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  • The Letters of Gregory the Great
  • Constant J. Mews
Martyn, John R. C. . (trans.), The Letters of Gregory the Great ( Medieval Sources in Translation 40), Toronto, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2004; 3 vols; paper; pp. xi, 962. ISBN 0888442904.

This three-volume translation of the complete register of letters of Pope Gregory the Great, richly annotated and with an important introduction (pp. 1-116) is an unqualified success. It deserves to become staple reading in any survey course that considers the early medieval period, or indeed Church history as a whole. This is the first complete version of Gregory's Registrum epistularum in English, based on the critical edition prepared in the Corpus Christianorum series by Dag Norberg in 1982. Gregory (c. 540-604) ruled as pope for just fourteen years. The letters, organized into fourteen books and covering the time of his papacy, provide an unparalleled insight into Gregory's meticulous attention to numerous issues affecting the Church at a time of political vacuum within the Latin West. In his introduction Martyn provides a significant exposition of Gregory's career as an imperial official, before he became a monk and then negotiator and emissary for Pope Pelagius II in the court of the Emperor in Constantinople. One of the most impressive features of these letters is the range of countries with which Gregory deals. The introduction documents his particular concern for Sicily, Sardinia, Gaul and England, demonstrating the great value of the letters for showing how [End Page 157] Gregory sought to reinvigorate monastic communities throughout the Latin West. The letters reveal how, in so many cases, local interests threatened to dominate over those of the universal Church. Gregory, trained in an imperial system, effectively sought to transfer that imperial vision of benevolent government into the Church. Without any large bureaucracy to help him, Gregory saw his role as first of all one of correcting local abuses.

To take a simple illustration, letter 1.45 to Virgil of Arles and Theodore, bishop of Marseilles reveals much about Gregory's mode of government. It opens with a vivid invocation of the duties of friendship, as the bond that unites him to his fellow bishops, subtly linked to the need for correction: 'it has been done so that I might at one and the same time both render what was fitting, due to the love of a close brotherly relationship, and yet not keep quiet about a controversy among certain people which came to our attention, about how the souls of those in error should be saved.' This letter is not another complaint against doctrinal error, but rather is responding to a report that many Jews in Marseilles had been brought to the font 'more by force than by preaching'. The letter gently chides his bishops for allowing enforced conversion, and insists on the need for preaching alone. Gregory could see the danger of a practice that may well have been widespread in late antiquity. The fact that Gregory inveighs against practices like forced conversion and simony rather than doctrinal error is itself revealing. Whether he succeeded in changing local practice is another matter. What matters is that his letters provided a moral stimulus of immense influence in the Latin Church, much drawn upon in the eleventh century by Pope Gregory VII to justify the cause of reform. It would be an interesting exercise for a student to compare the letter collections of Pope Gregory VII with those of his spiritual mentor, Gregory the Great, to see how the cause of reform would be interpreted. Unlike those of Gregory VII, these letters betray surprisingly little effort to elevate the cause of papal authority against secular authority. Gregory uses careful diplomacy when engaging with the Byzantine Emperor rather than frontal attack. Underlying all the many letters is a vision of pastoral care being enjoined on all those bishops and churchmen, as well as some lay people, with whom he came into contact.

The translation itself is a model of its kind, one that well illustrates the literary power of these letters, commented upon in the introduction. Martyn helpfully alerts the reader to the complex imagery and metaphor employed by...


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