History of the Church: Early Middle Ages - Notre Dame

Conversion of Western Europe

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I. The Popes and the Conversion of Nations

We have seen what monks did for Europe; it remains to study the work of the Popes. The supremacy of the Popes was recognized by all Catholic peoples, and was of immense influence in bringing order and peace to the nations. The Popes never ceased exhorting Kings to govern justly and to be merciful to the conquered. They made useful laws and regulations to restrain the undue use of power by nobles and other superiors; their voice was ever heard in defence of the weak, the poor, and the suffering. A constant intercourse with Rome was kept up by the several nations of Europe, and the Pope's decrees were received as law by all. If on no other subject there was agreement, yet in faith, and in the language of the Church, Europe was one. It is impossible but that this must have greatly tended to promote the order and peace that are necessary for real progress and civilization.

What the power of a Pope for good was will be best seen by following the career of one of the most celebrated of the early medieval Pontiffs. St. Gregory I., surnamed the Great, was elected Pope in A.D. 590. He was of the same noble and wealthy family as St. Benedict—the Anicii. After a brilliant career as Praetor of Rome, he determined to give up the world. He founded on his estates seven great monasteries, and placed Benedictine monks in each. He entered the last of his foundations, that of St. Andrew on the Caelian Hill. Here he lived as a most saintly religious till Pope Benedict I. made him one of the Cardinal Deacons of Rome, A.D. 575. The next Pope sent him as Ambassador to Constantinople, where he remained six years, after which he gladly returned to his beloved monastery, of which he was soon chosen Abbot. It was at this time that the well-known incident occurred in the slave-market which led to the conversion of England. So much was Gregory touched at the thought of the sad state of the fair Angles that, with the Pope's leave, he started for England with several monks to preach the true faith to those distant islanders But the Roman people raised such an outcry at finding he was gone that the Pope had to send for him to come back.

This Pope, Pelagius II., died in A.D. 590, and to his intense distress Gregory was immediately elected in his place. But his sorrow did not prevent him from working hard for the flock committed to his care. It was in a sad state. Arianism reigned throughout all the countries bordering on the Mediterranean. England, Germany, and the lands round the North Sea and Baltic were still pagan. The Franks alone had received the faith, but they were still only half converted. Besides this, the Eastern Emperors continually sought to oppress the Church and harass the Popes in the exercise of their sacred duties.

Pope St. Gregory laboured long and earnestly at the conversion of all the heretical and pagan nations of Europe, sending missionaries or encouraging the clergy already at work, writing numerous letters, and sending instructions to Bishops and exhortations to Sovereigns. He had the happiness of seeing the Lombards, the Spaniards, the Portuguese, and the English enter the true fold. These glorious gains to the Church were the fruit of his zeal.

But this was only a part of his labours. No kind of need escaped his vigilant care. The ill-used slaves, peasantry, and Jews found in him a protector and a friend. His love for the poor was unbounded; he founded orphanages, schools for the poor, and refuges for the aged—the first establishments of the kind we read of in history.

St. Gregory will always be remembered for his connexion with sacred music. The Church's chant, known as the Gregorian, was arranged by him. From all nations men flocked to the school of music which he founded in Rome, and for ages the study of sacred song was one of the important parts of a lad's education.

This great Pope, the first monk who sat in the chair of St. Peter, promoted the welfare of monastic Orders with all the weight of his authority and sanctity. He solemnly confirmed the Rule of St. Benedict, and watched over the interests of all the monasteries of the East and the West. To the last day of his life, his one regret was that he could no longer enjoy the peaceful life of the cloister which he loved so dearly.

This life of incessant toil and vigilant care for the whole Church was passed in a state of severe and almost constant suffering. After fourteen years of Pontificate, he died in A.D. 604. He is truly Gregory the Great, not only because of the enormous difficulties he overcame, because of the lands he conquered for the Church, the power he won for the Holy See, but "for the renown of his virtue, the candour of his innocence, the humble and inexhaustible tenderness of his heart."

