The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham (2009)

The sub-title is ‘A History of Europe from 400 to 1000’. It is the second in the ‘Penguin History of Europe’ series, following Classical Europe and preceding Europe in the High Middle Ages. It is a dense 550 pages long, plus extensive notes, bibliography, index and maps. But I’m not sure it’s a book I’d recommend to anyone. Why?

Events and theories

Very roughly there are two types of history books – ones which tell you the events in chronological order, and ones which discuss themes, theories and ideas about the events. Thus Dan Jones’s breathless account of the Plantagenet kings gives a thrilling head-on narrative of their trials and tribulations from 1120 to 1400. You can go on to explore individual Plantagenet monarchs further via in narrative-led books like Marc Morris’s accounts of King John or King Edward I.

By contrast, a thematic history would be one like John Darwin’s overview of the British Empire, which examines different elements or themes of the imperial experience, bringing together incidents, facts and stats from widely disparate territories and different points in time to prove his general points.

This book is very much the latter. Although divided into four chronological sections –

  • The Roman Empire and Its Breakup 400-550
  • The Post-Roman West 550-750
  • The Empires of the East 550-1000
  • The Carolingian and Post-Carolingian West 750-1000

– it is much more a thematic than an events-based account. Wickham explains the bits he needs to, but yanks them out of contexts as disparate as Viking Iceland or Muslim Baghdad. In the same sentence he can be talking about Justinian in the 550s then switch to Constantine’s reforms in the 312s and end with some comments about Theodosius in the 390s. I found the result very confusing.

In my experience you have to read the most detailed account possible of contentious historical events in order to feel you have even the beginnings of an ‘understanding’ of them; in fact ideally you read several complementary accounts to begin to build up a three dimensional picture. By ‘understanding’ I mean the ability to put yourself in the place of the relevant players – kings, queens, nobles, opposing generals or whatever – to understand the social, economic, cultural and psychological pressures they were under, and to understand why they behaved as they did. Alaric sacked Rome because of a, b, c. Charlemagne attacked the Saxons so savagely because of x, y, z.

The further removed you are from a comprehensible, chronological and granular account of the Past, the sillier it often looks.

For example, if you are told that the armies of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century were diverted from attacking the Saracens in the Holy Land and ended up besieging, sacking and permanently weakening Christian Constantinople (in 1204) you will be tempted to make all kinds of generalisations about how stupid and violent the crusaders were, how muddle-headed medieval leaders were, how hypocritical Christianity has always been, and so on.

It’s only if you delve deeper and discover that Constantinople was experiencing a major leadership crisis in which an anti-Crusade emperor had deposed a pro-Crusade emperor and was threatening to execute him, and that this crisis was taking place against the background of mounting tension between the Latin and the Greek populations of the city which had already led to one major riot in which the city’s Greek population had massacred or forced to flee the entire Roman population of around 60,000 – if you’re told all this, then the crusaders’ motives no longer look so random and absurd: in fact you can begin to see how some of them thought the diversion was vital in order:

  • to rescue ‘their’ emperor
  • to ensure the safety of ‘their’ people in the city
  • and to establish favourable conditions for the ongoing pursuit of the crusade against the Muslims

In fact it was not so stupid after all. You are also better placed to understand the arguments within the Crusader camp about whether or not to besiege the city, as the leaders of different national factions – each with different trading and political links with the Greeks or the West – will have argued the case which best suited their interests. Now you can begin to sympathise with the conflicting arguments, you can put yourself in the place of the squabbling crusaders or the different factions within the city. Now – in other words – you have achieved what I define as a basic ‘understanding’ of the event.

Or take the famous sack of Rome in 410. I recently read John Julius Norwich’s long account of the Byzantine Empire from 300 to 800, very dense with facts and quite hard to assimilate – but it does have the merit of describing events very thoroughly, giving you a clear picture of the unfolding story of the Byzantine Empire – and its clarity allows you to go back and reread passages if you get a bit lost (easy to do). Thus, although I’ve read references to Alaric and the Visigoths’ sack of Rome scores of times, Norwich’s book was the first one I’ve ever read which explains in detail the events leading up to the disaster. And it was only by reading the full sequence of events that I learned the unexpected fact that the sack was mostly the fault of the obstinate Roman authorities, because they snobbishly refused to negotiate a peace deal with Alaric, a peace deal he actually wanted, and that their foolish refusal eventually forcing him into extreme action. (See my review of Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich.) Norwich’s account was a revelation to me, completely transforming my understanding of this key event in the history of western Europe. Compare and contrast with Wickham, who covers it in one sentence (on page 80).

For me, in the study of history – the closer, the clearer and the more chronological, the better.

Modish

On top the confusing thematic approach, Wickham’s text is aggressively modern, theoretical and self-consciously up-to-date. He uses the lexicon of literary theory I was taught in the 1980s and which has gone on to infest history writing and art criticism. Events are ‘situated’ in the ‘space’ created by hierarchies, his book sets out to survey ‘the socio-political, socio-economic, political-cultural developments of the period 400-1000’ and will investigate the complexity of the state structures within which the major figures ‘operated’. And he is liberal with maybe the key indicator of fashionable post-modern jargon, ‘the Other’; hence,

The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’ (p.43).

The trouble with this kind of jargon is that it rarely explicates things and more often confuses or obscures them. ‘The Roman world was surrounded by ‘others’.’ What does that say except look at my modish post-modern vocabulary. Does he mean that the Roman Empire, within which law, order, peace and trade prevailed, was surrounded by territories in which shifting alliances of illiterate barbarian tribes lived their mostly unrecorded lives, tribes which periodically threatened to overrun the borders of the Empire.

Wickham emphasises how bang up to date he is and is at great pains to skewer the vulgar error of all previous historians of this period, who thought the Roman Empire ‘collapsed’ under pressure from invading ‘barbarians’. The whole thrust of his book is that Roman law, administration and other structures lingered on much much longer than has been previously thought – hence the book’s title. But he still needs a generic word to describe the non-Roman peoples who indisputably did break across the frontiers of the Empire, who did ravage large sections of it, who did cause enormous disruption and who did form the basis of the post-Roman societies which slowly replaced the Empire. Having ruled out the use of barbarians, since that falls into the vulgar error of all previous writers on the subject, he eventually decides to call them ‘barbarians’, with added speech marks and so throughout the book the word ‘barbarian’ occurs just as much as it would in a traditional account, but with the quotes around it to remind you that the older accounts were so so wrong, and this account is so much more sophisticated.

