Spreading the gospel in the Middle Ages

(Bernard Hamilton)

Although Westernres did not set out to explore the world until the fifteenth century, their beliefs had long since penetrated far and wide. When Constantine the Great and his colleague Licinius had declared Christianity a lawful religion in the Roman Empire in AD 313, they ended almost three centuries of sporadic but sometimes severe persecution. There were many different Christian sects in the fourth century, but the largest and best organised called itself the Catholic (or universal) church and in 392 Theodosius I made Catholic Christianity the official religion of the Empire. The other sects had died out by c.700 and almost all the churches of the medieval world traced their descent from the Catholic church of the fourth century. They accepted the same Biblical books as canonical; their public
worship centred on the eucharist, and authority in all of them was vested in bishops. Medieval Christianity in all its forms was deeply influenced by monasticism, a practice that had spread from fourth-century Egypt to all parts of the Christian world, and men and women who lived as religious solitaries were held in particularly high esteem.

The Catholic church, which worshipped in Latin and acknowledged the pope as its senior bishop, was the only institution that survived the collapse of Roman power in the western provinces during the fifth century and the formation of independent kingdoms there by Germanic settlers. By the seventh century all those rulers had been converted to Catholicism, which had also spread beyond the former imperial frontiers to the Celtic lands in Scotland and Ireland. Medieval Western Europe may have been politically fragmented but it remained united in a shared religious faith.

Catholic Europe proved resilient to attacks from new enemies in the years 800-1000--the Vikings from the north, the Magyars from the east and the Muslims of North Africa from the south. Partly as a result of intermarriage between the invaders and Western Christians, the Catholic religion spread throughout Scandinavia and also to the new lands which the Vikings had discovered and settled in the north Atlantic, notably Iceland and Greenland, where a bishopric was established in 1112. Similarly, the Magyars, together with the other peoples of central Europe, such as the Bohemians and the Poles, were converted to Catholicism by c.1000. Sicily, Iberia and the Balearic
islands were recaptured from the Muslims in a series of wars supported by the Papacy, which began in the eleventh century but only ended when Granada fell to the Catholic kings of Spain in 1492. Although there were Jewish communities in some cities and groups of Muslims in some southern frontier regions, by 1050 the vast majority of the inhabitants of western Europe were members of the Catholic Church. Small dissenting movements developed during the eleventh century and a tradition of dissent lived on throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, but its impact was limited except in some areas such
as thirteenth-century Languedoc and fifteenth-century Bohemia.

In the early medieval centuries the Western church had been the custodian of literacy in a barbarian world and it inevitably became involved in the work of secular government, since rulers relied on the clergy to draft laws and keep records. The Church worshipped in Latin and preserved the Classical tradition of learning in some of its monastic and cathedral schools. Western Catholic civilisation reached maturity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when its growth of scholarship found institutional expression in the emergence
of universities where students were trained to argue in terms of Aristotelian logic. In time this led to the reformulation of Christian doctrine by theologians such as St Thomas Aquinas, who sought to demonstrate that there was no necessary conflict between human reason and divine revelation.

The foundation of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders of friars in the thirteenth century transformed the spiritual life of the Western Church. Their members took the traditional monastic vows, but devoted their lives to pastoral work, aiming to produce a well-instructed and devout laity. They encouraged men and women to seek holiness not in the traditional way by renouncing the world, but by remaining in the world and consecrating their everyday lives to God's service.

The Church always patronised the arts. Romanesque, and later Gothic, churches were decorated with frescoes and embellished with stained glass, a distinctively Western form of religious art. Traditional plainsong accompaniment of the liturgy was augmented in the fourteenth century by polyphony. It was therefore natural that, when a revival of interest in the literature and art of classical Greece and Rome developed in fourteenth-century Italy, the Church should share this enthusiasm and by 1500 Rome had become the centre of the Renaissance as well as the religious capital of Western Europe.

The Church developed in different ways in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople, which Constantine the Great had made his capital in 325. This part of the Roman state, which survived until the Turkish conquest of 1453, took its name from Byzantium, the former Greek name for Constantinople. Here the emperor was regarded as the vicegerent of Christ the King in temporal affairs, while the patriarch of Constantinople was head of the church hierarchy and custodian of the Orthodox faith (as the church became known in the Middle Ages).

