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A History of Diplomacy in the International Development of Europe: Vol I The Struggle for Universal Empire
- The Relation of the Barbarians to the Church
by David Jayne Hill, LL.D.

The Gothic invaders, though nominally Christians, were adherents of the Arian faith taught by their great bishop, Ulfilas, in the fourth century. Their kings, especially Theodoric, were, in the main, however, tolerant of the orthodoxy of Rome; but the fact that they were heretics tended at the same time to turn the Roman Christians against them, and to solidify the Church in its struggle for orthodoxy.

Standing alone in the West as the representative of apostolic authority, the Bishop of Rome was naturally accepted as the head of the Church, and his primacy placed him in a position as powerful as it was unique. For this pre-eminence there were many reasons. Rome had long been regarded as the central seat of government, from which all parts of the Empire were accustomed to receive their orders. It was not only one of the original patriarchates, but the only one in Europe. Above all, it was invested with an exceptional sanctity and authority by the legend of St. Peter, whose primacy among the apostles was attested by the sacred writings. The first to whom the divinity of Christ was revealed and the first to declare it, it was to Peter that the Lord had said, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Thus Rome, where Peter was believed to have died the death of a holy martyr as a confessor of his Lord's divinity, became the recognized fountain of orthodoxy to the Christian world. Its bishop, regarded as St. Peter's successor, was, in consequence, accorded the first place in the Christian hierarchy.

Notwithstanding all these advantages, the primacy of Rome was not secured without a struggle. In the early days of the Church the equality of all the bishops was maintained, and the claims of St. Peter and his successors were considered to be only honorific. In fact, it was the East which appeared for a time most certain to obtain the ascendancy. It was there - at Nicaea, at Constantinople, at Ephesus, and at Chalcedon - that the great ecumenical councils were held, by which the doctrines and practices of the Church were determined. It would seem that Jerusalem might naturally have acquired pre-eminence as the birthplace of Christianity. But the East was beset with a passion for speculation, to which the Greek philosophy and language furnished both a provocation and a medium of expression; while Rome was penetrated with the practical spirit, and the Latin language was the native speech of law and administration. As a result, the East was prolific in heresies, which divided and unsettled the religious community; while Rome was devoted to constructive work and effective organization. The Bishop of Rome, discountenancing the Eastern heresies, stood firmly for a simple faith, and by an inflexible adherence to traditional doctrine became the tribunal of appeal in the midst of dissension and controversy. When Valentinian III, in the second half of the fifth century, decreed that "everything which the Apostolic Chair has sanctioned, or shall sanction in the future, shall be considered as law for the Church," the authority of the Holy Father had won a conclusive victory. The great ability and long reign of Pope Leo I, together with his stalwart claims for the papal authority, aided by all these favoring circumstances, resulted in the firm establishment of the Papacy as an institution possessing a directive, and even a creative influence in the political development of Europe.

After the fall of the Empire in the West, the heresy of the barbarian kings and the frequent variances of the Papacy with the Eastern emperors led the bishops of Rome to feel the need of close relations with a powerful temporal ruler who could serve and defend the Church. The kingdom of the Franks was to furnish this friend and protector, and its alliance with the Papacy was to lay the foundations of a new imperial revival that nearly restored the political unity of Europe.

A group of German tribes occupying the banks of the Rhine between the confluence of the Main and the sea, and the country between the mouths of the Rhine and the Maas, emerged into history about the middle of the third century under the common name of "Franks." Those who dwelt along the banks of the Rhine are known as the "Ripuarian" Franks; those who held the country to the southwest, on the Sala, or Yssel, as the "Salian" Franks. From the time of their first appearance the Franks were in contact with the Empire, first as invaders, then as confederates and defenders. In 486, Clovis, or Chlodovech, one of the kings of the Salian Franks, began a series of conquests which laid the foundations of a consolidated Frankish state. Compared with the great kingdom of the Visigoths, and the powerful monarchy of Theodoric, the little realm of Clovis gave at first no promise of its brilliant future. Inspired, perhaps, by the insignificance of his possessions, the ambition of Clovis resorted first to diplomacy and then to war. Seeking the support of the other Frankish kings by forming a league of which he was the directing head, he rapidly extended the borders of the Franks, and with little consideration for his allies made himself the beneficiary of their united conquests.

