The development of the Roman Catholic Church and the creation and differentiation of the various dissenting West European and American Christian denominations are topics usually avoided in secular discussion, which is a pity, as the history involved is both highly illuminating and very entertaining.
To start in media res in order to set context for a discussion of Christianity’s origin, rise, institutional strength, and development:
- The Roman Catholic Church is the longest continuously surviving Western European institution.
- In part this is due to a fluke of history: the fall of Rome in 410 CE, about 1,000 years before the fall of Constantinople [1453 CE] meant that the head of the Catholic Church could gather power without being bothered by an Emperor for a long time, nearly 400 years.
- When Emperors reappeared in the West with Charlemagne around 800 CE, the Catholic Church got into some ugly arguments with them. By this time the Catholic Church and Popes had developed a lot of strength. Perhaps the highpoint of the Papacy was when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV did penance three days barefoot in the snow at Canossa in 1077 CE after the Pope excommunicated him. But a few years later, after winning a civil war in Germany, Henry IV came down to Rome with an army, chased the Pope out of town, and created a new Pope who ruled for 20 years, though the modern Catholic Church does not recognize Henry’s pontiff as a legitimate Pope. Eventually these arguments between the Catholic Church and the Emperor led to the ongoing battles between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Those are too complicated to deal with in detail here, but they resulted in lots of good stories. Many of them are told by Dante.
- For about 1,000 years, roughly 400 CE to 1400 CE, the Catholic Church had an effective monopoly on literacy in Western Europe. Even Holy Roman Emperors who wanted to diminish the power of the Catholic Church depended on it for people to read, write, send letters, do tax calculations, arrange financing, and disseminate technical improvements.
- For about the same period there were only two ways to improve your lot in life if you were not born into the aristocracy: warfare or the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church recruited bright minds and fostered talent, which the aristocratic feudal society outside the church was not very willing to do. Promotion by merit is always revolutionary and empowering. And for about 1,000 years in Europe the only way to get promoted by merit, outside of the army, which was both dangerous and uncertain, was the Catholic Church. Lots of smart people became priests and worked very hard to increase Catholic power.
- By forcing their priests to remain unmarried, the Catholic Church prevented them from passing down most of their wealth to their families, when they had them. A large number of Catholic priests had families during the Middle Ages, despite rules that they should not have sex and should never marry. Even in the Renaissance it was common for Popes to have common-law wives and children: they typically called their sons “nephews.” The important thing for the institution of the Catholic Church was that its priests could not deed most of their wealth to their children. The Church kept gathering more and more land and money into its own hands as generations passed.
- The Catholic Church was highly disciplined for much of this period. When it was possible, the Church mercilessly persecuted people who disagreed with it: e.g. crusades, some against other Christians; wars; witch-hunts; the burning of heretics at the stake. Heretics are people who disagreed with the official position of the church. Often these disagreements seem arcane or trivial to modern minds, but even slight disagreements could get you spitted or barbequed. Some have posited that there is no kingdom so drenched in blood as the kingdom of the Prince of Peace, an epithet for Jesus of Nazareth. Until the genocidal wars of the 20th Century, this contention was probably right, if you limit your focus to Europe.
- So the Catholic Church was and is an incredibly successful organization. But it is not as strong as it was in the Middle Ages. Financial and spiritual corruption, and the maintenance of privilege instead of justice, brought about revolts. For many centuries these were successfully repressed by the Catholic Church, but a combination of factors meant some rebellions in Germany had succeeded by the mid-1500s CE. This led to the Protestant sects, which keep on growing and splitting and multiplying like amoebas.
But God is in the details.
In the early 1980s in Chengdu, a Chinese scholar came up to me saying “Can I ask you a question about Christmas?”
“Of course, and if I know it, I’ll give you an answer.”
“We know you are not Christmas. Some of the foreign teachers are very Christmas, and some of them want us to be Christmas too.”
I began to understand that he meant “Christian” rather than “Christmas.” A right wing religious organization in California had just sent a bunch of missionaries, and I was shorthanded and desperate enough for native speakers of English to use them in the classroom. The California missionaries sent by this organization in the end did not do as well as the Oklahoma missionaries who came on their own. Most of the Californians did not last a year; one California couple lasted less than a week, another less than a month.
“We understand there are some Christmas who believe in God, and others who believe in God’s mother. Can you explain that?” the Chinese scholar continued.
Ah, I thought, the old Protestant – Catholic divide, rearing its head some 1200 miles [roughly 1970 km] up the Yangtze. And that is at its heart the question of Catholicism and the rise of the Protestant denominations.
Where to begin?
