The Early Medieval Papacy and Spread of Christianity Beyond the Roman Empire

Brothers Cyril and Methodius bring Christianity to the Slavic peoples / AQ institut, Wikimedia Commons

As the political boundaries of the Roman Empire diminished and collapsed in the West, Christianity spread beyond the old borders of the Empire and into lands that had never been under Rome.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Christianity in the Middle Ages covers the history of Christianity from the Fall of the Western Roman Empire (c. 476) until the Fall of Constantinople (1453), which is usually taken to make the end of the Middle Ages in the History of Europe.

In Christianity’s ancient Pentarchy, five patriarchies held special eminence: the sees of Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. The prestige of most of these sees depended in part on their apostolic founders, or in the case of Byzantium/Constantinople, that it was the new seat (“New Rome”) of the continuing Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire. These bishops considered themselves the successors of those apostles.[1] In addition, all five cities were Early centres of Christianity.

The Early Middle Ages


Mosaic of Justinian I in the church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy / Wikimedia Commons

The Early Middle Ages commenced with the deposition of the last eastern Roman emperor in 476, to be followed by the barbarian king, Odoacer, to the coronation of Charlemagne as “Emperor of the Romans” by Pope Leo III in Rome on Christmas Day, 800. The year 476, however, is a rather artificial division.[2] In the East, Roman imperial rule continued through the period historians now call the Byzantine Empire. Even in the West, where imperial political control gradually declined, distinctly Roman culture continued long afterwards; thus historians today prefer to speak of a “transformation of the Roman world” rather than a “fall of the Roman Empire.” The advent of the Early Middle Ages was a gradual and often localised process whereby, in the West, rural areas became power centres whilst urban areas declined. With the Muslim invasions of the seventh century, the Western (Latin) and Eastern (Greek) areas of Christianity began to take on distinctive shapes. Whereas in the East the Church maintained its strength, in the West the Bishops of Rome (i.e., the Popes) were forced to adapt more quickly and flexibly to drastically changing circumstances. In particular whereas the bishops of the East maintained clear allegiance to the Eastern Roman Emperor, the Bishop of Rome, while maintaining nominal allegiance to the Eastern Emperor, was forced to negotiate delicate balances with the “barbarian rulers” of the former Western provinces. Although the greater number of Christians remained in the East, the developments in the West would set the stage for major developments in the Christian world during the later centuries.

Early Medieval Papacy

After the Italian peninsula fell into warfare and turmoil due to the barbarian tribes, the Emperor Justinian I attempted to reassert imperial dominion in Italy from the East, against the Gothic aristocracy. The subsequent campaigns were more or less successful, and an Imperial Exarchate was established for Italy, but imperial influence was limited. The Lombards then invaded the weakened peninsula, and Rome was essentially left to fend for itself. The failure of the East to send aid resulted in the popes themselves feeding the city with grain from papal estates, negotiating treaties, paying protection money to Lombard warlords, and, failing that, hiring soldiers to defend the city.[3] Eventually the popes turned to others for support, especially the Franks.

Spread Beyond the Roman Empire

Christians and Pagans, a painting by Sergei Ivanov / Wikimedia Commons

Irish Missionaries

Beginning in the fifth century, a unique culture developed around the Irish Sea consisting of what today would be called Wales and Ireland. In this environment, Christianity spread from Roman Britain to Ireland, especially aided by the missionary activity of St. Patrick with his first-order of ‘patrician clergy’, active missionary priests accompanying or following him, typically Britons or Irish ordained by him and his successors.[4] Patrick had been captured into slavery in Ireland and, following his escape and later consecration as bishop, he returned to the isle that had enslaved him so that he could bring them the Gospel. Soon, Irish missionaries such as Columba and Columbanus spread this Christianity, with its distinctively Irish features, to Scotland and the Continent. One such feature was the system of private penitence, which replaced the former practice of penance as a public rite.[5]


