A Visit to Reichenau

John Barton

  • The Formation of Christendom by Judith Herrin
    Fontana, 533 pp, £9.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 00 686182 2

Despite its enormous learning, Judith Herrin’s work is marked by small personal touches which humanise the intricate story it tells. In an Afterword, she recalls a visit to Reichenau, which will ring bells for anyone who has visited the great monastic centres there and elsewhere around Lake Constance. In this small, quiet, sunny spot in the foothills of the Alps all the sources of Carolingian culture, both literary and artistic, had been concentrated by the mid-ninth century. ‘As a symbol of the monastic refuge, which sheltered this culture through the vicissitudes of Medieval history and into the service of Renaissance Europe, Reichenau stands apart. It remains one of the most attractive emblems of the formation of Christendom.’

What went to form the Christian culture which Reichenau symbolises? Everyone knows that it took the careful preservation of Early Christian beliefs and practices through the so-called Dark Ages, and the maintenance along with them of the remnants of Classical civilisation, to create the possibility of ‘Europe’, conceived as a Christian continuation of the Roman Empire. Charlemagne’s coronation on Christmas Day 800 may symbolise ‘the birth of the West’, but only as the point on which rays of influence from all over Europe converged. The dark octagon of Charlemagne’s chapel in Aachen contains the whole inheritance of the religious and political history of Western Europe, just as the library in Reichenau would contain its definitive literary remains.

But Judith Herrin’s aim is to show that even so wide a framework of explanation is much too narrow. No sooner have we granted the importance of the transitional period between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages in making possible something called ‘Christendom’ in the West than we see that it was a period when West and East had not yet begun to go their separate ways. Events in Western Europe were not the result of causes in Western Europe. If Charlemagne founded a ‘Holy Roman Empire’ in the West, that was because there had long been a model of such an empire in the East; the very idea of Europe grew up only in the shadow of, and in reaction to, the Christian empire of the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus the history of Byzantium is directly part of the history of Western Christendom. The relations between the Western churches and the Papacy only make sense when we are aware of Rome’s troubled relations with the patriarchates of the East. To understand the political structures of Europe we have to trace them back to the inheritance of the once unified Roman world, in which East and West were parts of a greater whole.

But Byzantium was also indirectly essential to the development of the West, through its influence on the rising power of Islam. Western Europe came into being in the space created by the balance of power between the rulers of Byzantium and the forces of Islam. Neither was able to control the whole of the Mediterranean, and Western Christendom thus began to develop a distinctive character of its own, defined as much by negatives – not-Orthodox, not-Muslim – as by positive features such as the international currency of Latin and the unique, supranational status of the Papacy. Like the cultures by contrast with which it defined itself, Western Christendom constructed itself an imagined past: it saw itself as the special heir of Latin culture, as the guardian of religious orthodoxy, and even (through forgeries such as the Donation of Constantine) as the true inheritor of Roman authority. To understand ‘the formation of Christendom’, then, we must learn to see Carolingian Europe as it saw itself, with all the shortened perspective, the historical falsifications and illusions of grandeur, that make the story it told itself. And then we must unlearn the falsehoods, and see it against a backcloth so wide as to include the world of Byzantium and even of Persia, of ecclesiastical squabbles not only in Greek but even in Syriac-speaking churches, and of political disputes that never reached the ears of anyone in Northern Europe, but without which Charlemagne might never have been crowned in Aachen, nor the monks of Reichenau have collected the compendium of books that form such a coherent and distinctive monument of Western culture.

This is a massive task, and the result is a massive book. The style and presentation are clear, though the detail is at times overwhelming, and one can lose the thread of the argument. But it is in the detail that the book’s essence consists. The aim is to show that movements of history as large as ‘the rise of Europe’ have their being in an infinite collection of particular decisions, quarrels, accidents and chances. Since a companion volume is promised on ‘the physical substance of the Church, its properties, its accumulated wealth, and its economic role in dispensing charity’, this volume concentrates on ‘the structural role of faith in early Medieval society’ – the effect of disputes about religious dogma and the means adopted for their resolution. It was through them that the political structures of the churches of East and West came to settle into patterns that would determine the shape of Christian society in the two halves of Europe.

