The Early Christian Church
Almost all of the
information we have on the early years of the Church comes from
the New Testament. The Letters of Paul and the
other apostles are the earliest documents of the New Testament,
and from them we can deduce the main features of the early
church. The other
parts of the New Testament, Gospels,
the Acts of the Apostles,
Revelation were written
in their present form at a time when the first generation of
"eye-witnesses" was disappearing.
The Acts of the Apostles is our main source for
historical information about this period.
The first Christians
were, like Jesus, Jews, and like Jesus they experienced
opposition and "persecution" from the Jewish leaders. The early deaths of
Christian "martyrs" (witnesses) recorded in Acts are the result
of this conflict (Stephen, James). From the beginning the church actively
spread its message, while the Jews felt that as the
Chosen People, they had above all to keep themselves apart from
the "gentiles" (other nations).
The Jews were a recognized nation within the Empire,
their religion was that of an allied people, but not liked
because of its exclusivity.
Christianity first found non-Jewish members among
those who, tired of the official Roman religion, were interested
in the monotheistic, historical faith of the Jews. The anti-legalistic
teaching of Jesus ("Love one another"), the element of mystery
offered by the proclamation of his Resurrection from the dead,
the promise of salvation after death in his coming Kingdom,
all had great appeal for such searchers after God. Where the
Jews had demanded that those sharing their faith should be
circumcised and keep all their complicated traditions and laws,
the Christians only asked them to receive Baptism and believe in
the faith taught by the Apostles, expressed in what is still
called the Apostles' Creed:
I believe in God the Father almighty
maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried,
he descended into Hell,
the third day he rose again from the dead,
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God, the Father almighty;
He will come to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end;
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy, catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
In each place there
must have been varying traditions but it seems that everywhere
the Church's main celebration
took place in the night between Saturday and Sunday. In each local
assembly (ekklesia) there was normally one episkopos
(president of a council, giving the English "bishop") and a
council of elders (Greek presbyteroi, from
which comes the word "priest").
There were also diakonoi, deacons who serve the
needs of the community in concrete ways, especially helping
those who are poor or sick (the Greek root of "deacon" means
"serve", as also that of the Latin "minister"). Some communities
were certainly more democratic than others, and the bishops of
Churches that had memories of having been founded by Paul or
another of the Apostles felt particular responsibility for
maintaining the purity of the Apostolic teaching.
The assemblies seem to
have sung hymns, read the Scriptures, and received instruction
from the bishop. There were, of course, no special church
buildings in the early centuries and it is difficult to imagine
the practical solutions they found when the numbers grew too
large for ordinary houses to hold. At the end of the worship,
after the Catechumens (people not yet baptized, but
preparing for baptism) had left, the bishop presided the
Sacrament of the Eucharist: a celebration at which, like
Jesus during the Last Supper, he took bread and wine, gave
thanks to God for the salvation brought by Christ, repeated the
story of the Institution: "This is my body, this is my blood,"
and then distributed the communion. This was felt to be the
supreme mystery of the Christian faith and no non-Christian was
allowed to witness it. That may explain why John's Gospel has
long passages about eating Jesus's body and drinking his blood,
but does not report the actual story of the Institution. Later,
when church buildings arose, the mystery was preserved by hiding
the table (altar) behind curtains and screens, and forbidding
ordinary people to come too close to it.
quickly, there were groups of Christians in all the main cities
of the Roman Empire. When Paul arrived in Rome for his trial he
was welcomed by members of the church there. The Greek and Latin
word for "church", ecclesia, is that used for the
Assembly in Greek democracy, and for great gatherings of
Israel as God's People in the Greek Old Testament, the
the beginning, there were people of every class, rich and poor,
present at the worship and meetings of the church, offering
possibilities for sharing wealth or for tensions. The Gospel
spread amazingly rapidly, thanks in part to the ease of
communications offered by the Empire's almost universal Greek.
Many people imagine
that in the early centuries, Christians were always being
fiercely persecuted. This is far from the truth. Except for the
drama of Nero's accusation against the Christians after the fire
of Rome in 64, Rome did not actively persecute the Christians. They were seen as
part of the wider 'Jewish problem' and not something separate. Only later, as the
number of Christians grew, and the ceremonies celebrating the
living emperor as a god were developed, did conflict arise. It may be that in the
East, where there were many Jews, they were able to make trouble
for the Christians with the authorities, but this was not
Trajan, in his reply to Pliny's letter asking how Christians
should be treated, told him that although the Christian religion
was illegal (perhaps because it was "secret" and individual), he
should not search for Christians, but act if one was accused
directly (the accuser had to direct the prosecution and was
punished if the case was found not proved).