Having overthrown the Gallo-Roman kingdom of Syagrius, he subdued the Thuringians, subjugated the Alamanni, and built up a formidable monarchy in Northern Gaul. Although a pagan, he married Clotilda, a Burgundian princess of the Catholic faith, whose influence was destined to contribute a new element of power to the Frankish king.

Dismissing the doubtful legend that Clovis, having invoked the aid of Christ in his battles, was baptized in the Catholic faith in fulfilment of a solemn pledge to accept Christ's divinity if he would grant a victory, we find a more probable account of his conversion in the report of Gregory of Tours. According to this historian, after one of the triumphs of Clovis, the Queen secretly ordered Remigius, Bishop of Reims, to make a personal appeal to the King to become a Christian. To the persuasion of the Bishop, Clovis replied: "Holy Father, I will gladly listen, but there is one difficulty, - my people do not wish to abandon their gods; still, I will speak to them as you propose" Upon his appearance before the people, and even before he had spoken, they are said to have exclaimed with one voice: "Pious King we reject the mortal gods, and are ready to follow the Immortal God of whom Remigius preaches." With great pomp and solemnity, the King and several thousand of his armed men were then baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. Thus, as early as 496, the propaganda of Rome had won its first victory among the barbarian kings.1

Soon after his baptism, two letters were received by Clovis which show the lively interest taken in the event, whose consequences were, indeed, far greater than could be imagined by the wisest of that time. One of these letters was from Avitus, Bishop of Vienne, who had consecrated his life to the conversion of the Burgundians from the Arian heresy. His joy and gratitude express the sentiments of the orthodox bishops toward the new champion of their faith. "God will soon bring into his kingdom the entire Frankish people," he writes, "and every battle won by Clovis will be a new victory for the Church."

The second letter was from the newly elected Pope, Anastasius, who felicitates himself upon the coincidence of his elevation to the Papacy with the baptism of Clovis. He sends an envoy to express his happiness in this event, and invokes the benediction of heaven upon the person and the kingdom of his "glorious and well-beloved son, the King of the Franks," praying that his rule may rejoice the heart of the Church, his Mother, for whose defence he may become a "column of bronze in times of danger."2

At a moment when heresy threatened to divide the Church and leave Europe without even the semblance of its ancient unity, the support of the Frankish monarchy gave it the means of its final victory over schism and barbarism On the other hand, by embracing the Catholic faith Clovis attached to his cause the old Roman population of Gaul, the influence of the orthodox clergy, and the support of the Papacy, which identified his monarchy with the interests of religion. At least one writer3 has attributed to Clovis the purely political purpose of conciliating the orthodox population, consolidating his new kingdom, and procuring a pretext for attacking the Burgundinians and the Goths, who were heretical nations; but the conversion of the Frankish king, while leading to these results, does not require this explanation. To accept such a theory would be to invest the barbarian monarch with a maturity of statecraft which he certainly did not possess. It is true that he profited by his acceptance of the Catholic faith; for in his subsequent conflicts he thereby secured friends everywhere, even in the camp of his enemies. Assailing the Burgundians, and afterward the Visigoths, he thenceforth gave to his wars a quasi religious character, which enabled him to sweep with diminished opposition through Southern Gaul and extend his dominion nearly to the Pyrenees. Within his kingdom, the unity of faith which he secured rendered possible the complete fusion of the two racial elements, - the old Gallo-Roman and the Germanic populations, - while his relation to the Roman Church prepared the way for that later alliance of the Frankish monarchy and the Papacy which created the grandeur of the Middle Ages.

