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The History of the Corporation by Bruce Brown

Chapter Three

THE DARKNESS that St. Benedict saw rising around him had its origins a half-millennia before on the other side of the world.

Beginning with the completion of the Great Wall in 214 BC, the Chinese set in motion a chain of events which eventually destroyed one of the world's other great civilizations.

The Wall, and the subsequent destruction of the Hsuing-nu kingdom near Lake Baikal in 36 BC, forced the Hsuing-nu west. Known to us as the Huns, these fierce nomads appeared on the fringe of Europe during the fourth century.

First they crushed the Ostrogoth kingdom on the Caspian Sea, and then they quickly over-ran the Visigoths and Vandals in Eastern Europe, and flung them further west. All three of these displaced peoples – the Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Vandals – eventually sacked Rome.

Consummate archers who brought cavalry warfare to a frightful new level, the Huns reached their zenith under Attila, the man known as the “Scourge of God” – flagellum Dei. Although legendary for his cruelty, Attila used love as the pretext for invading Italy. Honoria, grand-daughter of the Emperor Theodosius II, had sent Attila her ring and asked him to rescue her from enforced chastity after she had been caught in an amorous affair with a palace chamberlain.

Attila died before he could possess either Honoria or Rome, but the barbarian invasions continued for another 800 years. The next to ravage Italy were the Lombards, who poured south in 568. They were led by King Alboin, fresh from killing a rival and carrying the dead king's daughter to his bed. Shortly after conquering most of the northern peninsula, however, Alboin was slain by his new wife, who learned he was using her father's skull as a drinking cup.

Since Alboin left no successor, Lombard Italy fell under the disunited rule of 36 dukes, who pillaged the country in a piecemeal fashion from north to south. By 580, the Lombards had penetrated beyond Rome into the Apennine hill country, where they sacked St. Benedict's beloved abbeys of Monte Cassino, Subiaco and Terracina. The Lombards destruction was so complete that Monte Cassino stood empty for the next 140 years.

Far from exterminating the Benedictine Order, however, this disaster actually helped spread its influence. Like spores from a ruptured fungus, Benedict's monks dispersed to the winds. Some fled to Rome, where the pope offered them San Pancrazio, one of the satellite monasteries of the Lateran basilica. From this influential refuge, the Benedictine Rule spread to other important monasteries.

The History of the Corporation
"Q Morph" from the cover of The History of the Corporation by Bruce Brown

Astonisher.com is pleased to present The History of the Corporation, Volume One by Bruce Brown.

Here is the Table of Contents for excerpts from the entire book, which covers 1,000 years from the birth of the first modern corporation through the the First Dominion of the corporation.

The History of the Corporation
Volume One
by Bruce Brown
Ch. 1 Ch. 2 Ch. 3
Ch. 4 Ch. 5 Ch. 6
Ch. 7 Ch. 8 Ch. 9
Ch. 10 Ch. 11 Ch. 12

About the Author: Bruce Brown is the author of eight books, including Mountain in the Clouds, an environmental classic, and The Windows 95 Bug Collection, which was put on display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
He has done investigative reporting for the New York Times (the Karen Silkwood story), foreign correspondence for Atlantic Monthly (baseball in Cuba), and book reviews for the Washington Post Book World, as well as script-writing for PBS-TV (The Miracle Planet).

He is also a successful businessman and CEO, having created BugNet and built it into the world’s largest supplier of PC bug fixes before it was acquired by a Fortune 500 company at the height of the dot com boom.

One of these was apparently St. Andrew's on the Cælian Hill in Rome. Founded by Gregory the Great around 573, St. Andrew's proved the training ground for some of the most influential Benedictine saints of the 7th century. Although Benedict and Gregory never met (Gregory was born around the time of Benedict's death), their names have become so linked by history that today even many Benedictines regard Gregory as the second founder of the order.

