Ancient History & Civilisation





ST PETER’s IN ROME has the largest interior of any Christian Church on the planet. Sitting on the site of the original St Peter’s constructed by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD, the current edifice was begun on 18 April 1506 and took over a hundred years to complete. Its dedication ceremony was finally held on 18 November 1626, the project having absorbed the energies and intellects of a Renaissance dream team that included Bramante, Michelangelo and Bernini. St Peter’s is neither the mother church of the Roman Catholic communion, nor even the Pope’s cathedral as Bishop of Rome. That honour belongs to the Lateran, where Pope Leo III originally erected his famous mosaic as part of his campaign to limit the damage done to his own position by Charlemagne’s imperial coronation.

The extraordinary religious status of St Peter’s stems entirely from the fact that its high altar stands over what the Christian community of Rome, since time immemorial, has considered the burial place of St Peter. And with some reason. He was executed in the Neronian persecution of AD 64 in the Circus of Nero which stood close by, and there is indeed a Roman cemetery of the right vintage containing early Christian burials under the basilica, some of which were explored in a decade of excavations from 1939. I wouldn’t necessarily be as confident as was Pope Pius XII, in his famous radio broadcast of 23 December 1950, that the bones of St Peter had been found, but the downward trail had led the excavators to some fragments of bone folded in gold tissue and tinted with precious imperial purple in an area beneath the original Constantinian basilica which had been monumentalized in the late Roman period, and inaccessible since the ninth century. The excavators had at least found what late Roman and early medieval Roman Christians identified as Peter’s last resting place. Which is enough to make St Peter’s basilica a very special place indeed in any Christian language, but, above all, in that of Roman Catholicism.

For St Peter is the cornerstone of papal authority which binds together the Roman Catholic communion, as the great church itself reminds you. As soon as you enter its majestic doors, you are brought face to face with a very large, and very clear inscription (admittedly in Latin …) of the key verses from St Matthew’s Gospel:

You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And to you I give the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.1

This is no accident. These words, Jesus’ famous response when Peter correctly identified Him as ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’, are the rock on which papal authority has itself been constructed. St Peter is considered the first Pope, the first Bishop of Rome, and to have passed on to his successors a unique religious authority – encapsulated in the right to bind and loose sins – which this passage can be read as indicating that Jesus himself had originally granted to St Peter. Filled out and refined over the years, papal authority within the Roman Catholic communion encompasses a number of key responsibilities. The Pope must ultimately define correct Christian theology, not necessarily by being an academic theologian himself (though he might be), but at least by instigating and controlling necessary debates and their outcomes. He must also make laws sometimes and define norms in others – again, of course, after taking the appropriate advice – which set out expected standards of religious practice and personal moral behaviour for both clergy and laity. He is responsible, too, for creating and sustaining the enforcement structures which ensure that these standards are adhered to. Last but not least, he exercises control over appointments at least to the top positions (bishop and upwards) within the Church.

Employed together, these powers allow the Roman Catholic Church to operate as a multinational religious corporation, bound together by one set of rules and a rule-making CEO in the person of the Pope himself. These papal powers, and their overall effect – a centralized Church body which functions as a unit across political boundaries – are indeed ancient features of the Christian landscape. They are not quite as ancient, however, as is usually imagined.

One of the most original poetic works to survive from the court of Charlemagne is an anonymous Virgilian epic which might have been penned by our old friend Einhard. It goes under the title given to it by its modern editor: Karolus Magnus et Leo Papa. As titles go, this is fair enough. The surviving fragment of (probably) its third book ends with the meeting of Charles and Leo at Paderborn, and it has long been supposed that there was a fourth book culminating in Christmas Day 800. But the poem originally contained much more besides. Two other books are entirely lost, and even the surviving fragment of book three contains a great deal more than the fateful meeting which led to the restoration of empire.

In the poem, Pope Leo is treated with the greatest sympathy and respect. The horrified poet recalls the appalling behaviour of the citizens of Rome towards ‘the greatest pastor in the world’, and pays due respect to the miracle of the Pope’s recovery from his wounds:

[Charlemagne] is amazed by the Pope’s eyes which had been


But to which sight had now returned,
And he marvelled that a tongue mutilated with tongs now spoke.

But there is not the slightest doubt that the dominant figure in the poet’s landscape is Charlemagne himself. Throughout the poem, Charlemagne is always placed in lofty positions, so that he physically dominates the action. When the Pope arrives, the Frankish army is drawn up at the bottom of a hill but Charlemagne himself is on the top, and descends to greet his guest. The word ‘emperor’ is dropped into the poem, likewise, even though its action is set in 799. This was indeed the contention, as we’ve seen, of Charlemagne and his court: God made Charlemagne emperor long before 800, and all Pope Leo did, as a Christmas present for the rest of humanity, was – eventually – recognize the fact. Of a piece with this, the poet’s main focus, prior to the meeting, is on Charlemagne as the founder of a New Rome in the form of his palace complex at Aachen. This is central to the poet’s choice of Virgilian epic because he took as his model Virgil’s picture of Aeneas founding the first Rome. The image, however, is carefully adapted. The reader is left in absolutely no doubt that the new Rome is superior to the first (and this is a trope that is found more generally among the poets of Charlemagne’s court).

Even more interesting is the general description of Charlemagne at work, with which the poem precedes its account of Aachen. It all begins as you might expect. Charlemagne is the great but compassionate victor of countless campaigns who is generosity itself to all his loyal followers. He also humbles the proud, raises up the weak (blah blah), but then it gets more interesting:

He admonishes [the unjust] to learn justice by godly deeds,
Bowing the heads of the impious, shackling them with stiff


And teaching them to fulfil the commands of God enthroned

      on high …

Those who, barbarian-like, have long refused to be pious
Are compelled from impiety to piety by a righteous fear.

And the reason he is able to do this is his superb intellect and devotion, which has allowed him alone to understand the mind of God:

He alone has deserved to take possession of all approaches to


To penetrate its hidden paths and understand all its mysteries,
For to him God reveals the universe’s development from its


The poet claims for Charlemagne a uniquely close relationship to the Almighty and provides him with a corresponding job description which tramples all over the preserve of the papacy as we now know it: not only compelling barbarians to become Christian, but defining correct Christian behaviour for all of his subjects. For all that Leo is treated with great respect, his religious authority pales into relative insignificance next to Charlemagne’s hotline to the Almighty. Indeed, Charlemagne knew all about Leo’s problems, long before any messenger came from Rome, precisely because God sent him news of it in a dream. In the picture painted by our poet, Charlemagne’s relationship to God provides him with a political, moral and religious authority which transcends any possible rival, even the apostolicus, the Bishop of Rome.2 Before dismissing this as the kind of thing a Carolingian court poet would say, we need to take a closer look at the inherited traditions of political and religious authority within which Charlemagne and Leo were operating.


There was already a Christian community within the city of Rome in the time of the Acts of the Apostles. At this point, and as the new religion spread over subsequent generations, you have to envisage the broader Christian civilization, or ecumene as Christians themselves called it, taking the form of a slowly increasing number of essentially autonomous congregations dotted around the major cities of the Mediterranean (like frogs round a pond, as Socrates famously put it). These congregations ran themselves and were in only periodic contact with one another, not least because the Roman state unleashed occasional bouts of persecution against them. There was no formal, institutionalized hierarchy of religious authority either between the congregations, or even, at least to start with, within them, since the position of priests and bishops took time to formalize, and both general leadership and theological analysis were sometimes supplied by what we would now call members of the laity. But, from the haze which surrounds this earliest period of Christian history, we have the occasional moment of clarity which shows that the congregation of Rome, and particularly its leadership, occupied a position of special prestige thanks to its association with two of early Christianity’s greatest leaders: Peter and Paul. This special prestige is already referred to in a famous letter of Ignatius of Antioch dating to the first decade or so of the second century, and could, on occasion, translate into an unusual degree of religious authority. From the same era, a famous letter survives from Pope Clement I in AD 96 to the congregation of Corinth, where he interferes in an intra-Corinthian dispute over the rights of priests. Or, a hundred years later, Pope Victor I acted much more generally to excommunicate any Christians (so-called Quartodecimans) who insisted on celebrating Easter on the same date as the Jewish Passover. The congregation in Rome was itself also growing steadily and, already in 253, under Pope Cornelius, consisted, apart from its bishop, of no less than forty-six priests, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons, fifty-two exorcists, and assorted readers and doorkeepers. But because there was as yet no formalized hierarchical structure within Christianity as a whole, Rome’s interference in the affairs of other communities was limited to the (very) occasional statement of general principle (such as Victor’s excommunication), or particular moments when another congregation asked the Roman leadership for a ruling on a difficult issue. Precious few examples of such requests survive from before c. 300, and there is no hint that the surviving evidence preserves just the tip of some great melted iceberg.3

All of this changed with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, and the Church’s subsequent promotion to become the official religion of the Roman state. As this process unfolded, against the backdrop of an ever-increasing rate of conversion which multiplied the number of Christian congregations within the empire beyond measure, the Church acquired its first articulated authority structure. This formalized, for the first time, the role of the papacy within Christianity as a whole. Compared to later patterns of development, and even to what various popes liked to say about themselves at the time, the way these new structures actually operated comes as something of a surprise.

The importance of the Roman see within the new structure was formally acknowledged across the wider Christian world (which quickly became coterminous with the boundaries of the empire). One major effect of Constantine’s conversion was to allow – indeed enable: he paid for it out of imperial funds – the tradition to grow up of Christian leaders from across the empire meeting together on an occasional basis in great ecumenical councils when there were serious issues to be settled. The very first of these met at Nicaea in 325, and its sixth canon (canons being the list of a council’s decisions) recognized the special apostolic status which attached to the Bishop of Rome’s see, because it had been founded by St Peter. In practice, this had several dimensions of importance. First – and most specifically – all bishops were no longer considered equal. Certain sees acquired metropolitan rank (effectively becoming archbishops, although that term was not yet in general use) with established rights to interfere in certain ways in the running of the subordinate sees of their province: specifically to call regular synods to maintain standards of belief and practice, and to confirm all episcopal elections. I use the word ‘province’ advisedly. With just the occasional exception, it was the capital cities of existing Roman imperial provinces which acquired metropolitan rank, and their areas of authority were generally coincident with provincial boundaries. More or less overnight, the administrative hierarchies of the Church came to mimic those of the imperial government. Within this extraordinary shake-up, the see of Rome acquired metropolitan rights over a substantial area around the city.4

Second – taking in a broader view now – Rome’s traditional role as an occasional court of appeal for difficult Church matters acquired new importance. The form in which such rulings were customarily given changed in a highly significant manner. The straightforward letter-form of the early Christian period gave way in the time of Pope Innocent I (401–17) to the much more formal, and subsequently characteristic, papal decretal. The decretal was modelled on the imperial rescript, which was a specific type of letter used by emperors for centuries to give formal, fully reasoned answers on the bottom half of a letter, to a legal inquiry set out on the top. The emperor’s answer had full legal force and often dictated subsequent legal practice for all analogous cases. Mimicking this particular letter form was a highly significant move, therefore, showing us a papacy which was determined that what had started out as little more than statements of opinion should now be viewed as legally binding rulings. The increasing frequency and wide geographical range of the decretals from a cluster of popes in the early decades of the fifth century is particularly impressive. Between them Innocent I, Zosimus I, Boniface I and Celestine I (covering the years 401–32) gave formal rulings to Christian congregations not only within Italy, but as far afield as Spain, Gaul and North Africa.5

Third, and widening the view still further, Rome’s apostolic heritage meant that it had a prominent position to fill in the ongoing doctrinal disputes which are such a characteristic feature of late Roman Christianity, not least the so-called Arian dispute, which produced the variant form of Christianity adhered to by Theoderic. The basic reason why theological dispute was so prevalent in the years after Constantine’s conversion offers a fascinating glimpse into the revolutionary effects of becoming a state religion. Up to the fourth century, there had been occasional doctrinal controversies, which led to a handful of splinter groups, such as the Quartodecimans, being effectively expelled from the mainstream Christian tradition. Once Roman state persecution stopped, however, inter-congregational communication grew in intensity, and it soon became clear that a great deal of Christian doctrine had not yet been fully developed. Constantine’s conversion thus set loose – and also funded – what looks, from the perspective of modern university life, like a 250-year research project to bring bishops and other Christian intellectuals together on an irregular basis at a mixture of smaller workshops and the occasional huge international conference (the ecumenical councils) to fill in doctrinal gaps and tie up any loose ends.

