Initial reflections on Volume 1 of Gregory the Great’s letters

The top of St Gregory's crozier
The top of St Gregory’s crozier

This morning I finished reading the first volume John R C Martyn’s translation of Gregory the Great‘s letters. This covers Books 1-4. Gregory the Great was Bishop of Rome 590-604, and he left behind a significant corpus of writings — sermons, The Book of Pastoral Rule, the Dialogues (which are hagiographical), and letters. The Pastoral Rule is one of the few Latin patristic texts both translated into and widely read in Greek from a very early age.

Over 800 of Gregory’s letters survive. This is considerably more than any previous pope. Indeed, one of my catch-lines about Leo the Great (pope 440-461) is that more letters survive from him than from any other pope before Gregory, and for Leo we have a corpus of ~170 items. Unfortunately, I am not clear about how Gregory the Great’s epistolary corpus stacks up against later popes in terms of quantity. My apologies.

As a result of this massive corpus of missives, we have a much better sense of who Gregory is than of the other incumbents of the Roman see. We have many more avenues to access his thought on a range of issues. We see what sorts of things he was interested in, we see what sorts of things he believed, we see what sorts of people he knew. Gregory thus stands in sharper relief than any other Late Antique Bishop of Rome.

Now, when we say these things, we have to remember that, while Gregory undoubtedly unique and had his own strengths, it is not necessarily the case that his correspondence was unique as a body of documents. The mediaeval papacy was not suddenly born in the year 590. Gregory is but one step in a long process; what makes his letters unique is their quantity, not necessarily their concerns or outlook.

Not always, anyway.

One final preliminary issue. The sorts of papal letters I read for my own research tend to be of interest primarily or only as sources for canon law. Although I believe that canon law, and papal letters in particular, is an often overlooked source for social history, it is still the case that the explicit interest of the pope at hand is canon law, and very often in broad terms. That is, Innocent I is interested in discussing monks and nuns who leave their monasteries whereas Gregory is interested in this one particular story about this one particular nun who got pregnant. Gregory’s letters, then, are universally recognised by historians as a major source for the history of the Early Middle Ages, in a way, sadly, that a lot of other papal letters are not always.

Gregory’s main correspondents are clergy — mostly bishops, but sometimes also deacons and priests — and officials or aristocrats. In Books 1-4, he writes to the Lombard Queen Theodelinda, for example, as well as the Byzantine imperial daughter Constantina. He writes to the deacon who manages the church’s landholdings and financial affairs in Sicily quite often. He writes to secular officials in Dalmatia and Africa.

His correspondents are in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Dalmatia, and North Africa, only occasionally in Gaul, although Frankish lands will feature more prominently in later books of the correspondence.

He writes about ecclesiastical abuses, about who is fit to be a cleric, about allowing Jews freedom of worship, about not allowing Jews to own Christian slaves or buy property from churches, about evangelising Sardinian pagans, about schism, about theology, about monks and nuns, about misbehaving sons of clerics, about people trying to sell off church plate, about people trying to found monasteries and how that’s a good thing, about people alienating property from its rightful heirs — about the range of human existence, basically.

I will go into some of the moments that piqued my interest next time. But it was worth the read, and I will get around to the next two volumes some day.

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