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We must not suppose that the conversion of the western barbarians was of any very perfect kind. They mixed up a great deal of their own barbarism with their Christianity, and, besides this, they took up many of the vices of the old and worn-out nations, whose countries they had conquered and occupied. Much heathen superstition lingered among them: it was even a common saying in Spain, that "if a man has to pass between heathen altars and God's Church, it is no harm if he pay his respects to both." The clergy were very wealthy and prosperous, but did not venture to interfere with the vices of the great and powerful; or, if they did, it was at their peril. For instance, when a bishop of Rouen had offended the Frankish queen Fredegund, she caused him to be murdered in his own cathedral, at the most solemn service of Easter-day.
Religion became a protection to crime; murderers were allowed to take refuge in churches, and might not be dragged out until after an oath had been made that their lives should be safe. It had been the ancient custom of the Germans to let all crimes be atoned for by the payment of money: if, for example, a person had killed another, he had no more to do than to pay a certain sum to the dead man's relations. And this way of making up for misdeeds was now brought into the Church: it was thought that men might make satisfaction for their sins by paying money, and that the effect would be the same if others paid for them after their death. We may understand how this worked from another story of queen Fredegund, who seems to have been a perfect monster of wickedness. She set two of her pages to murder a king, named Sigebert; and, by way of encouraging them, she said that she would honour them highly, if they came off with their lives; but that, if they were slain, she would lay out a great deal of money in alms for the good of their souls!
As might naturally have been expected among such people, it came to be very commonly thought that the observance of outward worship and ceremonies was all that religion required. Pretended miracles were wrought in great numbers, for the purpose of imposing on the ignorant; and all, from the king downwards, were then ignorant enough to be deceived by them. The superstitions which had begun in the fourth century continued to grow on the Church; such as the reverence paid to saints, and especially to the Blessed Virgin, so that people allowed them a part of the honour which ought to have been kept for God alone. Among other such corruptions were the reverence for the "relics" of saints (that is, for parts of their bodies, or for things which had belonged to them), and the religious honour paid to images and pictures. These and other evils increased more and more, until, at length, they could be borne no longer, and, in many countries, they caused the great religious change which is called the "Reformation".
But nearly a thousand years had to pass before the time of the Reformation; and, in the meanwhile, although much was amiss in the Christianity which prevailed, it yet was the means of blessing and of salvation. And there were never wanting good men who, although there were many defects and errors in their opinions, firmly held and clearly taught the necessity of a real living faith in Christ, and of a thoroughly earnest endeavour to obey God's holy will.
The state of Italy towards the end of the sixth century was very wretched. Vast numbers of its people had perished in the course of the wars by which Justinian's generals had wrested the country from the Goths, and had again united it to the empire; multitudes of others had been destroyed by famine and pestilence. The Lombards, who had crossed the Alps in the year 568, had obliged the emperors to yield the North, and part of the middle, of Italy to them; and they continually threatened the portions which still remained to the empire. No help against them was to be got from Constantinople; and the governors whom the emperors sent to manage their Italian dominions, instead of directing and leading the people to resist the Lombards, only hindered them from taking their defence into their own hands.
The land was left uncultivated, partly through the loss of inhabitants, and partly because those who remained were disheartened by the miseries of the time. They had not the spirit to bestow their labour on it, when there was almost a certainty that their crops would be destroyed or carried off by the Lombard invaders; and the soil, when left to itself, had in many places become so unwholesome, that it was not fit to live on. Italy had in former times been so thickly peopled, that it had been necessary to get supplies of corn from Sicily and from Africa. But now such foreign supplies were wanted for a very different reason--that the inhabitants of Italy could not, or did not, grow corn for themselves. The city of Rome had suffered from storms, and from repeated floods of the river Tiber, which did a great deal of damage to its buildings, and sometimes washed away or spoiled the stores of corn which were laid up in the granaries. The people were kept in terror by the Lombards, who often advanced to their very walls, so that it was unsafe to venture beyond the gates.
The condition of the Church too was very deplorable. The troubles of the times had produced a general decay of morals and order both among the clergy and among the people. The Lombards were Arians, and religious enmity was added to the other causes of dislike between them and the Romans. In Istria, there was a division which had begun after the fifth general council, and which kept the Church of that country separate from the communion of Rome for a hundred and fifty years. The sunken condition of Christianity in Gaul (or France) has been described in the beginning of this chapter. Spain was just recovered from Arianism, but there was much to be done before the Catholic faith could be considered as firmly established there. In Africa, the old sect of the Donatists began again to lift up its head, and took courage from the confusions of the time to vex the Church. The Churches of the East were torn by quarrels as to Eutychianism and Nestorianism. And the patriarchs at Constantinople seemed likely, with the help of the emperor's favour, to be dangerous rivals to the popes of Rome.
Such was the state of things when Gregory the Great became pope or bishop of Rome, in the year 590.