11. Europe: The Christian Ferment

11.3 Christianisation of Europe

11.3.1 Monachism

The barbarians who invaded Gaul, Brittany, Germany were accustomed to only light agricultural work at a primitive level and were endowed with the characteristic inconstancy and wandering urge of primitives. For them, as for nomads, only the present counted. For the clearing of the forest, the settlement of the barbarians, the establishment of some sources of authority in a lawless land, the maintenance of some techniques of agriculture and land irrigation, the production of wealth on a constant and stable basis, the Church relied on the monachic movement that started with the founding of Mount Cassino 3, in Italy, by Saint Benedict in 534, when the Benedictine rule was written. Benedict, of course, did not create monachism ex nihilo. Buddhism and Judaism knew this form of communal religious life. Benedict, a roman aristocrat, assembled the totality of the earlier experience, enlarged upon it and resumed it in a text. Contrary to the stringent rule of St Columbanus, the rule of Benedict was mild: “Let everything” he wrote”be done with moderation on account of the weaker brethren”.

However, the influx of pagan lay brothers paganised the monks, and reform was regularly needed. Like any other human institution, monachism underwent periods of decadence but new orders appeared when the old ones withered away. European monachism was subject to perpetual renewal 4 whereas in the Byzantine part of the empire, once the rule of Basil, a Byzantine aristocrat, was adopted, it remained so without any change until today. Neither in Byzance nor in Russia had the monks an influence comparable to the one they had in the creation of Western Europe. Their influence was indeed immense: they modelled the European civilization.

Science and technology, as reading, writing, wine and beer making, iron smelting, healing, sound agricul­tural practices, wind- and water mills, irrigation and management were for many centuries in Europe the business of the monks (see fig. 11.6). The cistercian abbey of Fontenay, in Burgundy, was in fact a smelting factory, dedicated to the forging of iron weapons and agricultural tools.

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Figure 11.6. St John in his scriptorium, from the Gospels of Godesalc, 781. The scriptorium was the most intimate cell in the monastery. In the midst of the pagan inarticulate oral world, the cloister was a citadel in which written thought was concentrated. The classic Latin and Greek authors were preserved, against the will of some monks who condemned the ancient rhetoric. Rhetoric was the art to organize ideas in a logical order and expose them. Writing in Latin made possible the development of logic and of its Roman prolongation, law. Writing encouraged the intellectualization of culture and allowed the blending of the Germanic and Celtic curvilinear style with the Greek rectilinear style, of the naturalist image with the abstract image, of Asianism with Atticism (distinction established by Tertullian in the first century between a redundant, metaphorical rhetoric and a sober, logically structured rhetoric).

Abbeys fulfilled a tremendous civilizing role by passing in due time the accumulated knowledge to the people of the cities. The Church emphasized the role of laics in the dispensing of this knowledge and the gratuity of the teaching (Alexander III and Innocent III). Advances were not restricted to technology but entailed also an effort at logical reasoning. In this field as in technology, the first efforts originated from members of the priestly caste, sometimes against the will of the Hierarchy. Note that Abelard, persecuted for challenging the dogma, found refuge at the abbey of Cluny. Cluny was free from any temporal control and answered for its actions solely directly to the Holy See.

11.3.2 The occupation of Romania by barbaric tribes

After the disappearance of Romania in the 5th century, the Byzantines reintegrated momentarily Africa (occupied by Vandals) and Italy (occupied by Ostrogoths) into their domain but not the rest of Europe. The Visigoths ruled Spain and the south of Francia. They lost Spain to the Arabs and France to the Salian Franks, who initially occupied the north of Francia and what are now Belgium and Holland. Salian Franks are opposed to “Ripuarian” Franks who lived along the Mosel River. The Salian Franks had settled in the Netherlands from the 3rd to the middle of the 4th century. From them stems the Salic law that excludes women from inheriting land. This law has forever barred women from the throne in Spain and France monarchies, and also in Belgium, where this rule has recently been amended. The Frankish king Clovis (i.e. Clodovic or Louis or Ludwig: 465-511) embraced the catholic faith and enlarged his kingdom, fighting the Burgundians (who gave their name to Burgundy) and Allamans 5 in the east, the Ostrogoths and Visigoths 6 in the south. In England, the Angles, Jutes and Saxons drove the autochthonous Celts to Wales, Ireland and little Brittany (on the Continent, now called Bretagne) and savagely wiped out Romania. Rome never occupied Ireland itself but its Celtic population was Christianized. The Christianization of England by the Roman Church began with Saint Augustine of Canterbury, in 597.

