Chosen Peoples and the Universal Church in the early Middle Ages

You do not have to delve very far into the historiography of early medieval Christianity to start finding statements that such and such an author thought their people had been selected by God as a new Israel or chosen people. This idea is particularly common in discussions of the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons, but you also find it said on occasion about the Irish, Britons, Visigoths and others. I first came across it when working on Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People, according to an influential line of interpretation, presented the Anglo-Saxons as a new chosen people. But this made no sense to me.

My research was on Bede’s vast corpus of theology, most of it scriptural commentary, and in that there was absolutely no evidence for such an outlook. In fact, Bede constantly hammered home the point that all peoples spread throughout the world had been saved through Christ; God’s choice had flowed out from the Israel of the Old Testament to embrace all the corners of the earth. The Anglo-Saxon monk was clearly proud and jubilant that his people had been converted, as is very obvious from a brief glance through the Ecclesiastical History. He was also not above a little bit of ethnic bigotry. Bede’s portrayal of the native Britons is famously harsh, presenting them as a reprobate people who deserved to be defeated and conquered by the English.

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Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), 9th Century

Nonetheless, good individual Britons do appear in the Ecclesiastical History, where it is clearly the fact that most Britons had rejected the universal Church over the dating of Easter and refused to help convert the English which explained God’s anger with them. The Britons’ religious inferiority derived, for Bede, from their unwillingness as a group to take their place within the united community of Christian nations and to expand it to all peoples. In the Ecclesiastical History this understanding sets both the Anglo-Saxons and the Irish, good if flawed missionaries, apart from the Britons. Believing that one’s own people had replaced Israel as a special repository of God’s favour would have been a very risky strategy in this light as it could endanger your commitment to the universal Church.

Most people in the early Middle Ages probably didn’t spend as long thinking about conversion and salvation as Bede did – certainly, few wrote as much about these topics as he did! But Bede’s ideas were not particularly unusual or eccentric; you can find very similar things said in most early medieval theology. So, as my research branched out from the Anglo-Saxons to look at the early Middle Ages more widely, I kept coming across an emphasis on the universality of the Church and the fact that all peoples had been called to salvation in Christ. And this seemed to fit rather badly with the strong historiographical focus on the idea that the Franks, and the Anglo-Saxons, and many other peoples, thought of themselves as chosen peoples or new Israels. Nonetheless, that scholarship had a strong basis in the historical and political writings of the period where God often appeared, intervening in history in support of one devout nation or king, just as He did in the Old Testament history of Israel.

My experience with Bede’s writings provided a possible way of squaring these two (apparently contradictory) medieval impulses, towards the universal on the one hand and towards divine favour for one’s own community on the other. For Bede, divine support was dependent on recognising that the Christian community was a global one; the same idea proved able to explain how other early medieval writers claimed that God gave aid to their own kingdom or ethnic group, without literally believing that they had become His chosen people in any narrow sense.

For example, during Charlemagne’s reign, the Frankish Empire produced vast quantities of propaganda claiming that God was on its side; much historical scholarship has argued that this represents the Franks’ belief in their role as the new Israel. Ethnic pride did indeed play a role in the political rhetoric of the Frankish Empire on occasion, but over time it seems to have become less important at Charlemagne’s court, where the emphasis increasingly fell on the universality of the great man’s rule, on his care for the multi-ethnic Christian world. Charlemagne’s biographer portrayed him as a kind of world-emperor, receiving Irish Christians from the West and giving support to the churches of the Holy Land in the East. This was not just posthumous romanticising. Charlemagne took a real interest in Jerusalem and the other holy places in Arab territory; similarly, he filled his court with advisers from Ireland, Britain and Spain – none of which he actually ruled. He presented himself, in other words, as a good Christian supporting the universal Church of all peoples.

The paper which I gave at the recent Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, on the theme of ‘The Church and Empire’, showed how this kind of propaganda worked in one major product of Charlemagne’s court: the colossal theological treatise called the Opus Caroli. This learned, four-book work claimed to have been written by Charlemagne himself and attacked the Byzantine Church Council which took place in Nicaea in 787 (intended to end iconoclasm in the East) because it had supposedly embraced image-worship. Written in the early 790s, the Opus Caroli clearly challenged the claims of the Byzantine emperors to be the rulers of the Christian world and formed part of the preparations for Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor on Christmas Day 800.

 

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Jean Louis Ernest Messioner – Charles the Great, King of the Franks, oil on canvas c.1840

Most historians who have looked at this work previously have argued that it achieved its aim by making grand claims of religious superiority for the Franks, described as ‘the spiritual Israel’ in the Opus. But my paper sought to show that little evidence for such a focus on a single, divinely favoured, ethnicity exists in the treatise. In fact, the Franks are never mentioned at all in the Opus Caroli – unsurprisingly, really, since its author was actually a Spanish-born Visigoth! The ‘spiritual Israel’, when read in context and against the background of patristic theology which informs the entire work, simply referred to all Christians; throughout the Opus the Byzantines found themselves ridiculed as a bunch of stupid heretics in one part of the world, who arrogantly had claimed to know more than all the rest of the Church. Charlemagne was presented as the hero of the universal Church, piously reprimanding the Greeks for having forgotten that ‘almost the entire world is filled with Christ’s people’.

The Opus Caroli did not disinterestedly appeal for an irenic internationalism; rather it was propaganda, claiming a special status for Charlemagne and his empire, and weaponizing the universality of the Church in pursuit of that claim. Charlemagne had God’s support, it argued, because he stood up for the orthodox beliefs of the universal Church. Unlike the rulers of Constantinople, he remained conscious of his duties to the entire Christian community of the world, and therefore was more truly a Christian emperor than those of the East. The claim that the Frankish Empire enjoyed God’s favour, that it possessed a religious superiority over its rivals, did not derive from a Frankish self-recognition as the new Israel, the singular chosen people. Rather, the very rejection of that idea proved the divinely inspired nature of Charlemagne’s empire.

Dr Conor O’Brien, University of Cambridge, is the winner of the society’s prize for early career researchers.

 

Images
The featured image is the apse mosaic from Germigny-des-Prés, taken from wikimedia, photo taken by Manfred Heyde – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3058890

Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), 9th Century, held by the British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, used under the Public Domain usage of the Creative Commons, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/bedes-ecclesiastical-history

Jean Louis Ernest Messioner – Charles the Great, King of the Franks, oil on canvas, c.1840 , the Hermitage Museum, taken from https://www.arthermitage.org/Jean-Louis-Ernest-Meissonier/Charles-the-Great-King-of-the-Franks.html

 

 

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