Thursday, April 27, 2023

Bullies and Saints Part 3: From the Visigoths to the Crusades

I really enjoyed John Dickson's Bullies And Saints: An Honest Look At The Good And Evil Of Christian History. There is much to learn from the record of bullies and saints in church history lest we repeat their failures or fail to replicate their successes. Truly, as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. 

I am doing a series of posts where I cut and paste from his book. Where I fill in words, you will see [brackets]. I use ellipses for all the places where I know there is a gap, but (because of how Kindle highlighting works) I am sure there are many places where I fail to note what's written between two sentences I put next to each other. If what I post feels disconnected or clunky as you read it, that's my editing, not his writing :) 

The first installment was the most positive. The church's reputation prior to Constantine was pretty solid. But following Constantine's influence, leaders like Ambrose and then Augustine changed the tune the church had been singing. The changes may not strike you as jarring yet, but they are laying a foundation infused with a love of money and power on which others will build terrible things. The second installment covered the time from Julian to Augustine's City of God, a time with remarkably different - sometimes jarringly different - visions for how Christians should live in society. This leads us to part three.

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This Byzantine Empire is really just the vibrant eastern continuation of the actual Roman Empire. The collapse of Rome was experienced as a catastrophe everywhere west of Italy. But if you were fortunate enough to live in the east—in Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria, Judea, or Egypt—life carried on. The most cosmopolitan half of the empire was still in decent shape. Westerners today rarely know much about the eastern side of world history, but there is a stunning story to tell. It is a story about wealth and stability, learning and religion, architecture, art, and charity— as well (of course) as ongoing wars. The contrast with their poor Christian cousins in the west could hardly be greater.

The Visigoths led by Alaric eventually sacked the city of Rome in AD 410. After Alaric’s men (following his death) returned north, Roman citizens in the west tried to rebuild or reimagine their glorious culture, and there was a succession of false starts and half-emperors. In the vacuum, the church increasingly looked like the most stable game in town. Interestingly, Alaric had left untouched the two giant Roman basilica churches connected with the apostles Peter and Paul.

The barbarian ruling classes were “perched insecurely on top” of the great mass of Romans in Italy. Most locals got on with trying to live their lives, pay their taxes, and hope for better days…The Gothic warrior-aristocracy maintained surprisingly good relations with the church.

In these fractured conditions, as Rome crumbled and Europe groaned, the last non-Christians in the former western Roman Empire rallied to the Christian Church as the source of stability, charity, and, of course, spiritual comfort….

You could almost say that by the end of the fifth century, to be a good Roman was to be a Christian. And in a manner of speaking, we have the Goths to thank (or blame) for that…

Roman-controlled Gaul had fallen to the Franks (Germanic peoples of northern France) around AD 486. Shortly afterwards, the king of the Franks, a man called Clovis (AD 466–511), suddenly declared his allegiance to Christianity and was baptised around the year 500… It marked the beginning of the vast Merovingian Kingdom that went on to rule much of western Europe for the next two hundred and fifty years… Both the Merovingians and the Carolingians ended up being fierce supporters of the church—and I mean fierce.

A generation after Augustine of Canterbury, the Frankish lands produced a remarkable figure, Bishop Eligius (AD 590–660) of Noyon in northern France. Eligius was captivated by Christ’s call to assist the downtrodden. Jesus had given himself for the world, and we are to do the same; that is the logic of life. He soon took to gifting the gold and jewelry he wore. His sumptuous attire ended up functioning like a bank or mobile charity. Wherever he found people in distress, he plucked off gems and precious metals from his garments and gave them away. He would leave on a business trip looking like royalty and return wearing “a hairshirt next to his flesh” or “the vilest clothing with a rope for a belt.”

Perhaps his most striking act of charity, for which he earned renown throughout Europe, was purchasing and freeing slaves. He was not just what we would call a “social justice advocate.” He was also a zealous “evangelical,” eager to extend the message of Christ into new regions, preaching and building new monasteries and churches…

His converts were taught to sing the same tune he did: “You would see many people hurry to repent, give up their wealth to the poor, free their slaves and many other works of good in obedience to his precepts.” Understandably, Eligius’s death in 660 was a major event. Even the Frankish queen, Balthild of Ascania, rushed to see his body. She kissed it and wept aloud in front of the vast crowd.

An academic and monk named Boniface (AD 675–754)… enjoyed quite a lot of success convincing Germanic warrior tribes to follow Jesus Christ. Boniface’s method was persuasion…through gentle teaching and argument…

My point is that the major mission campaigns into pagan Europe in the 600s and 700s were waged with the old Christian weapons of persuasion, service, prayer, and suffering. This is not to say there were not also some awful bishops who “were primarily political figures,” writes Ian Wood in his history of the Merovingian Empire. There were even some that “behaved more like warriors than ecclesiastics.” Yet, Wood concludes, “the behavior of a few individuals should not overshadow the standards of the Church as a whole.”

