Gateway to the Classics: Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages by George Hodges
Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages by  George Hodges

Gregory the Great


A Roman senator, rich and of an ancient family, was so attracted by the Order of St. Benedict that he built six monasteries in Rome; and then a seventh, in which he went to live himself, and became its abbot. His name was Gregory, surnamed "the Great."

One day as the abbot walked about the streets, he saw that there were slaves for sale.

There were always slaves for sale in Rome. Some were men who had got so deep in debt that they could not get out, and, having sold all else which they possessed, at last sold themselves. But most of them were captives from the wars. All the borders of the Roman Empire blazed with war. Even after the barbarians came and destroyed the old empire, still they fought among themselves. And after every battle, the victors, whether they were Romans or Goths or Franks, gathered up a great company of prisoners and sold them in the nearest market. It was better than the former custom of putting them all to death. And it was better sometimes than the modern custom of putting them in military jails without sufficient food or shelter.

The consequence was that the slave trade was a flourishing business in Rome, and Gregory, kind-hearted and large-minded though he was, never thought of trying to stop it.

A new lot of captives had come that day, sent down from Britain. They were of the race called Angles, from whom England got its first name of Angle-land. They came from the western part of Yorkshire which was then called Deira. Their yellow hair and fair skin pleased the eyes of Gregory, and he stopped to question them.

"Whence do you come?" he said. "We are Angles," they replied, "from the kingdom of Deira. "God be gracious to you, my children," said the abbot. "You are Angles? You are as fair as angels. You should be Christians. I will go myself to your land of Deira, and save your people de ira—from the ire, from the wrath,—of God."

Gregory did not go to England, as he hoped, because he was detained in Rome. The pope died, and all the people demanded Gregory, as the Christians of Carthage had called for Cyprian, and the Christians of Milan for Ambrose. The desire was unanimous. The people wanted him, the clergy wanted him, the senate wanted him. He wrote a letter to the emperor begging him to forbid the election, but somebody took the letter and never sent it. There was no escape. So Gregory became the pope of Rome.

One time, just before Jerome went to Rome to begin his classes in the house of Marcella, there were two men, each of whom greatly desired to be bishop, and their followers had such a battle in the Church of Sta. Maria Maggiore that, when it was over, a hundred and thirty-seven dead bodies lay upon the floor. It shows not only what a fierce and disorderly time it was, but how much men prized the office. Gregory, indeed, did not desire it, but that was because he did not care for wealth or power.



The pope of Rome was bishop of the greatest city in the world. The Vandals had ruined Carthage; Constantinople and Alexandria were far away. Rome had no rival. It is true that the emperor had ceased to live there; but his departure had increased the importance of the bishop, for he was now the leading citizen. He was the most prominent and influential Christian in the Western Church. The invading barbarians cared little for the old empire, but they had some respect for the Christian religion. Gradually, by the good services of missionaries, many of them from the monasteries of St. Benedict, it became their religion. It was the only living survivor of the old world which they had destroyed. Whatever of ancient custom and culture and learning had remained, was in the Church. The Church was the sole representative in all Europe of that departed civilization which had built the great cities, made the enduring roads, carved the statues, and written the books. And the leader and spokesman of the Church was the bishop of Rome.

Moreover, just about the time when Gregory was questioning the Angle slaves, there was born in Arabia a man who was to change the whole course of the history of the Christian East. Out of Mecca came Mohammed. To the conquest of the west of Christendom by the Goths and Vandals, was added the conquest of the East by the Mohammedans. But the Mohammedans did not become Christians like the Goths. They came in the strength of their own religion, hating the religion of the Christians, and they took possession of almost the whole of the Eastern empire. They captured Jerusalem. They made themselves masters of the Holy Land. They took Alexandria. They were long delayed in taking Constantinople, but they deprived it of its ancient power. Thus the successors of Gregory became, not only the greatest bishops in the West, but the greatest in the world.

This was the office which prevented Gregory from going to England.

A great slab of stone in the Forum at Rome still shows the carved picture of the emperor Trajan distributing food to widows and orphans. This was the Trajan to whom Pliny wrote in 112 to ask what should be done to stop the dangerous growth of the Christians. One day, as Pope Gregory passed that way, he stopped in front of the stone picture and looked at it with great appreciation. It seemed to him a pleasant memorial of ancient times and of a good and friendly man. That day, at prayer, he ventured to pray for Trajan, that he might be pardoned for his paganism, and admitted into the Christian heaven. And in a dream the Lord appeared to the devout pope. "Gregory," he said, "you have prayed for the pardon of a pagan, and I have granted your petition; but do not do it again." The story shows how the theology of Augustine had taken hold of the minds of men, who thus found it possible to believe that all the heathens, good and bad, were lost. But it reveals also the fellowship of Gregory with anybody who had tried to help his neighbors.

