[This post is the latest in a series on the history of monotheism. Links to other installments in this series can be found at the bottom of the post. See especially the two previous posts on Charlemagne linked to there. Those two posts are more thoroughly annotated than this one, which revisits much of the same material, but with a view to more explicitly connect the events of the 8th and 9th centuries to the subsequent development of Medieval Christendom. Look for future posts on a reassessment of the Viking raids as a defensive response to Frankish Jihadism, drawing heavily on Robert Ferguson's book The Vikings: A History, as well as at least one post on connections between Northern Heathenism and "non-European" spiritual influences, especially Siberian/Arctic Shamanism.]
Prior to Charlemagne, whoever sat on the throne in the city founded by and named for Constantine (modern day Istanbul) was the only emperor recognized by the Orthodox Christians of the world, including those living in the far-flung barbarian rump of Christendom, amidst the crumbling remnants of what had once been the western Roman Empire.
Throughout the early Middle Ages the popes were the subjects of the East Roman emperors. Up to A.D. 800, every papal document sent to western bishops and to western rulers was dated by the regnal year of the emperor in Constaninople, the pope's true lord and master.Precisely what transpired in Saint Peter's Basilica, in the city of Rome, on Christmas Day, 800 AD, is very literally the stuff of legends. One thing is clear: this was the beginning of the end of the days when the Emperor in Constantinople was the "true lord and master" of the Pope in Rome.
[Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, pp. 179-180]
What we do know is that both Pope Leo III and Charles, King of the Franks, were present together on that historical day in the Basilica. We also know that at some point the Pope placed a crown on the King's head and declared him Augustus: a title that had been used by all Roman Emperors after the Senate granted it to Octavian (aka Caesar Augustus) on January 16, 27 BC, until it was abandoned by Heraclius, who ruled from 610-641 AD. Heraclius and those who followed him preferred the Hellenic title Basileus, which had been used by Alexander the Great and his successors in Egypt, Asia and Macedon.
(Unresolved questions about the coronation of Charles by Leo include: whether this was planned ahead of time, whether Charles sought this or welcomed it when it came, why Leo did whatever it was he did, why Charles went along with it to whatever extent he did, and so forth.)
Even though the emperor of the Romans (who reigned from Constantinople, as Roman emperors had done since 324 AD) no longer (but only since 610) used the Latin title Augustus, nevertheless, bestowing that title on someone not seated on the throne in Constantinople was considered at the very least an affront by both the Greek speaking Church of the East and the Greek speaking Roman/Byzantine state.
It is important to remember that the empire commonly referred to today as "Byzantine" never called itself that, nor did anyone ever call it that until well after the Empire itself was finally snuffed out by the Ottomans. At the time of Charlemagne it was, and had always been, the Roman empire -- and in the Middle Ages it's people still called themselves Romans, although they now did so in Greek. If that seems a little odd to us, perhaps it is slightly less odd when we consider that according to the legends about the origins of the Roman people, the great hero Aeneas and his followers were refugees from the cataclysmic destruction of Troy at the hands of the Greeks, and when they finally arrived on the banks of the Tiber they abandoned whatever their native language had been in favor of Latin, and intermarried with the locals.
The coronation a new Augustus in the city of Rome openly posed a challenge to the "Roman-ness" of the "Empire of the Greeks" (Imperium Graecorum), as it was already being called by Latin speaking (and Greek-less) westerners. As of December 25, 800 AD, there were now two Christian emperors, and who could possibly avoid wondering whether or not the world was big enough for two Christian Empires?
Christianity in the modern world is overwhelmingly dominated by the distinctly Western Christianity that was now taking shape. And this new kind of Christianity was not only Western, it was a Christianity that was for the first time genuinely European. In modern terms, this new Western Christianity can be defined as Roman Catholicism and its offshoots (the various "Protestant" sectoids).
It must be emphasized that there was nothing European about early Christianity at all, even well past late antiquity and into the Dark Ages proper. The bulk of the population of the late Roman Empire lay in Asia and Africa, and that is also where the economic and cultural center of gravity of the Roman world was. Alexandria was arguably the cultural capital of the whole world up through the 4th and into the 5th century AD. As the port through which the great wealth of Egypt (grain in particular) passed out into the world at large (and through which the wealth of the world at large passed back into Egypt) it was also a world-class economic powerhouse. And it was also one of the most important centers of the Christian religion.
