On this date in 590 Gregory I, commonly called Gregory the Great, became pope of the Catholic church. He is not the Gregory who instituted the calendar reforms that gave us the (current) Gregorian calendar, but he is famous (in some circles) for instigating the first recorded large-scale mission from Rome to convert the pagan peoples of Europe (including the English) to Christianity. It is quite legitimate to argue that the papacy, Catholicism, and Europe itself as we conceive them now had their origins in the ideas implemented by Gregory. Gregorian chant is also named after him, although it’s not clear whether he founded it. Gregory is also well known for his writings, which were more prolific than those of any of his predecessors as pope.
Gregory was the son of a senator and the Prefect of Rome at age 30. He tried the monastic life for a time but soon returned to active public life. Even so, he ended his life as pope. Although he was the first pope from a monastic background, his prior political experiences may have helped him to be a talented administrator, who successfully established papal supremacy. During his papacy he greatly surpassed the administrative and political abilities of the emperors and improved the overall welfare of the people of Rome. Gregory regained papal authority in Spain and France, and sent missionaries to England. The realignment of their allegiance to Rome from their Arian Christian alliances shaped medieval Europe. Gregory also oversaw the alliance of Franks, Lombards, and Visigoths with Rome in religion.
Throughout the Middle Ages he was known as “the Father of Christian Worship” because of his exceptional efforts in revising the Roman worship of his day. His contributions to the development of the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, for example, still in use in the Byzantine Rite, were so significant that he is generally recognized as its de facto author. Immediately after his death, Gregory was canonized by popular acclaim. The Protestant reformer John Calvin admired Gregory and declared in his Institutes that Gregory was the last good pope (which could be conceived as a form of damning by faint praise, I suppose). He is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers.
In texts of all genres, especially those produced in his first year as pope, Gregory bemoaned the burden of office and mourned the loss of the undisturbed life of prayer he had once enjoyed as a monk. When he became pope in 590, among his first acts was writing a series of letters disavowing any ambition to the throne of Peter and praising the contemplative life of the monks. At that time, for various reasons, the Holy See had not exerted effective leadership in the West since the pontificate of Gelasius I (410-496). The episcopacy in Gaul was drawn from the great territorial families, and identified with them: the parochial horizon of Gregory’s contemporary, Gregory of Tours, may be considered typical. In Visigothic Spain the bishops had little contact with Rome; in Italy the territories which had de facto fallen under the administration of the papacy were beset by the violent Lombard dukes and the rivalry of the Byzantines in the Exarchate of Ravenna and in the south.
Gregory had strong convictions on missions: “Almighty God places good men in authority that He may impart through them the gifts of His mercy to their subjects. And this we find to be the case with the British over whom you have been appointed to rule, that through the blessings bestowed on you the blessings of heaven might be bestowed on your people also.” He is credited with re-energizing the Church’s missionary work among the non-Christian peoples of northern Europe. He is most famous for sending a mission, often called the Gregorian mission, under Augustine of Canterbury, prior of Saint Andrew’s (Gregory’s monastery), where he had perhaps succeeded Gregory, to evangelize the pagan Anglo-Saxons of England. It seems that the pope had never forgotten the English child slaves whom he had once seen in the Roman Forum. He famously said on meeting them, “Non Angli, sed angeli (they are not Angles, but angels) . . . well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.”
The mission was successful, and it was from England that missionaries later set out for the Netherlands and Germany. The preaching of non-heretical Christian faith and the elimination of all deviations from it was a key element in Gregory’s worldview, and it constituted one of the major continuing policies of his pontificate.
The secular state in which Gregory became pope in 590 was a ruined one. The Lombards held the better part of Italy. Their predations had brought the economy to a standstill. They camped nearly at the gates of Rome. The city was packed with refugees from all walks of life, who lived in the streets and had few of the necessities of life. The seat of government was far from Rome in Constantinople, which appeared unable to undertake the relief of Italy. The pope had sent emissaries, including Gregory, asking for assistance, to no avail. In 590, Gregory could wait for Constantinople no longer. He organized the resources of the church into an administration for general relief. In doing so he evidenced a talent for and intuitive understanding of the principles of accounting, which was not to be formalized for centuries. The church already had basic accounting documents: every expense was recorded in journals called regesta, “lists” of amounts, recipients and circumstances. Revenue was recorded in polyptici, “books”. Many of these polyptici were ledgers recording the operating expenses of the church and the assets, the patrimonia. A central papal administration, the notarii, under a chief, the primicerius notariorum, kept the ledgers and issued brevia patrimonii, or lists of property for which each rector was responsible.
