A history of great Gregorys

The Conversion of Europe - Gregory the Great and his World

September 18, 1998

To E. K. Rand, writing in 1928, Gregory the Great was one of the founders of the Middle Ages. But Robert Markus in his admirably concise new study of his pontificate (590-604) leaves us with no doubt that in Gregory's mind there was precious little future left. Amid the rubble of an exhausted past, Gregory was conscious of living in an end-time. No pax Romana prevailed in his war-torn, plague-ridden Italy. The Roman emperor, resident in Constantinople, was unable to offer much help against the heretical Lombards, whom he detested. Ultimately, what made the war, plague, poverty and injustice all around him comprehensible was eschatological expectation. He wrote to King Ethelbert of Kent that "the end of the present world is already near... many unusual things will happen - climatic changes, terrors from heaven, unseasonable tempests, wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes''. Not yet, Gregory said, but soon. And it came. The end of antiquity was the end of a world.

Gregory's sense of an ending proved astonishingly creative. Along with a pastoral concern for his flock, a Christianised stoic notion of duty, eschatological urgency helped to drive him from his cloister. He became that medieval paradox: a monk-pope, a contemplative whose contempt for the world allowed him mastery over it. Gregory was a mystic, an intellectual, a diplomat, a governor and administrator concerned with rents, taxes and poor relief, in addition to souls. He was a remarkable man. A medieval future he had no inkling of was already present in him. Markus is worthy of his subject.

Eschatology was a stimulus to evangelism. The world of pagan antiquity was twice defeated, first in its high-cultural ground, the Mediterranean region, through the efforts of Christian intellectuals, reinforced by state power. By the time of Gregory the Great, although much remained to be done to Christianise the countryside and defeat the Arians, there the major battle had been won. But in Northern Europe the second, more prolonged struggle was just beginning. Here the enormous cultural prestige of Romanitas, the labours of some extraordinary missionaries, the nurturing of local political alliances, and the occasional massacre altogether gave Christian evangelism an overwhelming advantage over indigenous, ill-organised (if tenacious), pre-literate, native traditions. In fact, so well constructed was the world the Christians built - inadequately called the European Middle Ages - that it lasted, more or less intact, until the late 18th century.

Completed by the late 14th century (except for the Lapps, plus a sprinkling of Jews and Iberian Muslims), the mass conversion of the new-old peoples of Northern Europe did not so much inaugurate as accompany the slow growth of a new Christian civilisation, Christianitas. The protracted transformation of immemorial paganism into Christian historicity is the great theme of Richard Fletcher's extremely ambitious, painstakingly inclusive, and very well-produced volume. No finger-wagging didacticism disfigures Fletcher's lively, engaging expository style.

Why, then, does Fletcher begin by putting his worst foot forward? He does not intend, he says in his preface, "to explain this process of the acceptance of Christianity" because "efforts to do so tend to be superficial and glib". History without explanation is like malt whisky without alcohol. What he must mean is that he will, sensibly enough, offer no single, global explanation for the entire conversion process. Happily, throughout the book and particularly towards its close, "how" yields to "why". Then comes the double whammy: "I have allowed the original sources to speak for themselves by quoting them in the text, sometimes at length." So is it bye-bye Quellenkritik, farewell hermeneutics, all hail the naked text? Not at all. Fletcher remains alert to the dangers of a naive reading.

Fletcher's master narrative encloses scores of mini-narratives, vividly recounted stories usually laced with quotations. His sources are well chosen, but will surprise no one. Bede and Gregory of Tours, for example, are exploited to the full. The chroniclers are supplemented by the odd saint's life (Martin of Tours) or letter (Boniface). His citations from St Patrick are especially apt and moving. And he knows how to make a valid point forcefully: "Demonstrations of the power of the Christian God meant conversion. Miracles, wonders, exorcisms, temple-torching and shrine-smashing were in themselves acts of evangelisation''. In Fletcher's master narrative of the conversionary process many such acts of evangelisation appear. Carefully and correctly, Fletcher distinguishes the act of conversion itself (baptism) from the often drawn-out and unsuccessfully completed conversionary process (Christianisation).