All past accounts are wrong

The opening pages of The Inheritance of Rome explain why all previous histories of the Early Middle Ages were wrong – they suffered from any of three major flaws:

1. The Nationalist Fallacy i.e. countless histories have been written over the past two hundred years in the nations of modern Europe claiming that the period 400-1000 saw the ‘seeds’ being laid of their respective proud nation state – of modern France, Germany, Britain etc etc. No, they weren’t, says Wickham. The people we are investigating lived their own lives in their own time according to their own values inherited from their recent past – they had absolutely no inkling what would happen in the future. To write as if Charlemagne was laying the foundations for modern France is unforgiveable teleology i.e. seeing a purpose or aim in events, a sense of inevitability (rising, in conservative nationalist histories to a sense of Historical Destiny) which simply doesn’t exist and which didn’t exist at the time.

When Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate in 472 no-one knew that he would be the Last Roman Emperor in the West. All the various political players continued jostling for power in the normal way, invoking the presence, the power and the continuation of the Empire, not least the Eastern Emperor Zeno, as if a replacement would shortly be found. Even a hundred years later, the so-called ‘barbarian’ rulers of Italy were still invoking the authority of the Emperor and using Roman titles to bolster their rule. No, the ‘barbarian’ rulers of Western Europe circa 600 had no thoughts of founding France or Germany or Belgium or Holland. They must be seen entirely within the context of their own times and values to be properly understood.

Basically – avoid hindsight. Assess historical periods in themselves, as their protagonists experienced them. Don’t make the mistake of judging the Early Middle Ages as a hurried way station on the journey to later, greater things: of conceptualising Clovis as just a stepping stone to Charlemagne or Offa as just a step on the way towards Alfred.

Only an attempt to look squarely at each past in terms of its own social reality can get us out of this trap. (p.12)

2. The Modernist Fallacy i.e. European history has been a tale of steady progress towards our present giddy heights, towards the triumph of a global economy, liberal culture, science, reason, human rights and so on. These all began to appear in ‘the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome’, but then – tragically – fell into a pit of darkness with the end of Roman Imperial rule, a bleak ‘Dark Age’ awash with ‘illiterate barbarians’ who only slowly, painfully clawed humanity back up into the light, which began to shine again during the Renaissance, and has risen steadily higher ever since.

Nonsense, says Wickham. The early medieval period was first given the negative name ‘the dark ages’ by chauvinists of the Renaissance who despised everything Gothic and non-classical. Later, 18th century and Victorian historians reinforced this negative image due to the paucity of documents and evidence from it, which for so long made our knowledge of it so patchy. But recent revolutions in archaeology, along with the availability of more documents than ever before (including from behind the former Iron Curtain), and their freely available translations on the internet, mean that:

a) we can write much better, more informed histories of the period than ever before
b) this significantly increased amount of evidence shows that Roman administrative structures, law and literacy carried on for much longer than was previously thought. I.e. there is much more continuity of civilisation in post-Roman Europe than those old historians claim. I.e. it wasn’t so dark after all.

The fundamental aim of Wickham’s book is to bring together this recent(ish) research in both document-based history and archaeology to show that the Roman Empire didn’t inevitably ‘decline and fall’ under the impact of ‘barbarians’.

a) There was no inevitability: the structures – the tax system and bureaucracy and church – lasted for centuries after the first ‘barbarian’ incursions in the West and, of course, continued for an entire millennium in the Byzantine East.
b) We have lots of evidence that the so-called ‘barbarians’ – all those Goths and Vandals and Burgundians and Franks – themselves quickly assimilated Roman standards, ideas and terminology, that many of them wanted to remain vassals of the Emperor in Byzantium, centuries after the West had fallen. Roman ideas, practices, the language and bureaucracy and structures of power, all lived on for a long time into the Early Middle Ages (and for another 1000 years in the East). The so-called ‘barbarians’ in fact went out of their way to adopt the Roman language, Roman iconographies of power, a Roman bureaucracy run on Roman lines and so on, for as long as they could after seizing power in their respective areas. I.e. there wasn’t an abrupt END – there was a very, very long process of assimilation and change…

Themes not events

So this book is not a blow-by-blow chronological account of the period. It proceeds in chronological periods but skips through the events of each period pretty quickly in order to get to what motivates and interests Wickham – academic discussion of themes such as how much the Imperial tax system endured in 5th century Gaul, or just what the archaeology of the lower Danube tells us about the Romanisation of its inhabitants. And so on.

I found a lot of this discussion very interesting – and it’s good to feel you are engaging with one of the leading experts in this field – but I was only able to enjoy it because I had recently read three other books on the exact same period, and so understood what he was talking about. In other words, I would not recommend this book as a ‘history’ of the period. It is a collection of discussions and meditations on themes and topics arising from the history of the period, but it is not a detailed sequential account of what happened. For that you’d have to look elsewhere.

Interesting insights

Once you understand that it is a meta-history, interested in discussing themes and topics arising from the period, and presupposing you already have a reasonable familiarity with the actual chronology, then the book is full of insights and ideas:

  • Ethnogenesis The ‘barbarians’ were illiterate; when they conquered somewhere they recruited the local Roman bureaucracy to run things and record laws. We’ve long known that the Roman accounts of the tribes which fought and invaded were unreliable. But I hadn’t realised that the terms Ostrogoth, Visigoth and so on were merely flags of convenience later writers give to peoples who didn’t call themselves that. More searchingly, recent historians think that even the idea of coherent tribes and peoples is open to doubt. More likely these groupings were probably made up of smaller tribes or even clans which temporarily united round one or other leader for specific ad hoc campaigns or battles, before splitting up again. Complicated.
  • Britain and Ireland A sort of proof of this vision of fissiparous ‘barbarians’ comes in chapter 7 which Wickham dedicates to Ireland and Britain. Ireland was never ruled by Rome and so kept its native pattern of tiny kingdoms, maybe more than 100, each owing fealty to higher kings, who themselves owed fealty to whoever managed to seize control as the High King at any one moment. Chaotic.

The end of Roman rule in Britain

More interesting is what happened to Britain after the Romans withdrew. The collapse of post-Roman Britain seems to have been quicker and more complete than of any other Imperial territory but modern historians now think the end of Roman rule was more complicated than the bare dates suggest. In his history of the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, Gildas says that most of Britain’s Roman garrison was stripped by the commander Maximus when he made his bid to become Augustus or emperor in the West, in the 380s. Maximus took the garrisons with him on his invasion of Italy but was defeated and killed in 388. Britain returned to the rule of the Emperor Theodosius – until 392 when the usurping emperor Eugenius seized power in the West, although he also was defeated by Theodosius, in 394.

