Constructing Christendom 2: Pope Leo and his successors

In my last post, I was discussing the construction of ‘Christendom’ in Europe, the role the emperors played in that, and then about the dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire. I probably sound like a catastrophist in that, but I can assure you I am neither a catastrophist nor a continuitist. And if those words mean little or nothing to you, be glad.

The Bishop of Rome

Pope Leo the Great (r. 440-461) was not unaware that Valentinian III’s empire was being slowly dismembered. As an acolyte, back in the good ol’ days, he’d visited North Africa on a papal embassy. But by the time he was pope, North Africa was not part of the Roman Empire. Increasingly, neither was Spain nor Gaul. It had been 30 years since the legions left Britain.

But here’s what Leo did, and here’s one reason why we should think him Great. He kept the church running. In his letter to the bishops of Mauretania Caesariensis (present-day Algeria), he told them that invasion and persecution were no excuse; ecclesiastical order and canons had to be upheld.

Now, this may sound like Leo being a hardass. And really, to a degree it is. Leo can be; it must be admitted. Nonetheless, it is something more. It is Leo saying that the life of the Church can continue, that order can be maintained, even when the Empire is no longer there to keep order.

Leo would also temper the canons with mercy and then hope that the local church could make its own rulings in many cases. And what he did in North Africa, he did in northern Italy (irregularities and problems resulting from Hunnic attacks), southern Gaul (irregularities and problems arising from Visigothic attacks), and Spain (irregularities and problems arising from Alans, Vandals, Sueves, and Visigoths; including a resurgence of Manichees and Priscillianists).

Leo created a network of bishops in the West who listened to him, sought his advice, and tried to implement it, not only in his jurisdiction as Metropolitan Bishop of Southern Italy, and not only as a court of final appeal, but in other aspects of the liturgical feasts, the doctrine, and the organisation of the church throughout Gaul, northern Italy, the Balkans, North Africa and, to a degree, Spain (the one letter to Spain may be spurious).

This vision of the Bishop of Rome being a figure to rally behind, being someone to help keep order, regardless of who ruled you, who ruled him, and what those rulers’ religion was, was one succeeding Bishops of Rome would take up. It was also something that helped provide religious and cultural cohesion even as political cohesion eroded.

Before going further, I admit that if the popes and bishops hadn’t done it, someone else might have. The cultural capital of the West was far from gone. In that sense, I am not a catastrophist — everything did not suddenly descend into utter chaos with the ‘fall’ of Rome. A lot of taxation continued, local church councils continued, the monastic project continued, evangelisation continued.

Nevertheless, the Bishops of Rome were actively engaged in creating networks of authority that could rally behind the image of Roma Aeterna, Roma Invicta, even after 476 when no emperor was left. Susan Wessel, in Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome, argues that Leo is the one who really gets the ball rolling. She’s probably right.

And why Leo? Well, his papacy was extraordinarily long. Furthermore, he was involved in the great theological crisis of his day, and spent all of his papacy in the intellectual vacuum left in the West by Augustine’s passing, and most of it in the similar vacuum left by Cyril of Alexandria. As a result, he’s our first pope with lots of sermons and letters and theology and canon law flowing out from Rome. The following popes would continue this, working towards a united western church with a united western culture.

Since it was the popes, bishops, and monks, rather than the Roman aristocrats and their successors (although they often patronised the popes, bishops and monks!!), who really worked to create some semblance of cultural unity across the post-Roman kingdoms, this strikes me as a determining factor on how Europe is distinctively Christendom even after the Empire ceases to be, and so ceases to be God’s vehicle for the transmission of the Gospel.

Most famously on this blog, we see this activity in Pope Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) sending Augustine of Canterbury (saint of the week here) on his evangelistic mission to Britain. He also wrote his Book of Pastoral Care that was such a hit, the Emperor Maurice in Constantinople had it translated into Greek and distributed throughout. We have over 500 letters from Gregory the Great as well as numerous other theological works and a major liturgical work under his name.

Another saint of the week, Boniface, was also commissioned by the popes of his day in the 700s. They were funding missionaries and supporting local bishops. The western church’s network of influence thus involved the founding of monasteries and the building of late Roman and Romanesque cathedrals.

That is to say, the Church, guided by the two Great Popes, sought to maintain a semblance of order as the Empire fragmented. Furthermore, through fostering learning in the monasteries such as that at Lérins and, later, those following Benedict’s footsteps or way off in the Isles, in the oft turbulent (but never completely darkened) years that came, the Church kept western literary culture alive, giving us Columba and his poetry (saint of the week here), Bede (saint of the week here), Alcuin, Caesarius of Arles, and many, many more.

