The collapse of the western empire based in Rome had two immediate consequences for Christianity. New peoples and lands opened up for missionary activity and the Church’s bishops and priests were forced to assume new, diverse and influential roles in society at large.
Through the fourth century Christianity was primarily an urban phenomenon concentrated along coastal areas of the Mediterranean basin and the Black Sea. From apostolic times, Christianity had spread from Palestine north and west throughout Asia Minor (today Turkey) and Armenia, then to Greece and Greek-influenced North Africa, then to central Italy (notably Rome), a few southern cities of France, and Spain, primarily in the South.
There were, of course, a few communities along the Rhine and Danube rivers and small groups of Christians wherever converted Romans went, along with the distant outpost in Kerala, India, established by the apostle Thomas. These were all outliers with tenuous connections to the Church federation now increasingly headed by Rome.
In the fifth and sixth centuries, there was a more concerted effort to reach out to the invading barbarians (who were called such by the Greeks because their speech sounded like “bar-bar”), and the faith reached through France and England as far north as Scotland and to the west to Ireland. On the continent, Christianity spread to cover rural areas along the banks of the Rhine and Danube all the way to the Black Sea.
The next few entries will review the expansion of Christianity in greater detail; for now, though, we need only note that most of what people in the West are accustomed to think of as foundational Christianity was actually the result of a second crop in the vineyards of the Lord.
Aside from expanding its geographic and cultural reach, the central institutions of the Christian faith experienced a larger role within society. In the absence of a central state authority in Rome, the pope, bishops, priests and deacons were forced to take on entirely new leadership roles in society.
For centuries Rome, with its armies and officials, had regulated and protected commerce, built and organized cities and public works that are still marvels today, enabled the development of education and learning, and legislated the social, political and economic order from Britain to Palestine and beyond.
Suddenly, marauding bands of illiterate hordes came pillaging, raping and marauding through much of Europe and North Africa, setting up their own kingdoms and fiefdoms ruled by nothing but the most brutish force. They had no idea how to manage aqueducts, build houses or run academies of learning, let alone make use of intellectual persuasion.
As a sample of the shock this caused, consider the words “vandal” and “vandalism,” which come from the name given to one of the barbarian tribes that overran the Roman Empire, the Vandals. Their name is associated with Vendel, a province in Uppland, Sweden, which may have been their original homeland, but it also is related to the Germanic verb wand, from which comes the English “wander.”
This nomadic East Germanic tribe, first observed in southern Poland, ravaged Europe, establishing kingdoms in Spain and later North Africa. Imagine the searing memory they must have left in civilized culture: even today their name is synonymous with the wanton destruction of property.
In the wake of tribes like the Vandals, order in the cities collapsed. Power shifted to rural areas, which at least had their own food.
Although the bulk of Christians remained in the eastern, Greek-speaking areas still under the control of Constantinople, the Roman popes were forced to remain nominally loyal to the emperor in the eastern capital. All the while they were making deals from the Adriatic to the West with the barbarian chieftains—most of whom had risen to power by being the most bloodthirsty of their tribe.
Suddenly, the keepers of doctrine, rituals and holy books were catapulted into the unenviable position of trying to save what shred of civility could be rescued by sheer brainpower.
This was, of course, the key comparative advantage of the people who led the Church. They were highly literate and educated. In many instances, they won over barbarian chieftains by becoming their scribes, or clerks—from which we get the terms “cleric” and “clergy.”
In the West, the Church filled a vacuum by becoming the institution that could preserve knowledge and dictate the rudiments of behavior to keep the peace in society. The pope became not merely a bishop who was primus inter pares (first among equals) within the ecclesiastical structure, but an overall arbiter of law and right between the various small kingdoms and fiefdoms that arose. Over time, this would have a potent corrupting effect on the clergy.
The long-term effect on the faith was the development of a rigorist and simplistic religion that played to both the puerile and superstitious nature of the new conquerors, while attempting to set things straight in the face of their patently uncivilized behavior.
“It is only when one has studied the depressing literature of the Penitentials or manuals for confessors; or the horrible domestic annals of the Merovingian princes with their monotonous record of parricides, adulteries, casual murders and unending civil wars … all of which present us with a practical view of the human material with which the Church then had to work—it is only then that one understands the reason for the rigorist spirit [of] the Church of the middle ages,” wrote Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican Benedictine monk and scholar, in his classic work The Shape of the Liturgy. “One may say that the clergy were leaving the people in their ignorance and superstitions; or one may say that in putting this emphasis on right conduct with a population still unlettered and very barbarous the clergy were putting first things first.”
It is in the next thousand years of dark ages that believers in the Christian faith attempted to survive, as true to the gospel as possible, at times experiencing saddening failures, yet often enough resulting in prodigious accomplishments in the face of adversity. This is where our story now takes us.