Gregory's ministry was spent in such good deeds. He took a great and useful part in all the life about him: dealt with Arians, who were still troubling Italy, and with Donatists, who were still troubling Africa; disciplined idle and unworthy monks and ministers; attended to the needs of the poor and the sick; and gave his farmer careful directions about the working of his farm. He interested himself in the music of the Church, and introduced a way of chanting which bears his name, and is still in general use. He added a prayer to that Communion Service which is called the Mass, and thereby completed it in the form in which it is said to-day. The Latin of that service, as it is used in every Roman Catholic church, is substantially as it came from the hands of Gregory.

Nothing, however, that Gregory did was of so much importance to us as his sending of a board of missionaries to convert the English.

The Christian Church had been planted in Britain so early in history that nobody knows when or by whom: probably by Christian soldiers in Roman legions. There it was, however, in that land which the Romans had conquered, and to which many wealthy Romans loved to go in the cool summer. Constantine had started from York on that eventful march which made him the first Christian emperor. And when, presently, he called a conference of bishops to consider the case of the Donatists, three of the bishops came from Britain.

Then the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain. The Roman legions had been called home to defend Rome, and the Britons, who had depended on their arms, were without defense. They were driven out of their fair country, from their pleasant cities and their churches, into the mountains of Wales. The pagan invaders changed Britain into England. Between the Christian Britons and their Christian brethren on the continent of Europe was thrust this wedge of English heathenism.

Gregory remembered the Angle slaves. Out of one of the Benedictine monasteries which he had built, he chose a man named Augustine, and sent him with a band of forty monks to England. The missionaries to the English pagans went up through France; and, whenever they stopped to spend the night, such terrifying tales were told them of the fierce ways of the barbarous English, that they stopped, and sent a letter back to Gregory, asking to be relieved from such a dangerous mission. But Gregory urged them on.

Thus in 597,—a date to be remembered,—they crossed the channel, and set their feet upon the soil of heathen England. But there were friends to meet them. Bertha, the Queen of Ethelbert of Kent, was already a Christian, being a daughter of the King of the Franks, who had his throne at Paris. She had kept her religion in the midst of the paganism of the new country, and had caused to be rebuilt, near Canterbury, where she lived, a little ruined church. This she dedicated to the brave memory of St. Martin, who had contended so faithfully with the pagans of his neighborhood, and out to little St. Martin's she was wont to go to say her Christian prayers.

Ethelbert, accordingly, knew who the Christians were; though he knew so little about them that he preferred to meet the missionaries in the open air, lest they should bewitch him with some spell. He sat, therefore, under a tree, and watched Augustine and his men as they approached, the forty of them in procession, carrying a banner, and singing a litany to the music which they had been taught by Gregory. The king listened gravely as Augustine preached the religion of Christ, and promised to consider the matter carefully. Meanwhile the missionaries were given freedom to teach, and houses in Canterbury in which to live, and, pretty soon, St. Martin's church in which to worship God.

The fact that the missionaries came from Rome, that distant and renowned capital of the world, emphasized their message; and it was further confirmed by their holy living. Thus one heathen Englishman after another was converted; presently, the king himself; and after the king, following his good example ten thousand of his subjects in one day.

Then Augustine was made a bishop,—the first bishop of the English. Etherlbert gave him his own palace; and a ruined British church beside it became the beginning of the Cathedral of Canterbury. The Christian religion was thus introduced among our ancestors, the English.

Gregory sent to Augustine a letter of wise advice. Do not destroy the temples of the English gods, he said; change them into Christian churches. Do not forbid the harmless customs which have been associated with the old religion; consecrate them, like the churches, to Christian uses. Let them revere the saints where they have worshiped idols. Thus, he said, "having some outward joys continued to them, they may more easily accept the true inward joys. For assuredly it is impossible to cut away all things at once from minds hardened by evil custom; just as the man who strives to reach the summit of perfection, climbs by steps and paces, not by leaps and bounds."

It was in accordance with the sensible advice that the missionaries called the festival of Christ's resurrection "Easter," from Eostre, the English goddess of the spring. The Christmas season they called "Yule-tide," from an English god of the winter; and they still brought in the yule log from the woods, and hung the mistletoe upon the walls, as the ancestors of the English had done in the long-gone days before ever an Englishman had heard of Christ or had set his foot in England.

Thus Tuesday kept the old name of Tuesco, the god of war; and Wednesday, of Woden, the father of the gods; and Thursday, of Thor, the god of thunder; and Friday, of Frigg, the goddess of love; by the courtesy of Gregory the Great.

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