In broad terms, the theological subjects covered were, in chronological order: first, in what sense was Christ divine (the Arian dispute): how should the position of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity be understood; and, third, how exactly was the human and the divine combined in the person of Christ (the Monophysite dispute). And, in between, other more localized Church groups – with occasional help from the outside – faced up to disciplinary issues such as whether Christians who lapsed in the face of persecution could be fully readmitted to the Church (the Donatist dispute in North Africa) and could you have too much asceticism (the Priscillianist and Pelagian controversies, among many others).6

Don’t worry about the detail. The broad picture is what matters, and that is straightforward. The relatively isolated and occasionally persecuted congregations of the early Church had assumed they all believed approximately the same things. When Constantine and his successors put them in much closer contact with one another, it rapidly became clear that they didn’t, or at least hadn’t thought about some matters hard enough. The sequence of disputes marks an unavoidable process by which sufficient i’s were dotted and t’s crossed to bring an appropriate level of theological coherence to what had now become the imperial religion. Rome’s apostolic status meant that its participation in this process was fundamental, and, in particular, that any doctrinal formulation struggled to acquire the necessary aura of legitimate orthodoxy, if the Bishop of Rome failed to sign up to it. Hence, in the time of Theoderic, as we saw in Chapter 2, the emperor Zeno’s Patriarch of Constantinople, Acacius, backed a compromise solution to the Monophysite dispute which could just about work in the Eastern Church, but Rome refused to accept it. In the end, Justin and Justinian brought the East back into line with the papacy. Rome’s status meant that it functioned as a touchstone of orthodoxy in the developing world of late Roman Christianity.

Fourth, and finally, there was still time to tie up some ideological loose ends. This was necessary because a couple of distinct leaps of argument are required to turn Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel into a justificatory charter for the powers of the papacy as they now stand. You had, first of all, to accept that the power granted to St Peter was transferable to his heirs, rather than a gift made to him as an individual. Then you had to make the case that Peter’s heir was the current Bishop of Rome because he had been the first Bishop of Rome, even though there was nothing describing him as such in the Gospels or Acts of the Apostles, the key ancient texts of Christianity. But true believers have never allowed the absence of authentic documentation to stand in the way of something they believed to be correct, and, true to form, the gaps in the St Peter story were carefully filled in. At some point in our period, a key text was generated originally in Greek and then translated into Latin round about the year 400 by a Christian scholar monk by the name of Rufinus. Known as the Clementine Recognitions, this purported to be a letter of Pope Clement I to James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Church in Jerusalem. In it, Clement told James how he had been converted and trained by St Peter, and how, lo and behold, Peter had eventually passed on his unique religious authority to Clement by virtue of naming him as his successor as Bishop of Rome. Both ideological gaps were filled with one textual stone. Clement was chosen as the subject of the forgery, presumably, because of that genuine early letter to the Corinthians which was already widely known. Just to make sure, Pope Leo I, a generation later, carefully demonstrated that all of this was entirely in accord with Roman law on inheritance, and the circle was fully closed. In the meantime, just in case one Apostle wasn’t enough, Pope Damasus I had also got a local Roman synod to declare, in 382, that the Church of Rome was unlike any other Christian community because it had been founded by two Apostles, St Paul and St Peter, adding a further string to the bow of papal uniqueness.7

So far so good. In all of these areas, the papacy managed to exploit the exciting opportunities that opened up after Constantine’s conversion to strengthen its claims to Christian religious authority. But the Roman Church was not the only Christian game in town, and if you broaden your gaze to consider overall patterns of Christian religious authority in the late Roman world, the position of the Bishop of Rome starts to look distinctly less impressive. Let’s start specifically. The metropolitan powers the papacy acquired within the region of Rome, specifically over the same suburbicarian provinces which had long been subject to the administrative competence of Rome’s urban prefect, were no more than those now exercised by the bishop of every other provincial capital. There was nothing at all unique here.8

The issuing of decretals, by contrast, was unique to popes, but the importance of this activity in building general papal power must not be overstated. For one thing, decretals – like imperial rescripts – could only be issued if someone asked the original question. At the height of the popularity of the imperial system, for instance, we know that emperors were turning out something like five rescripts a day. And even if, after the pattern of modern legal terms, you give emperors quite a bit of time off, they were still banging out several hundred a year. In the early sixth century, Dionysius Exiguus – the famous Denis the Little – whose collection is the ultimate source of most of our knowledge of papal decretal activity, could find only forty-one examples from the almost 200 years separating his own time from Constantine’s conversion. This suggests that consulting the Pope had not yet become a regular activity in the Western Church. There was also a further problem. Producing an answer that you considered authoritative was one thing, and in their answers popes often stressed that their formally reasoned responses should command complete obedience. But they possessed no enforcement mechanism. If a Pope gave an answer that was not obeyed, there was nothing that he could do about it by himself.In extremis, imperial support was sometimes even needed, as in 445 when Leo I extracted an imperial ruling to support his own view in a quarrel with Bishop Hilary of Arles.9

Even that, however, is not the end of the bad news. Fellow late Roman Christians were happy enough to recognize that Rome was a very special place, but not that it was a unique one, since other early Christian communities had also been founded by Apostles. The sixth canon of Nicaea picked out the churches of Antioch and Alexandria as apostolic foundations, alongside Rome, and canon seven added Jerusalem to the list. These were joined in 381 by Constantinople which was declared (at a council unsurprisingly held in Constantinople) as the New Rome, which was henceforth to be viewed in every respect as equal to the Old Rome. By the 380s, therefore, the classic late Roman pattern had emerged, which consisted not of one see of unique prestige, but of five Christian patriarchates of equal pre-eminence. Consequently, Christian Orthodoxy was – ideally – to be defined as those things that all five patriarchs held to be true. In this context, the Clementine Recognitions and Damasus’ emphasis on Rome’s double-apostolic foundation were part of a fairly desperate attempt to put clear blue water between the see of Rome and a set of peers, who were perfectly happy to recognize it as an equal, but were not buying Rome’s uniqueness.10 And if it were not bad enough, the patriarchs were overshadowed by another source of Christian religious authority altogether: the emperor.

At this point it is worth recalling the checklist of functions which currently defines the papacy as the corporate head of the Roman Catholic communion: ultimate regulation of what constitutes orthodox belief; defining and enforcing standards of Christian practice for both clergy and laity; making Church law; and controlling senior Church appointments. If you analyse all the late Roman evidence against this checklist (and do not just focus on the papacy), then it quickly becomes apparent that the functioning head of the Christian Church in the late Roman period was in fact the emperor.

Let’s start with doctrine. The 300 years or so following Constantine’s conversion were an extraordinarily creative period in theological terms, when most of the key Christian teachings reached full definition. The papacy had some role in this process, but, in fact, a surprisingly marginal one. Decisions over correct doctrine were made at the great ecumenical councils, Nicaea in 325 followed at irregular intervals by Serdica, Constantinople and Chalcedon before the deposition of the last Western emperor in 476. These councils were all held in the East (even Serdica, modern Sofia, was in the eastern half of the Balkans), and most of the intellectual running in the big theological debates was being made in the East too, by Christian intellectuals working primarily in Greek. Apart from Chalcedon where Pope Leo I contributed a major document, known as the Tome of Leo, the Latinate papacy otherwise just sent a few observers and let Eastern churchmen get on with it. Many of the assumptions of Greek philosophy and science provided basic methodological tools for developing Christian doctrine.11

A still more fundamental role in the action, however, was played by the sequence of Christian emperors. We’ve already encountered the fact that emperors underwrote the mechanics of developing doctrine by providing free transport and board and lodging to hundreds of bishops at a time, as they were carted (literally) around the empire to the next theological shindig. A pagan historian of the fourth century, Ammianus Marcellinus, is particularly scathing on the frequency and cost of Church councils under the emperor Constantius II (337–51). Apart from the big four, there were many smaller councils besides, and some other equally large ones which came to what was eventually decided to be a ‘wrong’ answer so that they don’t figure in standard lists of ecumenical councils, although that is in fact what they were. The emperor’s role in all these councils was far greater than merely opening the imperial chequebook. It was always his decision whether and when to call the larger councils: without his say-so they simply didn’t happen. Allied to this, emperors usually also set at least part of the agenda for discussion – which was only natural since most councils were called for a particular reason. They also applied vast pressure on the participants to achieve the outcome they wanted, and supplied the only enforcement mechanisms which were available to make conciliar decisions stick: by exiling deviant clergy, for instance, or confiscating Church buildings and wealth from whole sects that ended up being condemned.

Individuals varied greatly in the intensity of their interest in precise matters of doctrine, Constantius II and, later, Justinian, being known for their love of theological detail, but all emperors were interested in peace and unity within the Church, which is the other theme running alongside the purely intellectual element in late Roman doctrinal debate. All emperors were ready to get involved in the Church at least to that extent, therefore, and, in overall terms, the imperial will was more important even than conciliar debate, to the doctrinal outcomes which eventually emerged. Take, for instance, the so-called Arian debate on the right term to use to describe the relationship of the human and divine within the person of Christ. Nicaea came up with one definition in 325, but it took two generations for that definition to win final acceptance. In the meantime, other definitions entirely were supported as orthodox by the Roman state for lengthy periods. Debate only came to an end in the 380s when supporters of rival, non-Nicene definitions could no longer find any imperial support, and the state settled down to consistent enforcement of the Nicene position. The same pattern holds true in disciplinary matters. The big issue here came from North Africa: the so-called Donatist dispute over the status of those Church leaders who had given way in the face of the Great Persecution which had preceded Constantine’s conversion. While imperial will vacillated, which it did through much of the fourth century with different regimes adopting different policies, the dispute raged on. As soon, however, as imperial policy hardened behind one resolution of the dispute – deciding very firmly against the Donatists – and unfurled the full panoply of imperial enforcement behind that resolution, the dispute quickly declined to irritant status. It’s not that all Donatists disappeared, any more than all non-Nicene strands of opinion had done either, but once the imperial will definitively backed a position, opponents’ support tended to fall away so substantially that they quickly declined from a movement to a sect, at which point emperors ceased to care very much. Bishops and intellectuals may have done most of the thinking, but it was emperors who made doctrinal outcomes actually happen (or not), by calling councils, building the necessary coalitions at these councils to pass a particular view, and then enforcing that conciliar decision with due determination.12

