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Christendom: The triumph of a religion by Peter Heather

18 November 2022

This is an ‘outsider’s’ view of Christendom, says G. R. Evans

THIS is an ambitious book, both in its scale and in its approach. Heather suggests that his lack of “personal belief” may be an advantage. The book steps decisively away from earlier attempts to describe and explain the way in which Christianity became a world religion which relied on what the author describes as an assumption of “Christianity’s essential superiority as a religion”.

These, Heather suggests, were written from the late 19th century, in a tradition when most historians were themselves Christians or worked in a period when it could be almost taken for granted that their readers were. These earlier historians, he argues, simply lacked the factual knowledge of the modern historian or felt unable to take seriously the “documented religious resistance” already known.

Heather suggests that, despite its “important and real continuities”, Christianity has been in many respects different “at different moments in time”. Heather does not take his story into the modern world, but he takes a hard look at the first and medieval centuries of Christianity, moving boldly from aspect to aspect of such differences. The resulting juxtapositions are often stimulating, though the chronology is sometimes untidy.

The story of Christianity’s expansion is retold in three parts. Christianity began in the Middle East, and the epistles describe its spread in the Greek-speaking world. The first chapter discusses “the Romanization of Christianity”, beginning with the “political” conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312. There had already been doctrinal disputes to be resolved, involving a series of General Councils and the creation of a Creed approved by the Council of Nicaea in 325. The fourth century also brough state approval of Christianity, in 380. By the late fourth century, Christianity was benefiting from the Theodosian Code, with its rules about the destruction of pagan temples and the banning of pagan sacrifice. The State began to put Christians in influential positions.

By 476, however, Rome had fallen to “barbarians”, whose invasions were bringing about the collapse of the Empire during the early fifth century. The organisational apparatus of division into diocesan regions and the creation of church buildings was to make the Church invaluable to the State as the secular imperial organisation broke down. Gregory the Great certainly found it so during his pontificate (590-604).

It was already the case that the Latin- and Greek-speaking halves of the Empire had become separated by the language barrier, and this continued throughout the Middle Ages. Christendom was thereafter to have two patriarchal heads. Constantinople was the natural centre for the leadership of Greek Christianity, with additional Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. The Bishop of Rome became the head of the Latin Church in the West, claiming the authority that Christ had given to St Peter.

The second chapter asks what “conversion” meant in the creation of a Christian Roman Empire. Here, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is the natural place to begin, his Confessions taking his readers through the details of his personal experience. Augustine’s City of God was to provide an account of the nature of the Church which attempted to make sense of the untidy reality. But other conversions are explored, in the context of the confident syncretism of the Roman Empire. The third chapter goes into some detail on the limited consistency in the way in which Christianity was adopted in different parts of the vast Roman Empire.

AlamyEstablishing imperial authority over the Church, Constantine presides at Nicaea, in an image that is used as one of the plates in the book under review


Part II explores the ways in which Christianity reorganised itself in and after the fall of the Roman Empire. Latin Christianity took the lead in importing the learning of classical Rome. Its monasteries equipped themselves with schools, some of which offered a sophisticated education. From the eighth century, cathedrals themselves were required by the Emperor Charlemagne to run schools. Carolingian scholarship was vigorous and could be disputatious, keeping alive controversies that ran on into later centuries. By 1200, that had helped to lead to the foundation of the first universities.

The geographical expansion of Christianity was interrupted by the arrival of Islam. Islam actively sought conversion and won control of much of North Africa and southern Spain. Meanwhile, between the end of the sixth and the 12th centuries, the western part of Northern Europe was converted to Christianity by active missionary effort.

Part III describes the rise of a renewed Roman Empire under Charlemagne. He not only regarded himself as a latter-day Roman Emperor (800-814), but set about conquering the lands of the Saxons so as to bring them within it. His coronation he saw as founding a City of God for the times.

At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I set out a principle that had an enduring legacy. Secular power, he insisted, lay with princes, spiritual power with priests, but the greater of these powers was the spiritual. Church and State began to wrestle for supremacy during the late-11th- and 12th-century investiture controversy. At Canossa, in 1077, the Emperor knelt in submission to Pope Gregory VII. His claim was that the Roman Pontiff alone could be called universal, that “of the pope alone all princes shall kiss the feet,” and that the Pope might depose emperors and absolve subjects from fealty to them.

The book moves briefly beyond its broad time limits to consider the Crusades, as hitting “the limits of Christendom”, the arrival of the Friars as active preaching Orders, and the definitive rules set by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

The author’s acknowledged “outsider” viewpoint marks the book throughout, though it succeeds in its purpose of asking awkward questions and showing that the expansion of Christianity into a world religion was untidy and various and full of setbacks.

There are plates, ten maps, and an extensive bibliography, with detailed reference to sources.

Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.


Christendom: The triumph of a religion
Peter Heather
Allen Lane £35
Church Times Bookshop £30

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