Christianity in the Dark(ish) Ages

Romulus Agustulus relinquishes the crown to Odoacer. The winged helmet is an anachronism typical in 19th Century illustrations and Asterix comics. Photo Credit: Young Folks History of Rome

In 472 the local despotic general in northern Italy declared his son Emperor Romulus Augustulus. Four years later the “little[est] Augustus” was deposed and the Western Roman Empire officially puttered out. Traditionally, this would mark the period western historians referred to as the Dark Ages. For a long time this reflected the attitude Western Europe itself had about its own past, and creates a bit of a comfy narrative for the intellectual resurgence known as the Renaissance almost a millennium later.[1] More modern historians have shot the term “Dark Ages” with an understandable number of holes.

For a start, there’s the question of the clear values bias imposed by the phrase. A modern reader looks to Rome and sees any number of parallels with the present day, even up to the joys of heavy air pollution from wood burning stoves and mass extinction in the name of entertainment and growth. From some perspective, what followed was a transition, rather than some barbaric, flat-earthed triumph of anti-intellectualism.[2]

The scope of the Dark Ages also takes a serious knock on review. It overlaps with the Islamic Conquests and the subsequent Golden Age of Islamic civilization. Many of the books and documents that would underpin the Renaissance itself survived only because of Islamic scholarship in this time period. For instance by the 10th Century the Umayyad Caliphate’s library in Cordoba boasted more than four hundred thousand volumes of literature, science, and theology from the thinkers of antiquity and the Islamic world. Then there’s the Eastern Roman Empire, which continued on its merry way until its more dramatic ending in 1453. One needs only look at the achingly beautiful mosaics and gold work that has survived from the era to understand the sophistication of Constantinople. The Byzantines had even returned to reconquer North Africa and Rome itself under Justinian the Great in 537.[3]

The ruined ampitheater in Salona. The modern city of Split is across the bay and thriving. Photo by the author

With that hefty stack of caveats in mind, the Dark Ages still evoke a period of high turmoil and disruption. Whether due to ecological overuse of farmland and resources, shifting climates, or the knock on effects of so many conflicts, the legacy of Rome was one that saw the urban areas of the empire increasingly abandoned in the archaeological record. Cities like Salona in modern day Croatia were completely evacuated in the face of invasion, the surviving inhabitants retreating to smaller and safer holds on the islands and Dalmatian coastline. Benefits like indoor heating, sewers, and running water simply could not be maintained without massive labor investments from slaves that were no longer possible. When the Byzantines returned to Rome the aqueducts were still in use, but during a siege by the counterattacking Goths the water lines were cut. By the time the Byzantines had fallen back to southern Italy the aqueducts of Rome were in permanent disrepair, a source of wonder for later generations of writers living in the footprints of their ancestors. More than that, the Dark Ages are mostly a literary black hole when it comes to sources and writing from France, Germany, Britain, or Italy.

Which brings us to the one primary pillar of the age, Christianity. By accident the Church of Rome found itself with a near monopoly on literacy, science, and theology. It was enough to maintain impulse power in the places where the Church enjoyed primacy. Moreover, as time went on the Church began to spread anew. At times the spread of Christianity was brought by the thin wedge of theological doctrine, the missionary. Missionaries performed stand-up routines to the most critical of audiences. Success, in their view, meant the salvation of thousands of souls. But a misplaced word, badly turned phrase, or an off day could mean getting stabbed in the face or worse; which was the case for martyred Saints Rumbold (Mechelen, 6-8th Century?) and Boniface (Frisia, 754). But Christendom has always thrived on sacrifice.[4]

Duly Sainted Aethelbert, in a statue on the side of Canterbury Cathedral in his former domain of Kent. Photo Credit: Wikipedia user Sarferry.

For many rulers, like Aethelbert of Kent the choice to convert in 601 was politically motivated. Conversion meant access to the Dark Ages equivalent of the European Union’s Single Market, along with diplomatic benefits and technical support provided by the Church itself. As a result of both the out on a limb nature of the missionaries and the political choices of newly Christianized rulers, a certain amount of concessions had to be made for many of the newly converted. Even if Christianity became the dominant faith and others were outlawed, the penalties for older practice had to be lenient or else the ruler would risk an uprising. In Aethelbert’s case, sacrificing oxen to Woden was gently switched to “killing them to the refreshing of themselves to the praise of God”.[5] A more gustatory choice to be sure, but one that allowed many to think of the consumed food as a sacrifice in its own way.

It hues to the heart of a conflict that is only hinted at in the furious denunciations that have occasionally made their way down to us. Worship of Gods was transitioned to a worship of God and Saints, with the old Gods like Odin, Jupiter, and Thor recast as demons.

With the carrots of spiritual salvation and diplomatic acceptance into the Christian world weren’t enough, there were also legal sticks to hand to punish anyone who insisted on sticking to their traditional customs. Mostly it’s from the grumpy denunciations by Christian preachers and the legal codes they wrote for their followers that we get a greater sense of what shenanigans exactly their wayward flocks were getting up to or believed in. Magic, and its practitioners, was often very much alive in the converted space. As early as 530 the exasperated Bishop Carlos of Arles in southern modern day France put on his best angry parent voice and remind his followers that,

“None of you should consult sorcerers, seers, or soothsayers, questioning them for any reason or infirmity. No one should summon charmers, for if a does this evil he immediately loses the sacrament of baptism…likewise do not observe omens or pay attention to singing birds when you are on the road, nor dare to announce devilish prophecies as a result of their song”.[6]

In similar veins, Haltigar of Cambrai in 830 prescribed some penalties for anyone engaged in maleficium, a Latin catch all term that means either “mischief” or “evil sorcery”. While a lot of people would later die for this charge, like Carlos, Haltigar is less mad at the practitioners in his flock, and more disappointed:

“If one by his magic causes the death of anyone, he shall do penance for seven years, three on bread and water… If anyone is a conjurer-up of storms he shall do penance for seven years, three on bread and water… If anyone is a wizard, that is, if he takes away the mind of a man by the invocation of demons, he shall do penance for five years, one year on bread and water”[7]

Murdering someone with magic in Roman days could be a capital offense, but here maleficium carried an admittedly lengthy but doable period of penance.[8] Part of the reason for this was likely the need to ease followers into the Christian framework, and it’s clear that a lesser penalty would hopefully keep any ‘Pagans’ new to the flock from relapsing and taking their beliefs underground.

[1] Blame Plutarch, he coined the phrase.

[2] As podcaster Dan Carlin puts it, this is a little like holding previous generations to the information standards of the internet, rather than marveling at all they accomplished without it.

[3] Alternate history authors take note! So much could be made of this flashpoint in history, and the roads untaken.

[4] See Exhibit A: St. Bartholomew, a saint so nice they killed him thrice. Yes, he is wearing his own flayed like an overcoat.

[5] Durant, W. (1944) The Story of Civilization Book IV: The Age of Faith. Simon & Schuster

[6] Kors & Peters 2001

[7] Ibid

[8] Whether the victim’s family would take as well to this is another matter.


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