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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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1. The Church and the Barbarian Invaders. Be-
tween the fifth and the tenth centuries, the downfall
of the Roman Empire in the West, the eruption of
barbarian hordes from Asia, the establishment of
Teutonic monarchies and the long period of wars and
migrations threw the map of the European continent
into the melting pot, until it finally emerged with a
general pattern that is still recognizable today. From
the seventh century, the rise of Islam and the expansion
of the Arabian Empire produced a drastic and perma-
nent division in that Mediterranean world which had
been the seat of the Greco-Roman civilization and had
formed the original Christendom. In the eastern half
of the ancient Roman Empire, the imperial system
maintained itself at Byzantium, and, though it lost to
Islam most of its territory bordering on the eastern as
well as all the southern Mediterranean, it retained its
cultural continuity (and preserved Christianity in
Constantinople) for a further period of something like
a thousand years.

In a sense it is now the history of Europe that really
opens, and this Europe is to emerge as the new form
of “Christendom” though it is only very slowly that
the northern part of it becomes Christianized. The
centuries of upheaval produced a grave decline of
culture even in the south, and much of what had been
subtle and profound in classical thought—much even
of the scholarship and science—was to disappear for
a long period. Henceforward, there is a separate history
of the West and we trace the rise of a Western civili-


zation from a comparatively early stage at which soci-
ety itself has returned in many respects to primitive
forms. Compared with the Byzantine world, and even
later with the rapidly developing culture of Islam, the
West appears as a backward region for a long time,
its backwardness illustrated by the appalling collapse
of its city-life, at a time when Constantinople, and later
Bagdad, were of tremendous prestige and size. For
special reasons this Western civilization at its formative
period, when everything was still malleable, found
itself under the presiding influence of a Christianity
that had acquired greater power over mundane affairs
than ever before.

Some of the Teutonic invaders had become Chris-
tianized before their eruption into the Roman world,
but they had been converted by Arians and had re-
ceived the faith in a heretical form. This would seem
to have created difficulties with the populations they
subjected, for no Arian dynasty survived, though, in
the case of Spain, the Visigoths maintained themselves
by going over to Catholicism. The Frankish invaders
of Gaul may have owed some of their success to the
fact that their dynasty was converted only after their
migration into the Roman Empire, so that from the
very first, they adhered to the Catholicism of their
Gallo-Roman subjects. For centuries the reigning
dynasties were to have an exceptional part to play in
the shaping of the map, the history and the culture
of Europe, and it was they who brought their peoples
over to Christianity in those more primitive conditions
under which it was inevitable that religion should be
regarded as the affair of the group.

If Christianity had won its way in the Roman Empire
through individual conversion, it owed its spread over
Europe sometimes to mass-conversion, i.e., to the de-
crees, perhaps the example, sometimes the pressures
and persecuting policies, of those who held the govern-
ment. It was to be extended further in the north of
Europe in subsequent centuries by movements from
both the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, so that,
when the thirteenth century opened, only a small
wedge of paganism remained, near the point where
the southern coast of the Baltic turns north. Lithuania
resisted longest of all, balanced for a considerable
period between the influence of Rome and the influ-
ence of Byzantium. From the western side the advance
was sometimes made through military conquest and
colonization policies, particularly in the east of what
the modern historian knows as Germany. Here the
warfare between Christian and pagan might be of a
brutal kind, down to the time when, in the thirteenth
century, Prussia was “converted” by the Teutonic

A considerable part of Europe was Christianized,
therefore, by methods not unlike the ones by means
of which a similar area was brought over to commu-
nism in the twentieth century. As in the case of
communism—though with greater effect in those ear-
lier stages in the history of society—the Christian
control of education, the procedures of indoctrination,
and the withholding of knowledge about possible al-
ternative systems (or the treatment of all alternatives
as merely disreputable) ensured the maintenance of the
authoritarian creed in subsequent centuries, without
the need to continue perpetually the forcible methods
that had been required for its installation. Granted the
conditions of the time, one could say, however, that
those countries which became Christian were fortu-
nate. The existing alternatives would hardly have been
more happy for them. Indeed, it was their conversion
that brought them into the orbit of civilization.

In the Byzantine East, Roman Emperors, continuing
a regime that had developed from the time of Con-
stantine, were able to exercise in some respects (though
perhaps less than was once thought) a species of
“caesaropapism.” But in the West the Roman Emperor
had disappeared, while the bishop of Rome maintained
his spiritual ascendancy amongst Christian believers
and acquired during the invasions even a certain lead-
ership in some secular matters. Pope Gregory the Great
(590-614) was fervent in his religious duties, extending
his influence over western countries, directing the con-
version of England, and asserting the spiritual su-
premacy of Rome as the see of Saint Peter. But in
default of anybody else, at a time when Byzantine
authority in Italy had become inert, he was compelled
to negotiate with the Lombard invaders of Italy and
to administer Rome as a governor, inaugurating the
temporal power of the papacy. It almost seemed as
though the Church in the centuries before the barbar-
ian invasions had unwittingly been developing an or-
ganization exactly calculated to survive, and to pre-
serve the faith, through just such a period of cataclysm
as had now occurred.

In a world where civilization had suffered such a
recession, Christianity itself shared in the “barbariza-
tion,” coming closer sometimes to those pagan super-
stitions that governed primitive minds. Neither the
spiritual life nor examples of saintliness were impossi-
ble, but the intellect was ready to accept magic and
legend even more easily than before; and, since ancient
thought itself was now imperfectly known and imper-
fectly understood, something of superstition was run
into the interstices, and there was produced an outlook
which entangled the material with the spiritual, mak-
ing religion more earthy, in a way, and nature herself
a field for the miraculous.