So, could you please bring Charlemagne into this?

Charlemagne: Note the lack of moustache! (On this topic, read ‘Charlemagne’s Mustache’ by Paul Edward Dutton)

As the popes are doing their thing, post-Roman politics continue apace. Visigothic Spain stabilises. The Franks, beginning with Clovis I (r. 481-511; his wife, Clotilda, was saint of the week here), began conquering more and more of Gaul and all the neighbouring territory, beyond the boundaries of the Empire That Had Been. The Eastern Empire (‘Byzantines’) had regained North Africa, a few bits of Spain, and Italy by the mid-500s. In the late 500s, they lost Northern Italy to the Lombards who invaded.

The Frankish realms are interesting from a political perspective because the Frankish royal houses did not establish a game of ‘one son gets it all’, so the territory would move between powerful kings with everything, powerful kings dividing it amongst themselves, powerful kings fighting it out, weak kings with ostensibly everything but ruled by the Mayor of the Palace, the Mayor of the Palace becoming the new king (Carolingians), and then the whole thing doing its thing again.

There are some great names in Frankish history: Pippin the Short, Charles the Bald, Hincmar, Lothar, Charles the Hammer Martel, and Charles the Great, who in many languages has melded his name with his honorific as:

Charlemagne.

Whew. Skipped a lot. That probably really didn’t help you at all. If you really are sincerely interested in Early Mediaeval political history, I recommend Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome, and check out chapters 5, 6, and 16 for the Franks and the Mediterranean in this period. And then read the whole book, which also includes culture. Wickham is a fabulous historian.

So, back to Charlemagne (r. 768-814).

Charlemagne is one of those strong, united Carolingians. He pushes the boundaries of his kingdom into Spain and expands into further bits of what is now Germany, maybe even Austria (the geography gets me confused sometimes). He also added Italy. Looks a lot like the Later Roman Empire …

And so, on Christmas Day, 800, he and Pope Leo III (r. 795-816) staged an elaborate ceremony in Rome where the Eternal City’s new Holy Roman Emperor was crowned:

Jean Fouquet, ‘Coronation of Charlemagne’ from 1460. Note the misplaced beard.

The significance of this Leo is that his patronising of bishops and emperors goes far beyond his fifth-century predecessor. Whereas Leo the Great acknowledged the legitimacy of Valentinian III, Petronius Maximus, Avitus, and Majorian in the West, as well as Theodosius III, Marcian, and Leo I in the East, and enlisted their help in pursuing his papal goals, Leo III helped make Charlemagne Emperor.

And so crown and mitre were intertwined. The Middle Ages are being forged in that ceremony. And Christendom is moving beyond a cultural network that helps keep monasteries and missionaries and art and culture flowing. It is moving itself deeper into the power politics of its age.

… and we, today, are witnessing Christianity moving out of the power politics of our age.

Next: Reflections for today

A (pre-schism) western hymn for Orthodox Pentecost

It’s not cheeky if it’s pre-schism, right? 😉 The following hymn, ‘Now Christ had mounted to the stars’ (Iam Christus astra ascenderat) comes from ‘New Hymnal’, which is a Carolingian replacement of the ‘Old Hymnal’. These hymnals originated from the incorporation of hymns at the canonical hours being incorporated into the Benedictine office.

The New Hymnal took the Old Hymnal’s place everywhere during the course of the 800s and 900s, save in Milan. Walsh & Husch argue that it originated in France. Its first appearance in England is in Durham in the mid-900s. The Pentecost hymn I have chosen was divided into three sections for Terce, Sext, and Nones. The translation is that of Walsh & Husch, 100 Latin Hymns from Ambrose to Aquinas, number 56 (pp. 185-187).

Now Christ had mounted to the stars,
returning to his former home,
the Holy Spirit to bestow
as promised by the Father’s gift.

That solemn day was dawning now
to which the globe had circled round
seven times its mystic number seven,
denoting now the blessed time.

On all, when that third hour had come,
the world in sudden thunder broke,
according to the apostles’ prayers
announcing God’s arrival here.

So downward from the Father’s light
the beauteous, fostering fire descends,
to fill the hearts that trust in Christ
with the burning impact of the word.

Men’s hearts are full, and feel the joy
as holy light is breathed on them;
their diverse voices harmonize
and tell of God’s glorious deeds.

