Adaptations, Better And Worse
There has never been an absence of not-particularly-moral men seeking power, and such people didn’t just vanish once Christianity became the new European legitimacy. Nor did Rome falling apart stop them from grasping at whatever power they could.
It’s also true that there has never been an absence of people wanting some powerful person or system to stand as a responsible party and guarantee things to them. In other words, a certain number of humans would like not to be self-responsible, and would like to be taken care of. Such people will typically join themselves to whomever makes a credible show of being responsible for them. A power-seeker providing them with a bit of effective theater is usually enough.
People of these two types combine to create the kernel of rulership. But whether it spreads any further involves the choices of others, and without what we’re calling legitimacy, many people won’t join them.
It’s also important to understand that Christianity strongly undercut the legitimacy of rulers. First of all, it demanded that every man would stand alone before God… that they wouldn’t be able to excuse themselves by saying, “I was just following orders.” Secondly, Christianity carried the Jewish beliefs of God speaking to the humble rather than the powerful and of justice standing above the ruler. It further demanded that all men were brothers… that class distinctions were questionable at best.
And so legitimacy was hard to come by in those days. In fact, it was attainable mostly by showing one’s self as a champion of Christ. (And it’s probably worth noting that “Christ” was not Jesus’ name, even though people were by now using it that way. Properly, “Christ” simply meant “messiah.” It was a description.)
The other form of legitimacy was to cling to Rome, an image of which remained in many people’s minds. And so “bringing it back,” was attractive to such people. This endured for a surprisingly long period of time, but it never again surpassed Christianity.
The situation we’re describing here involves a sort of emotional vacuum, and that’s exactly how it felt to people at the time. They had previously identified themselves as Romans and found a comfortable belonging in that identity. When that was no longer realistic, they felt abandoned. That vacuum was filled by Christianity, but Christianity was not a single thing in those days. Being one of many types of Christians wasn’t the same as being part of the one and only Rome.
As for the types of Christianities, first, there was the orthodox Christianity of that era, which later separated into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths. Then there was the very large Arian sect of Christianity, which looked at Jesus’ humanity in a slightly different way. There were also more regional groups like the Nestorians, Donatists, Nazarenes and others.
More than all this, however, Christianity differed significantly from city to city and town to town. There was, at this time, no centralized and unified Christianity, and most groups evolved separately.
The western emperors tried very hard to create a unified Christianity, but they never really attained it, and before too long they became obsolete. The emperor of the east, centered in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) exerted some control over the bishop of Rome (later called “pope”) for several centuries more, but that influence didn’t travel much further than Rome and a few other large Christian centers.
It’s also useful to understand that the primary centers of Christianity in those days were the monasteries rather than the churches. European monasteries were not strict like the monasteries of the East, and were often almost retirement homes. But they served the needs of their local populace, taking in orphans, caring for the sick, arranging for the use of good fields by farmers, helping to resolve disputes and whatever else needed to be done. And the monasteries of that time were almost entirely independent; even bishops had to leave them alone.
Because of all this, people seeking prestige and legitimacy began supporting and founding monasteries. A historian we mentioned earlier, Robert Latouche, noted that the power-seekers of the era, “lavishly endowed monasteries with huge tracts of cultivable land in a passion of generosity which verged on the reckless.”
Anyone who wanted to be a ruler had to stand as a benefactor to Christ if they wanted people to support them. And what they had to give away was land. The best violent groups (again, the so-called barbarian invaders) had set themselves up as rulers over previously Roman territories. The people in those territories weren’t eager supporters of the new bosses (as we see in their tax revenues collapsing), but neither were they going to challenge them with violence. And so the new “kings,” while their power tended to decline, were free to use great titles.
And so, giving great gifts to monasteries was excellent theater, and helped their legitimacy.