The Arian Lombards were a Germanic tribe that penetrated Italy in 565, occupied the Po valley and took Pavia as capital. They converted in 653 to the catholic faith but remained unassimilated and the Pope 7 was unable to be received by their king. The Byzantine exarque residing in Ravenna was powerless. At that moment, Constantinople was besieged by Persians and Avars while Slavs had occupied the Balkans. No Byzantine army could be diverted from these fronts. The pope turned for protection to the king of the Franks, Pepin. The Franks moved in and reduced the Lombards in 751. Carolus Magnus eliminated them as a political entity in 774 but the Iron Crown reverted to a Lombard king after Carolus’ death and they remained unassimilated. Since the Church frowned on the lending of money for an interest, the Lombards took this activity up and became the bankers of Christendom.

Pepin was not a Merovingian, i.e. a descendant of Clovis. He was a kleptocrat who had usurped power after his victory over Muslim armies in 732. To consolidate their rule, the Pepinides took advantage of their victory over the Lombards in 751 to claim from the pope supernatural affiliation. They stabilized their leadership through its official recognition by the Church: the anointment. Legitimacy of power by the grace of God was introduced in Francia and the Germanic Empire as a stabilizing influence and gave a moral support to the Ruler, who could command loyalty from all his subjects. This reliance on a religious force for political domination was a regression : the Achemenids had ruled Persia and the Emperors had ruled Rome without the backing of a religious force. The Basileus was the master of the Orthodox Church and not the contrary ever since Constantine had presided the Council of Nicea.

The weakness of the Byzantine Empire during this crisis induced the Holy See to look for other protectors and from then on the Holy See relied much more on the Franks than on the Byzantines for protection. The split between Rome and Constantinople widened. It has been accepted by historians during 5 centuries that the kleptocratic habits of the Franks were exploited by the Holy See, that choose to privilege the end over the means with “the Donation of Constantine”: since it was clear that more than spiritual strength was necessary for the Papacy to survive, a conspiracy was suspected to have been set up between the Pope and Pepin, whereby the Papacy claimed that Constantine had donated large parts of central Italy to Sylvester I (pope 314-335). This Donation was shown a forgery in 1436. The conspiracy allegedly allowed the Papacy to acquire the battalions it needed and transformed the Papacy into an Italian monarchy, which was eliminated only in 1870 AD. The most recent studies 8 have disclosed that the Donation was not a dishonest machination commanded by the Papacy to rob the Basileus of central Italy. This gross fraud was a manifesto written in the VIIth century in a juridical manner by a cleric of low rank who wanted to glorify his own Church over the Churches of Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Antioch. He did it by enumerating the advantages and rights already acquired at that moment by the papacy and attributing the text to Constantine. The Roman Church included this treatise in the Decretals, i.e. the ecclesiastic regulations asserting the supremacy of the popes over the secular rulers ( fig. 11.7).

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Figure 11.7. Decretals of Boniface VIII. with commentaries of the 14th century. Bruges, OB, ms 361. This is a Cistercian work, sober to the point of austerity.

In 632, Muhammad died. The Arabs entered History as a result of their victory over the Persians. These Arab nomads had accepted the spiritual and political direction of a small but extremely rich urban and commercial class. Truly colonial, the Arab Empire was cemented by a universal religion while the administrative frames and traditions of the subject populations were left unchanged. For the first time, Christendom had to face not only pagans but also a religious power of first order led by a refined and open-minded aristocracy.

The Arabs ruled through a military and economic domination. As merchants, they admitted a great laxity on the religious level, counting on conversions much more through their style of life than through persecutions. This is not to say that there were none. The Koran states that non-Islamic lands are the land of the sword. The Muslims slew non-believers during the initial conquest, then tolerated them through taxation (dhimmi). Jews were considered with benevolence but Christianity was assimilated to Romanity, which was the political entity that Islam opposed. Later, conversions led to ethnic or “national” distinctions (Ummayads, Abbassids) and conflict over the succession (Sunnites, Shiites). The point is that Arabic Islam, as a culture, eventually erased the evil aspects of Islam the religion. These will reappear when the Islamic creed will be adopted by alien cultures such as the Turks, Kosovars, Albanians, Tartars and today Afghans, Algerians, Indonesians, some Thaïs and some Filipinos.

