Effect of the environment

What effects did the environment in Italy and the west of Europe have upon Christianity in that region in the four and a half centuries from 500 to 950? How different did the Christianity of the West become from that of the Eastern wing of the Catholic Church? Because of the political division and the difficulty of physical communication the two were drifting apart. Cultural and other factors were working for separation, and in the West there were conditions which were placing their imprint on the Catholic Church of that area.

One striking contrast was that Byzantine Christianity was Greek, while the Christianity of the West was dominated by Rome. In spite of its weakness in the last half of the ninth and the first half of the tenth century, the Bishopric of Rome, the Papacy, exerted an influence over almost all Western Christendom. Over only the far periphery, especially Ireland, and Spain under the Arabs did it have little control. The Papacy stood for Romanitas, the tradition of imperial Rome, partly Christianized but still unmistakably Roman in its administrative genius, its insistence on law and order, and its comprehensive organization.

The claims and the power of the Papacy were furthered by the absence in the West of a strong competing civil state headed by an autocratic monarch such as the Greek Church faced m the Byzantine continuation of the Roman Empire. Even Justinian did not possess as much power in the West or in Italy as he exercised in the neighbourhood of Constantinople. Increasingly the authority of his successors waned. It was not recognized beyond Italy, Sicily, and the east coast of the Adriatic, and even there it was dwindling. The restoration of the imperial title in the West by Charlemagne did not bring the same degree of control over the Papacy by the state as the Byzantine Emperors wielded over the Patriarchate of Constantinople, for strong though he was, Charlemagne spent most of his time north of the Alps, a precedent followed by his successors, and Rome was never his or their capital. Occasionally, as in the decades immediately preceding 950, the absence of adequate civil protection injured the Papacy, but at other times, under strong Popes, notably Gregory the Great, it was an advantage.

In the West the Catholic Church became the Roman Catholic Church and, with some relapses, the administrative power of the Bishops of Rome over that Church mounted. The tendency to split up into national, tribal, and ethnic churches which in the East proved so divisive was also present in the West, but the growing power of the Papacy partly nullified it and gave a degree of unity to Western Christendom which was in striking contrast with the increasing and enduring schisms in the East.

The Roman temperament was seen in monasticism. It was the rule of Benedict, developed only a short distance from Rome and with the moderation, the sense of practical possibilities, and the organization which were typical of the Roman spirit, which prevailed in the West.

As Rome and other cities in the West declined in population, Christianity in that area adapted itself to the prevailing rural life and economy. That was in contrast with the Greek wing of the Catholic Church, increasingly dominated as it was by a commercial city, Constantinople.

Towards the end of the period Christianity was beginning to conform to feudalism in its organization and thought as it was never to do in the East.

The thought of Augustine, an influence which grew in the West, gave to that branch of the Catholic Church a distinct character, especially since Augustine had little or no currency in the East.

In a confidence in miracles, both West and East were in accord. How far that can be ascribed to the environment, especially to the environment peculiar to this period, may be debatable. It is clear, however, that while from the very beginning Christians had believed in the miraculous and the power of the Christian faith to work miracles was one of the factors in the conversion of the Roman Empire, in the years after 500 miracles loom more prominently in the writings of the educated leaders of the Church in the West than in the centuries before that dividing line. Gregory the Great had very much more to say of them than did the pre-sixth century fathers of the Church. The same is true of Bede. It is also significant that Einhard, the intimate and biographer of Charlemagne and possessing a classical Latin style which was the fruit of the Carolingian intellectual revival and of familiarity with the writings of pagan Latin antiquity, sent agents to Rome who after prayer robbed one of the chief churches of highly prized relics and brought them back for one of his foundations and that he recorded the miracles wrought through them after they had come into his possession.

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