The emperor’s role in setting and enforcing general standards of practice for clergy and laity was also substantial. Papal decretals played some role here in the Latin West, but there were many more rules and regulations set out in the canons of different Church councils (where the emperor’s role in at least the larger ones was primary), and also in direct imperial legislation. Book Sixteen of the Theodosian Code consists entirely of imperial legislation on religious matters made between the time of Constantine and c.435, and Justinian’s Code collected a great deal more in the early 530s. The base line of canon law in the late Roman period was provided by a mixture of the conciliar decisions and imperial legislation, with papal decretals coming in a poor third in terms of the quantity of relevant and widely circulated rules for Christian clergy and laity. On enforcement, the empire’s court structure was again important, but this was supplemented by one important novelty. From the time of Constantine onwards, bishops were empowered to hold courts and any Christian participant in a dispute might request that their case be transferred there. But, as matters developed, this court turned in practice into a kind of small-claims court which aimed at reconciliation and mediation rather than outright punishment. This obviously limited the kinds of cases that might be heard before it (certainly not, for instance, anything that might involve capital punishment since bishops were prohibited from shedding blood). And since episcopal courts had been licensed by imperial law in the first place, this again emphasizes imperial preeminence in the area of Church law.13

The same goes too, finally, for senior ecclesiastical appointments. Emperors cared not a jot who was bishop of the kind of tiny diocese you find, for instance, in and around the Pyrenees. But they cared very much about who was in charge of the great cities of the empire, and, above all, of its central and regional capitals. Interestingly, this did not really mean Rome. By the fourth century even the western half of the empire was being run from Milan or Trier, and later Ravenna, while the key cities of the East were Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria. Rome remained a cultural capital, but, in the entire fourth century, emperors visited it at most on four occasions for about a month at a time. Papal elections, therefore, did not attract too much direct imperial interference, although when they led to violence, as in the election of Pope Damasus in 366, that was quite another matter. In the case of sees they cared about, emperors obtained and retained the right to control appointments.14

Without any doubt, the emperor was the functioning head of the Christian Church. Others, including popes, played a part, but the imperial role in the formulation of correct doctrine, in defining and enforcing expected standards of practice, and in selecting personnel was paramount. Nor was this domination purely de facto. Late Roman political theory – as we’ve seen adopted by Theoderic and inverted by Procopius – claimed that the emperor was directly appointed by God and carefully selected by Him to rule as His vicegerent on earth. These ideas came straight from non-Christian, Hellenistic visions of kingship, but the conversion of the empire to Christianity generated remarkably little change. The divinity in question was relabelled the Christian God and the divine purpose was recast as one of bringing the totality of mankind to Christianity, rather than creating perfectly rational civilitas for the few (page 56). But there was no reduction in the claim made about the closeness of the emperor’s relationship to God. Everything to do with the emperor remained sacred – from his treasuries to his bedchamber – every imperial ceremonial from the greatest public occasion to the smallest, most intimate moments (such as the act of proskynesis: prostrating yourself in the imperial presence to show due respect) were orchestrated to ram home the point. The emperor was no ordinary mortal and, in public at least, was expected to maintain a superhuman impassivity as ceremonial moments unfolded around him. It’s possible that Constantine took it all too far. His original burial arrangements entombed his remains in a great mausoleum (the Church of the Holy Apostles) in Constantinople, surrounded by altars to the twelve Apostles. It has often been said that he thought of himself as the thirteenth apostle. But the thirteenth individual usually found in the middle of the twelve apostles is Christ, so you do wonder who exactly Constantine thought himself to be. His son, Constantius II, quietly rearranged things to make a slightly more modest statement. But only slightly: Constantius and his successors, East and West, all the way to Justinian and beyond, were entirely consistent in their claim to have been picked out by God to rule with Him on earth.

Looking at how matters have unfolded in the many centuries following the late Roman period, and in particular at the more or less complete separation of Church and State which has been the norm in the Western political tradition for a couple of centuries, it is only natural to take notice of the past lines of thought which lead to this present. From the late Roman period, this means a voice such as that of Augustine of Hippo, who argued in City of God that no earthly state could ever be so perfectly reflective of the divine will as to last forever. God did make states rise and fall, Augustine argued, but for His purposes alone, and they would endure only for so long as they were able to serve His higher purpose which was systematically divorced from their own. Augustine had been thinking along these lines for some time, but an extra stimulus for him to put pen to paper in this way was the Gothic sack of Rome in August 410. Nor was he alone in directly challenging some of the central claims of Roman state ideology. Every time a churchman resisted an imperial attempt to impose a particular doctrinal settlement, they were implicitly and sometimes explicitly denying the emperor’s right to order Church affairs, and, sometimes, that resistance was serious. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, managed to make the province of Egypt pretty much ungovernable for a brief period in the 340s, for instance, because he was so opposed to the emperor Constantius’ preference for non-Nicene theology. Or again, the whole Christian ascetic tradition which grew enormously in both numbers and influence from the mid-fourth century, was by implication denying the claims of imperial ideology. If the Roman emperor and the political structure he ruled reflected the divine will for humankind, then individuals should not drop out of it, and look to the salvation of their souls by imitating the self-denial and rejection of the world that was central to the examples of Christ, the Apostles, and many an Old Testament prophet. But we have numerous examples in Saints’ Lives from this period of precisely this kind of rejection of public participation in the affairs of the Roman state, even among members of the elite. Put all this together, add a good dose of hindsight, and it’s relatively easy to dismiss the claims of imperial ideology as so much hot air.15

To do so, however, would be a serious mistake. While you can trace lines of resistance to the emperor’s religious authority in the writings of some churchmen, you can equally well find another line of acceptance in the writings of others. Almost at the moment of Constantine’s conversion, for instance, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea was ready to accept that it was no accident that Christ should have been born at the moment when Augustus – the first Roman emperor – was ruling in Rome. This showed, Eusebius argued, that God had foreordained, earlier persecutions notwithstanding, that the Roman state would become His vehicle for bringing humankind to Christianity. The Roman state did, in other words, have a role in the Divine Plan which was unlike that of any other. And, by extension, that made the emperor much more than merely another secular ruler. In the session of the fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon on 25 October 451, likewise, 370 assembled bishops (some via agents, it’s true) hailed the emperor Marcian as ‘king and priest’. This cry was no break with tradition, just a specific formulation of a well-established line of thought. Or, again, this time at the fifth ecumenical council in Constantinople in May 553, 152 bishops, this time, were happy to declare that nothing should happen in Church matters without the emperor’s explicit approval.16

For every dissenting clerical voice from the late Roman period, there are ten others which implicitly or explicitly accepted the emperor’s claim to overarching religious authority. And, in fact, you need to be very careful with the dissenting voices anyway. It’s not uncommon, when you look closely, to find the same individual violently objecting to imperial claims when the emperor was backing an alternative doctrinal position, but upholding them heartily when the emperor was onside. That’s not to deny the existence of deep and principled dissent in some clerical quarters to the emperor’s view of his religious authority, but the vast majority of Christian clergy and indeed upper-class laity – for the ascetics were only ever a small if noisy minority – essentially accepted that the emperor was chosen by God and should therefore exercise at least a watching brief over all Church matters. He might, and indeed should, let bishops do the detailed theology, but it was entirely in line with his job description to find the God-guided wisdom to choose between competing positions, and to ensure that his subjects – God’s people – ended up following the paths of true belief and proper Christian piety. This left only a secondary role open to the papacy, especially in a world of five equal patriarchs, where most cutting-edge theology was being done in Greek.


Most of the parameters within which the papacy had been operating since the conversion of Constantine were transformed out of all recognition in the period between the deposition of Romulus Augustulus and the coronation of Charlemagne. A unitary Western Empire gave way to a series of successor states, most of whom eventually became Nicene Christian at some point between the fifth and eighth centuries, even if their ruling elites had originally started out as something else. The political structures of this new world were far from stable, however, and within a 300-year period from AD 450, the papacy began by operating within the confines of a still-living Western Empire. It then spent sixty years under the rule of the successor states established by Odovacar and Theoderic, before finding itself part of the Eastern Empire run from Constantinople. This lasted for the best part of 150 years, until the eighth century when the papacy started to run Rome and its environs as an independent political unit, while having to fend off the unwelcome attentions both of Lombard kings and the independent Lombard Dukes of Spoleto and Benevento. Interesting times!

As with the late Roman period, if you approach these centuries with hindsight, it is possible to discern nascent chains of connection which would eventually help turn the papacy into the fully functional head of the Roman Catholic communion. From 494, early in the reign of Theoderic, there survives a famous letter from Pope Gelasius I to the emperor Anastasius. Known by its opening words Duo sunt (‘There are two’), it proceeded to lay out the doctrine that there are two equal and separate authorities in the world: the holy power of bishops and the royal power of monarchs, and, of the two, the responsibilities of the priests are greater:

There are two powers which for the most part control this world, the sacred authority of priests and the might of kings. Of these two the office of the priests is the greater in as much as they must give account even for kings to the Lord at the divine judgement … You must know therefore that you are dependent upon their decisions and they will not submit to your will.

God wills the powers to work in harmony, but they have separate spheres and should not interfere in each other’s areas of competence. Gelasius composed this at the height of the Acacian schism and it challenged the claims of imperial state ideology that the emperor had the right to direct Church affairs. More specifically, it was an attack on the Henotikon, the imperial decree by which Zeno had tried to generate Church harmony in the East, but the particular point was framed within a more general statement of principle.

From pretty much the same intellectual context, we also have the important work of Dionysius Exiguus. His speciality was translating Greek into Latin, but it is his work on canon law that has a very particular significance for us here. The project came in two parts. First he retranslated (in two separate editions) the canons of the ecumenical councils from their original Greek. There had been earlier translations into Latin but they were not particularly accurate and sometimes even mixed up the canons (embarrassingly, a North African cleric had earlier appealed to Pope Zosimus (417–18) on the basis of what was one of the canons of Nicaea according to his translation, only to find that it was in fact a canon of Serdica). Part two (the Collectio decretorum Pontificum Romanorum) collected papal decretals from Popes Siricius I to Anastasius II (384–498). This text is the source of the vast majority of our knowledge of papal decretal activity in the late Roman period, but, also, it struck a blow for future papal importance by making a decent-sized collection of previous papal decisions available in a highly convenient form. The collection soon spread widely, and heightened Rome’s profile as a source of authoritative rulings on Church matters.17

Other papal highlights from the period include Gregory I, the Great, whose writings were enormously influential, but who was also highly active administratively, reorganizing the running of papal estates to increase the revenue flow and revamping the central bureaucracy to make the whole enterprise more efficient. Famously, he also conducted virtually independent negotiations with the Lombards in the 590s, when they were bearing down on Rome and there was not an East Roman army in sight. This was followed up in the seventh century by some high-principled resistance to the attempts of East Roman emperors to short-cut the Christological debates left over from Chalcedon within their Eastern territories, by arguing that however many natures Christ may have had at different points (and Christians were banned from using the word ‘Nature’ at all) He had just the one will. Called Monothelitism (Greek for ‘one will’, you’ll not be surprised to know), this doctrine implicitly rejected the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon to which Leo had contributed his famous tome, so the papacy – particularly Pope Martin I – was having none of it, whatever the cost (and the cost was high). Last but not least, the period also features the first evidence of serious papal interest in extending the boundaries of Christian Europe, with Gregory the Great again in the starring role. Famously remarking of some Anglo-Saxon slaves ‘Non angli sed angeli’ (‘They’re not Angles, but angels’), he sent Augustine of Canterbury and an intrepid band of forty companions through Francia and north across the Channel in 597. Continued papal support for the project after Gregory’s death was a bit sporadic, but did contribute one of the most extraordinary clerics ever to walk in England’s green and pleasant land: Theodore of Tarsus. Born in Asia Minor and a refugee from the Persian and Arab successes there, he was suddenly plucked from a quiet Roman monastery at the age of sixty-six and sent off to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Undaunted by the terrible weather, he proceeded single-handedly to revolutionize the Anglo-Saxon Church before eventually passing away at the grand old age of eighty-eight: his earthly career was soon followed by one of the most deserved beatifications in history.18

If you string these papal highlights together, it’s possible to fly the argument that the early Middle Ages saw some crucial steps towards the papacy as we know it. Dionysius highlighted the importance of papal authority to the developing body of canon law in the West. Popes Gelasius and Martin articulated exactly why emperors should keep their sticky hands off theology and proceeded to put theory into action, while Gregory the Great’s teachings focused the minds of many a Western churchman on Rome, at the same time as he was revamping the papal bureaucracy into a much more serious outfit, increasing revenues, and starting the process which would see the papacy cast aside a Constantinopolitan orbit and go west to seek its future fortunes. But while the individual phenomena we have just reviewed are all real enough, any temptation to join up the dots to create an image of the papacy’s conscious turn to the West in this period (as has sometimes been done, in fact, with Gregory in the lead role) must be resisted with might and main. Reality could hardly have been more different.

