Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Early Middle Ages

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
The People of Europe
In our previous instalment, we read of the collapse of the Roman Empire under the pressure of various invading forces. This collapse pertained mainly to the western and older part of the Empire, which had been governed from Rome. In the East, where the Roman Empire had survived, the people were generally well educated and civilized. The empire was now limited to the areas of the Balkans, Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria, Palestine (Israel and Jordan) and Egypt. Although some were still pagans, most of the people were Christian, at least, in name. Art and literature were highly developed. Many treasures of books and sculptures were collected and preserved, especially in Constantinople, the capital and centre of learning. Also, much learning was taken over from the Arabs, especially in mathematics and sciences. (ÒAlgebraÓ is an Arabic word.)

In the West, the empire had been defeated and replaced by many tribes settling in. Much movement of people had come about as a result of the invasions of the Huns under Attila. Although a good number of these people were Christians, they were not orthodox but followers of Arius. Several tribes had never been Christianized: the Franks in northern Gaul (France) Belgium and the southern Netherlands; the Frisians in the northern Netherlands; Saxons in eastern Netherlands and western Germany; the Anglo-Saxons who conquered England--all these were heathen people. Some of their gods were Tiu, Wodan, Thor (their names are still honoured in our various days of the week: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday). In addition, there were those who never did form part of the empire: Celts in Ireland, Scandinavians in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, the tribes east of the Rhine river in Germany and the people of Russia: millions of people who had never heard the gospel.

Task of the Church
The church must always be involved in missions. The early New Testament church was small and weak, but the mission work of Paul was to civilized people who could read and write. It was carried out at a time of peace, ensured by a strong Roman government. The empire was criss-crossed by an excellent network of roads; there was even a postal service. Further, there were universal languages: Greek and Latin.

In the early Middle Ages the situation was very different. The roads had disintegrated. Peace and stability had disappeared with the collapse of the empire. Instead of a strong central government, there were Òtribal kingdoms,Ó each with its own king, often vying for the upper hand over their neighbours. Travel was difficult and dangerous. Universal languages were displaced by local dialects, which, in turn, became separate languages. However, were in the early days the church had been weak, humanly speaking, now it was strong (again, humanly speaking!). Although there were problems of worldliness and many superficial members, it was strongly organized and for the most part led by capable bishops and by this time its doctrines were well worked out.

In the midst of all the upheaval, the church saw its twofold task: 1) Christianize all of society; 2. educate all of the people.

The Barbarians
All those who were not part of the ÒcivilizedÓ world were called Barbarians. What were these people like? It is hard for us to know, for they left no written records. We only know about them through what others have written. They were rough, uncivilized, ignorant--but they were certainly not ÒstupidÓ. Ignorance can be cured through learning. War was held in great esteem by the men, as were gambling and drinking. The women did much of the work at home and in the fields while the men fought, hunted and drank.

They had various laws and a system of government; they knew how to provide for their daily needs; they knew how to defeat Rome but they were illiterate--they could neither read nor write and had little idea such things were even possible. They destroyed many books during their invasion, but not all, and some were again copied by monks and, thus, survived even till today.

Franks Converted.
Towards the end of the fifth century, Gaul (France) was dominated by the Franks under the rule of Clovis. Like Constantine nearly 200 years before, Clovis saw the sign of the cross in the sky and this resulted in him converting to orthodox (as opposed to Arian) Christianity. On Christmas Day, 3,000 of his influential people were baptized with him. At that time, and for over a 1,000 years to come, the peopleÕs religion was that of the ruler. This is an important notion in the future development of Europe.

The British Isles.
Some Christian Roman soldiers had been stationed in Britain and had left their impact, albeit on a very limited scale. As the Western Empire went into decline, Patrick, a British monk, went to Ireland with the gospel. He died in 461. At that time the church had become well settled in Ireland. One hundred years later, Columba, an Irish monk, crossed back to Scotland and did missionary work there. There was also Columban (543-615) who helped establish monasteries in France and Italy. These men were Celtic monks and their churches differed some from the Romish churches. There were clashes with the Roman type of followers, who ultimately prevailed over the Celts.

When the Angles and Saxons invaded from the European mainland, they wiped out the (Celtic) Church. Later, Pope Gregory (540-604) sent more (Roman) missionaries and within 100 years England was Christianized and heathendom wiped out for good.

Boniface (680-754),
British born, was a missionary to the Frisian and German tribes. His first efforts in Holland among the Frisians failed and he went back to England. Two years later (718) he went to work amongst the German tribes, destroying idols and building churches. There is a dramatic story that he cut down a sacred oak tree, dedicated to Thor, the god of thunder before a crowd of hostile, pagan Germans. As he was cutting, the angry barbarians waited for Thor to strike down the offender. But instead, a gust of wind toppled the tree, breaking it into four pieces. Deeply impressed, the pagans built a chapel on the very same spot, made of the wood of that tree.

Boniface was made archbishop of Mainz, an important German city. He remained a missionary at heart. At the age of 73 he returned to the Frisians. At first he seemed to gather fruit on this second attempt, baptizing thousands. However, as he was preparing to baptize 53 new converts, they, with their beloved teacher, were killed by hostile Frisians near the town of Dokkum.

Willibrord (658-739)
worked in the Netherlands from 690 until his death, nearly fifty years after Boniface. Through his efforts, the church was established amongst the non-Frisian tribes in the more southerly parts of the Netherlands. His headquarters were in the city of Utrecht, centrally located in Holland. Until this day it is the seat of the Romish archbishop of the Netherlands.

Similar mission work was going on in other parts of the continent. Gradually, by the year 1000, all of EuropeÕs tribes were Christianized.

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