Sunday, August 31, 2014

History and Fiction

I am often asked how I ended up writing both history and fiction.  There's no easy answer.  I've been writing stories since before I could actually read (copying sentences from the comic strips, where I didn't know what they said, and announcing what they meant).  Medieval history is so fascinating in its own right that I've been involved in it my entire adult lifetime.

At the moment, the number of my published history books is slightly ahead of the number of my novels, but they're both decently large numbers.  I think I must just love to type.

For the history, I use a slightly different version of my name than I do for the fiction.  I'm using my "fiction name" on this blog because it frees me from the compunction to use footnotes, and I assume no one reading a blog wants to see footnotes.  (But why not? says the historian in me.  I love footnotes! especially in Latin.  I'm not kidding.)

It's important to keep the two personas separate, even though most of my history colleagues know I write fantasy.  I wouldn't want another medievalist seeing that I (the historian) had a new book out called "The Witch and the Cathedral," and think, "Doubtless an insightful close analysis of the relationship between medieval learned religion and folk practice--I think I'll assign it to the graduate students in seminar."  (Tom Kidd is responsible for the above delightful cover.)

For that matter, some of the titles of my medieval history books might suggest fantasy to the hard-core fan, though they might wonder why the "latest installment" of my series is going to set them back $75 in hardcover….

I do try to incorporate real medieval social history into my fantasy, even though, as discussed in previous posts (click here and here), the Yurt series, my main series, is set in a version of what the nineteenth century might have been like if the Middle Ages had not ended.  And because I'm a medievalist, I've got a real church.  I've never liked fantasy where the priests are all either dimwitted fools or else scheming hypocrites.  In both the real Middle Ages and in my stories, there were both good priests and bad ones.

The fiction is just enormous fun, but I could never give up history.  For one thing, in writing stories, I'm looking into myself.  In doing history, on the other hand, I'm connecting with real people.  That they've been dead for 800 years doesn't change the fact that they have an awful lot to say.

(Click here for more on the relationship between medieval history and fantasy.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

Medieval Misogyny and Courtly Love

If you go looking for misogyny, that is hatred of women, in the Middle Ages, you will certainly find it. But the same could be said of the twentieth century, or even the twenty-first.  And that is certainly not all that you will find, unless you've convinced yourself beforehand that medieval women were hated and oppressed.

As I discussed in an earlier post, women in the Middle Ages played a vital and active part in society and had far more rights than they did, say, in nineteenth-century England.

Now it used to be that scholars made a big deal out of what they saw as a weird contradiction.  On the one hand, they said (mistakenly), medieval women were considered the source of all evil.  On the other hand, they said, men were supposed to obey them and cater to their every whim through the mandates of "courtly love."

Trying to figure out to reconcile these, these scholars even suggested that "courtly love" was just a ploy, men putting women up on a pedestal so they could keep them and their sinfulness out of the way.

My guess is that these scholars were led astray by the fact that medieval writers liked inversions, things turned upside down.  So, for example, it seemed deeply meaningful to them that Eve's name in Latin, Eva, was just Ave written backwards, "Ave Maria" being the beginning of the prayer to the Virgin Mary.  This for them provided a feminine form of the Biblical phrase, "As in Adam all shall die, so in Christ shall all be made alive."  No pedestals here!

In fact this supposed "weird contradiction" (and the unconvincing effort to resolve it) disappears as soon as you realize that neither half was true!  Women were not considered the source of all evil, and there were no mandates of courtly love.

The source of all evil, every theologian agreed, was the will.  Humans desired things they knew were evil and failed to resist temptation.  Certainly men fell into sexual sin when they felt a woman tempted them, but the real fault was theirs, to have given way to temptation in the first place.  (In fact, contrary to what you may have heard, sexual sin was not the number one medieval sin, but that's a topic for a different post.)

