The Heroic Age

Issue 6

Spring 2003

The Otherworld Yet Real-Time Exploits of Gregory the Great

by Brad Eden, Ph.D.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Abstract: This article examines the idea of the otherworldly in medievalexperience from the perspective of Gregory the Great's mission to the English. The paper reviews the history of travel literature in the medieval world, how Britain's remoteness and no known history placed it into the realm of the otherworldly, St. Augustine of Canterbury's fears regarding leaving his known world and traveling into the unknown, and some comparisons of both Gregory's and Augustine's viewpoints regarding the otherworldly. In the end, the mission to the English quickly brought Britain out of the otherworldly realm and into the realm of the known in early medieval history.

The boundary lines between reality and fantasy in late antiquity and the early medieval period were often blurred and indeed indistinct in the minds of people in this time period. For most people, who led their lives within a limited geographical area, the next city was often the limit of the imagination. Travel to the Holy Land, the source and inspiration of the Christian religion, was rare and considered the boundary of the known world. If the Holy Land was unknown and exotic territory, how were other lands that were known only through legend or historical record regarded? And how did these remote vistas affect concepts of topos, otherworldly, and even celestial ideas?

For the world of late sixth-century Rome and of Gregory the Great, where Rome was already considered one of those legendary places in both the ancient and the Christian worlds, a slightly different viewpoint regarding the unknown and otherworldly had developed. Not only was the Holy Land considered an exotic locale, but vistas even farther south such as Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as east beyond Constantinople, held the attention of the Roman bishop and peoples. Finally, the vast northern lands and their barbarians were a direct threat to the safety and security of Rome during this time period. And, there was Britain, that farthest outpost of Roman success, vaguely remembered yet distant in both time and space. First, let's review the existing travel literature that has survived from this time period, and then examine the particular circumstances surrounding Pope Gregory's mission to the English.

The history of travel literature in the early Middle Ages is one of pilgrimage literature.[1] Description in these accounts was more concerned with the divine and human interaction, rather than the natural and ecological focus that would appear in later medieval literature. Travel to the Holy Land and the recording of said trips began the trend of pilgrimage literature which had its culmination in the Canterbury Tales. What were the distinctive characteristics of these early diaries? For comparison purposes, we have Meropius's journey to India with Aedesius and Frumentius in 330 A.D.; the Letter of Jerome's disciple Paula to Marcella from the late fourth century; Egeria's Peregrinatio from the late fourth century [2]; the Epitome of Bishop Eucharius; the anonymous Breviarus; Procopius's six books on the churches of Justinian [3]; Anthony of Piacenza's pilgrimage in 570 A.D.; and archdiaconus Theodosius's account. Finally, there is Adamnan's account of Arculf's pilgrimage in the late seventh century. All of these accounts frame the late sixth century of Gregory the Great's mission to Britain.
Between the mid-fourth and the late-seventh century, a gradual change in perception occurred. In the earlier pilgrimage diaries, the writer stands and remembers history, and the past is described in the future tense. In other words, both the First and Second Coming of Christ were so closely connected that pilgrims could only stand at the historical points and marvel, could only relate what they had seen in real time, since the past as well as the future were so closely intertwined in that location that it was beyond description. By the late seventh century, a shift towards the present tense had occurred. Now the pilgrim stands and touches. The long-awaited Second Coming had dimmed in the mind of the pilgrim, and though the past was visible, both time and space had separated the past from the present so much that description included the landscape as well as the historical perspective.

Where does Gregory the Great's mission to the English fit into this concept of the Otherworld? First of all, early medieval travel literature focused on a known history, to a known geographical location, to make it real, or at least exotic. Britain had no known history by the late sixth century, no known topos or landscape either familiar or descriptive enough to give it reality. No history, no reality. Just as Christ's time on earth began to grow distant in the memories of the pilgrims to the Holy Land, so Rome's conquest of Britain was long forgotten in the minds of sixth-century Roman citizens.

