Early Latin Christianity in Northern Europe

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Early Latin Christianity in Northern Europe

Foundations of Christianity.

Although medieval Europe is often associated today with the dominance of Christianity, the beginning of the Middle Ages was a period of competing religions when many of the pre-Roman inhabitants and invading tribes who had helped bring about the end of the Roman Empire continued to practice polytheism. Latin Christianity had been established in parts of Western Europe outside of Italy during the time of the Roman occupation (especially from the second through fifth centuries c.e.), and centers of Christianity continued to exist in such cities as Lyon, Arles, Tours, Poitiers, Marseilles, Reims, and Provence (all in modern France); in Silchester, Dorchester, Water Newton, and St. Albans (in Britain); Trier,

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Cologne, and Mainz (in modern Germany); and in Toledo, Córdoba, and Elvira (in modern Spain). The increasing presence on the part of bishops, theologians, and monastics fueled growing support for Christian ideas and practices throughout parts of northern Europe. Moreover, during the period of decline and deterioration of the Roman Empire, many members of the invading tribes—including the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Franks, and Saxons—accepted Christianity in one form or another. However, the key to Christianizing the north seemed to be the conversion of the tribal leaders, as happened when the Merovingian (Frankish) king Clovis—who ruled over what is now Belgium, northern France, and parts of Germany—and some of his followers were baptized in the mid-490s. A century later, with Rome still serving as the center of Western Christianity, Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) sent monks from the relatively new Benedictine Order to function as missionaries, priests, bishops, and even ambassadors to parts of northern Europe. The influence of the Irish monk St. Columbanus (d. 615) spread more Eastern (Orthodox) traditions of Christian monasticism into centers like Bangor (in Ireland) and Whitby (in Northumberland), as well as Annegray, Fontaine, and Luxeuil (in France). St. Boniface and St. Willibrord had helped spread Christianity in the Germanic regions, while Patrick (d. circa 460), Augustine of Canterbury (d. before 610), Abbess Hilda of Whitby (d. 680) and Columba (d. circa 597) facilitated such growth in the British Isles. By the ninth century, Christianity began to proliferate in parts of France, Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Spain.

Merovingian and Carolingian Influence.

An eighth-century alliance that was formed between the Frankish kings and the bishops of Rome did much to secure the place of Christianity within the circles of the ruling class as they expanded their territory in northern Europe. A forged document known as the Donation of Constantine, which asserted that in the fourth century Constantine himself had given the bishop of Rome authority to govern over all territories in the western empire, may have helped legitimize the series of agreements between the Roman pontiffs and the Franks to provide each other with mutual support. In any case, over the last several decades of the eighth century the Carolingian family—rivals of the Merovingians—used their military power to come to the defense of the papal territories in Italy. In return for such protection and support of the papacy, along with support for certain papal claims of jurisdiction, Rome continued to give its blessing to the Carolingians in their usurpation of the Frankish throne from the previous Merovingian line. This alliance (which some have viewed as morally suspect) went on to create a period of stability that would foster the development of Christian education, ideas, and institutions in the Frankish kingdom. It also set a precedent later on for providing the church with military assistance from Christian kings who were seen as God's representatives, ruling through "divine right." In thanksgiving for the continued support, at a Christmas celebration during the year 800, Charlemagne, the king of the Franks (whose Latin name "Carolus" was the source of the term "Carolingian"), was given the title "Emperor of the Romans" by Pope Leo III. The title linked the Franks to the former Roman Empire in an idealization of the place formerly occupied by Constantine the Great and his important relationship with the Christian church. Within the next century this title would be passed to the German kings (later called "Ottonian") who succeeded the Carolingian line.

Conquest and Conversion.

