Thus, I have decided that this coming penitential season of Lent is the perfect occasion to review ways in which medieval Christians betrayed the hopes of the Galilean woodworker who started it all. This, too, is part of the story of the faith.
But first, let me set the stage with three last figures from early medieval Christianity. Two are scholarly men who highlight ways the faith of the West became rooted in British and Spanish societies, two major fountainheads of Christianity as it was carried across the Atlantic. Another highlights how the Church structure became enmeshed with the structures of power.
Isidore the Archbishop
Isidore of Seville (560-636) was most likely born in Cartagena, a southern town on the Mediterranean Sea, into a family of high social rank of Hispano-Roman and Visigoth origin.
Like many other canonized saints of the era Isidore had a churchy family. He was the younger brother of St. Leander, who preceded him as archbishop of Seville and the older brother of St. Fulgencius, who became a bishop in another diocese of Andalucia, and Florentina, who became an abbess and religious superior of a network of 40 convents.
He studied at the cathedral school of Seville, one of the first of its kind in Spain, where the most learned people of Seville, including Leander, taught and met. There is some debate as to whether Isidore became a monk for a time, but when Leander died, in 600 or 601, Isidore was appointed to succeed him in the see of Seville, a post he held for more than 30 years.
He followed in Leander’s footsteps. The elder brother had been a companion of Gregory the Great in Constantinople and was regarded as one of the leading lights of councils of Toledo and Seville. He had also led the struggle to wipe out the heresy of Arianism from his region, a task Isidore completed.
Isidore crowned his ecclesiastical achievements at the Fourth National Council of Toledo, in 633, when the bishops of Spain were urged to establish seminaries in their cathedral city seats, modeled on his own school in Seville.
His longest-lasting work, however, was his scholarship. Notably, long before the Arab world awoke to an appreciation of Greek philosophy, he introduced Aristotle to Seville.
He was the first Christian writer to attempt an encyclopedia of human knowledge, including Christian teachings. In a work that took roughly 25 years to compose, Isidore produced the Etymologiae (“the Etymologies”), a veritable encyclopedia consisting of 448 chapters in 20 volumes.
This work includes his own digest of Roman textbooks, miscellanies and compendia, abridgments and summaries of all the Roman learning of late Antiquity. This left future generations many fragments of classical learning that otherwise would have been lost. The work covers, among other things, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, geometry, music, astronomy, medicine, law, the Catholic Church, heretical sects, pagan philosophers, languages, cities, animals and birds, the physical world, geography, public buildings, roads, metals, rocks, agriculture, ships, clothes, food and tools.
The Etymologiae became the most used sourcebook of the Middle Ages, often supplanting the works it summarized, and was printed in at least 10 editions between 1472 and 1530. A last, scholarly edition was printed in English in 1911.
There is a scar of darkness, however, on Isidore’s escutcheon, which I reserve for the Lenten series.
Bede the Monk
Bede the Venerable (673-735) undoubtedly knew of Isidore, whose major work was lodged in the Northumbrian monasteries in which he lived. In Bede's time, this area was part of the Kingdom of Linsey, and he may have been high born, although his own recounting, the major biographical source, does not say.
A the age of seven he was was sent to the monastery of Monkwearmouth by his family to be educated by the abbot, a common practice among the Christianized Celts and Germanic peoples. He may or may not have been intended for the priesthood, but that is where his life led.
At 17, the abbot of Iona Abbey, the Scottish monastic community founded by St. Columba, visited Bede’s monastery, and his talks sparked the young monk’s interest in the controversy surrounding the date of Easter.
This was a long-standing debate (begun in the year 190 and still unresolved) over whether to base the date of Easter on the Jewish calendar’s 14th day of the month of Nisan, the day before the gospels place the crucifixion, as was common in the Eastern churches. Or to use other methods, more or less independent of the Jewish calendar, as was the case in some but not all parts of the Western Church until the reform of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. The topic is believed to have been the spark that transformed him into a scholar.
He was ordained a deacon at 25, which was young at that time, and a priest at 30, around the year 702.
Bede wrote his first works, the De Arte Metrica and De Schematibus et Tropis, classroom texts, at about that time. He continued to write for the rest of his life, eventually completing over 60 books.
A complaint in 708 made by monks at Hexham who accused Bede of heresy in his work De Temporibus gives a sense of the intellectual world he inhabited. Bede calculated the age of the world for himself, rather than accepting Isidore’s authority, and concluded that Christ had been born 3,952 years after the creation of the world, rather than 5,000 plus years as was commonly accepted. (Protestant fundamentalists today tend to go with the 17th century Irish Bishop James Ussher, who famously put time and date of creation as “the entrance of the night preceding the 23rd day of October ... the year before Christ 4004.”)
Bede’s crowning achievement, however, is his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (An Ecclesiastical History of the English People), completed about 731 and dedicated to Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria (into which Linsey was absorbed). He took his style and research method from Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea at the time of the first Nicene council, whose Ecclesiastical History remains the preeminent early story of Christianity after the New Testament. His story begins with the Roman conquest of Britain in the year 55 BCE to his own era, including an autobiographical chapter. The work has placed Bede as the father of English history.
There was, however, another side to Bede, of whom it was said, “I can with truth declare that I never saw with my eyes or heard with my ears anyone return thanks so unceasingly to the living God.” These are the words Bede's disciple Cuthbert.
Cuthbert left a moving tale of Bede’s death on the vigil of the Ascension, 735. Bede was busy dictating a translation of the Gospel of John. His scribe, a boy named Wilbert, said to him: “There is still one sentence, dear master, which is not written down.” Then Bede supplied the sentence. The boy then agreed that the work was finished. “Thou hast spoken truth,” Bede replied, “it is finished. Take my head in thy hands for it much delights me to sit opposite any holy place where I used to pray, that so sitting I may call upon my Father.” On the floor of his cell singing, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost,” he breathed his last.
Bede is revered as a Doctor (or teacher) of the Church and a saint in the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
Our third figure is Charles the Great (in Latin Carolus Magnus), the first of that name to become king of the Franks (ca. 742-814), who was not a saint by any means.
Charles took the Frankish throne in 768 and became King of Italy in 774. Notably, in 800 he became the first Holy Roman Emperor; that is, ruler of much of modern Italy, France and Germany as the first recognized emperor in Western Europe since the fall of Rome three centuries earlier. Moreover, this coup was accomplished by having Pope Leo III crown him on Christmas Day in the old Basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome.
It was a feat Napoleon attempted to replicate 1,000 years later, with good reason. Charlemagne was, effectively, the major political figure who laid the foundation of Western Christendom, the European monarchical structure of society that claimed divine legitimacy and Christian inspiration until as late as World War I. Its ideology rested on turning the gospel’s “rule of God” into a “kingdom of God” that echoed the traditionalist European caste system and was said to be presided over, of course, by Christ the King.