History is Philosophy teaching by examples. — Thucydides

Saint Gregory the Great - Notre Dame




An Absentee Landlord

There are epochs in the world's history when a system gets its doom. Our Saviour's Holy Week discourse on Mount Olivet seems a warrant to his Disciples to look upon such crises as a rehearsal of the great and terrible Day of the Lord, His Second Coming to judge mankind—a rehearsal merely, for He tells us in plain words:

"Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars; but the end is not yet  . . . Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall be pestilences and famines, and earthquakes in places. Now all these are the beginning  of sorrows."

It was the end of the Jews as God's chosen people, in the Apostolic Age when Jerusalem fell. It was the end of the Roman system in St. Gregory's lifetime, when the barbarian wave broke over the West and imperial unity made way for feudalism. Many passages in his letters and in his homilies make it clear that he expected—as St. Paul expected in his day, and as so many saints before and since expected in theirs—-to see the end of the drama of human history.

"We would have Your Glory know," he writes to King Ethelbert, "from the words of Almighty God in Holy Scripture, that the end of the present world is at hand. . . . We see many things around us which were not before: changes in the air and terrors from the sky, and tempests outside the order of the seasons, wars, famine, plagues and earthquakes in divers places. Should any of these things happen in your country, let not your mind be disturbed; for these signs of the end of the world are sent beforehand, in order that we may be solicitous for our souls, on the alert for the hour of death, and ready with good works to meet our Judge."

The great danger of such an attitude of expectancy is the listless apathy it is wont to engender. St. Paul blames the Thessalonians for the idleness in which they awaited the Last Day. For the Disciples in that wealthy business centre neglected their work to such an extent that he had to seek alms for them at Philippi, to weave tents for a livelihood while he was with them, and to write to them afterwards in grave rebuke. "Ile that will not work, neither shall he eat."

The self-same Charity of Christ that stirred in St. Paul, and made of the apostle again an artisan, moved St. Gregory, the wealthiest landowner in Italy, to enter minutely into questions of tenant and farmer, rent and taxes, and everything else connected with the improvement of the estates under his control.

The continuous wars had upset agriculture and altered the tenure of land. Thraldom under the Lombards was a condition less hard than citizenship under the grinding extortions of the imperial procurators. Many of the landowners, unwilling to see their peasantry oppressed, made over their estates to the Church and went to seek a livelihood at the Court of Constantinople.

Thus in Sicily we read of "the Patrimony of St. Ambrose "belonging to the see of Milan, as well as "the Patrimony of St. Peter "belonging to the Holy See. "In our times," wrote St. Gregory to the bishops of that island, "we must not be entirely engrossed with the salvation of souls. We must also be mindful of the defence and temporal interests of those committed to our care."

Other Popes may have been content to draw a goodly revenue each year from their house rents in Rome, from their olive-groves in the Campagna, from their cornfields in Sicily, from the timber in the Calabrian forests, from the lead mines in the islands on the western sea-board. They may have left more or less completely to their agents (defensors)  the management of these and the other patrimonies of St. Peter in Tuscany, in Gaul, in Africa, and "the tiny one in Dalmatia."

But Gregory looked into things himself. After he became Pope he never seems to have travelled far from Rome, yet he made sure that every acre was made to yield. its full amount of produce.

"We have studs of horses that are quite useless," he wrote on one occasion. "They do not bring us in sixty pence for every sixty shillings that we pay the grooms. Sell all the horses, except four hundred of the younger ones, and these you are to distribute among four hundred of our farmers, so that each may bring us in something every year. And set the grooms to till the land."

His letters also to the prefect Innocent and the exarch Gennadius, show that he utilized the goodwill of these officials to bring under cultivation the barren tracts of church land in the neighbourhood of Carthage. Convict labour was a glut in the market, whenever the tribesmen of the oases clashed swords with the imperial legions, and a steady stream of prisoners of war could always be reckoned on to drain and dig, and earn privileges by good behaviour, until at last they became Christians and settled down as law-abiding, taxpaying citizens.