Above all, relations between the papacy and the emperor in Constantinople require closer evaluation. It’s likely enough, I think, that the popes of the later fifth and early sixth centuries did ‘enjoy’ in a kind of way their freedom from close imperial control. Whether Gelasius would have been so bold in his letter to Anastasius had he been living in East Roman territory must be extremely doubtful. Certainly, there would have been substantial consequences, and, for nearly 200 years from the fall of Ravenna to Justinian’s forces in summer 540, Rome found itself returned effectively to the rank of one of five equal patriarchs under overarching imperial supervision. Perhaps slightly annoying in itself to a papacy which had learned to live without the empire (although, as we saw in Chapter 2, Rome didn’t move a muscle on the ending of the Acacian schism without consulting Theoderic first, so I’m not sure the situation was that different), being returned so forcefully to a Constantinopolitan orbit was periodically problematic because of the furore that still surrounded Chalcedon in the East. Some Eastern churchmen found its definition of Christ having been formed ‘in two natures’ impossible to accept without further comment. Hence the sequence of emperors who attempted to find compromise positions by adding something to Chalcedon, or taking something away from it, to make it acceptable to a critical mass of Eastern ecclesiastical opinion. But since Pope Leo’s Tome was a central part of the record of the council (and about the only thing the West had ever contributed to ongoing Christological debate), Rome was consistently unwilling to accept any of the proffered compromises.

Despite this starting point, the pressure that emperors could bring to bear was so intense on occasions that particular popes could do nothing but buckle. Vigilius, for instance, was dragged off to Constantinople in the late 540s and twice forced to accept a compromise which condemned one small corner of the text of Chalcedon. Called the Three Chapters, even this degree of compromise caused a storm across large parts of the Western Latinate Church which was used to an unflinching defence of Chalcedon. Nonetheless, two of Vigilius’ successors as Pope felt the heat fiercely enough to accept the compromise he’d signed up to. When the ‘one will’ storm first broke in the seventh century, likewise, Pope Honorius I (625–38) signed up to the imperial position without demur. It was left to his successor Martin I to fight back by holding his own Lateran synod in 649, which condemned Monothelitism unreservedly. The comeuppance, however, was swift and decisive. He was abducted to Constantinople, tried, and exiled to the Crimea where he died (although things could have been worse: his chief abettor, Maximus Confessor, was condemned to lose his tongue and right hand so that he could no longer speak or write heresy). The weight of practical imperial authority was substantial, therefore, during the ‘Byzantine’ phase of the papacy, but – and this is the key point – there is no good evidence that, while it endured, popes were positively looking for any fundamental change in this basic situation.

Gregory the Great, for instance, had only engaged in independent negotiations with the Lombards because he had no choice, there being no imperial troops in the vicinity of Rome at that point. His correspondence makes it abundantly clear that his underlying aim, however, was to get Constantinople to make a serious commitment to the defence of his city by establishing a military command there: a ducate (so called because it would be commanded by a dux). This eventually happened, and, for all his broader interests, Gregory made no attempt whatsoever to break away from the Constantinopolitan orbit. And when, later on, the definitive loss of their Eastern provinces to the Arabs, where the bulk of anti-Chaledonian opinion was concentrated, made it possible for emperors to give up on their various attempts at compromise, the papacy welcomed them back into the orthodox fold with open arms. The year 681 was the annus mirabilis. It saw both a general peace between the empire and the Lombards, and the holding of a sixth ecumenical council in Constantinople which declared Monothelitism at an end. The papacy appeared ready at this point to remain a Byzantine Patriarchate for the foreseeable future.19

What really changed the situation was the deteriorating strategic position of the Byzantine Empire as its losses grew against the Arabs in the East. This had three main dimensions of effect, the first two necessary preconditions for the de-Byzantinization of Rome, the third its operative force. One precondition was straightforward. As Constantinople’s tax revenues declined by maybe three-quarters in the face of these catastrophic losses (page 190), it was forced to scrimp and save on every front, with the result, especially after the reforms of Gregory the Great, that the papacy quickly emerged as the official body disposing of by far the largest annual income within the city of Rome. Over time (and it’s hard to chart the process in great detail), the papal administration took over ever more of the public functions which kept the city operating: charity, food and water supplies, even the city’s defences. Officially, the most important officer in the city was its imperial dux, and that had been true at the start of the seventh century, but two generations and one Arab invasion down the road, it was no longer the case.

To understand the new situation fully, however, it is necessary also to grasp a second structural change ushered in by all the defeats to the Arabs. Although the empire had lost such a large proportion of its revenue flow, the military threat had not declined. If anything, it actually increased as rampant Islam conquered and absorbed the resources of still more territories. Thus Constantinople still absolutely had to maintain large military forces on the basis of its now much-reduced tax base. To do so, it in part echoed the methods that Theoderic and his fellow kings of Western successor states had adopted when rewarding the militarized followings who had put them in power over the old Roman West. Across the empire, landed assets were distributed to Constantinople’s armed forces as an important component of military pay. In fact, the empire preserved some of its tax structures besides, and there were periodic but valuable distributions of military pay on top of the land distribution, but the latter had important political consequences – especially within Italy. Right across Byzantine Italy, which was divided into a number of separate military commands (such as the exarchate around Ravenna, or the ducate Gregory the Great had managed to achieve for Rome), what started out as military garrisons quickly evolved into local landowning militias whose leading members now headed politically dominant networks of landowners in each of its subregions. Because they were similar in character now to the locally based armed militias of the Frankish kingdom, even if they had come into being by a different route, these networks naturally developed political agendas which were not so much imperial in view, but driven by their interests as local landowners. This happened everywhere from Naples, through the ducates of Perugia and the Pentapolis and even within the exarchate of Ravenna itself, but took a particular form in Rome because these landowners (called proceres and possessores in the Latin) also came to control papal elections. When exactly this happened is unclear, but it was a done deal by the mid-seventh century and, given that the papacy was the richest and most important public institution in their neighbourhood, you can see why this particular local Roman network would have looked to control it, as well as running the ducate.20

A bit like the Frankish world north of the Alps in the absence of expansion (page 287) the default setting of Byzantine Italy was thus tending towards local and centrifugal political agendas, since, shorn of much of its revenues, Constantinople had less to offer these landowning networks in positive terms, and lacked the independent military force to constrain them. Nonetheless, in 681, the overall situation of Byzantine Italy still looked solid enough. The new treaty with the Lombards and the full recognition of Chalcedon seemed to offer a peaceful path to an indefinite imperial future for Byzantine Italy in general and the city of Rome in particular. But then a third dimension of the Islamic factor hit home, and the potential for localism that the two previous developments had sown throughout Byzantine Italy reaped strange fruit indeed.

What happened was straightforward. The remission that Byzantium was currently enjoying from Islamic assault proved to be only short-lived, though, in fact, its ending was more than partly the fault of the emperor Justinian II. He tried to reverse some of the losses of the previous fifty years by reopening the Arab wars in the 690s, with entirely disastrous results. By the 710s, Islamic armies had not only defeated the attempted Byzantine counter-attack but were themselves on the warpath again, the high-water mark being a twelve-month siege of Constantinople in 717–18 which all but extinguished the empire forever. In fact, the city held out, but only just, and the crisis did not end with the failure of the siege. The emperor, Leo III (717–41), did what any ruler would be bound to do in such circumstances. In 722–3 he announced huge tax increases – reportedly doubling them – to try to find the funds to shore up his eastern front, and, shortly afterwards, announced the start of iconoclasm as he and his advisers sought to discover what it was that had made God so obviously angry (page 239).

The effects far within Byzantine Italy were electric. The tax rises generated huge resentment in all the militarized landowning networks. In Rome, the proceres and possessores used Pope Gregory II (715–31) to announce that they refused to pay, and went openly into revolt. And, because of the desperate situation of the empire as a whole, which had so few forces to spare, when push came to shove in 725 and the exarch approached Rome with everything he could muster, the Romans were able, from a mix of their own resources and a little help from outside, to find sufficient force to repel him. At this moment, more than in any other, the independent Republic of St Peter was born: the direct progenitor of the papal states which would finally be dismantled in the nineteenth century by a combination of the greater and lesser Napoleons.

It took a few years more for the situation to stabilize, and for everyone to realize that something irrevocable had occurred. In the late 720s, there was still one faction within Rome’s landowning network, led by the then dux, Peter, that was ready to plot with Constantinople to remove Gregory II and restore a Byzantine allegiance. But the coup failed. Leo III’s declaration of iconoclasm also greatly advanced the cause of local independence since it allowed Gregory to play the religious card in spades. He excommunicated the emperor and sent him another lecture on how emperors should not interfere in theology (like Gelasius before him, the current military-political situation obviously made it safe enough for him to do so). There were also losses. In 732–3, the emperor confiscated all the papal estates of southern Italy, Sicily and Illyricum that were still under imperial control, at an annual cost to the papacy, it is reported, of 350 pounds of gold in lost revenues. But, by the mid-730s, the dust had settled and a new pattern had emerged. The local, militarized landowners of the old Byzantine ducate of Rome had created and successfully sustained an independent Roman Republic under the overall leadership of the papacy, whose elections they controlled.21 It was certainly a revolution, but it had nothing to do with a far-reaching vision to turn the papacy into the effective head of a Western Church. Rather, it was a process driven forward by some extremely local and hard-headed financial-cum-political agendas. Indeed, when you push the analysis further, the conclusion becomes inescapable that, taken together, these different developments of the early medieval period had actually reduced the broader influence exercised by the papacy over the Christian communities of the Latin West.