The first century of
the church's history is almost unknown to us apart from the New
outbursts of persecution leave their mark in stories about
heroic martyrs. In 155(?), in Smyrna (now Turkey) the 86
year-old bishop Polycarp (who was John's disciple) was
seized and burned, although he was much respected in the city. In Lyons (France) in
177 a mob forced the martyrdom of 48 Christians, including the
brave young slave Blandine.
At this time, many people believed terrible rumors about
the Christians' practices.
They were said to murder children, eat human flesh,
commit incest. Persecution
was usually a result of some kind of mob-hysteria, not an
official policy. Christians
had by now begun to try to communicate their beliefs to educated
Roman citizens, not merely to communicate faith, but also to
explain that they were loyal citizens of the Empire and not
rebels. By 180, we
find many Christian groups in North Africa, where the church
became for the first time Latin-speaking, Until then, even in
Rome, it had mostly used Greek.
The first official,
empire-wide persecution only came in 202, under
Septimus Severus; it was launched for no clear reason, and
there were martyrs in Alexandria, Rome, Corinth, and
Carthage. It is not surprising that
many of the onlookers at such scenes came away convinced that
the martyrs' faith must be true. Many must have repeated the
words heard when old Polycarp had insisted that he alone should
be killed: "Look how much these Christians love one another;
they are even ready to die for each other."
Those who were killed
professing faith in God were thought to have died like Jesus,
and so they began to be called 'martyrs'
(witnesses) and 'saints' (holy people) although Paul had used
the word 'saint' to describe every Christian who had been
baptized. People began to venerate the bodies and tombs of the
saints, as well as cloths dipped in their blood. Catechumens who
were killed before baptism were said to have undergone a
'baptism of blood'. Believers who were imprisoned and tortured
but not killed were often referred to as 'Confessors' and
treated with special veneration after their release. In Rome,
many martyrs were buried in the Catacombs, the underground
corridors lined with tombs that were a popular place of burial.
In 212 the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to almost
all the free inhabitants of the lands in the empire. Now, Roman citizens
were obliged to acknowledge the gods of the empire, and to make
the offerings of the cult of the emperor as god. For a time, this
problem was not acute, and it is in these years that Christians
first built special buildings for their worship in Asia Minor.
At this time, office
in the church was becoming socially desirable, many new converts
were coming for instruction and baptism, and new thinkers were
a pupil of Polycarp, and bishop of Lyons after the martyrdom of
177 until his death in 202, wrote a number of theological works,
especially a defence of Christianity against the Gnostic heresy. He is sometimes
called the "first systematic theologian." His most
celebrated saying is: "The glory of God is Man alive."
Origen (185-255) is perhaps the
first major Christian intellectual, although much of what he
wrote is now lost. He
was born and lived in Alexandria, where his father was martyred
in 202. He became
head of the Catechetical School but was later (231) obliged to
settle in Palestine. During
the great persecution under Decius (250) he was tortured and he
died soon afterwards. He
was a controversial figure because of the originality of his
thought. He was
interested in the textual criticism of the Bible, and wrote
commentaries on the Scriptures. a presentation of basic
Christianity, an apology for Christianity (Contra Celsum)
in reply to an earlier pagan attack. He was highly
esteemed by the writers who followed him, such as Gregory of
Nazianzus, Basil, and Eusebius.
Quite unlike him,
while living at the same time, was Tertullian of
Carthage (160-240). He
was born into the old world, attracted by the rigours of
Stoicism, then became a Christian attracted by the purity of
life and the spirit of the martyrs. He was a lawyer by training, a
rhetorician, and his many writings in Latin are a brilliant
expression of the most "puritanical" form of non-conformist
was by nature an extremist, he joined the most radical groups,
expecting the destruction of the evil world at any moment, he
resisted any compromise with the pagan world and its
culture. The West
received much of its thought on politics and religion from him.
Persecutions and Victory
In 250, at a time when
the Empire was threatened with Germanic invasion, the emperor
Decius called on all citizens to sacrifice to the gods. Those unable to
produce a certificate proving that they had offered the
sacrifice would be punished.