The coronation of Charlemagne as emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day of 800 provides a watershed date for the development of a Christianity in northern Europe that had begun to be linked to the monarchy. This Latin Christianity, which was increasingly being embraced by European kings and lords, also began to be urged by the nobility upon the general populace. While Christianity had been firmly in place in northern Europe for several centuries, a majority of people in the areas of the British Isles, France, and Germany had still not embraced the faith. These cultures still retained a mix of polytheistic remnants from the pre-Roman era. Particularly along the border regions of the empire (north of Thuringia and in the east between the Rhine and Elbe Rivers of present-day Germany), groups like the Saxons were forcibly converted to the Christian faith. Saxons could be put to death for following their own traditions and ritualistic religious practices, such as cremation of the dead and human sacrifice, or even for the refusal to observe the Christian Lenten season. Many who were unwilling to submit to Christian baptism or pay tithes (one tenth of their produce or income) to the church were also killed. One of the leading churchmen in Charlemagne's court, Alcuin of York, raised objections to the practice of forced conversion. He wrote:

Converts must be drawn to the faith and not forced. A person can be compelled to baptism and still not believe. The adult convert should profess a true belief and if he lies, he will not reach salvation.

Religion Terms

Ascetic: Devoted to solitude, contemplation, discipline, fasting, denying the body in order to derive spiritual benefits.

Augustinian Rule: A set of guidelines devised by St. Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century for the common life of religious and often used by the canons regular or Austin Friars.

Benedictine Monasticism: Western communal practice begun in the sixth century by Benedict, the abbot of Monte Cassino in Italy. The Rule of Benedict stressed a corporate life of prayer, work, humility, and stability under the leadership of an abbot.

Benefice: Certain church offices, such as the rectorship of a parish church, with particular duties for which one would be granted revenues.

Canonical hours: The Divine Offices or daily prayers usually sung or recited by religious (often seven times a day).

Canon Law: The body of church law imposed by the authority of councils and bishops, particularly pertaining to matters of belief, morals, and discipline of the Christian faithful.

Cenobitic: A communal monastic lifestyle.

Chapter: The assembly of a monastic community (often daily) where a chapter of their rule was read, official business was dealt with, and faults of the monks were addressed.

Cloistered: Enclosed in a monastery, literally in the cloister space that forms part of a monastery; not free to leave or have visitors due to one's monastic status.

Crozier: The staff of a bishop, abbot, or abbess, sometimes bearing their insignia, commonly depicted in the form of a shepherd's staff signifying pastoral powers.

Diocese: A geographic division or extent of a bishop's jurisdiction.

Ecumenical: Worldwide, as in a general synod or council called by bishops, church leaders, or a pope.

Episcopal: Having to do with a bishop.

Eremitic: Having to do with the life of a hermit or solitary.

Eucharist: The celebration or reenactment of the Lord's Supper using bread and wine consecrated by a priest.

Excommunication: Church censure imposed by an authority which excludes individuals from communion and deprives them of rights to certain sacraments.

Filiations: Daughter houses, often founded or adopted by the mother monastery. A group of daughter houses dependent upon a main house or linked together in a system.

Filioque: A Latin phrase (literally meaning "and the son") referring to an argument as to whether or not the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father or emanates from both the Father and the Son. The Latin Church seems to have added the notion that the Holy Spirit can also proceed through Jesus as well as God the Father.

Flagellation: Whipping or beating oneself in punishment for sins, or to commiserate with the suffering of Christ.

Host: The consecrated bread at the Mass which medieval Christians believed was changed into the body of Christ in conjunction with the action of the celebrant.

Iconoclast: One who literally would smash religious statues and icons, based on the belief that they were idolatrous.

Indulgence: After the confession of sin, the substitution of penance by another act, such as almsgiving, pilgrimage, crusade, or financial contribution for the construction of a church.

Inquisition: The juridical persecution of heresy by special church courts.

Investiture: The investing or conferring of authority to a church official by a superior in a ceremony involving presentation of the symbols of office, including an exchange of homage before consecration.

Laity: Secular persons, not members of the clergy (monks, priests, canons, bishops, deacons, etc.).

Limbo: An abode of souls for those who, through no fault of their own, are barred from salvation because they were not baptized (as in the case of infants or people who lived before the time of Christ).

Mass: The liturgical rite of Christianity connected to the blessing or consecration of bread and wine along with the conventional prayers, songs and readings which accompany it.

