Medieval Christianity: More complicated than you might think (or at least more complicated than I thought)

The Baptism of Clovis I

For one reason and another I’ve been hanging out in that dark and troubled period between the “fall” of Rome and the rise of Charlemagne.* It seemed like the conflict between believers in Arianism and other versions of Christianity popped up wherever I went. Which confused me. Everything I knew about Arianism could be summed up in two words: “Arian heresy”. How could a belief dismissed as a heresy play such a critical role in the power struggles of what we’ll call the Dark Ages for want of a better term?

It turned out to be that same old answer: the winners write the history books, and apparently the entry level theology texts. (Also, according to the autocorrect feature in Scrivener, the theology tests. Which I suspect may also be true.)

The monolithic Catholicism that created Chartres Cathedral, the Crusades, St. Francis of Assisi, Jesuit missionaries, and the Spanish Inquisition** was several centuries in the future. Christianity was well-established in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire following the conversion of Constantine.*** It was a relatively new idea in the traditionally polytheistic societies of Europe. (The first of the Merovingian kings converted in 496 CE, but Christianity didn’t make serous inroads in outliers like Scandinavia until the early twelfth century.)

More importantly, theology was still in flux. The nature of the Trinity, in particular, was a hot topic.***** The big split was between Arianism and what became Catholicism and the Orthodox churches. And once kings and emperors weighed in on one side or the other, the argument expanded to include political power and material wealth. In at least one case, the Roman emperor Valens’ attempt to force an Arian bishop on a non-Arian population in what is now Syria led to a brief, vicious rebellion.

As someone said to me recently, “There’s a lot of history out there.”

*5th to 8th century, more or less. And as a reminder, the darkness was in ruins of the western half of the Roman empire. The eastern half, with its capital at Constantinople remained intact (again, more or less) for another thousand years.
**To chose a few random high and low points
***Just a reminder: the modern Middle East is the birthplace of monotheisms. Those who think of Christianity as a creation of European civilization aren’t paying attention to the historic details.
****Largely at the urging of his wife, Clotilde, who was later named a saint for her role in his conversion of Europe, which was a critical step in the conversion of Europe.
*****Do not expect me to explain the theological details here. I do not have that kind of mind. To the extent that I understand it, the debate hinged on how you can have a trinity without diluting the mono- in montheism. At that point my head begins to hurt. Any theologically inclined Marginalia willing to take a stab at explaining this in the comments?


  1. Joy McGinniss on June 16, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    I can ask my OT prof hubby later…

  2. Paracelse on June 17, 2017 at 5:26 am

    Actually the entire South of France and part the Northern part of Spain was Arian. Ostrogoth in Spain and Visigoth in France were Arian and this is why Christian of the day (see the writings of Gregory of Tours) called them Barbarian. Everything was done to eliminate them even so they were more culturally advanced than Merovingian. Their elected kings had to work to make a living, taxes levied were for state purpose only.
    It is odd that the most historically known heresy arose in the former land of the Visigoth: Toulouse Narbonne Albi which incidentally gave its name to a crusade.
    The Albigensian crusade against the Cathare was the bloodiest one in Western Europe

  3. Julia M. Traver on June 17, 2017 at 5:23 pm

    This is the main reason I wish that Constantine had left the nattering Christians alone in the first place. They liked to kill anyone who thought differently. Purging for purity. YUCK. There were a great number of different cults during the first few centuries. None of these were authorized by Jesus/Joshua. Everything was interpretation. Niceanic religion is still an interpretation. It is total hilarity to hear them claim (TM) one, true religion status.

    • Paracelse on June 18, 2017 at 9:25 am

      You are absolutely right, Constantine in his search for unity made a big mistake starting in Nicea giving christians a power that is still felt today, not in particularly good light, although the church has changed drastically in the past 50 years. Have you read “The Grand Inquisitor” by Dostoevsky? It’s a entertaining story in which Jesus/Yeshua is condemned to be burn after a trial by the Spanish Inquisition in 14th or 15th Century Spain.

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