At the beginning of medieval Christianity


Christ’s missionary commandment had been clearly set forth in Matthew (28:19-20), but in the early centuries after his crucifixion the flame of faith flickered low. Wholesale conversions of Germans, Celts, and Slavs did not begin until about A. D. 500, after Christianity had been firmly established as the state religion of the Roman Empire. Its victories were deceptive; few of its converts understood their new faith. Paganism — Stoicism, Neoplatonism, Cynicism, Mithraism, and local cults — continued to be deeply entrenched, not only in the barbaric tiribes, but als0 among the Sophists, teacher of wisdom in the old imperial cities: Athens, Alexandria, Smyrna, Antioch, and Rome itself, which was the city of Caesar as well as Saint Peter. Constantine had tried to discourage pagan ceremonies and sacrifices, but he had not outlawed them, and they continued to flourish.

This infuriated the followers of Jesus. They were split on countless issues — Arianism, which was one of them, flourished for over half a century — but united in their determination to raze the temples of the pagans, confiscate their property, and subject them to the same official persecutions Christians had endured in the catacombs, including teh feeding of martyrs to lions. This vindictiveness seems an incongruity, inconsistent with the Gospels. But medieval Christianity had more in common with paganism than its worshipers would acknowledge. The apostles Paul and John had been profoundly influenced by Neoplatonism. Of the seven cardinal virtues named by Pope Gregory I in the sixth centrury, onloy three were Christian — faith, hope, and charity — while the other four — wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance — were adop0ted from the pagans Plato and Pythagoras. Pagan philosophers argued that the Gospels contradicted each other, which they do, and pointed out that Genesis assumes a plurality of gods. The devot scorned reason, however, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the most influential Christian of his time, bore a deep distrust of the intellect and declared that the pursuit of knowledge, unless sanctified by a holy mission, was a pagan act and therefore vile.

Ironically, the masterwork of Christianity’s most powerful medieval philosopher was inspired by a false report. Alaric’s sack of Rome, it was said, had been the act of a barbaric pagan seeking vengeance for his idols. (This was inaccurate; actually, Alaric and a majority of his Visigoths were Arian Christians.) Even so, the followers of Jesus were widely blamed for bringing about Rome’s fall; men charged that the ancient gods, offended by the empire’s formal adoption oh the new faith, had withdrawn their protection form the Eternal City. One Catholic prelate, the bishop of Hippo — Aurelius Augustinus, later Saint Augustine — felt challenged. He devoted thirteen years to writing his response, De civitate Dei (The City of God), the first great work to shape and define the medieval mind. Augustine (354-430) began by declaring that Rome was being punished, not for her new faith, but for her old, continuing sins: lascivious acts by the populace ond corruption among politicians. The pagan deities, he wrote, had lewdly urged Romans to yield to sexual passion — “the god Virgineus to loose the virgin’s girdle, Subigus to put her beneath a mans’s loins, Prema to hold her down … Priapus upon whose huge and beastly member the new bride was commanded by religious order to stir and receive!”

Here Augustine, by his own account, spoke from personal experience. In his Confessions he had described how, before his conversion, he had devoted his youth to exploring the outer limits of carnal depravity. But, he wrote, hte original sin, and he now declared that there was such a thing, had been committed by Adam when he yeilded to Eve’s temptations. As children of Adam, he held, all mankind shared Adam’s guilt. Lust polluted every child in the very act of conception — sexual intercourse was a “mass of perdition [exitium].” However, although most people were thereby damned in the womb, some could be saved by the blessed intervention of the Virgin Mary, who possessed that power because she had conceived Christ sinlessly: “Through a woman were sent to destruction; through a woman salvation was restored to us.” He thus drew a sharp line. The chief distinction between the old faiths and the new were in th sexual arena. Pagans had accepted prostitution as a relief from monogamy. Worshipers of Jesus vehemently rejected it, demanding instead purity, chastity, and absolute fidelity in husbands and wives. Women found this ringing affirmation enormously appealing. Aurelius Augustinus — whose influence on Christianity would be greater than that of any other man except the apostle Paul — was the first to teach medieval men that sex was evil, and that salvation was possible only through the intercession of the Madona.

But there were subtler registers to Augustine’s mind. In his most complex metaphor, he devided all creation into civitas Dei and civitas terrena. Everyone had to embrace one of them, and a man’s choice would determine where he spent eternity. In chapter fifteen he explained: “Mankind [hominum] is divided into two sorts: such as live according to man, and such as live according to God. These we mystically call the two “cities” or societies, the one predestined to reign eternally with God, the other condemned to perpetual torment with Satan. “Individuals, he wrote, would slip back and forth between the two cities; their fate would be decided at the Last Judgment. Because he had identitied the Church with his civitas Dei, Augustine clearly implied the need for a theocracy, a state in which secular power, symbolizing civitas terrena, would be subordinate to spiritual powers derived from God. The Church, drawng the inference, thereafter used Augustine’s reasoning as an ideological tool and, ultimately, as a weapon in grappling with kings and emperors.

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