Mendicants: Those religious, specifically friars, who depend upon begging for their support.

Missal: A book containing the complete rite of the Mass, with all prayers, readings, and chants.

Office: From Latin officium or duty, the prescribed daily round of prayers, mainly psalms, recited seven times a day in community, called for in the Benedictine Rule.

Office of the Dead: Prayers said on behalf of the deceased, often for individuals connected by membership or patronage to the monastery or community offering the prayer.

Papal bull: A written pronouncement or mandate from the pope. In the early days they were sealed with the stamp of the pope's ring (from the Latin bulla or seal).

Penance: The sacrament of forgiveness (that is, forgiveness by God through the action of a priest), which in the Middle Ages involved confession of sins followed by an act of restitution.

Psalter: A book of the psalms.

See: Literally, the official seat (from the Latin sedes) of a bishop, hence the place where the bishop sits or resides.

Simony: The sale or purchase of a church office.

Stigmata: Bearing the wounds of Christ.

Transubstantiation: Conversion of the substance of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, with appearances of bread and wine remaining.

Votive: A liturgy or offering of prayer that is done with a particular intention in mind.

During the conquest and conversion of the Avars in the southeastern marches of Bavaria and in lands such as Pannonia beyond the Danube River, Alcuin more carefully directed the prelates of the Carolingian realm:

Be preachers of piety and not exactors of tithes, slowly suckling souls with the sweet milk of apostolic gentleness, lest these new converts to the faith choke upon and vomit the Church's harsher teachings.

Schools and Laws.

In developing a formal link with the papacy (the bishop of Rome who had authority over Western Christianity) and becoming a defender of the papal holdings of land and interests in northern Italy, Charlemagne and his Carolingian Dynasty, which ruled until the tenth century, united with the legacy of the old Roman Empire as well as the traditions and administration of Western Christianity. Taking this role seriously, Charlemagne sought to establish schools that would be located in the cathedral city centers and at monasteries where boys (mostly from the upper class) could be instructed in mathematics, grammar, and music, as well as in reading from church books such as gospels, psalters, and missals (if such manuscripts were available). Scholars such as Alcuin of York were brought into the kingdom from other lands to serve as teachers in the Frankish schools. Charlemagne also attempted to ensure that Sunday be observed as a holy day and kept free from work. Activities like hunting, farming, construction, gathering for legal procedures, weaving, tailoring, and even doing laundry were discouraged. People throughout the new empire were urged to attend Mass on "the Lord's Day." During the services priests were encouraged by royal directives to teach the notion of the Trinity—made particularly visual in an image from an English book of hours from York—and introduce doctrines associated with judgment, salvation, hell, faith, hope, and charity, as well as the love of God and neighbor. As the influence of Christianity became more pervasive, it appears that a fusion of church traditions and the laws of the Carolingian realm began to intertwine. However, it is not clear as to the extent to which these laws were actually enforced, since a number of forged collections of laws from the period (among them the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals) dominate those that have survived. While some of the false decretals, particularly those that favored a strong papacy, were promulgated during this period, there was actually no one official and universally accepted body of canon law until the Decretals of Gregory IX in 1234.

A Rule for Monks.

Under the Carolingian kings there was an attempt to create a uniform rule for monks throughout the empire. Charlemagne favored the Rule of Benedict, which had been developed in Italy in the sixth century, and encouraged those monastic houses (especially those east of the Rhine River) that were not in compliance to consider seriously adopting this lifestyle of stability and obedience, lived out in a balanced daily spiritual experience of work, study, and prayer. However, it was not until the time of Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious (778–840) that a reformed version of the Rule of Benedict was established. These revisions to the Benedictine lifestyle were introduced by a monk named Benedict of Aniane (750–821) and became universally adopted throughout the Frankish empire. Under these ninth-century monastic reforms additional prayers were included alongside the original sixth-century Benedictine Office. This kept the monks much busier in prayer, often too preoccupied with the Daily Offices to comply fully with the directives for manual labor that were an essential component of the earliest Benedictine Rule. The Frankish crown's endorsement of the Monastic Capitulary of 817, which ensured enforcement of Benedict of Aniane's revisions, is most likely responsible for the eventual standardization of the Benedictine Rule throughout Western Europe.