Constantinople was the largest city in the medieval Christian world and its cathedral, the church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), commissioned by Justinian I (527-65), was a masterpiece of engineering in which a huge dome was suspended above a large basilica. The interior was clad in marble and decorated with mosaics and the church could provide the most magnificent liturgy in Christendom. In the ninth century, Orthodox missions from
Constantinople converted the Bulgars, Serbs and Slavs, tribes who had invaded and settled the Balkan provinces some 200 years before. In the ninth century saints Cyril and Methodius devised a written form of the Slav language and the new churches came to use translations of the Orthodox liturgy into the Old Slavonic language made by their disciples. Byzantine Orthodoxy in the Old Slavonic rite also spread to Russia after Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptised in 988.

Monasticism occupied an important place in the Byzantine Church and when St Athanasius founded the Grand Laura on Mount Athos near Thessalonica in 963 and the monks were given control over the thirty-five mile long peninsula, this became the spiritual centre of the Orthodox world. Communities from the Balkans, the Caucasus and Russia, as well as from the Greek provinces, were soon established there.

No other civilisation has ever approached the degree of aesthetic and technical mastery which the Byzantines achieved in the production of mosaics, but that was an elite form of religious art because it was so costly. Icons, or religious paintings on wooden panels, which are focuses of devotion in Orthodox churches and homes, have occupied an important role in devotional life at all social levels since the eighth century. These have had a spiritual significance since the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 defended the use of religious representational art by arguing that Christ, through his incarnation, had made it possible for the entire material creation to be
consecrated to the glory of God and to become a vehicle of grace.

Although in the early Middle Ages the Byzantine and Western churches were united in matters of faith, they later came to understand some parts of that faith (for example, the role in the universal Church of the pope as successor of St Peter) in different ways. Political tensions between the West and Byzantium culminated in the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, and exacerbated those differences and in the thirteenth century led to a schism which has not yet been healed.

A third centre of Christianity developed in late antiquity, when Antioch in Syria, which had occupied an important place in the history of the early Church, was one of the greatest cities in the eastern Mediterranean. By the fifth century its bishop had been given the title of Patriarch and was regarded as their head by all the churches of Asia.

Monasticism flourished in fifth-century Syria and asceticism took some extreme forms. St Symeon Stylites left his monastery in 423 and spent the remainder of his life atop a series of increasingly high columns, on the last of which, 60 feet high, he remained for twenty years, absorbed in prayer, until his death in 459. Huge numbers of people visited him to seek intercession for their illnesses and afflictions and on occasion the emperor in Constantinople sent to ask his advice.

During the fifth century serious divisions arose among the Christians of the East. These grew out of disagreements between theologians, who sought to define the traditional belief that Christ was both the Son of God and the son of Mary, in Greek philosophical terminology. Some of the decisions about these disputes, were ratified by General Councils of the Church and proved acceptable in the Greek provinces, were rejected by some bishops in the eastern provinces for reasons that were often more semantic than substantive; but those dissenting bishops attracted a wide following among the non-Hellenic population which had little sympathy with the Imperial Church in Constantinople. Attempts to find a compromise broke down in the sixth century and divisions became permanent. While some people remained faithful to the Orthodox patriarchs of Antioch, who were in communion with
Constantinople, large numbers seceded to form the Jacobite church, named after its first bishop, Jacob Baradeus, which had its own patriarch and worshipped in Syriac--the common speech at the time. In the seventh century matters were further complicated when the Maronites, found chiefly in Mount Lebanon, also broke away from the Orthodox church and appointed their own patriarch.

The bishop of Jerusalem, who had been given the title of patriarch in 451 by the Council of Chalcedon, had jurisdiction over Palestine. That province remained largely Orthodox. Jerusalem, the mother-church of Christendom, was a spiritual focus for the whole Christian world. In 325 Constantine the Great ordered a church to be built on what were traditionally believed to be the sites of Calvary and of Christ's tomb in Jerusalem. This great shrine, known to the Byzantines as the Anastasis or church of the Resurrection, and to Western Christians as the church of the Holy Sepulchre, immediately
became a focus of pilgrimage and remained so throughout the Middle Ages despite frequent changes of secular ruler. Adherents of churches throughout the world met and worshipped at the shrine of their founder.

When in c.640 the Arab followers of the Prophet Muhammad conquered Syria and Palestine, they tolerated all forms of Christianity equally, but forbade Christians to proselytise Muslims on pain of death. Although in 800-950 there were large-scale conversions to Islam, Christians still remained a significant minority in those regions. The First Crusade (1096-99) brought much of this area under Western (Frankish) rule for some 200 years. The Franks established the Catholic Church in their kingdom, but tolerated all forms of
eastern-rite Christianity. During this period the Maronite Church came into full communion with the Western Church; it preserved its own hierarchy, liturgy and canon law and its patriarch was made directly subject to the pope. That union has lasted to the present day. Although the Franks were finally driven out of the Holy Land in 1291, a Catholic presence was restored there in 1336 when the sultan of Egypt allowed the Franciscans to establish the Custodia Terrae Sanctae to minister to Western pilgrims visiting the Holy Places.