In the cities, the Christians were unprepared for this,
and many chose to make the sacrifice, which made them guilty of
worse was to come. The
next emperor, Valerian, from 257-9 set out to suppress
Christianity and enforce the cult of the Roman gods. This was the worst of
all the persecutions in the West, many died, perhaps the
emperor was tempted by the wealth of the church, which was
The final struggle
came in 303, when Diocletian ordered the
destruction of church buildings, the confiscation of the
Scriptures, and pagan sacrifice by the clergy. In 304 he even
demanded a universal sacrifice.
He realized that now Christianity had spread from the
cities to the countrysides, into Armenia and Persia, and was a
real threat to the old religion.
He felt that the present problems of the Empire came from
neglect of gods like Jupiter and Hercules, and the presence of
"foreign" religions seemed likely to displease them more. However, he ordered
that people were not to be killed, and in 305 he abdicated.
seated at the right hand of the Father.
It was only now that
the word 'pagan' begins to be used to describe people who
follow non-Christian religions. The word originally meant
'rural' and serves to remind us that Christianity spread much
more quickly among the urban population of the Empire.
'Paganism' remained strong in the rural areas for many
centuries, until it slowly declined into 'superstition' or
'popular religion' and ceased to be felt to be threatening.
In the East,
anti-Christian activities continued for a few more years while Constantine
was struggling against his rival Maximinus. The final
triumph of Christianity came about in strange ways. Constantine
believed like many Romans of his time that the sun was the one
true God. This cult of the sun was widespread, with the
resulting confusion between the physical sun and its symbolic
uses; Christians still worship on Sundays. Constantine told
Eusebius that he once had a vision of a cross combined with the
sun, with the message 'In this sign, conquer.' In 312, when
Maximinus could have stayed safely inside the walls of Rome, he suddenly emerged
and was defeated at the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber
by Constantine's much smaller army. This 'God-given' victory was
decisive in Constantine's conversion to faith in Christ as the
true Sun of Justice. Soon after it, he was instructed in a dream
to use the 'Chi-Ro' symbol of Christ on his standards and
coins as a sign of victory.
The outcome of this process was Constantine's Edict
of Milan (313), which is more than a simple declaration of
tolerance for Christianity; it marks the beginning of the
process by which orthodox, catholic Christianity became the
official religion of the Roman Empire under Theodosius, who
in 391 ordered the final closing of all temples and the
abolition of pagan worship.
The Teaching Church
After Origen, the most
important name is that of Eusebius (260-340), who
became bishop of Caesarea, in his native Palestine, in 314. Origen had lived his
years of exile there and Eusebius admired him very much, most of
what we know about Origen comes from him. Eusebius was close to
Constantine, whom he admired.
His vision and writings are mostly historical, his vision
of history is of a conquest of Christian, biblical truth over
pagan ideas. His
Alexandrian education, though, meant that he respected the
achievements of the ancient world, seeing in them a providential
Praeparatio Evangelica (preparation for the Gospel,
the name of a work in which he shows how even the best Greek
philosophy, that of Plato, is equalled by the Bible). His main fame rests
on his Ecclesiastical History, inspired
by classical history, which traces the history of the church
from its beginnings until 324.
Eusebius is the model for all later Western
ecclesiastical historians (Bede, for example), by his direct
quotation of ancient records and authorities.
Eusebius reflects the
basic problem of the relationship within Christianity of the two
cultures, biblical and classical.
Within the church, however, there were other problems. The gravest of these
were those forms of teaching called Arianism and
latter divided the North African church after the Great
Persecution (303-5) when some had surrendered copies of the
Scriptures to the authorities (traditores, meaning
'surrenderers', from which the word "traitors"). Later, the extremists
in the church refused to accept these people as members of the
church, so that in the time of Augustine we find two parallel
churches, the Catholic (ready to forgive) and the
Donatist (strict, unforgiving followers of the bishop
Donatus). Arianism, though, was an Eastern problem, Alexandrian in
origin. Arius was
a priest in Alexandria, and in talking of God he seems to have
said that the Son, Christ, since he suffered and died, was
obviously "inferior" to the Father who is above all that. At the beginning of
the preaching of the Gospel, Christians had been challenged by Gnostics
who had said that Jesus, being God, could not have been a "real"
man. Now they were
challenged by the idea that, being a man, Jesus could not
"really" be God. Since
the church has always wanted to stress that the Gospel is one of
reconciliation between God and Man in Christ, ideas which deny
one side of the equation matter. Yet the ideas taught by Arius seemed right
to many, they spread by missionaries as far as the Germanic
Goths who were later going to invade Italy.