For one thing, as first the dux of Rome and then the central imperial authorities of Constantinople began to run out of money, and the papacy had taken over their functions, the religious component of the papal job description perforce declined. Organizing food and water supplies, charity, public building, then defence and, finally, politics and diplomacy for the area of the ducate was no small matter, even with an enlarged bureaucracy. Popes still found time for religious matters of course. Gregory II and Gregory III (715–41), who followed one after the other and guided the new state into existence, also famously provided extensive support for the Anglo-Saxon missionary Boniface. But the new state’s political situation required constant attention. The great tax crisis of the 720s had generated a wave of localism right across Byzantine Italy as its strictures began to bite. Outside of Rome, the emperor managed to reassert his authority, but, as things turned out, only temporarily. At least in the north, ties between the local landowning networks and Constantinople suffered serious strain, and a sequence of Lombard kings – Liutprand, Ratchis and Aistulf – were quick to seize the opportunity to pick off bits and pieces of Byzantine territory. This piecemeal process culminated in Aistulf’s definitive occupation of Ravenna and the Pentapolis in 751, which reduced Byzantine holdings in Italy to a limited body of territories in the south. In the meantime, the ducate of Perugia had attached itself to the Roman Republic, enlarging its power base, but the overall strategic context remained threatening. Instead of being protected by an imperial umbrella, a modest-sized republic was now responsible for its own defence in a fragmented Italy where its neighbours were the slightly larger independent Lombard duchies of Spoleto and Benevento, and the much larger Lombard kingdom of the north (Figure 13). Self-defence would eventually send popes north for Frankish support (Chapter 5), but the point for present purposes is simple. All of its immediate neighbours were relatively powerful and all had predatory intentions towards at least the fringes of St Peter’s Republic. From the moment of its birth, popes had to spend a much greater proportion of their day worrying about armies, revenues and diplomatic relations.22

This was not the most fundamental way, however, in which Rome’s general role had declined within developing Latin Christendom. Because we know that long-term papal development would later involve an assertion of Rome’s religious authority against the pretensions of medieval emperors, and because Roman emperors exercised such a powerful religious authority themselves, it is easy to miss the extent to which the late Roman papacy in fact depended on late Roman structures for such broader role as it had managed to carve out for itself within the Western Church in the period. Not only did papal decretals echo the forms of Roman imperial law-making, but their whole effectiveness relied on the existence of the imperial state. Although all roads led to it, Rome was a hell of a long way from most places, even in just the Roman West. The best recorded journey time from England to Rome in pre-modern contexts was about six weeks. This made the process of bringing an issue before the Pope not only cumbersome but highly expensive, since you were going to have to take several months off from your other activities. Because the Church was a department of the Roman state, however, clerics had often been able to use the imperial transport system – the cursus publicus – to move around the empire. This didn’t speed things up very much, but it did massively reduce the cost of taking an appeal to Rome. And then, although it didn’t much like saying so, the effectiveness of papal rulings actually depended on imperial backing for its legal teeth. In 445, Pope Leo I even went to the trouble of extracting an explicit ruling from the emperor Valentinian III, which applied to the entirety of the Western Empire (such as it still was): that ‘nothing should be done against or without the authority of the Roman Church’. The authority structure which made Rome increasingly important for the Western Church in the late Roman period was an imperial/papal double act, which relied on the logistic and legal structures of the empire actually to work.23 Both of these disappeared with the collapsing western Empire, and what we find instead is that the early medieval Western Church developed new authority structures which greatly reduced the role that any Pope might play.

Both de facto and de jure successor-state kings inherited within their own areas of dominance the kinds of religious authority which had previously belonged to Roman emperors; at least, once they converted to Catholicism. The kings of the Franks (and hence everyone they conquered) were officially Catholic from the time of Clovis, and the Visigoths from the Third Council of Toledo in 589. Anglo-Saxon kings started to become good Catholic Christians from 597 and had all converted by about 660. The Lombards were definitively Nicene too, from some unknown point in the seventh century. All these kings quickly appropriated the old Roman imperial ideologies of power. They were all appointed by God, so they said, and all ruled by virtue of a special relationship with Him. Combining, as had late Roman emperors, Hellenistic kingship and Old Testament models, this made them a great deal more than merely secular rulers. They were God’s chosen ones, there by divine appointment.24 And, as had been the case for their late Roman predecessors, this empowered them ideologically to act as the effective heads of the Church within their own domains.

Taking the same checklist we have used before, there wasn’t a whole lot of doctrinal activity going on in the West in these years. This was the era when the old late Roman structures of learning were busy giving way to their less intense (i.e. largely non-professional) early medieval successors, so that this is perhaps not surprising. But such doctrinal activity as there was shows the same pattern, whereby royal agendas now predominated in that crucial intersection between doctrine, councils and enforcement. The best examples come from the sixth-century Visigothic kingdom. King Liuvigild (568–86), who restored political unity to the kingdom after a series of Frankish defeats, tried the same trick on the religious front, attempting to ram home a doctrinal settlement which might work as a compromise between his kingdom’s largely Arian Visigothic elite and the Hispano-Roman Nicene majority. The initiative failed, but it was a royal initiative after the classic late Roman pattern. In the next generation, likewise, it was Liuvigild’s son Reccared (586–601) whose decisions and initiatives underlay the kingdom’s formal adoption of Nicene Christianity at the Third Council of Toledo in 589. In Anglo-Saxon England at the synod of Whitby in 664, it was King Oswy’s crucial intervention, as recounted by the venerable Bede, which made it certain that the Kingdom of Northumbria would follow the Roman rather than Irish method of calculating the date of Easter. Both sides having presented their cases, Oswy took the stage:

Then the king concluded, ‘And I also say unto you, that [St Peter] is the door-keeper, whom I will not contradict, but will, as far as I know and am able, in all things obey his decrees, lest, when I come to the gates of the kingdom of heaven, there should be none to open them, he being my adversary who is proved to have the keys.’

Certainly more than a walk-on part for the papacy here, since papal authority is what eventually swayed matters for the king, but, nonetheless, we have a king at a royally called synod, who, after listening to his clergy discuss the technicalities, took the crucial decision himself. This is a small-scale replica of the Roman imperial model of overarching religious authority.25

In the sphere of high Church appointments, too, the royal writ ran large. Our most vivid source, as for so many things early medieval, is the historical work of Gregory of Tours. It includes multiple anecdotes of the Frankish Church in action, which make it entirely clear that Frankish kings had the most important say over episcopal appointments within their domains. A host of factors might influence individual decisions, but when push came to shove it was up to the king to appoint, and a candidate without royal approval was lost. Gregory often complains about it, but also lets slip that he too had made sure of royal approval, in his case from King Sigibert, to trump the claims of a rival to his own see of Tours. But, then again, wasn’t it Churchill who said that consistency is a mark of mediocrity? We lack equivalent narrative sources from the Catholic Visigothic kingdom, but, the odd counterexample notwithstanding, I’m confident that royal influence on episcopal appointments was just as marked there (as, fascinatingly, it remained after the Islamic conquest when the emirs and caliphs inherited the right to at least approve candidates before they were formally consecrated). In Anglo-Saxon England, likewise, it always proved problematic if a king was saddled with a bishop he didn’t want for some reason, as Bede’s detailed narrative in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People makes clear, and there too the royal will usually prevailed.26

The pattern really becomes clear, however, when we turn our attention to the setting of standards for clergy and laity and the operation of such structures as there were for enforcement. This had always been the second key job of Church councils in the late Roman period, beyond doctrinal questions, and in the post-Roman period it largely remained so. But, after 476, Western conciliar structures operated not across the Latin Church as a whole, but on a kingdom-by-kingdom basis.

Take, for example, the Christian Church of Frankish Gaul. Clovis called one council of the churchmen of his new kingdom at Orleans in 511, but subsequent activity was rather sporadic. The only concentrated Gallic activity we know about is the sequence of four reforming councils held by Bishop Caesarius of Arles between 524 and 529, but this was under the remit of Theoderic and Athalaric, who at that point held the dominant position in what is now Mediterranean France (page 80). Not until the early 580s, in fact, did Clovis’ grandson Guntram acquire sufficient power and interest to initiate a sequence of reforming councils for the bishops of the Frankish kingdom, which set about, progressively, raising standards of religious behaviour and practice across the realm. That this rapidly became a self-conscious tradition is certain. An extraordinary manuscript originally from Lyons at the heart of Guntram’s realm – but now divided between St Petersburg and Berlin – allows us to see that development unfold. What the bishops did in the twenty years or so after the First Council of Mâcon in 579 was to collect all the existing rulings they could find and then add to them from their own discussions, sometimes prompted by a particularly tricky case which had come before them. Over time, they both managed to find a few extra sets of old conciliar rulings and started, when making new decisions, deliberately to refer back to the rulings they had already collected or made. The work culminated in the production of a new, thematically arranged code of canon law, the Vetus Gallica, which rearranged all the existing materials in a way which made it much easier to find the current state of the law on any particular topic. What this shows us is a vibrant Frankish Church community taking determined responsibility for the progress of Christianity within its own area of jurisdiction.27

It’s a fascinating vignette, and brings the early medieval Western Church to life in a way that gets completely lost if all you’re concerned with is the development of the papacy. Several points jump out. The Frankish Church did not operate completely in isolation. Its bishops had a strong sense of belonging to a broader Christian tradition, in which the papacy had some role. In particular, one of its base texts of existing Christian tradition was the legal collection made by Dionysius Exiguus, both his Latin translation of the old Greek councils and his edition of papal decretals. At the same time, this Frankish community was totally dependent on the support of its king to function. Until Guntram had become interested, no kingdom-wide reforming tradition could get off the ground, and I suspect that, like his Roman imperial predecessors, Guntram was not only calling the councils but also paying expenses. When tackling new problems, likewise, the Frankish bishops were happy to depend upon their own intellectual resources and saw not the slightest need to refer anything to Rome. There is also no indication that any Roman observers were present either, or that anyone ever thought they might be. And when royal interest subsided again in the seventh century, perhaps an effect of the slow erosion of royal power in that period (page 216), the tradition ground to a halt. Only one more Church council is known from the entire seventh century.

The pattern is so similar in the corresponding evidence from the Visigothic and Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that there is no need to lay it out in detail. Once everyone had got over the shock of converting to Nicene Christianity at Toledo III, the new Visigothic kingdom eventually developed a tradition of functioning in some important ways through a sequence of kingdom-wide councils. These were always held at Toledo, but a more or less continuous sequence doesn’t really begin until Toledo IV of 633, when, after a gap of nearly fifty years, the councils come (relatively) thick and fast. Unlike their Gallic counterparts of the later sixth century, these councils dealt with both secular and ecclesiastical business, although the bishops would go off by themselves to tackle purely religious matters. That feature aside, the pattern is identical. The councils were called by kings, and the developing collected body of ecclesiastical legislation that they generated (generally known as the Hispana) included copies of old councils and the collections of Dionysius Exiguus. They also had copies of many of the Merovingian Gallic councils (which had ground to a halt by the time that the Hispanic tradition really got under way). But if conscious of being part of a bigger Christian world, they nonetheless, just like their Frankish peers, set about dealing with any further issues entirely by themselves: from the resources of their own intellects and faiths. No outside experts were called in; no difficult matters were sent on to Rome for papal review.