Boniface embodied these ideal standards, which included a willingness to suffer, rather than to harm, for the cause of Christ….While camped on the bank of the Boorn River in the north of the Netherlands, “[a] vast multitude of foes, armed with spears and shields, rushed with glittering weapons,” his biography records. And when his own band of protectors drew their weapons to fight, he apparently yelled, “Stop fighting, lads! Give up the battle! For we are taught by the trusty witness of Scripture, that we render not evil for evil, but contrariwise good for evil.”

In AD 751/2, right around the time of Boniface’s death, the Merovingians were displaced by the Carolingian dynasty as kings of the Franks. The most famous of these kings was Charles the Great, or Charlemagne (AD 742–814).

Charlemagne was crowned as “emperor” by Pope Leo III in Rome on Christmas Day in the year 800. This launched what we call the “Holy Roman Empire.” The Holy Roman Empire was a succession of European kings, with constantly moving borders, which was mostly devoutly loyal to the Roman Church. It survived until 1806… Beginning with Charlemagne in the late 700s, this state devotion to the church led to some extravagant acts of coercion and violence, as well as to a “renaissance” of learning and culture.

Charlemagne was an even more ardent supporter of the church than the Merovingians had been. For his efforts, the pope would crown him the first “Holy Roman Emperor.” The concept was straightforward. Charlemagne was chosen by God to revive the glories of the Roman Empire in the west and to defend and promote the cause of the church (hence “holy”).

His method was similar to that of Clovis, supporting the building of monasteries and churches throughout his realm. But there was more. Among the “Saxons,” Charlemagne adopted what has been described as a Christian “jihad.” The Saxons were a Germanic warrior people in what is now northwestern Germany. Charlemagne waged a brutal thirty-year campaign against them, from 772 to 804… In 782, for example, he ordered the beheading of more than four thousand, five hundred Saxons on a single day…

Sometime before the full subjugation of the Saxons, Charlemagne had published a notorious set of laws titled the Capitulatio de Partibus Saxoniae or Ordinances for the Region of Saxony. Among the special rules for the unruly Saxons was this one:

“If any one of the race of the Saxons hereafter concealed among them shall have wished to hide himself unbaptized, and shall have scorned to come to baptism and shall have wished to remain a pagan, let him be punished by death.”

Adding insult to injury, Charlemagne immediately imposed on every Saxon household “tithes,” that is, religious taxes. This created a double blow: cultural destruction and a financial yoke…Charlemagne’s policies among the Saxons were undeniably awful. They are evidence of a deadly experiment in “missionary” expansion in the late 700s… Charlemagne’s approach is a notorious outlier in the Christian tradition.

A century later, the most influential western Christian thinker for a millennium, Saint Augustine the bishop of Hippo (AD 354–430), laid down the principle that “[n]o one is to be compelled to embrace the faith against his will.  The same policy was followed by the pope himself in the sixth-century mission to England. Pope Gregory I (AD 540–604) wrote to an abbot named Mellitus, who was on his way to assist Augustine of Canterbury in the establishment of Christianity in the British Isles. In the letter, the pope expresses his longing to see the country converted to Christ, but he insists that the pagan temples themselves should not be damaged—the idols may be removed, but the buildings should not be destroyed. He gives the reason: so that pagans would not be resentful, and so that they might be more open to receiving the true worship of God.

Alcuin of York (AD 735–804), a leading biblical scholar and teacher of the liberal arts (rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, astronomy)… admits that the Saxons are the “toughest of the tough,” but he insists that forced conversion, baptism, and “tithes” are not in keeping with the spirit of Christianity. Indeed, he says that if the “light yoke and the easy burden of Christ” had been preached to the Saxons with the same zeal that tithes had been extracted from them and punishments dealt out to them, “then perhaps they would not be shrinking back from the sacrament of baptism…”

In the same year (AD 796) he wrote a much softer letter directly to Charlemagne raising the same concerns. In an astonishing turnaround, Charlemagne actually halted his harsh policy toward the Saxons, publishing a new code on 28 October 797 - the Capitulare Saxonicum - which removed any mention of baptism or death and made numerous concessions to local pagan customs, so long as they did not directly contradict Christianity.

In the long run, Alcuin was proved right. The voluntary approach to mission was more effective. Saxony would eventually fully embrace the faith and would become a leading centre of Christianity in the centuries to come. In fact, as the great medievalist Brian Tierney of Cornell University has pointed out, “more than 90 percent of the works of ancient Rome that we know nowadays exist in their earliest form in a Carolingian manuscript,” that is, in a text studied and copied by Christian scholars from the era of Charlemagne (eighth and ninth centuries). Their meticulous endeavours “form the basis of nearly all modern editions” of classical Roman literature…

Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225–1274) was probably the most influential western Christian thinker since Saint Augustine. In his massive Summa Theologiae, a multivolume statement of the Christian faith, Aquinas writes with typical precision:

“Unbelievers are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the will.”

