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#21 Late Antiquity in the West

Published by Professor Alan L. Hayes, Wycliffe College

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Some references


David Blackbourn, a historian at Vanderbilt University, writes in 2020 for Cambridge University Press on periodization. You'll need UTL credentials; then look for the "save pdf" button.

David Scott, in 2011 a PhD student at Boston University, wrote a blog musing on periodization in Christianity.

Late antiquity in the west: general

A fine text on how western Christendom developed from the Mediterranean experience is The Formation of Christendom (1987) by Judith Herrin, a professor emerita at King's College, London.

A great series of lectures on medieval history from Lynn Harry Nelson at the University of Kansas: like a medieval history course in a (largeish) nutshell.

Steven Muhlberger of Nipissing University has Resources on late antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Here's a "visual tour through the sixth century" courtesy of Steve Muhlberger of Nipissing University. Try browsing around his website for other resources.

The Order of St. Benedict gives a basic introduction to St. Benedict with pretty graphics and lots of links. It also gives you a translation of the Rule of St. Benedict, one of the great classics of all Christian literature. Sometimes we ask first-year theological students to read this, for a proven model for Christian discipleship and community.

Benedict's rule was written by a man for communities of men, but in the Middle Age it was adapted for use by women. An undergraduate at Trinity University, San Antonio, wrote this brief award-winning essay on that challenge.

Half a century after his death, Pope Gregory I wrote a quasi-biographical memoir of him, "The Life of St. Benedict."

Gregory the Great

James O'Donnell, formerly of Georgetown University, has a fine introduction to Gregory the Great.

Here's Gregory's commentary on the book of Job.

Here's a translation of the earliest (short) biography of Gregory, from about CE713, which may have been written by a nun at the abbey of Whitby.

Gregory's works in translation from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, volume 1 and volume 2. Newer translations can be found in the library.

Here's what the Venerable Bede, in eighth-century northern England, had to say about Pope Gregory, who had so much to do with the Christianization of England.

One of the premier textbooks for medieval theological students was Gregory's "On Pastoral Care." Here are some excerpts.


His great work Consolations of Philosophy, which was popular for many centuries, is partly available in translation with commentary from James O'Donnell. Note that you need to follow links and "switch" from text to translation from a menu at the top of the page.

Gregory of Tours

Gregory (c. 538-594) spent his life in the Loire Valley of France, in a zone which was the frontier between the Merovingian Frankish culture to the north and the Gallo-Roman culture to the south. He wrote an important history which reflects the superstition and the brutality of his age, his History of the Franks.

Isidore of Seville

Isidore (c. 560-636), the greatest scholar of his age, wrote the first Christian encyclopedia, the Origenes or Etymologiae, in 20 volumes. It was hugely influential throughout the Middle Ages. Isidore was a bishop in Spain while the Visigoths were rulers there, and he aspired to connect Christianity, Roman culture, and Visigothic culture. He helped bring the Visigoths from Arian Christianity to Catholic Christianity, promoted schools, and influenced Visigothic legislation which helped bring western civilization towards representative government.

In 1997 Pope John Paul II declared Isidore the patron saint of the Internet because Isidore tried to record everything that was known.

Isidore's Etymologies are on-line in Latin, and there's a pdf English translation.

Why We Divide History Into Periods

Historians periodize the past: that is, they divide it into blocks of time, which they may call by such names as periods, eras, or ages. A period is a term of years with significant common characteristics, which, depending on the historian's interests, may be social characterstics, or political ones, or artistic, economic, technological, or religious ones, etc. The period begins when these characteristics become notable, and ends when they are waning. Some periods have obvious dates, such as the Elizabethan era, where the common element is that Elizabeth I was queen (1558 – 1603). Most periodizing, though, invites discussion. Art and music historians usually want to date the Baroque period, which is the period when the Baroque style of art held sway, from about 1600 to 1750, but others disagree, since the Baroque style has many elements and doesn't always appear purely, and because it didn't abruptly start and abruptly end. Some historical periods have different dates in different places. The Renaissance started in Italy well before it started in England; the Englightenment is usually dated much earlier in England than in France.

Working with periods helps historians make useful (though never absolute) generalizations about them. These generalizations give them the historical contexts that help them understand the people, events, and social structures of the past. Periodizing also helps them think about the processes of historical continuity that gives a community, nation, or culture a sense of identity, and the processes of historical change that move a community, nation, or culture into different ways of understanding or doing things. And periodizing helps historians avoid anachronism, which means assume that something that's true of one period is also true of another.

