Gregory the Great Literature Review

 

 

The letters and writings of Gregory the Great have survived to present day. These primary sources gave historians an exclusive inside look to what it meant to be a pope in the 6th century. Historians still debate today about who Gregory the Great was. Historically Gregory the Great is considered one of best written popes of his time period. He was considered to be the first Midlevel Ages popes and sent the precedent of what is expected of a pope. His numerous letters and text has accredited him the title of a Doctor of the Church. This title implied the significant of his contribution to the Catholic Church. Historians and Theologians have written different books and articles about the life of Gregory and his stances on moral theology. There has been a shift in the field about how to write the historiography of Gregory the Great. A debate in the field is whether Gregory was creative in his works from the Augustine framework or himself. The literature of Gregory the Great reflected many important themes of his life of asceticism, mission work, influence of politics, and his connection to Augustine and Benedictine.

Gregory the Great was the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 590 A.D until his death 604 A.D. Gregory The Great came from a wealthy family in Italy, however his desire was to become a monk and live a secluded life. Gregory became a monk and lived that lifestyle until he was chosen to be Pope in 590 A.D. As reflected by Gregory’s letters and in the literature written about him this was seen as a burden to him. Gregory dealt with many challenges beginning the pope in the beginning of the Catholic Church. He wrote about theology, what is doctrine, morality, and much more.

Since the time of Gregory the Great there have been many biographies written about his life. Biographies are key for insight about who Gregory the Great is to historians. One of the oldest biography written for Gregory was created by an unknown Monk in the 8th century. [i] This is a key primary source for other historians to use as a baseline for their own biographies. A biography can tell the main focus of the author who created It and what they consider important. George E. Demacopoulos, a Professor of Theology, wrote the book Gregory the Great Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome addressed many of the biographies written about Gregory. Demacopoulos’ biography is a recent one to be published in 2015. Demacopoulos commented that not many early biographies of Gregory survived or were created. In biographies there can be bias or an agenda the author is trying to push. This can include the concern of the sources an author uses for their work. There could have been a motivation by people in Gregory’s papacy to get rid of documents.[ii]

One of the main arguments in Demacopoulos’ book is about asceticism, because Gregory’s papacy reflected the ideal of asceticism. Asceticism is the idea of living a very self disciplined life that voids many of the worldly desires. The introduction of this lifestyle was influenced by Saint Benedict for Gregory. Saint Benedict created the motto ora et labora or known as the Rule of Benedict. Ora et labora translated into English is pray and work. A majority of the secondary sources have reflected this notion of asceticism. Demacopoulos argued that Gregory’s asceticism nature influenced his administration and his diplomatic policies.[iii] Carole Straw’s chapter about asceticism showed how this notion influenced Gregory’s teachings on theology. An important item that Gregory discussed was the sins of the flesh and how the soul differed.[iv] Humans had to rid themselves of worldly pleasures to help their soul be free.

 

A key note pointed out by Demacopoulos was that 20th century writers like Straw had put Gregory though an Augustine framework. Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection written by Carole Straw was a very important source to the field. Demacopoulos mentioned Straw’s book in his own writings about Gregory. Demacopoulos accredited Straw for having a strong analysis of Gregory’s life. Demacopoulos is slightly critical of how Straw viewed Gregory because she did not include his thoughts from the theologian perspective.[v] Straw in her book mentioned one of the hardest things about studying the life of Gregory is with a modern perspective. It is hard for the reader to understand Gregory’s world with a modern perspective.[vi] This was a point that was shared with Demacopoulos.

Demacopoulos wrote in his book about other historians who wrote about Gregory throughout the 20th century. Demacopoulos argued there was a switch in the scholarship about Gregory who is now seen as a more creative thinker than previously given credit for.[vii]  He argued that 20th century historians portrayed Gregory’s theology from an St. Augustine framework. R.A Markus wrote the book Gregory the Great and his world. Markus argued that there was no autobiography left behind by Gregory. Since Gregory did not leave an autobiography historians had to reconstruct his life. Historians have used his writing to formulate his life.  Markus argued to have a true biography that the letters of Gregory do not cover his entire life. Historians have to look at his family, where he is from, events at the time period, and other items to get a full picture of his story. R.A Markus portrayed Gregory from that Augustine framework. Straw differed in her book about Gregory. She wrote in many of her chapters about how Gregory admired Augustine but still disagreed with him. One of the main examples of the difference between the two was the debate between sin with the body and the soul. Augustine argued that the body and soul were completely separate, While Gregory focused on the side that the sin was caused by conflict between the body and the soul.[viii] There is still debate in the field about where Gregory’s teachings came from.

