Gregory the Great

(Pope Gregory I)
(ca. 540–604)
   The son of a Roman senator, the young Gregory had wealth, position, and learning. He was named prefect of Rome in his early 30s (ca. 573), and seemed well on his way toward a secular political career. Despite these prospects,Gregory chose to liquidate his property as a means of benefiting the poor. Aside from charitable donations, he founded a number of monasteries on his Sicilian estates before becoming a monk himself in Rome.His star, however, was too bright to remain behind monastic walls, and Gregory soon became one of the seven deacons of Rome that served the pope. In 578, he appeared at the imperial court of Constantinople as the pope’s representative. After a few years of service, he returned to his monastic life in Rome, apparently intending to live out his life in peace and asceticism (that is, religious self-denial). His selection to the papacy in ca. 590 (which Gregory appears to have resisted) denied him this opportunity.
   Indeed,Gregory’s preference for an ascetic life is not hard to understand given the many challenges facing Italy at the time of his ascension. Repeated invasions by the Lombard kingdom had reduced large areas to famine and pestilence. Severe poverty abounded. Moreover, the imperial authority at Constantinople had little concern for the Roman plight, and greater desire to establish the religious primacy of the Eastern patriarch over the Roman pope. The representative of imperial power in the West had pointedly been established in the north Italian city of Ravenna, which considered itself a political and religious rival to old Rome. Gregory understood very well the predicament of his new office.
   Yet Gregory proved an able administrator, capable of balancing political realities with spiritual ideals. Using the papacy’s wealth in a large number of charitable projects for the public good, he ensured social stability for the short run while developing the agricultural production of papal property into a support for the long haul. Bypassing the complicated task of accessing imperial power, Gregory treated with the Lombards separately, establishing that his statesmanship was as accomplished as his administrative skill. While this may have angered the imperial establishment, Gregory’s success and his closer relationship with the Lombards insulated him from reprisal. Politically, Gregory’s time as pope was clearly successful.
   Gregory’s energy and skill, however, exceeded his political abilities. He worked hard to establish Roman primacy in the face of repeated imperial assertions suggesting that this authority should rest with the patriarch of Constantinople. His many acts of charity and energetic writings did much to portray the pope as bishop of the West, caretaker of the poor and defender of orthodoxy— at a time when the actual power of the papacy was particularly low.He was responsible for organizing the first official missionary delegation to Britain— a fact that was never forgotten by the Anglo-Saxon church. Gregory’s reputation as a church leader is best represented by his near-immediate elevation to sainthood after his death.
   Gregory’s writings illustrate his practical role as the leader of the Western church. His focus is frequently educational in nature, as opposed to theological speculation. He is widely held to have developed liturgical singing such as Gregorian chant, but his direct contributions remain indistinct. Historians also link the training of Roman liturgical chanters in a Schola Cantorum to Gregory’s papacy. Similarly, his name is traditionally linked with the Gregorian Sacramentary, a guide for the liturgical year that was widely used after the ninth century; proving his direct involvement has proved difficult. Aside from liturgical concerns, Gregory also wrote a guide for pastoral bishops, the Liber regulae pastoralis, which emphasizes the responsibility of local churchmen for the souls in their care.Gregory, himself, preached to the local populace; a collection of sermons entitled Homilies on the Gospels remains extant. A large number of his letters also survive, providing important insight into Gregory’s world and his concerns as pope—particularly his view of Christianity outside Rome. His Dialogues, a collection of Italian SAINTS’ LIVES, remained popular throughout several centuries after his death, becoming a model for similar hagiographical collections.
   Gregory’s main literary activity was exegetical in nature. He wrote formal commentaries on several biblical texts, the most famous of which is his Moralia in Job. These didactic works utilized the traditional tripartite style of exegesis in which each passage is dissected for a literal,mystical and moral sense. These commentaries would gain a popular following during the Carolingian and later periods based upon the authority of Gregory’s authorship. Overall, Gregory’s sense of religion was mildly ascetic and contemplative, and he encouraged the cult of saints with some cautions.His general demeanor appears to hold to his self-designation as Servus servorum Dei: Servant of the servants of God.
   Bibliography
   ■ Cavadini, John C., ed. Gregory the Great: A Symposium. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.
   ■ Evans, G. R. The Thought of Gregory the Great. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
   ■ Grégoire le Grand. Colloques internationaux du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 101. Paris: Editions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1986.
   ■ Gregory the Great. Forty Gospel Homilies. Translated by Dom David Hurst. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1990.
   ■ ———.Life and Miracles of St. Benedict: Book Two of the Dialogues. Translated by Odo J. Zimmermann and Benedict R. Avery. 1949. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.
   ■ ———. Pastoral Care. Translated and annotated by Henry Davis.Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1950.
   ■ Markus, R. A. Gregory the Great and His World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
   ■ Moorhead, John. Gregory the Great. London: Routledge, 2005.
   ■ Patrologia Latinae. Edited by. J. P.Migne.Vols. 75–78. Paris, 1844–1864. CD-ROM ed. Alexandria, Va.: Chadwyck-Healey, 1995.
   Chris Craun

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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