Probably with the rise of monotheism. A shamanistic polytheism seems to be the natural first step in religious development by groups of people. There is a lot to talk about concerning such religious practices, which are more sociologically and psychologically interesting than is commonly thought.
In the 1960s and early 1970s there was a flurry of not very serious interest in such matters because many shamans took psychotropic drugs, but scholarly investigation of the belief structures and social and psychological utility of shamanistic practice across a wide variety of heterogeneous cultures is not as well developed as one might wish, despite some fascinating anthropological studies.
By contrast, Monotheism, the belief in a single divine entity, has been frequently scrutinized in astonishing detail and mind-numbing length. Monotheism was an idea that was apparently independently invented several times by people at the fringes of their societies.
A few monotheistic developments are more historically important than others. Perhaps the most important started with the leader of a Semitic group of goat and sheep herders who were visiting the big towns of Mesopotamia about 2000 BCE. The head herder is usually referred to as Abraham in the English speaking world, and is held to be the father of their religious tradition by Jews, Christians, and Moslems.
Akhenaton in ancient Egypt [1353 BCE -1336 BCE] was another early proponent of monotheism, and it may have gotten him murdered by a conspiracy of priests and old-style aristocrats. Old-time religion was conservative and violent years before American adherents fulminated against Darwin, evolution, and abortion.
Some traditional Christians in rural America still sing:
Give me that old time religion
‘Tis the old time religion,
‘Tis the old time religion,
And it’s good enough for me.
And at least some of their neighbors respond:
Gimme that old time religion,
Gimme that old time religion,
Gimme that old time religion –
It’s good enough for me.
Let us pray with Aphrodite
Let us pray with Aphrodite
She wears that see-through nightie
And it’s good enough for me.
Let us pray with those old Druids
They drink fermented fluids
Waltzing naked through the woo-ids
And it’s good enough for me.
Hare Krishna he must laugh on
To see me dressed in saffron
With my hair that’s only half on
And it’s good enough for me.
Let us worship with the Buddha
Among gods, there is none cutah
Comes in silver, brass, and pewtah
And it’s good enough for me.
Of course the historical Buddha [circa 563 BCE – 483 BCE] did not claim to be a god, or that there was a God, though some popular versions of Buddhism are effectively polytheistic in the extreme. But that discussion has to wait for another time.
Abraham went out from the cities with his tribal followers, and eventually they developed the foundation of the religion we know as Judaism. A bunch of Jews later went to Egypt, where some engaged in commodities speculation and others went into the construction trade, some as slave labor.
A half-Jewish and half-Egyptian man who has come down in history with the name of Moses seems to have led a bunch of the Jews leaving Egypt into the desert between Egypt and what would later be known as Israel. Israel at this time was inhabited by another tribe of Semites who had very possibly intermarried with a people wandering down from the North. Moses is credited with bringing the Ten Commandments to his people, but he died before he could migrate into the lands later known as Israel.
Moses’ successor Joshua invaded the land that became known as Israel and set up an early Jewish state. Pretty soon it got complicated.
The Jews divided into a northern and a southern kingdom. One was called Judah [Yehudah], from which we get the term Jews, and the other was Israel. This distinction is important for contemporary American politicians from the South, who are strong supporters of Israel even though they don’t particularly care for Jews.
Various Jewish statelets got stomped flat by a number of invading uglies including the Assyrians and a variety of Mesopotamian tyrants. They also had a revolution headed up by a shepherd-songwriter named David who ran around the country with a band of thugs and did some pretty nasty things, though he is credited with writing good poetry.
The Jews flourished under Solomon who got involved with Ethiopians in ways that tradition suggests were not entirely respectable. The Jews had a number of hairbreadth escapes from extinction. They also quarreled with just about everybody, including themselves.
During this process a bunch of the Jews got hauled off to work in Babylonia, and some of the tribes more or less disappeared. Some centuries later some Christians with more imagination than history postulated that the missing tribes wound up in the Americas. These included the Mormons, a sect with strong roots in Jacksonian America.
Much of the Old Testament, which tells the story of Moses and the early history of Judah and Israel, was collected and edited by the scribes of one reformist king who was otherwise not very distinguished, though he gets strong praise in the Bible. A good introduction for English speakers to biblical studies is The Interpreter’s Bible series of the 1950s or The New Interpreter’s Bible series of the 1990s.
The Greeks under Alexander [356 BCE – 323 BCE] conquered Israel, but were fairly enlightened in the manner in which they dealt with the argumentative religious fanatics who lived there. They did have to put down a number of Jewish revolts against Greek paganism and tolerance.