His touch is surest up to roughly the year 1000. Afterwards, things tend to be set down in more summary fashion. He dismisses the "histoire evenementielle of the crusades" as "pretty boring". (Crusade history just happens to be one of the glories of present-day British historiography.) He devotes altogether about five or six pages to the crusading movement. Given that his concerns lie not with the reconquista of the Holy Land, but with Christian Europe, it is commendable that about half of those pages are concerned with the impact of the first crusade upon the Jews of the Rhineland. Here he makes good use of the Hebrew chronicles. He lets the slaughter and forced conversion speak for themselves - forced conversion which Gregory the Great, in compliance with Roman law, took a stand against. But Fletcher does not suggest that crusades against Jews were intended to be conversionary (baptism or death), which, among other motives, they may have been. Unusually in a panoramic survey such as this, Jews and Muslims, crossing over both to and more rarely from Christianity are discussed sympathetically.

On the other hand, Fletcher makes no effort to conceal his lack of sympathy for the reformers who preceded and followed Gregory VII (1073-85): "'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' is a maxim which ecclesiastical - and perhaps all other - reformers would do well to keep at the forefront of their minds." To dismiss "the Reformation of the twelfth century" in so cavalier a manner is breathtaking. The so-called Gregorian reform movement did more than reshape the church, prepare the way for the crusades and carve out a new agenda for the papacy. It brought reformist energy into the mainstream of Christian enthusiasm.

Fletcher's airy dismissal of the Gregorian papacy casts a good deal of light, not only upon his rather cursory treatment of high medieval Christianity, but also upon his interpretation of conversion, which only in his last chapter does he make explicit. Baldly, it is this. In the Middle Ages, conversion, as William James understood it, was only for the likes of St Augustine or St Anselm, elite souls in other words. For the rest, conversion meant formal affiliation to a non-traditional culture: the acceptance of Christian observances, rites, laws, customs plus (often grudging) support for the priesthood based upon tithes and (for some) literacy and Latin. All of this is perfectly acceptable, so far as it goes. Fletcher then acknowledges that conversion, in Gregory the Great's time and thereafter, meant entering into monastic life; or, in his words, conversion was "the transition within a Christian dispensation from a less to a more intense form of Christian life".

Yet Fletcher ignores the second conversion of Europe, which was characterised precisely by this passage from a nominal eternality to an intensely experienced (and behaviourally manifested) internality. Admittedly, it was far from a universal phenomenon. Monks might be the most conspicuous of these gathered or born-again Christians. From the late 11th century the oblate system of child-monks shifted towards youthful, voluntary conversion. But laymen who did not want to become monks also had conversionary experiences. Crusaders like monks had to make a decision, a personal vow. They were converts, too. Crusading enthusiasm was not confined to the nobility: peasants joined in officially or unofficially, violently or peacefully (eg the so-called children's crusade of 1212). These popular crusade revivals - the earlier or later peace movements or penitential explosions like that of the flagellants of 1260-61 - enlisted crowds of enthusiasts. And what of the first anno santo, Boniface VIII's jubilee of 1300?

Pilgrims from all over Europe trudged off to Rome to enjoy the plenary indulgence. Becoming a pilgrim, uprooting oneself from home and kinsfolk, exposing oneself to the tender mercies of the Roman inn-keepers - was this not conversionary behaviour? Moreover, the greatest success of the mendicants did not come from overseas missions to "pagans". It came from preaching Christianity to baptised European Christians. The foundation, not just of priories, but of confraternities and groups of tertiaries, was a result of Christian revivalism, of the born-again Christianity of the Catholic Middle Ages. Doubtless the second conversion of Europe, c.1000-1300, had as many dramas. Its story, too, deserves to be told.

Christian enthusiasts, products of this second conversion, became monks and friars, peace-seekers and pilgrims, reformers and hermits, official and unofficial crusaders. As had happened earlier, enthusiasm like apocalypticism overflowed as evangelism. Francis went on the fifth crusade, intending to die as a missionary martyr. The second conversion of Europe precipitated the new evangelism beyond Christian Europe, to the crusader East, North Africa, China, and then in the later Middle Ages from crusader Spain to the Americas.

Gary Dickson is senior lecturer in history, University of Edinburgh.

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD

Author - Richard Fletcher
ISBN - 0 00 255203 5 and 686302 7
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00 and £10.99
Pages - 562

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