Although southern Britain had been a Roman province, in 407 the imperial legions left the isle, and the Roman elite followed. Some time later that century, various barbarian tribes went from raiding and pillaging the island to settling and invading. These tribes are referred to as the “Anglo-Saxons”, predecessors of the English. They were entirely pagan, having never been part of the Empire, and although they experienced Christian influence from the surrounding peoples, they were converted by the mission of St. Augustine sent by Pope Gregory the Great. The majority of the remaining British population converted from Christianity back to their Pagan roots. Contrary to popular belief, the conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity was incredibly slow. The Anglo-Saxons had little interest in changing their religion and even initially looked down upon Christianity due to conquering the Christian British people decades earlier. It took almost a century to convert only the aristocracy of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity with many still converting back to Paganism. After this, the common folk took a few hundred more years to convert to Christianity and their reasoning for converting was in large part due to the nobility. [6] Originally, Anglo-Saxon leaders claimed divine descent while taking part in many rituals and practices for Paganism but after their conversion they in turn became spiritual leaders for Christianity in Britain. Soon Anglo-Saxons started to incorporate their old Pagan stories and figures into Christianity, such as the Pagan god Woden becoming sixteenth in descent from ‘Sceaf, Noah’s son in the Bible. [7] Later, under Archbishop Theodore, the Anglo-Saxons enjoyed a golden age of culture and scholarship. Soon, important English missionaries such as SS. Wilfrid, Willibrord, Lullus and Boniface would begin evangelising their Saxon relatives in Germany.


Saint Remigius baptises Clovis / Wikimedia Commons

The largely Christian Gallo-Roman inhabitants of Gaul (modern France) were overrun by Germanic Franks in the early 5th century. The native inhabitants were persecuted until the Frankish King, Clovis I converted from paganism to Roman Catholicism in 496. Clovis insisted that his fellow nobles follow suit, strengthening his newly established kingdom by uniting the faith of the rulers with that of the ruled.

Frisians of the Low Countries

In 698, the Northumbrian Benedictine monk, Willibrord was commissioned by Pope Sergius I as bishop of the Frisians in what is now the Netherlands. Willibrord established a church in Utrecht.

Much of Willibrord’s work was wiped out when the pagan Radbod, king of the Frisians destroyed many Christian centres between 716 and 719. In 717, the English missionary Boniface was sent to aid Willibrord, re-establishing churches in Frisia and continuing to preach throughout the pagan lands of Germany. Boniface was killed by pagans in 754.


Andrei Rublev’s Trinity / Wikimedia Commons

Iconoclasm as a movement began within the Eastern Christian Byzantine church in the early 8th century, following a series of heavy military reverses against the Muslims. Sometime between 726–730 the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian ordered the removal of an image of Jesus prominently placed over the Chalke gate, the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople, and its replacement with a cross. This was followed by orders banning the pictorial representation of the family of Christ, subsequent Christian saints, and biblical scenes. In the West, Pope Gregory III held two synods at Rome and condemned Leo’s actions. In Leo’s realms, the Iconoclast Council at Hieria, 754 ruled that the culture of holy portraits (see icon) was not of a Christian origin and therefore heretical.[8] The movement destroyed much of the Christian church’s early artistic history, to the great loss of subsequent art and religious historians. The iconoclastic movement itself was later defined as heretical in 787 under the Seventh Ecumenical council, but enjoyed a brief resurgence between 815 and 842.


  1. Woollcombe, K.J. “The Ministry and the Order of the Church in the Works of the Fathers” in The Historic Episcopate. Kenneth M. Carey (Ed.). Dacre Press (1954) p.31f
  2. R. Gerberding and Jo Anne H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds: An Introduction to European History 300–1492 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), p. 33.
  3. Richards, Jeffrey. The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476–752 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) p. 36
  4. Joyce 1906, pp. 135-6.
  5. On the development of penitential practice, see McNeill & Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, (Columba University Press, 1938) pp. 9–54
  6. Mayr-Harting, H. (1991). The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  7. Chaney, W. A. (1970). The cult of kingship in Anglo-Saxon England; the transition from paganism to Christianity. Manchester, Eng.: Manchester University Press.
  8. Epitome, Iconoclast Council at Hieria, 754.

Originally published by Wikipedia, 07.25.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.



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