Frankish Christendom and the Estrangement of East and West II
Fr. John Strickland · January 24, 2014
Fr. John looks at the development that took place within the Frankish lands themselves, especially those concerning the liturgy.
Welcome back. In the first segment of this episode, I introduced the Franks and the role they played in the transformation of Western Christendom during the eighth and ninth centuries. I discussed especially the role of Emperor Charlemagne, crowned by Pope Leo III famously on Christmas Day in the year 800 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and how Charlemagne sought to create a Christian society rivaling even that of Byzantium. As a matter of fact, Charlemagne, who had conquered large territories of pagan Germans in Saxony and other parts of western Europe, now saw himself as the legitimate successor to Roman emperors not only in the West but in the East, and his reign was characterized by what I called an ideological program to discredit what he called the Greeks, that is, Eastern Christians of his time, with accusations of heresy.
In this segment of the episode, I will look at developments that took place within the Frankish lands themselves, especially those concerning the Liturgy, worship. For it was during the period of Charlemagne’s reign and after that Frankish theologians, some of the very figures I discussed in the previous episode, begin to promote liturgical reform.
To start, Charlemagne had a very specific series of goals or liturgical program during his reign. One of these goals was to create greater uniformity in his empire—his expanding empire. He had often, it’s noted by historians, a kind of preoccupation with good order, good political and social, but also religious, order. And he also had a need to consolidate many of the newly converted Christian populations of that empire, especially the Saxons.
So part of his liturgical program was to create uniformity, and he did so with an emphasis on what was called correction: religious correction. He assembled together at his court a number of scholars—Alcuin was the most famous of them—who copied liturgical books and other religious texts, and he also sent scholars to Rome to study the Liturgy and other aspects of Christianity in Rome itself and to bring back liturgical books. His interests in correcting Western Christianity took the form of a policy of religious instruction among many of his bishops. As Peter Brown remarks, Frankish bishops during this period became, as he calls them, “the first technocrats of Europe.” This is what Brown says: “[T]he eighth century marked a significant change in the mental horizons of the elite of the Christian Church.” And he’s speaking here especially of the Frankish West.
Christianization was no longer perceived as taking the form of an outright clash of supernatural powers. This had been the principal element in all narratives of the triumph of Christianity, but in the eighth century, victory over the gods could be taken for granted. That victory lay in the past. The real task of the Church, therefore, was a mission to civilize. Education was as important as miracles. And with this in mind, Charlemagne and those other Frankish theologians around him began to emphasize the importance of using Latin, the Latin language, throughout the empire. In fact, they imposed Latin on the empire’s population, a population which for the most part didn’t understand the language. But they regarded this as valuable insofar as the various barbarian tongues spoken throughout the empire, whether they be Saxon or Romance forms of Latin, popular forms of Latin that had drifted away from classical Latin; they regarded all of these barbarian tongues as essentially illegitimate in the service of worship. They favored, rather, classical Latin such as that that Augustine had used or Gregory the Great had used in their own compositions centuries earlier.
An interesting aside to this emphasis upon and even imposition of Latin throughout the Frankish lands was a standard put forward that only one of three languages could legitimately be used in worship and in the use of Scripture. And these three languages were those that Pontius Pilate had used when Christ was crucified. They were Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. And this very policy, this tendency among many Frankish and later German bishops, came to be dubbed trilingualism, an emphasis on just three languages. It got that name largely in the reaction of Eastern missionaries who encountered the policy in central Europe, especially and famously, Ss. Cyril and Methodius, who evangelized Moravia and central Europe, who came into contact with German bishops there in the ninth century. They had translated service books and the Scriptures in Byzantium from Greek into Slavonic. As a matter of fact, as is well known, St. Cyril even helped develop the Slavonic language and provided a basis for what came to be known as the Cyrillic alphabet.
The belief of Eastern missionaries was that native cultures, like that of the Slavs, could be evangelized and the acculturation of the Gospel using the culture of peoples that were evangelized as a context for the Gospel and conversion to Christianity was legitimate. However, what Cyril and Methodius found was that there was strong resistance to this among German bishops that they encountered in Moravia. These bishops appealed to the pope of Rome for support in suppressing the use of this vernacular language in worship and Scripture.
Interestingly, Cyril and Methodius traveled to Rome itself and met there with Pope Hadrian II and found in Hadrian strong support for their policy of evangelization, strong support for their policy of acculturation, of placing the Gospel within the culture of the peoples they were evangelizing. Hadrian II, the pope of Rome, authorized the use of Slavonic and even used it in St. Peter’s Basilica itself in the presence of Cyril and Methodius during their stay in Rome. Cyril’s defense of this vernacular worship, in the Slavonic, is worth quoting. This is what he said in response to the Germans who were insisting on using only Latin.
