A common placement of Gregory the Great (540-604) in his historical context has been to position him in the early stages of the medieval papacy. It has been argued that Gregory should be interpreted as the first medieval pope, initiating a trajectory which would develop over a number of centuries, and in many ways culminate in the Renaissance popes. As the first medieval pope, Gregory established the supremacy of Rome, laying the foundation for the institutional, political, and spiritual rule of the Roman Catholic Church.
In response to this assessment, recent scholarship has sought to better understand Gregory within his historical context. By bringing to light the continuity between Gregory and earlier periods of church history, it has been shown that the title of first medieval pope misidentifies Gregory in the wrong historical period. This is not simply a matter of semantics, but has great implications for the interpretation of Gregory’s theological, political, and literary endeavors as pope (590-604).
In addition to Leo the Great (400-461), Gregory is part of the very select who has been given the epithet of “Great.” Gregory is also the last of the four Latin Doctors (the others being Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome). Having forsaken his life of privilege, Gregory entered the monastic life, thus becoming the first pope to serve in the monastery. The Venerable Bede (672-735) addressed the particularities of a former monk pope in his The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (731).
But it becomes us to believe that he lost nothing of his monastic perfection by his pastoral care, but rather that he improved the more through the labour of converting many, than by the former repose of his conversation, and chiefly because, whilst exercising the pontifical function, he provided to have his house made a monastery. And when first drawn from the monastery, ordained to the ministry of the altar, and sent as respondent to Constantinople from the apostolic see, though he now mixed with the people of the palace, yet he intermitted not his former heavenly life; for some of the brethren of his monastery, having out of brotherly charity followed him to the royal city, he kept them for the better following of regular observances, viz. that at all times, by their example, as he writes himself, he might be held fast to the clam shore of prayer, as it were with the cable of an anchor, whilst he should be tossed up and down by the continual waves of worldly affairs; and daily among them, by the intercourse of studious reading, strengthen his mind whilst it was shaken with temporal concerns. By their company he was not only guarded against earthly assaults, but more and more inflamed in the exercises of a heavenly life. (The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation , 60)
Formative for Gregory’s papacy and his relationship with the Greek Church was his service as the apocrisiarius in Constantinople for Pelagius II. Debate continues over Gregory’s Greek proficiency, but what is certain is that during his time from 579-586 he established a relationship with the Greek East, which would continue throughout his papacy.
It was Gregory’s hope that upon his return from Constantinople, he would be able to retire to a quiet life as a monk. The unexpected death of Pelagius, due to complications from the plague of 589, resulted in an equally unexpected turn of events for Gregory, as he reluctantly answered the call to succeed Pelagius in Rome.
One of the most remembered events of Gregory’s life is his decision to send missionaries to England. Gregory would commission the Benedictine monk Augustine of Canterbury as a missionary to England. Once again Bede recounts these events.
It is reported, that some merchants, having just arrived at Rome on a certain day, exposed many things for sale int eh marketplace, and abundance of people resorted thither to buy: Gregory himself went with the rest, and, among other things, some boys were set to sale, their bodies white, their countenances beautiful, and their hair very fine. Having viewed them, he asked, as is said, from what country or nation they were brought? and was told, from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were of such personal appearance. He again inquired whether those islanders were Christians, or still involved in the errors of paganism? and was informed that they were pagans. Then fetching a deep sigh from the bottom of his heart, “Alas! what pity,” said he, “that the author of darkness is possessed of men of such fair countenances; and that being remarkable for such graceful aspects, their minds should be void of inward grace.” He therefore again asked, what was the name of that nation? and was answered, that they were called Angles. “Right,” said he, “for they have an Angelic face, and it becomes such to be co-heirs with the Angels in heaven.” (The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation , 64).
A recent work that has sought to rectify this misidentification of Gregory as the first medieval pope is A Companion to Gregory the Great (Brill, 2013). The contributors trace the historical, theological, and literary continuity between earlier periods of church history and Gregory. They convincingly demonstrate that Gregory is firmed established within his historical and theological heritage. Positioning Gregory as the first medieval pope would be too simplistic, distorting the life and thought of Gregory.
My review of the work is forthcoming in Reviews in Religion and Theology. Here is a small portion.
The common thread throughout the book’s chapters reexamines the historical placement of the fourth Doctor of the Catholic Church. While current historiography commonly identifies Gregory as the first medieval pope, this group of scholars argues that such positioning thrusts the pope into a context foreign to Gregory and fractures the continuity between Gregory and for instance his Byzantine patriarch tradition. Perceiving Gregory as a mediating figure is also not completely accurate. Though there are certain elements of Gregory’s papacy that served as a transition from the patristic age to the medieval, his role in this transitional period is secondary to the understanding that Gregory is firmly situated within his historical lineage.