Elite Capture: how Christianity wrote the playbook

This is one of the best podcast interviews we’ve done. We discuss Peter Heather’s marvellous book “Christendom: the triumph of a Religion”. It covers the thousand years from the time Christianity becomes embedded in the Roman Empire, via Emperor Constantine’s conversion. Heather’s book shows how much Christianity was spread not by those ‘meek’ whom Jesus would have inherit the earth but by the powerful for whom converting now offered improved relations with the emperor’s court.

Over time, and through the period of Charlemagne it infiltrated European life via various drives for Christian piety. By the 12th century, the Church had deeply infiltrated people’s lives through the seven sacraments — which marked the rhythms of people’s weekly lives and the major milestones of their lives — they included baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, penance, and marriage. And by the 12th century, the church was in many ways more powerful than any king or emperor, controlling the universities, and religion across Europe. The church is also the template for a specific organisational form — governed across nations by a single kinglike officer supported by a skilled bureaucracy administering an elaborate and time-honoured legal code.

Here are the chapters and timestamps of the discussion.

  • 00:02:48 Emperor Henry IV meets Pope Gregory VII
  • 00:06:23 Rise of the papacy
  • 00:10:20 The modern world and monarchy
  • 00:13:30 Ancient constitutions and power-sharing
  • 00:18:47 Positive decisions about Christian beliefs
  • 00:21:39 Christianity’s preoccupation with doctrine
  • 00:25:21 Practical piety and purgatory
  • 00:30:04 Late development of afterlife vision
  • 00:33:25 Syncretism in early Christianity
  • 00:38:38 Church revenues and charitable purposes
  • 00:41:15 Lack of trained priests
  • 00:45:13 Spread of religious rules
  • 00:48:22 Conversion and power dynamics
  • 00:52:03 The church as a separate institution
  • 00:56:24 The irony of secularism
  • 00:58:58 The Christian church and connection

A full, machine read transcript is below the fold.

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00:00 Nicholas Gruen Welcome to another edition of Uncomfortable Collisions with Reality. I’m here with my friend Peyton Bowman, friend and colleague who is joining us from Japan, and with Peter Heather. Peter Heather is the Chair of Medieval History at King’s College London, has been since 2008, and has previously worked at UCL, Yale, and Oxford. He’s published far more books than he really should have, if he was going to be fair to the rest of us. But he’s just published a large and excellent book called Christendom, a romp through the millennium from Constantine to the mid-medieval period of the 1300s. And you’ll find out soon enough why I’ve got a particular interest in this. I’ve become more and more fascinated with the transition from ancient thinking to modern thinking, and from an inherently pluralistic way of thinking when you’ve got lots of different gods in lots of different cities, between lots of different groups of people, and the Christian idea of a unitary structure to all that. And it seems to explain a lot about our ethics, about our religion, obviously, about our politics, and so on. So that’s my focus, and I now want to introduce Peter. He should tell us anything more about us that I haven’t been good enough to tell you, and then I’m going to ask him to think about what happens at the beginning of Chapter 11 of his new book, in which Emperor Henry IV encounters Pope Gregory VII, not for the first time. Because in many ways it is an extraordinary story, and it’s the culmination of this thousand years of development that the book Christendom is all about. Welcome Peter.
01:56 Peter Heather Over to you. Thank you so much for having me. I don’t think there’s anything else much I should say about myself, except that I’m a great gardener and cricket lover. Ah, well, well I’m… Which seems appropriate, given who I’m talking to.
02:18 Nicholas Gruen For Peyton’s benefit, there’s been a little bit of a skirmish between England and Australia in an international test series focused on a question of fairness, and some people in my country are saying, yes, more lectures from the British on fairness. No, thank you very much to people who brought us on the line. Anyway, unless you want to come back on that, which you’re most welcome to, we can get on
02:39 Peter Heather with the show. No, I do honestly think the British lecturing anyone on fairness does seriously lack staying power. Fairness means the British win. You must understand this. That’s the definition of fairness, obviously. And if you don’t get that, then there’s no point in going any further. No. So, more serious matters. Well, we can make a situation where fairness means the Pope wins, I think. Well, it is that old adage, isn’t it, about history is written by the victor. It’s obviously the correct outcome from a victor’s point of view that they won. So, that’s the way it’s going to be shaped, and there’s no escape on that. The start of chapter 11 is such an interesting moment, I think. One of the points I’ve been trying to make in the book is for just how long Christians were happy to accept that kings and emperors, because they were divinely appointed to hold unique levels of power, had, but by God, had therefore unique religious authority. And you get occasional contrary voices, but emperors have been in charge both by right and by practicality of the church for 800 years, ever since Constantine. But at this moment, we’re in the 1070s, we see a number of different forces coming together, which were set up the change. In Western Europe, this is going to lead to the rise of the papacy as a kind of CEO for Latin Christendom for the first time. So in charge of things like calling councils, ultimate responsibility for doctrine and for disciplinary standards, and with at least a say in high church appointments. They don’t care who’s in charge of a small parish somewhere in Kent in England, but they do care. Well, they do get to inspect them. They do get to inspect them. And they do care who’s the Archbishop of Canterbury and who’s in charge of major monasteries and this kind of thing. So all of those kinds of powers, if you look at them in the first millennium AD, after Constantine, they’re in the hands of kings and they’re in the hands of emperors. But here in the 1070s, we see a pope able to confront an emperor for the first time. They’ve excommunicated each other in front of these cheerfully constructive exchanges, that the seriously self-important people tend to have. But it’s important to see that it’s Gregory, Pope Gregory, who’s changing the goalposts, moving the goalposts here. I think that is still sometimes missed. But he’s put a statement down in the early 1070s called the Dictatus Papi, where he basically sets out an agenda for shifting the kinds of powers that emperors have and kings, in fact, have customarily exercised into the hands of the Roman papacy. And that’s what he and Henry IV are clashing about and also about control of the papacy,
06:03 Nicholas Gruen because since the time of Charlemagne, emperors have had at least a… But just to tell our viewers that Charlemagne, I’m no great shakes on Charlemagne, but I do know, correct me if I’m wrong, that he got himself crowned emperor by the pope on