The Greek speaking East was both more populous in general, and more heavily (and more orthodoxly) Christian than the Latin speaking West. Through the 4th and into 5th century the city of Rome (still the largest city in the world) continued to be a bastion of Pagan resistance to Christianization. When Rome was sacked by the Christian Visigoths in 410, Pagan refugees flooded into North Africa. It was in part to counter the influence of these Pagan diehards, now emboldened by the Christian God's failure to protect Rome (even against other Christians!), that Augustine embarked on his great exercise in religious propaganda, his City of God: Against the Pagans.
The western and northern parts of the Empire, and the semi-barbarian frontier areas that were heavily Romanized, were not only less Christian, but the Christians there were less Orthodox. In particular, the Arian sect that proved one of the most resilient of the heresies, thrived especially among the various Germanic peoples. These Arian Goths came to control large parts of the West for significant periods of time, including all of Italy and Spain and much of Gaul (modern France). In fact the entire western half of the empire was ruled by Germanic peoples by the 6th century, and of these only the Franks were reliably Orthodox.
But by the 8th century, Christianity, and Orthodox Christianity in particular, appeared to be rallying in the West. And with Muslim invaders now advancing through Spain and Continental Saxon Pagans menacing on the northern frontiers, it was now or never. But this reinvigorated Western Christianity was no longer willing to take it's orders from the East. It would take another 254 years to become official, but in essence a new, European form of Christianity was inaugurated when Pope Leo bestowed upon Charles the title Augustus.
Western Christians, that is, Catholics and Protestants, today make up close to 80% of the world's approximately 2 billion Christians (with Catholics alone comprising over half the world's Christians). Most of the remaining 20% are Eastern Orthodox.
The predominance of Western Christianity is even more striking in that essentially all of the growth of the Christian religion, as a percentage of the human population, over the last 1000 years has been due to the spread of Catholicism (and, later, Protestantism). That growth, in turn, has been as a direct result of the violent consolidation and expansion of Western Christendom in five distinct phases:
1. Military expansion of Catholicism, combined with forced conversions, throughout all of western and northern Europe from the 8th century through the 15th century (final defeat of the Lithuanian Pagans).
2. Continuous and large-scale persecution of all religious deviants (from relatively minor "heresy" to full scale apostasy and/or Crypto-Paganism) all the way up to the 18th century.
3. Military expansion of Catholicism and Protestantism, combined with forced conversion, throughout the Western Hemisphere from the 15th century through the end of the "Indian Wars" in the early 20th century. The Spanish conquest and forced conversion of the Philipines also occured during this same phase. (This accounts for about 300 million Christians who are the descendants of those who were simultaneously conquered and converted in the Americas and the Philipines.)
4. Enslavement and forced conversion of Africans "imported" to the Western Hemisphere from the 16th century through the 19th century. (This accounts for about 180 million Christians today who are the descendants of those who were enslaved.)
5. The "Scramble for Africa" by the European "Great Powers" from mid 19th century through the mid 20th century (this accounts for about 450 million Christians who are the descendants of those who were simultaneously colonized and converted.)
The early successes of the first phase listed above coincided with reigns of Charlemagne and his father, Pepin. The father accomplished the unification of the Franks under a single ruler, the son consolidated this unification (which had been accomplished before, but never sustained), but then built on this in two ways: (1) he launched a series of expansionist wars against non-Christians (and also against the Lombards who were supposedly Christian, but who were at the very least unreliable in their loyalty to the Pope, and may very well have harbored Pagans in their midsts); and (2) he forged a political-religious-military alliance between the King of the Franks and the Bishop of Rome which simultaneously created a new Christian Empire and a new form of Christianity.
