How the Early Church Made Peace with Prosperity
As the older aristocracies collapsed in the West, new forms of churchly order and fresh configurations of power took shape and eventually displaced Roman models. Pastoral power represented a new kind of powerless power, power without swords or troops, and the bishops managed wealth that was understood as a trust for the poor, a wealth without wealth. By the end of the fifth century, the church was a wealthy institution in a world of scarcity, and the bishops had taken the place of wealthy landowners as the magnates of the countryside. The shift from a "plebeian" to an "aristocratic ideal of leadership" was hesitant and contested. It was the social shift behind debates about predestination, grace, and freedom that broke out among monks of Provence during the fifth century.
The Professional Poor
Brown is not merely interested in following the money. He is more interested in the transformation of imagination that accompanied, formed, and followed from the church's reconciliation with wealth. For Romans, wealth was for display, a way of radiating splendor: They were early practitioners of "conspicuous consumption." Ancient Romans also knew all about gift-giving. Aristocratic patrons maintained the loyalty of clients through gifts. Emperors gained the enthusiastic support of the people with bread and circuses. Local bigmen won lasting memory by donating buildings or games to the city. They gave to be given to in return, knitting the empire into what Cicero and Seneca saw as an intricate web of benefit and gratitude.
Christians too gave in order to receive. Yet over the centuries that Brown surveys there was a gradual but epochal shift in the imagination of giving. Christian giving was not competitive because Christians believed they gave up earthly wealth to gain a share in God's inexhaustible heavenly treasure. The treasury of reward was as infinite as God Himself. As Brown repeatedly and strikingly says, giving split the fixed boundary between heaven and earth; each small gift was a cosmic drama. Drawing on Jewish sources, Christians emphasized giving to the poor, who were re-imagined as brothers rather than distant others. In Christian giving, social lines were blurred as much as cosmic ones.
Monasteries provided the keys that opened heaven to the rich. By the end of the sixth century, "monks gradually came to eclipse the poor as the privileged others of the Christian imagination." As the professional poor, monks went through the needle's eye on behalf of everyone else. Gifts to monasteries were gifts to God's poor. Monasteries, further, operated on Augustine's theory concerning gifts and forgiveness. A medieval nobleman's bequest to a monastery was as self-interested as a Roman Senator's funding of games, but the nobleman reached beyond earthly glory. He hoped to store up treasures in heaven and cleanse his sins.