06:17 Peter Heather Christmas Day 800 AD, correct? Absolutely. So best date in history, Christmas Day 800. Since the time of Charlemagne, well actually since the time of his son in the 820s, then emperors have watched over papal elections and have again had a say in papal elections. And Gregory wants to assert complete independence and transfer powers that kings and emperors had previously exercised into the hands of the papacy. They’ve excommunicated one another. Henry’s in trouble at home with a revolt of princes. He wants the…
06:54 Nicholas Gruen And what part of Europe is he emperor of? It’s not modern Germany, but it’s kind of the Holy Roman… What we…
07:01 Peter Heather Can you tell us? It’s the Holy Roman Emperor. It’s really Germany, Austria and Northern Italy. It’s a chunk of territory through the middle of Europe. Hitler would have been very impressed. Yeah, no, he’d have liked it. Yeah. Though it didn’t go far enough east actually for Hitler’s point of view. Well, that’s right, he could solve that. Yeah, no, seriously. So Henry’s facing a revolt of princes. He wants the sentence of excommunication lifted. He’s got to come and eat humble pie. We’re at a lovely Italian mountaintop castle called Canossa. It’s in winter. There’s snow on the ground. The story is that Henry and his wife and his son cross the Alps in winter, supposedly very dangerous, and Henry has to wait in the snow for three days outside before Gregory will admit him. He duly eats humble pie. The sentence of excommunication is lifted. As then, of course, Henry deals with the rebels and immediately they excommunicate each other again and the battle continues. But it’s a symbolic moment of the massive increase in ambition that’s coming out of Rome and of the creasing inability of emperors to do anything about it. This is a process, not an event. Canossa doesn’t make this happen suddenly.
08:32 Nicholas Gruen You can see the pendulum is swinging. So this to me, well, let me tell you when I really started thinking, gee, which I think these events you’re describing are called the investiture crisis. I think this is right. And so I learned about this and also about the Abbey of Cluny founded in 900 and something, I think. And this is all part of what scholarship I’ve read on this. And the significance that it had for me is that this provides a model really for the modern world. One way to think about the modern world is that it consists of lots of little monarchies. So think of the CEO of your organization, that organizations go up to a single point. And yes, that point might, there might be lots of democratic safeguards or lots of ways in which this king-like officer is held accountable to people underneath them. The idea that this is really the way to run something is, it sort of shocked me when I realized that ancient Athens isn’t a democracy in the way that, so modern democracies are elective monarchies in the sense that every modern democracy I can think of has a head of state. Sometimes that head of state is the same as the head of government. Sometimes it’s different, but it’s a pyramid. And then we’ve democratized the monarchy and the Americans don’t call their monarch a monarch. They call him a president or her a president, but it’s a single point. In some ways it’s more singular than the Westminster system, which bundles up this pyramid into arguably two positions, but it’s really only one because only one has the serious power. Now I guess we’ve all heard of Pericles, and Pericles didn’t have the power that he had in Athens over 25 odd years because he occupied a position like this. He was an elected strategos, I think might be the right way. You can correct me if I should. I know that plural is stratego. I think I’ve got that right. Correct me if you want to. But there were 10 of those each year. And he’s one of these characters, a general in the army effectively. And it’s by virtue of his charisma, his ability to carry the assembly that he enjoys all this political power. And likewise, what really shocked me I guess was that the Roman Republic likewise was quite self-consciously against this pyramid. It was quite self-consciously against this pyramid because you had consuls. Firstly they were preoccupied with distributing power, and secondly if there’s a highest officer it’s a consul, and there are two of them and they have some kind of veto power over each other. So then we get this thousand year period which starts with an emperor, Emperor Constantine, and by tangling, this is my way of putting it, by tangling Constantine up in a set of codes, law, the practice of religion, the practice of education and so on. And because as your book makes clear, Constantine and Christianity have something in common, certainly after Constantine, which is this appeal to God as the chooser of the emperor in some sense. That this, you run this thing for a thousand years and all of a sudden you end up back with this pyramid which has been institutionalized in a far more profound way than just an emperor with a whole lot of power. So sorry that took so long but I’d love you to reflect on that and tell me whether the, that is, you know, what your story, you know, what your story has to say about
12:40 Peter Heather the set of concerns that I came to your book with. Well, yes, I mean the kind of constitutions you see in Athens and in Republican Rome are even more specifically designed to prevent the kind of pyramid structure that you’re talking about. That’s the whole point of them. That is why they’re there. They’ve had experience of the pyramid in the deep and distant past and they do not want it. So we create a sort of much more balanced oligarchic system. I mean, Athens is not a democracy because two thirds of the people who live there are slaves and have no rights at all. It’s all kinds of, they’re just not a democracy like us. They’re not a democracy at all. This is a misnomer in our terms. They define a small group, smaller group who run things. They set up a system whereby it’s extremely difficult for single persons and bosses and likewise the Roman Republican constitution. But I suppose I think as a historian, if I think through time, it’s very difficult to run entities with this kind of power sharing, especially large entities. The processes of communication and registering of opinion that are required in those kind of constitutions can only work on a pretty small scale in the pre-modern world because of communications technologies, et cetera. So you’re going to end up much more often with things like our versions where you end
14:19 Peyton Bowman up with pyramidal structures with checks and balances within them, I suppose. Yeah. One thing that’s really interesting about the story you present in Christendom is whether it’s deserved or not, the image of the early Christian church is that this is a group of disenfranchised people who are undergoing martyrdom and completely excluded from society to the extent in which they’re being thrown into the gladiator pits or whatever it might be. It has this very loose structure that eventually grows strong enough to weed out some of the books that are non-canonical from the Bible, but it’s not very organized. But then at the moment that Constantine adopts, or in your book, he reveals his perhaps secretive Christianity that has been there all along. It’s a balancing act. He changes the whole way in which that operates at the council of Nicaea. Maybe you could talk a little bit about maybe how that transition happened and how this pyramid was suddenly imposed on something that was in a way inverted from that model to begin with.