The concept of "courtly love" is actually a twentieth-century invention.  Certainly medieval people spoke a lot about love (discussed more here), and the aristocracy wanted to follow the refined, polite forms of behavior at court, but they did not put these together into a single term.  Men at court were supposed to be polite to women and know how to sing, dance, play an instrument, and flirt gracefully, but everyone who tried to tell men how to behave toward women came up with a different list.  Some stressed the need to keep one's love for a woman secret, others the need to clean one's fingernails, while still others called for heavy sighs.  Certainly none of this constituted clear mandates.

Like "feudalism," then, courtly love is a term best avoided, as suggesting a whole complicated system of actions and requirements that never actually existed.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on medieval women, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Women in the Middle Ages

There is a popular idea that women in the Middle Ages were marginalized, forced to be subservient, under the thumb of the men.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Medieval women actually had much more rights and autonomy in the Middle Ages than women did either in ancient Rome or in the modern period (before around the 1920s).  They certainly did not have what we would now call "equal rights," but then neither did most men.  Some careers, like the priesthood, were closed to women, but this did not keep them from having a great deal of influence.

Christianity stressed that women and men were equal in the eyes of God, which put them well ahead of the women in ancient pagan Rome.

As I noted before in a post on medieval marriage, the heart of a valid marriage was the consent of the two parties, which meant that a woman could not be married against her will, any more than could a man.  In practice of course young women would be heavily pressured by their relatives into choosing whom the relatives thought an appropriate spouse, but then young men experienced similar pressure.

Although women could not be priests, they could become nuns.  In the early Middle Ages, it was fairly common to have a double monastery, one house for men and another for women, with a single head--and the head would be an abbess, a woman, because it was considered wrong for women to be under a male abbot.  Even abbesses who only ruled over women in their nunneries could and did influence men.  Hildegard of Bingen, twelfth-century abbess of a German nunnery, who had mystic visions greatly admired by men, wrote to bishops and even to popes to straighten them out on key details.

(Hildegard also wrote a lot of really lovely music for her nuns, which is still being performed and recorded.  She has recently been adopted by New Age folks, which Hildegard, a traditionalist Christian, would have found appalling.)

Women were as likely as men to know how to read and write, and aristocratic women taught their children, both boys and girls, their first lessons.  (Literacy was low by our standards, but it was not determined by sex.)

It was appreciated that women were weaker physically than men, but this was taken as a reason to see them as spiritually stronger--they had more to overcome (Peter Abelard especially made this point).  If some argued that sin first came into the world via a woman, Eve, then others argued equally vehemently that salvation came into the world via Mary, because Jesus would not have been able to save humans if he had not had human flesh, which he got from her--and, in addition, women were the first to see the risen Christ.

Inheritance went preferentially to sons, rather than daughters, but girls were not excluded from their parents' inheritance, and in the absence of brothers they could inherit, not just land and property but castles and lordships.  Eleanor of Aquitaine, duchess of Aquitaine by heredity and queen of both France and England (successively, click here for more detail), ruled Aquitaine in her own right.  In the early twelfth century, when Henry I of England was dying without sons, he named his daughter Mathilda as king (not queen) of England to succeed him.  She spent the next twenty years fighting her cousin Stephen, who thought he was the rightful king of England, but there wasn't any doubt that a women could be ruling kings.

In nineteenth-century England, married women's property became their husband's property, but this was not true in the Middle Ages.  If a medieval woman wanted to sell or give away her own property, she was free to do so, although she would generally have her husband formally agree.  He on the other hand could not give away or sell her property and would need her consent to do anything with his own.

Interestingly, medieval spouses did not inherit from each other.  Among the aristocracy, widows generally had a right to a third of their late husband's property for their lifetime, but they could not sell it or give it away, because it wasn't theirs.  Property instead was inherited by the children of a couple, or in the absence of children, by the relatives of the late couple, her property going to her relatives, his to his.  Widows could and did become regents for their minor children, effectively ruling great estates, even duchies, even if in the name of an infant son (see more here on regency).

