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?