15:28 Peter Heather Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a fascinating element in the story. I think it’s not sudden either. You have dispersed Christian communities, maybe 600 out of the 1,800 self-running towns of the empire have an organized Christian community of some kind in about 300, as headed by a bishop. They’re used to running their own affairs. They do talk to one another. As you said, fascinatingly, they’ve managed to decide broadly, but not completely, by 300 on a set of books that they all consider canonical, the Old Testament plus most of what we recognize as the New Testament now. How they’re going to read those books, precise doctrines, exactly how the relationship between God the Father and God the Son works, where the Holy Spirit fits in, then there are clearly variant views. It’s a tolerated variation. I think they’ve progressed by defining what won’t work rather than by defining what will work. It’s a negative definition of the fringes as to what they don’t think is a reasonable point of view. They’re in the middle of one of these fights when Constantine declares his Christianity. But I think much more important than that is that Constantine inaugurates this new mechanism, the ecumenical council, the gathering of enough bishops that you can plausibly and reasonably say whatever they decide on does reflect common Christian opinion. That’s the first time that that’s been possible. There have been regional councils, but they’re small. So North Africa or Asia Minor and a bit of Syria, we haven’t had everyone or nearly everyone together. Even a couple of Brits make it as far as Nicea. This is so far in ancient terms. It is. My mind is boggled by thinking about it.
17:19 Nicholas Gruen I’m always boggled by how well-traveled the bishops of Europe all the way along are. I think Augustine turns up in Britain and North Africa and Asia Minor. They’re all over the place. They’re real jets. Absolutely. And how have you been, Godwin? Just minus the private jets?
17:38 Peter Heather Yes. And suddenly, oh my God, we’re all together. We can start to make positive decisions about what we believe. I actually think it takes two jets. Yeah, two, come in.
17:52 Nicholas Gruen Yeah, come in. I want to ask quickly, is this because, can we say something as simple as Constantine has the resources to bring this about? Could Christians have done this before but they just didn’t? Or is it the fact that he’s the emperor and he can make this sort of stuff happen?
18:10 Peter Heather Yes, I think it’s more the latter. I think it probably hadn’t occurred to people that it might be possible. Christianity is only persecuted periodically, really. It’s persecuted nastily. People die and people die in unpleasant ways, but in pockets of time. It’s not constant by any means. But I think that’s probably enough to create a climate where you wouldn’t want to gather all your leadership in one place, for instance, and people wouldn’t feel comfortable about leaving their congregations with no certainty they’d ever get back to them. So there is that element to it. But certainly, Constantine funds these councils. So it struck me it’s like a huge research project in the fourth and fifth century to sort out Christian doctrine. Where periodically we’ll get everyone together to think about the next problem. But it takes a while for the new habits to set in. I mean, as Peyton said, they’re not used to thinking this way. And I see it doesn’t solve the relationship problem between God the Father and God the Son or how we’re to understand it. It puts out a point of view, which then has the imprimatur of having been the point of view put out at Nicaea. But it takes people 60 years, three, two, three generations to accept it. They’re not happy about it to start with, or quite a big chunk of opinion isn’t happy about it to start with. And it takes a while to rumble around. I think by the end of that 60, 70 years, then we’ve made that mental shift from pre-Constantine Christianity, where we’re used to tolerating diversity and running our own affairs to post-Constantine Christianity, whereby we think we should make a positive statement. That everyone who’s really a Christian should sign up to it because we’ve all gathered together. We’ve said this is what Christianity is. Therefore you should sign up to it. I do think that takes 60, 70 years. It’s after Theodosius’ council in Constantinople in the early 380s that we, and his willingness to enforce it much more brutally by taking churches off people who won’t sign up to it and by finding lay supporters, important lay supporters of alternative points of view, really colossal sums of money or threatening to.