In Anglo-Saxon England, a conciliar tradition began to find its feet under the so-called Mercian supremacy over southern Britain a century later. The Mercian kings called the councils, whose geographical scope coincided with the power of these kings, and, while conscious in the same ways of a wider Christian world, the English bishops generally got on with business by themselves. The only time outside experts were called in was when one of the kings, Offa, wanted something. He had conquered the old kingdom of Kent, where the archbishopric of Canterbury lay, and was finding it problematic to have the supreme religious officer of the southern province of England, whose extent broadly coincided with the boundaries of his own kingdom, located far away (in British terms) from the heartlands of his kingdom. He wanted to divide the Church province in two, therefore, and create a second archbishopric at Lichfield in the heart of his kingdom. To smooth the wheels of papal approval, he invited two papal legates for a visit in 786. The recorded proceedings make fascinating reading. A great summit meeting was held at which everyone recorded their agreement to cutting-edge religious ideas such as it would be a good idea if children were always baptized. And then, a couple of parties later, and having signed the communiqué, the legates went home. It was entirely an exercise in PR, which dealt with nothing remotely tricky and set up no enforcement mechanisms to check on subsequent progress towards the various platitudinous targets that everyone had been so busily discussing. The king’s special offer to the papacy thus cost him nothing, and it did the trick. Lichfield was duly made an archbishopric by Charlemagne’s friend, Hadrian I, just a few months later in 787, although it was not destined to last. After Offa’s death, Mercian supremacy was itself undermined, and, as you should be getting used to by now, Church matters bent with the political wind. Full primacy was restored to Canterbury in 803 by Pope Leo III, and thus matters have remained ever since.28

Even this episode just serves to emphasize the overarching point: everyone still accorded the Roman Church great prestige. Within the West, this status was unique since there were no other apostolic foundations. Nothing, likewise, interrupted the flow of pilgrims to monuments and martyria. Again, as the Holy Land became more inaccessible after the Islamic conquests, the traffic probably increased (although there’s no complete survey). Rome – so full of martyrs and saints thanks to the pre-Constantinian persecuting empire – was also an increasing source of the valuable relics with which founders liked to empower the churches they constructed.29 But, in the late Roman period, and particularly in the fifth century when, for a period under Valentinian III (425–55) and afterwards, emperors had gone back to Rome, the Pope had been able to function – to an extent – as the chief bishop of the Western Empire and a potential supreme arbiter on difficult Church matters. But all of that ground to a halt in the chaos of imperial collapse, and, when the dust had settled, the Western Church emerged in kingdom-sized units which did not operate with reference to any overarching authority structure at all. In these circumstances, the early medieval, pre-Carolingian papacy gradually acquired a new and greater authority, combining both religious and secular functions, but was able to exercise it only within its own, limited political boundaries. With the disappearance of Western emperors, popes lost the support structure which had made it possible for them to exercise a broader function of religious leadership across Latin Christendom. Nor, despite some initial appearances to the contrary, did that function find any substantial restoration in the time of the Carolingians.


In retrospect, the Carolingian era would be seen as a period when St Peter’s successors took huge strides towards the pre-eminence they were to enjoy in the central and later Middle Ages. On the ideological front, the two great crowning moments of Pippin and Charlemagne would be used to show that the heir of St Peter had the right to act as political arbiter, an idea which nestled in cosily beside the claims of the Donation of Constantine. In reality, Pippin had had himself made king by the Franks first. But it was the story of the supposed letter and the Pope’s definitive answer in Pippin’s favour which would be remembered. Likewise, Leo III had had to be dragged to the altar to crown Charlemagne, but, again, because the papacy lasted so much longer than the Carolingians, the event went down in history as showing that the Pope was an essential component of any imperial coronation. This was not Charlemagne’s view, as he demonstrated by crowning his own son by himself. But these ideological gains really came into play only in the longer term, and there were some more immediate ways in which Charlemagne and Louis the Pious increased the profile of the papacy in the minds and working lives of Western churchmen.

Not least, Charlemagne’s generosity re-endowed the papacy on a truly epic scale, an excellent return on all the anxious letters and supporting documentation with which Pope Hadrian had bombarded the king in the later 770s. You can’t put a figure on the increase in papal income, but it was clearly colossal. Its scale is strikingly reflected in the collection of more or less contemporary papal biographies, the Liber Pontificalis. Whereas their immediate predecessors such as Stephen II (752–7) or Paul I (757–67) were able to renovate respectively one of the great charitable hostels for pilgrims (xenodochia) and an admittedly major monastery, the new income allowed Hadrian I (772–95) and Leo III (795–816) to unleash an extraordinary wave of renovation, building and gift-giving aimed equally at the secular and religious infrastructures of the city.

Hadrian I, to judge by his investments, had a strong eye for urban planning. He is recorded as dropping a cool one hundred pounds weight of gold on a major restoration of the city’s defences. He also put three of the city’s ancient aqueducts – the Sabbatina, Virgo and Claudian – back into full working order, and commissioned a major restoration of the riverbank and porticos in front of St Peter’s. Quite a set of achievements, but only a small selection from the record, which also included a grand new set of bronze doors for the main entrance to St Peter’s. The biography of Leo III, on the other hand, is more or less completely taken over by the list of his donations, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Some of the omissions are deliberate. There is no mention in theLiber Pontificalis that he prostrated himself in front of Charlemagne after crowning him, or of the second rebellion against his authority on the part of some of the Roman nobility in 813. But some less charged events of importance, such as his second journey to Francia, also pass unmentioned. Instead, the biography largely consists of gifts made by Leo III to the various religious institutions of the city. In particular, under the year 807 the author inserted an unadorned list of donations, which begins:

The Saviour our Lord’s Church called Constantinian, fine silver

     crown, 23 lb

God’s holy mother’s basilica ad praesepe, pure silver crown,

     13 lb 3 oz

Her Church in Callistus’ titulus, silver crown, 13 lb 3 oz
Her deaconry called Antiqua, silver crown, 13 lb
Her Church called ad martyres, silver crown, 12 lb 3 oz
Her deaconry called Cosmedin, silver crown, 12 lb

It goes on to record, altogether, a total of one hundred and nineteen gifts of silver to different religious institutions around the city, and it has been calculated that the total comes to about a thousand pounds weight of precious metal gifts made in Leo’s time. In later eighth- and early ninth-century Rome, the donation of Charlemagne was far more important than the Donation of Constantine and provided the means for a complete revamping of the Holy City in everything from its water supply to the splendour of its churches.30

Charlemagne’s religious policies, too, made the papacy a stronger feature in the mindsets of most of the empire’s clergy, because he saw Rome as a source of authentic Christian tradition. Particularly when he or his churchmen were in search of uncorrupted versions of key religious texts, Rome was their destination of choice. As early as 774, Charlemagne requested from Hadrian, and obtained, the most up-to-date collection of Church law to be had in Rome. Called the Dionysio-Hadriana, it was a slightly updated version of Dionysius Exiguus’ double collection of canons and decretals. This was only the beginning. Charlemagne also obtained from Rome copies of their best texts of the Latin Bible, and good examples of the main service books in use there. He also imported singing masters from the city to teach Gallic churchmen how to perform the Mass in the Roman fashion. Not since the late Roman imperial period had there been so much toing and froing to Rome, in a process which clearly affirmed the centrality and authenticity of all things Roman when it came to identifying ‘correct’ Christianity.

Thanks to Charlemagne’s attentions, the papacy was enriched, visited, courted and paid enormous respect, but all these gains came with a price tag. The emperor’s respect for the papacy was genuine, but he was equally convinced, as we have seen, that he had his own hotline to the Almighty. No mere vassal of St Peter, he had no hesitation in making use of the papacy for his own purposes, as we saw in the run-up to the imperial coronation (page 244), for this too was God’s will. Nor was Charlemagne afraid actually to disagree with the Pope – even on matters of doctrine. The example par excellence is the Council of Frankfurt. There and to the Pope’s face (at least, to those of his legates) Charlemagne had his churchmen declare that Pope Hadrian’s acceptance of Constantinople’s new teaching on icons was in fact mistaken (page 240). A second, less charged example is provided by the famous filioque clause, an addition to what is commonly called the Nicene Creed but is actually the Creed of the Council of Constantinople of 381. This states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from ‘the Father and the Son together’ (filioque means ‘and the Son’) rather than just the Father. The Eastern Orthodox communion has never accepted the addition, which remains a sticking point in inter-faith discussions. Both the phrase and the teaching which underlies it grew up in the early medieval West, and, in the late 790s Charlemagne and his churchmen formally adopted it as an article of their faith, spreading its use throughout the empire. He then started twisting the arm of Pope Leo. Caught between a rock and a hard place, because he well knew the storm the phrase would unleash in Eastern Christendom, which strongly resisted any changes to the wording of the traditional Creed, Leo eventually agreed that the underlying teaching was orthodox, but held that it was better not to go messing about with the creed, trying to stave off potential difficulties with Constantinople. It was not until 1014 that filioque was formally adopted within the city of Rome, but there is no doubt that Charlemagne felt perfectly entitled to use his own judgement to decide even on doctrinal orthodoxy.31

As such, we can place him firmly in a tradition which stretched back for the best part of half a millennium. From the time of Constantine onwards, overarching responsibility even for the identification of correct doctrine had been part of the Christian ruler’s job description, and Charlemagne’s attitude to Rome was nothing more than its direct continuation. Indeed, it would be extremely easy at this point to go through the same checklist we have used before, and come to the inescapable conclusion that Charlemagne was undoubtedly the head of the Church within his domains. He appointed all the leading churchmen, he called all the major councils and authorized most of the rest, and great tranches of legal directions on the practicalities of both clerical and lay piety were drawn up in his name.

But, while true enough, this procedure would also be a little dull and runs the risk of missing a much more important point about the Carolingian era. Of course Charlemagne was head of the Church (and Louis the Pious after him), again both de facto and de jurelike their imperial Roman predecessors. It would also never even have occurred to most of their churchmen that the head of the Papal Republic, apostolicus as they acknowledged him to be, could possibly have aspired to anything remotely resembling the overarching religious authority that it was the God-given duty of the king-emperor to wield. Fair enough, but under Charlemagne’s guidance something much more interesting was happening. The sheer size of his empire, and the economic resources Charlemagne had at his disposal, combined with the collective ambition shown by both himself and his leading churchmen to unleash an extraordinary project of Christian reform, which would transform the entire Western Church.

Its principles are articulated most completely in the preface to the Admonitio Generalis (General Admonition) issued at Aachen on 23 March 789:

How necessary it is not only to render unceasing thanks to His goodness with all our heart and voice but also to devote ourselves to His praise by the continuous practice of good works, that He Who has conferred such great honours on our realm may vouchsafe always to preserve us and it by His protection – for this reason it has pleased us to ask of your sagacity, O pastors of Christ’s churches and leaders of his flock and brightest luminaries of the world, that you strive with vigilant care and sedulous admonition to lead the people of God to the pastures of eternal life and exert yourselves to bear the erring sheep back inside the walls of the ecclesiastical fortress on the shoulders of good example and exhortation, lest the wolf who lies in wait should find someone transgressing the sanctions of the canons or infringing the teachings of the fathers of the oecumenical councils – perish the thought! – and devour him.

God has given Charlemagne unprecedented victories that Christian civilization might prevail in the world, and, to continue to deserve His favour, the king (as he still was in 789) has a duty to make it happen. This extraordinary text goes on for a total of eighty-two clauses which range from general thoughts on living chastely to highly specific ones about how services are to be conducted, but also takes in the importance of using reliable weights and measures, and of judging justly in court. For Charlemagne and his leading counsellors, secular and ecclesiastical, there is no distinction between Church and State, secular and sacred. Charlemagne’s empire has been created to do God’s will, and this encompasses not only its religion but every other dimension of its operations. Such a vision is absolutely in line with the old Roman imperial ideologies, indeed it is no more than their main consequence stated out loud, but the statement is an extraordinarily thorough exploration of the point. The principle was also maintained with total consistency throughout the reign, reoccurring – more succinctly – in a general characterization of Charlemagne’s purpose in 812, drawn up by one of the leading ecclesiastical intellectuals of his court:

For this is always dear to him: to exercise bishops in the search of the Holy Scriptures and prudent and sound doctrine, every cleric in discipline, philosophers in knowledge of things divine and human, monks in religion, all generally in sanctity, primates in counsel, judges in justice, soldiers in practice of aim, prelates in humility, subjects in obedience, all generally in prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance and concord.

