Review of The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000 by Peter Brown

Eras Journal – O’brien, P: Review of “the Rise of Western Christendom, Triumph and Diversity 200-1000 Ad”, Peter Brown

Peter Brown,The Rise of Western Christendom, Triumph and Diversity 200-1000 Ad, 2nd Edition,
Blackwell Publishing, 2003
Isbn 1577180925

The first edition of this work was published in 1996 in The Making of Europe series, a collaborative initiative between five European publishers of different nationalities and languages. The projected twenty four book series was to make accessible to the general reader the political, economic, social, religious and cultural processes by which modern day Europe evolved. Its far-reaching aim was to contribute to the current European enterprise of political and economic accord by taking into account the past. This particular work is a survey of Christianity in Western Europe set against the wider world from the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire around AD 200 to the conversion of Iceland in 1000. For such a daunting task it was only logical for it to be allotted to Peter Brown, who is not only gifted with an original and creative mind, but has the enviable talent of being able to process extremely complex information into a form that the general reader can not only digest but be wholly captivated by.

Some five years later Brown perceived the need to produce a second edition of the work in response to what he calls a “dam burst” in the study of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages that had occurred during the intervening time. This second edition is not merely a reprint with an updated bibliography, rather, the revision is quite substantial and therefore warrants a fresh review. The new edition has been extensively expanded with almost double the number of pages of the original (from 353 to 625). Christianities in Ireland and Saxon Britain have received further treatment in this edition, and a new chapter is devoted to monasticism in Western Europe. For the advanced student there are footnotes citing sources and a more comprehensive bibliography.

If there is a criticism that can be levelled towards the first edition it is that the central themes behind the complex processes by which Christianity rose to dominance in western Europe were not explicit. Readers could be forgiven for ‘not seeing the wood for the trees’ and getting lost in the wealth of detail that inevitably accompanies syntheses covering such a wide time span and geographical space. This is largely remedied in the second edition. Readers are now aided by a generous introduction (34 pages extended from 4 in the original) where the author outlines the central themes of his work based on the results of recent historical and archaeological research. These themes are clearly and repeatedly signposted at appropriate points throughout the work, giving the reader a framework within which to process the information, and an opportunity to engage in an imaginary dialogue with the author.

These themes (of which only a few can be mentioned here) challenge long held conventions and popular assumptions about post imperial Europe and Christianity during the Dark Ages. Brown draws attention to the remarkable “inter-connectivity” of the Christian religion, in contradistinction to the native religions. The possession of scriptures potentially led to a world-wide “textual community”. The basic model of Christianity which included a bishop, clergy, a congregation and a place to worship was relatively stable and easy to transfer from one locale to the next.

However, it would be wrong to ascribe such a web to a single pre-eminent centre; it was not necessarily a unitary, still less a uniform, religion. Brown challenges the conventional narratives that insisted on a natural unity at the end of the Roman Empire and early Middle Ages. C. Dawson’s (The making of Europe , 1932) suggestion that papal Rome was the centre of European unity is dealt short shrift. Similarly, Brown takes to task H. Pirenne’s provocative thesis (Mohammed and Charlemagne, 1937) that commerce continued to provide a unifying force in Europe for centuries after the barbarian ‘invasions’, by drawing on archaeological data of post-imperial Britain which showed that there had never been a commercial unity to be destroyed.

Using the example of the church in seventh century Northumbria, which developed an ordered and self-sufficient Christian culture, the author shows that Christianity of post imperial Europe was characterised by quite diverse regional “micro Christendoms”, which stretched like so many beads on a string from Iona across Europe to central Asia (at least until the rise of Islam). The venerable Bede himself was instrumental in the creation of an English ethnic identity by developing notions of the ‘national’ unity of the Angles in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. This gives a glimpse of the role that the Christian church played in the creation of European ethnic identities – note the aims of the series above.

Nevertheless, Christianity in Western Europe was part of the Christian “global village”. It did not develop entirely in isolation. Readers are to appreciate that most of what we call Europe now was only the westernmost reaches of a far wider Christian world, whose centre of gravity lay in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. The Byzantine empire often influenced Western Europe; even when not directly influencing the West, it faced similar problems. The attempt to reform Christian practice and redefine the Christian past during the “Iconoclastic controversy” in the East gives insight into the reform and renewals made in the Frankish empire of Charlemagne.

Probably the most important feature of Brown’s work is his sympathetic treatment of early medieval Christianity. It is not a barbarised religion as it is often portrayed. The ‘Carolingian Renaissance’ was not a revival of ancient culture, but a restoration and correction of it made possible by the advances made in Christian monasteries during the intervening period. The author seeks to show that the world of The Dark Ages is much closer to our own than is late antiquity.

The compass of this book is extremely ambitious. The reader is led on an exciting journey from the “micro Christendoms” on the frontiers in Ireland, through the various ‘Nestorian’ communities in Persia, to the conversion of tribes in Scandinavia late in the first millennium. The research is prodigious but the book is well balanced and makes compelling reading, highly suitable as a key text for undergraduate or graduate courses on early Christianity.

David P. O’Brien
Trinity College Theological School, Melbourne University