20:27 Nicholas Gruen It’s that that sort of cements in place the new habits. So I, well, let me make an assertion. Tell me if you agree with it, that Christianity is more preoccupied with doctrine than any other major religion. So that’s my proposition. And so I wonder whether this process that you’re describing of the early councils is
20:52 Peter Heather the time at which this comes into being as a particular preoccupation? Now that’s a really tricky question, which I don’t feel qualified to answer. But I can offer a couple of observations. One is Christianity sets itself a much trickier problem with its doctrine of Godhead than any other religion I know, because Christ has to be both God and man and equal to God. Now how do you make that work? What exactly does that mean? How can that be? Then that’s a really complicated problem about your Godhead that only Christianity has. By asserting the full divinity of Christ, but saying he’s simultaneously a living, breathing human being who’s also fully human, you’ve created a problem which is not easy to resolve. So that would be firmly in favor of your point of view there, Nicholas. On the other hand, I do know that Islam and Buddhism, we’ve globalized our first year historical outline courses, so I’m now a bit more clued up on things that I would otherwise be, also go through very important formative processes where even if you don’t have the full details, you can see that what emerges from a process of sustained debate has transformed itself quite substantially from where it began. In Islam, it’s really from the death of Muhammad in the 630s through to the Abbasid period from about 800, so a 170 year period of considerable internal formation. Buddhist is obviously much older, but again, there are a series of rather important councils
22:33 Nicholas Gruen in the early history of Buddhism whereby there are, very interestingly. Do they have analogies with heresy and things like that? Do they conspire about heresy?
22:45 Peter Heather They do set up rival camps. They don’t use the word heresy, that’s very Greico-Roman, but they do do that. And they also manage that transition from what Christianity is doing simultaneously from very small rigorous sect that is demanding very high standards of behavior and is clearly only meant to be for a small group of believers who are going to make it to heaven to a mass religion. That was the bit that struck me from my brief acquaintance with the early transformative history of Buddhism is that those councils, the meetings of their leaders, that’s the
23:18 Peyton Bowman deal, that’s the job that they’re doing that jumps out at me. If I seem to remember, there is a kind of Charlamagne figure, this King Ashoka in India, so he nationalizes it in India to some degree.
23:30 Nicholas Gruen Yes, that’s absolutely right. So in many ways, the other thing, the thinking about these councils is that they sort of conjure up Europe. They conjure up this unity, which is a remarkable thing.
23:52 Peter Heather Yes, they do in the longer term. You’ve got, as far as I can see, there are two very creative moments in the thousand years of Christian history that I’m looking at, fourth and fifth century where you’re tackling these kind of very big doctrines about the Godhead. As I said, Christianity makes your life very difficult. You’re going to resolve that. But then a second period in the 11th and particularly the 12th centuries where, in a kind of way, it’s about doctrine, but it’s doctrine that’s tied into patterns of practical piety much more directly. So the moment where ideas of purgatory are formalized, which in a sense is a doctrine, but actually I think much more importantly becomes a practical mechanism for defining what a good Christian is because, as it were, nearly everybody’s going to end up in purgatory. So the whole of piety is directed around minimizing the amount of time that you or your loved ones are going to spend in purgatory. So you’re trying to look after your own soul, but you’re also trying to look after the souls of those you love. Purgatory is kind of like hell, but at least you know you’re going to get out of it at some point. That becomes the focus. So it leads to all kinds of logical extensions. We think about different types of sin, what their consequences are, venal sins, mortal sins that might put you into hell unless you purge them, how long venal sins will put you in purgatory, but then also remedial action. What can you do actually to counteract the effects of sin by yourself or by those you love in order to achieve better outcomes? So this is all happening, particularly those intellectuals, Christian intellectuals at the University of Paris, which is emerging in the first half of the 12th century. But it’s a whole set of doctrines, but they are much more tied into actual practical lay piety than say the fourth, fifth century where you’re trying to decide the right way to think about the relationship of father and son, his identity of essence. That’s an important thing to decide, but it doesn’t feed into everyday life in the parish, as it were, in the same way as what’s going on in Paris in the early 12th century. And it is the combination of these two moments of creativity, the heritage from the big doctrinal forming in the later period tied into this extraordinary, extremely creative and intense moment of identifying purgatory and generating a model of practical piety in Paris that creates the totalising model that will be spread across Europe and which brings Europe together.
26:50 Nicholas Gruen You need both of those things, I think. Piety, sorry. So purgatory is a doctrine that is very handy for the church, a doctrine that can be parlayed into a lot of power from the church. First the church becomes the guide to piety. It lays claim to the seven sacraments which are, which populate people’s lives. And you’ll have to correct me, but let me try and tell you what they are for the viewer, the viewer and the listener, which is birth, confirmation, then marriage or priesthood. You know, you’ve got a flow chart and extreme unction. So I’m missing a sacrament or two. I don’t think it includes picking up your pension or anything like that.
27:45 Peter Heather So what are the other ones? So what do we go? We go baptism, uh, that’s where it is. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s, yeah.
27:57 Nicholas Gruen So my point is, my point is that these, both of these things, um, that, that purgatory becomes an instrument of, of power for the church papal power, but the power for the church in a much more distributed sense, even including direct monetisation via indulgences,
28:16 Peter Heather which I presume comes a bit later. Not, not a whole lot later. Yeah. I mean, uh, confession and communion are crucial sacraments as well. Uh, they’re the ones you’re, you’re really missing. Um, yeah, it does. Firming up that view of the afterlife, uh, to that there’s a, that there are three possible stops, heaven, hell and purgatory. I mean, it’s astonishing that it’s not until the 12th century that that becomes clear. I think, uh, I think in various things astonished me as I, you know, I’m a late Roman historian. I started from the late Roman bit and then wanted to finish the story. That’s so I know far more about the late Roman stuff than the later stuff. And the latest stuff was a journey. Uh, various things surprised me on that journey. But actually the thing that’s probably surprised me most is how late it is for the, the vision of the afterlife to be firmed up. So clearly, uh, I think that’s kind of astonishing.
