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6-10-2015, 13:57

Beyond Rome, into Christendom: the specialized ecumene

Nevertheless, if one accepted that the empire was doomed, it paid to keep at arm’s length from it and to make a separate peace with the barbarian conquerors. The conquerors were keen to appropriate the diverse fruits of civilization; but they were unable to provide extensive forms of organization. Their total numbers were small. Politically they could generate small kingdoms; military, loose federations of warrior aristocracies; economically, small-scale agriculture and herding; ideologically, oral transmission of “tribal” cultures.4 They destroyed rather than supplanted the extensive power networks of the Roman state, even if unintentionally. Yet they could appreciate and appropriate those virtues of the empire that could take a decentralized, small-scale form suitable for adoption into their way of life. There seem to have been two main spheres of continuity and adaptation between Rome and the barbarians: in religion and in economic life.

In religion, once the barbarians were settling inside the empire, the Christians were far more interested in proselytizing among them than were the pagan Romans. For the Christians it was to continue the missionary practices of the last four centuries. Such activity had never been centralized and so was not dependent on the vitality of the Roman state or even of the bishop of Rome. Indeed many of the barbarians were converted to the Arian heresy because the principal missionaries among them, notably Ulfila, were Arians from the eastern parts of the empire. For their part the barbarians probably converted to Christianity as a symbol of civilization in general. It was also the main offer of literate assistance to their more ambitious rulers (even if it derived ultimately from Roman pagan schools, these were not being opened to them). Their motives were probably similar to those of many converts to Christianity in the Third World in recent colonial history.

The barbarians were fairly rapidly converted. None of the major Germanic peoples who entered the Roman provinces in the fourth and fifth centuries remained pagan for more than a generation after they crossed the frontier (E. A. Thompson 1963: 77-88; Vogt 1967: 204:23). They were accepting Roman civilization without the Roman state. After the final end of the western empire in 476, Christianity was the monopoly supplier of that civilization’s legacy.

Especially of literacy. “What the Roman Imperium lost, the Catholic Church recovered,” says Vogt (1967: 277).

The second sphere of continuity was economic. It is more difficult to discern, but it concerns the similarity of the late Roman villa to the emergent manor of the early Middle Ages. Both involved small-scale, decentralized units of production, controlled by a lord using the labor of dependent peasants. We can only guess at the history of the transition from villa to manor, but it must have involved compromise between the barbarian leaders and the surviving provincial aristocracy of the empire. The “Gallo-Roman,” “Roman-British,” and so forth, aristocracies were now at arm’s length from the Roman state. The Roman senatorial and equestrian orders had resisted Christianity while their own extensive organization endured. But when cut off from the center, they pooled their resources with the local Christians. They were literate, and so were accepted as valued members of the provincial church. Many became bishops, like Sidonius Appolinaris in Gaul. The descendent of Roman praetorian prefects, he never gave up hope of the restoration of Roman rule. His loathing for the barbarians’ illiteracy, culture, manner of dress, and smell was traditional to his class. But by the late fifth century it had also made him a sincere Christian. Christianity was now the most salient part of civilization (see Hanson 1970 for a short account of Sidonius; and Stevens 1933 for a long one).

From the fifth century onward, Christian institutions were the main bulwark of civilization against barbarian social regress. It is a story that has often been told (e. g., Wolff 1968; Brown 1971). The account normally centers on literacy, the transmission of which was now almost entirely through church schools. In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the church responded to the collapse of the Roman schooling system in the west. Every monk and nun should be taught reading and writing within the monastery, so that sacred texts and commentaries could be read and copied. There was less interest in this period of decline in writing new works, far more in preserving what existed. To long-established, now invigorated, monastic schools were added episcopal schools supervised by each bishop. The two school systems cannot be said to have flourished. Most collapsed, a few just survived. The shortage of literate teachers became chronic. Libraries survived - but in the eighth century, only barely (see J. W. Thompson 1957). But curiously, the way the Christians practiced literacy actually threatened its survival. As Stratton (1978: 179212) argues, the Christian notion of the lectio divina, the private use of literacy as a communication between oneself and God, threatened the wider social, functional base of literacy. It took literacy back away from Graeco-Roman traditions toward Middle Eastern restricted, sacred knowledge.

