Chapter Two: Early Christianity in Europe


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Beginning with the end of the persecutions of Roman Christias in the third and fourth centuries, Christianity took on new forms as it began to spread rapidly westward from its origins in the Mediterranean. As it moved throughout western Europe, changes were made to the basic structure of the practice of the religion; the most important elements were the Monastic movements, the Church hierarchy, pilgrimage and the role of relics in the early Church. These last two were the basic elements of the cult of the saints, which was a defining aspect of the Medieval Church. In order to compare and contrast with the Celtic church, I will give an overview of these developments in the Catholic Church in Europe in the late antique and early medieval period.

Monastic and Church Environment

The fourth century AD saw the beginning of the real acceptance of Christianity as a major world religion. This is generally accepted as being the result of the conversion of Constantine, the Emporer of Rome in 312. Under Constantine, and the subsequent support of Christianity by his successors, the church was able to stablize financially and structurally, though some structure had been recognized at local levels since the mid-third century. The Council of Nicea in 325 gathered all the Bishops of the Roman Empire and allowed them for the first time to organize as a solid hierarchical unit. The destruction of the pagan temple of Alexandria in 391, during the reign of Theodosius I, marked the begining of Christianity as the official state religion.

This legalization and imperialization of the Christian faith by Constantine forever changed the form and function of Christianity. First and foremost it brought the religion into the political realm, and the potential for a career in the church suddenly became possible. This politicization also immediately tied Christianity to the urban centers of the Roman Empire in a way that it had not been before. Previously Christians had often had to flee to the wastelands outside the cities to avoid persecution, but gradually an urban, political Roman Christianity developped which contrasted with rural ascetic Christianity in many ways. The goals of early ascetic monasticism were self-conquest, purity of mind and body, and the union with Christ; they wanted to achieve the perfect lifestyle that would allow themselves to be as close to Christ as possible.

Christian Monasticism began in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine in its earliest forms at the end of the third century by men who sought the solitude of the wilderness either seeking refuge from persecution or to strengthen their faith. The structure of monastic life at this time had certain characteristics in common with both Judaic and Greco-Roman monastic traditions, however, the earliest Christian ascetics & anchorites were not necessarily well educated, nor were they always all men. The ascetic ideal was partly inspired by the words and actions of Jesus, who several times went into the desert for meditation and spiritual cleansing, and advised a rich man to give all his possessions to the poor and to follow him.

There were two primary forms of monastic establishments, the earliest of which was that of the eremitic solitary desert dweller, foremost among whom was St. Antony (c. 251-355 in the late 3rd & 4th centuries. This lifestyle involved withdrawal from all of human society, living alone in the wilderness, or often in small groups that met only on Saturday and Sunday for mass. In order to survive, they often made baskets, ropes, mats or whatever else could be made from the raw materials at hand, which, in the Nile region, was mostly reeds & grasses. There was no structure to the daily life; it generally consisted of prayer, fasting, mortification of the flesh, and the manual labor of making things to be traded or sold for the basic necessities of food and clothing. Nor was there a defined social structure; the only leadership was that of an abbot, who was well trained in the eremitic lifestyle and could provide support and counseling. There were of course, those hermits who did not live in any sort of community, but lived entirely alone, or traveled in the wilderness seeking purity and salvation.

The other common tradition was the cenobitic monastic organization, which was formally founded by St. Pachomius (c. 292-346) in Egypt in the early 4th century. The former Roman soldier founded his community of ascetics in northern Egypt at around the same time as the eremitic tradition was founded. His monastery was quite large, consisting of 1300 men according to Palladius. Soon this expanded to communities of both men and women, with each house having its own head, who was ultimately responsible to Pachomius himself. The plan of the community was similar to most later medieval monasteries. There was a common church, refectory and infirmary, and the dorms were much in the same style as the Roman military barracks of the time. Like later monastic communities throughout Europe, the defining features of the monastery were group worship, a common meal, total obedience to the leader, the importance of manual labor for subsistence as well as discipline. The men were housed according to their manual skills and there was very little importance put on the role of the intellect, as most were peasants and illiterate,.

