GREGORY I (c. 540–604), called the Great, was bishop of Rome from 590 until his death, and one of the most remarkable figures to occupy the Roman see. Gregory was born into a landowning, aristocratic Roman family; he was related to popes Agapetus I (r. 535–536) and Felix III (r. 483–492). There is no direct evidence about his early life and education, but his correspondence, the main historical source, suggests that he received sound legal training and acquired wide experience in the management of landed estates. Gregory's own testimony relates that he spent some years in a public career as prefect of the city of Rome. Although one must assume that his education brought him into contact with Latin classical authors, there are few echoes of their works in Gregory's writings; in this he was very different from Jerome and Augustine. What is known about his origins suggests a pious family background in which Christian authors and values prevailed.
During his term as prefect he apparently felt called to become a more perfect Christian by embracing the monastic life. He speaks of having delayed his "conversion" for a long time. When the decision was finally made—probably after his father's death—he established a monastery dedicated to Saint Andrew in his paternal home, where he gathered a community and appointed an abbot, and where he himself lived, by his own choice, as a monk. Despite the traditional view that Gregory was a Benedictine monk, it is by no means certain that the rule of Saint Benedict governed the life of this new monastic house.
Gregory's skills as administrator and negotiator were too widely known to be eclipsed by his entry into seclusion. Pelagius II was no sooner elected bishop of Rome (r. 579–590) than he summoned Gregory from his monastery, ordained him deacon, and sent him as papal representative (apocrisiarius ) to Constantinople. Gregory apparently accepted this mission on the condition that he could take monks from Saint Andrew's with him and set up a quasi-monastic household in the imperial city. Gregory remained in the East until about 586, when he returned to Rome to resume his monastic life and to assist and advise Pelagius II, even drafting some of the pope's later letters.
Without much delay, and without waiting for the imperial consent, the Senate, clergy, and populace elected Gregory bishop of Rome after Pelagius's death in 590. Later tradition maintained that Gregory fled the city to avoid this burden but was captured after three days and brought back. Gregory always lamented the imposition of this heavy burden, which deprived him of his "beloved solitude," but he continued to view himself as a monk and aimed to set up his household, as at Constantinople, in the form of a small community made up of monks and clerics who would live together and share all things in common.
The fourteen years of Gregory's pontificate (590–604) are well documented, particularly on the strength of his correspondence, which depicts a man who showed a superb command of estate and personnel management and from whom emanated good sense, moderation, and tact, allied to shrewd, businesslike efficiency. He was fully conversant with the laws of the imperial code but could temper them with goodwill and humanity. He exhibited a firmness allied to fairness that was in the best Roman tradition. These qualities were constantly at play in Gregory's attempts to introduce greater order and efficiency into the administration of the patrimony of Peter (the possessions held by the church of Rome not only in Italy and Sicily but also in Gaul, Africa, and elsewhere), and in his handling of the affairs of dioceses and monasteries, and ecclesiastical disputes of all kinds. The correspondence also gives rise to the impression that in becoming bishop of Rome Gregory was in fact assuming again some of the duties of the prefect of Rome, concerning himself with food and water supplies, appointing commanders and paying for troops, and taking a leading role in negotiating truces and treaties with the threatening Lombard invaders. Although there had been previous occasions when popes assumed leadership of the city of Rome, particularly in crisis, Gregory's pontificate is the first and best example of ecclesiastical authority replacing, throughout the machinery of government, the political power of a declining state.
Here and there in his letters a note of rigor and acerbity emerges perhaps native to the Roman patrician and professional administrator, but for the most part these elements were held in check by Gregory's reverence for the gospel teaching of humility and charity, in whose light he constantly examined and formed his own conduct. His preoccupation with saving souls and helping the poor is ever present. John the Deacon, Gregory's biographer, refers to a "very large papyrus volume" (the first of its kind to be drawn up by a bishop of Rome), in which Gregory, with his usual efficiency, caused all pensions, rent reductions, subsidies, and charitable outlays to be recorded so that none would be forgotten or overlooked in future years. Gregory's concern for the good of souls likewise appeared in missionary activities directed toward heretics or pagans, the most noteworthy being his sending, in 596 and 601, groups of monks from his own monastery, under the leadership of Augustine, to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons.