In the Middle Ages…if you were going to find a precious ancient manuscript anywhere, it would be in a Christian monastery, where texts like that of Lucretius had been preserved, studied, and copied since at least the time of Charlemagne, six hundred years earlier. In fact, as the great medievalist Brian Tierney of Cornell University has pointed out, “more than 90 percent of the works of ancient Rome that we know nowadays exist in their earliest form in a Carolingian manuscript,” that is, in a text studied and copied by Christian scholars from the era of Charlemagne (eighth and ninth centuries). Their meticulous endeavours “form the basis of nearly all modern editions” of classical Roman literature...

Saint Jerome (AD 342–420), one of the most influential Christian teachers in the fourth and fifth centuries. Jerome was raised with the best pagan Roman education, only to reject classical literature in his thirties (in AD 374) after having a dream in which an angel accused him of preferring Cicero, the great Latin writer, to the Gospels. “Thou art a Ciceronian,” the angel said, “not a Christian; for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.

[For a time} Jerome refused to read pagan authors. He devoted himself instead to Bible translation and to writing commentaries and Christian essays. During this period, he wrote his oft-quoted line (oft-quoted by skeptics),

“What communion hath light with darkness? What concord hath Christ with Belial [the Devil]? What has Horace in common with the Psalter? Virgil with the Gospels and Cicero with the Apostle?”

This sounds like a theological rejection of secular learning. But Jerome returned to the classics around 389, until his death thirty years later in 420. He often embellished his instruction and advice with citations from Cicero, Horace, Virgil, and other pagan writers. [This is part of the] the “true and ripe liberalism” of his last three decades, when Jerome could seamlessly expound a line of the New Testament and illustrate it with a line from Virgil’s epic Aeneid.

The “wisdom-theology” approach to knowledge was the norm among Christian theologians in the period following the New Testament, whether in the second century (Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria), third (Tertullian of Carthage, Origen of Alexandria), fourth (Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Lactantius of Nicomedia), fifth (Augustine of Hippo, Jerome of Bethlehem), or the sixth century (Boethius and Cassiodorus of Rome).

A quick Google search of these names will reveal that all of them valued secular learning as a window—if often an opaque window—into God’s wisdom imprinted on the world… A handbook for clergy from this time makes clear that young priests were expected to have mastered the seven liberal arts, as well as some philosophy, before embarking on their theological and pastoral education. Studying grammar, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, music, astronomy, and all the rest was considered an act of devotion to the all-wise God. It was learning about the “wisdom” the Creator had imprinted upon the world...

For Alcuin and his circle, and all those they inspired, this involved knowing not just the Bible and the church fathers, such as Augustine, Gregory the Great, Jerome, and Ambrose, but also all of the ancient Greek and Roman (classical) authors they could get their hands on. From Alcuin’s own catalogues, letters, and the surviving manuscripts from this period, we know this included Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Pliny the Elder, Horace, Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Livy, Ovid, and about sixty other authors.

The story of “dark ages” when the church suppressed knowledge is a fiction developed in modern times…the first European “universities” in the 1100s, in Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge, all owe a debt to the educational ambitions of the medieval church…

Yet, all that knowledge could not save the church from falling victim to its own stupidity over these same centuries. One element of the “Dark Ages” narrative that cannot be denied is that in its effort to convert the warrior-cultures of pagan Europe, the church itself was transformed into the biggest bully of all.

A text from AD 150 declares, “we live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life.” All of this is a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it has made Christianity an easily transportable faith. It is just as much at home in Africa or China as it is in France or the US.This is no doubt partly why it became history’s first—and now largest—“world religion.” On the other hand, the relative lack of fixed social patterns in Christianity, combined with its missionary zeal, is one of its deepest vulnerabilities...

Christians are prone to adopting local norms and accommodating themselves to the local context. The capacity and desire to fit in to a host culture makes them susceptible to the temptation to sacrifice some of their own ideals in an effort to win friends and influence people. (None of this is to deny that Christians have also sometimes universalized their local expressions of Christianity and imposed them colonially upon Christians in other parts of the world)...

Christianity’s cultural flexibility can, as I say, leave it vulnerable to modification. In seeking to accommodate itself to a local setting, it can compromise its own moral logic. Something like this happened on a grand scale in the Middle Ages. As the church sought to win pagan warrior cultures to the faith, whether in France, Germany, or Scandinavia, it somehow managed to transform Jesus into the ultimate “warlord” and his church into the “knights of Christ...”