The victories of Clovis won for him the recognition of the Eastern Emperor, who sent an embassy to invest him with imperial office. Whether it was the consulate or the patriciate which the Emperor conferred upon him, is a question involved in some obscurity; but it is certain that he was proud of the distinction, and assumed the purple tunic and the chlamys in the Church of St. Martin, where he placed a diadem upon his brow, and was hailed by the people as "Consul" and "Augustus." 4

Toward the close of his career, Clovis fixed his residence at Paris, where he became deeply interested in the affairs of the Church. In 511, he convoked a synod at Orléans, over which he presided, and whose decisions he assumed the right to confirm. Dying soon afterward, he was interred in the Church of the Holy Apostles, which he had built. The Catholic Church had found in him a son and a champion whose service prepared the way for that mediaeval Empire which was to carry forward the imperial idea to a new period of supremacy.

But the realization of the hopes which Catholicism had attached to Clovis was destined to be long deferred. The successive partitions of the kingdom he had founded, the family jealousies, the palace intrigues, and the savage crimes of his descendants left little vigor for the great work which still lay before the Frankish kings. And yet this period of internal strife marks a new epoch in the barbarian movements. Up to the time of Clovis the invading hordes of the East had moved steadily westward, each new contingent pressing its predecessors forward until they had been swallowed up and encompassed within the limits of the Empire. Thenceforth that tide was to be turned backward, and conquest was to proceed in the opposite direction. The Franks alone, of ail the barbarian races which had invaded the Empire, were not wholly absorbed by it; but kept, as it were, an open channel of communication with the great Germanic background. It was the Franks who, turning their faces eastward, not only checked further advances of the barbarians into Gaul, but carried their conquests into the barbarian world, gradually spreading among its savage tribes the civilization which they themselves had acquired. When, at last, in the eighth century, their three kingdoms - Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy - were finally united in one strong monarchy, the Franks were to become the defenders of Christendom against the Avars of the East and the Arabs of the South, who threatened to overwhelm Europe with a new deluge of barbarism.

Retaining many of their ancient Germanic ideas and customs, the Franks acquired from their contact with the Romans a new political organization. Their kingship, which had been elective, became hereditary and tended toward a personal despotism. Three causes contributed to the growing power of the Frankish kings, one of which was destined in the course of time to destroy the Merovingian dynasty, so ancient that its origin, derived from a half mythical Merovius, is lost in an unrecorded past.

The first of these causes was the extent of the royal domain derived through the appropriation of the old imperial lands in Gaul, which at the time of the conquest became the private property of the Frankish kings, and with the union of the kingdoms furnished a rich revenue to the royal treasury.

A second cause of ascendancy was the deep reverence for royalty which had become customary to the minds of the Gallo-Roman population under the Empire, and the habit of absolute obedience to a central authority acquired under imperial rule. These qualities of subordination, inborn in the old Roman provincials, gradually modified the strong individualism of the Germanic element and ended in the abolition of those ancient assemblies which had been the chief safeguards of equality and freedom among the German tribes.

The third cause of the tendency toward personal despotism was the organization of the royal administration and the concentration of public authority in the hands of the King's personal adherents. Of these there were two classes, those pertaining to the royal household, or palace, and the local governors. The royal household included the Mayor of the Palace, who was originally the King's chief servant, but finally came to be in effect his substitute; the Count Palatine, who acted as legal adviser and assessor; the Royal Secretary, the Treasurer, and the Marshal. These personal servants of the King were intrusted with duties which gave them the quality of public officers exercising a supreme authority. The local governors were the counts and dukes, persons appointed by the King, who administered justice, raised revenue, and commanded the army in the parts of the realm over which they presided.

Hardly less serviceable to the cause of royalty were the bishops, who at first supported the monarchy because it was friendly to the Church, but soon received the confirmation of their election at the hands of the King, were eventually even chosen and appointed by him, and found in their direct relation to his person a means of maintaining their own authority when it was menaced or invaded by the counts and dukes. The spirit of the imperial system thus reappeared in the organization of the Frankish monarchy, but not without resistance; for the Frankish aristocracy, inspired by the ancient Germanic sense of independence, often combined to throw restraints about the royal power. It was the commencement of that long struggle between central authority and local sovereignty which forms the principal drama of European history.

