Society sacralized from Rome’s fall to Charlemagne (400 – 800 A.D.)–glimpses from Bernard McGinn


Map of territorial boundaries ca. 450 AD

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What follows are some acute observations on the Christian landscape of the early Middle Ages from Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1994). For those interested in the monastic culture of the Middle Ages or the ins and outs of medieval spirituality, this is a wonderful text. McGinn has solidly mastered all that he writes about, and he communicates it in terms understandable to the nonspecialist reader.

The notes that follow are taken from Chapter 1, “The Making of Christendom.” Each note begins with the page number.

17        “The changes in Christian spirituality between 400 and 800 are especially significant for understanding the development of medieval Latin mysticism. No one disputes that these centuries saw the end of ancient Christianity, tied to the world of the late Roman city, and the birth of early medieval Christianity, more often than not rural and monastic in character. . . .” He goes on to suggest several “major developments.”

18        He finds the spirituality of the early Middle Ages “characterized by an all-pervasive and concrete sense of sacrality based upon clerical dominance and a monastic ethos.” “The real and immediate presence . . . by means of which the dead saint manifested the divine power . . . to cure or to curse necessarily involved a particularity of place and a concreteness of means that tended to merge the spiritual and the material realms. But this particular aspect of the interpenetration of matter and spirit was part of a general shift by which the sacred and the secular, the objective and the subjective (in our terms), the religious and the profane all came together into what Andre Vauchez has termed an ‘undifferentiated sacrality.’” [He gives as an example the story of a man who had set a fire, but went to the church of St. Martin to swear he had not set it. He “‘raised his hands to heaven and cried: “By almighty God and the miraculous power of his priest Saint Martin, I deny that I was responsible for this fire.” As soon as he had sworn his oath, he turned to go, but he appeared to [19] be on fire himself! He fell to the ground and began to shout that he was being burned up by the saintly bishop. . . . This was a warning to many folk not to dare to perjure themselves in this place.’”]

19        “This mingling of the material and spiritual realms involved . . . the expansion of the realm of the sacred through a process that R. A. Markus has described as a ‘de-secularization,’ that is, a ‘tendency to absorb what had previously been “secular,” indifferent from a religious point of view, into the realm of the “sacred”; to force the sphere of the “secular” to contract, turning it either into “Christian,” or dismissing it as “pagan” or “idolatrous”’ The result, in H. I. Marrou’s words, was a wholly sacral society, the Christendom of the early Middle Ages, which ‘appears to us as organized around a single pole, the religious . . . reality.’ This all-pervasive sacrality showed itself on every level of society, from the most general conceptions of the nature of Christendom down to the routines of everyday life where an expansive system of exorcisms and benedictions sought to sanctify every aspect of the world.”

19        McGinn then lists a number of aspects of this sacrality, including saints, hagiography, visions, miracles, the ordeal, the cult of the dead, relics, and pilgrimage.

19        He professes not to know “how much of this shift . . . was the result of Christianity’s acculturation among the Germanic and Celtic peoples whose sense of the sacred was different in many ways from that of the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean.” Certainly, he says, the cult of “the ascetic holy man in the flesh and later in his remains began within ancient Christianity itself well before the conversion of the barbarians. The same appears to be true in the case of the process of de-secularization. Nevertheless, it may well be that both movements were accelerated by the creation of Germanic and Celtic Christianity.”

20-21   On “The development of devotion to Christ’s triumph in his passion” (20) and “The Germanic image of Christ as the triumphant young hero victorious over the forces of death through his mighty weapon, the cross.”

21        “Another aspect of early medieval spirituality that has much to do with Christianity’s movement into the barbarian world is its moralism, that is, its concentration on adherence to an external and observable standard of behavior and consequent diminution of interest in interior intention. From the start, as in Paul’s letters, Christians had been concerned with strict moral behavior, but the construction of a minutely detailed moral code appropriate to the various ‘orders,’ that is, states of life, within Christendom was characteristic of this transition period. It was tied to one of the major innovations of barbarian Christianity, the spread of private penance as evidenced by the libri penitentiales, or ‘books of penance.’”

