A historian discovers an arrowhead in the ground. Where, when, and how was it likely used? Was the archer viciously attacking the innocent, nobly defeating evildoers, or responsibly feeding his family? Perhaps he might have been a she, and the untold history of female archers needs to see the light of day.
Whatever view is taken, some evidence will be highlighted as primary while other facts will be backgrounded. The historian’s perspective about what should “really count” will determine the story that gets told.
Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300–1300 is a prime example of how historians put their personal stamp on the evidence to construct an overarching narrative. The author, Peter Heather, is professor of medieval history at King’s College London. He’s a seasoned scholar whose breadth and depth of research are brought to bear on his interpretation of history.
Heather’s reading can be supported by the evidence. Furthermore, his complex retelling of the church’s story is more compelling than some simplistic versions that present a monolithic and ever-triumphant Christianity.
And yet the materials of ecclesiastical history might support less suspicious retellings that also make sense of the available evidence. Readers must remember Heather has a point to make, which encourages a critical reading of his argument.
Heather is presenting a more skeptical view of Christian history, which, in his view, helps explain the religious trends in recent decades. He writes that the book is “a response to . . . the pressing intellectual challenge of reassessing Christianity’s rise to pre-eminence in the light of its modern eclipse” (xx).
Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300–1300
In the fourth century AD, a new faith grew out of Palestine, overwhelming the paganism of Rome and resoundingly defeating a host of other rival belief systems. Almost a thousand years later, all of Europe was controlled by Christian rulers, and the religion, ingrained within culture and society, exercised a monolithic hold over its population. But how did a small sect of isolated and intensely committed congregations become a mass movement centrally directed from Rome? As Peter Heather shows in this illuminating new history, there was nothing inevitable about Christendom’s rise and eventual dominance.
Heather’s goals in writing Christendom are clearly stated. He’s presenting a history that rejects the inevitability of Christianity in the West. He argues Christianity has been variegated throughout its existence so there’s sometimes little connection between the Christianity of different eras. Heather also presents it as one among several religious options of the West, arguing that something besides its inherent excellence is the cause of its historical popularity.
Heather sets out to undermine the triumphalistic Christian Grand Narrative that existed among Christians “around 1900” or “a century ago” (xviii). According to that narrative, Christianity had a straightforward, linear expansion based on its divine destiny and innate superiority over all other faiths. Heather rejects those Gilded Age pretensions.
Oddly, Heather presents his position as something new. Yet almost all scholars and professors in the past half century (even faithful Christian ones, which Heather acknowledges he isn’t) have already rejected that simplistic way of unfolding church history. For example, Richard A. Fletcher’s The Barbarian Conversion (1998) has long since undermined the earlier glib account of Christianity’s trajectory of inevitable success.
The book too often tilts at creaky, rusted windmills whose sails haven’t spun for years. Instead, the book’s strength is the masterful and detailed way it tells an already widely accepted story.
Heather’s historical work begins by questioning Christianity’s rise to prominence in the West. He addresses the role of Constantine and the Romanization of Christianity. “Romanization” for Heather refers to the intertwining of the church with the official state apparatus of the Roman Empire. He suggests it was Constantine’s genuine conversion that led to such widespread adoption of this faith, especially among the landowning elites. It wasn’t something inherent in the juggernaut of Christianity.
The book’s strength is the masterful and detailed way it tells an already widely accepted story.
To support this conclusion, Heather downplays statistical models that might indicate massive numbers of Christians across the realm. The truth is, the old gods hung around for a lot longer than we often think. And when the gods like Jupiter and Mars were ultimately vanquished, it happened more by Christian deceit, coercion, and violence—for example, the destruction of Alexandria’s Serapeum—than by eloquent evangelistic speeches and winsome gospel presentations.
Imperial Christianity Falls
No sooner did Christianity establish a strong foothold in the Roman Empire than it reached its natural end—in other words, it “fell.” By this common term, Heather doesn’t mean the empire toppled all at once like Goliath struck by slingstone. Instead, it unraveled over the course of the fifth century as a newly arrived warrior society from northern Europe worked with the existing landed elite to create a patchwork of successor states.