29:11 Nicholas Gruen And then that would also mean how sudden it was that the, how quickly these reforms of the 11th and 12th century follow on from that.
29:21 Peter Heather So that’s a, that’s the secret ingredient, perhaps a secret doctrinal. And you can see there’s a lot of resistance of slightly in co-eight. I mean, that’s, uh, you get a lot of charismatic preachers in the 11th and 12th century who have their own little groups and whatever. And they object to one or other of the sacraments or whatever, you know, but you can see, uh, the thread running through it is that there is great novelty, uh, in this model and people are surprised by it. And it takes some time for it to be accepted. There’s a, uh, a wonderful article, um, about the clergy of Lincoln Cathedral in England in about 1200. And Lincoln is a very major cathedral. These are very well-educated, um, leading churchmen within the English, the English branch of the church, North of the Channel. And in 1200, you can see the impact of these new teachings as they struggle to deal with a problem. And some of them are wanting to deal with it in the way they’ve always dealt with it. Uh, but the more advanced are saying, no, no, this is actually a sign of purgatory. And you can see that the article shows beautifully, uh, also goes back to their library. They got some of the new books, but not all of the new books. So, you know, these ideas are there, but they’re not familiar yet. They haven’t been internalized. Uh, and it captures that moment of transition. And that’s in a cathedral in 1200, you know, the leading cathedral community.
30:48 Nicholas Gruen So it will take longer to work its way down to parish level, et cetera, et cetera. If you can send us a URL to that, um, article, I’ll, I’d love to put it in the show notes for anyone who’s interested. Follow up. And, and I just want to stress here that at this point, so at this point we have the popular, we have the church having, uh, people may not like this quote, infiltrated the lives of Europeans, the lives of everyone in Europe who thinks of themselves as a decent person. And they train people to be part of this system in a unitary structure, which they control
31:24 Peter Heather through the university. Yes. This is the first time it’s happened. I mean, uh, in a sense you’ve got, um, uh, an interesting intersection between organic processes of growth because Christianity has been spreading and spreading slowly. Um, but what it means for people and, um, what difference it’s supposed to make to their lives that keeps getting the definition of that changes. Uh, one of the things that I hope comes out in the book, um, about conversion periods, which are usually, you know, a century, century or half in different places is that very often in those early periods, you’ve got almost no priests, almost no churches. People are being baptized. They’re signing up to Christianity, but they’re bolting it on top of the certain, they’re bolting what they understand as the key Christian elements on top of most of the spiritual spirituality and religiosity that they already have. Um, so, uh, you’ve got this slightly dirty words, syncretism floating around, which is kind of mix and match Christianity. If you ask these people, they would say they were Christian. I have no doubt about that. And I think most of them are being baptized pretty quickly, um, uh, in the history of the spread of Christianity. But if you looked in, in detail at the religious elements of their lives, you’d find a very strange and very different mixtures in each place with certain Christian elements, uh, bolted on, on top of, uh, what they do and certain Christian ideas added to their understandings of the cosmos, uh, as they already existed. So this has been happening for some time. Um, the period from the later ninth to the 12th century sees a massive expansion in the number of actual physical churches. This is another key element, uh, in the system, in the development of the system that landowners are incentivized, uh, not least by saying it’s really good for their souls as well as not bad for their pockets because they can keep some of the tithes to build many more churches and the great period of church building, uh, is between the later nights and say, and 1100, a little bit later in some places, but you know, um, it, most of the parish churches in England are built, um, between about 900 and 1100. Uh, I think the figure is 5,000 churches are built in that period. And that’s just England. That’s just England. That’s just England. Yes. I mean, it’s similar even in Italy. It’s not that Italy has been doing this since the sixth century. The great massive expansion of the number of churches, basically the possibility of sticking a church in every substantial rural community that happens around the year 1000. Um, and this means that you can change the nature of what it means to be a good Christian. Um, before that happens, it can’t be about going to church on a regular basis. It can only be about going to church on big festivals a few times a year. You know, the, the, the calculation done for tour in the sixth century, the basis of, uh, we have a historian, uh, based in tour who writes a lot and tells us he’s the bishop and he tells us about his diocese quite a lot. The best guess from that is that, uh, people are on average six miles from a church in tour, which doesn’t sound much, but that actually means it’s a 12 mile walk to go to church and back. So people are not doing that on their day off very often, but do it sometimes they’re being baptized, but it can’t be about regular church going only after all these churches are built. Can you do that? And then of course you have to staff these new churches with priests. So what you have, what happens, I think is it, this process of organic growth generates a potential religious delivery system. And then the new teaching from the parish, from the parish university as then mobilized by the papacy in the 12th and early 13th century uses this delivery system, which had been created by a different process in order to roll out this extraordinary, much more intense
35:24 Nicholas Gruen version of daily required daily Christian piety. And when I talked about indulgences being monetized through, sorry, purgatory being monetized through indulgences. In fact, I should have mentioned tithes, which is presumably a much larger source of revenue and one which is more federated. As you say, people are not handing all of it back to the church because they’re using it to build local churches and all of this sort of stuff. So it’s a very substantial. And where would most of those tithes being raised from what we, I mean, it’s very anachronistic to call it the middle class, but where are the tithes, although you, at least in movies, you see tithes being imposed in, they take a few chooks from the local peasants and things like that where a tithe’s a general obligation to be taken in the car.
