Gregory the Great

Gregory the Great
   Gregory I the Great
(c. 540-604)
   One of the greatest and most influential of the popes of the early Middle Ages, Gregory, pope from 590 to 604, is also recognized as one of the fathers of the church. Although not the powerful theologian that St. Augustine of Hippo was, Gregory made important contributions to the religious life of the early Middle Ages with his Dialogues, which includes a life of St. Benedict of Nursia; his Pastoral Rule, guidelines for the proper rule of bishops; and his sermons, many of which took the form of commentaries on books of Scripture. As pope, he corresponded with the kings and queens of the Merovingian Franks; negotiated the difficult relationships between the papacy, the Lombard kings of Italy, and the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople; and reformed papal administration to make it a more effective power in central Italy. He is perhaps best known for the evangelical mission he sent to convert the Anglo-Saxons in England, which also signaled the importance of the barbarian kingdoms to the papacy.
   Although little is known of his early life, Gregory was born sometime around 540 to good Christians of the senatorial class, and was the grandson of Pope Felix III. He most likely received a good education, although he knew no Greek and seems to have been little influenced by the classical literature he no doubt read. His learning and family background prepared him for a life of civil service, and in 572 or 573 he was appointed prefect of the city of Rome by the Senate. He held the post until about 574, when he experienced a religious conversion and retired to a monastery he founded on family property and dedicated to St. Andrew. His stay at the monastery was short because the pope, Pelagius II (579-590), called him out of retirement to papal service. He served as the papal representative in Constantinople until 585 or 586, when he returned to act as abbot of his monastery and secretary to the pope. On the death of Pelagius in 590, Gregory was acclaimed pope by the people of Rome, who acted without the consent of the Senate or emperor. He was chosen in large measure because of his administrative skills, which were needed to address the problems brought by excessive rain, flooding, and plague.
   Gregory's fourteen-year pontificate, 590-614, was important for a number of reasons, including his administrative reforms and pastoral activities, which laid the foundation for traditions of the medieval papacy. He asserted the role of the papacy as the main power in Italy and in that role negotiated with Byzantines, Franks, and Lombards. He assumed the old imperial duty of charity and made numerous grants from his private wealth, making monthly donations of food to the poor, daily grants to the sick and infirm, and benefactions to monks and nuns. He assumed the responsibility of restoring public buildings such as aqueducts and churches, and took charge of the defense of the city by appointing military commanders and hiring soldiers. He reorganized papal lands to provide a more secure financial footing for the papacy.
   Although an administrative genius, Gregory also established important pastoral practices that guided the papacy for generations to come. In his Pastoral Rule (Regula pastoralis), copies of which he sent to numerous bishops, Gregory offers guidelines for the bishop's office. He outlines the character traits needed to be a bishop, the spiritual obligations to a bishop's flock, the duties of teaching and preaching, and the responsibility to set a good personal example. Gregory himself lived by the rules he outlined, thus providing his own example for subsequent popes to follow. An active preacher, Gregory wrote numerous sermons and other works that promoted the cult of the saints, Catholic Christianity over paganism and Arian Christianity, and the monastic life, especially according to the Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia.
   Active in church administration and religious life, Gregory faced numerous political challenges in his reign as pope, particularly as a result of the Lombard invasion of Italy in 568. In the generation before Gregory's ascension to the papal throne the Lombards had made great strides in the conquest of Italy and had undermined the ability of the emperor in Constantinople or his representative in Ravenna to defend the pope effectively. They also devastated the famous monastery of Benedict at Monte Cassino, thus demonstrating the weakness of the empire and the necessity for the pope finding alternate means of protection. The situation for Gregory worsened in 593 when the new Lombard king, Agilulf, came to power and resumed hostilities. He attempted to negotiate a peace settlement with Agilulf, but was hampered by Constantinople's desire for war with the Lombard king. At one point, Gregory bought peace from Agilulf at the price of 500 pounds of gold and finally managed to secure peace in Italy, despite the Byzantines, in 598. Not only did Gregory work to secure peace with the Lombards, but he also sought to convert them from Arian to Catholic Christianity. He was a frequent correspondent of Theudelinda, the wife of Agilulf, who was a Catholic and was encouraged to convince her husband to convert. At the very least, Gregory's correspondence with Theudelinda brought the return of papal territories and numerous churches from Agilulf, even though the Lombards converted to Catholic Christianity only at the end of the seventh century.