Heather undermines narratives that powerful popes with Nicaean theology quickly transitioned Europe into an orthodox, Trinitarian unity after the fall of Rome. Instead, he argues the so-called Arian Christianity of the northern newcomers posed a serious threat to orthodoxy that must be taken into account as a legitimate alternative.
Here again, Heather continues to present this material as news, when professional historians (and many interested laypeople) have known for decades that neither the fall of Rome nor the rise of medieval Christendom was an easy, overnight process. Peter Brown made this clear as early as 1971 when he popularized the concept of Late Antiquity.
Rejecting the ‘Dark Ages’ Label
Heather’s description of the West’s fall to the Germanic tribes is followed by a turn to the medieval situation. He argues that while there wasn’t yet a centralized papacy pulling the strings of statecraft, the sixth and seventh centuries don’t deserve the ugly label of “the Dark Ages.”
Early medieval intellectual life continued to thrive, even if we don’t have as many manuscripts as we might wish to prove it. Literacy was widespread; poetry and the arts flourished; the great classics were still being enjoyed. While educational structures surely had declined, people were still engaging the written word.
The gloomy shadows cast over this era by 19th-century medievalists—though not by professional historians in more recent decades—reflect an unfair and biased reading of the evidence. Heather argues that far from lapsing into darkness, the early medieval church managed to survive the fall of Rome nicely. But it did so only by reimagining from top to bottom what it meant to be a Christian.
Tightening Rome’s Hold
The last two chapters of the book describe two vastly different ways Rome tightened its grip on Europe’s religious imagination in the High Middle Ages. On the positive side, the popes of that era proved remarkably flexible and tolerant in embracing revivalist preaching and popular religious movements, especially the Franciscans and Dominicans but even the Waldensians to a certain degree.
Lay spirituality, including female piety, began to have a greater influence on the church. Bottom-up religious enthusiasm now complemented the church’s previous emphasis on top-down methods for expanding Christian devotion.
But on a much darker side, religious coercion reared its head in hideous new ways during the 13th century. “At the same time as the new Franciscan and Dominican preaching orders were winning hearts and minds in the parishes of Catholic Europe,” Heather writes, “the ecclesiastical establishment also began to exercise much tighter corrective discipline against identified heretics” (560).
The tools of coercion ranged from excommunication from the church’s saving sacraments to military crusades against internal enemies like the Cathars to secret regimes of anonymous denunciations and investigations by torture with few legal safeguards for the accused. “Inquisitio, then, was specifically developed as a practical tool for enforcing compliance with the required set of religious beliefs and practices” (565). In time, the Inquisition’s demand for proper beliefs brought not just heretics but even Jews and everyday fornicators into the brutally coercive hands of the medieval church.
Heather ends Christendom on a sad, though surely not unintended, note. The high medieval Western church is characterized more or less like Communist Russia or contemporary North Korea as a dictatorship whose “universalizing, monolithic ideology was used to generate a clear profile of model behavior” (583).
One Interpretation Among Others
What can be said about Christendom? In one sense, it’s hard to argue with the premises of so erudite a book as this one. The author lays out a whole lot of evidence. He clearly has mastery of his sources, both primary and secondary.
Readers can only marvel at the wide-ranging scope of topics Heather covers and the detailed attention he devotes to each. The narrative of this book spans 587 pages, and not one of them is wasted. The dense text takes the reader into many fascinating aspects of the church’s rise in the empire and its displacement of traditional pagan religion, both Greco-Roman and Germanic.
Readers can only marvel at the wide-ranging scope of topics Heather covers and the detailed attention he devotes to each.
Yet one can still wonder about other possible explanations of the evidence, approaches that might give a more generous read to the sources, such as that found in Tom Holland’s Dominion (2019). Without denying the reality of forced conversions, other religious alternatives on the medieval landscape, the drastic adaptations of Christianity over time, and the church’s close brushes with extinction, readers of Christendom must still assess the degree to which they’ll accept the arguments Heather lays out.
Facts are one thing; interpretations are another. This is definitely a good book, certainly a learned one. But it’s also one that must be read with a critic’s—or even a skeptic’s—eye.