These two ascetic ideals became the templates for all forms of monastic life into the Middle Ages. The majority of European monastic settlements followed one of these systems, or a combination of the two. After Pachomius' death, several other monasteries were started with certain differences. The Rule of St. Basil was the first of many individual Rules set out by particular houses, and adopted by other branch houses that may or may not have been subordinate to the original house. Until the 12th century, the rule of St. Benedict was the most popular single rule, resulting in hundreds of Benedictine monasteries throughout Europe. The Rule of St. Columba (Collumcile) of Iona was also adopted by many monasteries in early Gaul as well as Ireland and Scotland. The common element of all the various Rules was the structure of daily life which included proscriptions of food and drink, work and prayer schedules, and the social hierarchy all laid out in a format that was not disputable and was uniform throughout the monasteries that followed each particular rule.

With the earliest reformations in the 12th century church, new monastic systems and Rules arose to fit the changing society and religion which included a literate lay culture and the dramatic increase in cities and universities. However, this did not diminish the existence of the Benedictine monastery, in fact there are still Benedictine monasteries that adhere to the 5th century Rule in the United States. These new monastic movements and reformations were to lead to a change in the most basic forms of Christianity, making way for its urbanization and the increased involvement of the laity.

The Cult Of The Saints

The original usage of the term "saint" was by St. Peter in his letters to the Corinthians. By his usage the word is synonymous with "Christian," or anyone who had been baptized. However, by the second century the term "saint" was being used to indicated a martyr, the first record of which is in the account of the death of St. Polycarp in A.D.155.

The cult of the saints became one of the defining features of Christianity long before the seventh General Council of Nicea in 787 declared that every church have a relic in the altar of the church. The focus for both Church structure and lay worship became centered around the relics and the saints' feast days when the relics were believed to be the most potent.

According to religious historian Stephen Wilson, most religions, even monotheistic ones, distinguish "between a higher god or gods and lesser divine beings." These lesser gods, whether termed as saints or spirits or sub-deities, serve as the links between the human realm of day-to-day existence and the distant high gods who are "concerned with origins & things cosmological," but still have influence over the world of humans. These sub-deities become the patrons of important elements of human existance like "the well-being of a village, clan or family, or the health & fertility of humans, animals and fields."

Many have argued that the origins of the cult of the saints are pagan and polytheistic in nature, but Christian scholars say that the similarities in worship rites, locations and dates were based on the attempt to oppose the pagan cults rather than to absorb them. The incorporation of pagan folk traditions into the cult of the saints was explained as a compromise necessary in order to gain the converts. By making them a part of Christianity, the people would be more ready to become Christian, as the difference between the old and the new diminished.

Even more credit is given to this theory by the writings of Pope Gregory of Tours, who in an early 7th century letter to Missionaries Mellitus and Augustne in England, says that the temples of the gods should not be torn down, but that they must be "aspersed with holy water, altars set upin them and relics deposited there". This is done in hopes that the people of Britain "may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true god." He goes on to tell the missionaries to substitute the sacrifice of animals to demons, and instead "let some other solemnity be substituted in its place, such as a day of Dedication or the Festivals of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there." It seems inarguable that at least the medieval celebrations of the feast days were deliberate attempts to Christianize the pagan practices of the lay people. It is easy to understand how many festivals came to be loosely Christianized venerations of the deities formerly worshipped in ancient sacred places, and how saints were invented to justify the festivals, as with Brigid.

Another possible source of the popularity of saint worship is also often cited as the early Christian contemporary Greco-Roman hero cults. According to Peter Brown, to the people of late antiquity, "to idealize the dead seemed natural enough" as well as "worship of the deceased, " especially the "heroes or emperors" of the time. However Brown also believes that the cults of the heroes were different from the cult of the saints in that the dead Christians were now with God, whereas the heroes were worshipped in their own rights, not because of their proximity to the gods. He differentiates the fact that the martyr saint is able to act as an intercessor, which the hero is not, but often in saint cults, the saint him or herself is worshipped, in his or her own right, thereby negating this distinction.

Originally many of the church authorities did not approve of the shift from the city centers (which were also the secular seats of authority) to the cemeteries outside the cities. However, in the late 4th century, once they realized the popularity and benefits of this cult of the saints, bishops of Roman cities began to base their power in these new cemetery/cities rather than inside the town. This was distinct from the ascetic movement into the deserts; rather Brown sees this as the bishops moving Christianity out of the desert & closer to these cities built cities in cemeteries. For examble, in the early 5th century, Paulinus of Nola built a shrine to St. Felix around his grave that was so large that one "might take it for another town.