Judges judging, soldiers practising their aim, and bishops studying the scriptures: all can be talked of in the same breath. The Carolingian programme recognized no fundamental distinction in kind between these activities. All had to be according to God’s will in the empire that God had brought into existence.32

So, Charlemagne – like many a conqueror – had an exaggerated sense of his own importance, and enough intelligence to turn it into coherent statements of principle, which could be summed up in the Latin word correctio: the desire to correct prevailing ways of life according to a Christian model of perfection. Why should we pay much attention to all this preposterous nonsense about building God’s society on earth? As the political narrative has already shown us, his own family could not maintain even a facade of fraternal love after his death, and there’s little sign of any major outbreak of Christian values in ninth-century Francia as a whole. Nonetheless, Charlemagne’s project had, and still has, enormous importance. The king and his churchmen didn’t just proclaim the dream, they also tried to live it. And, thanks to his unprecedented run of conquests, Charlemagne had huge resources to devote to it himself, and more than enough leverage to make others sign up to the project as well. It allowed him, first of all, to assemble at his court an extraordinary weight of scholarly expertise, comprising the best he could find from every corner of Western Europe: Alcuin from York (which then had one of the best libraries in Western Christendom), Theodulf from Spain, and Peter of Pisa and Paul the Deacon from Italy, to name but a few of the superstars. This fluid assembly of scholars (individuals came and went over time) represented a unique gathering of intellectual talent that only a ruler with Charlemagne’s wealth and reach could possibly have collected. And apart from writing him witty little praise poems, and bitching about each other, these men also signed up for the king-emperor’s great project of Christian reform. Together with Charlemagne himself, and most of his leading secular and ecclesiastical advisers, they formed a team that was set to work to build the Christian society envisaged in the Admonitio Generalis. The result was a total transformation of the Church of Western, Latin Christendom.33

The first key step towards that dream was to entrench a much fuller and more accurate understanding of authentic Christian tradition and practice within the clergy of the empire. And the best, indeed only, means to that end was to increase the availability of the body of texts by which verified and verifiable Christian tradition – the guts of the religion – had been defined and transmitted across the centuries. We’re talking the Bible here obviously, but the Admonitio also mentions Church law – the canons – and there was much else besides: everything from non-religious lawbooks to underwrite the new, more just era that was to come into being, to endless biblical commentaries. Christianity, it has often been said, is a religion of the book, and Charlemagne and his churchmen understood this completely. Charlemagne’s project of correctio had to start with the books, therefore, and the reform councils of 812 (to which we’ll return in a moment) were ready to be more specific about which ones. The key texts for building a Christian society were Gospels and Acts from the New Testament (because of the size of medieval manuscripts, complete Bibles – called pandects – with everything bound together under one cover were extremely rare at this date), liturgical books, patristic writings, theRule of Benedict for monks, the Cura Pastoralis (Pastoral Care) of Pope Gregory the Great for bishops and priests, canon law, and secular law codes for lay officials.34 Obtaining and distributing satisfactory copies of these key texts was far from straightforward in late eighth-century Francia. Books were certainly rare, and luxurious examples were extremely expensive – it took over 1,500 cows to provide the parchment for the Lindisfarne Gospels (Plate 21) – but the much bigger problem was arriving at an agreed ‘correct’ version of their texts.

Sometimes, with texts originally in Greek, this was because a number of separate Latin translations had been made in the past, the Bible being the classic case in point. In the Roman imperial period, four separate Latin translations had been undertaken, and, by the late eighth century, their textual traditions had intermingled to such an extent that trying to sort out what any of them had originally said, and then which one of them might provide the best translation of any particular passage, was a complete nightmare.

But there was a still more fundamental problem. This stemmed from the fact that, with the disappearance of the civilian, highly literate culture of the late Roman elite, Latin had ceased to be taught by the professional language teachers, the grammarians, who had previously been found in most of the larger market towns of the empire. Collectively, these men had artificially prevented classical Latin, the spoken and written language of the Roman elite, from changing very much in the Roman period by producing complex rule books – the ancestors of the Latin grammars used to torture the young today – which defined the myriad endings of ‘correct’ (i.e. classical) Latin. But when these men went out of business with the transformation of elite life towards military rather than civilian careers (page 277), as they did north of the Alps before AD 500 and in Italy a generation or so later, the grammatical dam holding up normal processes of linguistic change was broken. The Pompeii graffiti show that, in less exalted circles, linguistic change had long been under way, and it soon spread into the elite. Everyday pronunciation, it seems, no longer distinguished between some of the sounds that had made separate case endings originally different from one another, and, because of this, pronunciation took much of the grammatical structure of classical Latin down with it. In the long term, this process turned Latin into its various Romance derivatives (such as French and Spanish) which can all be seen as Latin without most of the case endings, where word order within a sentence (like modern English) does much more of the work, since endings had lost their power to transmit meaning. Amongst the elite, this process happened gradually and more or less unconsciously from the fifth century onwards, and then worked its way into textual culture, affecting not only new compositions, but also attempts to copy older classical texts. The result was a complete dog’s breakfast, with even educated clerics not necessarily realizing that their attempt at classical Latin was actually a mixture of Latin and Romance forms. As Charlemagne put it, in a famous capitulary On the Study of Letters:

Numerous letters have been sent to us in recent years from various monasteries notifying us of the efforts made on our behalf in sacred and pious prayer by the brothers residing in them: and we have identified in most of these writings of theirs both correct sentiments and uncouth language. For what pious devotion dictated faithfully as regards matter, an uneducated tongue was unable, through neglect of learning, to express without fault.35

To stand any chance of success in his desire to restock the Western Church with authentic copies of the key texts of Christianity, Charlemagne and his team had to combat this broader problem, and they proceeded to do so with gusto. One strategy, as we’ve seen, was to refer to the papacy, since you ought to be able to find authentic copies of the key texts of Christian tradition in Rome if nowhere else. But while Rome was of some help (Admonitio Generalis drew heavily for its knowledge of Church law on the Dionysio-Hadriana that the Pope had supplied), this proved an insufficient answer. Some of the books the Pope supplied didn’t really fit a Frankish context – this is true of the Roman Massbook which lacked some of the readings that the Frankish world required – and, more generally, even Roman Latin was found to be not fully classical. For a proper solution, Charlemagne went back to the drawing board, setting his scholars to work their way through the key Christian texts and produce ‘correct’ versions, which would then be distributed as such to the main religious centres of Charlemagne’s Empire: the Cathedrals and major monasteries. Alcuin, for instance, drew the short biblical straw and was given the Gospels and the Psalms, critical texts not just for Christian understanding, but also for the liturgy, since extracts from them provided many of the readings used at all services.

But for all this to work properly, still more root-and-branch reform was required. If the editing process was to have a lasting effect, knowledge of ‘correct’ classical Latin needed to be spread much more widely among Western Europe’s churchmen. Otherwise, whenever a text was copied, the old errors would simply creep back in. Absolutely essential to Carolingian correctio, therefore, and operating hand in hand with the editing initiatives, was a huge emphasis on learning ‘accurate’ Latin, by which Charlemagne and his advisers meant their version of the classical language. The best Latin grammarians he had were unleashed on this task – notably Alcuin again and Peter of Pisa – and they came up with a triple strategy. The old teaching texts produced by the professional Latin teachers of the late Roman period (particularly those of Donatus and Priscian) were dusted off, recopied and circulated widely. Second, they added some new teaching texts of their own, with Alcuin’s work on how to pronounce the artificial language they were attempting to restore playing a starring role. In fact, because he was an Anglo-Saxon and had learned Latin entirely as a foreign language, this seems to have made Alcuin a better teacher of the new standards than some of his continental colleagues occupying that linguistic no-man’s-land between Latin and Romance.36 Third, the scholars started to copy and circulate substantial quantities of classical Roman texts in a strikingly wide variety of genres, from ancient astronomy to the love poetry of Catullus.

What we’ve come to now is the famous Carolingian Renaissance, and it’s worth pausing a moment to explore its contours. Quite simply, it is thanks to the copying traditions established by Charlemagne’s assembled scholars that the vast majority of surviving classical Latin literature comes down to us today. Anything that did not get copied in the later eighth and early ninth centuries (and there’s plenty that we know to be missing) has simply not survived. Without Charlemagne’s scholars, therefore, much of the ancient Roman cultural achievement would be entirely lost.

At the same time, ‘Renaissance’ – meaning, after the fourteenth-century original, a rebirth of interest in the classics for their own sake – isn’t quite the right term for what went on. Charlemagne’s scholars were interested in classical Latin texts for two main reasons: either because they could help teach you the language, including its rare grammatical oddities, or because they contained useful knowledge that any educated Christian might need to know. Potentially, this may have led them to ignore some classical texts that had limped as far as the late eighth century, but were then discarded because Carolingian Christian scholars did not find them useful. This really is the $64,000 question about the Carolingian Renaissance: how big was the Carolingian wasteparchment basket? Did they basically copy everything they found, or did they throw a lot away? It is impossible to answer with certainty. You might think that the survival of Catullus suggests that they copied more or less everything, but maybe Carolingian monks found some really fascinating grammatical points amongst all the sex. Whichever is more correct, and I do tend towards the ‘copied most things’ view, the broader cultural significance of Charlemagne’s scholars is undeniable.37

That this proved to be the case is also telling us something else of importance. Charlemagne’s scholars managed eventually to embed their corrected texts, and the knowledge of classical Latin which would guarantee their accurate reproduction, structurally within the Western Church. This too was part of the original design of the project. Charlemagne’s scholars themselves, serious and industrious intellectuals as many of them were, were not that numerous: a few tens of individuals at most. Had correctio and its necessary cultural infrastructure just remained their project, its impact could only have been limited. No more than a dozen or so manuscripts now survive, for instance, that can with any plausibility be linked directly to Charlemagne’s court.38 But something like 9,000, many containing several works, survive from the Carolingian period as a whole (including the entirety of extant classical Latin literature). The scholars’ efforts had the impact they did, in other words, because their values and products became part and parcel of a broader intellectual culture within the Western Church in the ninth century.

Two of the necessary tools for this outcome already existed, waiting to be employed to maximum effect. On the technical side, the first was a new type of bookhand: Carolingian minuscule, as it is called. Variants of this hand were coming into use before Charlemagne’s time, and it was important because it was smaller and more cursive than older uncial hands (Plate 21). This meant both that it could be written faster and that you could get much more text on a page. In a world where manuscripts were hugely expensive in both parchment and copy-hours, this was a huge advance. True to form, Carolingian correctio identified one particular cursive minuscule as the best of all possible forms, and this script duly won out over all-comers. The vast majority of our 9,000 Carolingian manuscripts are written in it (although if you have the ‘eye’, which I do not, you can tell one scribe’s handwriting from another).39

By itself, Carolingian minuscule would have speeded up book production and lowered costs, but correctio accelerated output in other ways too. As the Carolingian era dawned, religious institutions also had more money to spend. The wealth that Charlemagne liberated from his conquests provided some of this. He didn’t found any monasteries as far as we can tell, but he did make huge numbers of donations to them, as he did to many cathedrals. All the metropolitan, archiepiscopal sees of his empire, for instance, came in for special dispensation in his will. More structurally, however, it was in the Carolingian era that the practice of tithing became firmly established within the Western Church. Charlemagne was not the innovator here; tithing already features in the reforming Church councils held by his father and uncle, Pippin and Carloman, and is the second of the tools sitting around awaiting full employment. Charlemagne, however, insisted that tithes be paid, and threw the weight of his legal authority behind the demand. As a result, fully 10 per cent of GDP (nearly as much as developed nations now spend on health care) notionally became available for religious purposes. In fact, the normal rules applied. Tithes belonged to religious institutions, but various members of the landowning class had rights over these institutions, including shares of their tithes, so nothing like 10 per cent of GDP was freed up in practice for religious purposes. Yet religious income certainly increased substantially, and further Carolingian reform measures ensured that some of the extra money was spent on teachers of Latin, and copying those texts which Charlemagne’s scholars had identified as the crucial toolkit of Christianity.40

From the Admonitio onwards, huge emphasis was placed on the importance of cathedrals and monasteries having their own schools. It is a standard demand of Charlemagne’s legislation, repeated on many occasions. Charlemagne and Louis the Pious also pushed through more specific reforms relating to the lifestyles of those living in these cathedral and monastic communities which piled on the pressure. The reform of clergy associated with cathedrals (cathedral canons) started before Charlemagne, but he redoubled the efforts to make it happen, and one of its key features was that it required schools, books, and a much greater commitment to Christian learning on the part of these communities.

