An Experimental Introduction to Christianity for Today’s Students of Medieval History

Walter Goffart (University of Toronto, emeritus; Yale University)

(Foreword: The goal is to devise an account of Christianity in the fourth to sixth century introducing it to an audience of secular students in a survey course on medieval history. In downplaying the spiritual foundations of Christianity and focusing on the this-worldly aspects of the church, the proposed introduction in such a course focuses on seven features: organization; intransigence; literacy; social theory; assertion of religious autonomy; the cult of saints; and monasticism. All these endured as permanent aspects of the medieval landscape.[1] The original form of this “Introduction” as a twenty-minute talk entailed a drastically stripped-down account.)

The Christian church has had a dominant place in the post-Roman development of western civilization. Its construction is probably the greatest creative achievement of late antiquity; the church thrived as the Roman Empire declined. How may one introduce the medieval phase of this phenomenon in today’s de-Christianized world? What is sought, basically, is an introduction to the history of medieval Christianity that non-Christians may digest.One modern, drastically short encapsulation of the church’s faith reads as follows: “The original mystery and central tenet of Christianity [are] God’s Incarnation as [the] man [Jesus Christ] and the salvation of all men by His death and resurrection …”[2] These are difficult ideas; grasping them demands lengthy instruction and meditation. But, in the late Roman Empire, the complex narrative and ideas shaping the core beliefs of the church were not the face of Christianity that church members mainly encountered. Most people were not individually won to Christianity by careful instruction in its mysteries; they were swept into the church, or were born into it. Once people were in the church, its physical facilities were inadequate for more than a few to participate in its services. Instead, new, fourth-century Christians encountered very concrete manifestations — practical, this-worldly aspects, on which we may fasten in trying to convey what was important in the church on the eve of the Middle Ages.

Christians believe that Jesus Christ, who lived for thirty-three years in Palestine, was the Almighty God in human form. The Roman imperial regime was established in his lifetime. Jesus, while on earth, inspired a religion that, in three centuries, attracted many people dispersed in many lands. The turning point of this Christian movement, which led to its change from a small to a majority religion, occurred when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to it in A.D. 312. In its first centuries of official recognition by the Roman state, Christianity had seven salient features, listed above in the foreword.

1. ORGANIZATION. The Christian church on the eve of Constantine’s conversion embraced only a small fraction of the Empire’s population, but it was far from being a “new” religion. Ever since the second century, it had a broad geographical extension, and its existence was widely known by outsiders. Its organization was founded on an unusual magistracy, namely, the bishop. (In Greek, “bishop” is episcopos, hence English “episcopate, episcopal.”)The church was a network of cells extending over the Roman Empire and, in places, beyond its borders. The individual nodes of the network were bishops, one for each Christian community. The episcopal office was a magistracy with a distinctive shape. Bishops served full-time for life; they were elected, not hereditary, and they were set in place by fellow bishops. They may be envisaged in many guises: high-priests of the church’s rituals; supervisors of morals; managers of the local finances; ministers to the clergy and laity gathered around them. The post was for males only. Bishops were regarded as the successors of the closest followers of Jesus-Christ, called “apostles.” The original faith and its literature were understood to have been passed down through the centuries from the apostles to the bishops, who safeguarded the integrity of this core of belief and teaching by maintaining contact with one another. As descendants of the apostles and as ministers of the Christian cult, bishops of tiny towns were the equals of the bishops of the largest cities of the Empire. Some bishoprics, such as Rome, stood out for one reason or another, but no effective hierarchy set them over the other episcopal cells. Church councils — small or large assemblies of equal bishops — were the institution dealing with common problems. In late antiquity and long after, the individual nodes of the Christian network were much sturdier than the strands linking them.

2. INTRANSIGENCE. Intransigence, a refusal to compromise, is not a Christian monopoly. All societies build non-negotiable boundaries around themselves. For us, many things are completely unacceptable (for example, slavery or torture or child abuse). The intransigence of early Christianity was most manifest in relations with other religions, notably paganism, and with internal dissenters.Almighty God, lord of all peoples, had to be worshiped by everyone; an engaged Christian could hardly think otherwise. But there were limited resources for attaining this goal. The Christian priority in the late Roman Empire was the suppression of paganism — total defeat of the old gods, sometimes by violence. Paganism in the Empire did not wither away; Christians actively fought it, even with bloodshed. The Roman emperors helped by making Christianity the obligatory state religion. Suppression of paganism at the level of great temples and public sacrifices was achieved by the late 300s, but the large peasant majority of the population was little touched. However incompletely paganism was extirpated, the principle of its eradication was firm.The handling of internal dissidents was also severe. Fierce conflicts among Christian bishops over articles of their faith marked the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. 300 years of intense internal fighting produced greater clarity on points of belief, but this result came at a high cost to church unity: in the east, masses of Christians withdrew into dissenting churches with their own episcopates. These conflicts established a clear precedent: Christians cared intensely about purity of doctrine and accepted the costs of purification. Dissenters could not be compromised with. They had to be suppressed.