In many occupations, like farming, husbands and wives worked side by side.  In the guilds, women could become masters, even though most of the masters were men--only the guilds of professors and merchants were closed to women, and on the other hand men couldn't join the ribbon-makers' guild.  Women ran the castles, as everyone knew, including the titular lords of the castles.

Click here to see more on medieval women.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on medieval women, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Beer in the Middle Ages

If you've spent any time around a college campus, you've doubtless seen the T-shirt, "Beer, it's not just for breakfast anymore."  Well, this would have been puzzling to medieval people, because of course beer was for breakfast, as well as for the rest of the day.

Beer was the normal medieval drink, consumed at all meals and by people of all ages.  The alcohol content was relatively low, and it was consumed primarily to provide calories, not to get drunk--modern "lite" beers would have seemed bizarre in the Middle Ages.  But one still gets the impression that a lot of the medieval population wandered through life half-buzzed.

Beer goes back to the dawn of agriculture in the ancient Middle East.  It was originally a way to use germinated grain, that is grain that had sprouted while in storage and thus could neither be ground into flour nor saved and planted for next year's crop.  Although one could make beer out of virtually any grain, barley was the favorite.  Ancient Mesopotamian temples brewed beer for use in their rituals, and in Old Norse bior was the drink of the gods.

Medieval beer-making followed the same general steps that are still used in modern industrialized brewing, although of course skipping modern pasteurization and bottling.  First one got the barley to sprout, by spreading it out and getting and keeping it damp.  This was called malting the grain.  Next the sprouted grain was dried to stop the germination process, most efficiently by being baked in an oven.  Bakeries and breweries were often the same thing in the Middle Ages, and could be run by a husband and wife team.

Next the dried grain was coarsely ground, hulls and all.  Hot water was added to create the mash.  The resulting liquid, known as the wort and full of the essence of the sprouted grain (as well as some bits of it), was drawn off.  The leftover mash was fed to animals.

Next, in the actual "brewing" phase, the wort was boiled up, which sterilized it.  Hops or other herbs could be added at this stage.  As the beer cooled, yeast was added to ferment it.  (Another reason baking and brewing went together.)  Once fermented and strained, the beer was ready to drink.

People could and did brew beer at home, but most medieval villages and monasteries had a combination bakery-brewery.  Some regions developed what would have to be considered an industry in beer-making, producing big barrels of beer to be be shipped to other areas.  What is now the Netherlands and Belgium became an especially important beer-producing region.

If you are interested in medieval brewing, an especially good book is by Richard W. Unger, Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on food and drink in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Medieval Universities

Universities were a medieval invention.  There was nothing like them in the ancient world.  But in many ways what we think of as defining a university--a course of study in complicated intellectual issues, where one earned degrees--has been unchanged since the twelfth century.

Universities grew out of schools attached to churches, usually cathedrals.  Men who wanted some sort of education but who did not want to go into the church could and did attend the same schools where cathedrals trained boys who would grow up to be priests.  These schools attracted teachers who might, if they had an excellent reputation, attract students from all over Europe.  Soon the schools, or at least the more advanced courses, were separated off from the cathedral schools to become universities, though the bishop generally felt he needed to keep an eye on them.

The names for many university officers, chancellor, provost, dean, are also the names of various officers in a medieval cathedral chapter.  This is not an accident.  Academic gowns still look like priests' robes.  This is also not an accident.

The first officially recognized university was Bologna in Italy, which got its charter in 1100, but the most influential was the university of Paris.  The modern Sorbonne (pictured above, the buildings are of course more recent) is the direct descendant of the medieval university of Paris.  The area is still called the Latin Quarter because medieval students spoke Latin.  It was both the language of instruction and a language that an international student body could all understand.