unity among the Christians, so in 325 over 200 bishops met in
Nicaea (Turkey) with Constantine presiding to "settle" the
result, eventually, was the "creed" that is called the Nicene
Creed, declaring that the Son is "of one substance with
the Father." This is the Credo sung in Masses by Bach,
Mozart, Beethoven etc. It
did not settle the problem, but with time Arianism melted away:
I believe in one God, the Father almighty,
Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things, visible and
and in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all worlds:
God of God, Light of Light,
True God of True God, begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father,
by whom all things
who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
He was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered and was buried;
the third day, he rose again, according to the Scriptures,
he ascended into Heaven
He shall come again in glory, to judge the living
and the dead,
his kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father (and the Son),
who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and
he spoke by the prophets.
I believe one holy, catholic and apostolic church,
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins,
and I look for the resurrection of the body,
and the life of the world to come.
The next important
name is that of Ambrose (339-397) who was chosen to be
bishop of Milan (Italy) before even he had been baptized. Before this he had
been a local governor. He
exerted great influence over emperors, especially Theodosius,
with the aim of having a single, unified church uniting every
person in the Empire. He
was therefore opposed to "heretical" groups (Arians, Donatists
etc.), to pagan religions, and to the Jews. He was outraged when
the "Christian" Theodosius in 390 had 7,000 citizens of
Thessalonica massacred in a theatre; he excluded him from the
church and made him do penance.
In writing and preaching, he drew on deep knowledge of
Platonic philosophy, his sermons helped to convert
Augustine, who was moved to tears by his hymns.
Augustine (354-430) is the greatest
figure in the transition from classical to medieval (and modern)
culture. He was
born in what is now Algeria and his mother, Monica, was a devout
catholic Christian. He
received a classical education and at 19, reading Cicero,
discovered the possible depths of philosophy. He therefore turned
away from the Christianity of his mother and began a spiritual
pilgrimage in search of Wisdom which led him to Manichaeism. He began to teach
rhetoric, teaching at Carthage, Rome and Milan. At Milan he was
attracted by the Christianized Neo-Platonism of Ambrose, for his
was a tormented psyche, intensely aware of the tensions and
contradictions between the visible and the invisible, nature and
Grace. In his Confessions,
he tells how he was reading the Bible one day, when he found in Paul's Letter to the Romans a
key to his distress and realized that he had become a Christian.
Returning to North Africa,
he set up a kind of monastic community; in 391 he became a
priest, against his will, and in 395 he became bishop of the
town of Hippo where he
served for 34 years. His
mind was intensely active, he wrote many works designed to
support the catholic doctrines against other groups (Donatists)
and against the Gnostic Manichees. He left over 100 works, 200 letters, 500
sermons. The most famous of his works are the Confessions
and The City of God. The Confessions
(c.400) tell the story of his early struggles, his conversion
and new life, in a vivid, emotional way. Intensely
"personal" in a way nothing written before it had been, it is
one of the great classics of spiritual autobiography. In many
ways, Augustine invented "modern man" by the depiction of his
inner struggles, contradictions, and doubts in the Confessions.
In 410, Rome fell to
the Goths, and for Augustine this seemed a sign of the end of
the world, since Rome was for him the symbol of all civilized
culture. So he
began to write a book! The
City of God (413-426) is the basic work in which
Christianity and classical culture are united, thanks to
Augustine's vision. This
vision is literary in its use of language, Neo-Platonic in its
fundamental approach, biblical in its teaching. Almost certainly, no
book has marked Western culture so deeply. Yet Augustine is no
easy writer, and his ascetic doctrine, his distrust of the
physical world (he was deeply tempted by ambition as well as
sensuality), his doctrine of the deep depravity of fallen
humanity redeemed only by God's saving Grace, underlie the deep
pessimism of what is often called Western Puritanism. Calvinism
in particular was deeply influenced by his dualistic vision.
Because of Augustine's
writings, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were essentially
Neo-Platonic, without realizing it. Until the Renaissance almost
none of Plato's works existed in Latin translation and they were
not read in the West. Protestant
theology remains deeply marked by his influence, in its
doctrines of Grace, its concern with (double) predestination,
its "other-worldliness", and its love of verbal discourse.