Interestingly, Cyril declined to use the Greek language with which he was so familiar. Having come from Byzantium, he was a Greek scholar and knew very well the subtleties and the beauties of the Greek language, and yet he declined to use it when he was evangelizing the non-Greek Slavs of Moravia. This is what Cyril had to say about the importance of using language in the vernacular for people who are being evangelized:
Does the rain not fall equally upon all people? Does the sun not shine for all? And do we not all breathe the air in equal measure? Wherefore then are you not ashamed (he’s addressing the German bishops here) to recognize but three tongues and command the other nations and races to be blind and deaf? Say, will you have God weak as though unable to bestow this script, or jealous, that he does not wish to? For we know many peoples who have a script and give glory to God, each in its own tongue.
So these are the words of St. Cyril in defense of the use of vernacular.
But nevertheless, to finish this little aside on the mission of Ss. Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs, nevertheless, after the death of St. Cyril in Rome itself and the ordination of Methodius as bishop and Methodius being sent back to Moravia to continue his mission there to the Slavs, the German bishops organize a very strong persecution of Methodius, who was ultimately jailed, thrown into prison for two years, where he languished and ultimately his followers, the Slavic native missionaries in Moravia, were driven out by a German bishop named Wiching, who accused them all of not only using a profane language to worship God—Slavonic—but also of omitting the filioque from the Creed. I discussed the filioque last time, and in the next segment to this episode, in conclusion to it, I will again return to the filioque.
But for now I’ll just bring attention back to the imposition of Latin as a key feature distinguishing Frankish and later German Christendom from the Christendom not only of Byzantium but of Rome itself. As we saw in the case of Pope Hadrian II, Rome itself, the papacy, as it had supported Byzantium in the resistance to inserting the filioque into the Creed, supported Cyril and Methodius in using the Slavonic language to enculturate the Gospel, to transfigure the cultures of peoples who in this world, using their own worldly languages, had accepted the Gospel.
As a result of this insistence in Charlemagne’s empire of the use of Latin, there was a decline in the comprehension of the services that began during this Frankish period. This is what Joseph Jungmann, a Jesuit scholar of the history of the Roman Mass, has to say about this development:
In the Carolingian Empire (he writes) the Mass-liturgy, so far as understanding its language was concerned, became a clerical reserve. A new kind of arcane discipline, a secret discipline had developed, a concealment of things holy, not from the heathen—there were none—but from the Christian people themselves.
So unfortunately and sadly, even tragically, a great number of the people of Christendom in the Frankish West ceased to understand the worship that they were participating in, and therefore were detached from the experience of the kingdom of heaven that that worship imparted.
The final and perhaps in many ways most significant point in Charlemagne’s liturgical program was the importation of the Roman Mass, replacing the native Gallician rite of the Mass that had been used for a long time in much of Gaul, much of the area occupied by the Franks. Now the Mass would be exclusively that which had been practiced in Rome and imported, brought, to Charlemagne’s empire.
And with this and with other developments in that liturgical program, we can speak of a kind of Frankification of the Western Liturgy that took place in the ninth century and beyond. That Frankification of the Liturgy was noted by Jungmann, to quote him again in his history. This is what he said:
The Roman Liturgy acquired a new home, a hothouse for a further growth that would be determined for more than two hundred years essentially on Franco-German soil.
So a very important development was the importation of the Roman Mass and its Frankification under Charlemagne and his successors.
What were the effects of this Frankification of the Liturgy? Well, on the one hand there were some outright innovations in liturgical practice, some that became permanent features of Roman Catholic and later even Protestant liturgical piety in the West. One of these, for instance, was the posture of prayer. Historically, the orans position, where one holds one’s arms upright with palms open during prayer, an ancient posture, was replaced by the posture of pressing one’s hands together when in prayer. This, some historians think, came from the experience of feudalism in the Frankish West, where a feudal subject would approach his lord in a similar posture, and this was imported into the culture of the Frankish Church and, of course, as anyone knows, especially in the West, became the typical posture of so many Christians thereafter.
Another interesting innovation of the Frankish period in the growing estrangement between East and West, as a result of the Frankish influence, was the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. The use of unleavened bread was absolutely new in the West. Until the time of the Franks, leavened bread was used, just as it had always been used throughout traditional Christianity, including the East. But under the Franks, unleavened bread was now introduced. This may have been in imitation of the Passover meal—and I’ll speak in a moment more about the image of Christ at his Passion and crucifixion that became very central to the Frankish understanding of the Eucharist, but it was an innovation, and it replaced the use of leavened bread in the West which, as in the East, had always emphasized the Resurrection of Christ, not so much the Passion and crucifixion of Christ by bringing attention to the unleavened bread of the Passover meal, but of the Resurrection of Christ, the leaven symbolizing the rising up, the life, of the Resurrection through Eucharistic communion.