But it was only in Africa that the Pope could praise the zeal of the government officials "helping him to feed the flock of the Blessed Apostle Peter." Elsewhere he refused point-blank ever to lease a portion of his patrimony to men who had experience in grinding the faces of the poor, either as tax-collectors or recruiting serjeants. For the farmers, or conductores  as they were called, made what profit they could off the land, after paying the stipulated rent in money or in produce; and as they were usually responsible also for the taxes in their district, they had ample opportunity for showing themselves grasping and oppressive to the tillers of the soil. There are many allusions to conductores  in St. Gregory's letters, and it behooved his land agents to keep a strict watch on their proceedings.

Sometimes the farmers forced the peasants to lend them money which was never repaid. And there were many vexatious petty payments exacted over and above the rent.

"Make out new leases," the Pope gave orders. "Increase the rent, if need be, and if the peasants can afford it. But the lease is to include everything; let there be no more of these disgraceful additions. And lest, after my death, the burdens which are now abolished should be again reimposed, we wish you to set down very clearly in every lease the exact sum the tenant has to pay."

His agents always profited when a farm changed hands. The farmers themselves were sometimes eager to leave a place when they owed money to poor people who could not afford to sue them for a debt at a distance. St. Gregory, on the other hand, liked to keep the same farmers on the same land as long as possible. He was in favour of long leases, and usually granted them for a term of three specified lives.

"We learn that when farmers die their relatives are not allowed to inherit, and the land reverts to the Church. We hereby decree that the next-of-kin shall succeed as heir, and that the property of the deceased man is to remain intact. Should very young children inherit, discreet persons shall manage the estate until they are of age to look after their own affairs."

He granted farming leases grudgingly, and only under severe restrictions. He always preferred that the peasants and slaves should work the Church lands directly for the benefit of the Church. Occasionally, if the business entailed was not too engrossing, the management of a patrimony was entrusted to the local bishop. More usually a special rector  was appointed with or without defensors  working under him. Sometimes a defensor had entire charge of an isolated estate, and reported directly to the Holy See.

St. Gregory's rectors and defensors were priests or at least clerks in holy orders, well tried and proved trustworthy. "Peter the Sub-deacon," rector of the Sicilian patrimony, is said to have been the Peter of the Dialogues, his own "bosom friend from early youth." On their appointment these officials had to swear before the Tomb of St. Peter that they would promote the interests of the Church as "the treasury of the labourers and of the poor."

"You must carry out justly and vigorously whatever commands you receive from us for the welfare of the poor," writes the Pope to the defensor Vitus. "Do faithfully whatever work we may give you to do. Know that you will have to give an account of all your actions at the Judgment Seat of God."

In a circular introducing a new defensor to his district, St. Gregory writes: "We order you to obey without hesitation whatever he shall command for the benefit of the Church. He has full power to punish severely the disobedient and the contumacious. We have ordered him to enforce ecclesiastical law, whenever slaves abscond or boundary marks are removed. He has been ordered not to seize anything by force under any pretext."

It sometimes happened, even on Church lands, that unfaithful agents took advantage of their position to get unduly rich. "I have learned," he wrote to the Bishop of Cagliari, "that certain laymen, charged with the administration of your patrimony, have acted to the detriment of your peasants and refuse to render an account. It behooves you to examine into this with the utmost diligence, to decide according to the justice of the case, and to make these men, if guilty, disgorge their prey."

He was not less rigorous when his own agents were in fault. "It has come to our knowledge," he wrote to Peter the Sub-deacon, "that for the past ten years—from the time of Antonius the defensor until now—many persons complain of unjust treatment. Their lands have been forcibly occupied, their goods seized, their slaves enticed away, all this without pretence of legal warrant. Inquire diligently into all these things, and if you find aught unjustly detained by the Church, restore it at once to the proper owner, lest he be compelled to come to me. The long journey would inconvenience him greatly, and it is impossible for me to decide whether or not he speaks truth."