There were, however, Jewish successes against apparently hopeless odds. The Maccabees, for example, led a revolt against the seemingly overwhelming forces of one of the successor kingdoms to Alexander the Great, and after hard struggles were victorious over the Greeks [168 BCE – 164 BCE]. This example of success in the face of what looked like hopeless odds was to set a misleading precedent that had some unfortunate results in later years.
The Romans were neither as tolerant nor as forgiving as the Greeks. They took over Israel about the same time they took over the other remnants of Alexander’s Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean, as the Roman Republic morphed into the Roman Empire [the First Century BCE].
The Romans’ ham-handed administration and demand that the all peoples salute the standards and symbols of the Empire and Emperor infuriated the Jews.
It was like saluting the flag in America today, although some religious historians claim it was worshiping idols. Even now there are Christian sects that will not salute the American flag, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Supreme Court ruled against them in 1940, and a mob of about 2,500 people in Kennebunkport Maine celebrated this victory for secular values with a bonfire, the fuel for which was the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall located in that town. The American Civil Liberties Union identified similarly motivated attacks and persecution in roughly 300 towns across the United States.
Jehovah is one way of spelling the Hebrew name for the Jewish God in English. Yahweh is another. Neither really does the trick. Hebrew has different writing conventions, and a strictly observant Jew will sometimes go to great lengths to avoid spelling or saying God’s name directly.
So the Romans had pissed off the Jews in Israel, though some of the Jews tried to work and do business with the Latin imperialists. A small but significant number of Jews moved to Rome, living adjacent to what became the Vatican. Some their descendants still live there. They make some of the best bread in Italy, which is saying something. Julius Caesar was a great favorite of the Roman Jews.
Other Jews in Palestine revolted. Others waited for the Messiah, or Savior, the Christ. Christ stems from a Greek word that means “anointed,” which was a ritual of consecration or blessing with oil. Jesus of Nazareth appears to have spoken Aramaic rather than Greek. But since the stories about him became best known in a Greek language book, the New Testament of the Bible, many people refer to Jesus of Nazareth as Jesus Christ.
A large number of minor prophets of dubious quality and small revolts flowered in Israel about the time of Jesus of Nazareth. The Romans stomped the Jews flat, destroyed their temple in Jerusalem [70 CE], and ran as many Jews as they could out of the area.
The most serious revolt after the destruction of the Temple was by a man who is often called Simon Bar Kokhba [died 135 CE]. Simon associated himself with a comet and convinced many to enlist in a seemingly hopeless fight against the odds. Unlike the Maccabees, he lost in the end. And the repression was vicious.
So what does this have to do with anything?
Before the Romans stomped Israel really flat, a Jewish woman had a child that was almost certainly not the son of her elderly husband Joseph. Many religious people believe this child was the son of God. Some modern historians and some contemporaries have suspected this was the son of a Roman soldier. The boy’s name was Jesus, and he was held to come from Nazareth.
In any case Jesus was raised as a Mediterranean peasant who is said to have impressed the Jewish religious leaders with his intelligence as a youth. Then he disappears from the written record for a while, but comes back into view when he visits his cousin, a religious rabble-rouser known as John the Baptist. John baptized his cousin Jesus in a river. At the time baptism was a ritual purification. Later in Christianity it became a ritual signifying admission into the Christian community. Arguments over the precise nature of baptism have led to wars and the deaths of many people.
John the Baptist is said by some to have run afoul of a woman who seems to have been a great dancer. She asked a local ruler to cut off John the Baptist’s head, and the story goes that the head was brought to her on a platter.
The Bible has lots of good stories full of sex and violence. No wonder it has been a bestseller for thousands of years, with children searching out tales of adults misbehaving in atrocious ways. Mark Twain claimed that one of the primary results of reading the Bible was to teach children masturbation, but he was prone to slight exaggeration at times.
After a dunking in the river Jesus gathered 12 followers, called the Apostles. At this point it might have looked to contemporaries like Jesus was trying to start a rebellion, using the number 12 to remind people of the ancient 12 Tribes of Israel.
Jesus also attended a wedding where he is said to have turned water into wine, and good tasting wine at that. He demonstrated to the satisfaction of his followers and crowds the ability to drive devils out of madmen, cure the sick, and raise the dead. He went into Jerusalem on what would later be called Palm Sunday, acclaimed by the masses.
But Jesus had criticized the Jewish High Priests and equivocated about his views on Roman power. So the Romans arrested him after the Last Supper on a Thursday night, tried him quickly and crucified him on Good Friday. It is called Good Friday for a number of reasons. The torture and death of Jesus were held to be necessary for the salvation of the world, so it was good. And when dealing with really awful things, people tend to use a lot of euphemisms.