When Theodosius died in 395, his 10-year-old son Honorius succeeded him as Western Roman Emperor but the real power behind the throne was Stilicho, Honorius’s father-in-law. In 401 or 402 Stilicho stripped Hadrian’s Wall of troops for the final time, to bring them to Europe to fight the Visigoths.

In 407 a Roman general in Britain, Constantine (not the Great), rallied his troops in rebellion against Honorius (perhaps because they hadn’t been paid for some time) and led them into Gaul, where Constantine set himself up as Emperor in the West. But ‘barbarian’ invasions soon destabilised his rule and in 409 or 410, British authorities expelled his magistrates and officials. The Byzantine historian Zosimus describes this as a British ‘rebellion’.

This is how the stripping away of Britain’s defending army actually took place over a thirty year period, from 380 to 410, and as a result of the (generally failed) ambitions of a succession of usurpers and military governors.

Later in his history, Zosimus says the British authorities appealed to help from the Emperor. The Emperor replied (in the so-called Rescript of Honorius) that the British civitates must look to their own defences.

That’s it. Britain had been stripped of all Roman garrisons and legions and was wide open to sea-borne invasion by Saxons and others. These are traditionally dated to the 440s and 450s. The collapse of the Roman-British lifestyle was, apparently, very quick after the garrisons withdrew. Within a generation, archaeology tells us, the towns and villas had been abandoned. 50 or 60 years later, in 510 or 520, Gildas writes his long lament for the ‘ruined’ state of Britain. By the mid-500s the Eastern historian Procopius writes that Britannia was entirely lost to the Romans.

More insights

Militarisation of the élite Following the fall of Rome, in the West the secular aristocracy became militarised: the trappings of the Emperor became more military; the importance of a secular education i.e. the ability to quote the poets and write Latin prose like Cicero, declined rapidly; wealth across the Empire also declined and the hyper-rich Senatorial wealthy class disappeared. The widespread Latin education which was the bedrock of the extensive tax-gathering bureaucracy withered and disappeared, and with it our sources of written records.

Rise of church records It is logical, but I hadn’t thought of it this way, that into the vacuum left by the falling away of Roman Imperial records come church records. In the 6th and 7th centuries, as secular records from the disappearing Roman bureaucracy grow thinner on the ground, we have increasing records of church synods, the gift of land to the church, church land ownership records, along with increasing numbers of ‘lives’ of saints and popes and holy church figures, as well as a wealth of texts recording the period’s abundant theological disputes and debates. Thus what we know about the period, and  how we think about it, is hugely conditioned by the type of writings which have survived. It opens the possibility that maybe the Roman aristocracy lingered on for centuries after the ‘fall’, but didn’t write or record their activities so systematically.

Fatal loss of Carthage It is interesting that, in Wickham’s opinion, the failure of the Roman authorities to prevent Geiseric the Vandal moving from Spain into North Africa and seizing Carthage in 439, is far more important than Alaric’s 410 Sack of Rome. The trade, tax and food umbilical cord between Rome and Carthage was broken permanently. (Carthage supplied all Rome’s foodstuffs in lieu of tax. No Carthage, no food. From the mid-5th century the population of Rome begins to drop fast; in the 6th century its population probably plummeted by 80%.)

Tax collapse And so a vast tax hole opened in the Western Empire’s finances, which made it progressively harder to pay armies (increasingly made up of ‘barbarian’ mercenaries, anyway). Slowly a shift took place towards paying armies, generals and allies off with land; very slowly the Empire moved from being a tax-based to a land-based administration. This is the basis for Western feudalism.

The Goths in their various tribal formations took Gaul, Spain, then North Africa, then Italy. But Gothic hegemony was itself transient: by 511 it was over. Clovis, king of the Franks, defeated the Goths in the Roman province of Gaul, which increasingly becomes referred to as Francia; and the Eastern general, Belisarius, led violent campaigns in Italy to expel the Goths from the mainland (although it turned out he only created an exhausted power vacuum into which a new tribe, the Lombards, would enter).

Francia But the success of Clovis I (ruled 480s to 511) would establish Frankish rule in most of Francia and transform Gaul from a peripheral kingdom into the core of Western Europe for centuries to come (up to, including and following Charlemagne’s vast extension of Frankish power in the late 700s).

Tax Wickham makes some points about tax-based regimes I’d never thought about before: Tax-based regimes are generally much richer than land-based ones, because they tax a broader spread of citizens, more effectively. Tax-based regimes also are generally more powerful than land-based ones, because tax collectors and assessors monitor the entire domain more thoroughly, and court officials, army officers etc are paid salaries from the royal treasury. By contrast land-based armies or nobles are more independent and harder to govern – which helps to explain the endless rebellions which are so characteristic of the High Middle Ages.

Meat It’s one of only hundreds of interesting details in the book, but I was fascinated to learn that the shift from Roman to post-Roman society can be measured in diet. Aristocratic, senatorial and wealthy Romans asserted their class through a rarefied diet of delicate and expensive ingredients. The ‘barbarian’ successor states liked meat. The rituals of the royal hunt, the killing of wild beasts, and the division of cooked meat to loyal retainers in the royal hall or palace replaced the ornate, lying-on-a-couch sampling dishes of larks’ tongues of the Roman Empire – and The Hunt is a central motif of art and literature, drenched with power and significance, all through the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance period.

But ultimately…

Although Wickham hedges it round with modish qualifications and theoretical reminders not to be teleological or use hindsight, despite all the warnings to be more subtle and alert to slow increments rather than catastrophic ‘falls’ – nonetheless, the fact remains that the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist as a coherent political entity by the mid-6th century. It was replaced by a patchwork of kingdoms ruled by non-Roman ‘barbarian’ kings. And – rather contradicting his own thesis – Wickham admits that the archaeological record shows ‘the dramatic economic simplification of most of the West’ (p.95); north of the Loire in the 5th century, in the core Mediterranean lands in the 6th.

Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalised, exchange became more localised.

Wickham sees the shift from the Empire’s efficient tax-based economy, to the land-based administration of the post-Roman states as decisive. By the mid-sixth century the successor states couldn’t have matched Roman power or wealth, no matter how hard they tried, because they lacked the sophisticated tax system and revenue. Different states, with different social and economic system, different iconographies of power and different values, were firmly established.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 by Richard Fletcher (1997)

Big book, enormous subject. Just as well we’re in the company of such an immensely knowledgeable and charming companion – medieval historian Richard Fletcher. Sadly Dr Fletcher died in 2005 – read the Guardian obituary – but his works live on, and this is his masterpiece.