The Arab cavalry encountered no Byzantine opposition while it ran through the whole of North Africa, which was subdued in 709. The Visigoths controlling Spain were wiped out in the single battle of Jerez-la frontera, in 711. Not that the Visigoth was a poor fighter but he was unable to mobilize the whole of the population for his support despite his conversion to Roman catholicity. The Visigothic kingdom was ephemeral in that it was a rustic order plastered on a decadent Romania indifferent to its lot. The same phenomenon of abandon occurred for the same reason in India, where the Muslim rulers were left alone to defend the land against the British, Portuguese and French invaders. Two years later, the Muslims controlled the whole of Spain. Soon, the Pyrenees was crossed and southern France was occupied, around 725. The Franks finally stopped the Arab cavalcade in 732 at Poitiers.

With an undisputed naval superiority, with Spain and southern France occupied as well as the alpine passes under control, with Marseille and most other Christian Mediterranean harbours ruined, with Rome sacked by Arab armies in 846 and meridional Italy repeatedly devastated between 917 and 926, the center of gravity of what remained of Europe moved north and the Frankish empire was created.

11.3.3 The Frankish Empire

In 768, Pepin the Short divided the Frankish kingdom between his two sons, Carloman and Carolus. Carloman died, Carolus killed the two sons of Carloman and reigned alone. Carolus (later called Carolus Magnus, Charlemagne, 747-814) built a primitive empire based on a tribal domination that had nothing to envy from the former primitive tyrannical empires of the Near East.

After their victory over the Muslims, the Pepinide usurpers moved the capital from Tournai to Herstal, also in Belgium but located on the Meuse River, near Liège. With Carolus Magnus, the capital city moved to Aachen, now on the western border of Germany.

To the North, the Frankish Empire defeated the Friesians. To the West, Celtic Brittany was taken. To the East, Franconia was conquered and Bavaria occupied. Carolus Magnus spent most of his life fighting ferociously the Saxons. These had occupied England and the North of Germany where their king, Wittiking, strenuously opposed the Franks. In 782, the continental Saxons were brutally converted by force and definitely subdued only in 804. In the South, Carolus was crowned king of the Lombards after the fall of Pavia in 774. Carolus also initiated the reconquest of Spain: Barcelona was delivered in 801, ninety years after it had fallen into Muslim hands. To deliver Granada, seven hundred more years will be needed.

Carolus found himself the ruler of an Empire and, in order to provide his tyrannical Empire with a semblance of order, Carolus had to rely on the Church. The Empire was not in possession of gold or silver mines. Hence, the impossibility to make coinage to pay the administrators and civil servants needed to govern from the center. Contrary to his father, Carolus did not feel the need for an anointment and did not want to institute it as a traditional precondition for legitimacy. The anointment by a reigning pope was forced on him by surprise in Rome during Christmas of the year 800. Napoleon, in crowning himself emperor in 1800, claimed he had done what Carolus Magnus had failed to do. He felt prisoner of the situation and rejected the idea of a subordination of the Frankish Imperial Crown to the Papacy. He ruled with the characteristic insolence of autocrats and considered the Empire his personal possession, naming and dismissing subjects and clergy to and from the highest positions. Although he was illiterate, he went as far as stipulating in a Council held in 809 that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, not from the Father by the Son. He divided his Empire among his three sons in 806 yet, when two of them had died, he named Ludwig the pious to the imperial throne in 813. His son Ludwig also behaved without any curbing to a law, naming his own three sons kings and Emperor in 817, then dismissing them all in 829 for bad behavior. These sons also knew only the rule of dictates. The Salic law of the Salian Franks was extant to the Merovingians (successors of the Salian Franks) and to the pepinide Carolingians but it did not apply to the rulers themselves.

The French pay much heed to the treaty of Verdun (841), tooting that “French” and “German” were used to write it. This treaty divided once again arbitrarily the Carolinian Empire into three kingdoms going to the three sons of the Emperor. A copy of the treaty was stolen by Napoleon from the Vatican and is now in Paris. It was never returned because the French see in it the foundation and justification of modern France. About fifteen lines of the whole document are indeed not written in Latin but in an adulterated Latin spoken at that time in the North of France. Obviously, such treaties did not imply the abandonment of the idea of Empire. Pepin, Carolus and Ludwig had all previously divided their dominion between their sons without negating the principle of a president, the Emperor, who would supervise the whole of the domain. A few lines of the treaty of Verdun adulterated with a Roman dialect do not signify that France and Germany were in an unavoidable gestation but indicates that the treaty was made by uncouth gang leaders who cared little about country, Empire, Vikings, Magyars and the like, and it is this neglect that brought the Frankish Empire into a chaos. This system of government that could not envision a federation but demanded monolithic dominance by the lawless Franks was bound to finish in ruins. Magyars and Vikings helped.

