Hadrian of Carthage: A Medieval African Who Changed Europe

February is Black History Month, a month to pay “tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society.” As a church historian I am particularly interested in paying tribute to those African-Americans and others of African origin who played a major role in the story of the Christian Church. There are many who have done excellent work in telling the story of early African-Americans who contributed to American Christianity: leaders like Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, and early African-American Presbyterian leaders like John Gloucester.

My interest in church history though lies further back in the annals of time. I’m a medievalist and I also dabble in the early church period. I have been encouraged at the increased awareness of just how many of the early church Fathers were African: Athanasius, the staunch defender of Nicene Orthodoxy, Augustine, the Schoolmaster of Western Christianity, Cyril of Alexandria, Origin, Cyprian of Carthage, Tertullian… I could go on. I was encouraged to see an article recently that highlighted this wonderful history as a part of a series of posts on Black History Month on the Reformed African-American Network.

The medieval period, however, has often been seen as a time without much contribution from Africans to the life and work of the Church. Part of that is due to the spread of Islam over North Africa. Part of that is due to our ignorance in knowing and telling the stories of African Christians during that time. Yet, as I was reading the article linked above I remembered one particular African who had an enormous impact on medieval Europe: Hadrian of Carthage.

Hadrian, also known as St. Adrian of Canterbury, was like St. Augustine a North African of the Berber people. He was born in Carthage in the early to mid 7th century, and classically educated. He later moved to Italy and became an abbot of a monastery near modern day Naples. Bede describes Hadrian as, “a native of Africa, very learned in the Scriptures, experienced in ecclesiastical and monastic administration, and a great scholar in Greek and Latin,” (HE IV:1). That’s a pretty impressive endorsement by Bede! Because of his experience and erudition, Hadrian was impressed upon two separate times by his friend Vitalian, the Bishop of Rome, to take the vacant see of Canterbury and engage himself in a much needed reformation and revival in the English Church. Twice though Hadrian turned him down, the last time recommending another monastic leader, one Theodore of Tarsus. Theodore accepted the appointment, but the Pope insisted that Hadrian go along, ostensibly, to show Theodore the way through Gaul to England. Yet it was not travel directions that the Bishop of Rome truly desired Hadrian to give, but to be a partner to Theodore in the reformation and revival of the English Church.

Theodore and Hadrian set off for England in 668, after a brief pause for Theodore to grow his hair out so as to be able to accept the Roman form of tonsure. They arrived in England in 669 and began visiting the churches so as to ascertain their state and begin the needed education and reform. They began to attract students whom they instructed in the knowledge of theology, church customs and rites, sacred music, Greek and Latin, and the study of sacred Scripture. Bede describes a renaissance of sorts in England that came as a result of their labors, “The people eagerly sought the new-found joys of the kingdom of heaven, and all who wished for instruction in the reading of the Scriptures found teachers ready at hand,” (HE IV:2).  This explosion of learning was such that Bede remarked a couple of generations later that, “some of their students still alive today are as proficient in Latin and Greek as in their native tongue,” (ibid.).

Thus we can see that Hadrian’s impact on England and the church in England was massive. Yet what remains to be seen is just how much his contribution to the reformation and revival of England led to the foundations of Christianity in Western Europe.

Western Europe in the 7th c. was still a largely unreached place. Catholic Christianity was established in some places, while others of the Germanic tribes had been converted to Arian forms of Christianity. Still others remained pagan. There was a great need in these Germanic areas for both evangelization and Christianization. The problem was that the existing churches of Western Europe (mostly in Gaul, modern France) were not equipped to undertake this mission. This is where the English came in.

Due to the work of Hadrian and Theodore, the English were equipped to engage in this mission to the Germanic peoples. And so they did, with great vigor and success. Boniface led a wave of missionaries from England back to the continent to evangelize and establish churches. He is now known as the Apostle to the Germans. Educational leaders like Alcuin of York were brought from England by the Carolingian rulers to help establish court schools as well as cathedral and monastery schools and to lead in the Christianization and reform of the churches in Western Europe. The legacy of these English missionaries is hard to overstate: these are the fathers of the Europe we know today. They established the institutions and infrastructure upon which Western civilization is established.

And none of this would have been possible without the efforts of St. Hadrian, the African. A medieval giant who had a greater impact than any of us probably realize.

Let us give thanks for St. Hadrian and celebrate his work and ministry and its vast impact on the world we live in.

Author: Tim LeCroy

Tim LeCroy is Pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Columbia, MO. He is husband of Rachel and father of Ruby and Lucy