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 (1997) forms a great companion to Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book about the Vikings, The Hammer and The Cross (2010). The ‘Viking Age’ was roughly 800 to 1100. Ferguson describes in forensic detail the brutal, masculine world of the barbarian raiders from the seas, heathens from beyond the pale of Roman civilisation, law and literacy; only slowly is their bloodlust brought under control as the various Danish kings and warlords are converted and baptised at the end of the 900s and into the 1000s. Ferguson’s thesis is that, shadowy and difficult to pin down as the definition of ‘Viking’ is, there is certainly one constant to all their activities: their super-violent hatred of Christianity. Christian centres are not just attacked, they are destroyed and the inhabitants exterminated.

Fletcher’s book, on the other hand –

  • Covers a much larger period – from the emperor Theodosius banning pagan religion in the 380s to the conversion of the Lithuanians one thousand years later, in the 1380s – and a far wider canvas, from Scotland to Romania.
  • Covers the same story from the other side, examining the administrative and cultural framework of Christianity as it developed inside the Pale of Roman administration, law and literacy, and then slowly extended beyond it.

The main difference is that, compared to the Vikings, we actually have quite a lot of information about individual proselytisers because so many of them became saints (St Martin, St Columba, Patrick, St Augustine, St Wilfrid and so on) and had hagiographies (biographies of saints) written about them, often by followers who had personally known them and witnessed key events in their lives.

By the 7th and 8th centuries, many of these pioneers can be shown either to have come from aristocratic families or to have had aristocratic or royal sponsors. After the obscurity of the 5th and 6th centuries, Fletcher’s book in the 7th and 8th centuries becomes like a tapestry or puzzle, wherein we can see the complex web of relationships between successive kings and their spouses and their missionary monks and priests, the evangelists pushing into new territory, the royals providing the money and material to build them new churches and monasteries, which become engines of education and learning, generating new mission-minded monks who themselves set off further north or south or east to copy the example of their sainted forebears.

Slowly, slowly, by painstaking efforts, the whole continent is converted.

The rise of Christianity

The opening chapters move swiftly over Jesus (‘Christianity traces its historic roots to the ministry of a Jewish preacher and exorcist in a backward province of the Roman empire’, p.13), the missions of St Paul, the letters of the earliest fathers and martyrs, through to the ‘Eusebian accommodation’. The emperor Constantine plays a pivotal role in the history of Christianity because it was he who, in the Edict of Milan in 313, brought all Roman persecution of Christianity to an end and decriminalised Christian belief and practice. The age of persecution and martyrs ends in 313.

Constantine was a practical man who set about establishing peace throughout the Empire, reorganising its taxes and laws, establishing a fundamentally new structure whereby the empire was divided into a western and an eastern half (the latter to be ruled from the new capital he established at the old Greek town of Byzantium which he completely rebuilt and renamed Constantinople). And he brought the same practical thoroughness to the up-and-coming religion which had now established itself throughout the empire, Christianity, calling councils to thrash out its beliefs, to have them set in writing and promulgated under his name, as well as sitting in judgement on the theological and administrative squabbles of the early church.

Eusebius was court theologian to Constantine and, as well as the panegyrics he wrote to Constantine’s wonderfulness, he developed the idea that the empire and Christianity were intertwined: it was their destiny to work together, the wise and good Constantine providing the peaceful framework within which his holy church could save souls, the wise and good Church leaders providing the emperors with spiritual guidance. Now that it had adopted Christianity, the Roman Empire would be protected and supported by a loving God. The two would go hand in hand in peace and power.

100 years later this line of argument got into trouble when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths (410). Surviving pagan philosophers used this disaster to refute the argument that the Empire had been blessed and protected by Christianity: it looked very much the opposite, that abandoning the old pagan gods had led to disaster.

Far away in North Africa, the great theologian Augustine was prompted the fall of Rome to write his huge masterpiece City of God (426). This completely rejected the idea of an accommodation between Rome and Christianity, and asserted a complete separation between the earthly city with its corruption and imperfection, and the divine City of God. The Eastern, Greek empire, stuck with the Eusebian ideal; the West with Augustine’s separation, with huge consequences. Augustine’s insistence on the separation of Church and State sowed the seeds of the long-running feud between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, and between individual rulers and their archbishops and the Pope, a tendency which led to the rejection of central Church authority in the Reformation. All this was in sharp contrast to the Greek Eastern Orthodox tradition which followed Constantine’s wish of uniting church and state – leading to the arguably more authoritarian regimes of Orthodox countries, epitomised by Russia.

If in the East church and state were nearly identical, in the West they were often at odds. Harmony was characteristic of the east, tension of the west. It was to be a critically important constituent of western culture that church and state should be perceived as distinct and indeed often competing institutions. Built into western Christian traditions there was a potential rarely encountered in the east for explosion, for radicalism, for non-conformity, for confrontation. (page 28)

Augustine’s pessimistic vision seemed to be confirmed when the Empire in the West collapsed and the last emperor was killed in 476. The slow decay of Imperial law and institutions eventually left the archbishops and bishops and abbots and monasteries – the papacy and the Church bureaucracy – as the only thing left standing to embody the literacy, legality and civilisation of the Roman Empire as the barbarians swarm across Europe.

Why convert anyone to Christianity?

Because Jesus told them to. The key passage is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16–20:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

In later years this would become known as ‘the Great Commission’ and was used in the era of European expansion and colonisation (1500 to 2000) to justify missionising to all the native peoples Europeans encountered.

Fletcher’s book shows:

a) How very slowly it came about that the Church hierarchy even considered missionising beyond the urban centres – for a long time it was thought that you only needed a few converts in each of the ‘nations’ – and those mostly among the urban rich. ‘Surely that’s enough, isn’t it?’ Fletcher brilliantly describes how slow the notion of conversion and mission was to emerge. For centuries the authorities concerned themselves only with bringing the pagans within the Empire into the Church; that was challenge enough. He shows how Christianity was above all an urban phenomenon, and identified entirely with the wealthy and – once Constantine adopted it – with the extremely wealthy. These oligarchs fell over themselves to lavish land and bequests on the Church. In its earliest period Christian evangelisation was restricted to urban centres – St Paul’s epistles are to congregations in cities. Christian authorities followed the Roman prejudice that country dwellers were illiterate beasts. Only slowly did the idea develop that bishops should stamp out paganism in the countryside.

b) And this extending of the faith beyond urban centres itself turned out to be a chalenging and slow business – such that popes and bishops are still writing about the scandal of pagan worship clinging on among the peasants well into the 600s and 700s. And not on the periphery, but right in the heart of the ‘Christian’ empire, in Italy itself, 20 miles from Rome – let alone in the further lands of Francia and Spain, or out in the wild frontiers like England.

c) Only slowly, in the work of isolated writers and a few brave experimenters, did the notion of going beyond the borders of Romanitas to convert the heathen become even thinkable – the notion of sending Christian officials outside the boundaries of the former Roman Empire into hard-core, non-Latin, barbarian territory to ‘spread the Word’. The first half of the book tells the story of just such hardy souls, St Martin, St Patrick, St Boniface, and the wonderful miracles they did and hordes they converted. (The bishop was the standard rank of mission leader – a bishop could establish a ‘diocese’, set up a centre for ecclesiastical administration, appoint and manage priests, organise church-building etc, all the while corresponding with the Head of the Organisation back in Rome.)