Christianity was highly successful beyond the frontiers of the Roman world, from which it had begun. But success was a two-edged sword, bringing challenges and demanding compromises. Just as the conversion of the Roman emperor in the early 300s unexpectedly transformed the church into an active player in the wealth and power of an empire, so the conversion of the warrior aristocracy of Gaul, England, and parts of Germany brought fresh “negotiations” with a way of life at least as old as Rome. The church converted many, and it found itself converted in the process...

We have surviving letters between Clovis and local bishops. They tell an interesting story… The correspondence is an unsettling mix of sage Christian preaching and sucking up. Here we see the church—in the person of a key bishop on the frontiers of Christianity—converting and being converted by an ancient warrior aristocracy... I do not doubt the spiritual intentions of Bishop Remigius. Nor can I ignore his eagerness to hitch his wagon, the church’s wagon, to the prevailing culture of the day.

Bishop Avitus of Vienne (southeast France) urges King Clovis to take his newfound Christianity into the regions he intends to conquer. Bishop Avitus is not recommending Christian “holy war” as a form of evangelization. He simply hopes that Christian “embassies” can tag along with Clovis’s expanding European Empire. It is an early form of religious imperialism...

This is all very different from the policy of persuasion and self-sacrifice advocated by Pope Gregory I, Augustine of Canterbury, Eligius, Boniface, Bishop Daniel, Willibald, Alcuin, and others through roughly the same period. It is hard to resist the observation that as the church converted the warrior aristocracy of pagan Europe—now Christian Europe—the church itself was drawn to a more militaristic vision of life... The conversion of Europe involved a complex negotiation of cultures that eventually made the notion of Christian “holy war” entirely plausible... 

By the time the Byzantine emperor Alexius I pleaded with western Christendom in the 1080–1090s to come defend eastern Christendom from the march of Islam, the church was ready to be the “knight of Christ…” Part of the cultural negotiation between Christianity and pagan Europe was the church’s growing approval of the warrior tradition at the heart of Frankish and Saxon (Germanic) society…

In the process of evangelizing medieval warlords, “the church had no option but to recognize their values,” Tyerman explains. The Clovises of the world had to be flattered in order to be persuaded. Their deeds had to be endorsed before they could be reformed...

And the economic realities of the warrior tradition had to be accepted if the church was to ride on the backs of the war machine with the message of salvation for all. In such a world the virtues of the Frankish warrior and the good Christian coincided.

Pretty soon, bishops in these regions were chosen from among warrior elites, just as in fifth-century Rome they had been drawn from the senatorial class. The most remarkable sign of this medieval process of Christian militarization is a ninth-century Old Saxon poem called the Heliand or “Saviour.” It is a retelling of the Gospels’ account of Christ in the style of a pagan heroic saga. Jesus himself is described as a knight, and his apostles are his travelling war band…. Within this context, Christian discipleship could, without too much of a stretch, be extended to include real physical violence for Christ’s cause...

When Pope Urban II announced the First Crusade in November 1095, the stage had long been set for a Europe-wide response, which harnessed the ancient warrior tradition and repurposed it for Christ… When the crowds in Clermont that day replied with “God wills it,” they were not—in their minds—taking a shocking new turn in the Christian life. They were expressing the fulfillment of centuries of cultural fusion between the universalistic vision of Christianity and the heroic tradition of a warrior elite.

In such a mood, it seemed entirely plausible for an accomplished monk like Bernard of Clairvaux (AD 1090–1153) to write about sacred violence…He was best known in his day for treatises on love for God. But in the wake of the First Crusade, he penned his famous In Praise of the New Knighthood.

I am particularly struck by the way Bernard of Clairvaux took New Testament military metaphors and concretized them. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the first-century apostle likens the Christian life to “warfare” against temptation and persecution. The symbolic nature of the paragraph could hardly be clearer… Saint Bernard alludes to this same New Testament imagery to endorse actual armor and weaponry.

“The knight who puts the breastplate of faith on his soul in the same way as he puts a breastplate of iron on his body is truly intrepid and safe from everything…So forward in safety, knights, and with undaunted souls drive off the enemies of the cross of Christ.”

Those enemies are the Muslims in the Holy Land. Christopher Tyerman puts it well: “It is a measure of the pragmatism, sophistication, some might say sophistry, and sheer intellectual ingenuity, that there was an ideology of Christian holy war at all.”

A generation after him, right around the time of the Fourth (AD 1198–1204) and Fifth Crusades (AD 1213–1229), an astonishing woman rose to prominence as the mouthpiece for God, many believed… Christina the Astonishing (AD 1150–1224)… [endorsed] the Crusader theology of the day: remission of sins through sacred combat. She saw the Crusades as an opportunity for sinful, hell-bound men in Europe to win their salvation.

If, by the 500s, being Christian was indistinguishable from being Roman, by the 1000s being Christian was indistinguishable from being Frankish or Saxon. Europe and the church found themselves converted to each other’s ways.

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