All universities offered a basic education leading to a "bachelor's" degree.  This was based on late Roman educational models, where one started with the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and proceeded to the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music).  These were the "liberal arts," those arts that one studied through books (a book is liber in Latin).  Students studying for a Bachelor of Arts were younger than modern university students, being in their teens.

Different universities specialized in different advanced areas of study.  Bologna was the center for law. Paris was the center for theology, the study of religion.  Montpellier and Salerno focused on medicine.  The two English universities, Oxford and Cambridge, both founded in the thirteenth century, did a little of everything.

After several years of advanced study, one could become a Master of Arts, the equivalent of being the master in a guild (professors were organized in guilds), qualified to teach the undergraduates.  Few went on to a PhD, a "doctor of philosophy," a degree that one generally obtained only in one's forties, but which allowed one to teach the MA candidates.  "Philosophy" was the general term to cover all branches of knowledge at a university.

In some ways medieval students were a lot like modern ones, drinking too much, writing home for more money, flirting, and finding intellectual pursuits very exciting, as their brains were taken seriously for the first time in their lives.

But in many ways they were different.  First, universities were male-only.  This is not surprising, given that they grew out of schools training priests, and only men could be priests.  But this was not just a medieval phenomenon.  American universities did not begin to admit women until the middle of the nineteenth century, when Oberlin was the first.  Indeed, until very recently, it was thought that too much education would make women "unwomanly," unable to have children and unfit for their proper role as housekeepers, and that their brains couldn't handle complicated thoughts anyway.

Medieval universities also did not have courses of study in many things found in modern universities, such as engineering (a practical skill taught through apprenticeships rather than in classrooms), business, education, economics, or modern language and literature.  Classical language and literature as well as history were however taught, as part of philosophy.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on medieval universities and learning, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Feudalism - Why Medievalists Don't Use the Term

Everybody sort of knows the term 'feudalism' and figures it has something to do with the Middle Ages. However, medieval scholars no longer use the term.  Why is this? you ask (especially since your high school social studies teacher seemed to think it was important).

The problem is that the word 'feudalism' has been used in so many different ways, many of them contradictory, that someone hearing or reading the word will have no idea what it means.  This is especially a problem because 'feudalism' isn't even a translation of a medieval word, but dates instead to the seventeenth century.

Sometimes the word is used to refer to peasants.  Sometimes it refers to knights and nobles.  Sometimes it is supposed to date to the sixth century.  Sometimes it refers to the Ancien Régime in France (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries).  Sometimes it is a legal category.  Sometimes it is economic.  Sometimes it refers to fighting with swords.  But whatever it is supposed to mean, it is always Bad.  No wonder medievalists avoid it!

When the word 'feudalism' was first coined (seventeenth century), it meant specifically fiefs (a fief is a feudum in medieval Latin).  I will discuss fiefs more in a later post, but basically it was a relationship strictly between knights and nobles, where one man received a piece of land, the fief, from another, in return for loyalty and support (not rent).  Fiefs flourished not for the whole Middle Ages but really only in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries.

At the time of the French Revolution, 1789, revolutionaries wanted to end abusive practices of the Ancien Régime, things like hereditary judgeships, noble exemption from royal taxes, and dove cots (many nobles raised doves for food, and the doves flew out and ate peasants' grain).  None of these things had anything to do with fiefs or even the Middle Ages.  But they were Bad, so the revolutionaries decided to call them 'feudalism,' the word to them meaning Bad Old Practices.

So already the word had two distinct meanings, referring to quite different conditions six centuries apart.  Then in the nineteenth century Karl Marx got hold of the word.  He decided 'feudalism' was a stage, between slavery (as in ancient Rome) and the rise of the bourgeoisie (in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries), and that it involved serfs/peasants and began in the sixth century.  It was, he felt, very Bad.