The most rude and untamed of the Germanic tribes who invaded the Empire were the Lombards. In the second century they had dwelt on the banks of the Oder, but following in the track of the Goths, and in alliance with the Avars, they pressed into Pannonia, and were finally established by Justinian in Noricum, whence they furnished recruits to his army in the reconquest of Italy. So ruthless by nature that they plundered friend and foe alike, in 568, reinforced by contingents from other tribes, the whole people crossed the Alps and descended into Northern Italy. So undisciplined that for a long period they were without a king, they ravaged the land with merciless ferocity. In the North they met but a feeble resistance, and easily took possession of the country. Choosing a king, and fixing their capital at Pavia, the Lombards divided the Italian peninsula with the Eastern Empire, which left its Italian domain under the charge of an exarch, residing at Ravenna, and the dukes to whom the local control was intrusted. Gradually absorbing the Roman civilization, and at last through the influence of Queen Theodelinda accepting the Catholic religion, the Lombards became great builders, whose monuments still lend a distinctive character to Northern Italy. In the person of their king Liutprand they at length found a leader who appeared about to conquer and reorganize the whole of the Italian peninsula, when the papal diplomacy suddenly changed the situation and gave a new direction to the history of Europe.

The struggle between the Empire and the Lombards for the possession of Italy left the entire country in a state of impoverishment. Placed under the protection of imperial officers sent from Constantinople to govern them, their lands fallen into the possession of an aristocracy that often joined to its ownership of the soil political authority derived from the Eastern Emperor, the Italian people, outside of the cities, fell into a social condition closely bordering upon feudalism. Public authority and private property became almost identified. The few small proprietors who remained, weary of supporting the burden of taxation, worn out and discouraged, sought release from their misfortunes by alienating their little properties and placing themselves under the protection of their stronger neighbors. It was the Church which most largely profited from this general abandonment of life. The peace of the sanctuary and the promised blessings of another world were welcome to men who had been robbed by the invader and the imperial authorities alike, and who had found this life so unfriendly and disappointing. Numbers of small proprietors, and some great ones, eagerly renounced their earthly possessions, gladly confiding them to the care of the Church. Thus the clergy became more and more a dominant force in society, the custodian of its substance and the regulator of its life. Almost everywhere it was the bishops who became the protectors of the people against official rapacity and private greed, nourishing the poor, managing the finances of the municipalities, superintending their public works, and in many cases controlling the whole civil administration.

Already long practised in the East, monasticism found in the sixth century every favorable condition for its development in the West. In 528, St. Benedict founded the order that bears his name, and erected a monastery at Monte Casino5. Clothing with sacred authority the old imperial principle of absolute obedience, he created a new world for the troubled mind of his age by the sane industry and simple life of his new order, to which multitudes devoted themselves with absolute consecration. Scattered everywhere throughout Europe, his disciples needed the protection of a central power, and this they found in the papal authority at Rome. In return, a vast army of faithful adherents, truly international in its character, was thus placed at the disposal of the Pope. How great an influence it has had upon the destinies of Europe is shown by the fact that this one monastic order, leading a life of tranquil toil and furnishing to that age an asylum for intellectual culture, is said to have given to the world, besides numberless industrious tillers of the soil, skilful artisans, and patient teachers, twenty-four popes, two hundred cardinals, five thousand six hundred archbishops and bishops, and more than fifteen thousand writers.

1. See Junghans, Geschichte, p. 56, where the sources relating to the conversion and baptism of Clovis are critical]y reviewed. The number of Franks baptized is variously reported.

2. The letters of Bishop Avitus and Pope Anastasias are found in Bouquet, Rerum Gallicarum, IV, 50.

3. Planck, Geschichte der christlichen kirchlichen Gesellschaftsverfassung, Bd. II, p. 25.

4. The nature of the imperial honor conferred upon Clovis is discussed by Junghans, Geschichte, pp. 128, 130. The chief importance of the incident is, that it illustrates the exercise and recognition of a certain imperial supremacy over the West.

5. For the Rule of St.Benedict, see Hendereon. Select Documents, pp. 274, 314; also for the Latin text, Migne, Patrologia, vol. 66, column 215.


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