What were the converters up against?

Fletcher builds the text by taking examples of figures both famous and obscure from across Latin Europe (Italy, France, Spain, England) and using the written records we have of them to investigate and compare their various motives, procedures, what they were up against (pagan resistance) and how much they succeeded.

The great frustration of this subject is that we know so little about what so-called ‘pagans’ actually believed or did. A central part of the ‘conversion’ process was to destroy every single shrine, statue, holy tree and so on, a scorched earth policy as regards buildings and objects, and it’s the same with texts – not a single text survives anywhere which records the nature of pagan belief, compared to the thousands and thousands we have which record the holy sayings and wonderful deeds and pious activities of Christian martyrs, saints and teachers.

In practical terms, this is because the Christians – of course – controlled the only means of storing and transmitting information i.e. writing. It appears that the pagans had no writing (apart, in some places, from primitive runes carved into stone) and certainly didn’t have the means of recording, replicating and storing writing which Christians established in the shape of monasteries full of educated, literate, text-copying monks.

But various church officials did, in scattered letters, sermons and theological works, make scattered references to the ongoing pagan practices, and from them we can piece together – if not the content of the beliefs or even the names of the pagan gods (pitifully rare) – at least some of the more superstitious practices of rural people. The De Correctione Rusticorum of Martin of Braga (now northern Portugal), written at the end of the 6th century, is a letter written to a fellow bishop, Polemius of Astorga, which laments the ongoing bad behaviour of his pagan flock who:

  • celebrate new year with the pagan Roman festival of Kalends
  • burn candles at stones and trees and springs and where three roads meet
  • observe divinations and auguries and days of idols
  • observe the Day of Vulcan (23 August) and the first days of each month
  • adorn tables and hang up laurels and ‘watch the foot’
  • pour wine and fruit over the hearth and put bread in a spring
  • women invoke Minerva in their weaving
  • keep weddings for the day of Venus (Friday)
  • mutter spells over herbs and invoke the name of demons in incantations
  • find special meaning in the behaviour of little birds and in sneezing (p.53)

The Christian authorities decried the existence of arioli (singular: ariolus), holy men who uttered impious words at altars and offered sacrifices, who tied ligatures on the bodies of the sick and applied medicines. In 598 Pope Gregory wrote to the bishop of Terracina just 50 miles from Rome lamenting that local inhabits continued to worship sacred trees, in the pagan manner.

And it wasn’t just the peasants who continued with heathen superstitions. A council of bishops at Toledo in 633 thought it necessary to forbid bishops, priests, deacons or any other clerical orders from consulting magicians, augurs, diviners or soothsayers (p.55). The power of these superstitious practices lingered on for centuries. In fact, in the final pages Fletcher gives records of Church authorities still trying to stamp out rural pagan practice in the 1600s!

How did the converters convert pagans?

This is simple and startling. Contrary to modern practice of converting through reading, teaching and discussion, medieval missionaries performed miracles and magic. ‘My God is more powerful than your gods – watch! Told you so!’

While the Church elite was writing and arguing about high points of theology – which is what many histories of Christianity tend to focus on – down on the ground, among the peasants of the Touraine or Galicia or Mercia, individual evangelists were going head to head with the local deities to show that only the Christian God could end a drought, guarantee safe childbirth, prevent a flood and so on.

The point is not only that the Christians could perform miracles – it’s that the pagan gods could too. High level theologians could dismiss pagan power as empty superstition but down on the ground, missionaries knew the pagan idols had power but they reinterpreted this power as coming from the Devil and his legion of demons – something they had good warrant for in the Gospel stories.

Early medieval Europe was a world in which persons of every level of intellectual cultivation accepted without question that the miraculous could weave  like a shuttle in and out of everyday reality. (p.10)

All these people lived in a world dominated by cruel and capricious forces – incurable diseases, natural disasters, plague and famine, not to mention the unexpected attacks from rampaging armies which killed, raped and dragged survivors off into slavery. Traditional beliefs were the only science and the only technology they had to try and order and control and give meaning to their lives. It took a lot to dislodge these time-honoured traditions.

In a European countryside where over hundreds of years diverse rituals had evolved for coping with the forces of nature, Christian holy men had to show that they had access to more efficacious power. (p.64)

Only by going head to head with the powers of the traditional gods could Christian missionaries hope to make even the slightest impact. Thus the records we have of missionaries throughout the period (300 to 1400, and beyond) tend to dwell on their miraculous works.

  • St Martin of Tours, according to the written records we have of him, frequently encountered supernatural beings: the Devil several times, angels, demons, St Mary, St Agnes, Saints Peter and Paul, he had telepathic powers, could predict the future, could exorcise evil spirits from men or animals, and could raise the dead, as well as performing numerous miracles such as halting a hailstorm in the region of Sens. A letter he wrote cured the daughter of a Roman official just by being placed on her body. He cured a girl of 12 who had been dumb from birth. On one occasion he was cutting down a sacred tree and the pagans dared him to stand where it would fall so Martin did so and as the tree began to fall towards him he made the sign of the cross and it miraculously veered in another direction. The pagans cried with one voice that Christ was king and implored to be baptised.
  • Bishop Simplicius encountered an idol being trundled about on a cart to bless fields and vineyards: he made the sign of the cross and the idol crashed to the ground while the oxen pulling the cart were rooted to the spot. Simplicius made 400 converts.
  • Emilian was a shepherd in the Rioja district of Spain who was called to the Holy Life and built up a powerful network of clients for his wonder-working. He cured the blindness of a slave girl of the senator Sicorius. He exorcised one of the slaves of Count Eugenius. He exorcised the evil spirits which had possessed the senator Nepotian and and his wife Proseria. He cured a woman named Barbara from her paralysis. He made the sign of the cross over the belly of the monk Armentarius and cured him. (p.58)
  • Eugendus wrote a letter to a demon who was possessing a girl in eastern Gaul; the demon left her before the letter was even delivered. The lady Syagria, member of a leading aristocratic family of Lyons, was cured of a grave illness by eating a letter from Eugendus.
  • Samson, grandson of the king of Gwent, was a native of Demetia in South Wales who made his way to England, received clerical training, and sailed across to Armorica in Gaul where he had a career as a miracle-worker, converting the pagan locals, and founding a monastery to preserve his name and build on his good work. In Trigg in north Cornwall he came across people who traditionally worshiped an idol. A boy was killed out riding. Samson told the people their idol couldn’t revive the boy but his God could and, if He did, they should abandon their idol forever. the people agreed. Samson prayed for two hours. The boy came back to life. The people destroyed their idol and agreed to be baptised.