On Sunday people going to visit the grave said they saw an Angel who indicated Jesus had risen from the dead. This is the origin of Easter Sunday.
According to Christians, the reappeared Jesus then spent some time with his Apostles before ascending into heaven to be with his father, God.
The Apostles were then supposed to bring the message of Jesus to the world. One of them seems to have gotten to southern India, but the rest pretty much traveled around the Eastern Mediterranean.
China, Siberia, and Australia never got much attention from the Apostles, though Mormon authors have some interesting stories about North and South America. As well as salamanders that walked through flames and books written on gold that disappear magically and a number of other things. Some Mormon stories seem to be attempts to explain the Mound Builders of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys and the American Southeast, along with the Central Mexican and Andes civilizations. Anglo-Americans of the 19th Century generally could not believe that the natives had built those things without Old World or supernatural help.
So how did a Jewish Mediterranean peasant executed by the Romans become the root cause of the incredibly complex and resilient Christian Church?
It wasn’t just the Apostles. Most of them could not organize their way out of a paper bag. Tradition indicates almost all died grisly deaths after starting a small number of churches and any number of quarrels with local Jews.
Some Apostles are traditionally held to have written accounts of the life of Jesus, but this is debatable.
There were a lot of accounts of the life of Jesus, but they didn’t all agree with each other, so Church leaders got together to decide which would be official and which would not.
They collected the official stories in Greek in the New Testament of the Bible. The Old Testament, again, was in Hebrew. The unofficial stories not included in the Bible are called the Apocrypha.
The Greek New Testament bears signs of compromises in the selection committees, and though the pruning of official texts probably reduced the number of contradictions, it did not eliminate them from the Bible.
These contradictions are a lot of fun to discuss with people who believe every word of the English Bible to be the literal Truth of God. But you really need to know the Bible well before you can do that. And it helps to know Hebrew and Greek.
The Apostles were successful in setting up some small churches. It was a time of great discontent and spiritual seeking, and there were religions sprouting up throughout the Roman Empire like mushrooms after a heavy rain.
The plurality of pagan faiths was itself an advantage in a heterogeneous empire. As Gibbon noted, “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.”
Some of these religions had many gods, some had two gods; some liked to cut the heads off cattle, or private parts off of men; some organized ritual orgies with liturgies of an appealing simplicity; and most of them, like the Christians, argued about things: whom to let join the Church, how to organize and finance church activities, whether or not marriage was a good thing, and how to keep the widows and older women from having sex with the ministers.
The Christians also argued a lot about God – was he one or two or three things? – and Jesus – was he fully human, fully divine, or half and half and both?
They would probably still be arguing today if a man called Saul of Tarsus had not had a vision on the road to Damascus. Some say the story suggests he was hit by lightning.
Saul had had a strict Jewish upbringing and was a bitter enemy of Christianity before his accident on the road to Damascus. He spoke good Greek, which was the common language of the Eastern Roman Empire, and seems to have worked in an organizational capacity for the Romans. The Apostle Matthew seems to have been a tax collector, and might have been a little less disorganized than his colleagues. But Saul of Tarsus, who has come down in history as St. Paul, had a genius for organization.
He began to visit the scattered early Christian churches, traveling and writing letters incessantly, getting the groups of believers organized into a community.
Before Paul, many of the Christian churches thought they were supposed to preach only to Jews. Paul expanded the membership, and insisted on a universal Church.
Jesus had said some alarming things about giving your money to the poor and sounded disturbingly communist at times.
Paul, who never met the live human Jesus, explained that what was really meant was to give your money to the Church, which meant its organizers. Only the churlish would point out this meant, in practice, Paul and his friends.
Bertrand Russell, the great English philosopher [1872 CE – 1970 CE], said he was thankful for Paul, because Paul gave him somebody to blame for everything that went wrong with Christianity. As always, Russell has a point that should not be ignored, and many cogent arguments on his side.
But I think Russell may have stretched the point when he argued that Christianity had, outside of some improvements in the calendar, offered little positive to mankind or history.
It is no easy thing to keep Easter on a Sunday when you have 7 day weeks and 365 day years (most of the time) and months that vary from 28 to 31 days. Time calculation reminds us of just how much a newcomer to world religions monotheism is, whether it be Judaism or Christianity or Islam.
The odd number of days in a week was chosen to honor the principal divinities of ancient Mesopotamia, and in English a majority of the names of the week days honor Germanic gods and goddesses whose morals were, by almost any civilized standard, deplorable.
The Christian improvements to the calendar were no small achievement, but were not the sum total of their contributions to culture.