In Conrad Leyser book the Authority and Asceticism from Augustine to Gregory the Great emphasizes the main points that have touched on by other historians. This secondary source included information both about Augustine and Gregory. In this work there was a stronger connection between Augustine and Gregory instead of the notion that Gregory was an individual creative thinker. This author viewed more of Gregory’s weakness. In Leyser’s book the focus was one question that Gregory was attempting to answer about how to harness the ascetic detachment to the exercise his power in the world. Once again this theme asceticism was key in Gregory’s life because it defined his papacy.  ulia Hillner wrote an article called “Gregory the Great’s “Prisons”: Monastic Confinement in Early Byzantine Italy.” Hillner wrote the main focus of this article was to get the perspective of a bishop about 6th century monastic confinement.[ix] This was a concept used by Gregory. One of the things Gregory is known for is ascetic lifestyle and it was reflected thought his papacy. The author pointed out this is important because it gives insight to Gregory’s view on the social order or society. [x] At times Georgy would stray from the civil law to pass monastic confinement. Hillner made note of other historians in the field within her article. She spoke about Conrad Leyser. Hillner claimed that from Leyser’s research it was shown that Gregory’s significate from his ascetic lifestyle that dismiss the monastic as a model for the Christian community.

Matthew dal Santo wrote an article “Gregory the Great and Eustratius of Constantinople: The Dialogues on the Miracles of the Italian Fathers an Apology for the Cult of Saints.” Matthew dal Santo took the Dialogues as a representation of an apology from Gregory. [xi] Matthew dal Santo’s article pointed out some of the main problems for Gregory. This article is a reflection of the debate that happened around the new Christian church. As Straw pointed out in her book the difference of opinion there can be eve from two church Father’s such as Augustine and Gregory. There was still debate of what is considered doctrine and an official teaching of the church. The main debate that dal Santo focused on was the concept of the human souls and saints. It tied into the theme of Gregory’s papacy of detaching from the world.

Clare McGrath-Merkle wrote the article “Gregory the Great’s Metaphor of the Physician of the Heart as a Model for Pastoral Identify. Similar to Demacopoulos this is a recent work in the field. The main reason McGrath-Merkle wrote this article was to show how pastors should focus more on being a follower of Christ instead of piety or power. [xii]  This would not have been possible without Gregory’s contribution to the church doctrine. That being a pope in the 6th century was challenge and Gregory faced many exterior and internal issues. One of the main issues covered in his book Pastoral Rule was what it meant to be a priest. All of the secondary sources differ on different teachings or how Gregory’s theology was taught, but all the sources point out the trouble that Gregory the Great faced as pope.

There has been a vast of different secondary sources written about Gregory the Great. One of the main items that all the sources mention is one form of Gregory’s writings. Whether that be from his letters to his text. There is still debate about who Gregory was. On paper it is known that he was a pope in the 6th century. So the debate is more on his moral and doctrinal teachings. There were arguments that Gregory just followed the rules of people before like Augustine and Benedict. New scholarship research is listing Gregory as a more innovative thinker than previously given credit for. There are still new developments today that will expand on the research about Gregory. Gregory’s teaching still influnce many religions around the world.

 

 

Bibliography:

Dal Santo, Matthew. “Gregory the Great and Eustratius of Constantinople: The Dialogues on the Miracles of the Italian Fathers as an Apology for the Cult of Saints.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 17, no. 3 (2009): 421-57.

 

Demacopoulos, George E. Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. Kindle

 

Hillner, Julia. “Gregory the Great’s “Prisons”: Monastic Confinement in Early Byzantine Italy.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 19, no. 3 (2011): 433-71.

 

Leyser, Conrad. Authority and Asceticism from Augustine to Gregory the Great. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 2000.

 

Markus, R. A. Gregory the Great and his world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

 

McGrath-Merkle, Clare. “Gregory the Great’s Metaphor of the Physician of the Heart as a Model for Pastoral Identity.” Journal of Religion and Health 50, no. 2 (2011): 374-88.

 

Straw, Carole Ellen. 1988. Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1988. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed February 22, 2018

 

Endnotes:

[i] R.A Markus, Gregory the Great and his world (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 2.

[ii] George E. Demacopoulos, Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2015) location 141.

[iii] George E. Demacopoulos, 219.

[iv] Carole Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) 133.

[v] George E. Demacopoulos. 192

[vi] Carole Straw, 7.

[vii] George E. Demacopoulos, 192

[viii] Carole Straw, 133

[ix] Julia Hillner, “Gregory the Great’s “Prisons”: Monastic Confinement in Early Byzantine Italy,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 19, no. 3 (2011): 436.

[x] Julia Hillner, 437.

[xi] Matthew dal Santo, “Gregory the Great and Eustratius of Constantinople: The Dialogues on the Miracles of the Italian Fathers as an Apology for the Cult of Saints,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 17, no. 3 (2009): 421.

[xii] Clare McGrath-Merkle. “Gregory the Great’s Metaphor of the Physician of the Heart as a Model for Pastoral Identity,” Journal of Religion and Health 50, no. 2 (2011): 388.