To be called a “Pelagian” is about the worst insult that a Calvinist can hurl at you. So who was Pelagius? And how did his contemporaries react to it? Specifically, Pelagius was from Roman Britain; what did they think of it?
Let’s start with this, from Peter Salway’s Roman Britain:
One incident, in which the indisputably historical St. Germanus of Auxerre appears in person, gives us a glimpse of influential Britons of the time. Already, possibly in 403, Victricius, bishop of Rouen, had visited Britain at the request of his fellow bishops in Gaul to restore peace among the clergy here: it has been suggested that this may have been due to controversy over the Pelagian heresy. Dr. J.N.L. Myres has pointed out the possible political overtones in this heresy (itself the creation of a Briton), which turned on the doctrine of Grace. Unfortunately the term gratia was only too well known in the context of the immense web of patronage and favour. Certainly by 429 Pelaginaism was a real issue in Britain, whether religious or political or both. In that year Germanus and his colleague, Lupus, Bishop of the neighbouring see of Troyes, were chosen, at a meeting of the bishops of Gaul which was influenced by the Pope, to visit Britain to combat the heresy. One may perhaps speculate that both of these bishops had had experience of dealing with difficult situations in regions on the fringe of direct Roman power. Their chief clerical opponent in Britain was a leading Pelagian named Agricola, himself the son of a bishop and clearly backed by a powerful party of local magnates.
I’ve noted elsewhere–and Salway did also–that the whole Roman system was driven by patronage. When Christianity broke out of its Jewish beginnings and became a Gentile religion, it came into a world where peoples’ mindset was geared in this direction. It was virtually impossible under those conditions that the whole idea of grace would not get tangled up with it.
Roman Britain had an interesting history, both a key part of the Roman world and aside from it at the same time. Reconstructing that history can be problematic, but the evidence shows that, by the end of the fourth century, brutal characters like Paul the Chain and the endless upheaval of revolting emperors and barbarian invasions were inspiring the local aristocracy to at least consider an alternative.
Between the first contact mentioned about in 403 and Germanus’ expedition in 429 came a momentous event in British history–the “independence” of Britain from Rome. This was partly due to the Emperor Honorius’ loss of control of the island around the time of Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410, and partly due to the fact that the Britons saw a clear way to the exit.
For those Roman officials whose loyalty remained with the Emperor, the results were, to put it mildly, unpleasant, as this passage from Fastidius’ De Vita Christiana attests:
We see before us plenty of examples of wicked men, the sum of their sins complete, who are at this present moment being judged, and denied this present life no less than the life to come…Those who have freely shed the blood of others are not being forced to spill their own…Some lie unburied, food for the beasts and birds of the air. Others…have been individually torn limb from limb…Their judgements have killed many husbands, widowed many women, orphaned many children. They made them beggars and left them bare…for they plundered the children of the men they killed. Now it their wives who are widows, their sons who are orphans, begging their daily bread from others.
In any case by the time Germanus met with the “best and brightest” of British aristocracy the latter very much “large and in charge” as Salway goes on to describe:
The confrontation between the Roman bishops and the Pelagians took place at a public meeting. The religious and political importance that was clearly attached locally to the issue is underlined by the huge crowd (immensa multitude) who came to hear the episcopal visitors. The Pelagian party at the meeting is described in words that make one think immediately of the proud, elegant Gallo-Roman nobility we have earlier noted. We are told that they were ‘conspicuous for riches, brilliant in dress, and surrounded by a fawning multitude’.’ That fawning multitude puts one in mind of the ancient Roman aristocratic tradition of the clientela. The conspicuous wealth is characteristic of the Roman world, perhaps particularly so in the fourth and fifth centuries. The brilliant costume reminds us of that period’s taste for splendid multicoloured dress, as seen for example on the fourth-century wall-paintings of the Lullingstone villa in Kent, and at its height in the imperial splendour of Justinian’s court portrayed in mosaic in San Vitale at Ravenna. We have already seen in the Gallic context how luxury and display among the Roman provincial nobility in the fifth century cannot be equated with the political system under which they were at any particular moment living. It is at least clear that here in Britain in 429 we are observing not a ruined class living in bondage to savage barbarian masters, nor even a few fortunate survivors, but a substantial body of men of influence who carry weight both with their personal following and the community at large. The pride of the Pelagian party, moreover, is underlined by a rescript from Honorius in 418 which, while it applies to the heretics of this persuasion at large, fits well with this picture from Britain. The emperor there accuses the Pelagians of ‘considering it a mark of common vulgarity to agree with opinions that everyone else holds’. The superciliousness and magnificence, to which the Latin word superbus was applied, will be met with again in examining the ruling elements of post-Roman Britain.
The Late Roman fancy for “bling” and gaudy display reflected their insecurity (sound familiar)? Although their adoption of Pelagian theology sprang from their aversion to the gratia of Roman patronage, I think there were other factors at work. Adoption of Pelagian theology differentiated the Britons from their Continental counterparts, which was especially important when connected with political independence. It was also an affirmation of the “hometown boy made good”.
By the time Germanus visited Britain, almost twenty years had passed since the break. The evidence indicates that breaking with the Emperor was, like the Act of Supremacy, first and foremost the moving of headship from an external source (Rome again)! to an internal one, not a major systemic change (at least not in the short term). With the break secure, did the British aristocracy consider it less necessary to differentiate themselves? In any case Germanus’ oratory was convincing enough that at least a major part of his audience swung back to a more Augustinian idea.
Unfortunately the subsequent course of post-Roman Britain wasn’t very inspiring. Still in a dangerous neighbourhood of barbarians, the British nobleman Vortigern got the bright idea of bringing in the Saxons to help defend the island. They turned on their patrons, devastated the island, and basically the history of Britain had to start over again.