A History of Medieval Europe, RHC Davis
The fall of Rome as Rome was essentially complete in the wreckage of Justinian’s wake. What remained of the Empire was based in Constantinople and the east. Europe was left to the barbarians…and the church – a church in a relatively disorganized state. Perhaps the most important institution of the church in building and rebuilding Western Europe was the Order of Saint Benedict:
The monastery at Subiaco in Italy, established by Saint Benedict of Nursia circa 529, was the first of the dozen monasteries he founded. He later founded the Abbey of Monte Cassino. There is no evidence, however, that he intended to found an order and the Rule of Saint Benedict presupposes the autonomy of each community.
Interesting – a decentralized monastic order that was to become one of the central institutions in rebuilding civilization in Europe.
The term Order as here applied to the spiritual family of St. Benedict is used in a sense differing somewhat from that in which it is applied to other religious orders. In its ordinary meaning the term implies one complete religious family, made up of a number of monasteries, all of which are subject to a common superior or "general" who usually resides either in Rome or in the mother-house of the order, if there be one…This system of centralized authority has never entered into the organization of the Benedictine Order. There is no general or common superior over the whole order other than the pope himself, and the order consists, so to speak, of what are practically a number of orders, called "congregations", each of which is autonomous; all are united, not under the obedience to one general superior, but only by the spiritual bond of allegiance to the same Rule….
What would you call a decentralized system of governance and organization, voluntarily joined, submitting only to a common rule? But I digress…
Not to suggest that a Benedictine monk lived a life of freedom as the secular world might describe it. He lived a life of implicit obedience, obedience to the abbot. It was a life of absolute submission. Then again, it was most certainly not the life of the hermits of the Middle East. From Davis:
It was here, perhaps, that the main achievement of Benedictine monasticism lay, because it succeeded in diverting religious enthusiasm from ‘record-breaking’ feats of asceticism into the life of an ordered community.
After Benedict, the key figure in this story is Gregory, a monk from the Benedictine order who became Pope in 590 – in the wake of Justinian’s failed folly. According to Davis, under Gregory “the Papacy begins to emerge in its medieval form”; John Calvin would describe him as the last good pope.
Gregory was born during the times of Justinian’s attempts to rebuild empire. He was born of a prominent senatorial family; his great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III. Gregory lived in a Rome that had been overrun several times during Justinian’s Gothic War. He was pessimistic regarding the empire – little wonder, given his environment.
In Gregory’s opinion, the decay of imperial power, of Romania, and civilization all betokened that the world was rapidly drawing to its end. The Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.
He became a monk and, critically important, a monk of the Benedictine type. In 579, Pope Pelagius II made him a deacon and sent him to Constantinople to beg for troops for the defense of Italy. Gregory spent six years in the eastern capital, ultimately receiving no help from the emperor.
After the death of Pelagius, Gregory was elected pope. Before and during his time, the church was greatly increasing in material wealth – for example, landowners who found it impossible to pay taxes would surrender their land to the bishop. In the meantime, administration of the western empire continued to break down:
As the administration of the Empire broke down, so the Church stepped in to save as much as could be saved of Romania, and the logical development of this process was reached in the eighth century when it was found that the Pope was a temporal as well as spiritual ruler, being in possession of the Papal States.
The roots of the Papal States were already visible in Gregory’s time. Gregory had lands to defend; he also represented the last remnant of the order that was Rome. For both reasons, Gregory once again approached the emperor in Constantinople for reinforcements for defense. No support was forthcoming.
If you can’t beat them, join them: Gregory then decided to make peace with the Lombards. Through this, Gregory got the emperor’s attention; the emperor blamed Gregory for his “simplicity” in pursuing such a policy. Gregory proceeded as planned.
Once this step with the Lombards was taken, the remainder of Gregory’s mission became clear. Gregory evangelized Europe:
Pope Gregory had strong convictions on missions: "Almighty God places good men in authority that He may impart through them the gifts of His mercy to their subjects.”… He is credited with re-energizing the Church's missionary work among the non-Christian peoples of northern Europe.
With Gregory’s direction, the Benedictine missionaries evangelized England, and from there to Germany. These were not “Romans” being evangelized, but the so-called barbarians. As the Church spread, he established the form of church government: “bishops being supervised by their archbishop, and archbishops by the Pope.”
Hence, Gregory “saved” the west:
What made him so specially great was that, at a time when the imperial power was crumbling and when the world seemed to be coming to an end, Gregory undertook the task of saving the Church.
Civilization requires governance – not government in its current form, but governance. The Church, in addition to the custom of the Germanic tribes, provided this.
The Church was one of the key institutions – if not the key institution – of medieval Europe; a foundation and fount of industry and learning, a source of governance. The Church offered a governing structure competing with the power of kings – often beneficial to those out of favor with either king or church.
By building the Church, Gregory built (or rebuilt, if you prefer) the foundation for civilization in the west.
(I don’t believe, however, that this is what Gregory had in mind.)