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There's nothing more enjoyable than a really fine book that makes us re-examine received wisdoms and consider just how little truth they actually convey. The end of the Age of Reason--which has brought with it the collapse of rationalism, Marxism, Darwinism, Freudianism, liberalism, and a host of other isms--has for obvious reasons served up a bounty of such books: Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altar's; Niall Ferguson's Pity of War; Lewis Sorley's A Better War; Thomas Fleming's New Dealer's War; Derek Leebaert's Fifty-Year Wound; and more. Each of these touches upon an interesting enough subject, but the court historians of the various isms had no greater target than the epoch when Christianity rose and spread across Europe. Because they all defined themselves in opposition to Christianity (Catholicism in the case of Protestant historians) they all had vested interests in minimizing, even demonizing, that process. And so the era acquired dismissive titles like the Dark Ages and it was portrayed as a period when nothing much worthwhile happened or even a time when mankind moved backwards. Today though, as we look back at the charnel house that secular humanist rationalism in all its iterations left in its wake, it's become nearly impossible to take seriously the pose of superiority towards earlier stages of history. And at a time when, especially in America, there's a resurgence of Christianity and a rejection of the rationalisms, it's appropriate to look back at the "Middle Ages" with fresh eyes. In The Barbarian Conversion, Richard Fletcher provides us such an opportunity and by the end of this outstanding narrative history the reader will find himself asking whether it's not more appropriate to call the period covered the Enlightenment and the ugly era we've just finished the Middle, or even Dark, Ages.

The subtitle alone requires us to think anew: "From Paganism to Christianity". Consider that Mr. Fletcher's history covers the years from the 200's AD, beginning with the earliest European missionary, Gregory Thaumaturgis, until 1386, when Lithuania was brought into the fold--just 1100 years to convert all of Europe from Iberia to Greenland, Iceland and the British Isles to Scandinavia and the Baltics from their tribalism, provincialism, and paganism to Christianity, kingdoms, Latin, Roman law, and a sense that the entire region was a whole. It's hard to fathom how anyone can ever have considered what is essentially the creation of Europe and Christendom to have been anything less than one of the great achievements in human history, perhaps the greatest.

Mr. Fletcher, who died just recently, is justly renowned for the bemusedly conversational style of his writing. He takes great joy in telling the stories of how individual leaders and their domains were converted and his marvelous story-telling keeps the book moving despite a plethoras of difficult names and strange places and a flood of dates. But the stories only make for a pleasant read; it is the unifying themes that make the book a revelation. He introduces the volume and explains the importance of his topic as follows:
This book is about the process by which a religion which had grown up in the Mediterranean world of the Roman empire was diffused among the outsiders whom the Romans referred to as the barbarians; with far-reaching consequences for humankind. [...] The acceptance of Christianity by these outsiders was not simply a matter of confessional change, of religious belief and observance in a narrow sense. It involved, or brought in its wake, a much wider process of cultural change. The conversion of 'barbarian' Europe to Christianity brought Roman and Mediterranean customs and values and habits of thought to the newcomers who were the legatees of the Roman empire. These included, for example, literacy and books and the Latin language and all it opened up; Roman notions about law, authority, property and government; the habits of living in towns and using coin for exchange; Mediterranean tastes in food, drink and costume; new architectural and artistic conventions. The Germanic successor-states which emerged from the wreckage of the empire--for these are the outsiders with whom we shall be initially concerned--accepted Christianity and in so doing embraced a cultural totality which was Romanitas, 'Roman-ness'. It was particularly significant that this occurred at a time when two other processes were shattering the cultural unity of the Mediterranean world. One of these was the withdrawal into herself of the eastern, Byzantine, Orthodox half of the former Roman empire. The other was the irruption of Islam into the Mediterranean and the resultant hiving off of its eastern and southern shores into an alien culture. The cultural unity of the Mediterranean disappeared for ever. But what had been harvested from the classical world and transplanted with Christianity into a northern seedbed germinated there, sprouted and grew into a new civilization, one which indeed owed much to the Mediterranean but was distinctively its own: western European Christendom. The growth of Christendom decisively affected the character of European culture and thereby, because of European dominance in human affairs for several centuries before the twentieth, the civilization of our world. That is why the coming of Christianity to north-western Europe is worth examining, and why this book has been written.
Mr. Fletcher's history traces this process into the 13th Century when a demographic tipping point had been reached and Christianity was so widely and deeply planted in Europe that it lost its missionary quality and became more of inexorable and dominating institutionalized force. Just as the Christophobic will be affronted by the world historical importance he attaches to their imagined Dark Ages, so too will they be horrified at his conclusions about why the conversion proceeded so successfully:
Christendom--late antique, early medieval, high medieval--knew that it was attractive to outsiders by reason of its wealth and power. These widespread perceptions furnished the activists in the diffusion of Christianity with their trump cards. They also possessed an unshakeable self-confidence founded upon those heady and tremendous assurances about God's purposes which they had read in the Bible. Riches and order confirmed and strengthened their confidence. They could play these cards again and again, and almost always with success because manifestly the Christians were almost always the winners and the pagans the losers. [...]