Christianity also inspires us with its many genocidal wars, tortures, repressions, tyrannies, slaughters, crusades, vicious witch-hunts, and imperialistic destruction of native peoples, some of whom, like the Aztecs, richly deserved it. But a lot of worthy and decent people were killed by Crusaders, witch hunters, Catholic inquisitions, Protestant insurrections, persecutions of Jews and heretics, and Christian imperialists as well.
But all that was to come later.
Christianity spread rapidly among the poorer classes of the Roman Empire, as it gave solace and community to the afflicted. Approximately one-third of the population were slaves, and under the guidance of the Catholic Church, these slaves were after centuries elevated to become serfs.
Of course the term serf derives from the Latin servus for slave, but a number of learned historians have explained to me that there is a big difference. Although the Americans and Russians who held that the freeing the slaves in the American Civil War of 1861 CE – 1865 CE and the emancipation of the Russian serfs in 1861 CE were fundamentally similar suggests that some of those learned historians who patiently explained to me the improvement in conditions of the slaves who became serfs may have been overstating things just a bit.
Among other things, early Christianity worked against the practice of crucifixion. Since Jesus was nailed to a cross and hung up to die slowly, some Christian leaders adopted the practice of hanging by a rope noose around the neck instead. If the neck broke, death was quick. If it did not, slow strangulation provided even more entertainment for the crowds that gathered for such public shows.
The widespread adoption of the noose for hanging is sometimes credited to Stilicho, a Roman general of partially Vandal origins who was the top military leader shortly before the sack of Rome in 410 CE. The Germanic peoples had been practicing ritual strangulation for centuries before Stilicho’s time. He was executed in 408 CE. It is doubtful the Western Roman Empire had the economic or political institutions to last much longer had Stilicho not been killed at such a critical moment, but the example of Heraclius reforming the Eastern half of the Roman Empire some 200 years later, leading to the roughly 1,000 year longer life for the Byzantine Empire, suggests things might possibly have turned out differently if Stilicho had lived longer.
Another reason for the rapid growth of Christianity in the late Roman Empire was that Christianity’s theology was simpler than paganism – one God rather than dozens, forgiveness for your sins, and eternal life after death – even if it was worrisomely vague on how Jehovah, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were all one and the same, and even though in popular worship the many Christian saints tended to take the place of many minor pagan divinities.
A minority of early Christians argued that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, this last often depicted in art as a bird of flames, were not mystically all one and the same, but such people generally got slaughtered or terrorized into accepting the majority view. This majority view was formulated at a number of meetings, including the Council of Nicea in 325 CE and the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE. The bureaucrats and administrators took over Christianity and began building it into an institution of remarkable strength with ruthless discipline and well-defined, if not very intellectually clear or consistent, beliefs.
Some early Christian denominations largely escaped this drive to conformity. One was the Ethiopian Church, sometimes characterized along with Egyptian Christians as Coptic. The Ethiopians were pretty isolated in the highlands of Eastern Africa, and after the Moslem conquests of the 700s CE they were pretty much left alone by Europeans for 1200 years.
And the Nestorians, who spread Christianity through Central Asia, and who played such an interesting role in the dissemination of the plague of the Black Death in the 1300s CE, were too far away from the Catholic Church to be effectively bullied, though various Popes sent messengers to the Asian Christians asking for help against invaders from the East.
And the small Christian community in India, by tradition the result of the Apostle Thomas’ travels, gave us the Church of the Syrian Malabar Christians. It was hopelessly remote in an age when over 95% of the population remained within 12 miles of their homes their whole lives.
It was in councils around the 300s CE that Church leaders moved Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, from the spring, where it was too close of Easter, to the middle of winter, where it compensated for the fact that the Christians were closing down the traditional pagan winter solstice festivals.
It was an elegant solution to two problems: how to keep Christmas and Easter further apart, and how to make up to pagan converts for the loss of one of their favorite holidays.
Most modern Christmas observances are pagan, not Christian in their origin. This leads some modern Christians who want to get back to original Christian practices to shun Christmas traditions, but that is another story. The origins of the Christmas tree ornaments and Santa Claus seem to contain some especially unpleasant elements. The connection between St. George of England and rotten bacon is illuminating.
More important in terms of the Christian contribution to European society were the generally debased state of morality in late pagan times and a number of plagues.
In amphitheaters people used to play with their privates as gladiators and wild beasts were slaughtered. Civic corruption was rife.
Christians at first concentrated on the life and teaching of Jesus, but pretty soon they began to honor, and in many cases worship, the mother of Jesus, Mary. This was partially because a female divinity is often seen as more kind and nurturing than male gods, though many female goddesses were very nasty indeed, including Kali, an inspiration to the Thugs. But some goddesses had a genuinely nurturing and kind image.
