Christianity: From AD 500 – 600

Political Milestones: 500AD to 600AD

As we open this page of history the Vandals are in control of North Africa, the Huns are about to destroy India, the Swedish Viking state is forming, the legendary Briton King Arthur is fighting the Saxons, the Byzantine Empire is rising and China is finally reunited.

Two great natural events in the middle of the century had devastating effects on the world and Europe. Firstly, the eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia precipitated the most severe global cooling event of the last 2,000 years. Crops failed and famine caused havoc around the world for up to a decade. Following on from this event, from 541-551 AD the Justinian Plague wiped out a quarter of the population of Europe and the Middle East. The civil unrest and migrations that followed were dramatic. Urban life declined dramatically and permanently. People deserted the cities to live off the land, and it is now acknowledged that these two events were the trigger for the world to enter a period known today as “The Dark Ages”.

The Byzantine Empire, under Justinian the Great, used these events to expand it influence and defeat the Vandals in North Africa and the Ostrogoths in Italy. They fought three more wars with the Persian Empire between 507 and 557AD over territorial claims. This resulted in an inevitable stalemate and truce. Meanwhile, Justinian built the world famous Hagar Sophia in Constantinople in 537AD and codified Roman law into a system which is still used today right across Europe and around the world. In a major humiliation to the ambitions of Justinian, the year 559AD saw the Huns once again devastate much of Byzantine Europe, only to be defeated on the outskirts of Constantinople and leave the continent.

Over in the east the Gok-Turks defeated the Mongols in 552AD to establish a vast empire stretching from Manchuria to the Black Sea, which is what pushed the Huns back into Europe. Further South, in 581AD, after nearly four centuries of internal divisions and strife, China was reunited under the leadership of Yang Jian, ushering in the Sui dynasty.

Spiritual Milestones: 500 to 600AD

With the decline in civilization in Europe, there was a parallel rise in the life of monasteries. Europe was devolving into smaller and smaller political, social and economic units. The first great era of globalisation was drawing to a close. Monasteries became the repositories of knowledge, while the castle became the repository of power. Beginning in 510AD, the Celts used this monastic system to train and send out missionaries all over Europe. Syrian monks were establishing monasteries in Ethiopia and Egypt. In Italy Benedict established a monastery and the concept quickly spread across Western Europe. By 590 the Irish monk Columbanus had established monastic orders all over France, Germany and Northern Italy.

In the meantime many of the Vandals, Burgundians (516AD), Lombards and Visigoths (587AD) that had invaded Southern Europe were embracing the Catholic faith. In Africa the Nubian king of Sudan adopted the Nestorian faith and soon became deeply linked with the Coptic Church in Egypt, while across in North Africa the dominant Berber people were embracing the faith.

Over in the Nestorian sphere of influence efforts were being made to reach further east, with missionaries being sent to Mongolia. The 557AD Persian truce with Rome enabled a short-lived degree of religious freedom to flourish inside their Empire. It was during this time that an Arab, named Muhammad, was born in Mecca around 570AD. In time he would become the second most influential figure in history.

In contrast to spiritual peace in this area of the world, the Byzantines were killing and persecuting anyone who did not conform to their own version of the faith. This chiefly involved the Nestorian and Coptic Christians. The era of Christians killing fellow Christians had begun.

This was also the century where Christianity in the centre became stagnant, politicised, pagan and negative. However, the fringe believers, in Ireland, Africa and the Middle East were busy taking the Gospel to new and untouched areas. No Catholic hierarchy was needed for these people to go. They simply did what their master has asked. They travelled light, learnt local languages and customs, and were very successful.

In 590 Gregory the Great became the first monk to become Pope, and he became the model for the future of this enduring Catholic office. He was also the man responsible for shaping the medieval Catholic mass. A generous and capable man, he was also highly superstitious, and the mass reflected these superstitions. It was a blending of pagan and Jewish ritual sprinkled with Roman theology, Greek drama and Biblical vocabulary. It used the vestments, incense, candles, and purification rites of pagan priests in a medieval Catholic context. It was so successful it would last 1,500 years.

By 600AD the world had changed forever. Rome was gone, populations had been decimated, mass-migration and invasion was the norm, and a defensive, introverted civilization had enveloped much of the world.

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