And again . "When Your Experience employs your tenants for any work they are not bound to perform, we wish them to be well paid for their services, lest the purse of the Church be defiled by ill-gotten gains. When we order you to purchase for our store-houses in Rome, we mean you to buy from strangers, not to take more than is customary from the tenants of the Church."

When the rent was paid in corn, a trifle extra might be exacted to feed the sailors on the journey. But the peasants were not expected to make good any damage due to accident. And those who preferred to pay in money were to have their rent assessed at the current price of corn for the year, so that all alike might benefit, when the harvest was good and bread was cheap.

In Sicily he found that the farmers claimed one bushel out of twenty, instead of one out of twenty-five. False measures, too, were used so that the peasants paid twenty-five bushels instead of sixteen.

"We are glad you have broken the fraudulent measure," he writes to Peter. "But how about the injustice in the past? Have we not reason to fear lest the farmers' ill-gotten gains be attributed to us as sinful negligence. We wish Your Experience to make a list of the very poor peasants on each estate, and to distribute to each, according to his degree of poverty, the cows, the sheep and the swine which you will buy with the money wrongfully acquired."

Farms held unjustly must be restored at once to the lawful owners. "Attend to this, for I am. never weary reminding you of it, and if you neglect it, you shall have my voice against you at the Judgment Seat of God. On the other hand, should you see some property which you think belongs to the Church, be careful not to vindicate our claim by violence. Otherwise our unrighteous action in a righteous cause will make our just claim seem unjust in the eyes of Almighty God."

In the same chatty letter Peter is instructed to give one hundred gold pieces to Eusebius the abbot, and six to Anastasia, a nun at Palermo. Sisinnius, who was once a judge and is now in great want, is to have twenty vessels of wine and four shillings every year. Redemptor's wife has bequeathed a silver salver to a monastery, and ordered a silver shell to be sold for the benefit of her freedmen.

"See that her wishes be carried out, lest a mere trifle make us liable for great sins. The money due to us from the will of Antoninus should long ago have been paid, as we ordered, to monasteries and elsewhere. I know not why Your Negligence has delayed so long." Again and again he warns his business men not to press the letter of the law, when it is a case of merciful assistance to the orphaned and the very poor.

"If with compassion and kindness we help our neighbour in his distress, undoubtedly we shall find Our Lord merciful to us when we pray.

"In questions admitting of doubt it is better to incline to mercy rather than to justice; especially when, by the surrender of a small thing, the Church will not greatly suffer, and on the other hand the poor and the orphan will be greatly relieved."

"Take care lest Almighty God condemn our just claims if unjustly pursued. You will be a faithful steward of the Apostle, Blessed Peter, if you act uprightly in the management of his estates, even though his temporal gains are lessened thereby."

Appeals from the poor always received his careful attention. One, Adeodatus, went in person to the Pope, petitioning to have remitted one of the two shillings he had to pay every year for a building he had put up on land "belonging to the Church." St. Gregory sent him home with a letter to his agent:

"Your Experience will look into this, and if his story be found correct see that he obtains what he asks. His age and his poverty entitle him to this abatement."

Another time it was one, Alexander, who lodged a complaint against "our beloved son, Cyprian the deacon." He had not received proper wages, he said, during the three years when he worked at the building of a church in Catania. "We order you diligently to inquire into the matter. See that the just amount be paid to him, and put it down in your accounts."

Again it was Cosmas, a Syrian, who convinced the Pope "by witnesses and by his own tears," that he owed a hundred and fifty shillings, and had reason to hope his creditors would be satisfied with eighty. Though he considered eighty solidi  too much to expect from a man who had nothing, St. Gregory sent his agent sixty, and a order to make terms with the creditors. "They ought to be satisfied with less," he argued, "if they are skilfully spoken with; for they have seized the man's child, and the law gives them no right to do that. Take special care, when they receive the money, that they give a full discharge in writing. Whatever may be over out of the sixty shillings give to Cosmas for the support of himself and his son. Afterwards strive to make him work off the debt by labour."

Peter, when summoned to Rome with his account books, is instructed to leave a competent person in Sicily, whom he must admonish to deal gently with the peasants.