II. The Western States

The first of the Teutonic tribes to submit to the teaching of the Church was that of the Franks, a bold people from Germany who occupied the banks of the Rhine. They were divided into two sections—the Ripuarian Franks, who dwelt on the lowlands of the great delta, the Belgium and Holland of to-day; and the Salic Franks, who settled farther south, and held the north-east of what is now France and that part of Germany on the opposite bank of the Rhine. The rest of France was divided between the Visigoths, who held the south and west, and the Burgundians, who occupied the east. Both these peoples were Arians when they settled in Gaul; but the Franks were pagans, and it was while they were conquering the territory named above that they were converted.

The chief of the Salic Franks was Clovis, a very savage but renowned warrior. His wife, Clotilda of Burgundy, was a Catholic, and her virtuous life had already influenced her pagan husband when the event occurred which led to the conversion of the whole people. In one of the numerous struggles for the mastery among the invading tribes, Clovis took the part of the Ripuarian Franks and marched to their assistance. Clotilda besought him, if in danger, to invoke the Christians' God, and promised him safety and victory if he would do so. The armies engaged at Tolbiac, near Cologne, A.D. 496. The moment foreseen by the pious Queen arrived. The Franks, driven back by the powerful Allemanni, were giving way, when Clovis, in despair, vowed to become a Christian if the tide of battle turned in his favour. His troops immediately rallied and won the day. Clovis kept his vow. On the following Christmas Day he and many of his subjects were baptized.

The Franks gradually conquered and settled in the whole of Gaul north of the Loire, and called it Francia, their capital being transferred from Soissons to Paris. Many regard this as the beginning of the French nation, and Clovis as the first of the Merovingian line of Kings who ruled this people for about 240 years. He was also the first Catholic King in Europe, and is therefore called the "Eldest Son of the Church."

South of the Loire the Franks made other conquests, but they merely governed them, and did not settle there. Through all the Frankish dominions the faith soon spread, but centuries elapsed before these tribes wholly lost their pagan habits and became a thoroughly Christian people. Many a savage deed is told even of Catholic Sovereigns and nobles, and the story of the Merovingian period is one of the darkest pages in history. The lives of many saintly Bishops and Princesses, however, contrast strangely with the horrible tales of the people among whom they dwelt.

The Ripuarian Franks were not converted till two centuries later, St. Livinus, an Irish monk, being their apostle.

The Arian population of Burgundy was won back to the true faith principally by the labours of under St. Irish missionaries, St. Columban and twelve monks from the famous Monastery of Bangor in Ulster. It was nearly a hundred years after the conversion of Clovis that St. Columban and his companions presented themselves at the Court of King Gontram of Burgundy. This good King was a Catholic, and he easily persuaded the missionaries to remain in his dominions and to preach to his people. The monks had many privations to endure, but the example of their patience and holiness soon began to make itself felt. The King gave them some ruined Roman castles, which they turned into monasteries. These were no sooner founded than they were filled with monks, each monastery becoming a centre from which religion, learning, and agriculture spread on all sides. The Rule of St. Columban was very severe, but this seemed to draw the brave-hearted Gothic people rather than to frighten them, and the monasteries and convents founded by the Saint covered the whole land.

St. Columban had many long contests with the Gaulish Bishops about Easter and other matters, in which he sometimes held too strongly to his own opinion. He also suffered great persecutions from the Frankish Sovereigns, who, after Gontram's death, had great influence in Burgundy. St. Columban often endeavoured to check the crimes of these monarchs, whose lives were a disgrace to the Christian name, but he only drew down on himself their anger, and he was forced to flee. This opened to him a new field of labour. For some years he preached to the people of Switzerland, but later on he crossed the Alps, and, till his death in A.D. 615, he helped Theodolinda, Queen of the Lombards, in her labours to bring her people into the Church. The disciples of St. Columban continued his work of evangelization. The most famous was St. Gall, Apostle of Switzerland.

The Visigoths of Southern Gaul seem to have been converted by the Catholic people among whom they settled, aided later on by the labours of the Benedictine monks.