Moving further east, Christianity had reached the Caucasus in the fourth century. Armenia, where King Tiridates III was converted by St Gregory the Illuminator in c.314, justly claims to be the first Christian state, since in the Roman Empire at that time Christianity, though tolerated, was not the established religion. In the neighbouring kingdom of Iberia (Georgia), the introduction of Christianity in the fourth century was traditionally ascribed to St Nino, the only woman who has ever been given the honorary title of
Apostle. Both Caucasian churches came to adopt a vernacular liturgy,but whereas the Georgian church remained in communion with the Orthodox church of Byzantium, the Armenian church refused to recognise the General Council of Chalcedon of 451 at which it had not been represented, and became independent under its own Catholicus in the early seventh century. The Armenians, despite being widely dispersed throughout the Levant and the Near East during the Middle Ages, preserved their religious identity and their church developed distinctive forms of liturgy, chant and canon law.

Christians were always in a minority in the Persian Empire, where Zoroastrianism was the established religion, and Christians there were initially subject to the patriarchs of Antioch; but they became involved in the Christological disputes of the fifth century and in the 480s most of them seceded to form an independent church with its own patriarch. They are often, but wrongly, called Nestorians. They called themselves the Church of the East, and are also known as Chaldean Christians.

The Arab conquest of the seventh century, which led to the establishment of Islam, made little difference to their status. Many Persian Christians became Muslims in the ninth and tenth centuries, but these losses were offset by the missionary activity of the church of the East outside the Arab Empire. A stele at Xian in China records the arrival in 635 of a Christian mission from Persia and relates how the Emperor Taizong had the Christian scriptures translated and, finding the new faith `mysterious, wonderful and calm', gave permission for a monastery to be founded in his capital. The Church of the East flourished in China until 845 when it was proscribed by the Emperor Wuzong, a devout Daoist. Meanwhile churches had been founded along the trade routes linking Persia and China and in 795 the patriarch Timothy I had consecrated a bishop for Tibet. In c.1000 the ruler of the Keraits, a Mongol-Turkic people, became a Christian, and that religion then spread not only among his own tribe, but also among the neighbouring peoples of central Asia, the Naimans and the Merkits.

Thus when Genghis Khan became ruler of the Mongol confederacy in 1206, he numbered Christian princes among his vassals. His successors, while not themselves becoming Christians, favoured the Church of the East. When they conquered China they allowed Christian clergy to operate there, and when they sacked Baghdad in 1258 the entire population was put to the sword--except for the patriarch of the East and his flock. The Mongols appointed Christians to positions of authority in the Muslim lands which they conquered because they trusted them and under Mongol rule the Church of the East reached the pinnacle of its power.

This Christian ascendancy was deeply resented by the non-Christian subjects of the Mongols. After the Mongol Ilkhan of Persia was converted to Islam in 1295 the church of the East was severely persecuted by the Muslim majority there, and similarly, when the native Ming dynasty overthrew Mongol rule in China in 1368, Christians lost favour and were driven underground. Thereafter the once great church of the East fell into decline, and by 1500 had relatively few adherents.

The one part of the Arab Empire in which Christians were not tolerated was Arabia. In late antiquity there had been numerous churches in many of the coastal provinces of the peninsula, as well as along the borders with Syria and Mesopotamia, but it was later claimed that Muhammad, when dying, had expressed a wish that all Arabs (and therefore by implication the whole of Arabia) should be of one faith. That policy was only slowly implemented, but by AD 1000 no traces of organised Christianity were to be found on the Arabian mainland, although the island of Socotra, between Arabia and Horn of
Africa, was still inhabited by Chaldean Christians when the Portuguese annexed it in 1507.

From at least the fourth century there were Christian churches on the Malabar coast of South India which claimed to have been founded by the Apostle Thomas. Although that claim is not impossible, it rests on tradition alone. Very little evidence has survived about the history of these South Indian Christians during the Middle Ages, but when the Portuguese reached India in the early sixteenth century they found that the St Thomas's Christians worshipped in Syriac and were ruled by Persian bishops appointed by the patriarch of the church of the East in Baghdad. The lower clergy were South Indians and their church had accepted the caste system of the dominant Hindu culture in which they lived. Thus, although untouchables were baptised by them, they were not allowed to worship with the rest of the community. This practice was challenged by the Western Catholic clergy who ministered to the Portuguese.

