2.1. The religious decadence and the beginning of the conflict with Islam



The dissolution of the Western Roman Empire threw Western Europe into chaos, causing regress on all plans. The Middle Ages started brutally; during the Early Middle Ages (500-1000 AD) Europe had to endure the highest waves of migratory people, a decrease of population, the lowest level of commerce since the Bronze Age, a drastic decrease of resources, of the standard of living and of the level of culture. But the collapse of the empire left a political and administrative void that, in one way or another, had to be covered. There was an acute need for a unifying system that could revive the Roman organization, but the only thing that could gain the obedience of the people in that context, no matter the language, skin color and culture, was the belief in divinity. So, the only institution capable to impose itself in Western European society at the beginning of the Middle Ages was the church. The problem was that the filling of this void of power came at a price: the extension of the institutional features. While in the southeastern part of Europe the Byzantine Empire performed further on the role of regional stabilizer and protector of the church, in the western part of the continent the institution of the church was forced to assume a dual role: a political and a religious one. This meant that the religious structure copied the political one. The need for centralization granted authority to the Bishopric of Rome over the other Western bishoprics, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Papacy. The politicalization of the church subsequently started a progressive doctrinal separation between the Eastern and the Western Christian churches, a separation which culminated in the 11th century with the Great Schism.

The domination of society by the church had baleful effects: knowledge was limited to monastic centers and the biblical monopoly suppressed critical and analytical thinking. In the period of the empire the church was under the imperial control, authority and protection; this state of things ensured a sort of balance between religion and science. Scholars of any kind had access to various sources of information, which allowed both religion and science to progress. After the fall of the empire, this balance was destroyed: science was suppressed by religion and superstitions, while the Bible became the reference point in the understanding of the Universe and a means for the manipulation of the masses. The dissolution of the empire was followed by a significant qualitative and quantitative weakness of the intellectual frame. Shortages of all kinds, diseases, stupidity and magic became omnipresent. The post-empire Western Christian doctrine became naive and defective, and the terrible doctrinal holes were filled with local and mythical beliefs, giving birth to heresies and dangerous manifestations. Christianity inherited the Greco-Roman obsession for rituals, prodigies and omens, the idea of the gift of prophecy, for example, being taken from the fortune-tellers of the ancient world, the sibyls and the oracles. In this aberrant environment a great emphasis was placed especially on the apocalyptic macrocosmic amplifiers: sufferings, wars, disasters, terrestrial and celestial events. The fear of a slow and painful ruination of the world became a way of thinking and living, feeding a generalized irrational pessimism. Premillenarism gained strength because the involution of Western society left the impression that people were at the mercy of a dying universe.

In this poisonous environment some saw the religious connection to the crowds as an extraordinary occasion to achieve power. This was the case of Christ of Bourges, a 6th-century false messiah described in detail by the prelate Gregory of Tours. In the preface to Historia Francorum Gregory suggestively quotes from Matthew 24:24: “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders.” Christ of Bourges was initially a woodman in the region of Bourges (France), until he became the subject of a “machination of the devil”: he was stung by a swarm of flies, causing him a delirious state of mind for two years. When he apparently recovered he became a wandering hermit, prophesying and praying in plain sight. At Javols he gathered a group of admirers, found a concubine who called herself the “Virgin Mary,” and started to preach about the imminent descent of Christ and the establishment of the New Jerusalem in Javols. Some brought him sick people in order to heal them through the simple touch, while others worshiped him as the returned Messiah. His fame also spread because he robbed the wealthy and shared the spoils with his poor followers. But after the false messiah sent completely naked messengers to Le Puy-en-Velay to announce his arrival, Bishop Aurelius arranged to have him assassinated.

All those who stood against the institution of the church have been denigrated in the annals of history. In the 8th century the prelate Boniface describes the renegade bishop Aldebert as a fraud, blasphemer and demagogue who manipulated the ignorant mob for his personal benefits. Aldebert managed to attract large crowds claiming that he was a saint and that an angel had given him holy artifacts of priceless value brought from the ends of the earth. Of these, in an alleged letter from Christ it was written that Aldebert had fallen from the sky and that he had been caught by Michael the Archangel, and that God was fulfilling him any desire. Aldebert also had a weakness for sex, using his “divine” authority to convince many women to have sexual intercourse with him. He demanded his followers to exclude any other religious figure and he shared his hair and nails as sacred objects. In what Boniface considered to be the most heinous sin, the false messiah claimed that he knew the sins of his followers and forgave them before they were confessed to him – an exclusive attribute of the Trinity. For these reasons, in 746 a council from Rome excommunicated Aldebert and ordered his imprisonment.130