Though the first of the European nations to rise from the ruins of the Roman Empire, through the settlement of the Visigoths, which began as early as A.D. 414, Spain was not won to the Catholic faith till the sixth century. The Visigoths were Arians, and fiercely persecuted the Catholic Roman people when they had subdued them. But, as often happens when a pagan or heretic people settles down amid a Catholic population, numbers began to forsake their errors and to embrace the faith. But the conversion of the whole nation of Spain was brought about by the martyrdom of one of its Kings.

Leovigild, King of the Visigoths, had two sons, Hermenegild and Recared. The former had been converted by St. Leander, Bishop of Seville, a great friend of Pope St. Gregory the Great. Up to this time Hermenegild had shared the throne with his father. But on hearing that the Prince had become a Catholic, the old King was furious, dethroned his son, and fought against him. Finally, taking him prisoner by stratagem, he confined him in a lonely dungeon. Every attempt was made to induce the captive Prince to give up his faith, but in vain. On Easter Eve, A.D. 586, because he refused to receive Communion from the hand of an Arian Bishop, he was beheaded in prison by order of his father. St. Leander was exiled for his share in converting Hermenegild. He spent the time of his banishment in multiplying Benedictine monasteries throughout Spain. The Catholics were persecuted as long as Leovigild lived. But Recared, who succeeded, forsook Arianism and induced all the heretic Bishops to do the same. Their example was speedily followed by their flocks, and in a short time the true faith spread throughout Spain. Pope St. Gregory wrote to King Recared to congratulate him on this wonderful conversion of a whole people.

St. Gregory


A few years previously, the Suevi, who had settled in Portugal, also renounced Arianism. From that time to this, Spain and Portugal have never lost the faith.

The Arian Lombards also were received into the Church in the seventh century. They had invaded Italy, A.D. 568, driven out the Ostrogoths, and, settling down on the great fertile northern plain, had given their name to the country. The inhabitants suffered much for their religion from the conquering Arians, but their trial was short. Towards the close of the century, Agilulph succeeded to the throne, and married Theodolinda, a Bavarian Catholic Princess and widow of his predecessor. Assisted by St. Columban and other Irish monks, and encouraged by St. Gregory the Great, the pious Queen did all she could to bring about the conversion of the Lombards. Before her death, A.D. 625, she had the happiness of succeeding in her holy enterprise.

A few years after Spain had embraced the true faith, and about the time that St. Columban commenced his missionary labours in Burgundy, forty Benedictine monks, headed by St. Augustine, their Prior, were sent to preach to the Anglo-Saxon people by St. Gregory the Great, whose zeal for the conversion of our island had been awakened many years previously by the sight of some fair captive English lads offered for sale in the Roman Forum. Favourably received by King Ethelbert of Kent, the missionaries soon converted him and great numbers of his people. Thence the faith was carried into Essex, and perhaps into East Anglia.

Northumbria, Wessex, and Mercia next received the light of truth. Sussex was the last kingdom to become Christian, but in less than ninety years after the landing of St. Augustine the whole island was once more Catholic. Churches and monasteries again covered the land, zealous missionaries went forth to preach the Gospel to other peoples, and the Anglo-Saxon Church became famous throughout the world for the vast numbers of canonized Saints to which it gave birth, and for the renowned scholars it produced.

III. The Central States

The vast countries lying east of the Rhine and north of the Alps remained pagan long after the south and west of Europe had embraced the true faith. Among the Alpine highlands there were tribes who had received Christianity in the days when the Romans were masters. Slowly, however, the faith had lost all hold on them. The attempt at re-converting them made by St. Columban and the Irish monks had produced but little fruit, and up to the close of the seventh century the great mass of the Teutonic people of Central Europe was pagan.

Then it was that their new-born faith filled the English people with zeal for the conversion of the races which they looked upon as their own. kindred, and that bands of noble-hearted young monks went forth to strive to win to the true fold those teeming tribes still buried in the darkness of idolatry. The earliest missionaries started from the Northumbrian monasteries, where St. Wilfrid had established the Benedictine Rule. They first sought Friesland, the original home of their ancestors, the Angles, and laboured hard for many years, with but little success. St. Willibrord, the most famous of these missionaries was consecrated Archbishop of Utrecht, and for fifty years he ceased not to labour earnestly for the people of Friesland and Denmark. He sowed in tears the plentiful harvest which God granted to St. Boniface to reap.