3. LITERACY. Like Judaism, the Christian church was associated with the written word. At the center of its faith, sustaining its claim to absolute truths divinely revealed, was not so much one book as a library — the Bible, the book par excellence. At first, Christian writings were in Greek, then translated into Latin, but also into a series of reinvigorated or wholly new written languages: Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Gothic, Irish, Old English, each essential for communicating the revealed word of God to culturally non-Greek or Latin, but now Christian populations. In its linguistic effects, the Christian phenomenon stands out as a milestone in intellectual history. Christianity also presupposes the continuity, even the prospering, of the technology of writing and books, as well as the training of educated persons — a mandarinate or intelligentsia — well enough versed in language, literature, and philosophy to understand and expound the holy scriptures.Many religions are literate. What makes Christian literacy particularly noteworthy is its relationship to the great intellectual achievements of the Greco-Roman world. The Christian church traveled with a library extending well beyond its sacred book. This fact held great promise. Late antiquity was the age of the church fathers — intellectuals such as St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) — deeply versed in classical literature and philosophy as well as the Bible. Their writings and classical training underpinned Christian thought throughout the Middle Ages.

4. SOCIAL THEORY. The Christian gospel has the potential for social revolution; it evokes an upside-down society, in which the poor will be exalted and the rich abased. But early church leaders did not interpret gospel teaching as a spur to social reform. They accepted an existing social order that included great disparities of wealth, rights of private property (including chattel slavery), cruel punishments, and other commonplaces of late Roman society. Christians were expected by their leaders to pay taxes, serve in the army, and obey the laws of even pagan emperors like everyone else.

This acceptance of the status quo did not mean that Christianity had no impact on late Roman society. Not all Greco-Roman values were endorsed. In a Christian perspective, a society did not merit applause for dealing well with earthly affairs. What mattered were spiritual values — the extent to which individual men and women sought and perhaps attained inner perfection. Such a realignment of social thought from the outer to the inner sphere was not easily realized. The combat that began then between the stern demands of the spirit and the obstinate resistance of the flesh has been continuously waged in Christian societies. It was easier for Christians to accept the idea that Jesus Christ was God than to stop going to the very profane theater and circus games. Nevertheless, the church slowly managed to reorient social relations. Two Christian initiatives resulted in immediate actions: the direct alleviation of suffering (charity), and efforts to shape a church-centered style of life.

Christianity did not invent poor relief, but it had a distinctive form of charity involving direct contact with the needy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving alms. (There are Jewish parallels to this.) Ministering institutions, such as hostels for strangers, were founded and maintained. Christian charity is the spring from which many measures for relief, including those of our times, have flowed.

Despite the forces of social inertia, Christian leaders sought to institute a new style of life applicable to ordinary Christians, not only to professional ascetics. The restraint of sexual pleasure had a high priority. Marriage was the institution under greatest pressure. In church teaching, sex was for procreation only; abstinence, both male and female, was considered holier than marriage and encouraged. The body gave way to the soul. This aspect of Christianity has remained problematic throughout its history.

Other concerns, such as the calendar, also drew attention. Sunday became the day of rest. New churches and their outbuildings gradually reshaped urban topography. The Christianizing of society was a work in progress, only at its start in the late Roman period.

5. ASSERTION OF RELIGIOUS AUTONOMY. Three biblical sentences dominate this subject: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21); “There is no power but from God” (Romans 13:1); and “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The Christian church claimed authority only over the spirit, leaving the earth to be governed by non-church rulers and institutions. These rulers, notably the Christian Roman emperors, did not reciprocate; they considered themselves religious leaders obligated to interfere in religious affairs, with the result that Christianity’s biblical precepts played out historically in very complex ways. Nevertheless, the dualism of state and church, like that of body and spirit, was entrenched in Christianity; both a lay and a religious theocracy were blocked.

The five tangible aspects of the church considered thus far were rooted in the pre-Constantinian history of Christianity. The next two items, the cult of saints and monasticism, were latecomers to the church. They were, in part, responses to the transformation of Christianity into a mass religion in the post-Constantinian period.

6. THE CULT OF SAINTS. Communal Christian spirituality is typically associated with regulated, weekly commemorations of the execution of Jesus-Christ, along with prayer services, sermons, and ceremonies of initiation and reconciliation. How did this austere ritual fare go down once Christianity became crowded with migrants from paganism? Late Roman and early medieval spirituality probably related less to Jesus Christ and much more to the humbler and approachable martyrs and the worship associated with their tombs.