Despite the incessant preoccupations of his years as bishop of Rome, and despite a debilitating malady that seems to have afflicted him for years, Gregory consistently found time to pursue the activity that lay nearest his heart, namely, to study and interpret holy scripture for the group of close associates with whom he lived, in an effort to bring out its hidden meaning as a guide for moral life. Gregory had begun such a discourse, on the Book of Job, during his stay at Constantinople. In the period between his return to Rome from the East (586) and his election as bishop (590), he reorganized these spontaneous discourses into book form. The result was the vast Magna moralia in Job, a work in thirty-five books divided into six codices, which had a lasting influence on the whole Middle Ages. During the first years of his pontificate he discoursed in church and before the people not only on the gospel lessons of the day but also on the opening and final chapters of Ezekiel, chapters that seemed particularly relevant in those grim years when events seemed to presage the end of the world. However, he found talking to a large audience in church a trying experience that overtaxed his health. After his first years as pope he gave up the practice, but continued to discourse to a smaller group of intimates. He himself listed the books on which he spoke: Proverbs, Song of Songs, the books of the prophets, Kings, and the Heptateuch. Only the commentary on 1 Kings and two homilies on Song of Songs are extant.
In addition to his scriptural works and his letters, Gregory also wrote a book of dialogues (between himself and his deacon Peter), recounting the miracles performed through God's power in Italy in his own time. The aim of this work was to revive the religious faith of the Roman people, beset at that time by war, plague, and famine. The second book of the Dialogues is devoted entirely to one figure, Benedict, the founder of Monte Cassino and author of the Benedictine rule; it embodies the earliest traditions about Benedict, including stories gathered by Gregory from Benedict's own disciples.
His Regula pastoralis (Pastoral rule), probably the best known and most used of Gregory's works in the Middle Ages, was the first work of his pontificate. No sooner had he been consecrated in 590 than he set about constructing a standard of conduct for the ideal shepherd of souls. In this one can perhaps perceive an attempt to redefine his own insights as a skilled administrator and negotiator on a level higher than that of practical affairs; that is, on a universal, spiritual plane. Gregory always maintained that if bishops lived up to their true ideal the church of Christ, spread throughout the world, would prosper. In writing the Regula pastoralis he sought to instruct himself as well as others.
As the years of his pontificate proceeded, Gregory continued to reflect on the implications of his position as bishop of Rome, a see that claimed preeminence in the church over all other sees, including those that were also patriarchal. Here he reached views that differ markedly from those that later formed the traditional papal attitude. Gregory sought to limit the Roman claim to what he considered its essential elements. He believed that a supreme authority was needed in the church, but only so that things might be put right if they went wrong; if simony were practiced in Gaul or in Alexandria, it was his duty to remonstrate, "but when fault does not intervene, we [bishops] are all equal by reason of humility." Gregory was tireless in underlining the danger of pride and the need for humility in those who govern the church. For this reason, he rejected the title of ecumenical patriarch, not only when applied to the patriarch of Constantinople but also for himself. Ecumenical means universal, and he who is universal has no rivals in rank; on that level, others have no standing. Therefore, he wrote to his friend Eulogius, patriarch of Alexandria, "you deny your own standing as bishop when you assert that I am universal as bishop and pope." On the level of custom and usage, including liturgical usage, Gregory did not believe that the Roman see held any monopoly of good things. It is here that he contrasts most markedly with his predecessor Innocent I, who maintained that all the churches in the West needed to follow Roman usage. Gregory's legal training had familiarized him with customary law, and he had observed that good things might be found everywhere. "We should love places because of the good things they possess and not things because of the places from which they come," he wrote to Augustine of Canterbury in his so-called Libellus responsionum, urging him to borrow liturgical usages from Gaul as well as from his native Rome for the newly converted Anglo-Saxons. Such a statement fitted into Gregory's larger view that claims to monopoly were detrimental to charity, which was fostered by diversity and interchange. Diversity on the level of custom was allowable and even desirable, as long as unity was always maintained in Christian faith. The medieval papacy would have evolved very differently if Gregory's precepts in these matters had prevailed.
It is now recognized that Gregory the Great had relatively little to do with the sacramentary or with the chant that still bears his name. He unquestionably composed certain prayers and prefaces that eventually found their way into the Roman sacramentary, but these are limited in number, a total of 82 out of 927 formulas. The liturgical traditions associated with Gregory's name go back to Carolingian times and derive from Gregory II rather than Gregory the Great.