As if three different meanings weren't enough (social, legal, economic, sixth century, twelfth century, eighteenth century), the word 'feudalism' has acquired many additional meanings.  Powerful local lords, whether warlords in Afghanistan or leaders during the shogun era in Japan, are said to be examples of feudalism.  Every sword, every castle, every medieval battle is supposed to be an example of feudalism.  Every oppressive landlord is supposed to be practicing feudalism.  All of these are Bad.

Make things easy on yourself.  Just don't use the word!  If you want to discuss peasants, or castles, or fiefs, or warlords, just do so.  The only times it makes sense to use the word is if you're talking about the French Revolution, when you might as well use the revolutionaries' definition (just remembering it had nothing to do with the Middle Ages), or if you're discussing the philosophy and writings of Karl Marx.  Then at least it's clear what you mean by the word.

(It's not your high school social studies teacher's fault.  She was just following the textbook.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on medieval knights and peasants, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Mage Quest

The audio version of my novel "Mage Quest" has just been released, and I'm very excited.  But if you're here mostly interested in medieval history, you'll soon see some of that too.

The Royal Wizard of Yurt series, of which "Mage Quest" is part, is set in a slightly skewed version of the real Middle Ages.  In fact, I imagine that this is what medieval Europe would have become by the nineteenth century if there had been no New World to discover, no Protestant Reformation, no French Revolution, and no Industrial Revolution--plus of course working magic!

In this book, the characters are off on a quest to the fabled East.  Now, in fact, medieval Europeans knew very little about the real Middle East unless they went on Crusade or pilgrimage (and then they were shocked).  Nineteenth-century Europeans didn't know much more.  But they found the Middle East fascinating and exotic.  There was a big fad for "orientalism," anything involving harems, turbans, desert sands, mummies, palm trees, and the like.

This fascination led to the success of "Arabian Nights," especially in the Sir Richard Burton translation (no, not that Richard Burton).  In this book westerners learned about Aladdin and the lamp, Sinbad the Sailor, and many other exciting characters.

Now, in the twenty-first century, historians of the Middle East have of course gotten away from orientalism.  You can't start studying a society by assuming it's weird and exotic.  Everyone is normal to themselves, after all!

But in "Mage Quest," I have included a heavy dose of the way that the real nineteenth-century West imagined the East, as full of amazing wonders.  However, I have radically downplayed the West's negative views of Islam.  I'm not in the business of being insulting to anyone's religion.  I have also included a lot of material inspired by twelfth-century descriptions of the Holy Land and Byzantium.

Now if you're just interested in an exciting adventure story and don't want to hear about modern historians of the Middle East, you can ignore all this and just enjoy!

But if you're interested in how I shaped the backstory, the novel assumes that there was a Roman Empire equivalent long ago, but that it never actually took over the Jewish kingdoms in Palestine, and that Christians, Jews, and Muslims were able to work out their quite serious differences in subsequent centuries enough to coexist.

The audio version is narrated by Eric Vincent, who does a great job, especially with the Ifrit--a particularly large kind of djinn.  The production has music between chapters to set the mood and is just terrific.  It is available on iTunes,, and Amazon--or, if you prefer to read it, it's available as an ebook on all major platforms as well as a physical paperback (out of print unfortunately, but used copies are available).  Let me know how you like it!

(By the way, I wrote the book over twenty years ago, long before modern on-line gaming.  Some modern video games include "mage's quest" as one of their aspects.  If you came to this page looking for gaming tips, sorry!  Maybe I should get a percentage of gaming revenues? I wish! as if that would ever happen.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

Friday, August 8, 2014

Eleventh-Century Popes

In an earlier post, I discussed how early medieval popes had an abstract moral authority, considered the heirs of Saint Peter, even while most people didn't even know who the pope was, and a lot of the men who became pope were far from holy.  They certainly weren't telling Christians what to believe.

A sign of the relative weakness of the popes is the ninth-century Pseudo Isidorian Decretals, so called because they claimed (falsely) to be written by the somewhat earlier legal scholar Isidore of Seville.  These Decretals were written to make it easier for bishops to avoid being judged by their fellow-bishops if they had done something wrong.  They claimed that bishops could be judged only by the pope, which meant, in practice, that they couldn't be judged at all!

In addition, the popes, until the eleventh century, continued writing their letters on papyrus, which had been the formal material for letters since the Roman Empire.  Because they only had a limited amount (once Egypt, where papyrus came from, was in Muslim hands), they didn't write many letters.  They also continued to use the handwriting of the late Empire, almost incomprehensible in the West, which had, since around 800, used a form of writing that looks a lot like modern printing.

The papacy suddenly emerged into European politics in the 1040s.  The German king went to Rome to be crowned Roman emperor, as German kings had been doing for over two centuries.  He was shocked to discover three different men fighting in the streets over who should be pope.  He assembled a council of the churchmen who had accompanied him, declared all three popes deposed, and had one of his men elected pope instead.  Crowned emperor, he happily headed home.  "My work here is done."

The first and second German popes quickly died, probably poisoned.  The third German pope, Leo IX (1049-1054), originally from Alsace, had the good sense to get out of Rome.  He moved around western Europe holding councils.  He was trying to improve the overall morality of the church, primarily by making sure all bishops were good, moral and well-educated men who had properly been elected, not buying their office or seizing it by force.

The bishops took this surprisingly well.  The Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, believed at the time to be the true decisions of councils of the earliest days of the Church, helped a lot.  By saying that bishops could be judged by popes, it gave the popes a real authority they had not previously had.

The emperors did not forget that they had been responsible for reforming the popes.  A generation later, in the 1070s, pope and emperor got involved in a knock-down, drag-out battle now called the Investiture Controversy.  This is because the initial discord was over the question of who could "invest" a newly-elected bishop with the symbols of his office (ring and pastoral staff).  The German emperors had always done so and weren't interested in popes who told them this was inappropriate.  The quarrel quickly became a contest over who was the ultimate authority in a Christian empire, pope or emperor.  It dragged on for two generations, both sides declaring the other a heretic, or declaring the other deposed, or announcing they were going to follow a different pope or a different emperor.

So, we're now up to 1130, but we've yet to see popes having real authority.  Stay tuned.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on the medieval church, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Medieval Farm Animals

Medieval peasants raised most of the same animals found on a modern American farm (though not llamas!).  Theirs were smaller, not having been bred to the enormous size of some modern pigs and cattle.  To be a good candidate for a farm animal, a creature had to serve more than one purpose.

So, for example, sheep produced wool, the most common source of cloth in the Middle Ages, and their skin also was used for parchment, the principal material of books and official documents before paper became common in the West in the fourteenth century.  Their meat was also eaten and their milk made into cheese.  Monks did not eat red meat, but they raised large flocks of sheep for wool and especially for parchment.  After all, a big book like the Bible needed a whole lot of sheepskins.

Horses were used principally for riding and, to a lesser extent, for pulling carts and plows.  Horsehide produced a heavy leather.  Horses, however, were fairly unusual before the spread of horseshoes (see more here), and aristocrats were always more likely to have horses than were peasants, who preferred the solid dependability of oxen for pulling.

Cattle, including both cows and oxen, produced milk and meat and cowhide for leather.  Most of the milk would be made into cheese or butter, since milk will not keep well without refrigeration, and cows produced milk only for a short time of the year anyway.  Most peasant families either had a cow or would have liked to have one.  (Click here for more on cows.)

Pigs were only semi-domesticated.  They generally ran wild, rather than being fed at the farm.  Their favorite food was acorns, so oak woods were prized as places to fatten pigs before the big November roundup and pig slaughter.

Chickens wandered around every farmstead.  We now wonder if chickens might be free-range; all medieval chickens were free-range.  They were used for feathers, for meat, and especially for eggs.  The free-range hens would try to hide their nests, and farmers would try to find the nests before the eggs started developing into baby chicks.  (Unlike modern eggs, medieval eggs would have been fertilized.)  The eggs were very small by today's standards, the size of what used to be called pullet eggs.