The same is true of monasticism. Before the Carolingian period, there were monastic norms which always involved some kind of instruction in the faith, but the amount varied because most monasteries had their own specific rules which were individual adaptations from some of the best-known prototypes, such as the Rule of Benedict originally drawn up for the Italian monastery of Monte Cassino in the sixth century. Under Charlemagne and particularly Louis the Pious in this instance, the Carolingian monarchy demanded a much stricter observance of the Benedictine rule in its entirety, with no picking and mixing allowed. But it was not the original Benedictine rule. Louis threw his imperial weight behind a revised version which incorporated one highly significant change. The original rule had divided a monk’s day into three equal parts: prayer, work (physical work, growing the monastery’s food) and study. The revised version, drawn up by a second Benedict (just to avoid confusion) – Benedict of Aniane – promoted a two-part day divided between prayer and study. Physical work was now to be done by lay brethren who were not fully part of the community. The revision encompassed some other changes besides, but a greater emphasis on learning was again at the forefront.41

When it came to Christian reform, therefore, Charlemagne did not merely confine himself to pious platitudes. He and his scholars set about upping the level of Christian knowledge throughout the empire via an extraordinarily well-thought-out and thorough reform project. It dealt not just with superficial problems, such as a shortage of books, but looked to overhaul the cultural infrastructure of the Church completely, so that authentic Christian texts, and the knowledge to ensure that they would stay correct, was dispersed right across the empire. One conclusion is immediate. The Pope’s role in all this was minimal. All the energy came from Charlemagne’s court. He paid for it, and the scholars were working either at his command or with his approval. The image of overarching responsibility that we found at the beginning of the chapter in Karolus Magnus et Leo Papa precisely reflects reality. It was all as Charlemagne had set it out for the new Pope in his first ever letter to Leo III:

It is our function – to the extent that divine goodness aids us – externally to defend Christ’s holy church on every side by force of arms against the incursions of pagans and the devastations of infidels [and] internally to strengthen it in knowledge of the Catholic faith. It is yours, most holy father, to aid our struggle with hands raised to God, like Moses, to the end that, with you interceding and God guiding and granting, the Christian people should at all times and in all places enjoy victory over the enemies of its holy name and the name of our Lord Jesus Christ be glorified throughout the whole world.42

This is one of my favourite documents from the entire Middle Ages. The Pope is no more than Charlemagne’s senior vice president for prayer, while he himself is the Church’s CEO. While Hadrian and Leo were busy spending the money Charlemagne had given them glamming up Rome’s religious attractions, Charlemagne was reforming the entirety of Western Christianity. The effort is impressive, and Charlemagne’s position as the head of the Church is undeniable, but what did correctio actually achieve?


What it clearly didn’t do is fulfil Charlemagne’s great dream of creating a Christian society. No one could seriously maintain that Charlemagne got anywhere near his aim of building a ‘better’ (or even a ‘bigger’) society worthy of God’s support. Louis the Pious found the palace of Aachen full of whores, remember, and the administration of the empire of corruption, and there is nothing remotely Christian about the Carolingian political process of the ninth century. But Louis’ criticisms appropriated the rhetoric of the dream, and to give both emperors and their churchmen their due, they all made serious efforts to translate Charlemagne’s renewal of the empire’s Christian infrastructure into higher levels of Christian devotion among both the clergy and laity.

Much of the effort was focused on the clergy, which only makes sense. If the clergy were not responding to correctio, there was not the slightest chance of it having any effect upon the laity. And once again, the measures adopted were not pious platitudes, but concrete and well directed. Early in Charlemagne’s reign, hierarchy within the episcopate, some of which seems to have lapsed, was fully restored. The power of metropolitan bishops, as laid out at Nicaea, was reasserted in royal legislation, precisely so that the archbishops would be able to exercise leverage over any of their subordinate bishops who did not respond to correctio with enthusiasm. This was followed up with periodic enquiries, to check how much was being done, and then, towards the end of Charlemagne’s reign, by a series of reform councils. We know that these were held in 813 at Arles, Châlons, Mainz, Rheims and Tours; there may also have been others. Their purpose was to reaffirm to all the clergy exactly what their contribution was to be to the creation of Charlemagne’s Christian society.

The clergy, however, were only a means to the end of reaching the laity. This, too, was reaffirmed in the reform councils, where, for the first time, the principle was spelled out that priests must preach to their congregations in their native language, whatever that may be. This marked the culmination of a new emphasis on the importance of the sermon as key method of educating the laity, seen in statements from right across the reign, and, once more, the scholars provided concrete assistance. One old favourite, Pope Gregory the Great’s Forty Homilies on the Gospels was corrected, copied and circulated, and some new collections were compiled. Paul the Deacon worked his way through existing sermons from the great Church fathers while Charlemagne celebrated the end result:

Paul the Deacon … has read through the treatises and sermons of the various catholic fathers, culled all the best things and offered us two volumes of readings, suitable for each separate festival throughout the whole course of the year, and free from errors. Having examined the text of all these with our perceptive judgement, we confirm the said volumes by our authority and deliver them to your religiousness to be read in Christ’s Churches.

This is a perfect snapshot of Carolingian correctio: define a ‘correct’ version of an important text, get the king-emperor to authorize it, and it alone, to be used throughout the empire. Right at the end of the reign, likewise, another large sermon collection was put together by Hrabanus Maurus.43

Other dimensions of lay piety and the provision of services for them were also addressed. Particularly interesting are the episcopal statutes which start to appear in Charlemagne’s reign. This was only the start of a tradition which would flourish for centuries, but five of the extant statutes date from before the reform councils of 813. In them, a bishop laid out for the priests of his diocese exactly what they should be emphasizing in the religious experience they offered to their congregations, and there are some striking variations. At Liège, for instance, Bishop Gerbold felt able to do nothing more than emphasize the laity’s basic duties of baptizing their children and paying their tithes: Christianity 101. At Orleans, further to the west, Bishop Theodulf was able to set out a much more ambitious programme including lay participation in the fasts and vigils of the liturgical year. This suggests that there was a great deal of variation in actual religiosity across different regions within Francia, but the really interesting thing is the fact of the statute itself. Whatever the current level of Christian piety, the statute form shows us bishops rolling up their sleeves and attempting to affect the religious experience of everyone within their diocese.

To my mind, this is the really interesting point. As with Charlemagne’s reform of education and Christian learning, there is a fascinating, practical turn to every aspect of Carolingian correctio. Other imperial legislation insisted that the new service book, adapted from the Roman model that Hadrian sent north to Gaul, be used throughout the empire, and that all the laity had to learn the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The programme surely didn’t make people more Christian in the moral sense of the word that Charlemagne clearly had in mind in Admonitio Generalis, but it did manifestly affect general religious experience. Archbishops put pressure on the bishops, who, via reforming councils and their statutes, defined new religious standards for their priests to enact. The effort translated itself to the laity at least in terms – if slowly – of new ways of conducting Church services, but also in some new demands being placed upon them, and, as an absolute minimum, I feel reasonably confident that the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer really were being taught right across the empire. All of this was only the start of an extremely long process and there were many limiting factors – clerical resistance, no doubt in some quarters, and continued shortages of books – but the important point is that the process began at all. Whatever its limits, Charlemagne used his religious authority to define a mass Christian piety which was to apply to everyone within his empire.44 This was the first time that such a thoroughgoing programme had even been attempted, and the attempt is far more important than any failings. As Dr Johnson said of the dog walking on its hind legs, the point is not that the thing is being done badly, but that it is being done at all.

But alongside this more mixed record, there was one area where, at least in the long term, Charlemagne’s efforts absolutely and unambiguously succeeded: his attempted overhaul of the intellectual infrastructure of the Western Church. In the end, all of the key elements of this part of the programme set in motion by Charlemagne and his intellectuals succeeded. Latin – their version of classical Latin – became the language of the Church right down to the modern era: a direct result of the Carolingian initiatives. As this also suggests by implication, the Carolingian emphasis on education and on copying texts also succeeded in changing the general culture of Western ecclesiastical life. Cathedral and monastic communities did become centres of education, and built up appropriate libraries which allowed them to teach, to preserve and disperse Christian knowledge, and to perform divine services according to the expected pattern. From the mid-ninth century, some monastic library catalogues start to survive, and the monks duly divided their collections to reflect those functions: service books, works of wider relevance to the community (monastic rules, canon law, hagiography), and finally the school books (grammar, rhetoric and history). A shared Latin Christian culture thus came to be maintained and nurtured in the 180 cathedrals and 700 great monasteries of the empire. Charlemagne’s scholars had succeeded in pooling their expertise and making sure that the key texts of the Christian religious database could now be safely found in several hundred separate institutions.

But this, it needs to be stressed, was a longer-term outcome. What is less clear is how quickly the new learning, schools and books penetrated the old monasteries and cathedrals. From their special mention in Charlemagne’s will, and the general way in which thecorrectio project operated, it’s a fair bet that the cathedral communities of all his archbishops had quickly come into line. There are also some great, royally connected monasteries like Fulda, Reichenau and St Gall which seem to have adopted the new standards of Christian learning at a very early point. How quickly they spread to the lesser sees and smaller monasteries is much less clear, but from the emphasis still being put on the need for reform in the reign of Louis the Pious and afterwards, it seems best to assume not too fast a spread. Even so, many of Charlemagne’s intellectuals were teachers, as were many of their pupils in turn, and the personal influence of this growing network of scholars, alongside the royal legislation, played a great part in winning widespread acceptance for the new standards of ecclesiastical culture. By the time of Charlemagne’s grandsons, at least, we’re certainly looking at several tens of institutions across the old empire where there is good evidence that the new Latin Church culture was flourishing (Figure 16). And as the new standards won a wider audience among the clergy they continued to affect the religious experience of the laity.45

You do wonder what Charlemagne thought about it all on his deathbed. Did he have a sense of success, or was he more conscious of the relatively small number – so far – of the centres where the new learning was yet flourishing, and of the fact that many Church services were still not being conducted as he would wish? The moral side of the project, from a more jaundiced modern perspective, looks completely hopeless, since even if you make people more devout they don’t necessarily behave any better in moral terms, and perhaps Charlemagne, being a wily old bird, might have thought about that as well. But, in terms of historical importance at least, any flaws are massively outweighed by Charlemagne’s extraordinary successes, even if it would still take a bit more time for these to become fully apparent. Above all, the ecclesiastical fragmentation which characterized the post-Roman period had been reversed by the emperor’s exercise of an overarching and unchallenged religious authority. The entire empire now had one Christian culture, and Christianity had ceased to operate on a kingdom-by-kingdom basis (except in the British Isles). It is not remotely an exaggeration, in fact, to conclude that it was Charlemagne’s reform project which first brought Latin Western Christendom into existence, since it defined and disseminated the common Latin Christian culture which would henceforth unite it. What happened to Western Christendom once the imperial power that had created it then ceased to exist, and how the process eventually gave birth to a second Roman Empire, is the subject of the final chapter.


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