"Send your customary gifts to the praetors by his hand, so that you may win their favour for him. If the recruiting officers come round while you are away, he is to secure their good-will by a small present."

The burdatio, the emperor's tax on land, was collected three times a year, in January, May and September. The first of these payments grievously inconvenienced the peasants, because it was made before they were able to sell their produce. They were compelled to borrow, and the public money-lenders charged heavy interest, sometimes as much as twenty-five per cent. And so Gregory orders Peter to advance the money to the peasants, a little at a time as they require it, so that they may not afterwards be forced. to sell their crops at a ruinously low price. But he makes it clear that such loans are solely to benefit the borrower. Interest, however nominal, is not to be charged.

It seems impossible to exaggerate the cruelty of officials at this date when "the Roman Republic was at the last gasp, strangled by taxation like a traveller in the grip of brigands." Appeal to the emperor was useless. Avarice was Maurice's besetting sin, and he cared little how his treasury was filled so long as it was full. The weight of taxation pressed heavier on Italy as more and more of the land was wrested from the empire, and thus the area dwindled over which the tax-gatherers remorselessly wrung their dues. So disgusted were the peasants with a life of toil, the fruits whereof they might never hope to enjoy, that they fled to the woods, to be hunted there like wild beasts, or they surrendered to the Lombards. Thraldom as captives of war was a fate preferable to citizenship, where free men were put to torture and their children sold as slaves.

A landowner in those days had great powers over his tenantry. His permission was required when a peasant wished to remove from his estate, or to marry outside it, or to give away or mortgage his movables, for these were looked upon as a security for the rent. The punishment of defaulters was also at his discretion. He might scourge or levy fines as he chose.

St. Gregory, however, had no intention of making the innocent suffer with the guilty. When a peasant on his estates was in fault, he wished him to be punished in person rather than in goods, unless of his own free will the culprit chose to placate with a small sum of money the officer charged to chastise him. The marriage fees might never exceed a shilling—the very poor ought not to pay even that, he decreed—and these fees were not to be entered in the Pope's accounts at all. They were to go to the farmers whose interest it was to see that labourers immediately under them were happily circumstanced.

Given a conscientious master the slaves had an easier life than the coloni  or freeborn peasants. Sick or well, slaves were sure of their daily food, their lodging and their raiment. They had neither rent nor taxes to make them anxious. They could not be conscripted as soldiers. And now that Christianity had leavened Roman civilisation and softened its brutality, public opinion was against the master who acted harshly towards his slaves.

In the Roman law, even in the Christianized code as revised by Justinian, slaves had no civic rights. Unlike the coloni  they could not appeal before the magistrates against oppression. But in every district there was at least one Church always open, where runaway slaves and fugitives from man's injustice might bide in safety, until the bishop could grant them a fair hearing.

St. Gregory was scrupulously particular that this privilege of sanctuary should never be abused. He had sometimes to point out in his letters that it was not intended to shield the guilty, but only to guarantee just treatment, and that the ecclesiastical courts must not inconvenience the masters and the magistrates by undue delays.

Sometimes these fugitives claimed to belong to the Church, and there were rectors who admitted the claim before it could be legally proved.

"This displeases me much," wrote St. Gregory, "because it is unjust. If there be any slaves working for the patrimony under these doubtful conditions, see that they be restored at once. Afterwards if Holy Church can establish her claim, they may be taken from their masters by a regular action at law."

A slave had family rights. We find St. Gregory ordering the Bishop of Syracuse to punish a man who sold a bondwoman without her husband's consent. "Moreover, reprove sharply the Bishop of Messina for his neglect to punish the officials who were guilty of such disgraceful deeds. Tell him that if another story like this comes to me concerning any of his dependents, I will take action, not against the man in fault but against himself."

By a decree of Justinian, no master might stand in the way if a slave wished to enter religion, even though his purchase-money were not forthcoming. St. Gregory learned that one of his defensors in the Campagna owned a slave-girl who sought "with tears and vehemence" to become a nun.

