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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
1st - 3rd century
4th century
5th century
6th - 10th century
     Eastern and western Christianity
     Orthodoxy and Catholicism
     Clashes in central Europe
     Roman Catholic kingdoms
     Greek Orthodox kingdoms
     Northwest Europe
     Liturgical drama

11th-13th century
14th - 15th century
16th century
17th - 18th century
To be completed

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Eastern and western Christianity: from the 6th century

The story of Christianity for the next 1000 years is largely shaped by the way the two halves of the Roman empire, east and west, cope with the challenges posed in about500.

The emperors, based in Constantinople, continue to assert their authority in the east. Under one of them, Justinian, that authority is even extended again into part of the west, in Italy and north Africa (though this will be more than counteracted, in the next century, by Losses to Islam). But in Gaul, Spain and the British Isles, and beyond the boundaries of the empire into Germany, the only civilizing influence comes not from emperors but from leaders of the church - popes and bishops, soon followed by missionaries from the new monastic orders.


When popes make alliances with the secular rulers of the west - as with Pepin in 753, or with Charlemagne in 772 - they do so as equal partners in a relationship of value to both sides. In anointing or crowning these kings, the popes bestow on them a new status. The position of the pope is very different from that of an eastern bishop, whose predecessors were raised to high office by emperors.

The result, long before any doctrinal split, is a clear distinction between eastern and western Christianity. The patriarch in Constantinople is part of the machinery of state of a semi-divine emperor. The pope in Rome views a secular ruler as something between a colleague and a political opponent.


Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism: 4th - 13th c.

With hindsight it may appear that the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches go their separate ways quite early in Christian history. But at no point is there a single specific break or 'schism'.

As early as381 the bishop of Constantinople is given equal status with the bishop of Rome. Differences both of practice and of doctrine gradually evolve within the two spheres of influence.


The most evident differences in practice concern the sacraments of ordination and of the Eucharist. In the Greek Orthodox church a married man may be ordained a priest, and the congregation receives both the bread and the wine in the communion service. In Roman Catholicism only the celibate may be ordained, only the bread is given to the laity (until the 20th century).

A contentious area of doctrine has been whether the Holy Spirit derives (or 'proceeds') equally from the Father and the Son. The Western church believes so, adding the word Filioque to the Nicene creed in the 6th century. The Greek Orthodox see this as a distortion of the doctrine of the Trinity. Even so, at no point does the dispute lead to a declared schism.


More harmful in the relationship between the two churches are various events which give good cause for affront. Rome is grievously offended by the Byzantine emperor Leo III, who in 726 introduces the policy of iconoclasm and in 733 transfers southern Italy, Greece and much of the Balkans from papal jurisdiction to that of Constantinople.

Both sides clash in the 10th century in their rival efforts to convert the Slavs. In 1054 the Greeks are outraged when Rome decides to excommunicate the patriarch of Constantinople. In 1204 the Greeks are again given profound cause for resentment when the fleet of the fourth crusade, launched by Rome, is diverted to capture and sack Constantinople.


At every stage of this prolonged quarrel the two sides continue to express the hope that reunion will be possible. If anything, it is not so much mutual antogonism which separates them as the successful spread of each faith. The missionary achievements of both eastern and western Christianity exaggerate the apparent split, as vast new territories are converted which lack any understanding of the rival culture.

Roman Catholicism is the first to go its own way, bringing northwest Europe into the fold - including eventually those most energetic of medieval marauders, the Vikings. Meanwhile the Greeks convert the Slavs in the eastern Balkans, to be followed subsequently by Russia.


Clashes in central Europe: 9th - 10th century

Central and eastern Europe, northwards from the Adriatic and the Aegean, is the arena in which many conflicting forces confront each other in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Germans, pressing towards the east, meet onslaughts from Slavs and Magyars moving westwards. Missionaries from Rome confront their rivals from Constantinople, competing for pagan souls with their rival brands of Christianity. The rulers of new kingdoms, emerging in this region at this period, decide which alliance and which religion to adopt. The frontiers established in these conflicts remain sensitive throughout European history.


Roman Catholic kingdoms: 9th - 10th century

The earliest large kingdom in central Europe is Moravia, the realm of a Slav dynasty which by the second half of the 9th century also controls Bohemia and adjacent parts of modern Poland and Hungary.

The struggle between Roman and Byzantine Christianity crystallizes here. The district is first evangelized by Roman missionaries from Bavaria, but the king of Moravia, resenting German pressure, wants his people to receive the faith in their own Slavonic tongue. He sends to Constantinople for missionaries, and receives (in 863) the brothers Cyril and Methodius. They introduce a Slavonic liturgy. It is later outlawed by German clerics, who in association with Rome impose the Latin rite on the region.