36:16 Peter Heather Yeah, they are. Yes. And they’re used to fund the building process to maintain the building and to maintain the priest who’s going to be attached to the building.
36:30 Nicholas Gruen So yes, they are very diverse. How much goes to arms?
36:34 Peter Heather A, L, A, M, E, S. That depends substantially, I think, on the choices of local priests. I mean, in the sixth century, the defined split of church funds is one, this is, and about bishops, there aren’t very many parish priests, is that the bishop gets one quarter of church revenues for himself. The second quarter of church revenues, it goes to his clergy, his staff. The third quarter of church revenues goes to maintain buildings and to pay for candles and lighting and all the rest of it. And the other quarter is for arms. I confess, I don’t really know if that vision that one quarter of church revenues should be for charitable purposes is maintained in the later medieval period.
37:31 Peyton Bowman I suspect it might be, but I don’t know. How does this process differ from the eastern part of Europe? So you mentioned that they were building all these churches in Italy, but my understanding was that the early church was this very urban religion. You had these very powerful bishops in places like Constantinople, Alexandria, and the pope was kind of one of these. The bishop of Rome, he was one of these guys who was a super powerful bishop of a big city. And then the west was very rural initially, especially, and you had some monasteries here and there. But how did the balance of power change? So I imagine if you had a church in every local town, then these individual priests start to gain more power than the bishops, or is there a relationship, a way in which that affected the structure of power in that church?
38:22 Peter Heather They certainly become much more present. In the early church, it’s all about the bishop. In the pre-Consantinian church, once bishops appear, then they control baptism, only bishops baptize, they have a monopoly on preaching, but their communities are small. The fact that only they can do this is telling you that you’re dealing with a body of people who can meet together as one group. You can’t have one person in charge of everything for a city if you’ve got several different Christian groups. That is obviously not going to be functional. You see over time the license spread of some of these functions, baptism, preaching to broader groups of people, as you would expect. The serious problem you’ve got with this massive expansion of churches in the high medieval is the lack of trained manpower because there are no seminaries at this point. We don’t have a lot of information, but the information we have suggests that priests can still be married at this point, that being your local priest is probably a heritable profession. In other words, we know that there’s basically one anecdote which relates to a family from who are grandson, son, grandson, father and grandfather priests over time. That makes so much sense if that were the case elsewhere because there aren’t books you have to be taught. They’re taught quite a lot of liturgy, but they’re taught by rote. It would make a lot of sense if it’s a father to son thing in general terms. I think most of us think that was the general pattern for local priests, but this is before all those churches are built. When all those churches are built, what is the training if there are all the people who are now conducting services? What do they know? What are they teaching? That becomes a serious problem. It’s in this context that you see the particularly innocent, the third and his successors sponsoring these new preaching orders, specialist preaching orders, the Dominicans and the Franciscans in particular in the first instance, but there are others who are university trained preachers. They either have to go to university, one of the emerging universities, or be trained by a member of their order who had themselves been to university. They’re up on all the new doctrines. I think they’re the people who are going to spread the vision of purgatory, sacraments and what the new patterns of piety should be rather than parish priests in the first instance because parish priests are not trained. That’s a crucial story. We’ve created this new system without having a structure of training priests. We’ve got to spread the new vision of piety, but also I think as Nicholas mentioned much earlier on, you’ve got this process of visitation going on in the 13th century where you go round from place to place and see what is actually happening in all these parishes.
41:39 Nicholas Gruen That’s also a very important element in the story, I think. One of the elements of your story which will surprise people, I think, I suppose it surprised it all made a lot of sense is that Christianity, despite Christianity’s radical message that slaves are equal in the eyes of God and poor people are equal in the eyes of God to an emperor, that Christianity certainly post Constantine spread via the powerful, via the ways in which the incentives that it gave powerful, I’m thinking of landed wealthy to convert to give themselves better access to court and things like that. And you correct me if that needs correction. But the point I wanted to make and then draw you out on if there’s any drawing out to be done is that now after this thousand years has passed, they’re now creating this new elite class, which is more relevant to our own time, which is the educated and educated class. And in many ways, modern that what is roiling the modern world, if you are to judge by the what’s happening to our politics, is that there are there is an army of people who feel that they’re getting ripped off by these elites, that these elites look after themselves and don’t look after them. Anyway, there’s a whole lot in that question. Please, please grab some of it. Please grab some of it.
43:16 Peter Heather Tell me what it reminded you of. Yeah, that does have the kind of statement where you expect to see the word discussed. So I’ll do it.
43:23 Peyton Bowman Yeah, exactly.
43:25 Nicholas Gruen That’s right. Discussed. To Peter Heather’s book.