The female Buddhist divinity of mercy Guan Yin started off as a male godhead named Avalokitesvara. As a Buddhist nun explained to me in China when we were discussing this gender change, “Men would rather look at a woman’s face, and women would too.”
And if the late Roman Empire needed anything, it was a little less cruelty and a little more kindness.
In the Middle Ages a lot of local female goddess worship got transferred to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Interestingly the Irish, who had a strong tradition of female goddesses, made one of their chief ones Saint Bridget. It gets really complicated really quickly.
The Catholic Church encouraged people to honor and worship Mary, the mother of Jesus, especially if it got them paying church taxes faster. This process is still underway in South and Central America, and some other underdeveloped parts of the world.
Christians also gained from the diseases rife in the late Roman world. Roman doctors had no answers to the plagues that traveled the trade routes, devastating people with no immunities to newly introduced germs and viruses.
Christians did a lot of good nursing people back to health. Then, as for over a thousand years later, nurses did as much good for sick patients as doctors, if not more.
As late as the mid-19th century CE, in the biggest hospital in Europe, nurse-midwives delivered babies more successfully than highly trained physicians, who killed women in horrifying numbers by going from childbirth to childbirth, and autopsy to childbirth, without washing their hands.
The women of the hospital were terrified of the thought of having a doctor delivering their baby – they wanted the nurses and midwives, who may not have had as much training, but whose patients lived through the process more often. The history of medicine is as full of deadly blunders as the history of warfare or the history of government.
A doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis [1818 CE – 1865 CE] figured out that the physicians were killing the new mothers, and how to prevent these needless deaths simply and cost-effectively, basically by forcing physicians to wash their hands with disinfectant.
Dr. Semmelweis wound up in an insane asylum, where guards beat him to death. He took almost two weeks to expire.
Christianity won over the common people of the Roman Empire before it won the Emperor Constantine, who made it the official religion on the Empire on his deathbed in [337 CE].
The story in Eusebius is that Constantine saw a cross in the sky on the eve of a big battle, inscribed with the words “in hoc signo vinces” [“in this sign conquer”]. He won the battle, but waited years before openly converting to Christianity.
Constantine’s Church was to be under the control of the Roman Emperor and his administration. The Roman Emperor enhanced the organizational principles of Saint Paul so that the Christian Church had a structure parallel to that of the Roman Empire. The Bishops became, in effect, officers of the Roman State.
And, like other officers in the Roman State, they took their orders from the Emperor. If they chose to disagree, the Emperor generally felt he could take action against them, like he could against any disobedient official.
But when Rome itself fell in 410 CE, the Church was about all that was left in Western Europe. The army was overrun by barbarians. Huns, Goths, and Vandals wandered in large armies and tribes through the formerly safe lands of the Empire. The civil administration was in shambles.
Even the Emperor began to follow the orders of the bishops, whom earlier Emperors had bossed around with certainty. After one Emperor, Theodosius the Great [347 CE – 395 CE], let some of his German soldiers in Imperial service massacre a stadium full of Eastern Roman citizens, he wound up feeling so guilty that he took orders from a bishop. This was enough to get Theodosius recognized both as a Saint and one of the founders of the Greek Orthodox Church.
But when they regained power and felt less guilty about killing people or gouging out their eyes, the Byzantine Emperors, who called themselves Roman, returned to the traditional practice of bossing the church leaders around.
The pagan Vikings who set up Russia also provided bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperors. These Emperors put on quite a show in their Orthodox religious rituals, especially in Constantinople’s big churches, with mosaics, incense, and music. The contemporary Catholics put on a poor show by comparison. So Russia became Orthodox.
Partially as a result of this, Russia never participated in the Renaissance, with huge implications for history. The split between Russia and Western Europe for many years was justified as a split between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches. Besides, they calculated the date of Easter differently. Why not go to war against each other?
The Orthodox Church was bossed around by the Byzantine Emperors until 1453 CE, when Constantinople finally fell to the Moslems. The Russian Orthodox Church was usually bossed around by the Czars. Sometimes Orthodox churchmen got to boss the Czars or their families around, and when the opportunity to do so presented itself, they made the most of it.
And this brings us back to where we started. The Roman Catholic Church had become unintentionally independent when Rome fell to the Visigoths in 410 CE. The Western Emperors had already run off to Ravenna, safe from besieging armies because it was in the middle of some wetlands. Then the Western Emperors disappeared altogether until some Germans resurrected the title about 400 years later.
For about 1,000 years the only people who could read and write in Western Europe were churchmen. It was their big opportunity, and they took it. The provided the administrators for Western Europe for 1,000 years, making certain tax and land policy favored them, and gathering wealth through donations provided by guilty rich people when they died.
They translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. St. Jerome is best known for his efforts on this project [circa 347 CE to 420 CE]. But after the barbarian invasions of the 400s CE, the people were speaking less and less Latin, and more and more French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Romanian, and the predecessors of Italian, among other tongues. And the Germans continued to speak German of differing kinds. And the Slavs Slavic languages.
The Romans of the 300s CE and 400s CE had realized they were in a lot of trouble, with Huns and Vandals and Goths banging on the gates. And they knew they had been too cruel and mean, and they got really serious about religion. The figured if they got good with God and were pious Christians, God would show them His favor.
A fat lot of good it did them. As mentioned above, in 410 CE Alaric and his Visigoth army sacked Rome.
Augustine [354 CE – 430 CE], in a Roman Province in North Africa, was devastated. Here all these people have given up all that sin and all that fun, and still the Germans whupped the Romans.
It was the end of Augustine’s world, quite literally. The Latin mundus never recovered, though the French tried to resurrect the monde. The world, from German words meaning man-age, took over. The “wor” in world is cognate with the “were” in “werewolf.”
Augustine was a mamma’s boy who got into bad company as a teenager, chasing girls. He wrote two great books: an autobiography and The City of God, which in some ways set the tone for Western civilization for 1,000 years, if you can call the Middle Ages civilization.
He also wrote a great prayer. His mother kept nagging him to be a good boy, and Augustine addressed God asking Him “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” This is a favorite prayer of every religiously inclined Christian teenaged boy well educated enough to know about it.
Augustine’s City of God was more influential in his era than ours. It said that Rome may have fallen but the Church would go on supreme. And Augustine was remarkably close to being right. For about 1,000 years the best minds of Western Europe went into the Catholic Church. Promising students and peasants were recruited. An astonishing institution was formed.
Letting talent rise to the top. Always a revolutionary idea. And the longer you can keep to that principle, the longer your institution will last.
And this is one reason why it is important that Catholic priests cannot marry. They can’t leave much of their wealth or social position to their children – and many priests in the Middle Ages had children.
Most wealth went back to the Church, to make the Church stronger. This is one key to why the Catholic Church has lasted so long, and has overcome so many serious attacks and problems. It had constant infusions of fresh talent, and was not overburdened with the idiot sons and daughters of the rich and powerful.
Gregory of Tours [circa 538 CE – 594 CE] tells some funny stories about the Catholic Church and the aristocracy of Old France during his times. One French princess was sleeping with lots of soldiers, even common ones, upsetting her mother the Queen. So one day while the princess was rummaging through a big wooden chest of clothes, her mother the Queen tried to break her neck by slamming the lid of the chest down hard. But the girl kept squirming and screaming, and eventually some guards helped her get free. The daughter was packed off to a nunnery to keep her quiet, but she quickly organized a revolt of the nuns.
I think I would have enjoyed the vivacity of the Merovingian women. I also think the History Channel could do a program on “Frankish Girls Gone Wild” that would make contemporary naked college co-eds look tame by comparison.
The unintentionally independent Christians of the Western Roman Empire elevated the Bishop of Rome into a sort of Emperor of the Church, the Pope. Not being bossed around by Emperors like the head of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, the Pope seemed to many to be a better religious leader than the poor Patriarchs who had to dance this way and that to meet the demands of Byzantine politics at any given moment.
The Western churchmen also forged some documents, including The Donation of Constantine. This was supposedly written in the 4th Century CE, but was in reality probably written between 750 CE and 800 CE. The document claimed that the Pope had both spiritual and political power over Europe. In other words, princes and kings had to obey the Pope, and held their lands only through the Pope’s permission.
This forgery was used actively by the Church from at least 1054 CE on. In 1440 CE it was proved to be fake by Lorenzo Valla. But certain aspects of it were still argued effectively until 1870 CE, when Rome was finally annexed to Italy, leaving the Papacy the minuscule Vatican State.
The only thing that kept The Donation of Constantine from being even more damaging than it proved to be was the fact that in the largely illiterate Middle Ages, not enough people could read for it to have full force. On the other hand, widespread illiteracy made people more willing to accept such an obvious forgery. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, and those are pretty good odds…”
When Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in the year 800 CE, it reinforced the impression that the Church could boss around the Emperors in the West, not the other way around, as in Byzantium and Russia. When Napoleon became Emperor on December 2, 1804 CE, he avoided making Charlemagne’s mistake – he grabbed the crown from the Pope and set it on his own head, himself.