The other great name
of these years is that of Jerome (348-420) who was more
of a pure scholar than Augustine, who was an intellectual and a
character was even more complicated than that of Augustine; he
found human relations very difficult. His teacher, Aelius
Donatus, was the most famous "grammarian" of the age, he wrote
two school books on grammar and rhetoric that were used
throughout the Middle Ages.
Jerome was baptized when he was a student and then went
to the Syrian desert and learned Hebrew. He met the great
teacher Gregory of Nazianzus in Constantinople, then returned to
Rome, where he revised the style of the Latin New Testament then
In 385, he left Rome
and travelled to Syria and Egypt to see the monastic communities
living there, before settling for the rest of his life in
Bethlehem with a community of Roman followers, men and women. There he completed
the new translation of the Old Testament into Latin, based on
the work of Origen, that became the official Latin Bible until
the present age, known as the Vulgate. Jerome's style
is the most classical of all the Christian writers, full of
echoes of Cicero, Virgil, Horace.
Christian monasticism seems to have begun in the deserts in 3rd
century Egypt. Individuals had been living ascetic lives alone for
some time, but the 'cenobitic' communities now known as
'monasteries' came into being in Egypt thanks to Anthony of Egypt
(251-356) and Pachomius (292-348). Saints Basil of Caesarea (329 –
379), Athanasius and Jerome wrote lives of early monks that made
the monastic life known across the Roman empire. Shortly after 360
AD Martin of Tours introduced monasticism in France. Benedict of
Nursia (c.480–543) established the monastery of Monte Cassino in
Italy then composed the Rule that led to him being credited with
the title of father of western monasticism.
Into the Middle
With the fall of Rome
and the collapse of the Empire in the West, the "Dark Ages" came
to Britain and Gaul. A
number of writers were vital for the transmission of classical
values. Orosius came from Spain to be with Augustine
and at his suggestion wrote a Christian chronicle history of the
world from its foundation, through the Roman empire, until the
present (417), using Eusebius' and Jerome's works, and pagan
histories. It was
the basic work of history for the Middle Ages.
Macrobius (c.420), an otherwise
unknown African offical, left two works which the Middle Ages
built on: his neo-platonic Commentary on Cicero's Somnium
Scipionis (the "Dream of Scipio") by which medieval
dream-visions and other dream literature were inspired; and his
Saturnalia ("New Year's Party") which is a kind of
didactic symposium centred on the meaning and importance of
Virgil as the model Rhetorician, but covering many topics. In the Middle Ages it
served as a kind of encyclopedia.
Another North African,
Martianus Capella (c.410-430), composed a didactic
treatise combining prose and verse (Menippean Satire), the
"Marriage of Mercury and Philology" in which a personified
Philology goes on a journey to heaven with her servants, the
Seven Liberal Arts, to be married to Mercury who is god of
Eloquence. It gave
the idea of the heavenly-ascent allegory to the Middle Ages, and
also the outline of the basic course of education in Grammar
Schools and Universities until the 19th century: the Trivium
of Grammar, Logic (or Dialectic), Rhetoric, after which a
student became Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), and the Quadrivium
of Geometry, Arithmetic, Astronomy, Music, after which he
became fit to teach others, as Master of Arts (M.A.) or went on
to study Philosophy and Theology.
The other writer by
whom the classics were transmitted to the West is Boethius (480-524). He was of a noble
Roman family, and served as consul in 510. His was the last
generation to be able to study the Greek classics in Greek, and
one of his goals was to translate the works of Aristotle and
Plato into Latin, with commentaries reconciling the differences
between them. If
he had succeeded, Western intellectual history would be
different, there would have been no rediscovery of Aristotle in
the 12-13th centuries, no ignorance of Plato in the Middle Ages,
no rediscovery of him in the 15th century! But after having
served under Theodoric the Ostrogoth, he was suspected of
treason, put in prison, and finally executed.
While in prison,
Boethius wrote his immensely influential Consolation of
Philosophy, a mixture of prose and verse, a
dialogue in which the personified figure of Philosophy
explains to him how philosophy enables him to live truly as
a human being even in absurd and cruel situations such as his.
The fundamental question explored in this book is the nature of
true happiness. The work alternates sections in verse with
the prose debate between Boethius (who takes the role of the
blockhead who needs always to be instructed) and Philosophy.
thinks that everything is the work of Fortune, a personification
of blind destiny, who turns the wheel that raises people to
prosperity or plunges them into disaster. In which case there is
no meaning and no justice in life.
