Symeon “the New Theologian” on these matters lived on in the cloisters; it was taken up by the Hesychasts of the 14th century, and developed into a peculiar theory as to the perception of the Divine Light. In spite of all opposition their teaching was finally justified by the Eastern Church (sixth synod of Constantinople, 1351). And rightly so, for it was the old Greek piety minted afresh.
The Eastern Church, then, throughout the middle ages, remained true in every particular to her ancient character. It cannot be said that she developed as did the Western Church during this period, for she remained what she had been; but she freely developed her original characteristics, consistently, in every direction. This too is life, though of a different type from that of the West.
That there was life in the Eastern Church is also proved by the fact that the power of expansion was not denied her. Through her agency an important bulwark for the Christian faith was created in the new nations which had sprung into existence since the beginning of the middle ages: the Bulgarians, the Servians, and the multifarious peoples grouped under the name of Russians. There is a vast difference in national character between these young peoples and the successors of the Hellenes; and it is therefore all the more significant to find that both the Church and religious sentiment should in their case have fully preserved the Byzantine character. This proves once more the ancient capacity of the Greeks for the assimilation of foreign elements.
There was yet another outcome of this stubborn persistency of a peculiar type—the impossibility of continuing to share the life of the Western Church. Neither in the East nor in the West was a separation desired; but it was inevitable, since the lives of East and West were moving in different directions. It was the fall of Constantinople that first weakened the vital force of the Eastern Church. May we hope that the events of modern times are leading her towards a renaissance?
(b) The Nestorian and the Monophysite Churches.—Since the time when the church of eastern Syria had decided, in opposition to the church of the Empire, to cling to the ancient views of Syrian theologians—therefore also to the teaching and person of Nestorius—her relations were broken off with the church in western Syria and in Greek and Latin countries; but the power of Nestorian, or, as it was termed, Chaldaic Christianity, was not thereby diminished. Separated from the West, it directed its energies towards the East, and here its nearest neighbour was the Persian church. The latter followed, almost without opposition, the impulse received from Syria; from the rule of the patriarch Babacus (Syr. Bāb-hāi, 498–503) she may be considered definitely Nestorian. A certain number, too, of Arabic Christians, believers living on the west coast of India, the so-called Christians of St Thomas, and finally those belonging to places nearer the middle of Asia (Merv, Herat, Samarkand), remained in communion with the Nestorian church. Thus there survived in mid-Asia a widely-scattered remnant, which, although out of touch with the ancient usages of Christian civilization, yet in no way lacked higher culture. Nestorian philosophers and medical practitioners became the teachers of the great Arabian natural philosophers of the middle ages, and the latter obtained their knowledge of Greek learning from Syriac translations of the works of Greek thinkers.
Political conditions at the beginning of the middle ages favoured the Nestorian church, and the fact that the Arabs had conquered Syria, Palestine and Egypt, made it possible for her to exert an influence on the Christians in these countries. Of still more importance was the brisk commercial intercourse between central Asia and the countries of the Far East; for this led the Nestorians into China. The inscription of Si-ngan-fu (before 781) proves a surprisingly widespread extension of the Christian faith in that country. That it also possessed adherents in southern Siberia we gather from the inscriptions of Semiryetchensk, and in the beginning of the 11th century it found its way even into Mongolia. Nowhere were the nations Christian, but the Christian faith was everywhere accepted by a not insignificant minority. The foundation of the Mongolian empire in the beginning of the 13th century did not disturb the position of the Nestorian church; but the revival of the Mahommedan power, which was coincident with the downfall of the Mongolian empire, was pregnant with disaster for her. The greater part of Nestorian Christendom was now swallowed up by Islam, so that only remnants of this once extensive church have survived until modern times.
The middle ages were far more disastrous for the Monophysites than for the Nestorians; in their case there was no alternation of rise and decline, and we have only a long period of gradual exhaustion to chronicle. Egypt was the home of Monophysitism, whence it extended also into Syria. It was due to the great Jacob of Edessa (Jacob Baradaeus, d. 578) that it did not succumb to the persecution by the power of the Orthodox Empire, and out of gratitude to him the Monophysite Christians of Syria called themselves Jacobites. The Arab conquest (after 635) freed the Jacobite church entirely from the oppression of the Orthodox, and thereby assured its continuance. The church, however, never attained any greater development, but on the contrary continued to lose adherents from century to century. While Jacob of Edessa is said to have ordained some 100,000 priests and deacons for his fellow-believers, in the 16th century the Jacobites of Syria were estimated at only 50,000 families.
The Monophysite church of Egypt had a like fate. At the time of the separation of the churches the Greeks here had remained faithful to Orthodoxy, the Copts to Monophysitism. Here too the Arab conquest (641) put an end to the oppression of the native Christians by the Greek minority; but this did not afford the Coptic church any possibility of vigorous development. It succumbed to the ceaseless alternation of tolerance and persecution which characterized the Arab rule in Egypt, and the mass of the Coptic people became unfaithful to the Church. At the time of the conquest of the country by the Turks (1517) the Coptic church seems already to have fallen to the low condition in which the 19th century found it. Though at the time of the Arab conquest the Copts were reckoned at six millions, in 1820 the Coptic Christians numbered only about one hundred thousand, and it is improbable that their number can have been much greater at the close of the middle ages. Only in Abyssinia the daughter church of the Coptic church succeeded in keeping the whole people in the Christian faith. This fact, however, is the sole outcome of the history of a thousand years; a poor result, if measured by the standard of the rich history of the Western world, yet large enough not to exclude the hope of a new development.
II. The West. (a) The Early Middle Ages. The Catholic Church as influenced by the Foundation of the Teutonic States.—While the Eastern Church was stereotyping those peculiar characteristics which made her a thing apart, the Church of the West was brought face to face with the greatest revolution that Europe has ever experienced. At the end of the 6th century all the provinces of the Empire had become independent kingdoms, in which conquerors of Germanic race formed the dominant nationality. The remnants of the Empire showed an uncommonly tough vitality. It is true that the Teutonic states succeeded everywhere in establishing themselves; but only in England and in the erstwhile Roman Germany did the Roman nationality succumb to the Teutonic. In the other countries it not only maintained itself, but was able to assimilate the ruling German race; the Lombards, West Goths, Swabians, and even the Franks in the greater part of Gaul became Romanized. Consequently the position of the Christian Church was never seriously affected. This is the great fact which stands out at the beginning of the history of the Church in the middle ages. The continuity of the political history of Europe was violently interrupted by the Germanic invasion, but not that of the history of the Church. For, in view of the facts above stated, it was of small significance that in Britain Christianity was driven back into the western portion of the island still held by the Britons, and that in the countries of the Rhine and Danube a few bishoprics disappeared.
This was of the less importance, as the Church immediately made preparations to win back the lost territory. On the