Despite the poularity of the tomb cults, the main basilicas remained inside the cities. Still, the shrines outside the cities were where the bishops gained their greatest power and influence in the early medieval European towns. Several fundamental changes came about as a result of the cult of the saints being focused outside the cities at the grave-shrines. The tomb became altar and the masses said in honor of the saints were said on top of graves. This was the beginning of the tradition of housing Saints' relics in altars, which gradually became so popular that by the end of the 8th century it was declared that every altar must have a relic in order to be a propper church. In some ways declaration of the tomb of a saint to be public property eroded the barrier between the public and private aspects of death. The family of the dead saint were not the only ones who had access to the body, which was not true of any other members of the society, including other Christians.

In all of these examples and possibilities, it is often the location of the cult of a saint that is most important. This is also closely linked to the notions of sacred versus secular space, and that which makes a space sacred.

Sacred Spaces

The primary definition of "sacred space" that will be dealt with here is that of a section of timespace that has been separated from the rest of timespace by religious significance. According to Mircea Eliade, these sacred spaces are more structured and indeed more real than the rest of the profane world. This is a universal concept, and sacred space is found wherever there are stories of the otherworld. "The sanctification of the local landscape is a fundamental function of mythology," says Joseph Campbell.

Sacred does not always equal holy in the Christian sense of the word. Places that were in use by the pre-Christian Celts and pre-Celtic peoples may not have been places of worship, but certainly had otherworldly significance. For example, there are many places that are considered to be "gentle," meaning inhabited by or protected by the "little people" of Ireland. These are clearly not "profane" or everyday places, but places that are, as Eliade says, out of space and out of time, different and special, with rules and observances that must be followed lest their sacrality be defiled.

Why are these spaces sacred? We know they are different from other places through recorded or orally transmitted evidence of hierophanies, or revelations of how the deities, which can vary from place to place. This evidence of the presence of otherworldly power includes the appearance of figures and animals, healings, deaths and visions. Sometimes only stories are left to document the hierophany, especially in places that are no longer considered sacred, or the physical evidence has been removed or lost. Many of these stories explain the geographical details of the location on the land revealing, for example, who caused the mountain to be there, why the spring moved, or whose head caused the dent in the rock. According to Eliade, the presence of at least one hierophany is what defines a place as being sacred, which is when the sacred reveals itself to the human observer.

What made a place especially holy, or proved the sacrality of a location in Early Christian Europe was the performance of healing miracles. Usually there was a relic that performed or was somehow involved in the miracle, as it was used to transfer the power of the saint to the afflicted person. Often sites, like holy wells, do not have any specific object that is the focus of the cult, only the stories of the inception of the holy site, or the hearsay of other worshippers. In these cases, the site itself, the water and the pattern ritual performed are based on the events that caused the place to become associated with the saint; recreating a previous miracle is considered sufficient to heal the faithful.

There are certain types of places that were more likely to be sacred than others. Not surprisingly, many of them have pre-Christian origins and evidence of continued sacrality and worship from one religion to the next. A very common location of sacred sites of all varieties is on a high place. This can include small hills as well as mountaintops and rocky pinnacles such as Skellig Michael, Mont St. Michel and St Michaels's Mount, all of which have a continuous tradition of sacrality from pre-Christian times. Many sacred sites are located on the boundaries between one realm and the next. According to Eliade, sacred trees often serve the same religiousfunction of the sacred stone or pole--to connect the realm of the gods (sky) to the realm of man (earth). Sacred trees and sacred groves are found all over the world, not just in Celtic mythology. There are several examples of caves as holy sites. There are often wells in caves, and one story describes St. Patrick's Purgatory at Loch Derg, where he spent time in a cave, and this is now the most popular pilgrimage site in Ireland. Caves are traditional otherworld entrances, especially to the otherworld of the ancestors. Various sources of water and holy wells are known to be sacred throughout the world.

All of these sacred spaces were created as such by human mythology, and the latest version of that is the Christian creation of sacred spaces both in these older places in the natural environment, and in their man-made churches.