A consummate politician, prince, statesman, abbot, and the first corporate pope, Gregory grew up in a palace on the Cælian Hill in one of Rome's most exclusive districts. His family already counted one pope among its number, and his father, Gordian, was a close friend of Cassiodorus, with whom he unsuccessfully attempted to found a university at Rome during the early sixth century.

Across the avenue from his family house – now named for Gregory – loomed the face of the Palantine Hill, the arx imperii of ancient Rome with its glistening marble palaces. A few were still in use during Gregory's youth, but the decay that Benedict saw a half century before had become much more extensive. Most of these grand buildings, with their innumerable apartments, galleries, halls, and baths, stood empty save for rubbish and broken statuary.

Gregory rose rapidly in the equally decayed world of Roman politics. While still in his mid-20s, he attained the office of Roman prefect. The next year, however, he resigned and entered the monastery of St. Andrew's on the Cælian Hill near his boyhood home. Whether or not he himself ever went through the rigors of becoming a monk is uncertain. He probably did not, although he clearly identified with the monastic movement, and soon became its greatest proponent.

Seizing the papal tiara in 590 after a bitter internal power struggle, Gregory found both Italy and his See in an alarming state. While famine, pestilence and barbarian invasions racked the Italian countryside, the Patriarch of Constantinople – safe in the seat of the still-vital Eastern Empire – challenged the authority of the embattled pope in Rome. The way that Gregory met these threats marked Christianity for millennia to come, and inaugurated the first golden age of the corporation.

From his own experience as Præfectus Urbi, as well as his service as apocrisiarius, or resident ambassador, for Pope Pelagius II at the Byzantine court, Gregory knew the crippling limitations of secular authority during the second half of the sixth century. The prætorian prefect in Rome might still posses a silver inkstand, but little significant power remained to confront the crises that threatened Rome and the rest of the Italian Peninsula. Therefore Gregory boldly assumed Imperial power unto himself and his pontificate.

The very word pontiff underscores the new temporal authority of the pope, for it is borrowed from the old title for the emperor, who was also hailed as Pontifex Maximus, when pagan Rome was the greatest power on Earth. In 593, Gregory concluded a separate peace with the Lombards, effectively assuming the authority of the imperial exarch in Ravenna. At the same time, Gregory's pontificate continued the old imperial corn dole to the Roman poor, repaired the aqueducts and reformed the municipal government of Rome.

Pope Gregory I was able to shoulder these obligations because of the great wealth Christianity had already amassed. In less than 500 years, the Christian church's holding had grown from a single cemetery to “houses, shops, gardens, and farms situated in Italy, Africa, and the East,” thanks to the pecuniary interests of early church leaders like George of Cappadocia, the fourth century bishop and banker of Alexandria who formed an enterprise to exploit Egyptian mineral deposits. The process accelerated after 392, when Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion of Rome, and the church appropriated all the pagan cults' property.

By the end of the sixth century, when Gregory the Great ascended to the throne of St. Peter, the pope already laid claim to more territory than any other Christian patriarch, a domain extending from Africa to Germany. Gregory's contribution was to tap a vast new source of wealth for the church. Put simply, Gregory made salvation a paying proposition by means of an almost alchemical combination of doctrines, the bulk of which were actually of pagan origin. Thus Gregory popularized the concept of purgatory, or the place that souls were believed to go after dying to expurgate the minor sins they might have atoned for with good deeds while still on earth.

While it is possible to infer the existence of a purgatory from passages in both the Old and New Testaments, the first fully developed expression of the doctrine in Christian terms did not appear until the fourth century after Christ's death. St. Ambrose wrote that the souls of the departed await the end of time in different states, depending on their life on earth. The medieval doctrine of purgatory was largely formulated during the fifth century by St. Augustine of Hippo. Still later, St. Caesarius of Arles added the distinction between capital sins, which were believed to lead to hell, and minor ones, which might be expurgated by goods works on earth or in purgatory.