   Gregory also regularly corresponded with the Merovingian kings and queens during his reign, and his most important correspondent was the powerful queen Brunhilde. He wrote her because of his concern with improprieties in the Frankish church, particularly the practice of simony (the buying or selling of church offices). In order to obtain reform in the church, Gregory made concessions to Brunhilde; most importantly, he granted her request that the see of Vienne be elevated to the status of metropolitan bishopric. Little progress was made in the reform of the Frankish church, but an important relationship was established that foreshadowed the relationship of the Franks and the popes in the eighth century. Gregory's correspondence with Brunhilde had one significant result, however. According to Gregory, Brunhilde, whom the pope asked to support the missionary Augustine of Canterbury, was more responsible for the success of the mission to England than anyone but God.
   Perhaps more than anything, Gregory is best known for that mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons of England in 596. According to the English historian Bede, Gregory had the idea of converting the English even before he became pope. One day while shopping in the market place Gregory saw a group of handsome boys for sale as slaves. He asked where they came from and was told from Britain. He inquired further if they were Christian and of what race they were. He was told that they were not and that they were Angles. He declared that it was appropriate that they were Angles because they had "angelic faces"(100) and that they must be rescued from the error of paganism. Gregory asked the pope to send him as a missionary to convert the English, but he was forbidden to go because he was needed in Rome.
   Once he became pope, however, Gregory revived the idea of an evangelical mission to England, and sent St. Augustine and a number of missionaries to undertake the conversion of the English. To ensure the success of the mission, Gregory wrote to Brunhilde for support of the missionaries on their journey and to the English king Aelle to allow the establishment of the mission in England. Gregory continued to write to the English king, encouraging him to accept the faith, and also to Augustine, encouraging him in his mission. In the generation after Augustine the English converts fell back into paganism, but the mission to England did ultimately succeed, and an important relationship was established between England and Rome, one that had important consequences when Anglo-Saxon missionaries returned to preach on the continent.
   Gregory's reign was important in the history of the papacy and in the history of early medieval Europe. His administrative reforms and pastoral regulations improved the standing of the papacy in Italy and set the standard for religious life and practice for popes and bishops. His correspondence with barbarian kings and queens left a great legacy and marked the beginnings of a shift in papal policy from east to west. Although Gregory remained a loyal subject of the emperor in Constantinople, he recognized the importance of the barbarian rulers of the west, and his contacts with them led to increasingly close ties between Rome and western rulers over the next century and a half, culminating in the formal alliance of the Franks and popes in the eighth century.
   See also
 ♦ Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People with Bede's Letter to Egbert and Cuthbert's Letter on the Death of Bede. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1991.
 ♦ Colgrave, Bertram, ed. and trans. The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1968.
 ♦ Evans, Gillian R. The Thought of Gregory the Great. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
 ♦ Gregory the Great. Saint Gregory the Great: Dialogues. Trans. Odo John Zimmerman. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1959.
 ♦ Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
 ♦ Llewellyn, Peter. Rome in the Dark Ages. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1996.
 ♦ Markus, Robert A. Gregory the Great and His World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
 ♦ Meyvaert, Paul. Benedict, Gregory, Bede and Others. London: Variorum Reprints, 1977.
 ♦ Paul the Deacon. History of the Lombards. Trans. William Dudley Foulke. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974.
 ♦ Richards, Jeffrey. Consul of God: The Life and Times of Gregory the Great. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.
 ♦ Straw, Carol. Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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