There is therefore a good deal of discussion of particular doctrinal disputes. Sometimes these may be summarised a little too tersely for the reader who is not a theologian. For example, the discussion of Nestorius and the debate about the Virgin’s title Theotokos is accurate but may not convey to the ‘general reader’ who is meant to buy the book just what was felt to be at issue at the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. (An oddity of the book is the use of Greek forms in -os for names such as Nestorius and Ephesus: consistent but against accepted usage.) On this theological side, however, the book’s great strength is its emphasis on doctrinal diversity in the churches of this period. Christianity emerges as a sort of federal religion, with no strong central authority and an almost chaotic variety of beliefs. Local loyalties produced an insistence on maintaining the local version, and attempts to impose ‘orthodoxy’ by other parts of the Church seldom had more than partial success. The rise of the Papacy to a position of universal authority in the West is shown to have occurred by a series of occasional decisions – more often than not the result of a desire to avoid accepting the authority of an Eastern patriarch, rather than part of a positive respect for the status of the Bishop of Rome. There is much good material on the relative independence of the churches in Spain, as well as a discussion of Celtic varieties of Christianity. Here again, minute attention to detail warns the reader off any easy generalisations about ‘the Church’ in this or indeed any other period. The skill with which a sense of local particularity is captured through the accumulation and ordering of huge amounts of detailed information reminds one of the work of Peter Brown, to whom, of course, the author (in common with many scholars) owes many of her insights into the world of Late Antiquity. But the application of this approach to the ‘Dark Ages’ is all her own, and the result has the air of a definitive study: the promised sequel cannot come too soon.

The book divides into three parts. The first is a study of ‘Late Antiquity’, the context within which the Christian churches first formed and began to develop their distinctive styles and polities. It is here, as one would expect, that the influence of Peter Brown is most visible. The way in which the inheritance of Classical Antiquity passed to the Church is traced, and the diverse ways in which it was appropriated are stressed.

Thus the scene is set for a detailed examination, in Part Two, of the development ‘From Christian Schism to Division’. The gradual inclusion of Northern Europe into Western Christendom is described, and there are chapters on the three major causes of the movement towards a more diverse identity for Christian believers in different parts of Europe. ‘The Achievement of Gregory the Great’ shows how occasional and piecemeal were the reforms which, taken together, made Gregory effectively the founder of the Medieval Papacy – one in whose episcopal reign relations with Constantinople were coloured by its perceived threat to the authority of the Roman see. The Eastern churches, meanwhile, were facing from the mid-sixth and throughout the seventh century the growing threat of Islam, as a chapter on ‘Byzantium confronted by Islam’ shows. The preoccupation of the East with the need to counter Islam corresponded as yet to nothing in the experience of the Western churches, and in some of these churches a strong indigenous character made even Rome quite remote from their concerns. This is documented in a chapter on ‘The Visigothic Alternative’, describing in detail the life of the Spanish churches in the seventh century and especially the learned work of Isidore of Seville. The distinctive contribution of Spain to Christian doctrine in this period can be seen in its insistence on the ‘double procession’ of the Holy Spirit (from the Father and the Son), which was endorsed at the Council of Toledo in 633 and enshrined in the liturgical form of the so-called Nicene Creed, still used to this day in all the Western churches, to the scandal of the Eastern Orthodox. Isidore’s ideas about the ideal Christian monarchy were to contribute signally to the theory espoused by Charlemagne. The final chapter of this section, ‘The Roots of Christian Disunity, 649-92’, chronicles the pressures that pushed Christians apart in the course of the seventh century: especially quarrels between Rome and the Eastern churches over matters of religious orthodoxy; the expansion of Islam in the Eastern Mediterranean; and a greater awareness of the cultural diversity among Christians brought about through pilgrimages from many Western centres to Rome. It was in this chapter that I began to feel that the argument was drifting a little, with much miscellaneous material assembled under a catch-all title. Nevertheless, the overall structure of Part Two amply demonstrates the main thesis: growing division, a sense that the Christian world was no longer (if it ever had been) one thing, and fierce local and regional loyalties making it improbable that it would ever be so again.

Part Three is called ‘The Three Heirs of Rome’, and investigates ‘the nature of the specifically “western” development associated with the year 800’. It sees the growth of a ‘European’ ideal through the work of Charlemagne and his successors, not as a sudden new idea, but rather as an inevitable outcome, once it had become plain that no single power, uniting the whole known ‘world’ as Rome had done, could ever emerge again. ‘Within a Mediterranean context ... it becomes evident’ that the ‘western’ development was ‘one part of a much larger process, whose centre of gravity lay in the East. The “Rise of Islam” and the consolidation of a transformed Byzantine Empire were simultaneous with and related to the advances made by the Franks and their Papal allies. The correlation of all three forces, Islamic, Byzantine, and Frankish-Papal, ensured that no one military order or religious culture would again unite the world that had been Rome’s.’ Accordingly this part contains (in four chapters) an assessment of the iconoclast controversy and its aftermath in both East and West; the rise of the Franks; the achievements of Charlemagne; and (very briefly) the subsequent history of the Eastern and Western emperors of the Holy Roman Empire until their respective ends in 1806 and 1917. By now, a certain breathlessness is overtaking both author and reader. But Judith Herrin’s task is accomplished anyway. This paperback edition (the hardback appeared in 1987) puts it within reach of non-specialists. It deserves a warm welcome.