Going to the farthest reaches of known history and time encouraged the idea that one got closer to the Celestial Paradise in both place and time. An example is the Hereford Map, where Paradise is located at the extreme east of the known world. Britain was sufficiently known from the Roman past, yet unknown in recent memory, to blur the lines between fact and fiction. The play on the words "Angles" and "Angels" by Gregory illustrates this idea of distance with the English boys in the Roman slave market, as if these blond-haired boys, due to their place of origin and color of their hair, were closer to God physically than the Roman people.

Another perspective from which to view the Roman mission to the English is the perspective of familiarity. Travel literature up until the seventh century was mainly focused on the Holy Land. While travel to a foreign country has always involved some amount of fear and trepidation, at least the Holy Land was familiar in the minds of the travellers, from Biblical literature and daily piety. The Roman mission to Britain, however, meant not only travelling to the end of the known world, but also to a land alienated by distance, culture, language, and especially little to no historical relevance to those whose mission it was to go there.

So now let's examine the mission itself.[4] First of all, the leader of this missionary journey was Augustine, who had become praepostius of Gregory's monastery of St. Andrew in 596. The position of praepostius was a monastic position which was usually obtained after many years of training. It would eventually be known as the prior, assistant to the abbot. Little is known about Augustine, except that he was a pupil of Felix, bishop of Messana. Pope Leo III described Augustine as holding the office of syncllus, or companion in the cell or private room of Gregory. So, it is obvious that Augustine was not only well-respected and trusted by Gregory with his monastic holdings, but in fact was a good friend and even monastic cellmate.

Unlike Gregory, who had been a papal ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople for seven years, Augustine had probably never gone far beyond the environs of the city of Rome. Now he was being asked to go to the ends of the earth, to a people little-known and little-remembered, and bring them the word of God. For Augustine and his brothers, the first portion of the trip involved taking a ship from Rome to Provence, where their first point of contact was in Aix. The bishop Protasius and the provincial governor Airgius greeted them there. There are many indications that they stayed in the illustrious abbey of Lerins, whose abbot was well-known to Gregory. It was during this visit that the missionaries first heard about the savage and barbaric Anglo-Saxon people. They were so frightened by these stories, that they seriously contemplated returning to Rome and aborting the mission. In fact, they all agreed that this was the safer course, so they sent Augustine back to Rome to inform Gregory of their decision.

The Wonder Books of the ancient world often described unknown lands and peoples in savage and barbaric terms, and these descriptions would have been well-known to the educated monks from Rome. The Epistles of Pope Gregory provide some documentation regarding Augustine's return to Rome and his report to Gregory. Gregory emphatically reminded Augustine that the wife of the king of the Anglo-Saxons was already Christian, and that she was being allowed to practice her faith. Gregory also encouraged Augustine by writing a letter to be read to the other missionaries, telling them "let neither the toil of the journey nor the tongues of evil-speaking men deter you." In addition, Gregory appointed Augustine as abbot of the missionary group, since it was obvious that the others considered him their leader. Finally, Gregory wrote over six letters of introduction and safe passage for the group to use as they traveled north towards Britain, in order to illustrate that friends were along the way, as well as provide to them support groups and encouragement in their travels.

This episode illustrates the very real fear concerning this mission to those involved. It is not often recorded in Christian literature, when missionaries balk from proselytizing heathen peoples because of fear engendered by gossip or unfamiliar landscape. Yet here is an example of missionary fear rarely recorded in medieval literature.

Augustine's concept of the Otherworld and the unfamiliar, in this account, can be drastically contrasted with Gregory's concept of the Otherworld and the unfamiliar. Gregory, after seeing the English slave boys in the Roman marketplace, was ready to give up his position as papal deacon and run off to convert the English nation immediately. In fact, the legend recounts how Gregory did indeed leave Rome on a mission to the English nation, but the Roman masses were so incensed and fearful of losing Gregory as a spiritual and political leader that they demanded Pope Benedict immediately go after and forcibly bring Gregory back to Rome, which he did. Compare this response to the unknown with Augustine's experience, which basically looks like the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz compared to Gregory's response. Augustine appears to be just looking for an excuse to abort the mission, even if it is only supported by gossip and hearsay.