In neighbouring Hungary there are similar swings of faith, though here the Magyar royal family takes the opposite line. The Magyars, established in Hungary from about 896, overwhelm the Moravian kingdom soon after 900 and become a major threat to the Germans until defeated near the Lech river in 955.

By that time many of their chieftains are Greek Orthodox Christians. But the Hungarian king (Gezá, a great-grandson of Arpad) prefers to look westwards. In 975 he and his family are baptized in the Roman Catholic faith, initiating a lasting link between Hungary and Rome.


An even closer link with Rome is forged by Mieszko, the founder of the Polish kingdom. Deciding that his best hope of security lies in a western alliance, he adopts Roman Catholic Christianity in 966 and makes subtle use of the feudal system to win himself powerful protection.

He accepts the German emperor Otto I as his feudal lord, and shortly before his death goes one step better - placing Poland directly under the authority of the pope in Rome.


A much disputed border between Roman and Greek influence falls within the region known for much of the 20th century as Yugoslavia. Croatia, in the west, is Roman Catholic. Christian from the 7th century, it is an established duchy by 880; in 925 a Croatian ruler receives his crown directly from the pope. By contrast the ruler of Serbia, in the east, adopts the Greek Orthodox faith. In about 880 he invites disciples of Cyril and Methodius to educate his people.

This ancient division between two closely linked groups of Slavs is evident in their writing. Their shared language (called in recent times Serbo-Croatian) is written in the Roman script by the Croatians and in Cyrillic by the Serbians.


Greek Orthodox kingdoms: 9th - 10th century

The two great Slav kingdoms within the Greek Orthodox fold are Bulgaria and Russia. The rulers of both, according to tradition, weigh up the attractions of Rome and Constantinople. They choose the glories of the east.

The Bulgarian decision appears to be primarily political. The ruler, Boris I, is baptized in the Greek Orthodox church in 865, but for the next five years he plays Rome and Constantinople off against each other. In 870, when it is plain that Rome will not accept an independent Bulgarian patriarch, he brings his mainly pagan nation within the Byzantine fold (which allows greater independence to provincial churches).


The decision of the Russian ruler to embrace Greek Orthodoxy is presented in the traditional account as aesthetic rather than political. In about 988 the prince of Kiev, Vladimir, commissions a report which persuades him of the attractions of Byzantine Christianity.

It is a decision of profound importance for Orthodox Christianity, which in Russia finds its third great empire. Constantinople, the Christian seat of the Roman empire, becomes thought of as the second Rome. After its fall to the Turks, in 1453, Moscow is in place to take on the sacred mantle - describing itself proudly as the third Rome.


Northwest Europe: 9th - 12th century

During the 9th and 10th century Scandinavia sends out the last great marauding group of Europeans, the Vikings. But the same period also sees the first settled kingdoms in the region.

By 811 Denmark has a king powerful enough to make a treaty with the Franks, and in the following century a Danish king, Harald Bluetooth, becomes the first Scandinavian ruler to convert to Christianity. He is baptized in about 960. A few years later a Norwegian king, Olaf I, takes the same step - between 995 and 999. Iceland becomes Christian in about 1000.


Denmark and Norway, linked in the 11th century in the empire of Canute, are by this time unshakably Christian kingdoms. But in the forests of Sweden the twin processes - unification and the defeat of paganism - begin later and take longer.

The first ruler of any part of Sweden to be baptized is Olaf, king of Götaland in the south, in about 1010. He and his successors struggle for more than a century against pagan rulers, whose most famous and jealously defended shrine is at Uppsala. Not until Uppsala is established as an archbishopric, in 1164, can Sweden be securely classified as Christian.


Liturgical drama: 10th century

During the centuries of upheaval in Europe, after the collapse of the Roman empire, theatre plays no part in life. But with the approach of the first millennium, in the late 10th century, Christian churches introduce dramatic effects in the Easter liturgy to enliven the theme of resurrection.

The gospels describe Mary Magdalene and two other women visiting the tomb of Jesus and finding it empty. In about 970 the bishop of Winchester, eager to emphasize this important moment, introduces a custom which is already in use (he says) in certain French monasteries.


During the Easter morning service in Winchester three monks enact the arrival at the tomb of the three women, while another (as the angel in the story) sits beside the high altar (the holy sepulchre). The angel, intoning in Latin, asks the women whom they are seeking? Jesus of Nazareth, they chant in reply. He says Jesus is not here, he has risen, go and tell the people. The three turn to the choir with a joyous Alleluia! resurrexit Dominus ('the Lord is risen'), and the choir launches into the Te Deum.

From these small beginnings there develops the great tradition of medieval Christian drama. More and more scenes are enacted during church services, some quite boisterous. Herod, in particular, tends to make a lot of noise.


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