Another detail in the Frankification of Western Liturgy was the rise of allegorical interpretations of the Liturgy. These were not brand-new at all. They had already begun to appear, East and West, but in the West under the Franks they became a very pronounced feature of the understanding of what the Liturgy was. The main figure in this development was a scholar named Amalar of Metz. He died in 852, and he had a tendency to view the Mass as an historical reenactment of Christ’s life, bringing especial attention to the Passion and death of Christ on the cross. As a matter of fact, in his very elaborate account of what the actions of the Mass represent, the priest takes the role of Christ and, in his movements and actions, often represents Christ on his way to the Passion. At one point, when the priest ascends the altar, Amalar claims, the people watching are to bring their minds to Christ’s going to his crucifixion on the cross, to the mount of Golgotha.
As I say, this allegorical approach to the Liturgy and its interpretation was not unique to the Franks, had already occurred in Christendom, and that goes for the East as well. But in the East, along with allegorical interpretations, there continued to be, much more than in the West, an emphasis on the experience of paradise in the account of the Liturgy. And for this I can quote a Roman Catholic scholar—I’ve quoted him before (Martimort is his name)—in a four-volume study of The Church at Prayer, the volume called “The Eucharist,” volume two in that study, has the following to say about the Eastern tendency of allegorical interpretation and how it contrasted with the Western one. This is what Martimort writes:
The Eastern allegorical interpretations differ clearly from those of the Latin Middle Ages. They are built around a basic symbolism: the “Divine Liturgy” is, in a sense, heaven come down to earth, and the focal point of a cosmic vision of reality. Here the entire universe is transfigured by the Holy Spirit in the offering of the sacred gifts. The Byzantine writers adopt this perspective throughout as they comment on the rites of the [Liturgy]: thus the singing echoes the singing of the [angelical] choirs; [and] the reading of the gospel effects the presence of Christ who shows the invisible God to human beings…
And he goes on from there. So Martimort argues that, while both East and West were experimenting with allegorical interpretations, the West began to veer away from this experience of heaven on earth which remained at the heart of allegorical interpretations of the Liturgy in Byzantium during the time.
Another detail in this new direction of liturgical life under the influence of the Franks was a tendency toward clericalism. This was also not new, and it was also to be found in the Byzantine East, but in the Frankish West, more and more, the clergy were isolated from the people in the experience of worship. One sign of this was the proliferation under the Franks of silent prayers said by the priests during the course of the Mass. Often these prayers not only read silently so the people did not hear them and therefore had no role—no conscious role—in their execution, these prayers were often said in the first person singular, that is, “I”: the priest would speak in the first person singular.
Another way in which the tendency toward clericalism manifested itself is in a tendency to redefine the liturgical assembly. The Eucharistic assembly, was, as I commented in the first part of this podcast, at the very center of the experience of paradise in Christendom under the influence of traditional Christianity. But the Franks, possibly because of their struggle against Arianism in the West, tended to redefine the liturgical assembly, and here again I quote Jungmann, the main authority on the history of the Mass. This is what he writes:
In the concept of the Church, the foreground was no longer as in earlier times the communion of the redeemed, bound together with a glorious Christ in one mystical body. In Spain and France (and by France here he means the Frankish lands), the fight against Arianism had caused the thought of the glorified God-man, mediator and high priest (in other words, Christ), to be brushed aside in favor of a stronger accentuation of his divine prerogative. One necessarily became more clearly aware of the external, earthly Church, its hierarchical structure of clergy and laity. The social position of the clergy, who were far and wide the governing class in society, and practically alone in possession of a higher education, contributed no little to estranging them, lifting them above the people.
This was a tendency clearly in the direction of clericalism under the influence of Charlemagne’s liturgical reforms, and, in fact, Jungmann continues by talking about what he calls a wall of division that began to arise between the laity and the clergy in Frankish Christendom. This is what he writes:
The line of separation between altar and people, between clergy and laity, between those whose duty it was to perform the sacramental action and those who formed the celebrating congregation, was now made into a broad line of demarcation, not to say a wall of division.
So clericalism became more and more a feature of Frankish Christendom, and it will continue to creep into the experience of Western Christendom and, as we’ll see, even into the experience of Eastern Christendom under different forces later on in history. Join me next time when I continue this discussion of the Frankification of the Western Liturgy by looking at what is undoubtedly its most significant development: the rise of a new innovative approach to Eucharistic piety that, like the adoption of unleavened bread, departed from a focus on holy Communion as an experience of the Resurrection.