On the other hand, whatever may be said about the


way in which the new nations of Europe were con-
verted, there was a sense in which the spread of
Christianity was the kind of conquest that justifies itself
retrospectively. The most impressive part of the story
is the tremendous internal missionary work which the
Church conducted in the succeeding centuries in the
countries into which it spread—work calculated to
bring religion home to the individual, and to make it
gradually more genuine and profound, even if it had
been shallow and unreliable at first. It was not merely
a case of eliminating all the superstitions that could
not be harnessed to Christianity or preventing lapses
into paganism, but also teaching the belief that had
been handed down, influencing manners and morals,
and deepening sincerity, deepening the appreciation
of the faith. Part of the curious charm of Bede's Eccle-
siastical History
(including those papal letters which
provide guidance for the conversion of England and
prescribe special consideration for those who need
careful weaning from paganism) lies in an amazing
gentleness that stands out (early in the eighth century)
against a background of violence; in it also is found
a combination of high ideas at the spiritual level with
crude notions about the universe, a simple love of
amiable miracles. The great support of the Church in
the Middle Ages was to be the sheer fidelity of the
mass of the people to their beliefs, and whether the
faith were superstitious or not, its genuineness was in
the last resort the real weapon that popes were to have
against kings.

During its earliest centuries, the Church had devel-
oped in a highly civilized world, and its theological
teaching had come to require a considerable degree
of sophistication. The literature to which it was at-
tached, and its own insistence on the continuity of its
doctrinal tradition, gave it a vested interest in the
preservation of the Greco-Roman culture. It could not
prevent a serious relapse even within its own ranks;
but in a sense it had from the first been particularly
organizing itself for the preservation of a creedal system;
and this—indeed the maintenance of the whole tradi-
tion—called for a staff of trained ecclesiastics. These
latter, precisely because of the education that was so
essential for them, were to become indispensable also
in the work of secular government. The attachment
to the Scriptures made the Christian Church the enemy
of illiteracy at a crucial stage in the development of
peoples; and the need to have translations for mission-
ary purposes secured that it might even be the chief
agency in the development of a literary language.

The whole situation, in fact, imposed upon church-
men the tasks of educating the “barbarians” and they
became the principal instrument by which the culture
of the ancient classical world was transmitted to the
Teutonic peoples who had acquired the predominance
in Europe. In the most violent days the monasteries
stood like fortresses, preserving the tradition of learn-
ing—preserving, sometimes without knowing it, the
manuscripts of classical works that went out of circu-
lation for centuries. And for centuries it was church-
men—people with minds primarily shaped by their
religious beliefs and religious training—who took the
lead in the gradual recovery and deepening apprecia-
tion of the thought and learning of antiquity. The
ancient materials were now envisaged in a framework
of Christian ideas. It was as though, in Western Europe,
a civilization was being constructed from old materials
but to a new architectural design. There emerged in
the Arabian Empire a parallel culture, closely con-
nected with that of ancient Greece, but under the
presidency of the Islamic faith. These two imposing
examples of a culture which developed in a religious
setting almost under the eye of the historian, offer
promising material for a resort to the comparative

During centuries of tumult and upheaval, however,
the framework of medieval culture (like the pattern
on the map of Europe itself) was slow in taking shape.
There was a period in the eighth century when
England and Ireland seemed to be the last refuge of
civilization, and missionaries particularly from Nor-
thumbria (often in the tradition of Bede) carried the
light back to the continent, converting parts of
Germany that had never been Christianized, and con-
tributing to the emergence of the “Carolingian Renais-
sance” at the end of the century. At this latter date,
a long alliance between the papacy and the prede-
cessors of Charlemagne had resulted in the re-creation
of an “empire”—one in which Charlemagne was able
to exercise a sort of “caesaropapism,” controlling the
Church even in essential matters and expecting from
it spiritual support—as though the function of the laity
was to fight the battles while the function of the clergy
was simply to assist the warfare with their prayers.
A “Carolingian Renaissance,” which did not itself open
out into a long-term cultural development, established,
through the emperor's edicts, the enduring principle
that monasteries and cathedrals should accept the re-
sponsibility for education.

Then further waves of invasion in Europe—and even
in Britain—in the ninth and tenth centuries brought
a renewed period of turbulence; and in the tenth cen-
tury the papacy, having no longer an emperor to pro-
tect it, came to “the saddest period in its history” when
it met something worse than “caesaropapism,” becom-
ing the victim and the plaything of the local Roman
aristocracy. The danger from violence of this immedi-
ate sort was doubled by the spread of the doctrine that


the lord of the soil had the ownership of all the land,
even the land that was devoted to religious use. David
Knowles (in a paper, “Some Trends of Scholarship,
1868-1968, in the Field of Medieval History”) has
described how

The ownership and control of all churches, not excluding
monastic and canonical foundations, passed gradually into
the hands of individuals who, whether laymen or ecclesi-
astics, were lords of the land. Thus from the eighth century
onwards there was gradually established in western Europe
the regime of the private or proprietary church, of which
the lord enjoyed many of the fruits and to which he ap-
pointed a priest (or abbot or bishop) of his choice, and which
he could give, sell or divide like any other real property.
When the system was linked at the summit to the extreme
claims [of] the emperors to appoint bishops and even popes,
there existed in perfect form the “church in the hands of