Archive for March, 2011

An Idiot’s History of Western Europe—From Rome’s Fall to Charlemagne

As the Roman Empire established itself, the mostly Germanic hunter-gatherer tribes beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers, the northern and eastern borders of the Empire, were settling into an agricultural way of life.  The inevitable population explosion that follows the agricultural revolution drove the Germanic tribes into desperate movement to the south.  For centuries, their immigration was slowed by far-superior Roman forces to a flow that was absorbed by the existing societies of the Empire, much like current immigration across the southern border of the United States.  However, during the time of Constantine and the following century, the pressure of barbarian numbers and aggression increased dramatically even as the Roman ability to contain them declined.  The decline was due to much more than the diversion of military forces to the East (with the Emperor’s move to the Greek city, Byzantium, later called Constantinople and the center of Eastern Christianity).  Thomas Cahill describes with convincing insight, in How the Irish Saved Civilization, the probable causes of the centuries-long disintegration of Roman administration and society from within.  I commend that book to you, but I won’t go further here.

The breaking point came in the terrible winter of 406-407 when the Rhine froze solid enough to allow thousands of Germanic men, women and children to storm across the ice to overwhelm Roman forces.  They were followed by hundreds of thousands.  In 410, for the first time in eight centuries of security, Rome was sacked – by Alaric and his Visigoths – leaving the citizens of Rome with nothing but their lives. 

 Byzantium and the Eastern Empire were spared this tragedy for many more centuries by fortunate geography that enabled more effective protection against invasion.  Meanwhile, successive waves of barbarian tribes swept across Western Europe, breaking the Western Roman Empire into innumerable barbarian kingdoms with little more in common than a memory of Roman administration – and the ongoing Christian Church.  Thomas Cahill, in Mysteries of the Middle Ages (p.39), described the local bishop as often the only Roman official who stayed at his post and was “capable of implementing a body of law and custom that could reestablish social peace and guide the new barbarian ruler (and the mixed population of Romans and barbarians that he now ruled) toward a rational political settlement.” 

The fundamental differences between the Greek and Roman cultures showed in their interpretations of Christianity.  The Greeks preferred abstract, even mystical contemplation of the meaning of the Trinitarian God, who is determined to raise humanity up from our hopelessly corrupted existence.  The Romans were impatient with the Greeks’ other-worldly distinctions; they preferred to focus on the literally down-to-earth implications of the Incarnation of God as a human being like themselves.  These Greco-Roman differences were amplified by the times they were thrust into.  Roman Popes and their bishops and priests had to make deals for the Western Church to survive; circumstances required that they be practical and flexible.  This was not a time to be overly zealous about fine points of theology.  However, coming to terms with barbarian chiefdoms was given theological cover by the Roman Christian understanding that, as Thomas Cahill put it (Mysteries, p.49), the face of God is “compassionate beyond all imagining, willing to live, suffer, and die for each of us, so compassionate that it excludes no one, not even the most stupid, the most craven, the most outrageous, the most corrupt.” “No one is negligible.”  Even these reeking, ignorant barbarians were children of God, just like the Romans.  They became part of the Church’s pastoral responsibility.

This is no small point.  It embarrassed the whole class structure of Roman society that, in the divine perspective, women and men, slaves and freemen, barbarians and cultural sophisticates are equally bestowed with the inherent dignity of the human person.  All of us are in the same divine boat, no matter the human proclivity to treat each other as though only some of us are the elect of God.  This theological understanding was reinforced by practical accommodation to the chaotic time.  The epitome of this practical humanitarianism was Gregory the Great, who was Pope just before and after 600.  He welcomed the barbarians to Christianity.  Going against the Roman impulse to regiment everything, Gregory directed his bishops and priests in the far reaches of the crumbling Western Empire to avoid trying to entirely remake the newcomers.  Instead, Gregory urged his Church to be open to allowing the new Christians the comfort of their traditional customs and celebrations, as long as they were not antithetical to Christianity.  “Just baptize them a bit” (in Cahill’s words—Mysteries, p.59). The result was a Universal Church composed of richly diverse local manifestations. 

This accommodation with the barbarian kingdoms established Western Christian clergy as having a unifying realm of authority separate from and, in theory, above the political authority of the many temporal rulers – a higher, universal and more stable spiritual authority to which temporal authority must ultimately yield.  This distinction of church and state authority sowed the seeds of challenge to absolute authority, starting with the Emperor in Constantinople as the temporal authority (and later a challenge to papal claim to absolute authority in the spiritual realm, but that would come later). 

By Gregory’s time, the barbarian chaos had destroyed the books and centers of learning, along with the luxury of formal education.  Literacy was reduced to the confines of monasteries and bishops’ palaces, which reinforced the prestige and authority of the Church.  But even there science and philosophy had been mostly lost; many priests were illiterate themselves and had to commit scriptural passages and liturgical rites to memory, as in traditional oral cultures.  Only the Eastern Empire and isolated Ireland were able to preserve the written works of Classical wisdom.  Irish monks reproduced and gradually reintroduced these works to Western Europe (the saving of civilization, as Cahill called it), before Ireland itself was finally overwhelmed by the predatory Vikings from the north.

In 800, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope, signifying a brief political consolidation of the barbarian kingdoms of the Western Empire and also marking a mini-renaissance of culture in Western Europe as the Irish monks did their work of re-evangelization.  However, from the death in 430 of Augustine (as barbarians stormed the gates of his city, Hippo, in North Africa) to the chartering in 1200 of the University of Paris, Western Europe seems to have disappeared from the history of human intellect.  The Medieval Mind, a Roman Catholic Christian mind, developed and dominated during these nearly eight centuries.  Our Modern Mind can hardly comprehend the Medieval Mind, in great part thanks to the anti-Catholic Protestant historians, notably Edward S. Gibbon, who have defined these centuries for us as the Dark Ages, in which nothing good could possibly have happened.  However, as Thomas Cahill points out (Mysteries, p. 189-91), it is simply illogical to pretend that the Modern Mind that emerged through the process of Renaissance, Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment could have arisen from an eight-century vacuum.

Next installment of An Idiot’s History of Western Europe: “Dark Ages” and the Medieval Mind.  Look for it around April 1st.

Copyright 2011 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (


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