Early Medieval Christianity

We have so much to learn!

Once the Post-Nicene Church Father era ends with Augustine, we see an emergence of authority take place. What happened leading up to this point? Five Ecumenical councils took place, a claim to succession from Peter began , Christianity moved beyond the borders of the Empire, and in 476 the last Emperor is deposed. I consider the broader Medieval Christian period to last from 451-1516 AD. I know there are ways to subdivide this time, and I will mention some throughout the next few articles, but as a whole, this entire time period is marked with difficulty and exploitation.

From 451-1050 both the Eastern and Western sides of the Empire were marked with barbarian invasions. Groups like the Visigoths, Celts, Franks, Saxons, Ostrogoths, and others would continue to move in and out of the Empire. At times, they might control Rome as the capital and other times they would relent. The East would see one real enemy in the Muslims. Although it was not until the 1000’s with the Seljuk Turks invasion that Jews and Christians would be persecuted, resulting in the Crusades (more to come later).

With the rise in the barbarian nation’s invasions came the rise of papal authority. (I use the term papal reluctantly because I am not convinced that the identity of the Pope is established until Gregory I.) I will agree that the Bishop of Rome rose to a more prominent place during the early part of the Medieval period. Significant reasons attributed to this rise: geographical location of Rome, political prestige, doctrinal wisdom, and able men are some of the explanations – men like Innocent I and Leo I. These men would ward off the barbarian invasions of Rome and protect the city from destruction. Now I know it wasn’t “just” them, but I cannot deny their specificity of them either. Rome was centrally located and quite a long distance from Constantinople, the eastern capital. Therefore, for logical purposes Rome served as the important epicenter for the church.

While I do not think the direct term was applied until later, I do recognize the emergence of the papal power. The title Pope simply means “papa or father.” Early on in the church’s history, the term was used for any bishop who was held in high regard. It was a term of respect. Another key thought leading to the rise of the Bishop of Rome as the Pope was mentioned earlier, the beginning of the succession of Peter. By this time, Innocent and Leo were making claims to a Petrine succession for the Bishop of Rome. They began to circulate the idea that a pure succession from Peter existed among the Bishop of Rome. Innocent I made the earliest claims between 402-417, but Leo I 440-461 provided biblical exposition. The universal passage used to give credence was Matthew 16:18-19. Others used included John 21:15-17 and Luke 22:31-32. Now you and I see zero biblical warrant to these interpretations, but they sure did. While this article is not designed to deflate the Catholic tradition, I think it is safe to say we know this is not correct interpretation.

When Rome was eventually sacked, a vacuum of leadership resulted. Consequently, the Bishop of Rome stepped into that vacuum and began to issue political and ecclesiastical orders. The clearest example comes from the negotiations of the barbarians like Attila the Hun and North African Vandals. The invasions would not cease and eventually the barbarians would succeed. With the new invasions taking place, the church captured the opportunity to “convert” the new prospects. The desire to “win” the barbarians to the church promoted a newer practice of sending church leaders to these barbarian lands. While many men were sent, I will mention a few: Bishop Martin of Tours who traveled in 360 to the Franks in modern day France; St. Patrick, a 5th century Scottish man, who goes back to evangelize the Irish; Columba of Scotland who was sent to Iona, Ireland in 563; and Augustine the Benedictine monk, was sent to England in 596 by Gregory I. I know the practice would continue, but for the sake of time, I will move on.

The success of these church missionaries is debatable. When the barbarians would “convert” it was often in mass. As the tribal leader goes, so goes the rest of the clan. Many would see mass conversions, which really were nothing more than the adoption of “Christianity” on top of their pagan practices. We call this practice syncretism. Some might see the opportunity to get “some” of the truth throughout the Empire, but I for one see this as a problem.

Everyone did not see the barbarian invasions the same way. Some began to view the invasions as God’s judgment upon the church. Between the reign of Constantine and the Reformation much of the noble practices of the church came from the monastic movement. Until this point most of the monastic movement came from the East with men like Athanasius, Augustine, Ambrose, and others. Now with the church in the West and its faltering condition, monasticism would rise. The most influential Western monk is St. Benedict of Nursia 480-545. His practice tended to be more practical than the Eastern, allowing the punishment of the body for training and preparation for missions. Some of the men that would be sent out by the church came from the monasteries. Benedict did not place a premium on solitude like the Eastern monks, but sought a purely communal living. He wrote The Rule, which became the standard for monasteries for centuries. He emphasized poverty, chastity, and obedience. His “Rule” would be influential upon the Mendicant orders of the 12th and 13th centuries.

The period of time from 451-1050 was also marked with division. The Eastern and Western churches were not together. For over 600 years a great division existed and would eventually lead to the Great Schism of 1054. This split would be permanent until more modern times. The rise of power of the Bishop of Rome heightened his desire to step into the affairs of the East, which was not always welcomed. Before we move on to later times, in my next article I will discuss Pope Gregory I and Charlemagne.

What can we learn from all this? I think we need to learn that we were not there. We do not know all of the facts and details of every situation. We are only able to provide conjecture based upon the information, and I think that should lead us to be cautious in our assertions concerning this period of time.


  1. Jim Hedrick says

    Amen Sir. Why don’t we think or talk much about church history before the modernist fundamentalist controversy of the past generation. I think most people do not like the reality of conjecture and incomplete understanding when it comes to any religious family history. I look forward to your article s with anticipation. I am privileged to be a first commenter.

  2. Christiane says

    “The title Pope simply means “papa or father.”

    this is true . . . the Italian name for Pope Francis is ‘Papa Francesco’ and in Italian, ‘papa’ means ‘father’

    I would like to join JIM HEDRICK in appreciation of your series of articles, ANDY, although I do come to some different conclusions than you in certain cases.
    I am so very pleased to have an opportunity to read your articles and am looking forward to reading more of them in future. God Bless.

  3. says

    Great start. Keep it up.

    I’ve always been both impressed and saddened at the way in which the church leaders at the time squandered the moral high ground through their own bad acts. I’ve done a fair bit of historical reading in the eras I’m sure you’ll cover later and the behavior of popes and their underlings was just atrocious.

  4. Andy says


    What a generous note. I really appreciate the encouragement.


    Thanks for the thought. I do plan to spend time with the rise of the Catholic Church and it’s leaders.

  5. dr. james willingham says

    In the Spring of 1963 with the encouragement of a noted Black Historian at Lincoln University, I began doing research in Church history, seeking to prove the Landmark view of the church. Six years and 3000 5×8 notecards later, I proved the Landmark view was wrong (it is true that they made some contributions to our understanding of the ekklesia, namely, about the local nature of that worthy institution). In the process, I learned a lot about the Montanists, Novatianists, Donatists, Paulicians, Keltics, Priscillianists, Lollards, and a host of others. Prior to the 400s some Popes made claim to being head of the church, but the other leading churches, like Antioch, Alexandria, etc., managed to put Rome in its place. The real value of what I learned was something else. I learned something about the nature and effect of theological, read biblical, ideas upon human behavior, that is to say, how such truths can make one balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic., all of which came to fruition in the period from 1740-1820 during the First and Second Great Awakenings, the launching of the Modern Missionary Movement, the creation of the greatest and freest nation on earth, etc.

  6. says

    I am looking forward to this series.

    I have come to a place of sympathetic disagreement with Gregory I with regard to the evangelization of the Anglisc. Assuming that the historic sources I read concerning his motives are true then I understand and appreciate his motives even if I don’t necessarily agree.