43:32 Peter Heather Yeah, no. I’d start anyway. Finish. Yeah, no. Let me. The bit I guess where I end up is with the reflection that this kind of extraordinarily similar vision of required religious behavior that spreads from Iceland to the Balkans, Straits of Gibraltar to Scandinavia. That is incredibly unusual. You do not see it in the ancient world. You do not see it now in the modern world. Lots of people believe in all kinds of spiritual systems. I mean, as I said in the introduction myself, I’m no more than a kind of lapsed Anglican agnostic. I have no, would make no claims to know anything in particular about life, the universe and everything in that crucial question. But I can see that that is extraordinary. That outcome that you’ve got by 1300, absolutely the same set of rigidly defined rules as to right religion, right religious behavior spread over that kind of space, that geographical space. And remember, distance is much bigger in the Middle Ages because people move smaller. This is like it’s spreading over the whole of Eurasia. Now, you saw that total ideological system, coherent ideological system being observed over that degree of space. This is weird. This is seriously weird and you need to think about it as weird. Because this is not a way.
45:06 Nicholas Gruen I’m big well insisted it’s unusual and not weird.
45:10 Peter Heather Yes, I’m happy to have weird blasters unusual. I would not agree with that.
45:15 Nicholas Gruen Well, they’re basically the same idea with a different violence, good and bad. Yeah, exactly.
45:21 Peter Heather I’m given to colorful vocabulary, I know. So I have to watch myself. So this requires a lot of explaining. That it’s this is not what normally happens to people’s entirely comprehensible contemplation of life, the universe and everything. It doesn’t normally generate this kind of totally coherent, ideologically rigid outcome. So why? And actually, there’s a lot of power involved in this. I do honestly think that the best way to think about this is a kind of one party state in the end, that actually you’ve been required to conform to this structure by a mixture of formal and informal constraints that have been working their way through different groups in society for a thousand years, which doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of genuine faith involved in the structure. There’s a lot of genuine faith involved in every one party structure. I don’t discount that for a moment. But if you don’t have the power element in there, the constraint element in there, you would never achieve this uniformity because I don’t know of any parallel structure that doesn’t involve power at just about every level. So when you go looking for that element of more or less constrained conversion and adherence is there. Yeah. And I think there’s a very interesting methodological problem, particularly in the early bits, the bits that I start with, because what we get preserved for us are the accounts of the more enthusiastically convinced converts. And the tradition has been to kind of use that material to construct a vision of Christian conversion, which is entirely voluntary, you know, or deeply spiritual. You’ve got this incredible monograph produced by Augustine of Hippo, his confessions where he’s telling you about the 20 year process and all the twists and turns that he went through. And in terms of sheer scale of talking about conversion, that’s a dominating narrative. It’s much bigger than any other narrative that we have. But even the other narratives we have are about saints and they’re about martyrs and confessors and they’re really convinced. But of course, there’s a transmission mechanism, which means that that material comes down to us, which is medieval monks. Everything is copied by medieval monks. That transmission system is inherently tilted towards preserving the materials from those who converted out of conviction. And they’re real. I mean, I’m not saying everyone’s forced to convert, not remotely. But I do. I would make the point that our source base is very much tilted towards those who convert out of conviction. If you go hunting for it, then the, as it were, the incentivisation that moved lots of other people who are not so deeply convinced one way or another to go along with the system, which then starts to emerge. And so I’ve been trying to kind of bring that out where I can. But I hope not by trying to suggest that it’s all about power. It’s just I don’t see how you possibly get to this uniform outcome by 1800 without power being there at every level. And I think actually the Reformation underlines that point, because as soon as people are offered choices, quite a lot of people choose to go with an alternative, non-Latin Catholic Christian.
48:57 Nicholas Gruen And then those alternatives metastasise into new alternatives at a rate of knots.
49:02 Peter Heather Yes, that’s right. So, I mean, I think that underlines how odd the 1300 outcome is and how much force of formal and informal kinds is required to hold it in place. Because I think, yes, there’s the Inquisition. Yes, there’s lots of fining going on. But there’s also, if you grow up in these systems, they have they define the norm for you, you know, whatever we’re all, I think, prone to this, whatever we have experienced in our childhood, that’s normal. And then the world gets weirder as we get older. The things that are around us as children change. And that doesn’t seem right. So if you can manage to put in place a structure that then will maintain itself pretty solidly for several generations, you are establishing a really strong norm. So the informal side of constraint is very important to you, I think.
49:58 Nicholas Gruen So, yeah, but it’s pretty interesting when you say power early on, it’s power qua power, but it’s not mostly exercised directly by the church. It’s exercised in this, when there is power to be exercised. I mean, the church generally does, you know, in the words of Napoleon, I think, doesn’t have any divisions. So always the power. I thought it was Stalin, but you know, we’ll say, well, yeah, well, what did you want? Well, yeah, it’s worth a mass. That’s right. That’s different, isn’t it? You’re right. You did right. So, so, so the, the, the real, there’s some alchemy here about the power, because this is a body that thinks of itself as the law of spiritual and somehow it’s got, it’s managed to entangle itself with, with, with the people, with the
50:51 Peter Heather divisions, the people with the, so on. This is, this is the key point. Um, the church does not exist in the early period as a separate corporation. That that’s what Connoisseur, if we go back to Henry the fourth and Gregory the seventh does, uh, eventually we define the church as a separate institutional body. Yeah. That’s a 12th century phenomenon. Uh, the, the worldview is that the divinity is so embroiled in everything that everything on earth is reflecting the divine will, potentials. Human beings can get it wrong. You know, the Roman empire always had to get out clause that yes, God’s choose emperors, but humans can misinterpret what God is saying, so you can end up with a jerk as emperor and you’re therefore entitled to get rid of him. Uh, but the proof is in the pudding. If you get rid of him, if he’s defeated, he wasn’t God’s choice. Uh, if he’s there for a long time and it works, he’s God’s choice. So, uh, the divinity is so embroiled and the Roman state’s ideological claim is that it is a direct, uh, reflection of the divine will, uh, it’s institutional structures, it’s ideologies. God has made these things happen. It is the manifestation of God’s will on earth. In that context, the church cannot exist as a separate institution and it doesn’t exist as a separate institution. It’s part of this structure. You have religious specialists within the structure, but actually everyone is part of God’s special structure for the world. And it does take until the 12th century for the church actually to define a separate space for itself and to become a separate actor. So, you know, this is why early medieval Kings can choose bishops. They go, sure, they should choose bishops. Yeah. It’s right for them to choose bishops, you know, and in that context, talking about the church with a capital C and thinking of it as separate from these, um, what we would understand as state structures, the kingdoms, the courts, et cetera, you know, the royal courts. Yeah. That doesn’t make any sense. It’s not the right way to think about it.