In late antiquity Christianity had also been strongly rooted in north Africa, which had produced such notable theologians as St Cyprian and St Augustine. All the provinces to the west of Cyrene (in modern Libya) formed part of the Western church and worshipped in Latin. In the sixth century successful missions were conducted among the nomads of the Sahara, and some of the Garamantes became Latin Christians. Yet after the Arab conquest the North African churches began to decline. This was a slow process, and popes continued to appoint bishops to sees like Carthage and Tripoli until the middle of the twelfth century, but traces of organised, indigenous Christian communities become rare after that time.

Cyrene and Egypt formed part of the Hellenistic world. Christians there worshipped in Greek and were subject to the patriarch of Alexandria. In the fourth century Egypt was gripped by monastic fervour. The land of the pharaohs was transformed; the festival hall of Thutmosis III in the temple of Karnak was turned into a church, while Christian anchorites (hermits) lived in some of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

The Christological controversies of the fifth century proved as divisive in Egypt as in Syria and from the 530s a schism developed between the Hellenised population living in some of the cities of the Nile delta, who remained in communion with the Orthodox patriarchs of Alexandria, and the rest of the population, who formed the Coptic church of Egypt with its own patriarch. Coptic, a late form of ancient Egyptian language, was the common speech of Egypt and was used by the Coptic church in its liturgy. The Coptic church was a sister-church of the Jacobite church of Syria.

The Arabs who conquered Egypt in the 640s recognised both churches. Islam later made many converts, and by the tenth century, Egyptian Christians had become a minority, albeit a substantial one, but the Coptic patriarchs continued to be treated with respect by the Muslim rulers because they were the acknowledged heads of the churches in the kingdoms of Nubia, to the south of Egypt along the Nile. Early Arab attempts to annex Nubia failed and after 650 the Egyptian frontier was fixed at Philae. To the south were two independent kingdoms: Makuria, which extended from Philae to the sixth cataract of the Nile, and Alwa, whose capital was at Soba on the Blue Nile,
near modern Khartoum. Both kingdoms had become Christian in the sixth century, and throughout Nubia the Nile was lined with churches and monasteries, decorated with vivid and distinctive frescoes, in which the liturgy of Alexandria was sung in Greek. The churches in both kingdoms acknowledged the Coptic patriarch as their head and he consecrated their metropolitan bishops. These vigorous Christian cultures only collapsed towards the end of the Middle Ages when royal power grew weak in both kingdoms and church organisation broke down.

The kingdom of Axum, from which the medieval kingdom of Ethiopia evolved,-became Christian during the reign of King Ezana (r. 325-52). In the Middle Ages the Abuna, or head of the Ethiopian church, was always an Egyptian monk appointed by the Coptic patriarch, but apart from this link Ethiopian Christianity developed largely in isolation and in a distinctive way. In the seventh century the church abandoned Greek and adopted the vernacular language Geeze in its liturgy. In accordance with a vision of the worship of Paradise granted to St Yared, sistrums or sacred rattles were shaken and drums beaten to accompany the chant in ecclesiastical processions, while colourful liturgical umbrellas were held over the clergy to protect them from
the sun.

The ascetic tradition of early Egyptian monasticism was preserved in Ethiopia. Many monasteries were built on the tops of sheer-sided rock formations, or on narrow ledges high on the sides of mountains, and were approachable only by climbing up ropes lowered by the brethren. Although such locations were chosen partly for reasons of security, the monks also wished to live in places which were as remote as possible from the world.

The Egyptians thought of Ethiopia as a distant and exotic land from which embassies sometimes came to Cairo bringing unusual gifts, such as that sent in 1209 by King Lalibela with an elephant, a giraffe, a hyena and a zebra for the sultan and a crown of pure gold for the Coptic Patriarch. Like most medieval Christians, Lalibela believed the church was the new Israel. At his capital, Roha (now called Lalibela), he commissioned the construction of a large number of shrine churches hewn from the living rock. This was to be a centre of pilgrimage and a symbol to his people of Holy Zion, for many of the
churches were named after the chief shrines of Jerusalem. The earliest written evidence for the Ethiopian epic, the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of the Kings), dates from his reign, and relates how the kings of Ethiopia are descended from Menelik, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who is said to have brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Ethiopia.

In the later Middle Ages every church in Ethiopia had a tabot, a portable altar-slab symbolising the Ark of the Covenant, and when a tabot was carried in procession outside a church the clergy danced before it as King David had once danced before the Ark, but the true Ark was believed to rest in the cathedral at Axum. Alone among the churches of Africa, that of Ethiopia increased in size and power during the Middle Ages by evangelising the huge areas conquered by the crown in the province of Shoa to the south and around Lake Tana to the west.