These perceptions by outsiders were justified. Christian spokesman were not indulging in deceitful boasts or sleight of hand. It is still inadequately appreciated that Christian Europe in the early Middle Ages was both wealthy and well managed. The view that the early medieval economy was in some sense 'primitive' or 'under developed', long ago abandoned by medievalists, is still widespread. It deserves the strongest possible emphasis that such a judgement is without foundation. Medieval Christendom was densely settled--the population was almost certainly much higher than the usual estimates that have been made--and efficiently exploited. Furthermore, it commanded, partly by inheritance from a Roman or pre-Roman past, partly by means of fertile improvisation, orderly structures and techniques of power (family, community, hierarchies, kingship, literacy, law, taxation and so forth) which were demonstrable effective, and which were above all flexible and adaptable to novel social circumstances.

Not the least remarkable of such ordered structures was the institution of the Christian church.
As that will make apparent, Mr. Fletcher leaves the conventional wisdom, grounded in hostility to the Church, in roughly the same shape that Curtis LeMay left Tokyo. It's a joy to watch.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Richard Fletcher Links:

    -BOOK SITE: The Barbarian Conversion (University of CA Press)
    OBIT: Richard Fletcher: Bestselling historian who scored a hit with his relaxed but acute account of the conversion of Europe (Times of London, 3/11/05)
    -ESSAY: Christian-Muslim understanding in the later Middle Ages: to what extent medieval Christians and Muslims sought to move beyond mutual hostility. (Richard Fletcher, April 2003, History Today)
    -INTERVIEW: Converting By the Sword: Why Christians used it, why it "worked", and why it died: An interview with Richard Fletcher (Christian History, Summer 1999)
    -ARCHIVES: "richard fletcher" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Barbarian Conversion: from Paganism to Christianity by Richard Fletcher (Felipe Fernandez-Armesto , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Barbarian Conversion: from Paganism to Christianity by Richard Fletcher (Father John McCloskey, L'Osservatore Romano)
    -REVIEW: of The Barbarian Conversion (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of The Barbarian Conversion (Geoffrey Wheatcroft, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of The Barbarian Conversion (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May, 1998, ROBERT TAYLOR)
    -REVIEW: of The Barbarian Conversion (The Spectator, Sep 13, 1997 by Carr, Raymond)
    -REVIEW: of The World of El Cid: Chronicles of the Spanish Reconquest by RICHARD FLETCHER (Ian Michael, English Historical Review)
-REVIEW: of Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England by Richard Fletcher (Mathilda Lisle, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation by Richard Fletcher (Karen Armstrong, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Cross and the Crescent (Harper's Magazine, 2/1/04 by John Leonard)
    -REVIEW: of The Cross and the Crescent (The Spectator, Mar 22, 2003 by Sumption, Jonathan)
    -REVIEW: of The Cross and the Crescent (New Statesman, 4/7/03 by Ziauddin Sardar )
    -REVIEW: of BLOODFEUD: MURDER AND REVENGE IN ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND by Richard Fletcher (Spectator, The, Mar 2, 2002 by Keynes, Simon)

    -REVIEW: of The Last Apocalypse by James Reston (Business Week)

Book-related and General Links:

-ESSAY: The Myth of the ‘Dark Ages’ Ignores How Classical Traditions Flourished Around the World: The author of a sweeping re-examination of Western history reveals the global reach of Greek and Roman antiquity (Naoíse Mac Sweeney, 5/17/23, Smithsonian)
    -ESSAY: Anglo-Saxon conversion: the coming of the cross (at the point of a sword) : Although the Anglo-Saxons’ adoption of Christianity has often been labelled as peaceful, in reality many were swayed by the threat of aggression. Marc Morris investigates the violence that greased the wheels of conversion (Marc Morris, September 2021, History Extra)
    A review of Peter Brown's The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 (Michael Dirda, The Washington Post)
-REVIEW: of The Gilded Page: The Secret Lives of Medieval Manuscripts by Mary Wellesley (Carol Strickland, CS Monitor)
    -ESSAY: ‘Rage, rage, against the dying of the light: Roman Resilience in the Afterglow of Empire’ (James Moreton Wakeley, 2015, The Byzantinist)