"Go to Felix the defensor," he wrote to Felix's rector, "demand of him the soul of this girl. Pay him the price he asks and send her here, under the charge of competent persons who will place her in a convent. Do it quickly, lest delay endanger this soul."

Slaves were only too willing to enter religion. "Our holy army fills up its gaps with bondmen who come to seek freedom in Christ," wrote St. Isidore of Seville, younger brother of St. Leander. "And it would be a serious fault not to admit them, since God has made no difference between the soul of a slave and the soul of a prince."

Of such religious recruits St. Augustine of Hippo had written two centuries before: "They have passed an apprenticeship rude enough to make them apt in their new condition. But it is not right that they should live in idleness when senators are glad to labour, nor that they should prove fastidious when the lords of vast possessions come to sacrifice their wealth."

To secure purity in motive St. Gregory decreed, in the synod of 595, that a slave-postulant, who stood the test of a long and severe probation, was to be emancipated before profession, "so that as a free man he might exchange servitude under an earthly master for a still more strenuous servitude in the family of Jesus Christ." He speaks of slaves as his fellow-servants in the letters of manumission declaring Thomas and Montana free and Roman citizens, "with a right to any money they have saved while servants of the Roman Church." He states the motive for this act of piety:

"Our Redeemer, the Maker of every creature, mercifully assumed our human flesh to break the bonds of slavery in which the devil held us, and by the grace of His Godhead He gave us back our liberty. And thus it is a wholesome deed to restore the liberty in which they were born to men whom Nature in the beginning brought forth free, and whom the law of nations has subjected to the yoke of slavery."

In St. Gregory's letters there are many allusions to the captives held to ransom in the Lombard wars. He spent large sums himself to procure their freedom. He was grateful when wealthy friends in Constantinople sent him money for this purpose. He authorized bishops—nay, he commanded them—to sell the sacred vessels of the sanctuary, only stipulating that the sale and the ransom must take place in the presence of the papal agent. After a terrible raid in the Campagna he writes to his rector there, Anthemius: "You may estimate the grief in our heart by the greatness of the calamity. The magnificent Stephen, bearer of this letter, brings you money for the ransom of such free men as you know cannot buy their own freedom. Do not hesitate to spend it on slaves whose masters are too poor to redeem them. If any slaves have been taken from the Church lands, we blame your negligence. Write down, and bring it with you when you come to us, an exact account of those whom you ransom; their names, where they live, what they do. If any captive incurs danger through your negligence, we shall deal with you severely."

We find him writing to two men whom he thus restored to freedom. "Neither you nor your heirs shall at any time suffer the burden of repayment."

Jews might own land in Italy and form contracts with peasants for its cultivation. But the Roman law forbade Jews to own Christian slaves. The slaves of Jews who fled to sanctuary and asked for baptism might on no account be restored to their masters.

Things were otherwise in France. "We are amazed," wrote St. Gregory to Queen Brunehaut "we are amazed that in your kingdom Jews are allowed to own Christian slaves. For what are Christians but members of Christ? We know well that you faithfully reverence Christ. How is it then that you allow His members to remain in the power of His enemies?"

Jewish traders were not forbidden to traffic in slaves. But no Jew might keep a Christian in his market beyond forty days, or a slave wishful to become a Christian beyond the space of three months. If the sale was unduly delayed in either case, the slave recovered his liberty. When Narses, "that most wicked Jew," bought Christian slaves and employed them for his own advantage on his estates in Sicily, St. Gregory wrote at once to notify the governor of the island:

"Strictly and at once, Your Glory will inquire into this, and give the Christians their liberty, lest religion be dishonoured while they are subject to the Jew." For Narses was "liable to stripes "on other counts. He had set up an altar to Blessed Elias, and "impiously induced "Christians to worship there.

There were many Jews in Sicily settled on the Church lands. Peter the Sub-deacon is instructed to send circular letters to "the Jews on the patrimony who obstinately refuse to be converted," promising to reduce their rents by one-third if they become Christians.. "For even if they themselves come into the Church with little faith, there will certainly be more faith in their children who will thus be baptized and grow up Christians." This circular brought many Jews under instruction, and Gregory provided, at his own cost, baptismal robes for the poorer among them.