This great Englishman, one of the most beautiful characters among the Apostolic Saints, did for Germany a work so vast and so lasting that it is hard to realize it could have been accomplished by one man.

Winfrid, as St. Boniface was at first called, was born in Devonshire in A.D. 680, and was of princely family. When about five years of age he showed so strong a desire to be a missionary that his parents sent him to a monastic school at Exeter. Later on he went to Nutcell, an abbey famous for its regularity and learning. Winfrid soon became remarkable for his sanctity and the influence for good he exercised on all around him; but his first vocation never left him, and after he was ordained priest he obtained leave to preach to the pagan Teutons. Winfrid began to labour in Friesland, as the earlier missionaries had done, but met with so many obstacles that he returned to his monastery. Next year he started again, and went to Rome. The Pope, St. Gregory II., who is to the Germans what the first St. Gregory is to the English, heartily blessed his mission, and sent him to preach to the pagan Germans. Winfrid's hope was to gain his own people, the Saxons, but finding that he could not yet hope for success amongst them, he began to labour in the neighbouring nations. On his second journey to Rome, the Pope consecrated him Bishop, named him Boniface, and gave him great powers.

Friesland, Hesse, and Thuringia were now the scene of his toils. Many were gained to the true faith, and numerous monasteries were founded to be centres of missionary labours.

The next Pope, St. Gregory III., made Boniface Archbishop, and gave him power to consecrate other Bishops.

A third time Boniface went to Rome. He gained his sainted nephews, Winibald and Willibald, to the great work he had at heart. The former he appointed Abbot of Heidenheim, the latter he consecrated a regionary Bishop at Eichstadt.

Bavaria was then evangelized, and so rapid and thorough was its conversion that in a few years the whole land was covered with churches, and no less than twenty-nine great abbeys became seats of learning, centres of civilization, and homes of sanctity.

About A.D. 740, St. Boniface divided all the newly converted provinces into thirteen dioceses, and the Pope made them subject to the See of Mayence, of which Boniface was then named Archbishop.

But St. Boniface had still another work to do. The Frankish nation, though converted, had never really thrown off pagan ideas and customs. Pope Gregory III. and his successor, Zachary, entrusted to St. Boniface the difficult task of restoring the purity of the Catholic faith and of bringing the clergy and people to a Christian mode of living. After incredible pains, St. Boniface succeeded in introducing some improvement. The real rulers of Francia at this time were the Mayors of the Palace. The most famous of these Mayors, Charles Martel, for a long time, from political motives, hindered the good St. Boniface would have done; but at last, when his own power as ruler was established, he aided and seconded the efforts of the Saint to restore order. Pepin, his son and successor, did still more for the Church, but this work was only completed by the great German monarch, Karl or Charlemagne.

The last years of St. Boniface's life were employed in founding monasteries and convents in his vast arch-diocese. It was to England that he turned for helpers. Besides numerous monks, St. Walburga, the sister of SS. Winibald and Willibald, St. Lioba, and other holy nuns from Wimborne, in Dorset, hastened to respond to his call. They were of the greatest assistance to St. Boniface in teaching and civilizing the people among whom they settled.

Foreknowing the time of his death, St. Boniface made a last visitation of all the dioceses subject to him. Friesland, the first scene of his labours, was also the last. Furious at his success in winning this people to the true faith, a band of pagans fell on the holy Bishop, as he was waiting for the converts whom he was about to confirm, and killed him and fifty of his companions. His body was taken, as he had requested, to the famous Monastery of Fulda. Some years later his faithful fellow-worker, St. Lioba, was laid to rest close to the tomb of St. Boniface.

The work accomplished by this great Saint was so thorough that we hear of no relapse into paganism after his time. The finishing touch was put to his work by Charlemagne, as we shall see later on. The Church in Germany flourished and produced numbers of saintly and learned men up to the unhappy days when a general decay of religion and morality brought on the terrible revolt known as the Protestant Reformation.

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