The centrality of miracle working

Again and again and again, in countless accounts of saints’ lives, it is clear that the chief tool in the armoury Christians seeking to convert both aristocrats and peasants to Christianity was their wonder-working, miracles, cures and exorcisms.

These aren’t embarrassing details to be downplayed by modern believers – they are absolutely central to the success of the conversion effort. What’s more, they have their roots in the original gospels, where Jesus is nothing if not a wonder-worker, a miracle-maker, a curer, healer and exorciser, often pitched in direct conflict with the Devil and his demons.

And Jesus’ powers themselves have their roots in the old Jewish scriptures in which heroes as far back as Moses have to fight against the power of the pagan gods, and prove – even to the sceptical Israelites – that Jehovah is Boss. As Fletcher points out, the Book of Psalms was the most widely read book of the Bible in the early medieval period, and its songs repeatedly stress the direct link between piety and worldly success, stressing ‘the causal relationship of correct cult with victory, prosperity and progeny’ (p.244). And he cites the story of Elijah who, in the first Book of Kings, chapter 18, goes head to head with the prophets of Baal and Asherah for an extended competition to see whose god is more powerful and can end the three years of drought. With predictable results, but results taken literally by two thousand years of Christian believers.

Thus medieval superstition isn’t eccentric, it is part of a thousand-years-old tradition, and is intimately linked to the kind of folk beliefs which continued in the West until very recently, and continue to this day in many parts of the world.

It is the post-Enlightenment despiritualising of nature and the world around us, it is the modern Western denial of magic powers and miracles, which is the historical oddity.

Fighting pagan gods/demons

Thus pagan shrines, idols and objects had to be destroyed, pagan practices quashed – and even descriptions of pagan practices suppressed and ignored – not in the name of a secular ideology, but because they had power. They weren’t just empty errors, they were the Devil’s work, they were the activities of the opposition – they represented a real and ongoing threat to the survival, and to the salvation, of the Christian community.

Thus Martin and the hosts of other convertors like him didn’t just smash pagan shrines and buildings – they built over them. There was power in them which couldn’t be ignored – it had to be incorporated into the True Belief and redirected into the holy cause.

Converting from heresy to orthodoxy

It’s easy to forget how central Heresy was and is to Christianity – the history of early Christianity is mostly the history of heresies and, of course, Christianity is itself a heretical deviation from orthodox Judaism.

The most disruptive among a host of types of ‘wrong thinking’ was Arianism, one of the countless deviations thrown up as clever men agonised over the mystery of the Trinity: if God is all-powerful, what is the relationship with the Holy Spirit mentioned throughout the holy texts, let alone with his Son? Is the Son equal in power to the Father? Are they the same entity? How much of Jesus was man and how much God? Did God give birth to the Son who is therefore less than the Father?

Arius (c. AD 250–336) was a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt and he became associated with the belief that Jesus was begotten by the Father. Arius’s aim was not to dilute the power of the Father, to assert the absolute primacy and omnipotence of the One God. However, this had the effect of downgrading the Son and, by extension, of downgrading Jesus’s sacrifice: if he isn’t fully equal with God then maybe his sacrifice on the cross wasn’t fully earth-redeeming.

Difficult though the philosophical niceties are to follow, the practical consequences are simple. For most of the 4th century the battle lines between Arianism and Orthodoxy hardened and embittered. Arius was anathematised during his lifetime and the newly Christian emperor Constantine (ruled 306-37) called the Council of Nicaea in 325 precisely to try and thrash out a form of words which would please all sides – resulting in the text which became referred to as ‘the Nicene Creed’.

But so powerful was Arianism that the emperor’s own son, Constantius II (337–361) and his successor Valens (364–378), both in fact supported the Arian heresy, with the result that patriarchs and archbishops, bishops and priests were inducted into Arian Christianity – and that initial contacts with Gothic tribes and barbarians was with Arian missionaries.

It was only with the advent of the zealously Catholic emperor Theodosius the Great (ruled 379-95) that Arianism was decisively defeated within the Church: Theodosius ordered all Arian writings to be destroyed and their authors vilified. But from the point of view of a history of Christian conversion, an important element of the early Middle Ages was not just converting the pagans, it was converting those who had mistakenly adopted the Christianity of Arius, back into the fold of Orthodoxy.

Slavery

We need to remember that the slave trade was probably the most widespread business activity of the early medieval world. (page 113)

Reading this book reminds the reader, yet again, that slavery has been an almost universal feature of human societies. Ancient Egypt was a slave society. The ancient Greek cities were slave societies, Athens was a slave state. The Roman Empire was built on slave labour. The Parthenon, the Forum, all that poetry and maths and drama – based on slavery.

One of the major Roman exports from Roman Britain was slaves: we have written evidence and slave manacles and chains have survived. According to Bede’s story the official Roman mission to England was sent, in 597, because Pope Gregory the Great encountered some English slaves in the slave market in Rome. They were so attractive that the pope asked who they were. ‘Angles’, came the reply. ‘Not Angles, but angels,’ the pope quipped. Fletcher’s account of early missionaries to the Franks mentions ‘slaves from across the water’ i.e. the Channel, working for the French aristocracy. St Patrick was six years a slave.

The Goths had slaves. The Huns had slaves. The Vikings took slaves wherever they went to sell in Europe’s slave markets. It is a recurring feature of missionaries that they are recorded as buying and liberating slaves in pagan societies, where possible. Every few pages in this 500-page-long book Fletcher mentions slaves. In one form or another (as serfs, as bonded labour) Europeans carried on enslaving other Europeans until the late medieval era.

The shift North

The later part of the book divides into long chapters dealing with Big Themes: the Greek missionary push into the Balkans and up into Eastern Europe (chapter 10), trying to convert the Vikings (Chapter 11), North-Eastern Europe and the Baltic (chapter 12). All of them are fascinating, tell gripping stories and shed light on the religious and cultural patterns of contemporary Europe.