Gregory sanctioned these theories, as well as the idea that the prayers of holy monks could speed the passage of souls through Purgatory to Heaven. Coupled with the monks' practice of selling masses for cash bequests or donations of property to their order, these doctrines made the church's coffers ring. This was especially true after 567 when Queen Radegund, wife of the Frankish King Chlotar I, established an important nunnery at Poitiers. Radegund opened new vistas of patronage, making it possible for the monastic movement to tap the assets of the Merovingian kings, and begin to recruit members from among the highest levels of German nobility.

A Thuringian princess carried into captivity as a child by Chlotar, Radegund drew around her an adoring circle of monastics, including St. Venantius Fortunatus, who composed the triumphal processional hymn Vexilla regis when she received a fragment of the “true cross” as a gift from the Byzantine emperor during the late sixth century. Nunneries generally, however, were not the beneficiaries of this largesse. Medieval monasteries outnumbered them, and while a few royal nunneries like Gandersheim possessed as many as 11,000 manors, nuns commonly were forced to eke out a living by means of modest handicrafts like needlepoint. Since nuns could not be ordained as priests, they were unable to celebrate Mass, the most commonly sought religious service.

By contrast, an early chronicler remarked of the revenues received at a shrine dedicated to the relics of St. Trudo at the Benedictine abbey of St. Trond, “What shall I say of the altar oblations? To say nothing of the animals-palfreys and oxen and cows, boars, rams and sheep, which were offered in incredible multitudes – there were also flax and wax, loaves, cheeses, beyond all weight and number; and silver wire beyond all price. As to money, even at sundown the heap of coin in the cloister was scarcely completed, and very many guardians were wearied with receiving them and laying them in store; men who had been suffered to do naught else during the whole long day...”

The supplicants came day and night in an unquenchable river of sorrow. The tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome drew the largest throngs, but the same scene was played out at relic centers all over Europe. At the tomb of St. Martin of Tours, the records show a woman on a stretcher whose husband had beaten her so severely that she had been unable to walk for three years, a demented young aristocrat led chains, a boy who had “no bones” in his lower extremities whose mother skillfully helped him crawl to the tomb on his knees. There too was the bishop of Liege, who suffered horribly from lupus. His only solace came twice each day when two freshly eviscerated and plucked chickens were applied to the itching places where his flesh should have been.

Gregory not only put this age-old ritual transaction – namely the pleading for divine intercession – into the hands of the Church's corporations, he was the first pope to take an active interest in directing the activities of those same corporations. By granting the monks privilegia, which restricted the jurisdiction of bishops over monasteries in their territory, he began to remake the monastic orders into a papal corps de elite, whose allegiance and power ran directly to the pope. To accomplish this he imposed the Benedictine Rule on many monasteries that had previously followed some other.

The great task that Gregory entrusted to the Benedictines was the conversion of the heathen north. In 596, the pope summoned a group of Benedictine monks to receive a special mission. Chosen from his own monastery, St. Andrews, and led by St. Augustine of Canterbury, they were given the dangerous assignment of opening a beachhead in pagan England. Although Augustine of Canterbury's band, which numbered about 40, was not the first to undertake converting an entire people (Ulfilas had gone to the Goths with a similar notion as early as 340), Augustine was the first corporate missionary, which soon proved useful.

Before St. Augustine ever got to Canterbury, his little band was struck by what Bede the Venerable termed “a sluggish fear.” So horrible were the stories they heard of the heathen Saxons, that they sent Augustine back to Rome to plead with Pope Gregory to release them from their mission. Instead, Gregory increased corporate discipline, sending Augustine back to complete the mission as abbot, instead of merely prior, to the group. That decision turned the tide, not only in England, but also in Germany, which was ultimately converted to Christianity by another Benedictine mission, led by St. Boniface, during the eighth century.

In his letters to St. Augustine of Canterbury, Gregory offers advise on everything a missionary needed know, from acceptable positions for sexual intercourse to how to handle the continued urge to sacrifice. In 599, Gregory wrote to Augustine, “It would be well that the people should, in fact, continue in worship where they had been accustomed, and inasmuch as it had been further customary for the pagans to sacrifice oxen at their services, it would be well in this matter also not to break abruptly with old traditions...” Gregory himself concocted a mixture of salt, ashes, wine and water used the consecrate churches and altars.