As a practical matter, French kings had made several Popes of their own during the Middle Ages, at one point kidnapping the Papacy itself and moving it from Rome to Avignon [1309 CE – 1377 CE].
During the Dark and Middle Ages the Catholic Church had a near monopoly on learning that was ruthlessly enforced in Western Europe.
The Arabs had a higher level of scholarship for much of the Middle Ages, including knowledge of the Classical Greeks and Romans. Some of this filtered into Western Europe through Spain, which was under Islamic control, and Italy, which traded with the Moslems.
More came when Byzantines fleeing from the Turkish conquest of Anatolia and Constantinople [1453 CE] brought manuscripts and knowledge of the pagan Greeks and Romans to Western Europe.
The Catholic Church had fought against such learning for most of its period of control, but once the news was out it helped start the Renaissance and the Reformation, which ended the Catholic Church monopoly on learning and religious power in Western Europe. But that gets us a bit ahead of ourselves.
This Catholic Church’s virtual monopoly on reading, writing, and learning in Western Europe between about 400 CE and 1400 CE had all sorts of interesting side effects.
The Anglo-Saxons before 1066 CE were more culturally advanced than the Normans, with a much higher rate of literacy and some very interesting books to their credit.
But the Pope had blessed the Norman invasion as a Crusade, which meant that William the Bastard could kick all the literate Anglo-Saxons out of their church jobs when he won at Hastings.
This meant that English essentially disappeared as a written language for a couple of hundred years.
When it re-appeared, it was no longer mutually intelligible with German. It had changed a lot, as languages that are only spoken and not written tend to do. It was no longer a northern dialect of German: it had started to become English.
Harold Hardrada would be spinning in his grave to know the long-term result of his attempt to add England back to the Scandinavian world.
As the Middle Ages proceeded, the Catholic Church built up huge landholdings; used monasteries to introduce new technologies for farming, civil engineering, and wind and water power; and arranged massacres of anybody foolish enough to persist in disagreeing with it.
This included some people who were upset by its growing corruption and others who wanted to debate the nature of Jesus: pious people from Bulgaria, Italy, France, Bohemia, and England, among other places.
As the Catholic Church grew richer and more powerful, it grew more and more corrupt and vicious. The 10% of the income they felt entitled to collect from everybody in Western Europe as a tithe was not nearly enough money for the Church.
And the papal crusades, originally against the Moslems, were turned against French people who wanted to reform the Church and anybody in the Baltic countries who had land that the Germans wanted to steal. As a result of some particularly brutal German campaigns blessed by the Pope, Poland became a very Catholic country indeed.
Even in the phlegmatic British Isles the Catholic Church found heretics to burn, some for things as outrageous as suggesting that the Bible should be available to read in English. Thomas More, the Catholic saint who lost his head when Henry VIII wanted to change his woman, helped make certain William Tyndale was burned at the stake in October of 1536 CE for translating the Bible into English.
It’s not that the reformers did not burn and massacre people as well, when they got the chance. But the Catholic Church had so much more power for such a long time that its hands are bloodier than most.
But what finally knocked the Catholic Church from its position of supremacy in Western Europe was a financial scam that was too clever by half, and a rigged election. And a grumpy monk.
By the early 1500s CE things were so bad that if you wanted to become a bishop, you could buy yourself the job. There was a vacancy in a western German town called Mainz, but the Church was having trouble scaring up candidates for the job. It seems the previous holders of that bishopric had run up huge debts, and even with its revenues it looked like the debt could not be cleared for a long, long time.
Imagine the Church’s surprize when Albrecht von Brandenburg, borrowing a substantial sum from Jakob Fugger, paid a good price to become Bishop of Mainz.
But the new Bishop of Mainz was no fool to assume these debts. He knew the Holy Roman Emperor was in poor health, and that he could sell his vote for the next election for Holy Roman Emperor for a lot of money. The Bishop of Mainz was one of the dozen or so people who got to cast a vote for the Holy Roman Emperor.
The Emperor died, then the Bishop of Mainz sold his vote for Holy Roman Emperor at a price high enough to clear away half his debt in one quick stroke.
The Bishop of Mainz still needed more money. But he was creative.
People feel guilty. Religious leaders and mothers count on this. Truly as the popular adage of my youth proclaimed “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” The Bishop of Mainz sent a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel to sell indulgences: pieces of paper that he claimed would help your dead relatives get to heaven.
Tetzel may not have been a deep theologian, but he was a really good salesman. His peddling tour was a great financial success.
But it really pissed off the people who wanted to see the Catholic Church reformed, honest, and spiritual.
[The conclusion of this note starting with a brief with a brief discussion of the grumpy monk and ending with a list of sources will be posted next week].