Monastic Day

One part of the monastic rule required monks to sing the divine offices at specific times during the day and night. The schedule for this activity (which changed according to the time of year), as well as mealtimes and work periods, is given below with the names of the "canonical hours" of the day. Said privately, the prayers would take up a total of about one and a half hours, but sung in the choir, they would take much longer. "Lauds" are said at first light, "compline" at sunset, with the times for other services determined by dividing the hours of daylight into twelve, so that in summer each daylight hour is longer than each night hour, and vice versa in winter. The version here is based on the Rule of St. Benedict as observed by the Cistercians.

Rising1:45 a.m.1:20 a.m.
Vigils2:00–3:00 a.m.1:30–2:50 a.m.
Lauds3:10 a.m.7:15 a.m.
Prime (first hour)4:00 a.m.8:00 a.m.
[9:20 a.m.–Terce]
Chapter4:15 a.m.9:35 a.m.
Manual labor4:40–7:15 a.m.9:55 a.m.
Terce (Third hour)7:45 a.m.
Sext (Sixth hour)10:40 a.m.11:20 a.m.
Dinner10:50 a.m.
[Reading or sleep][11:35–Manual labor]
None (Ninth hour)2:00 p.m.1:20 p.m.
[1:35 p.m.–Dinner]
Manual labor2:30 p.m.
Vespers6:00 p.m.2:50 p.m.
Supper6:45 p.m.
Compline7:50 p.m.3:55 p.m.
Sleep8:00 p.m.4:05 p.m.

The Multiplication of Private Masses.

Interestingly, it was also during this time that the number of monks who were also priests (a minority in early monasticism) began steadily to grow. The shift to larger numbers of ordained priests encouraged a more formal liturgical emphasis in the monastic lifestyle, which increasingly attracted members of the nobility. This tendency for some monks to spend most of their time on liturgical duties also left the door open for the appearance of lay brothers (members of a lower class in society whose focus was predominantly on labor), as well as the use of peasants to work on monastic lands and estates. With the increase in monks who were also priests came the development of private masses, where priest-monks would celebrate liturgies ostensibly by themselves, but usually with a lone attendant such as an oblate or lay brother. In cathedrals and larger churches, the presence of multiple altars containing relics of saints requiring veneration on a regular basis also helped create the occasion for private masses. Eventually numerous requests for votive liturgies—those conducted with a particular intention in mind, usually at the behest of wealthy laity—gave rise to the multiplication of private masses in the monasteries. Papal records during the ninth century indicate that certain priests celebrated the liturgy as many as nine times each day.

and Occupations in the Latin (Western) Christian Church

Acolyte: A person in the beginning stages of the priest-hood delegated to assisting priests and deacons in masses of the Latin Church.

Anchoress (f.)/Anchorite (m.): A solitary or hermit who pledges her or his life to prayer and contemplation. Anchoresses often lived in a small room attached or "anchored" to a church or public building. Visitors could come and speak with them and receive spiritual direction.

Archdeacon: The bishop's principal assistant or officer.

Bishop: A senior cleric in charge of the spiritual life and administration of a region known as a diocese.

Canon: A member of the clergy following a rule like those followed by monks but often attached to a cathedral or large urban church; the canon is responsible for the daily running of the church and for educating the children of the nobility (sometimes called "canons regular" because they lived according to a rule and formed groups called "colleges").

Cardinal: A member of the college of Roman princes who are the immediate counselors of the pope and rank second only to the pontiff in the church hierarchy. At various times they meet in conclave to elect new popes. There are also various local and episcopal offices, most in the city of Rome, to which the term "cardinal" is attached: cardinal deacons who took care of the poor in Rome, cardinal priests who were priests of the various Roman churches or parishes, and cardinal bishops (mostly outside of Rome) who were needed for service as the pope's representatives.

Chancellor: A church officer in charge of a university.