Although not a profound theologian, Gregory was certainly a popular one. He preached a “religion of terror,” and emphasized the sort of grand theatrical stagecraft that had once been the hallmark of the pagan cults. As G.G. Coulton noted in Five Centuries of Religion, “the Church began to worship the images which she had formerly repudiated, and to promote the devils from their comparatively modest place in the New Testament to a far more conspicuous share in the growing creed. They became materialized in direct ratio to the general materialization of Christianity; they took its shape and colour.”

Nowhere was this more evident than relic worship, which with Gregory's encouragement became the true religion of the Dark Ages. Every nation, city, abbey, church, craft, soul, and crisis of life had its patron saint, just as it had its god in pagan Rome. England had St. George, while France had St. Denis. St. Bartholomew was the protector of the tanners because he had been flayed alive; St. John was invoked by candle makers because he had been plunged into a caldron of burning oil. St. Apollinia, whose jaw had been smashed, cured toothache; St. Blaise soothed sore throats. St. Corneille protected oxen, St. Anthony watched over pigs.

The tremendous popular demand for actual physical relics of the holy led first to the curiously common medieval practice of “pious theft,” or grave robbing of the saints' corpses, and ultimately to their wild, inflationary multiplication as the remains of saints were “discovered on all sides,” as Raoul Glaber noted dryly. A half dozen European churches claimed to possess the head of St. John the Baptist, while at least three claimed to possess the relics of St. Mary Magdalene, and two each advertised the remains of St. Siro, St. Alpollinare, and St. Alban. The last case prompted a lawsuit between the Benedictine monasteries of St. Albans and Ely which lasted more than 250 years.

More rational voices within the church had long questioned the sanctity of supposed bits of saints' corpses. Around 410, for instance, Vigilantius, presbyter of Aquitaine, attacked relic worshipers as “dustmen” and idolaters. The dustmen were not to be so easily subdued, though. Jerome savaged Vigilantius, declaring that demons howl in the ashes of martyrs. Significantly, it was Jerome not Vigilantius who was anointed with sainthood. Similarly, Empress Irene won sainthood for restoring relic worship in the Eastern Empire, even though she blinded her son and usurped his throne.

Occasionally, however, a more rational mind did attain sainthood. St. Agobard, ninth century bishop of Lyons, noted that “the wretched world lies now under the tyranny of foolishness: things are believed by Christians of such absurdity as no one ever could aforetime induce the heathen to believe...” He criticized the excessive veneration of images, trial by ordeal, and the common belief that hail and thunder are controlled by magic, but he was a lonely voice against the rising tide of church-sponsored superstition.

Two hundred years later, Pope Gregory the Great sealed the acceptance of idolatry in the west. “All sense of a rational order in the universe had departed from him,” wrote Will Durant. “It was a world in which science was impossible, and only a fearful faith remained. The next seven centuries would accept this theology; the great Scholastics would toil to give it the form of reason; it would constitute the tragic background of The Divine Comedy.”

Gregory's mark is still evident in the Gregorian Sacramentary, or chant, the popular idea of angels and devils, and the fact that northern Europe was converted to Christianity. His greatest contribution to the Catholic Church, however, was his embracing of religious corporations, primarily the Benedictines.

He could see the potential power and utility of the corporation, and began the tradition of using the corporation to meet the needs of the papacy, which came more and more to be synonymous with the church itself. In embracing the corporation, Gregory gave the Catholic Church its most distinctive feature.

For what sets Catholicism apart from all others religions is not its dogma or liturgy or messiah figure; it is derivative in all these respects. The unique thing is its reliance on ecclesiastic corporations.

No other religion -- Christian or otherwise -- has ever been so corporatized as the Catholic Church. And no other has amassed such material wealth.

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"The History of the Corporation, Volume One" © Copyright 2003 Bruce Brown
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