Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


The most important institution in the Middle Ages, roughly the time from the death of Augustine to the Protestant Reformation (430-1517), was the Roman Catholic papacy. It dominated all the history of the Western Mediterranean world and Europe, and its influence was inescapable in the Eastern church until the great schism between east and west in 1054.

The papacy determined, more than any other institution, political, economic, and ecclesiastical life during this millennium. But the man who, more than any other, shaped the medieval papacy was Pope Gregory I, known throughout history as Gregory the Great. Although he was a child of the ancient period of church history, he stood with one foot in that period and the other foot in the medieval period. And, by shaping the medieval papacy, Gregory formed the medieval Romish church. He determined its direction for the entire millennium. He set the pattern for the entire medieval period in his exaltation of the power of the papacy, in its political rule of the nations, in its liturgy, in its theology.

He was, in fact, the first pope. Other men who are called popes preceded him. Earlier men made the same extravagant claims for the papacy which he made. Others exerted some influence on the affairs of men and nations from their position in the See of Rome. But Gregory was not called “The Great” without reason. He was the first true pope.

It is interesting to know something of the life of the man and to know something of his views on all sorts of ecclesiastical matters simply because the Medieval Period of church history never departed significantly from what Gregory taught and promoted. Though one travels the whole distance from Gregory to the Reformation, one feels the hand of Gregory wherever he turns. He is a man worth looking at.

The Times in Which Gregory Worked

One could hardly imagine worse times than the years of Gregory’s life. The great barbarian migrations had resulted in the near death of all civilization in Europe and the West. The Eastern Roman Empire survived in the Byzantine Empire until the capture of Constantinople in 1453. The West was overrun.

These barbarian migrations had almost destroyed Europe. One historian writes:

Italy … was exhausted by war and overrun by the savage Lombards, who were still heathen or Arian heretics, and burned churches, slew ecclesiastics, robbed monasteries, violated nuns, reduced cultivated fields into a wilderness. Rome was constantly exposed to plunder, and wasted by pestilence and famine. All Europe was in a chaotic state, and bordering on anarchy. Serious men . . . thought that the end of the world had come.

Gregory himself, in one of his sermons, said:

What is it that can at this time delight us in the world? Everywhere we see tribulation, everywhere we hear lamentations. The cities are destroyed, the castles torn down, the fields laid waste, the land made desolate. Villages are empty, few inhabitants remain in the cities, and even these poor remnants of humanity are daily cut down…. We see how some are carried into captivity, others mutilated, others slain….

The times were grievous indeed.

Gregory’s Early Life

Gregory was born in 540, 110 years after the death of the great Augustine. He was born from the ancient Roman nobility, for his ancestors for many years had belonged to the senatorial class in the Roman Empire. Over the years the family had acquired vast holdings, immense wealth, and a huge castle for a home.

But the home was also a Christian home, and the early influences on Gregory were religious influences — even though his education prepared him for governmental services. When Gregory’s father, Gordianus, died, his mother, Sylvia, entered a convent. She gave herself over so completely to an ascetic life and to piety and godliness that the Romish church later canonized her.

Gregory seemed to be destined for a life of governmental work, and was, in fact, appointed by the emperor in the East to the office of Imperial Prefect, the highest government post in Rome — and in the entire West. The year was 574; Gregory was only 34 years old.

Gregory the Monk

Apparently the religious influences of Gregory’s childhood and youth continued to work on him, for shortly after his appointment to Rome’s most prestigious post, he renounced the world completely, changed his father’s palace which he had inherited into a monastery, and became a monk in it. The enormous wealth which he had inherited he used partly to found six monasteries in Sicily, all of which were given land holdings; and the remainder of the wealth of his ancestral patrimony he gave to the poor. He was a penniless monk in a lonely monastery which had once been his home.

But he soon attracted attention and others joined him in his ascetic life. A monastic community was established. Gregory gave himself over so completely to ascetic practices that, because of his frugal meals and self-discipline, he permanently harmed his health.

Even though he had turned his back on political service, the government would not let him alone. In 579 the church appointed him as a deacon, and the government sent him as an ambassador to the court in Constantinople. In the seven years he continued there, he did invaluable service for the government.

In 585 he returned to Rome and became abbot of the monastery which he founded. Although Gregory continued in government service, the direction of his life had fundamentally changed. One interesting aspect of this change was his sudden interest in missions. The event reads like a story.

One day while in the slave market in Rome Gregory saw three Anglo-Saxon boys offered for sale. He was struck by their appearance, for they had light hair, fair complexions, and sweet faces. After some inquiry he learned that they were heathen idolaters from another country and nation. When he discovered that they were Angles, he said: “Right, for they have angelic faces, and are worthy to be fellow-heirs with angels in heaven.”

Gregory learned that the name of their king was Ella, to which he responded, “Hallelujah; the praise of God the Creator must be sung in those parts.”

Gregory rushed from the slave market to the papal residence and pleaded with the pope to send missionaries to “Angle-land,” i.e., England. He offered to go himself and even started out for that land. But he never arrived, because he was summoned back to Rome. He could not be spared in the holy city. In 590, by the popular acclaim of the clergy and the people, he was elected pope.

From all outward appearances, Gregory did everything in his power to escape being pope. He considered himself unworthy of this exalted position, and would have, if possible, escaped from the responsibilities. It seems as if he was coerced into accepting the election. Yet, one ought to be a bit cautious. Gregory was not always the man he seemed to be — as we shall learn.

The papacy did not change his manner of living, however. He continued to live frugally and, faithful to his monastic vows, he practiced the ascetic life even while pope. Because the papacy already then had vast land holdings, the revenue was enormous. But he refused to allow this revenue to be used to satisfy the covetous greed of those who surrounded him, but engaged in personal acts of charity. It was not uncommon to see Gregory out in the streets personally distributing food and money to those in need. And through others he fed hundreds, cared for the sick, clothed the beggars, and alleviated the suffering of those around him.He became a powerful pope.

A historian has described Gregory in the following way:

He is one of the best representatives of medieval Catholicism: monastic, ascetic, devout and superstitious; hierarchical, haughty, and ambitious, yet humble before God; indifferent, if not hostile, to classical and secular culture, but friendly to sacred and ecclesiastical learning; just, humane, and liberal to ostentation; full of missionary zeal in the interest of Christianity and the Roman see, which to his mind were inseparably connected. He combined great executive ability with untiring industry, and amid all his official cares he never forgot the claims of personal piety.

We shall continue our discussion of Gregory in another article.