Periodizing Christianity

For several centuries it has been common to divide western Christian history into three large periods (with many subperiods): early, middle ("medieval"), and modern. Historians don't agree, though, on how to date these periods. Here are some different views as to when the early period of Christianity ends:

Late Antiquity

The historian Peter Brown, who has been mentioned on our earlier webpages, has been influential in establishing the period of "late antiquity" in historical writing. He argues against an abrupt transition from early to medieval, and in favour of a transitional period with elements of both, and differences from both. Late antiquity can be seen as a transitional time of creative adaptations to new geopolitical and social realities. Historical processes that dominate Late Antiquity include Christianization, church-building, clericalization, migrations and Germanization, and ruralization. Islam is a game-changer. The Christian centre of gravity moves from the east to the west, and from the Mediterranean to Europe.

As always, historians disagree on the dates for Late Antiquity. One way to date it is to begin with the Edict of Milan in 313 and end witih the Caliphate in 632. Some historians would rather keep the dates a bit fuzzy, since history isn't so terribly tidy.

The idea for a period of late antiquity arose in the history of art in the early twentieth century, to take account of the perception that the materials and styles of art for this time period are characteristically neither "early" nor "medieval".

Fragmentation of the Roman Empire

Here's a map from Lynn Harry Nelson at a University of Kansas website ( showing how the barbarian invasions fragmented the western Empire. This represents the state of political divisions in the mid-sixth century. The eastern Empire ("the Byzantine Empire") remains under the (often nominal) power of the Roman Emperor (now ruling from Constantinople). The western territories are still claimed by the Roman Emperor in Constantinople, but the reality on the ground is that they are divided up into post-Roman kingdoms.

Important dates

Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 547)

Benedict's life story, according to traditions received, goes something like this. He was born into the nobility in the small Italian town of Nursia, and grew up in Rome. When he reached the age for higher studies, he found himself disappointed in love, revolted by the dissolute lives of his friends, and troubled by the influence of his family's wealth and privilege. He renounced his patrimony and set up a Christian community in an isolated church well outside the city, in collaboration with some Christian friends and a couple of servants. There he worked a miracle which gained him unwanted notoriety, and he became a hermit for three years. But many came to him for guidance; for them he built twelve monasteries, and became their abbot. The priest in the area was jealous of his success, and began harassing the monks; so Benedict moved to Monte Cassino, near Capua, where he built an oratory in an old temple of Apollo. Recognizing that sanctification normally comes not through a solitary life or an austerely ascetic life but through community, he wrote his Rule.

The Rule envisions a Christian life of laypeople in community based on the principle orare et laborare, pray and work. Any work compatible with Christian conviction and the Rule is allowed; notable examples are farming, teaching, and scholarship. Monks commit themselves to obedience. The Rule provides that monks will have sufficient food (though not red meat), clothing, and sleep. Six times of prayer are structured into the daily routine. The superior is elected by the monks, and has considerable authority. Important issues are discussed by the community. The Rule combines Gospel with romanitas (Latin cultural ideals).

Benedictine monasticism was extremely influential in the Western Middle Ages, and the Rule also influenced many non-Benedictine religious rules in the West as well.

Pope Gregory I (the Great)

Gregory (c. 540-604) is one of two popes called "the Great" (the other is Leo), and one of four "Latin doctors of the ancient Church" (the others are Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine). He was born into the patrician class and was reportedly extremely well educated. He was prefect of Rome at about the age of 30. In about 574, after much inward struggle, he gave up his worldly possessions and ambitions, and became a monk. His family estates in Sicily became monasteries. He may have followed the Benedictine rule. Against his will, he was ordained one of the seven deacons of Rome, and was sent as an ambassador to the court at Constantinople, where he stayed six years. He entered into a controversy with the patriarch of Constantinople on the resurrection; the emperor ruled for Gregory. When he was recalled to Rome, he returned with great joy to his monastery. He served as an adviser to the pope, and on the pope's death, he was himself elected pope by the clergy and people of Rome in 590.

Almost his first act was to write his On Pastoral Care, on the duties of a bishop. In a time of great civil turmoil, he assumed considerable civil responsibility in Rome. Ecclesiastically, his vigorous administration, his claiming of authority over other western dioceses and even in the east, his sponsorship of missionary work, his reform of the liturgy, including possibly some elements of the music which came to be called Gregorian chant (as illustrated in the manuscript image to the right), and his influential theological, pastoral, and Biblical writings and sermons, have promoted his reputation as the founder of medieval Christianity.


Boethius (c. 480-c. 525), an orphan, was raised in a wealthy aristocratic household. He was immensely well educated in both Greek and Latin literature. He made translations of Greek philosophy into Latin, wrote learned commentaries, and wrote school texts that were much used in the Middle Ages. In the 520s he served the Ostrogothic king Theoderic as a high official; the king suspected Boethius of disloyalty and threw him into jail, where he is supposed to have written his great work Consolation of Philosophy, which was very popular in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He was then executed.