But one of the biggest ideas to emerge is in chapter 9 which assesses the early Medieval relationship with Judaism, and then with the sweeping military successes of Islam, which rampaged along the North African shore and up into Spain (completely conquered in the years 711 to 718), over the Alps and only being stopped in southern France at the Battle of Tours (10 October 732), where the Frankish King Charles Martel decisively defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. Charles went on to push Frankish domain south to the Pyrenees thus pinning the Moors inside the Iberian Peninsula, where they created the often stunning culture of Al-Andalus.

But although the Christians held their own against Muslim assaults in southern France, in Sicily (threatening Italy) and in the East, where Islam swept through the Middle East to confront the Byzantine Empire – the net effect of the loss of the North African littoral to Christianity was to push the cultural and political focus of Europe north. Towards the end of this fascinating chapter, Fletcher describes a further seismic process, the slow partition of Christendom itself between Greek East and Roman West. It took centuries of disagreement, misunderstanding, occasional conflict, and a drift apart of theological and cultural practices – but Fletcher brings out another important element.

For centuries after the collapse the Roman Empire in the West, Rome (and the pope) still came under the nominal protection of the Emperor in the East. But as early as 800 the papacy had recognised the power and protection of the Franks, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. And the diversion of the Emperor’s resources East to hold the Muslims at bay tended to make the papacy continue to look West, and North. A key moment in the breach came when the armies of the Fourth Crusade were diverted from the Holy Land and attacked Constantinople itself – theoretically to restore a pro-Western Emperor, but in reality the army ran riot and sacked the place, killing many of the inhabitants.

The Muslim Conquests and loss of North Africa of the 700s – the triumphant creation of a huge Frankish Empire by Charlemagne in the 800s – the conversion of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the 6th and 7th centuries, then of the Germans, Danes and Poles in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries – alongside the collapse of Byzantine power which was crystallised in 1204 — all these factors ensured that Roman Catholicism, though based in Rome, would gravitational pull towards the North, around the court of France for a long time, and then the long stormy relationship with the various Holy Roman Emperors of Germany.

So that in the twentieth century Poland could be one of the most fiercely and devoutly Roman Catholic countries. Poland! The heroes of early Christianity – Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen – they wouldn’t even have known where Poland was. In the really big scheme of things, it is this shift of the Christian world towards the north of Europe which I found one of the most interesting ideas to emerge from this endlessly fascinating book

Random notes

– I’ve always liked the fact that the Emperor Constantine, the man who legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire, thus guaranteeing that Europe would become Christian with all that meant for future world history, was first acclaimed emperor when still a general by his troops in Britain – and in York!

– The most distinctive feature of early medieval Christendom was the explosion of the monastic movement in the 300s-500s – possibly as a response to Christianity becoming decriminalised in the early 300s, and then becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire by 380. There was no more scope for martyrdom. But you could still mortify your own worldly ambitions (and those of your parents) by chucking in a promising career as a lawyer, or even as a bishop, and disappearing into the obscurity of a world-denying enclosed religious order. The establishment of monasteries went hand in hand with the more orthodox spread of dioceses across Western Europe, a movement associated with men like St Martin, bishop of Tours from 371 until 397.

– It was fascinating to learn how much this activity was associated with wealth; often the bishops came from very rich families, or they performed miracles which converted the very rich and powerful, who  themselves went on to commission churches and monasteries. Despite Christian propaganda, the Church from the early medieval period was associated not with the poor and slaves, but with money and power. This is emphasised by the string of textbooks, sermons and papal letters Fletcher quotes in the middle of the book which were aimed at trying to bring a very worldly clergy under control – no attending communion drunk! Cut down on the hawking and hunting!

– Only when the internal colonisation of the Empire by Christian networks of church and monastery was reaching completion, did it occur to anyone to go beyond the pale of Roman administration to spread Christianity to peoples outside the borders of the empire. Pioneers included:

– Ulfilas (311-83), the apostle of the Goths, who translated the Bible into a Gothic script which he invented for the purpose. Except that his translation of the Bible notoriously excluded the Books of Kings, which are mostly a record of ancient Israel’s wars. The Goths didn’t need any encouragement in that direction.

Palladius, sent as bishop to the pagan Irish in 431, much overshadowed by his successor St Patrick, 540-60(?). Fletcher spends a long passage describing and analysing the work of Patrick but the main thing about him is that:

As far as our evidence goes, [Patrick] was the first person in Christian history to take the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire. (p.86)

– The Latin word peregrinatio began life as a definition of a type of citizen, an alien or exile from their homeland living within the Roman Empire. In the early parts of his book Fletcher shows how it was taken over to describe the new idea of an ‘exile from Christ’, a person who devoted their lives to travelling and preaching and which became applied to what we would now call ‘missionaries’, men like St Patrick or the Englishman Winfrid, born in Wessex in the 7th century, who took the Latin name Boniface and travelled across North Europe to take a leading role in the conversion of the pagan Saxons, earning himself the title of the Apostle of the Germans. He was ‘martyred’ in the 750s. But towards the end of this long book, Fletcher pauses to consider how the word peregrinatio continued to change its meaning so that by the 11th century it was being applied to planned journeys by groups of people to sites of veneration, churches and shrines erected to the martyrs and saints of what was by now a mostly settled, Christian Europe. These journeys began to be called peregrinatios, translated into Middle English as pilgrimages.

What had once been wild journeys into the unknown had become package holidays.

Crusading violence

The final part of Europe to be converted to Christianity was up in the north-east, in northern Poland, in Livonia, along the Baltic and into the big and successful Duchy of Lithuania. Fletcher’s final chapter paints a rather grim picture of how this final proselytising effort was darker and more violent than what had come before, mainly under the influence of the Crusades. He has to take a detour to explain how the rhetoric of anti-Muslim Crusade came to be redirected towards the last pagan kingdoms – and also how the Crusades witnessed the birth of a new phenomenon, bands or ‘orders’ of knights banding together to either fight in the Holy Land or, like the Knights Templars, to protect pilgrims and other travellers to Palestine. Thus military orders grew up in the north-east devoted to converting the pagan, by fierce military means if necessary, the most notable examples being the Sword of the Brethren and the Teutonic Order. This Wikipedia map gives a good picture of the geographical territories involved and the way ‘conversion’ had been reduced to a military campaign.

Astonishingly, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania held on to its pagan status and religion until as late as 1386 when the Grand Duke seized the purely contingent opportunity of marrying the ten-year-old girl who’d inherited the throne of Poland and had to submit to baptism as part of the political deal.