So the continuity of the literate tradition, and with it of Christianity itself, was a close-run thing. It does not have the look of inevitability. It was helped by the unevenness of barbarian penetration. While Gaul was collapsing in the sixth century, Roman Italy and Britain were holding out. When Italy collapsed in the face of the Lombard invasion of 568, the Franks in Gaul and the Saxons in England were being converted by missionaries from elsewhere. Strong, ambitious rulers like Charlemagne or Alfred the Great recognized that the Christian church’s mission was the same as their own. They encouraged literacy, missionary work, and the promulgation of canon as well as secular law. In so doing they preserved more public, functional aspects of literacy as well as restricted, sacred ones and paved the way for the restoration of a diffuse literate culture in the Middle Ages. There was always somewhere a flourishing church and reviving states, and the collaboration and struggle between them were important parts of the later medieval dialectic.

The church was the leading agent of translocal extensive social organization. The invaders’ organizational forms were confined within the intense local relationships of the village or tribe, plus a loose and unstable confederation beyond. The church possessed three extensive gifts to such peoples (discussed at length in Chapter 12). First, its literacy represented a stable means of communication beyond face-to-face relations and the oral traditions of a single people. Second, its law and morality represented long-distance regulation. This was particularly important for trade, if that were to recover. If Christians treated other Christians as such, with respect, humility, and generosity, trade would not be casually pillaged. And third, in its retreat from the Roman world, it had created a monastic microcosm of Roman extensivity - a network of monasteries, each with its own economy, but not self-sufficient, trading with other monasteries, with the estates of bishops, and with secular estates and manors. This monastic-episcopal economy was underpinned by Christian norms, even if casual pillage had prevailed elsewhere in society. The ecumene survived in material, economic form, an example of social progress and civilization to secular rulers. The Charlemagnes and the Alfreds were sincerely converted to it and encouraged it.

In surviving, however, the ecumene had become transformed. For the first time it was existing without a state, no longer parasitic on its form. States came and went, in many forms. Although the church was assisted by Charlemagne, it could provide regulation for the Frankish domains even after the collapse of Carolingian political unity in the late ninth century. Ullmann summarizes the Carolingian “renaissance” as a religious one: “The individual renaissance of the Christians, the nova creatura effected by an infusion of divine grace, became the pattern for a collective renaissance, a transformation or renaissance of contemporary society” (1969: 6-7; cf. McKitterick 1977). For “divine grace,” read transcendent power. The church provided normative regulation over an area wider than the lord’s sword could defend, than his law could order, than market and production relations could spontaneously cover. Within that extensive sphere of regulation, these forms of power could in time recover. But when recovery was complete, when in material terms population and economic production equaled and then surpassed Roman levels, the ecumene did not wither away. A territorial empire was never resurrected in Europe. If Europe was a “society,” it was a society defined by the boundaries of ideological power, Christendom.

The solution Christianity found to the contradictions of empire was the specialized ecumene. It was not concerned only with the “spiritual realm” as Christ had claimed, for its popes, prince-bishops, and abbots also controlled large nonspiritual power resources and many dependent clerks, peasants, and traders. Nor did it possess a monopoly over the “spiritual” realm - including in that realm ethical and normative matters. The secular sphere generated morality too - for example, the courtly love literature, or the concern with honor and chivalry. It was rather a specialized sphere of ideological power, deriving originally from a claim to knowledge about the spiritual realm but institutionalized into a more secular mix of power resources.

Even within that sphere, it had not solved all contradictions. It had internalized one, equality versus hierarchy, in a new doctrinal form. Empires had unconsciously encouraged individual human rationality but consciously suppressed it. The Christian church did both, consciously. Both main levels of its consciousness, popular religious sentiments and theology, have embodied the authority versus individual or democratic-community contradiction ever since (so too has Islam, though in different form). Stratification was now enveloped in moral and normative elements, but these were not consensual. For the next thousand years revolt and repression alike were cloaked in the fervor of Christian justification. Eventually the church could not maintain the balancing act; first Protestantism, then secularization weakened it. The weakness was there from the outset: Christianity lacked its own social cosmology. But this made it an extremely dynamic force. I will draw out the full implications of this for the achievements of ideological power in the conclusion to the next chapter. First, however, let us consider the other world religions.