Relics And Pilgrimage

Relics created sacred space in Early and Medieval Christianity. Soon after the advent of Christianity, it became popular practice to create a center of worship around the tomb, or the relic if it had been translated from its original location. This resulted in the human creation of sacred spaces, which was a common element in the Greco-Roman and Judaic religions of the time, but not the Celtic religions Christianity later encountered, as the Celtic sites of worship, pagan and Christian, tended to be in or at least founded near natural formations or symbols such as rivers, trees, natural springs and rock formations. However, the churches were often built near or on top of natural formations and other ancient sacred spaces, as we see described by Gregory of Tours.

The cult of the saints was one of the most important aspects of medieval Christianity, which took the form of the veneration of the relics of the saints, celebrations of their feast days and pilgrimages to their shrines. It has even been said that "late-antique Christianity...was shrines and relics." In the Middle Ages, the translation of and pilgrimage to relics of saints were the primary cause and opportunity for miracles to occur, though they did happen at other times, for example, during dreams and visions, or while praying to the saints. Often the translations of relics and miracles were used as symbols of "the intricate systems of patronage, alliance and gift-giving that linked the lay and the clerical elites." The most popular and important way a saint performed a miracle, however, was through physical contact with, or being in the direct presence of the relic.

The first saint cults were based around the early martyrs and were centered on the tombs of the saints that contained the saints’ remains, which meant that these cults were primarily located in cemeteries. Later the location itself became less relevant, since the relics were portable, and the actual bones and clothing of the saints came to be the focus of the cults. Relics included objects that had been set on the tomb, the tomb itself, cloth that had been dipped in their blood, or any other items "closely connected with the dead bodies of holy men and women, confessors and martyrs." The reliquary, whether at the tomb or fragment in a gilded box far from the saint's place of death, was believed to be "where the contrasted poles of heaven and earth met" primarily because it was also believed that "the saint in Heaven was believed to be 'present' at his tomb on earth."

The most important aspect of a relic was its ability to perform miracles, indeed wherever there were relics and processions there were miracles. This seems to be a strictly Christian phenomenon, perhaps related to the fact that so many of the New Testament stories describe how Jesus went from town to town, healing the sick. If there was belief, he could heal people with a mere touch, and even just touching his clothes healed blind men and cripples. Either way it involved physical contact with Jesus, or an item associated with him.

The importance of physical contact with the relics, or at least proximity to their relics, or the exterior of the tomb, is illustrated by a chapter in Bede, in which he describes how the clothing and hair of St. Cuthbert cured two monks' illnesses, one by touching hairs to his afflicted eye, the other by merely lying before the tomb.

The relics were important because they were not just the physical remains of the saint, they were the saint, and had the same attributes that the saints had acted in life. "The fullness of the invisible person could be present at a mere fragment of his physical remains, and even at objects...that had made contact with these remains." This is why they relics had such power to cure, because they had the same powers as the saints themselves, able to perform miracles and healings, which is why they were given such respect in beautiful reliquaries.

Although not all miracles were performed as a direct result of the relics of a particular saint, many were, and these were often considered the most important, and were questioned the least about their validity and actuality. This is because the physical remains of the saints were believed to retain all the power and presence of the actual saint, and were to be treated accordingly. The primary focus of Christianity, the pilgrimage, was a direct result of the cult of the saint and the role of the relic, all in hopes of a miracle.

The pilgrimage served many purposes in medieval Christianity, as it does in the various other religions in which pilgrimage plays a prominent role, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam. According to Turner and Turner, the one thing all pilgrimage sites have in common is that "they are believed to be places where miracles once happened, still happen and may happen again." The purpose of the pilgrimage is to seek miracles (ususally of healing) and also as a form of pennance beyond that which is done at the shrine or sacred location itself. Another, perhaps more subconscious role of the pilgrimage is that of the initiatory rite, which thereby "offeres liberation from profane social order to intensify the pilgrim's attachment to his own religion."

Regardless of the purposes medieval Christians had for undertaking pilgrimages to the many holy sites, intentional or unconscious, it was the major method of demonstrating piety among clergy as well the lay people of medieval Europe.

On to Chapter Three.