The Jews had settlements all over Christendom. In Africa they had all the slave-trade in their hands, at Alexandria all the commerce, in Spain all the agriculture. In Gaul their wealth was at the mercy (or caprice!) of king or local tyrant, and sometimes they had to choose between baptism and exile. By the laws of the empire they were cruelly taxed, excluded from civil or military dignities, forbidden to intermarry with Christians or to own Christian slaves. Their witness was not accepted in the law courts. In Italy the Jews were heartily disliked. In Spain the laws of Reccared outdid in harshness the Justinian code.

The Pope alone steadily set his face against proselytism by force. In every land the Jews unjustly treated appealed to Rome.

If their complaint was reasonable they were sure to find redress at his hands. His letters are always on the side of leniency and fair dealing. He writes to the Bishop of Arles:

"We hear from several Jews, who live in this province but travel from time to time to Marseilles, that many Jews, settled in those parts, are brought to the baptismal font rot so much by preaching as by force. Your intention, my dear brother, I believe to be praiseworthy, but I very much fear that the act will bring you no reward hereafter, and will indeed lead to the loss of the very souls you wish to save. I beg of Your Fraternity, therefore, to preach frequently to these persons, with such words as may burn away the thorns of error and enlighten the darkness of their minds, and with such sweetness and kindness as may soften their hearts and induce them, of their own accord, to change their life."

In the same spirit he exhorts the Bishop of Terracina: "It would be better for the Jews to come with kindly feelings to hear you preach the Word of God than that they should have cause to tremble at your inordinate severity."

The Jews at Terracina complained that the bishop had turned them out of their synagogue, because their singing could be heard in the church next door. "Build them another synagogue within the city," was Gregory's command. "We will not have the Hebrews oppressed and afflicted unreasonably. Let no man hinder them from managing their own affairs as they think best; for the Roman Law most justly grants them liberty of action."

He wrote in the same sense to the Bishop of Naples: "Those who wish to restrain the Jews from practising their religion are clearly working for their own ends, not for God. Do not in future allow the Jews to be molested in the performance of their rites. Let them have full freedom to observe their festivals and holy days, as both they and their fathers have done for so long."

When the Bishop of Palmero seized a synagogue and consecrated it to Christian worship, the Pope insisted that all the furniture should be restored to the Jews, and the value of the building paid to them in full.

From Sardinia came the tale one Eastertide how the newly converted Peter had broken into the synagogue on the morrow of his baptism, and rendered it unclean in Jewish eyes by placing there a cross, a picture of the Mother of God, and the white robe that had been given him at the font. Gregory wrote at once to the Bishop Januarius:

"We charge you to remove from the synagogue the picture and the cross. The laws forbid the Jews to set up new synagogues, but they allow them to keep the old ones undisturbed. . . . Let Your Holiness then, with the aid of those who, like yourself, condemn Peter's violence, endeavour to make peace between the Jews and the Christians in your city. Especially at this time, when there is every fear of a raid by the Lombards, you ought not to have a divided people."

Thus did St. Gregory make himself all things to all men, and in big things and in little, deal fairly with every one. Thus did he show himself consistently a true Christian and a sound theologian, a statesman moreover, with a thorough grasp of the principle that the strength of a state depends upon union among its citizens, and that this union can only exist when even-handed justice is meted out to everyone. He portrays himself, of course unconsciously, in the instruction he issues to that most intimately trusted of all his businessmen, Peter the Sub-deacon, Rector of the Sicilian Patrimony.

"I trust that the glorious praetor and all the noble laymen will love you for your humility and not detest you for your pride. Yet if by any chance you learn that they deal unjustly with the poor, at once exchange your humility for firmness. Be their servants when they act aright, oppose them boldly when they act amiss. Yet show no weakness when you yield, nor give them cause to blame you as austere and unbending when you exercise power. In a word, let justice always season your humility, and humility always render your justice acceptable."