21-2     “Penance in the early church had been a notable subject of contention, especially over the question of whether serious sins committed after baptism might be forgiven. The developing penance ritual had been an expression of the urban character of Christianity—a public ritual for all sinners, administered by the bishop during the penitential season prior to Easter. [22] The new situation of the declining empire—but even more, it seems, changing spiritual attitudes—led to a precipitous decline of the ancient practice in the fifth century. Its place was taken by the system of private penance that was pioneered within Celtic monasticism, a development of the master-disciple relationship found in early monasticism. The abbot of the monastery functioned as the ‘soul-friend’ (Ir. Anmcharae) for his monks, assigning penance for faults after confession of sins and giving spiritual advice. By the mid-sixth century, this practice had become more formalized and had given rise to the penitential books, such as those attributed to Finnian, which listed categories of sins and their appropriate penances (more serious depending on one’s position in the church). The practice spread to the Anglo-Saxon church in the seventh century, and, through both Irish and English missionaries, to the continent soon thereafter. Nothing was more influential—and more characteristic—of medieval Christianity than private penance. The penitential discipline, even more than preaching, was the main instrument in attempts to spread and enforce Christian moral behavior in the early Middle Ages.”

22        “The centuries between 400 and 800 saw a precipitous decline in literacy, as well as a shift to a world in which Latin, virtually the only vehicle of intellectual life, became a learned language, the province largely of the clergy as distinguished from illiterate or idiotae, that is, laymen without Latin. . . . This clerical elite saw its task as the training of the rusticitas of the simple and the overcoming of superstitio of every kind. In the West especially, the alliance between the bishop and the tomb, that is, the way in which the clergy fostered and controlled the access to sacred power found in the relics of the saints gave them an added stature not found in Eastern Christianity.”

23        “The educated clergy functioned as leaders in many ways, but three of the most potent—and most distinctively clerical—were through liturgy, education, and the Bible.” McGinn talks about “the immense changes in public worship between 400 and 800. At the beginning of this period, the liturgy was still basically in the antique Christian mold—the communal worship (though, of course, led by the clergy) of the entire community in their own language. By the end, the liturgy was well on the way to being a sacred spectacle performed by the clergy in a sacral language no longer grasped by the community.” (Most liturgical change seems to have taken place at the Carolingian end of that continuum, which is when “the clerical elite took control of the entire liturgical action in a way that cemented their leadership position. As a result, the Mass was no longer seen as an actual participation in the saving mystery of Christ—past, present, and to come—but as a sacred drama that, like scripture, was to be given an allegorical reading to uncover its dogmatic and moral meaning.)”

24        Now, on education, which is the way “cultural heritage is communicated to the next generation through specific social structures and experiences designed to modify and enhance the behavior of the young.” There was a big shift here: “In the late Roman Empire the grammatical and rhetorical urban schools held a virtual monopoly of the educational efforts of the society.” “The Romans of the time seemed to value their tradition education . . . as “a mark of what distinguished them from the barbarians.” But “The new world of Christendom, the world that saw the triumph of the barbarians, the decline of cities, and the consolidation of orthodoxy, meant the end of the ancient schools and the birth of new types of education dominated by the Christian clergy.”

24        “Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, written about 400, was the magna carta for medieval education.” There, he “laid down the rules for the proper interpretation of scripture, the true source of all real learning for the Christian. . . . A encouraged the pursuit of grammar and the other liberal arts, but only in service of the higher goal of helping to understand the Bible.” [See Markus, above, about Gregory’s attitude toward secular learning compared to Augustine’s]

24        “During the course of the 5th and 6th c.’s, the contacts between the Latin West and the philosophic sources of classical culture in the East weakened considerably, at the same time that the fabric of society declined. Further, the ‘desecularization’ of society . . . made the ancient city schools with their dependence on pagan literature less and less an option for the good Christian. The situation was ripe for the creation of distinctive xn educational institutions in which, according to Pierre Riche, ‘the monastic school would provide the model for the establishment of clerical schools.’”

24ff     He goes on to outline this process.

25        Wonderful quote from Gregory’s bio of Benedict to illustrate this: Benedict “was sent to Rome for the standard ancient education,” but “ ‘when he saw many of his fellow students falling headlong into vice, he stepped back from the threshold of the world in which he had just set foot. For he was afraid that if he acquired any of its learning he, too, would later plunge, body and soul, into the dread abyss. In his desire to please God alone, he turned his back on further studies, gave up home and inheritance and resolved to embrace the religious life. He took this step well aware of his ignorance, yet wise, uneducated as he was.’”

