Ecclesia - Christian Influence after the Fall of Rome
Christian Clout from the Dark Ages to the Gothic
The Dark Ages were rife with the mass migrations of barbaric peoples. The Europeans, no longer under the hegemony of Rome, sought sanctuary from these “invaders.” The large-scale comings and going of the barbarians created what appeared to the Europeans as an epoch of chaos. In the “darkness” that engulfed the continent from roughly 500-800 AD, the people found a source of light, manifested in the Holy See. Christianity provided Europeans with a conception of morality, influencing monarchs, commoners, and the arts for centuries. The Church not merely influenced the politics, society, and art of Europe during the Dark and Medieval period, it dominated the development of European civilization.
The Latin Torch Still Burned in the Dark Ages
When the political structure of the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Europeans did not loose the ideas it promoted, they were still very much Romanized people. The Traditionalist view of history depicts the European society of the Dark Ages as illiterate, but this assumption is predicated upon the notion that these people were no longer reading Latin. They were illiterate in Latin, true, however there had already existed the protolanguages that would eventually evolve into the languages of Europe today, which the people would employ in their day-to-day interactions and public functions, and gradually develop written forms, when it became evident that recording information was necessary. However, Latin never quite vanished, because of the Church. The Vatican used Latin as the lingua franca for mass and religious doctrine. Having a common language for holy orders promoted the Church’s ease of disseminating the Faith. Influenced by this, in the Middle Ages, Latin too became the language of scholarship.
Arthurian Legend - Early Principles of a Moral Reign
The Arthur legend is important because it relays the belief of how a leader should rule his people. Medieval Europeans used foundation myths such as this one as a guideline for proper behavior expected from their kings. Christianity helped shape this conception of proper leadership by infusing their sense of morality into the tales. Good and evil were based on the Christian conceptions of these terms. This blend of Arthurian legend and Christian morality produced the idea of the “Law-Bound King.” In feudal society this idea of rule was important in preserving and progressing a successful system. The serfs were expected to cultivate the land, make tools and weapons, and raise livestock. But it was also necessary for the king to provide protection for his serfs; he was obligated to do so. This “social contract” was fortified by Christian thought. Rulers acted justly because achieving salvation required that they do so, and tyrants were loathed and often subverted. Most monarchs during the medieval period were Christian. It served them well, because Christianity represented a unifying power, and justified the right to the throne.
Case in Point: Charlemagne
Perhaps the quintessential example of the Church’s power in shaping the political system of European civilization can be observed in the reign of Charlemagne. In 800 AD, Pope Stephen III appointed him the first Holy Roman Emperor. It is with Charlemagne that the Church’s political clout is first witnessed, and establishes a relationship between Church and State that lasts into the Renaissance. Beginning with Charlemagne, when a ruler sought to legitimize his power, he looked towards the Church to sanction him. With God on his side, his absolute rule became unquestionable. The Church benefited from this exchange as well. Kings would ensure the Church’s dominance by protecting it when danger arose, and keeping their kingdoms Christianized. This dynamic between Church and State would change during the Renaissance, especially in Italy, when powerful families like the Medici of Florence bought papal favors from a weakening Vatican.
Oddly, Traditionalist historians have long criticized the art of the Dark Ages as being a “lower” art form because of its solely religious context. This is an oddity, because those same historians lauded the artworks of ancient Egypt, Sumer, Greece, and Rome, when many of those works had contained religious subject matter or served religious functions as well. Artists’ work often comments on the prevalent ideas and issues of their cultures. So it should not be a surprise that during the “Dark Ages,” when Christianity was the largest, most “universal” idea, that artists would choose to depict religious subject matter in their artwork. Unlike the Dark Ages, the Gothic era is praised for art that became more ornate and decorative, and this work is best seen in the cathedrals, enormous churches that seemed to rise to the heavens. Much like the monasteries of the earlier ages, cathedrals became sanctuaries for the terrorized, and Christianity yet again became the protector of the European people.
The power of the Church was certainly the predominant factor in shaping European civilization. It influenced kings by guiding them with a system of morality. It gave the commoners hope in a chaotic period. Thanks to the monks, what literature was not destroyed, especially when the Vikings came along, was protected and copied and disseminated. It inspired the incredible cathedrals with their beautiful stained glass paintings. With Rome gone, people needed some other cultural compass. Where better to find it than in a place where a shepherd leads the sheep?
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