Arrival of Christianity
Of special importance to the Middle Ages and beyond, was the unlikely establishment of a new religion, Christianity. This originated in the Middle East with Jesus of Nazareth whose teachings were later compiled into a sacred text, the Bible.
Christianity – like Judaism, Islam, and some other lesser religions (the Abrahamic religions) – was a monotheistic semitic faith that claimed descent from the Judaism of ancient Israelites and worship of the God of Abraham.
Christianity arose out of Judaism, the bible recording oppressed and marginalized people on the fringes of powerful empires, the early Old Testament being about nomadic tribes persecuted by the polytheistic Babylon, and the New Testament an account of similar people, now Christians, under the persecution of Rome with Jesus crucified for his beliefs. The Christian mission was continued by Jesus’s followers (disciples), the most influential being the apostle Paul, who was a Greek-educated orthodox Jew and one-time Roman soldier. Paul travelled widely but was eventually arrested by the Roman authorities. Much of the New Testament consists of fourteen epistles (letters) attributed to Paul, and it is the ideas discussed in Paul’s epistles that have had the greatest influence on the West.
Initial Roman indifference to Christianity was followed by antagonism but took an unusual turn several centuries after Jesus’s death when Emperor Constantine I (c. 272–337 CE) adopted the new religion. With the Edict of Milan in 313 CE Christians were to be treated with respect, and by 325 CE Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman empire. In 330 CE Constantine created an eastern or Byzantine Roman Empire by transferring the capital from Rome to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople after himself). Constantine also instigated the provision of a doctrinal statement of correct belief or orthodoxy, the Nicene Creed, first written in 325 CE and amended in 381 CE.Though, by 476 CE, the western Roman Empire had fallen, the legacy of Christianity flourished, spreading through Latin Europe (Christendom).
Much later, with the Norman occupation of Britain would come new monasteries, impressive abbeys, and further orders of monks – the Augustinians (est. in England c.1250), Cistercians (est. 1128), Carthusians (1173), Dominicans (est. 1221), Franciscans (est. 1224) and those orders associated with the religious Crusades (1095-1291) – the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (est. c. 1190) and the Knights Templar (est. 1154). Orders of nun’s also practiced in convents and mixed communities. Hospitals were either independent establishments, generally staffed by nuns and monks, or part of the monasteries themselves, both of these usually included courtyards and gardens.
Christianity and other monotheistic religions cleared away the complexities and confusion resulting from polytheism and animistic beliefs. Romans had, for example, absorbed the gods of conquered peoples into a vast pantheon. Monotheism identified a single god and, through a holy book, revealed god’s teachings on the Creation, human conduct, the spiritual world, life after death, and the future of humanity. Religion was the medium for social rites of passage, and it underpinned the education system. Collectively these were powerful forces in daily life that had a profound influence on the Middle Ages and beyond not least of which was the Christian calendar which places the origin of Judaism to a covenant between god and Abraham in 1812 BCE, Christianity to the birth of Jesus in the year 0, and Islam to the prophet Mohammed’s teachings in the Quran beginning around 610 CE.
There was, at this time, a transition between pagan Cetic ideas and the new models of the Roman Catholic Church that would later be replaced by Norman traditions. Notable among the clerics of the time was St Augustine (354 – 430 CE) whose Neo-Platonic writings had a profound influence on the Medieval European Church, especially his ideas published in the book City of God (the Roman Catholic Church) which would replace this earthly world of toil and cares.
The first Saxon king to convert to Christianity was King Ethelbert (c. 560-616) of Kent who, after receiving a papal mission from Rome, converted in 600. The other kings followed over the next 80 years as papal Christianity was centred on Canterbury and York. However, the Welsh, Irish, and Gaelic Abbey of Iona followed their own distinctive Celtic form of worship. England, at the Synod (Council) of Whitby in 664, called by King Oswald’s brother Oswy (612-670), decided to follow the Church of Rome, thus severing the connection with the Celtic church and joining mainstream European Roman Catholicism.
Kings and powerful gave financial and other support to monasteries which would, in turn, bless and legitimate their rule. In this way monasteries, also repositories of learning, gathered both wealth and influence.
By 550 CE native Britons in the eastern part of the country had become an underclass as they fell into servitude, the new invaders now occupying seven distinct kingdoms: Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Wessex, Sussex and Kent (see map). It was left to the burgeoning Christianity to take control of the process of reconstruction and as the power of the Church increased, monasteries were built along with cathedrals and abbeys. Around these buildings land was cleared, ploughed, and farmed to support the nearby communities. In addition to the cereals grown were apples, pears, mulberries and nuts. Material luxuries like jewellery and other objects made from precious metals also art work, including painstakingly crafted illuminated manuscripts, now became part of the church.
An excellent impression of the monasteries of the day can be obtained from an idealised ground-plan drawn up in 815-820 AD for the Abbey of St Gall in Switzerland, the only surviving major architectural drawing from the High Middle Ages (c. 1000–). The plan shows a vegetable garden with beds for 18 different vegetables and a gardeners house and tool shed, also a separate physic garden. Benedictine monks at this time would have been engaged in pastoral care, providing food, minding the sick and caring for the needy.
Ground-plans of Anglo-Saxon churches in southern England were based on the traditional Roman basilica while in the north the Celtic influence produced narrow, high, and rectangular churches with doors on the sides. In spite of Roman Church authority the Celtic style was used for parish churches in England, only later the Normans rebuilding many of the earlier Saxon churches in the Norman style. Ceorls lived in extended family groups and worked selected plots of land which were part of large blocks of common land: they lived in farmers crofts which had small gardens for food and herbs, kale and colewort being especially popular at the time.