The martyrs and other Christians overcoming martyr-like trials were known by Christians to have privileged places in the afterlife because of their unshakeable adherence to Christianity and consequent sufferings. They were the heroes and heroines of Christianity, an ever-growing constellation of varied virtues and feats outshining the Hectors, Alexanders, Lucretias, and Catos of the pagan past. Prayers to them, to interpose themselves between God and their votaries, were believed to be effective. As Jesus and the apostles had performed miracles in biblical times, so the saints, and even more their earthly remains, were understood to do so later. Their multiplicity and concreteness brought the holy into the reach of needy Christians. The saints and their relics had a crucial part in the detachment of the Roman world from its religious past, its acceptance of the Christian religion, and the diffusion of this religion in the kingdoms that followed Rome.

7. MONASTICISM. Christianity was not content to have just one powerful and growing organization; it proceeded in the fourth century to conjure up a second, complementary “church,” not detached from the first but nevertheless running by different rules and providing contrasting religious experiences. The first church offered the mass of sinful men and women a possible path to heaven. The second church involved narrow circles of volunteers and sought Christ-like perfection (Matthew 19:21). This second, strict, and ascetic church is monasticism; it was how the vocation to Christian perfection was organized. Monks and their female equivalent, nuns, were not clergy. The movement was both lay and individualistic.

In the fourth century, monasticism acquired its two branches. One was cenobitism, a collection of men or women living together in monasteries, with common facilities, governed by an abbot or abbess, and engaging in a collective routine of austerity, prayer, and work. The other was eremitism, the life of a hermit, ostensibly solitary but almost always involving an experienced spiritual mentor. Participants in both kinds were celibate and renounced personal property; their duties were to go hungry all the time, to sleep little, to cultivate silence, to pray and study incessantly, to be humble, and to obey superiors.

My calling monasticism a second church should not mask its diversities. Many monks lived in cities and suburbs, hardly the desert. Also calling for qualification is their degree of separation from the rest of Christian society. Even when needs were reduced to a minimum, monks and nuns could not do without some food, drink, clothing. The second church, while retaining its distinctive features, always lived in proximity with the main branch, emulating the “primitive church” (Acts 4:32-37) and setting examples of strict “perfect” Christian life that could not be ignored.

As said as the point of departure, teachers of medieval history today are faced with the problem of introducing Christianity to non-Christian or nominally Christian audiences. The seven non-theological, down-to-earth features of Christianity set out here all presupposed the core beliefs of the church, but they could be experienced by masses of people who had no idea of what the Incarnation and Redemption might be. It took centuries of effort to inculcate basic Christian ideas into the masses of Christians and to give a Christian stamp to society. Meanwhile, the tangible aspects just discussed sustained the advance of the new religion in the late Roman Empire and into its medieval future.


Here are the ways in which this “experiment” involves different emphases from most accounts listed in note 1:

organization – Focus on bishops, with minimal concern for hierarchy, patriarchs, and pope.
intransigence – Paganism and “heretics” were suppressed, occasionally by force, and both at heavy cost. The details of the great “heresies,” such as Arianism and Monophysitism, are dispensable subjects. The bottom line, schism, is what chiefly matters.
literacy – Crucial for Christianity’s historical significance. Books and intellectual activity were built into the church. Much more was involved than “learning was preserved in monasteries.”
social theory – Some incremental change, complete with inbuilt, enduring tensions [notably sex].
assertion of religion autonomy – The autonomy of secular rulership was accepted, but the autonomy of religious faith and institutions had to be seriously defended. A central fact is that religion and state were taken as distinct entities.
cult of saints – The church’s mass appeal, the overshadowing of ordered liturgy by popular religion.
monasticism – A refuge of the ecclesia primitiva and channel to it; leaven in the lump.

NOTES[1]. For comparison with this approach, see introductions to Christianity in twentieth-century textbooks of medieval history. A selection, cited by date: J. R. Strayer and D. C. Munro, The Middle Ages, 395-1500, 4th ed.( New York: Appleton, Century, Crofts, 1959), pp. 17-19; Norman Cantor, Medieval History. The Life and Death of a Civilization (New York: Macmillan, 1963), ch. 2; Jeffrey Burton Russell, Medieval Civilization (New York: Wiley, 1968), chs. 2-4; Deno J. Geanakoplos, Medieval Western Civilization and the Byzantine and Islamic Worlds (Lexington, MA–Toronto: D. C. Heath, 1979), ch. 1; Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 300-1475, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983), ch. 3; R. H. C. Davis, History of Medieval Europe. From Constantine to Saint Louis, 2d ed. (London-New York: Longman, 1988), pp. 8-18; Edward Peters, Europe in the Middle Ages, 3d ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997), ch. 2; C. Warren Hollister, Medieval Europe. A Short History, 5th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998), ch. 1; Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Europe, tr. Janet Lloyd (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 14-23. Most recently, Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome. Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 (London: Allen Lane, 2009), pp. 50-67.

[2]. Adapted from Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 96.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume X, Issue 1, Spring 2012

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.   No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies