The resignation of Pope Benedict and the global furore around the selection of Pope Francis, demonstrated the grip the Catholic Church still commands in the minds of the masses in many areas of the world. Cain O’Mahoney looks at the origins of Catholicism in the Dark Ages, and how the ‘Universal’ Church - unconsciously - acted as the ‘subjective factor’ in the transition from the slave based society of the Roman Empire to feudalism in Western Europe.
Constantine brought Christianity to the Roman Empire. At the beginning of the 4th century, he was embroiled in one of Rome’s bitter civil wars that wracked the empire as it crumbled. This pretender to the Roman throne claimed he saw a fiery vision of the Cross in the skies on the eve of his victorious battle that propelled him to the throne. Such was his new fervour that he ordered his troops to paint crosses on their shields before the battle.
More likely, his conversion had more to do with an event 15 years earlier. In 287 AD, there had been a major mutiny in the Roman army. An Egyptian General, Maurice, and the Theban legion he commanded, had all converted to Christianity. Maurice refused an order to slaughter a village of fellow Christians. St Maurice was martyred and the whole Legion ‘decimated’ (one in ten of the troops arbitrarily put to death) by the Roman Generals in reprisal.
This small historical incident demonstrates how the egalitarian ideals of early Christianity had rapidly spread amongst the impoverished masses. The ‘Nazareens’ - the clan based Judean religious movement from Nazareth originally led by John the Baptist and his cousins Jesus, John, James etc - was initially very much focussed on ‘converting’ its own Judean community, rather than troubling outsiders. It was Saul, with his conversion on the road to Damascus, that took it out of the Judean community to see it rapidly spread through Armenia and from there into the decaying Roman Empire, including amongst the lower ranks – the proletari as they were called - of the Roman Legions. Constantine’s ‘conversion’ had less to do with fiery apparitions, and more to do with destabilising his opponent’s Legions: hence the order to his soldiers to paint crosses on their shields, so the opposing rank and file troops - likely to be Christians themselves - would see they were up against fellow believers, and lessen their ardour to fight.
Such sudden ‘conversion’ was nothing out of the ordinary for Roman emperors like Constantine. Religion had always been a matter of pragmatism for the Roman aristocracy, a mechanism to keep the support of the masses, as their empire expanded. As the historian Adrian Goldsworthy points out:
“Traditionally the Romans had been willing to introduce foreign religions into their city, absorbing them into the State religion.” (The Fall of Carthage).
Clearly, by the time of Constantine’s reign, the new religion from the East had gripped both soldiers, artisans and peasants alike. So Christianity was embraced by the new ruler.
Constantine brought new fortune to Rome, and protected its eastern flanks – home of its traditional enemies – by incorporating the Greeks as ‘Romans’, under the slogan of ‘One Face, One Race’ and creating the Byzantine empire with its magnificent walled city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) as its centre-piece.
While the Byzantine star rose, Rome’s waned. As the Roman aristocracy again split and factionalised into bloody feuds, the Barbarians ransacked Italy at will. In the 6th century, a Byzantine army had to liberate Rome from its northern invaders. But it was also a takeover by what should have been the junior party in the Roman-Byzantine alliance. A Byzantine Governor was installed in Ravenna to oversee the squabbling Roman aristocracy.
The Byzantine hold on Rome weakened after the Barbarians cut off Constantinople from Rome when they invaded Greece in the 7th century, while North African Corsairs controlled all Mediterranean sea routes. It was in this growing isolation that a new germ of Roman nationalism, in religious form, began to grow. Rome had always smarted at Byzantine domination, and now the State religion became the battlefield. Successive Byzantine emperors had controlled the State religion, and through it society generally, by appointing their favoured Bishops as the heads of the Church – or ‘Pappas’, the Greek for father – in all of the power bases of the empire, whether Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and so on, and of course Rome.
Rome argued there could only be one head of church, one Pappas, and that had to be their preferred Bishop of Rome. The theological justification was that the first Bishop of Rome was St Peter, martyred in 64 AD. Jesus on his crucifixion, they pointed out, had entrusted the ‘Keys to Heaven’ – that is, the leadership of the movement – to Peter. Thus whoever was Bishop of Rome was ipso facto the true successor to St Peter, and therefore head of the Church. It was subscript for authority to return to Rome from Constantinople.
The urgency of Rome’s need to wrest control from Constantinople lay in an outbreak of ‘millenarianism’, a serious belief that the end of the world was nigh. There was an on-going theological debate around the Bible which had declared that the ‘kingdom of heaven on earth’ would last a thousand years. As the year 1000 AD rapidly approached, this prophesy must have seemed very real as the once mighty Rome crumbled and fell all around them.
Rome looked to new forces. The self appointed successors to St Peter founded a new strategy they called the Correctio – the ‘ordering of the disordered’. All around them, the former Barbarian tribes were coalescing into geographically based races, with coherent structures of authority and order, inherited from the old Roman Empire: Spain, Gaul, England, Saxony, Francia, Burgundy, Lombardy, the Wends, Poles, Slavs, Bohemia and Bavaria. Their rising strength increased Rome’s weakness. It was the reason that slavery was increasingly unable to provide the production power house of society anymore. To enslave you must rule - but the Barbarians, with the knowledge and skills bestowed upon them by the Roman Empire were fighting back. Rome had sown the seeds of its own destruction. Therefore, the new heathen kingdoms had to be ‘brought to God’ - and Roman leadership, of course. Francia was the first successful candidate for conversion.
When the Lombards invaded Italy once more, so Rome – proclaiming its new authority from St Peter, as head of the Church – called on the recently converted Franks to protect them. They answered the call, and Rome had its first ‘Barbarian’ emperor – Charlemagne.
Based on Frankish military power (rather than Roman) Charlemagne forged a new empire suppressing those lands “without religion, without Kings”. But one very much based on the old Roman model, of slave labour provided by the defeated lands, with the booty of victory pouring back into Rome.
After Charlemagne’s death, the factionalism and civil wars that had plagued Roman times returned. To restore order, the Papacy switched to the new rising force on the continent, Saxony. The Franks had conquered and converted the Saxons and made them their eastern satellite – but it was the Roman-Byzantine ‘alliance’ all over again, with Saxony becoming the dominant partner. Their power rested on a new weapon – the loricati, or ‘Men of Iron’.
Europe had been plagued by invasions from the East by hordes of fast moving, horse borne archers who could cut swathes through the static infantry tactics that dominated European military practices, based on the Roman model. The Saxons developed chain-mailed cavalry that could smash the lightly armoured Eastern horsemen, and slash through infantry. Until the Germans invented the Crossbow and the Welsh the Long Bow 200 years later, whose bolts and arrows could penetrate armour, the loricati in their head to toe chain mail were the medieval equivalent of an invincible Panzer Division.
In 962 AD, Rome’s new Saxon champion was Otto I, or that is to say, a faction of the Papacy’s choice. There were two or three Popes in Rome at the time, representing the different factions amongst the Roman aristocracy who feuded and blood let in the struggle for power.
The ‘official’ Pope, 16 year old John XII had been installed by the dominant faction, despite being thoroughly debauched. He even converted a wing of the Lateran into a brothel. Otto I tolerated the Papal pretender while he consolidated his emperorship and then engineered John’s demise a year later – through intrigue he ensured an irate husband caught John XII in bed with his wife, and the Pope was dispatched to the hereafter.
This incident demonstrates that although they intrigued and dabbled, the Roman Pope was still subservient to the Emperor, whether Roman, French or German.
After Otto I’s demise, so the Holy German Reich went the way of Charlemagne’s and the Roman Ceasers’ before it. It was clearly time for slavery as a means of production to ‘kindly leave the stage of history’. A vacuum had appeared.
It was Pope Gregory VII who took a revolutionary step. The once mighty empire of Otto I descended into civil war, with Saxon counts and princes vying for the throne. Pope Gregory intervened and ex-communicated the main Saxon pretender to the throne, Henry IV. Hell was very much a reality to early medieval society, and such ex-communication was a terrifying threat. More to the point, it was the equivalent of a Mafia Don giving the go ahead for someone to get whacked. The hapless Henry could be assassinated without sin. Given the even balance of forces amongst the warring factions, the Papacy realised they could now be the king-makers, rather than subservient to any Emperor. Historians call this breaking of the power of Emperors the ‘Papal Revolution’. As historian Tom Holland remarks:
“Gregory today may not enjoy the fame of a Luther, a Lenin , a Mao - but that relects not on his failure but rather the sheer scale of his achievement.” (Millennium)
But now the Correctio strategy faced a new challenge. The Church had to deal with a new type of society beginning to evolve in southern France. The international aristocracy of Western Europe had achieved a certain amount of equilibrium and could not wage wholesale war against one another, without great loss to themselves (this was evidenced 200 years later during the ‘Hundred Years War’ when England and France slugged it out in a war that lasted 113 years). It was the medieval equivalent of the Mutually Assured Destruction of the nuclear age. The mass armies of Roman times, capable of subjugating whole continents, had passed. Mass slavery, looted treasures and subject colonies could no longer offer the means of production. In the new static society, wealth transferred to ownership of the land around you, which is what now provided all sustenance for society. But with no continual source of slaves, who would provide the labour to farm it? You could ‘own’ all the land you wanted, but without labour to cultivate it, where was the ‘profit’?
As the first Millennium approached, the architect of the new society was Fulk the Black, a descendent of forest scavengers who through his family securing a series of well placed marriages, was now Count of Anjou. His solution was to hand pick the toughest local thugs and train them in armoured warfare, to become his personal band of loricati or ‘cnights’ as the English called them (hence, by the way, the Monty Python and the Holy Grail sketch of ‘The Knights that go cnight’…). They would then pick the highest spot in the area, and build a small Castella or Castle on top of it. This was designed to intimidate, not protect. It was just large enough to provide shelter for his garrison, and not for the local populace when under threat, as the old walled cities had done.
Fulk then declared all the land around him was his, and that the local peasants would now serve him, or answer to his ‘cnights’. Historian Tom Holland describes the fate of the peasantry:
“Rather than being left to live as they had done since Roman times, on scattered farms, or clustered around villas, or migrating year by year from hut to hut and field to field, peasants increasingly found themselves being herded together into what was in effect a human sheep pen: a ‘village’… They were all unfree now: living trophies, the spoils of violence and crime.” (Millennium).
The art of the Castellan rapidly spread as other mainly self-appointed Counts and Routiers (robber barons) followed Fulk’s lead. It was a localised version of slavery.
Soon Castles were appearing all along the Loire valley. But this system could not be sustained. These were seen by Rome as a threat to their grand plan of ‘united Christian Kingdoms’, subservient to Rome, replaced instead by a patchwork of thousands of fiefdoms.
This phenomenon ruptured normal production and supply. The small fiefdoms would produce just enough for themselves; there was no incentive to produce the surplus needed for trade, on which the new nation states would be built. Nor could this disunited patchwork provide the mass armies needed for the continuation of slavery. The Castellans would need to be coerced back into subservience to one king, on which a nation state (and religion) could be built.
In addition, the mass of peasants were being treated brutally – the more able fled to the growing towns and cities. The ‘short termism’ of the Castellans, who were only interested in their immediate self-gratification and wealth, would before long unleash mass uprisings and chaos, the Church foresaw.
As Karl Marx later explained:
“At a certain stage of development, the productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production…From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.” (Critique of Political Economy, 1859)
As the first Millennium approached, the Church had to intervene to implement the Correctio once more and drag their grand plan back from the abyss. As ‘Fulkism’ began to spread like a virus from the Loire, Bishops were despatched to hold ‘Peace Councils’ throughout France – in effect mass meetings with the peasants. The peasants attended these in their thousands, as Tom Holland writes, “…to make one final defence of their vanishing freedoms”.
The Church’s intervention broke the power of the Castellans. The Church launched the ‘Peace of God’ campaign throughout France – this was carried out along systematic, military lines, from fiefdom to fiefdom. Bishops would summon the local Castellans and their thuggish retinue to the field; the arrogant Castellans, confident of their physical might against what they thought would be a few vicari, would instead be left aghast at the sight that greeted them.
Facing them in battle formation would be the Bishops and monks in full spectacular regalia. Glittering in the sun would also be the rows of Christian relics – bones and artefacts of Saints and Martyrs, now encased in golden statues and lined up like soldiers. And behind them a seething mass of angry peasants.
The Castellans had little choice. Holland again:
“The Bishops were far too sacrosanct, and the peasants far too numerous, merely to be ridden down.“
Beaten, the Castellans swore oaths to both Church and King to agree a common programme of minimal law and order which at least left the new serfs with some protection, and some remaining rights to land and through it self-production of food. Yes, they had become servus or serfs tied to the local Lord and forced to work on his land, but in return they would now receive protection, ‘justice’ (of sorts), and most importantly the right to exploit certain fields for themselves. For the peasants, the respite provided by the ‘Peace of God’ campaign won the Church their undying devotion.
The Church had unconsciously acted as the subjective factor in ensuring the transition from slavery to feudalism, and the early creation of nation states. It was not the Roman Empire once more, but at least Rome could now direct and control the new Christian kings to their design. They had succeeded in cementing the foundation stones of the new Feudal order, and the death knell of slave based society.
Not all the leaders of the one Church were so saintly of course. Evidence of corruption, decadence and debauchery could unleash the fury of the lower orders. In 1057 AD, the Milanese rioted against the very public opulence of Milan’s Arch Bishop and his wife. Rome reacted quickly by launching a new austere regime for its foot soldiers, including celibacy for all its representatives from Priests upwards. It was a political quick fix to appease the mobs of Milan, which they have been stuck with ever since.
The new order was now to be exported to the rest of the known world, in what was the first ‘globalisation’ – one ‘Kath’holou’ (the Greek for ‘universal’) religion; a common communications system (Latin) through which nation could speak to nation; an agreed (and enforced) set of values administered through the one Church; and an effective ‘International Security Council’ – the Papacy – that could arbitrate and negotiate between warring nations and royal factions.
As Karl Marx put it:
“For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.” (German Ideology, 1845)
In terms of what could be achieved under the new order of feudal united kingdoms - rather than isolated fiefdoms - there was much enthusiasm for the initiative of Edgar, King of England, who in 973 AD had introduced the world’s first single currency for a nation. This was not so much fiscal reform but rather an easier way to collect taxes from the masses, to ensure Edgar lived the opulent lifestyle he was accustomed to, and to finance the developing nation state machine and army. But it became the template for the emerging Christian Kings across Europe.
By the 10th century this mini-globalisation gathered apace. The High Churches of today – Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox – present fairy tale imagery of the conversion of the new nations, with individual Saints and Martyrs bringing the pagans to the Cross single handedly. The reality was far more materialistic and more akin to business propositions and military take overs.
The Slavs had already been simply ordered by Otto I to become Christians en masse. With his loricati amassed on the border, it was an offer they couldn’t refuse, while the threat from the pagan Hungarians ended with Otto 1’s victory at the Battle of the Lech in 955 AD.
Also in eastern Europe, the new ‘Rus’ men – ‘row men’, as the river borne Vikings that swept down the Dneiper and Volga were called – came to the Cross, but only after a few enquiries first. The pragmatic Rus men sent their most learned scholars both East and West to examine the new faiths – Islam and Christianity – and eventually decided to back the latter, marked by the formal baptism in 980 AD of Prince Vladimir.
In the West, England led the negotiations with the new wave of Barbarians from the ‘North Way’. The Vikings had begun to terrorise northern France and England, from their new bases in Dublin and northern England. The chief pirate king was Trygrasson, who squared up to England’s nervous regent, Ethelred. The new wealth provided by the single currency allowed Ethelred to buy off Trygrasson with £10,000 in silver coin.
Trygrasson called off his thugs, but everyone knew he would return for more on the next Spring tide – it was this that earnt Ethelred his title for which he will be ever more remembered: ‘Ethelred the Unraed (not ‘Unready’ as school kids think) – ‘Unraed’ is the old Angle word for ‘ill advised’, which his court thought he was for falling for Trygrasson’s new protection racket.
Sure enough, Trygrasson returned with his outstretched palm the following year. But Ethelred had had a plan all along. Out had gone the bait, and now he reeled Trygrasson in. This time Ethelred offered him £16,000, but with strings attached – no more raids, he must join the brotherhood of Christian Kings, installing himself as King of the North Way, and his new kingdom must be Christian. Trygrasson, eager for a seat at the international table of power, readily agreed. ‘Regime change’ and Christianity came to Scandinavia for the cost of £26,000.
The ‘conversion’ of Iceland was even more business like. The Icelanders were refugee Vikings fleeing the repressive regimes of the ‘North Way’, and maintained a primitive communist existence in this barren land of fire and ice. As part of Trygrasson’s new order, he closed all his ports to non-believers. The Icelanders were dependent on the North Way ports to trade fish for much needed timber. They called a mass meeting at their traditional assembly point, the Thrigvellir, and, following negotiations with the North Way Bishops, a deal was struck. The Icelanders all agreed to be baptised and attend Mass on Sundays, but in turn the Church would turn a blind eye and allow them to continue to practice their pagan faith in the privacy of their own home (because without such pagan rituals the Icelanders were seriously concerned it could affect their fish harvest - this ‘Jesus thing’ was all very well but they had a business run!). Little echoes from the Church’s deals with pagans resonate down the ages - hence we northern Europeans still drag winter evergreens into our houses to celebrate… the birth of Jesus of Nazareth!
This was still a tumultuous period, with the Papacy balancing between rival kingdoms and skilfully backing the right horse – for example, despite the good service England had provided in ‘converting’ the North Way, it was William the Conqueror - a ‘North Man’ or Norman, a descendent of the Vikings who settled in northern France - who carried the Papal Banner at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, not King Harold. William’s victory sped up the process of establishing feudalism in England, as Rome had envisaged, and England changed from a land of wood to one of Norman stone.
As feudalism was consolidated in Western Europe, Rome cast its eyes eastwards. The new united Kingdoms could collectively provide massive armies for the Crusades. In name these were to defend the Holy Land; in reality they were to protect and build Frankish settlements in the Levant, whose design in turn was to undermine the old rival Byzantium. This would then open up the treasure trove of the Middle East to Rome and its Western allies once more.
This has always been the historical materialist’s view of the Crusades. Bourgeois historians however, have all maintained that, since Pope Urban’s call at the Council of Clermont in 1095 AD, the Crusades were some sort of ‘Holy War’ or ‘jihad’ to protect the Holy Land from the rise of Islam. It was a view emboldened as Western Imperialism gained its height hundreds of years later, as some sort of theological justification for colonialism - particularly in Latin America where today half of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics can be found. Even more recently, President Bush Jnr evoked the imagery of the Crusades in the fight against the ‘axis of evil’ in the East to justify the Iraq disaster.
This was never the case. Islam in the early Middle Ages was as disparate as early Christianity, with the ‘Muslim’ kingdoms in Egypt, Persia and what became Turkey more often than not fighting each other, doing deals with Christian Constantinople or even the Crusaders themselves, rather than a determined march on the Holy Land. Only for a brief period under Saladin could there be anything comparable to some ‘united national liberation struggle’ against the West.
A recent book by historian Dr Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the Call from the East, points out that the Crusades only came about because the Byzantine empire was beginning to fall apart like Rome before it, for all the same reasons. The Byzantine emperor Alexios, fearing overthrow not by Islam but by his own Christian citizens, desperately appealed to Pope Urban for help. Rome saw its chance to do to Byzantium what Byzantium had done to Rome in the 6th century.
Constantinople soon got wise to Rome’s ambitions when, having ‘liberated’ Nicacea and Antioch, the Crusaders refused to hand them back to Byzantium. Indeed, by the time of the Second and Third Crusades, Byzantine emperors would not even let the mass Crusader armies shelter within the huge city walls of Constantinople when they were allegedly en route to liberate the Holy Land, such was Byzantine mistrust of their ‘fellow Christians’. As Dr Frankopan points out, the Crusade’s occasional clashes with Islam were just a “side show”.
Dr Frankopan’s ‘revelations’ caused a sensation at the 2011 Cheltenham Literary Festival. There was even a large sympathetic report on his findings in the Times (14/10/11). Now of course, it is in the interests of Western capitalism to play down the Crusades and the former claims of Holy War against Islam, as the West launches a charm offensive on ‘moderate’ Muslim leaders in its attempts to calm the hornets’ nest it has stirred up in the Middle East.
The formation of the new Kingdoms, with Rome at its head, provided the ability once more to create mass armies that could slaughter and enslave, to create colonies in the East for exploitation. Islamic rule of the Holy Land was just the peg to hang it on. After all, Jerusalem had fallen under Islamic rule 450 years before the Council of Clermont. It would appear the hand of God not only ‘moves in a mysterious way’ but also in a very slow one too!
And Rome’s key strategic aim was finally realised with the Fourth Crusade. Led by the new powerful city states of Genoa and Venice - whose wealth was based on maritime trade - the aim was to end Constantinople’s domination of trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. Far from ‘liberating’ the Holy Land from Islam as had been their alleged intention, instead the Crusaders sacked Constantinople with the slaughter of thousands of fellow Christians, marking the final end of the Byzantium empire. The original heroism of St Maurice had been turned on its head.
While modern Christian churches may attempt to adapt to the changing world around them - or not in most cases - it is still an ideology locked in medieval mysticism and values, as seen by the current furore over women Priests and Bishops, gay marriage, divorce, contraception and abortion. Yet it still commands the loyalty of the masses in many countries, as evidenced by the one million people who lined the streets of Rome for the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II in 2011, or the current crisis over the resignation of Pope Benedict. But while the Catholic Church today and for a long time has played a reactionary role, the initial bond that wove Christianity into human culture was through the Church’s historic ‘protection’ of the downtrodden in the transition from slavery to feudalism. But it is more than that. Whether medieval slaves to the land, or today’s slaves to modern capital, in the absence of the next stage of human history and a society based on need not profit, the despairing have only Gods to look to for salvation.
To use that famous Karl Marx quotation in full (for a change):
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843)