Gregory I (ca. 540-604), commonly called St. Gregory the Great, was pope from 590 to 604. He was truly a founder of the Middle Ages, both through his decisive policies as pope and through his widely read writings.
Born at Rome about 540, Gregory was the son of a prominent senatorial family and the great-great-grandson of Pope Felix III. He began his adult life on a path that would doubtless have led him to the highest offices in the government of the Roman Empire. In 573 he was prefect of Rome, a post which made him the highest civil official of the city. Like many leading spirits of the age, however, he renounced this career and retired into the monastic life of contemplation. His vast property holdings he either sold for the relief of the poor or used for the endowment of monasteries, seven of which he personally founded, six in Sicily and one in Rome. The Roman one, which he himself entered about 574 as one of the brothers, was established in his own family house on a street which may still be visited, the Clivus Scauri.
Pelagius II became pope in 579, a year in which the city of Rome was under siege by the invading Lombards from the north. The new pope quickly summoned Gregory from his monastery, ordained him deacon, and dispatched him as his personal envoy to the imperial court at Constantinople. There his chief business was to represent to the Emperor the urgent need of Italy for defense against the barbarian invaders. Though Gregory stayed at the capital for almost 6 years, he was without success in this particular task, the Emperor being too preoccupied with the defense of the eastern frontier to take seriously the situation in the West.
A newly found friend in the person of Leander, bishop of the Spanish city of Seville, who was at the capital on a mission from his native land, pressed Gregory to undertake a literary project which was to become the longest work from his pen, extending to 35 books: the Moralia, a commentary on the biblical book of Job. About 585 Gregory returned home, probably again taking up the life of ascetic discipline, study, and contemplation at his monastery on the Clivus Scauri.
On the death of Pelagius II in 590, the people of Rome demanded that Gregory be made pope. Though he attempted to escape from the city in his efforts to avoid the exalted office in favor of the contemplative life, he finally accepted the voice of his Church as the voice of God and ascended the papal throne in the year of Pelagius's death.
Among the most pressing of Gregory l's concerns from the moment of his becoming pope were the physical well-being of his people and the political situation in Italy. The effects of the overflowing of the river Tiber, plague, and famine made the organization of resources and the alleviation of suffering matters of urgent necessity. On receiving news that the Lombard duke Ariulf was marching on Rome, Gregory stepped into the power vacuum; he directed the defense of the city and appointed military governors to other Italian cities as well. What was left of imperial authority in Italy was vested in an official called the exarch, residing in Ravenna. Gregory was driven to distraction by the unwillingness of the exarch to take steps either toward the defense of the country or toward a truce with the Lombards. In 593, with his city under siege, Gregory himself negotiated a truce between Ariulf and the city of Rome. A change of exarchs in 598 saw the fulfillment of one of Gregory's cherished goals, a formal peace between the Lombards and all of Italy.
The Pope did not allow his administrative duties to extinguish his activity as a writer. Soon after his taking office appeared the Book of Pastoral Rule, written ostensibly in explanation of his initial unwillingness to become pope. It is an extended discussion of the awesome responsibilities of the office of bishop in the Church, in which much that is repetitious and common-place is interwoven with remarks of acute psychological insight into the delicate relations between a ruler of souls and his people.
The Moralia, begun in Constantinople, both exemplifies at length Gregory's allegorical method of interpreting Scripture and portrays his deep sense, nurtured by the uncertainties and crises of the times, of the Church as participating in the sufferings of Christ: Job in his agonies is a figure representing both Christ and the Church united to Christ in his suffering. In the Dialogues Gregory with more than a little credulity records for popular edification the lives and miracles of holy men of Italy; one entire book of this work is in fact the first biography of Benedict of Nursia, known as the father of Western Christian monasticism. In addition to these works there are extant over 60 sermons preached at various times, plus 854 letters, which reveal his engaging personal manner as well as his wide-ranging concerns.
Gregory entertained no mean estimate of the significance of the papal office. To the successor of the apostle Peter as bishop of Rome is entrusted a primacy over the whole Church. Gregory interpreted this primacy as a primacy of service and was the first to style himself "servant of the servants of God." His service was one of upholding the canonical procedures of the Church and of admonishing bishops and secular rulers when such procedures were ignored. It was a service of eradicating corruption and vice among the clergy and of mobilizing the resources of the Church for the benefit of the poor.
The vast and far-flung estates of the papacy, the Patrimony of Peter, played an important role in the achievement of these ends. Just as Pope Pelagius had called the monk Gregory to active service in the Church, so did Gregory summon trusted monks from their cells to be overseers of the Patrimony and in this capacity both to be local protectors and benefactors of the poor and to act as agents of the Pope, reporting ecclesiastical irregularities to him and acting as his local representatives.
Gregory, the first monk-pope, did not as pope forsake the outlook of a monk; he regarded the lust for power as one of the severest threats to the health of the Church. Thus, from his point of view, he could do nothing but offer the most stringent opposition against the claim of the bishop of Constantinople to the title "universal bishop," asserting that such a vainglorious title did not belong even to himself.
Though Gregory on the one hand saw himself as a loyal citizen of the Roman Republic and thus a subject of the Roman emperor at Constantinople, he on the other hand saw clearly that the "barbarian" kingdoms of western Europe had seriously to be reckoned with as a permanent political fact. Thus, for example, did he enter into direct relations with the Merovingian rulers of Gaul in regard to the regulation of Church affairs there.
Probably Gregory's single most significant act as pope was the sending in 596 of 40 monks under the leadership of Augustine, monks from his own monastery on the Clivus Scauri, to accomplish the conversion of the heathen English. In England his monks were to establish the two archbishoprics of Canterbury and York, directly under papal control, and it was from England in the 8th century that monks thoroughly loyal to the papacy were to set out as missionaries to the Germans. Through his employment of monks as papal agents and missionaries he translated the inherited theory of papal supremacy over the Church into a program for actual papal governance of the Catholic Church in the West. Thus the pattern of medieval Catholicism was laid.
After some years of contending with prolonged attacks of gout and gastritis, Gregory died on March 12, 604.
The classic biography of Gregory I is F. Homes Dudden, Gregory the Great: His place in History and Thought (2 vols., 1905), which provides a detailed account of his life and teachings and valuable information on the period. A shorter and quite valuable biography, with important excerpts from Gregory's writings, is Pierre Batiffol, Saint Gregory the Great (trans. 1929). For general historical background the following are recommended: The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2: The Rise of the Saracens and the Foundations of the Western Empire, edited by H. M. Gwatkin (1913); Margaret Deanesly, A History of Early Medieval Europe, 476 to 911 (1956); and R. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe (1957).