25        Comments McGinn: “This passage is a good illustration of the antagonism between the developing ‘totally sacred’ culture of Christendom and remnants of the older world. While Benedict was not a pioneer in the creation of monastic schools, his famous Rule shows no hostility to letters and reading as long as they serve the fundamental aims of the monastic life: humility and obedience.”

25-6     He goes on to highlight Cassiodorus on the creation of the monastic schools and Boethius for creating textbooks and otherwise contributing to the “nascent monastic and later the clerical schools of medieval [26] Europe.”

26        Though “the new Christian education that was being born in the sixth century was above all a biblical education that served to enculturate the clerical and monastic elite into their roles as leaders of Christendom,” “the intent, of course, was not to exclude the laity from the study of the Bible. Caesarius of Arles, one of the less-known but no less important pioneers of the new culture, told his flock: ‘I beg and exhort you, dearly beloved, if you are educated, read through the sacred scriptures often.’ But in the barbarized culture of the West lay literacy was to become less and less a reality.”

26        McGinn quotes Markus, “the ‘ascetic take-over signals the end of ancient Christianity’; but ‘take-over’ may suggest something imposed or unwelcome, while there is abundant evidence that the new monastic asceticism and its spread throughout the fabric of Christendom were, for the most part, welcome, even avidly pursued.”

26        In the late 4th and early 5th centuries, “Ambrose, Augustine, and John Cassian,” the “three founders” of Western mysticism, “were all ‘monastics’ in one sense or another.” They agreed in affirming and promoting, “as essential for the attainment of the highest stages of the Christian life” (27), “the religious values manifested in monasticism—communal poverty and asceticism, virginity, devotion to [27] prayer, and biblical study.”

27        From 400 to 800, “monasticism attained an even more intimate bond with mysticism conceived of as the height of Christian perfection.” Why?

27        First, because “the monks were the main scriptural exegetes in an era when mysticism was still inseparable from reading and praying the Bible.”

27        Second, because “monasticism also provided if not the only, certainly the most effective, context within which the ideal of contemplation could actually be pursued.

27        “One of the most impressive achievements of the period” from 400 to 800 was “the institutional organization of the monastic life.” “Between 400 and 700 C.E. some thirty regulae, or “Rules of Life,” appeared in Latin Christianity.” Different as they were from each other in many respects, all flowed from “a common source, Holy Scripture.”

27        The Rule of Benedict, counted as coming from the “fifth generation” of such rules, which stretched back to Pachomius, Basil, and Augustine, “is the single most important document in the history of western monasticism, and arguably the most significant text from the whole late antique period.”

28        Benedict’s Rule was, in its author’s eyes, just the “handing on [of] the tradition of the true form of Christianity, rooted in scripture and transmitted by the monastic fathers.” It became the “ ‘rule of choice’ in the complex evolution of Western monasticism.”

28        “Images of warfare . . . and of ascent or journey along the ‘path of salvation’ (via salutis . . .) permeate the RB. The monk is described as ‘fighting under a rule and an abbot.”

29        “Benedict is intensely concerned with the presence of Christ in the monastery, though in typically early medieval fashion his emphasis is on the divinity of Christ not his humanity.”

29        “Although the Benedictine vision of monasticism sets forth a balanced life of communal prayer, private reading and devotion, and physical labor, liturgy was the essential component: ‘Nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God’ . . .”

30        Note: Gregory did not invent compunction, nor the emphasis on tears that would be so strong in Margery’s life. These are words from Benedict’s Rule, 20.3-4: “‘We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure . . ., unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.’”

32-3 “The ancient Mediterranean world had created the term philosophia, the love of wisdom, to express the highest mode of human life, one dedicated to more than the ordinary tasks of survival and self-aggrandizement. Early [33] Christians took over the word to describe their own way of life—the love of the Wisdom who was the Incarnate Word, a commitment that was the fusion of the highest form of love and knowledge. The fathers of western mysticism had already begun to use the term philosophia to describe the monastic life around 400 C.E., a usage that continued through the twelfth century. Cassiodorus, one of those who played a role in the making of Christendom and the creation of its monastic culture, put it in exemplary fashion: ‘Philosophy is to be assimilated to God insofar as this is possible for a human being.’ This remained the goal of the mysticism of the religious culture of Latin Christendom.”

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One response to “Society sacralized from Rome’s fall to Charlemagne (400 – 800 A.D.)–glimpses from Bernard McGinn

  1. Great stuff! Thanks Dr. Armstrong.

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