Book 3, Philosophy prays to God in a much-admired Platonic hymn,
before showing Boethius that God is the perfect Good which can
alone be the source of true happiness. God here is the Platonic
Good rather than the Christian God, but Boethius stresses the
omnipotent Providence that ensures that human lives are not
unjustly subject to mere chance.
to reach that fount of good.
'You who rule
the universe with everlasting law,
founder of earth and heaven alike,
who ordered time stand forth from out Eternity,
for ever firm yourself, yet giving movement unto all.
No causes were without you
which could thence impel you to create this mass of changing
but within yourself exists the very idea of perfect good,
which grudges naught, for of what can it have envy?
You make all things follow that high pattern.
In perfect beauty you move in your mind a world of beauty,
making all in a like image,
and bidding the perfect whole to complete its perfect functions.
All the first principles of nature you bind together
by perfect orders as of numbers,
so that they may be balanced each with its opposite:
cold with heat, and dry with moist together;
thus fire may not fly upward too swiftly because too purely,
nor may the weight of the solid earth drag it down and overwhelm
You make the soul as a third between mind and material bodies:
to these the soul gives life and movement,
for you spread it abroad among the members of the universe,
now working in accord.
Thus is the soul divided as it takes its course, making two
as though a binding thread around the world.
Thereafter it returns unto itself and passes around the lower
and in like manner it gives motion to the heavens to turn their
You carry forward with like inspiration these souls and lower
You fill these weak vessels with lofty souls,
and send them abroad throughout the heavens and earth,
and by your kindly law you turn them again to yourself
and bring them to seek, as fire doth, to rise to you again.
O Father, that this mind of ours
may rise to Your throne of majesty;
Grant that we may so find light
that we may set on you unblinded eyes;
cast from our minds
the heavy clouds of this material world.
Shine forth upon us in your own true glory.
You are the bright and peaceful rest of all your children
that worship you.
To see you clearly is the limit of our aim.
You are our beginning, our progress, our guide, our way, our end.'
The work ends with a
long discussion about the nature of Providence and the possibility of human freedom
when everything is already known to God's eternal mind. The themes
of the work are classical commonplaces, and the work is above all
remarkable for its self-restraint; for although Boethius was
certainly a Christian, he nowhere uses faith as an easy escape
from difficult questions. He always refers to the possibilities
available to the philosophical mind, whether Christian or not.
King Alfred, Chaucer,
and Queen Elizabeth, are among those who translated the Consolation
into English. It
was one of the most important works of "practical philosophy" in
the Middle Ages, when many people were always struggling to
understand the workings of "Fortune"and Providence in life.
Less familiar, but just
as important, Cassiodorus (490-583) should be better
known. He followed
Boethius as consul and in other offices, then retired, after
failing to create a Christian university in Rome. He spent at least 10
years in Constantinople, then returned and created a monastery on his land in
Calabria (Italy), the Vivarium. The most important feature of this
monastery, created at about the time when Benedict was
founding the first Benedictine monasteries at Subiaco and
Monte Cassino, is its stress on the intellectual activities
of the monks. The
Vivarium is above all vital for Western civilization by its library. Other monasteries, like
that founded in North England in the following century by Benedict
Biscop, followed its example, and these monastic libraries, hidden
in remote areas, preserved the classical manuscripts that played a
vital role in the moments of "Renaissance": that led by the monk Alcuin
under Charlemagne, that of the 12th century (Abelard) which
saw the founding of the modern universities, that of the 14th
century led by Petrarch, that of the 16th century led by Erasmus. Cassiodorus also
organized the translation of various Greek works into Latin.
The link between the
scientific learning of Antiquity and its rediscovery in the
high Middle Ages is very often Isidore of Seville
(620-636), a bishop who wrote books about history, science,
theology, but whose most important work was the Etymologiae or
an encyclopedia in the tradition of similar works by Boethius and
Cassiodorus, in which he notes briefly everything he thinks
worth knowing about everything.
(348-405) was the writer of great Latin hymns and, most
important, of the allegorical epic the Psychomachia
(the battle of the soul) from which all medieval allegories and
Morality plays derive, thanks to its portrayal of the soul torn
between the forces of Good and Evil represented by personified
Virtues and Vices, good and bad angels.