The success of the messiahs reveals the intellectual and material isolation of the church. The Bible is very clear about how the Second Coming will happen. And yet, the laymen seem totally helpless and vulnerable to this kind of phenomena. In 847 the diocese of Constance (in the German regions) was disturbed by the terrifying prophecies of the pseudo-prophetess Thiota. In an undoubtedly patriarchal world, dominated by men, a woman who spoke like the biblical prophets was something hard to ignore. Divine revelation or insanity, a female prophet simply stirred the curiosity of the crowds. In the Bible the prophetic message is entrusted by God only to men – an aspect linked by medieval theologians with the sin of Eve and the weak nature of women. Hence, a female prophet was analogous to a left-handed person, both being associated with heresy and demonic possession. The synod in Saint Alban in Mainz came to the same conclusion. But, to avoid the death penalty, Thiota confessed her sins and got only a public whipping.131

While society was perturbed by chaotic heresies, behind the walls of monasteries the early apocalyptic doctrines were recycled according to the new historical context and the new religious challenges. After the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, the first who paid attention to the millennial week was Gregory, who narrated about Christ of Bourges. Gregory drew his inspiration mainly from the previous chronologies; in Historia Francorum he presented a brief history of the world, from Adam until the death of Sigebert in the year 575. Although he can be seen as a scholar of his time, Gregory had a poor thinking: he fanatically believed in miracles, saints and signs, and he had a special interest in apocalyptic subjects. He was an adept of the millennial week and expected the six millennia to end sometime between the years 799 and 806 – a view most likely taken from Jerome and Eusebius (who set the Creation in 5199 BC).132 Two hundred years later Beatus, abbot of Liébana (Spain), took Gregory’s chronology and adapted it to the situation of his times.

Beatus made himself known in Western culture through Commentaria in Apocalypsin, a work of great erudition but without much originality, mainly realized from the compilation of the works of Augustine, Ambrose, Irenaeus, Jerome and Tyconius.133 Commentaria... enjoyed great success because it was heavily illustrated. At a time when the ability to read was a rare gem, the illustration of Beatus were a blessing for the illiterates. Although the original no longer exists, the medieval copies tried to accurately reproduce the very detailed apocalyptic drawings. Beatus displayed Revelation in images exactly the way it is narrated: he did not interpret the symbols and he tried to be as impartial as possible. His drawings make no reference to a certain nation, leader or state of affairs: men are attacked by lions with locust head, angels literally pour blood and hail from the skies, a lamb armed with a cross is depicted fighting a giant snake, or the siege of Jerusalem is illustrated with weapons used at that time.134

Commentaria... became famous also due to the apocalyptic calculations of the author. Guided by the early exegesis, which he exposes in detail, Beatus opted for a temporal scheme in which the creation of Adam and the birth of Christ are focal points. He speculated, for example, that there are 2,242 years between Adam and Noah, 942 years between Noah and Abraham, 505 years between Abraham and Moses and 5,227 years between Adam and Christ. In the end, Beatus came to the conclusion that the millennial week was about to be completed in 14 years, in the year 838 of the Spanish era (or the year 800 in the current calendar). Nevertheless, the abbot of Liébana remained cautious, suggesting that the remaining time of the world is not a subject of human discovery and God has the power to alter the time.135 But Elipandus, the Adoptionist antagonist of Beatus, did not hesitate to call him false prophet. In 793, in a letter to the bishop of Gaul, Elipandus compared Beatus with the heretic Migetius, a little-known messiah:

Now as Migetius predicted his resurrection on the third day after his death, Beatus prophesied to Ordoño of Liébana, in the presence of the people, the end of the world. In terror the people fasted all that night and until the ninth hour on Sunday, when Ordoño, feeling hungry, declared ‘Let us eat and drink, for if we are to die, let us be gratified.’ The same [Beatus], pretending to be ill, arose on the third day, his body alive, but his soul dead.136

The letter of Elipandus reveals the fact that decoding the world’s age became an inseparable and integrant part of the millennial week. On the other hand, the interest of Beatus in the millennial week might have been boosted by the start of the Islamic oppression in the Iberian Peninsula. Christianity had from the start an antagonistic perspective toward Islam. Information about Muhammad and the Islamic religion appeared in the Byzantine Empire shortly after the Prophet’s death. The work Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati reproduces a dialog between a recent convert to Christianity and a couple of Jews who report different aspects about Muhammad:

They say that the prophet has appeared coming with the Saracens, and is proclaiming the advent of the anointed one who is to come. And I [Abraham], went off to Sykamina, and referred the matter to an old man very well-versed in the Scriptures. I asked him: “What is your view, master and teacher, of the prophet who has appeared among the Saracens?” he replied, groaning mightily: “He is a false prophet: do the prophets come armed from head to toe? These latter events are truly the works of chaos, and I fear that the first Christ to come, whom the Christians worship, was the one sent by God, and we instead are preparing to receive Armilus137 [the Antichrist]. Indeed, Isaiah said that the Jews would retain a perverted and hardened heart until all the earth should be devastated. But you go off, Master Abraham, and find out about the prophet who has appeared.” So I, Abraham, made enquiries, and was told by ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)

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