Chickens were especially prized for their ability to keep down insects.  A large part of their diet was the insects they would catch, though they would also get a little grain--as well as anything they could pick up in the farmyard.  (Click here for more on chickens.)

In areas with ponds or streams, families might also have domestic ducks or geese, again raised for their feathers, their meat, and their eggs.

Cats were kept on farms to hold down the mice, but they were generally not treated as pets.  Dogs, however, could be pets as well as helpful companions to the shepherds and cowherds and served as guards at night.  Small dogs were bred as pets, and ladies especially might have one as a companion.  Dogs, symbols of faithfulness, were often carved on late medieval tombs.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

For more on farm animals and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see the ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Early Medieval Popes

Many people now mistakenly think, "In the Middle Ages, people had to do whatever the pope said."  This is far from true.  Most of the time, most people didn't even know who the pope was.

Let's start at the beginning.  As Christian communities were first established in the late first and second centuries AD, they acquired bishops, leaders who were locally elected (click here for more on bishops).  The bishops originally ran Christianity between them, holding conferences to decide important issues.  By the fourth and fifth centuries, as Christianity became first tolerated in the Roman Empire and then eventually the official imperial religion, five of these bishops became "first among equals," the five patriarchs as they were known.

The five patriarchs were the bishops of Rome (naturally), of Constantinople (the "new Rome" since the imperial capital was moved there in the fourth century), of Jerusalem (naturally), of Alexandria (in Egypt, the greatest center of learning in the ancient world), and of Antioch.  Antioch was where the apostle Peter went, according to the New Testament.  In Latin, all patriarchs, and many other bishops, were called papa, meaning "father."

The bishop of Rome, the only patriarch in western Europe, was looked up to by Europeans, and he took over effective governance of the city of Rome once the emperors were off in the East.  He also encouraged the Christianization of European territories not already Christian; for example, around the year 600 Gregory I first sent missionaries to the pagan Anglo-Saxons in England.  By this time, the bishops of Rome were arguing that the apostle Peter had been their first bishop, having come to Rome from Antioch, joining Paul, whom the New Testament puts in Rome (though not as bishop).

In the seventh century, with the rise of Islam, the Christian communities in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria essentially disappeared, leaving just the patriarchs of Constantinople and Rome.  East and West, Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking, drew further and further apart.  From this point on, one can really call the Roman pontiff "the pope."

But popes still had no real authority outside of Rome.  People loved to make pilgrimages to Rome, to visit the catacombs under the city where early Christians were buried (and to snag a bone or two to take home as a relic), to visit the Tomb of Peter.  But a lot of popes were non-entities, sons of powerful Roman families put into office by their relatives, who had dropped the previous pope into the Tiber.  They had constant problems with the Lombard kings (northern Italy) and the Saracens (southern Italy).

The highpoint for early medieval popes was the coronation of Charlemagne in the year 800.  Charlemagne was king of "Francia" (essentially France and western Germany), and he had come to Italy at the pope's request to beat up the Lombards.  As a reward, on Christian Day 800, in Saint Peter's basilica, the pope crowned him Roman Emperor.

The pope was convinced at the time that the Roman Emperor in Constantinople was a heretic, following a deviant version of Christianity.  To make it worse, the emperor of 800 was a woman.  From now on, there were two Roman Emperors, one in Constantinople and one in France or Germany.

The western one (not the eastern one) had the precedent of having to be crowned by the pope to be considered truly the emperor.  Many a German king in the next two centuries came to Italy to be crowned emperor, even if he first had to beat up the pope to get him to do it.  But the popes still had little authority the rest of the time and continued to be pawns of powerful Roman families.

In a later post, I'll pick up the story in the eleventh century.

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© C. Dale Brittain 2014