However, Gregory's pep talk to Augustine seems to have done the job of settling his nervousness and fear. Or perhaps it was all the letters of introduction and the promotion. In any case, what is fascinating about this entire mission is that we have not one, not two, but three examples of recorded reactions to concepts of the Otherworld in the English missionary experience. The first, obviously, is Gregory the Great's enthusiastic and uncontained excitement regarding the conversion of the English. Here is the response of a traveled, experienced politician who sees both political and ecclesiastical gain from such an excursion; who in fact wants to go on the mission himself, and has no fears or qualms whatsoever in traveling to the ends of his known world. The second is Augustine's fear and apprehension concerning the mission. Here is the response of a little traveled, Roman monk who has been assigned a job that will take him away from everything that he has ever known, across lands that he has never seen and only known through gossip or court reports, to a country supposedly inhabited by barbarians and savages without culture, manners, or knowledge of Christianity. And finally, we come to King Ethelbert himself, King of the Kentish nation to whom Augustine was directed to preach. Here was a man who had consented to marry a Frankish princess for political reasons. His new bride's religion was Christianity, his new relative's religion was Christianity, and it was part of her marriage agreement that she be allowed to bring a priest of her religion with her to Kent. The time was indeed ripe for a Christian mission to the southeast corner of Britain. However, here was a man who had never left the island of his birth, whose experience involved war and politics and clan dissensions, and whose knowledge of the world outside of his immediate sphere of influence was little to none. Suddenly, strange men from a land mentioned only by his counselors and his wife as great and powerful wish to meet with him, in order to tell him about their religion. It is interesting to note Ethelbert's response in the existing literature. Ethelbert asks Augustine and his companions to remain on the island where they have landed in Britain, until he decides what to do with them. After consulting with his advisors, Ethelbert decides that he will meet Augustine and his companions out in the open air, in case they practiced any magical art, so that they couldn't deceive him or get the better of him inside of a building. The meeting between Ethelbert and Augustine is described as cordial and ceremonial. Augustine approached the king in great pageantry, bearing a large silver cross and a portrait of Christ on a panel. They sang chants and prayed loudly as they approached Ethelbert, who had them stop and sit down once they drew near to him. Ethelbert then commanded Augustine to preach to him and all of the people there. Once finished, Ethelbert indicates that he will consider Augustine's words and will provide a place for him in his city until he decides what should be done.

What is fascinating about this account, is that we know about Augustine's fear and apprehension prior to this episode, so that, we have here a meeting between two men and two peoples, both of whom come from the ends of the known earth for each of them, both of whom are cautious about what to expect from each other, and both of whom have a certain amount of fear and trepidation about meeting with each other. And bringing the two together, and guiding the lives and indeed futures of both men, is Gregory, whose unabashed enthusiasm and fearlessness concerning the outcome of the meeting of these two is in total reversal to their apprehension. The Otherworld has become them, and they are us, in this meeting between two totally opposite and physically distant peoples.

To conclude, I would like to point out that the 6th century mission to the English was the beginning of a new political and religious endeavor by the Roman Church -- the active conversion of peoples by direct contact and physical leaving of the Italian peninsula. Prior to this time period, the preservation of Rome as a city from barbarians, and the political dissensions on the Italian peninsula itself, meant that the papacy gave little priority to religious conversion or religious missions to pagan peoples. With Gregory, however, we see the beginnings of the consolidation of power and authority that would eventually guide the Roman bishopric towards its preeminence in the Christian hierarchy. The concept of the Otherworld, with both its fearful and curious aspects, provided the impetus for this vision, and led to the world as it was then known becoming a much more familiar place, or as the Disney song emphasizes, "a small world after all."


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Copyright © Brad Eden, 2003. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age,2003. All rights reserved.