll talk about him another day.]

The Vandals proceeded to harass Sicily and conquer Sardinia, thus further reducing Rome’s grain supply and forging what one historian calls an ‘empire du blé‘ — empire of wheat.*

Meanwhile, Visigoths were busily settling various bits of Gaul (mostly what is modern France) and every once in a while sacking a city for good measure. Burgundians kept threatening the eastern border along the Rhine. Oh, and then Attila came and trashed everything in sight before going home and dying somewhere. And then the Alemanni crossed the Danube to do some of their own invading.

In 466, the Visigoths began their conquest of Spain, still holding much of southern Gaul. Spain would be theirs, and strong overall, until the Umayyad conquest beginning 711.

The fifth century also saw the coming of the Franks into northern Gaul, in what is now the Netherlands and Belgium, where they eventually supplanted the Roman rule.

The empire, in other words, was being dismembered, and the Roman ruling class was being replaced by or integrated into new polities. These often ran much along Roman lines except with no tax or tribute going to Rome, but over time they would subtly change with landed aristocracies, castles, and the peasantry.

Italy itself (and the last Roman ties to what remaining ostensible power she had in Gaul) was lost in 476 with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus and the accession of the Scirian (a non-Roman people group) Arian Odoacer to the kingship of Italy, which lasted until the Ostrogothic Arian Theoderic the Great took over in 493, ostensibly in the interests of the Emperor in Constantinople, but we all know that to be a sham. (Well, I think it was, anyway.)

By 530, we have this instead of the Western Roman Empire:

What does this have to do with Christendom?

It is clear that Orosius’ vision of the pax romana and Christianity coinciding and coinhering would not survive the century. The Roman Empire in the West was clearly not God’s chosen instrument for the passing along of the Gospel through the centuries, no matter how strong she was in Eusebius’ day or how hopeful Orosius was in the 410s. In the reign of Valentinian III (r. 425-455), with the loss of Africa and ongoing devestation in Gaul, Rome’s financial base was destroyed.

The Roman Empire could not be God’s chosen vessel. Could it?

Maybe it could. To keep life liveable (i.e. keep this post well under 1500 words), next post we’ll see how Christendom was constructed, and why the fifth century is so important for us as we look back on all that follows.

*Christian Courtois, Les Vandales.

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7 thoughts on “Constructing Christendom 1: What is it and whence did it come?

    • Actually, this is a very important point! I’m reading a bit of Ammianus Marcellinus’ history of the fourth century right now, and the list of crimes, paranoias, wickednesses, and so forth as committed by that century’s ostensibly Christian emperors is notable! Not so different from their pagan predecessors.

      I’m willing to see that in some ways, God used the Empire (pre- and post-persecution) as a vehicle for the spread of the Gospel. But I agree — he also used Cyrus the Great of Persia for the divine plans!

    • And such rulers! Whenever a bishop who still has a seat in the House of Lords makes an upopular statement, his arguments are entirely dismissed because of ‘religion’.

  1. […] In my first post on this topic, I talked a bit about what we mean by Christendom and the dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Last post, I talked about the role played by the papacy in developing and spreading culture and unity throughout the arising kingdoms that took Rome’s place, bringing us from Pope Leo I (r. 440-461) to Pope Leo III and Charlemagne at the latters coronation in the year 800. […]

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