52:51 Peyton Bowman How early does that start? I mean, if you look at, is it with Constantine or is it prior to this? Because I think there is that, uh, you know, w you know, in the New Testament, it says give unto Caesar what Caesar’s and things like that, but there is a sense in which, you know, at least to his followers, Jesus is expected to be a member of some kind of revolutionary group or kind of the new David in some sense, and to kind of take back control from the Roman empire, but.
53:16 Nicholas Gruen Well, there’s a phrase. There’s a slogan. You could, you could do things with that slogan. Anyway, go on. Go on. Yeah.
53:22 Peter Heather No, I mean, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. No, you’re quite right, Peyton. It shouldn’t have happened. If you, if you read the text, this is not what should happen. Um, but this is what I have. My phrase is not as good as take back control, but is the Romanization of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries. Uh, this is what the, the process of conversion is always about mutual change. At least to start with the religion has changed and the, the, the receiving structure that receives the religion has changed as well. They’re both changed. Uh, but in the fourth and fifth centuries, uh, that is what is changed about Christianity, uh, that it has to basically buy, you know, that Roman imperial ideology, that it’s God’s vehicle for creating a higher order society, um, on earth that predates Christianity that’s coming out of, uh, Hellenistic visions of kingship. It’s old. It’s been there since whenever. What Christianity, what the process of making the empire Christian on one level is actually well, yes, that divinity is actually the Christian God. We’re not changing anything else. We’re just changing the identity of the Christian God. And when we do that, then all of that strand, uh, that’s there in the text, as you rightly say, uh, is going to be suppressed for a while, uh, you know, it will be drawn on when emperors make the wrong doctrinal choice, you get individual church was rumbling on about it and saying, Oh, I’m pretty shouldn’t be doing that. But actually 95% of the time and 97% of churchmen all buy into the new ideology. But yes, okay. Uh, Christian emperors are obviously God’s choice and the, the, uh, distinction between, um, secular and sacred doesn’t exist. I mean, the idea of the secular is a very clever idea that’s thought up on a rainy afternoon in the Vatican in the 12th century, I think. Cause it emasculates Kings and emperors for the, of their religious power and of their religious status.
55:20 Nicholas Gruen Uh, yes, it’s a, it’s a fine irony. It’s a fine irony that it was the church who came up with the idea of secularism as well. Uh, they’re surrounded. You know, yeah, that’s right. That’s right. That’s it. That’s it. There’s a line, there’s a line in a Monte Biden sketch where someone asks for money for the orphans and he asked for a rich man. And he says that idea, that, that idea is so simple. It’s brilliant. He says, you just get up, you want this. So, so here we have it. I, when you started talking about Canossa, back to the original story, I thought this, what, uh, this man is a true storyteller. He’s taken us back to the beginning where we came in. Uh, but maybe this is just as good a place to thank you a very great deal for this. It’s been, I think it’s been a fantastic conversation, a fantastic book. And I might just read, you know, I think we need to try and sell your book because it’s a damn good book. And this is for a random, a random person on Goodreads, absolutely stunning. This ambitious book writes the big history of late Roman and too early to high medieval Christianity. It takes a wide historical view. So the trends and themes of conversion, idealistic reform, intellectual change and coercion are always foregrounded, never lost in the detail. Peter Hither has always been a remarkable writer, but I think this is his masterwork.
56:43 Peter Heather It goes on, but there you are. I promise I did not write it myself.
56:48 Nicholas Gruen But I do know that universities have people beavering away on their, these are called comms people. So we won’t totally rule out the possibility.
56:56 Peter Heather But let me tell you, my first book was on the fall of the Roman empire. And there was some large, there was large scale chuckling coming from upstairs at one point and it was my son’s aged 12 and eight at that point, concocting a review, which they put on Amazon and it’s still there and it’s had at least 61 likes. And I know for a fact that they’ve not even read the book.
57:23 Nicholas Gruen So if you can find which one is them, then. Okay. All right. Well, look, thank you again. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s a fantastic book and at a very, a book of immense contemporary significance, I think, in ways that I, I hinted at or more than hinted at during the conversation. So thank you very much.
57:43 Peter Heather And, uh, thank you so much for having me. It’s been great fun. Thank you. Thank you very much. We’ve conquered time and space to have the conversation.
57:55 Nicholas Gruen The Christian church started it off and where it’s, it’s still going with this great carnival of connections. So there you are. Thank you. My pleasure. Okay. So I will stop recording.
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