From every race is gathered there
the Greek, Latin, barbarian,
and to the astonishment of all
they speak in universal tongues.

The unbelieving crowd of Jews
being then possessed by lunacy
together shout: “Christ’s fosterlings
are belching, reeling with new wine!”

But Peter, wielding signs and powers,
confronts them, teaching them the truth,
that they are faithfless, telling lies,
with Joel his witness giving proof.

I enjoy this poetic retelling of Pentecost, especially with its emphasis on the missional empowerment of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s Apostles. Growing up in the charismatic segment of Anglicanism, the emphasis I have often heard has been that of the spiritual gifts bestowed on them. This hymn certainly acknowledges the supernatural power of the Spirit upon the Apostles — ‘Peter, wielding signs and powers’ — but also, and importantly, upon the missional aspect of these gifts.

The Apostles were not given charismata of the Holy Spirit solely that they could walk closer with the Most Holy Trinity (although I do not doubt that such was the effect; Christ calls Him the Comforter in John, after all) but also so that they could bring many, of every tribe, tongue, and nation, into the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church.

I am also struck by the Carolingian love of … puzzles, of significances hidden in what we would consider insignificant details. Pentecost is fifty days after Easter. That, to the modern mind, is a matter of simple, straightforward mathematical fact. But to the Carolingians, mathematics was part of the mind of the God who ordered and sustained the universe. Pentecost is very nearly 7 times 7 days away from Easter — the perfect number squared. The mystical significance is that God does all things in his kairos, at the fullness of time.

I hope that you, too, enjoy this hymn! And a Happy Pentecost to my Eastern Orthodox friends!

You know your Isidore is ‘Pseudo-‘ when …

Hincmar of Reims

So I’m in Florence right now. In case you missed that. And for those who were envying the Cypriot weather, the buckets of rain falling from the heavens today as I shivered from San Lorenzo to the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze will make you less envious.

At the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale this afternoon, I was perusing a manuscript containing a large swath of papal letters from Clement I (d. 97) to Leo I (d. 461), with a few items from Constantine and Athanasius thrown in for good measure. I didn’t spend any time determining the veracity of the Constantinian and Athanasian documents. However, there was a clue that not all of these documents were above board. Some of the letters began with the phrase:

seruus seruorum Dei

Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘Isn’t “servant of the servants of God” how all popes start letters?’ And you’d be almost right — it’s how most popes after Gregory I start most of their letters.

Wait. Gregory I?

Wasn’t he pope from 590-604?

He sure was.

Of course, I knew there would be forgeries in this manuscript (see below). However, it can be difficult sometimes to spot a papal forgery. You see, popes all write the same. This is partly because of the extreme conservativism inherent with the office — the Pope’s job is largely to maintain the tradition, but also to interpret it for a new generation. They tended to repeat one another, for one thing. If another pope had said it, the current pope will repeat his official ruling on a subject.

However, they also all write the same because eventually they aren’t writing much at all. The papal chancery is. I mean, they’re composing the letters and overseeing the content, but notarii do the actual writing by some point in the 600s, and probably earlier. We even have a seventh-century papal chancery style guide.

But there are ways to tell. Like ‘seruus seruorum Dei‘ turning up in a pre-Gregorian papal letter. Or early popes who obsess about primates and chorepiscopi. Or a letter from a pope like Leo I or Gregory I, who actually does have his own style, that isn’t in his own style.

But how did I know to expect forgeries?

Well, I knew that this manuscript is from a body of canon-law literature ascribed to ‘Isidorus Mercator’, affectionately known as ‘Pseudo-Isidore’. That ‘Pseudo-‘ on the front is a dead giveaway!

The Pseudo-Isidorian canonical collections, which encompass canons from church councils as well as papal letters from as early as possible — and even earlier (forgeries!) — up to Gregory the Great. The collection is a clever mixture of genuine and false material, alongside genuine material that has been modified to suit the Pseudo-Isidorian forgers.

They emerged in 844 (if I remember correctly) in the context of the later Carolingian wars wherein a number of bishops (esp. Hincmar of Reims) got themselves mixed up in things and wanted to limit the power of the secular authorities over them as well as of their own metropolitan bishops. So the Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries were contrived. What makes them intriguing is the fact that they include so much genuine material, and are therefore of great importance to the transmission of authentic canon law material.

And I got to spend some time with Pseudo-Isidore today. I’ll go visit him again on Wednesday; tomorrow, I’m returning to Collectio Vaticana at the chilly Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana.