The rocky road to Christian rule in Europe
Mutilated, strangled, suffocated or beaten to death: these are just some of the methods used to get rid of popes in the early medieval period. An incredible 33% of all popes anointed between 872 and 1012 died under suspicious circumstances. It is safe to say that the road to Christian rule in Europe was at times difficult.
Peter Heather’s revisionist history of the rise of medieval Christianity draws attention to these moments. Although the subtitle is “The Triumph of a Religion”, its narrative is anything but triumphalist. In fact, his argument gains momentum through his challenge to simplistic accounts of Christian ancestry.
The dominant historical narratives written in 20th century Britain were as follows: Christianity spread from Palestine across Europe from the 4th century onwards, through a gradual and steady process of personal conversion, guaranteed by the truth of Christian doctrine. In contrast, Heather explores the pragmatic and administrative ways through which Christianity came to power. That’s not to say he downplays the importance of individual belief, but it does remind us to consider the leap from private spirituality to an institutional and hegemonic system of government. It is the latter that is its subject: Christianity as a political entity, with a grip on the entire European continent.
The connection between Christianity and Europe continues to define world politics. Heather destabilizes this bond at its origin, showing how Christian supremacy was far from inevitable, and how state power has shaped the trajectory of religion. So while this is undoubtedly a book that will be useful to anyone who wants to distinguish his Visigoths from his Vandals, the relevance of the author’s argument demands a much wider audience. Taking a long view of history, Heather allows the reader to witness the development of Christianity in a context of supreme imperial command until its survival in the chaos of “the Christian community”.
Beginning with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in AD 312, he argues that Christianity became a de facto branch of Roman administration. It was this intersection with state power that transformed the religion from a “small, mysterious Near Eastern cult” into a mass movement. Heather shows how conversion to Christianity in the Roman system did not require violence to be coercive. There was intense pressure for individuals to conform in order to survive and thrive. It’s a compelling argument, one that resonates with later stories of conversion and empire. We are shown in detail how elite provincial landlords across the Roman Empire converted to win imperial favor, bringing their tenants with them in the faith.
This account of the spread of Christianity provides a suspenseful setting for the second part of the story: its fate after the fall of the Roman Empire. Heather spins a dense web of provincial rulers and confusing successions of power into a compelling narrative as we follow the reinvention of Christianity for a post-imperial era. It shows how Christianity adapted as it spread to new parts of Europe, to encourage its adoption among the locals. For example, the early medieval northern European church revised its principles to be lenient toward murder based on the priorities of newly converted warriors. The role of landowners in spreading the faith remains a striking theme throughout history: in the 6th century, we see how Pope Gregory the Great coerced the peasants of his lands into conversion by threats of increased rents .
The latter part sees the development of a Christian one-party style of government, where papal doctrine was enforced throughout Europe through direct intimidation and a climate of fear. In the 12th century, it was the inhabitants who had to change, not the church. A system of largely self-governing communities was consolidated into a superstate, a single corporate entity whose influence on the course of history cannot be underestimated. The improbable “success” of the First Crusade, with the Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, allowed the solidification of Christian domination. The idea of a Christian Holy Land was a propaganda image that proved irresistible to many – bringing them good luck, as the resistance would have put them in the hands of the Inquisition.
At a time when Victor Orbán speaks of the need for Europe to “return to its Christian identity”, it is more urgent than ever to understand how exactly Christianity came to dominate in Europe. Heather’s story runs through the myth of an innate and culturally monolithic Christian Europe. Rather than leaving us with an idea of the glorious achievements of ancestry, Heather sheds light on the mechanics of state coercion and intermittent violence that led to the birth of Christianity. It’s not light reading – but there’s enough drama to make it a page-turner.