But these last few centuries of the story are redolent of war, conquest, seizure of territory, rebellions by the conquered put down with brutality. As Fletcher points out, the castles built by these orders in their conquered territories bespeak imperial colonisation, like the contemporary Plantagenet colonisation of Wales. It is a long long way from the heroic solo missions of St Patrick or St Martin, or the better resourced but still peaceful missions of St Augustine or St Boniface. The licensing of military violence by the pope and Church hierarchy is ugly, and sets the scene for the lamentable invasions of the New World which began barely a hundred years later.

All of which, paradoxically, makes the Christianity of the so-called Dark Ages (400 to 1000) seem much sweeter and gentler by comparison. With a few notable exceptions (like Charlemagne’s genocidal ‘conversion’ of the Saxons in the 780s) the converters of the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries were more likely to be solitary holy men impressing pagan mobs by raising the dead or averting hail storms or stopping floods or bringing good weather. Although their miracles may be doubted, the bravery and faith of these early apostles can’t be, and there is something very admirable about it and them, which is worthy of respect.

Some early medieval dates

  • 406-7 the Rhine freezes and barbarian pagan Germanic tribes swarm across it into Gaul.
  • 410 The emperor Honorius withdraws the Roman armies from Britain to defend Rome from the barbarians.
  • 410 Rome is sacked by the the Visigoths under Alaric.
  • 451 The Battle of Châlons in 451 – one of the last major military operations of the Western Roman Empire when Romans under general Flavius Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric I fought against the Huns and their vassals commanded by Attila. The battle stopped the Huns seizing complete control of Gaul and installed the Frankish king, Merovech, as king of the Franks, from whom later Frankish claimed descent (and called themselves the Merovingians).
  • 476 The last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus Augustus, dies.
  • 481-509 Clovis king of the Franks, pressurised by his Christian wife Clotilde, is baptised on Christmas Day 496 and – crucially – into orthodox Catholic Christianity, not the Arian heresy espoused by almost all the surrounding barbarian nations. This single decision helped to ensure that Europe became a Catholic continent. Clovis founded a new capital at Paris, and called a Church Council to bolster Catholic orthodoxy in his realm.
  • 510s the Burgundians under King Sigismund convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • St Columba (520-97) regarding himself as an exile and pilgrim, established monasteries in Ireland and at Iona, which was to become an important religious centre and shrine off the west coast of Scotland.
  • 530s the Vandals convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 560s the Sueves convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 570s the Saxons of the Loire valley are converted to Catholicism by bishop Félix of Nantes.
  • 580s the Visigoths of Spain convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • Angle and Saxon kings:
    • 597 Pope Gregory the Great despatched St Augustine of Canterbury to Kent to convert King Ethelbert, at the bidding of his Frankish wife Bertha.
    • 604 King Saebehrt of the East Saxons accepts Christianity and builds a church in London.
    • Sometime before 605 King Redwald of the East Angles converts – though he later backslides and is in fact thought to be the pagan king buried at the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial.
    • 627 King Edwin of Northumbria is baptised, again under influence of his Christian wife.
  • St Columbanus (543-615) ‘an exemplar of Irish missionary activity in early medieval Europe’.
  • St Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne monastery (active 635-651) ‘Apostle to the English’, friend of the Northumbrian kings Oswald and Oswine, who overthrew Edwin in 633.
  • Benedict Biscop (628-90) founder of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Priory in Northumberland.
  • The Venerable Bede (672-735) the Northumbrian monk, historian and author of the vital Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (732). Although the book’s purpose is didactic, nonetheless Bede was unusually scrupulous in his weighing of the evidence before him.
  • Saint Boniface (c. 675 – 5 June 754) an influential figure in North European history, who reorganised the Frankish Church, missionised into north Germany, and brought the Frankish dynasty and the papacy closer together, paving the way for the triumph of Charlemagne (747-814).

What medieval history teaches us

Why bother reading books like this? Well, studying pre-modern history teaches lots of things:

1. For a start, it gives a deeper sense of the importance of Christianity and why it spread to become the religion of Europe. It gives you a deeper sense of Christianity’s multi-faceted appeal – in providing a coherent narrative of the world to the illiterate and educated alike, assuring them of salvation and the help of God, Jesus and the Saints; giving rules to guide believers through the many problems of life, protocols and ritual to accompany all the way stations of life, from birth to death; assuring magic and miracle-working for those in need, suffering or pain – in numberless ways Christianity offered hope and solace and explanations and technologies (books, relics, crosses) for understanding and managing human life. Moreover, for pagan rulers, Christianity was the gateway into the legacy of Roman civilisation, into fabulous wealth, literacy, laws, coins and better ways of managing your realm, as well as access to the extensive trading networks of Christendom which eventually stretched from Iceland to the Black Sea. At a personal psychological level, at a social level in terms of law and order, and at the royal level of providing an entrée into the ‘club’ of European royalty,  Christianity as belief system, legal system, cultural heritage and power network was infinitely richer, more complex and sophisticated than the pagan alternatives.

2. It is so easy to ridicule the wonder-working saints and monks and the endlessly squabbling kings and the gullible peasants, but are we any better? Study of the past should make us realise that ‘we’ will also soon be ‘the past’, and that our great grandchildren will look back in wonder at how we wasted our resources, destroyed our environment and ruined the world, while fussing about there not being enough black actors in the Oscars or ‘freeing the nipple’. Our ability to stress over trivial cultural issues while ignoring the extermination of the environment and all the life forms in it will make medieval peasants believing in miracles seem as reasonable as Einstein. They were credulous and astonishingly ignorant by our standards – but at least they left us an inhabitable planet, which is more than we are doing for our descendants:

3. Since Europe went on to colonise the world and, in the last 70 years Europe’s child, America, has gone on to be the world’s dominant military and cultural force – studying early medieval Europe gives a deeper understanding of where it all came from, and why and how.

4. Study of this period teaches doubt and hesitation and respect for the profound uncertainty of human knowledge. Our sources are so limited; our ignorance of human activity through entire centuries so profound; the slightest discovery can so easily shed light on blank eras or overthrow widely-held views – that study of this period encourages what I take to be an appropriate attitude to human knowledge, which is one of deep scepticism. There is so much we don’t know and will never know.

5. We live amid the wreckage of all these centuries of ancestors and predecessors. We should respect their achievements, their cathedrals and statues and jewellery, their saints’ lives and often bizarre theology, because they are the heroic products of the human mind struggling in dark times. To my eye, their often primitive and unnerving artefacts have a haunting and mysterious beauty. These obscure messages from the remote past offer a strange and powerful hope for mankind’s survival.

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

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