Conversi: Lay brothers, or adult converts to religious life, as opposed to those oblates who were raised in the monastery as children.

Deacon: Literally, the servant of the bishop in early Christianity. The status of deacon was one of the early steps on the way to priestly ordination in the medieval period. The deacon could have specific liturgical functions associated with the Eucharist and dismissal at Mass.

Friar: A member of one of several religious orders who served as missionaries, teachers, and confessors; friars (brothers) did not live a cloistered life, but rather lived together in convents on the edges of cities.

Lay brother: A person associated with monastic life, but often of a lower social class than the other monks; lay brothers were commonly less educated or unable to recite in Latin, were not part of the choir, and spent much of their time in manual labor.

Monk: A member of an all-male religious order who follows a Rule requiring withdrawal from society and devotion to prayer, solitude, and contemplation.

Nun: A member of a religious community of women living a cloistered life of religious devotion in a convent or double monastery.

Oblate: A lay person who is part of a religious community. From the Latin word oblatio, meaning to offer, this term often refers to children who were "offered" by their families to the service of God in a monastery or convent, to be brought up as a monk or nun.

Pope: The head of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope, or pontiff, was also called the Bishop of Rome since he presided over the entire Latin Church due in part to his authority over the local Roman episcopal see.

Postulant: A person seeking admission to a religious order. Often he or she was allowed to try out monastic life for a brief time.

Secular clergy: Priests living in the world, as opposed to "regular" clergy, living under the rule of a religious order.

Sub-deacon: A minor order of cleric who could not administer sacraments (only sacramentals) and who prepared bread, wine, and vessels at Mass.

The Growth of the Secular Clergy.

Alongside the growing monastic movements, a separate group of secular clergy (those living out in the world rather than in a cloister) ministered to the laity in local parish churches and in large urban cathedrals. The English called these secular churches "proprietary" while the Germans referred to them as Eigenkirchen (churches under private control or ownership), since often the local lords helped support them and would commonly appoint the parish priests. The cathedrals—large, important churches, usually in urban areas—often had a number of priests who might reside in the household of the bishop, the senior official in charge of the region or diocese. Eventually the term canon was applied to the clerics who lived at the cathedrals because it was said that they were living according to the canons (traditions and laws) of the church. According to the rule developed by Chrodegang of Metz, the canons, unlike monks, could own their own property and were not always required to live under the same roof with their fellow clergy. But like the cloistered monks (those who lived beyond the monastic cloister—that is, enclosed space—and took the Benedictine vow of stability), the canons assembled each day to hear a reading of a chapter of sacred scripture and thus were said to belong to a community or chapter of canons. Houses for canons began to become more popular by the mid-eleventh century. This communal arrangement worked well for urban dwellers but proved to be difficult for rural clerics. Customs seemed to differ from house to house. They would eventually come to prefer the Rule of Augustine by the twelfth century.

The Development of Sacramentaries.

The Carolingian era was an important time for Western liturgical development. Books called Sacramentaries which contained prayers and guides for the celebration of Mass and other religious rites began to become common throughout France. However, there seemed to be little uniformity in the way each community used the liturgical prayer books. Alcuin of York, the primary teacher at Charlemagne's palace school and abbot at several monasteries, began the process of making revisions to the Roman Sacramentary sent to the Franks by Pope Hadrian I (772–795) as usages became refined in the Christian empire over the next two centuries. The Frankish version of the Sacramentary eventually became the standard throughout Europe (preferred even to the Roman text) and continued to be the basis for practice in the Western church right up until the mid-twentieth century.


Peter Brown, Rise of Western Christendom (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997).

Judith Herrin, The Formation of Christendom (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987).

J. N. Hillgarth, The Conversion of Western Europe: 350–750 (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).

Ramsey MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire: AD 100–400 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984).

Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977).

Thomas Noble, The Republic of St. Peter: Birth of the Papal State (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984).

Edward Peters, Monks, Bishops, and Pagans: Christian Culture in Gaul and Italy, 500–700 (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975).

J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Frankish Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

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Early Latin Christianity in Northern Europe