The Heroic Age: Issue 6 Spring (2003)
This article examines the idea of the otherworldly in medieval experience from the perspective of Gregory the Great’s mission to the English. The paper reviews the history of travel literature in the medieval world, how Britain’s remoteness and no known history placed it into the realm of the otherworldly, St. Augustine of Canterbury’s fears regarding leaving his known world and traveling into the unknown, and some comparisons of both Gregory’s and Augustine’s viewpoints regarding the otherworldly. In the end, the mission to the English quickly brought Britain out of the otherworldly realm and into the realm of the known in early medieval history.
The boundary lines between reality and fantasy in late antiquity and the early medieval period were often blurred and indeed indistinct in the minds of people in this time period. For most people, who led their lives within a limited geographical area, the next city was often the limit of the imagination. Travel to the Holy Land, the source and inspiration of the Christian religion, was rare and considered the boundary of the known world. If the Holy Land was unknown and exotic territory, how were other lands that were known only through legend or historical record regarded? And how did these remote vistas affect concepts of topos, otherworldly, and even celestial ideas?
For the world of late sixth-century Rome and of Gregory the Great, where Rome was already considered one of those legendary places in both the ancient and the Christian worlds, a slightly different viewpoint regarding the unknown and otherworldly had developed. Not only was the Holy Land considered an exotic locale, but vistas even farther south such as Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as east beyond Constantinople, held the attention of the Roman bishop and peoples. Finally, the vast northern lands and their barbarians were a direct threat to the safety and security of Rome during this time period. And, there was Britain, that farthest outpost of Roman success, vaguely remembered yet distant in both time and space. First, let’s review the existing travel literature that has survived from this time period, and then examine the particular circumstances surrounding Pope Gregory’s mission to the English.