The collected works in Patrologia Latina, edited by J.-P. Migne, vols. 75–79 (Paris, 1849–1878), reproduce the Maurist edition of 1704. Dag Norberg's new edition of Gregory's Register of Letters, S. Gregorii Magni registrum epistularum, in Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, vols. 140 and 140A (Turnhout, Belgium, 1982), provides the most dependable Latin text, superseding Gregorii I Papae registrum epistolarum, in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae, vols. 1 and 2 (Berlin, 1887–1899); nevertheless, the Monumenta edition remains indispensable by reason of its elucidatory notes. Norberg has established a new order for the letters, so their numbers in his edition do not necessarily coincide with those of the Monumenta; he provides a concordance. A new edition of the Moralia in Iob by Marci Adriaen can be found in Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina, vols. 143 and 143A (Turnhout, Belgium, 1979). For fragments of the homilies on the Song of Songs and the commentary on 1 Kings, see volume 144 in the same series, Sancti Gregorii Magni expositiones, edited by Patricius Verbraken (Turnhout, Belgium, 1963). The Dialogues were edited by Umberto Moricca in Gregorii Magni dialogi (Rome, 1924), but with a text long recognized to be unsatisfactory. The most useful edition, comprising Latin text, French translation, introduction, and notes is by Adalbert De Vogüé, Dialogues: Grégoire le Grand, in Sources chrétiennes, vols. 251, 260, and 265 (Paris, 1978–1980); to the long bibliography on the Dialogues should be added an important article by Pierre Boglioni, "Miracle et nature chez Grégoire le Grand," Cahiers d'études médiévales (Montreal) 1 (1974): 11–102. The best English translation of the Dialogues is Odo John Zimmerman's Saint Gregory the Great: Dialogues (New York, 1959). The earliest biographies of Gregory date from Carolingian times: The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby, edited by Bertram Colgrave (Lawrence, Kans., 1968); the life of Gregory by Paul the Deacon in H. Grisar's "Die Gregorbiographie des Paulus Diaconus in ihrer ursprünglichen Gestalt, nach italienischen Handschriften," Zeitschrift für katolische Theologie 11 (1887): 158–173; and that by John the Deacon, in Patrologia Latina, vol. 75, cited above. These and other early accounts of Gregory's life, including those of the Liber Pontificalis and Bede's Ecclesiastical History (2.1), present only those facts that can be found in Gregory's works or correspondence, which remain the primary sources.
A good overall study of Gregory has yet to be written. F. H. Dudden's Gregory the Great, 2 vols. (London, 1905), is recognized to be outdated. The two long chapters (4 and 5) in Erich Caspar's Geschichte des Papsttums, vol. 2 (Tübingen, 1933), retain much value but stand in need of additions and corrections. Claude Dagens's Saint Grégoire le Grand: Culture et expérience chrétiennes (Paris, 1977) is a long, diffuse work, seeking mainly to explore Gregory as a spiritual writer, and often lacking historical perspective; see the review by Robert A. Markus in Journal of Ecclesiastical History 29 (April 1978): 203–205. Jeffrey Richards's Consul of God: The Life and Times of Gregory the Great (London, 1980) gives an excellent picture, drawn from the correspondence, of Gregory's activity as bishop of Rome but does not deal adequately with his other writings and thought.
The view that there was little originality in Gregory's spiritual teaching has been dispelled by numerous recent studies. A pioneer effort is Michael Frickel's Deus totus ubique simul: Untersuchungen zur allgemein Gottgegenwart im Rahmen der Gotteslehre Gregors des Grossen (Freiburg, 1956), which demonstrates that Gregory's special vocabulary could provide a key to his thought; his temperament was introspective by nature, and his originality lies mainly in exploring the inward dimensions of Christian behavior. For Gregory's motives in sending missionaries to England, see Robert A. Markus's "Gregory the Great and a Papal Missionary Strategy," Studies in Church History (Cambridge U.K.) 6 (1970): 29–38, and "Gregory the Great's Europe," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series 31 (1981): 21–36. On the authenticity of the Libellus responsionum connected with this mission, see my essays "Diversity within Unity, a Gregorian Theme," and "Bede's Text of the Libellus responsionum of Gregory the Great to Augustine of Canterbury," in my Benedict, Gregory, Bede and Others (London, 1977). On Gregory's authorship of some liturgical formulas, see Henry Ashworth's "The Liturgical Prayers of St. Gregory the Great," Traditio 15 (1959): 107–161.
Gregory was the only pope to win the admiration, even the affection, of some Protestant reformers; see the references in L. K. Little's "Calvin's Appreciation of Gregory the Great," Harvard Theological Review 56 (April 1963): 145–157, and my "Gregory the Great and the Theme of Authority," in Benedict, Gregory, Bede and Others (cited above).
Paul Meyvaert (1987)