The Viking incursions began during Carolus’ lifetime. The Frankish Empire had expanded North to the border of Jutland. The Scandinavian Harald II was a vassal of the Emperor since 814 and converted in 826 but his pagan subjects rejected assimilation and discarded him. In a hundred years time, the Vikings ravaged Ireland, which from then on remained prostrated. They occupied Normandy and a large part of England in 911. The Vikings nearly destroyed the burgeoning Western civilization. However, missions initiating a vigorous evangelization had started from Hamburg, Bremen and England and the Vikings converted at the end of the 10th century without however being assimilated to a Frankish Empire. From Normandy, the Christian Normans occupied Sicily and in 1066 invaded England (battle of Hastings). These Christian Normans played a decisive role in the fight of Hildebrand against Cesaro-papism.

In the East, the first Viking raid into the Basileus domain occurred in 860. The Basileus fought back, like Europe, on the spiritual level and the first significant conversion to the Orthodox faith occurred in 955. In 969, the Judaic Empire of the Khazars was destroyed. In 988, the ruling prince (Saint Vladimir) of the Viking “Varegue” dynasty that ruled the kingdom of Kiev converted with all his people. This kingdom will be for many years the shield of Europe against Nomad invasions. Internal dissensions and Mongol invaders (Genghis Khan, 1227) brought about its fall. One should here note that Russia could have turned Roman Catholic, Muslim and even Judaic instead of Orthodox.

The creation of the Grand Duchy of Kiev was sufficient to put the Magyars (i.e. the Hungarians) on the move. Their invasion of sedentary lands was as dreadful as that of the Vikings. With their ultra fast cavalry, these Nomads beat the Frankish Emperor in 911. In 917 they were in the Elzas. Around 950, they had reached the Pyrenees. During all this time, Germanic missionaries submitted them to intense attempts at conversion. Moreover, the Saxon king Henry Ist inflicted on them their first defeat in 933. His successor, Otto Ist, beat them irremediably in 955. The Magyars retired to Hungary. St Stephens was crowned in the year 1000. He converted to the Roman Catholic faith and set out to “sedentarize” (Christianize) the Magyars. This saint persuaded the recalcitrant pagans to convert by pouring hot liquid lead into their ears and pierced eyes. He was canonized in 1083. These Hungarians were left alone together with the Serbs to stop the Turks in 1456 near Belgrade.

The victorious Saxon king was elected Roman Germanic Emperor and anointed in Rome by Pope John XII, ruler of a very ailing Church.

11.3.4 The Saxonian Empire: a civilized Europe

Since the Empire is elective, the signs of the Imperial Status (sword, scepter, cross, evangelarium, mantle, crown and throne) were of paramount importance: he who possesses them is the emperor. When Conrad Ist, the Carolingian duke of Franconia sent in 919 the imperial signs to his enemy the Saxon Henry Ist, the significance of this act was clear: the Empire was no longer Frankish. After having beaten the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955 with the help of the Holy Lance that carried the Holy Nail, the pope anointed Otto the Saxon. The Imperial dream was resumed in 962. It was a dream in retrospect, because it failed, but it could very well have succeeded if the House of Saxony had remained in power. The Carolinians could not accept that the Saxon Otto Ist should go to Aachen to sit on the throne of Carolus in presence of all the dukes of the Empire, when these Saxons had been reduced and Christianized by torture and slaughter by Carolus himself only 200 years earlier.

Contrary to the Franks, whose concept of government was coercion and terror, the Saxons had evolved in England into a civilized society where the Witanagemot, the council of the elders, settled all issues within that polity composed of Angles, Jutes and Saxons. The Saxons had an experience of consensus in government (treaty of Wedmore, 879) enabling them to rule other tribes without brutality. The Emperor enforced his rule by relying neither on a police force nor an army but on women, bishops and abbots, drawn from his own family. The Saxonian Empire was a success. It was benevolent, humane, rich and civilized.

The art of the Empire, equilibrated, severe and glorious embodied the richness and humanity of the rulers. On the Empire’s fringes, in Italy, Catalonia, Languedoc and other remote provinces where priests and local barons practically ruled without a supervisor, an art marked by primitive savageness, rejecting or ignoring the imperial art of the Saxonians, stamped with sensuality and terror, the Roman art, appeared. The terror of the “annum mille” was restricted to regions of poor intellectual, mental and economic development. This local phenomenon has been used by anticlerical thinkers to prove the wickedness of a Church that exploited the credulity of believers to extract material advantages from them but is without foundation. The junction of Roman art with the Imperial art will produce the Gothic and manifest thereby the predominance of the Church over all western temporal rulers as well as over its own clergy.

The Ottonians considered Gallia one of the four provinces of the Empire. Yet, a series of unhappy events impeached them to assert their power: the early death of Otto IInd losing his strength in Southern Italy and Greece, the early death of Otto IIIrd poisoned at age 22, the death of pope Sylvester II (Gerbert of Aurillac) after only 4 years of pontifical reign, the continuous opposition of the North Italians soon assembled into the Lombard league.

When the imperial signs returned into the hands of the Carolingian Conrad II of Franconia in 1204, large parts of Gallia returned to the Empire, as the kingdom of Burgundy and the kingdom of Arles. However, the far-western part of Gallia (Francia) was so poor that it presented no interest. No effort was made in its reclamation. It had been left to itself after Hughes Capet replaced there the last Western Carolinian, in 987. This was on the advice of Gerbert of Aurillac because Capet was not of imperial lineage and would not challenge the Saxons for the Imperial throne. The election of Capet was a minor inconvenience as long as he did not claim leadership of the Empire (Francis I will stupidly do so, in later times). However, Capet was a Salian Frank and Francia will endeavor to separate from the Empire.

The Basileus was furious about this revival of a Germanic Empire that had floundered miserably two hundred years earlier. The Imperial Signs were in Constantinople where Odoacer, one of their brethren, had sent them. In the West, the Imperial Purple was not hereditary but based on elections and legitimacy was gained by submission to the Pope. In the eyes of the Basileus, this was grotesque. The Carolingians had subdivided the Frankish Empire into daughter kingdoms in accordance with tribal traditions. This also was grotesque. How could an Empire anyhow exist without a Capital City, without a Sacred Palace, without a central administration and without numerary, since the West African gold mines were in Muslim hands? The Basileus reluctantly gave his daughter to Otto Ist for marriage with Otto IInd, procreation of Otto IIIrd and prepared for the worst.

The worst happened soon enough: his grandson Otto IIIrd was poisoned in 1002 and Rome separated from Byzantium in 1054. In 1065, the Frank Henry IV became Emperor at age 15 and his attempt to rule as an autocrat proved ruinous.

11.3.5 Further Christianisation of Europe

In the mean time, sedentarisation and christianization of the barbarians continued. In the year 1000, Denmark and Sweden were fully christianized. Finland joined the Nordics in 1150. The last Nordics to convert were the Lithuanians, who resisted the Teutonic Order staunchly (battle of Tannenberg in 1410) and embraced the Roman Catholic faith only in the 14th century. They did it in earnest and the agnostic Soviets encountered the greatest difficulties with the catholic Lithuanians during the recent soviet occupation of this country.

The Croats became Catholics in 924 and the Hungarians in the year 1000, while the other Slavs of the Balkans were Christianized by the Orthodox Church. In Slavic Bohemia, princes were baptised as early as 845 and a German Bishop resided in Prague from 973 on. Germanic influence in Bohemia was very strong from then on: Albert Einstein was a teacher in Prague. The Poles became Catholics in 966 but opposed Germanisation (battle of Tannenberg, in 1410). The remaining Slavs between the domains of the Poles, Bohemians and Russians were systematically absorbed by Germanic Armed Orders and initially Slavic Prussia, Brandeburg and Pomerania turned Germanic forever.

In Spain, the reconquista started in 1045 while the Christian Normans of Normandy conquered Sicily over the Saracens and installed in Naples the prosperous kingdom of the two Sicilies. North Africa was impossible to reclaim and would remain an Islamic dominated region.


3. Destroyed for no good reason at all at the end of WWII by allied troops. The German troops that occupied initially the heights of the Monte respected the monastery. It is only after it was shelled by allied troops that the German army occupied it, which strengthened considerably their position and capacity of resistance.

4. The last monastic order that has been created of which I am aware of is “the rule of Taizé” (a small village in Burgundy) written in 1952 by brother Roger. Pope John –Paul II encouraged in 1986 the community composed of about 90 brothers.

5. Hence, the “Allemands” that stands for “Germans” in French. In Finland, the Germans are called “Saxa”. In Belgium and Holland, they are the “Duitsers”. The Germans call themselves “Deutsch”. The Italians call them Tedesco, i.e. Teutons.

6. In Spain, the Goths left the name “Catalonia”, i.e. Gothland and the Vandals left the name Andalusia.

7. Gregory I. He codified the Gregorian chant.

8. J. Gaudemet: Décrétales (Fausses) in: Dictionnaire encyclopédique du Moyen Age by A. Vauchez, eds. Cerf, 1997

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