Gregory began by aggressively requiring his churchmen to seek out and relieve the needy and reprimanded them if they did not. In a letter to a subordinate in Sicily he wrote: “I asked you most of all to take care of the poor. And if you knew of people in poverty, you should have pointed them out … I desire that you give the woman, Pateria, forty solidi for the children’s shoes and forty bushels of grain ….” Soon he was replacing administrators who would not cooperate with those who would and at the same time adding more in a build-up to a great plan that he had in mind. He understood that expenses must be matched by income. To pay for his increased expenses he liquidated the investment property and paid the expenses in cash according to a budget recorded in the polyptici. The churchmen were paid four times a year and also personally given a golden coin for their efforts.
Gregory’s general charitable frame of mind completely won the hearts and minds of the Roman people. They now looked to the papacy for government, ignoring the rump state at Constantinople, which had only disrespect for Gregory, calling him a fool for his pacifist dealings with the Lombards. The Roman office of urban prefect went without candidates and secular government was largely defunct. From the time of Gregory the Great to the rise of Italian nationalism the papacy was the most influential voice in ruling Italy.
The mainstream form of Western plainchant which was standardized in the late 9th century, was attributed to Gregory and so took the name of Gregorian chant, but the attribution is only loosely warranted. The earliest such attribution is in John the Deacon’s 873 biography of Gregory, almost three centuries after the pope’s death, and the chant that bears his name is actually the result of the fusion of Roman and Frankish elements which took place in the Franco-German empire under Pepin, Charlemagne and their successors.
Gregory is interred in St Peter’s in Rome.
Not much is known about cooking in the 6th century in Italy or anywhere else in Europe for that matter. So I’ll start by talking about the ecclesiastical cycle of feast and fast that dominated Europe through the Middle Ages and beyond. Today is both Sunday and a significant feast day in the Catholic church. That means you are free to eat what you want. On fast days, which used to include Fridays, the eves of feast, and the period of Lent, different regions of the Catholic world and different sects had different rules. Many animal products such as dairy, eggs, fats, and meats were not to be eaten and, in the more restrictive regions, only one meal during the day was allowed. Such restrictions were more relevant to the rich than the poor (who were numerous). For the majority, cereals were the norm and meat was a luxury. Even so, the rich found many ways around the restrictions and managed to eat quite sumptuously on fast days even though technically deprived of eggs and meat on those days. It comes down to whether you subscribe to the letter or the spirit of the law. As (nominal) followers of Jesus, they should have observed the spirit, but you know how people are.
I’ve had times in my life when I have been extremely observant of fast and feast days even though as a Protestant minister I have no obligation to do so. These days I am much less aware of such issues because I routinely eat one meal a day – breakfast – and it consists primarily of soup, rice, vegetables, and fruit (with a small amount of meat). I make a practice of eating eggs on Sundays as a treat. This practice has to do with my age and my circumstances. I live in Myanmar where rice is a staple and other dishes are small accompaniments for flavor, not the main ingredients. When I lived in the US and was an active pastor I followed Medieval fast and feast rules rigorously, most especially in Lent. I won’t go into the spiritual details here, but I will point out that an Easter Sunday dinner of roast lamb, roast potatoes, and sumptuous gravy followed by a suet pudding with fresh egg custard was glorious after 40 days of fasting.
There’s the medieval trick that has long left us behind. Satisfying every culinary whim, because you feel like it, just makes you fat and lazy. Working on a cycle of fast and feast has much to commend it, but it’s a personal choice. Furthermore, alternating feasting and fasting is another version of my desire for variety in my culinary life.
Frumenty is a reasonable medieval dish for a feast day. It’s basically a wheat porridge with various flavorings added. The typical method of preparation was to parboil whole grains of wheat in water, then strain them and boil them in milk. The finished grains were then sweetened with sugar and flavored with cinnamon and other sweet spices, such as cloves and allspice. Dried fruits, usually raisins, might also be added.