Religio Christiana versus the Northmen
The iron grip of Christian theocracy on Europe was still far from complete when Charlemagne died in 814. Even the Pagn Saxons had still not been vanquished or even genuinely converted, as the Stellinga uprising of 841 demonstrated. But beyond the Saxons lay a vast expanse of Pagandom. Here is brief description of "The Northmen" from the final Chapter of Peter Brown's The Rise of Western Christendom:
In the 820s and 830s Dorestad was the greatest port in Western Europe. During the reign of Charlemagne's successor, Louis the Pious (1814-840), four and half million silver coins were struck at its mint. They showed a cross placed in the middle of the facade of a classical temple, and bore the inscription Religio Christiana. And ostentatiously Christian empire lay at the souther end of the trade routes which led across the North Sea. North of Dorestad and Frisia stretched non-Christian lands, characterized by fragile chiefdoms. In Denmark, along the fjords of Norway, and in the lowlands of souther Sweden, small kings rose and fell according to their ability to gain access to wealth, though plunder on the waters of North Atlantic and the Baltic. But they were also traders. In this period, Hedeby in Denmark and Birka (Bjorko) in southern Sweden became the Dorestads of the North. They were emporia, ringed by fortified ditches. It was there that the merchants of the Christian south purchased the products of the wild lands of the north -- all manner of sumptuous furs from teh Batlic and precious walrus-tusk ivory from the Arctic seas. The Franks referred to the varied inhabitants of Scandinavia as "Northmen." (What is now called Normandy, on the coast of France, was the "land of the Northmen": it was the only permanent Scandinavian settlement in Continental Europe.Next up in this series: Viking Raids Reconsidered: The Christian Jihad and the Heathen Backlash (A Very Brief History of Pagan Monotheism, Part Eight).
The Northmen were pagans. They had remained fiercely loyal to their gods. Only gods could impart to their worshippers the suprahuman vigot and good luck which gave to individuals and to groups a competitive edge over their many rivals. Thus, in around the year 800, two religious systems faced each other at either end of the North Sea. In true Carolingian style, the "Christian Religion" coinage of Dorestad conveyed a message of imperial solidity, protected by the power of Christ. Such confidence was met, in Scandinavia, by a very different set of beliefs . . . . [T]housands of golden amulets have been discovered in Denmark and southern Sweden. They were dedicated to shrins or worn on the persons of leaders so as to increase their numinous good fortune in war. In the fifth and sixth centuries, late Roman gold coins had reached as far as Denmark, where they were promptly transformed into images of victory-bringing gods.
In the ninth century, the Frankish kingdom was far closer to Scandinavia than Rome had ever been. Francia and the lands of the Northmen were close neighbors. Only a few hundred miles of the North Sea lay between them. Frankish goods poured into Denmark and southern Sweden. Not surprisingly, these goods included high-quality Frankish swords. Even the swords spoke of the power of a distant God. the hilt of a Frankish sword, found in Sweden, bears a verse from the Psalms: "Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight." [Psalm 144:1]
For Franks and Northmen alike, war was a matter of truly religious seriousness. Sacred words -- Latin Psalms or, in Scandinavia, arcane runes -- showed that the gods were close to hand, to enhance the efficacy of a warriors weapons. Christ was the Frankish god. It was possible that he might find acceptance in Scandinavia, provided that he lived up to the expectations of a society of brittle warriors and enterprising pirates and traders.
Scandinavia itself consisted of a band of coastal settlements, caught between a North Sea whose southern end was ringed by Christian kingdoms and a vast hinterland which stretched as far as the Arctic Circle. But Scandinavia did not only look south. To the east, along the Baltic, the "Northmen" were in contact with a world which reached, through modern Finland, as far as the Siberian forest zone. This was a world of hunters and pastoralists, of Lapps and Finns. Their shamanistic rites, performed in animal costumes, implied an open frontier between the human and animal and between the spirit and human world. Shamanistic practices were partly adopted by the Northmen. Performed in southern Sweden, they struck observers from the distant Christian south. In around 850 an abbot in northern Francia wrote to a missionary in Birka to ask about the manner in which the Northmen transformed themselves through wearing animal masks . . . . Was it really true, he asked the missionary, that a race of dog-headed men lived at the far edge of the earth.
As this letter shows, contact with Scandinavia had intensified by 850. It had been fed by Frankish imperial policy and by trading relations between the Northmen and Dorestad. But with this contact Continental Christians found themselves confronted by a far wider rold than they had expected. With the pagan Northmen, it seemed as if they had truly reached the edge of the world, where humans merged with the beasts.
See also (links NOT automatically generated):
Charlemagne, Part Deux: "A substantialy new Church was allied with a new political system." (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Six)
Charlemagne (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Five)
Paganism is not a European Religion, Part Deux
Paganism is not a European Religion
Muhammad (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Four)
Constantine (A brief history of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Three)
Moses (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part Two)
Akhenaten (A Brief History of Revolutionary Monotheism, Part One)
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Monotheistic Robots of Doom
Lies, Damned Lies, and Pagan Monotheism
Hic Sunt Dracones