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The Rise of Western Christendom

Triumph and Diversity, AD 200 – 1000


Within a millennium since the death – and resurrection – of Jesus of Nazareth, the religion that came to be known as Christianity has grown from being a fringe community within the Middle East, into the most dominant religious, political, and social force all over Europe. Since becoming the most favored religion in the empire during Constantine’s reign in the third century, Christianity has – with few interruptions – grown rapidly, taking over both the aristocratic circles and the grassroots of Roman society.

The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200 – 1000, by Peter Brown, provides a general survey of Christianity from the third century until the dawn of the new millennium. It’s a story of triumph, as the religion spread throughout the empire, and displaced paganism by the turn of the millennium. And it’s a story of diversity, as so-called ‘micro-Christendoms’ sprang out, with bishops leading each community, excercising both religious and political powers.

By 400, Christians are everywhere within the empire, from Spain in the west up to Persia in the east. However, as the religion’s adherents are spread throughout such a vast territory, with the bishops as the primary leaders of each community, differences are bound to appear. Debates on biblical interpretations and theology have caused rifts among groups of bishops, especially within a west-east divide.

Constantine’s first Council of Nicaea has settled debate on Arianism, but the divisions that the theological conflict has created remained long after. The barbarians who later took over the Western empire were themselves adherents of the much denounced Arianism. And as Christianity further spread to the northern parts of Europe, it became clear that such differences are bound to deepen, unless authority is centralized – to Rome.

One of the biggest such conflicts centuries after the first Nicaea is the Byzantine Iconoclasm. Eastern emperors such as Leo III and Constantine V denounced the use of icons to represent Jesus, Mary, and the saints. The dissenters – known as iconoclasts – pointed out its violation of the First Commandment (still a major objection to Catholicism in the present day). A volcanic eruption and the near-conquest of Constantinople by Muslim forces were seen by iconoclasts as God’s punishment for the use of icons. Leo III prohibited icons, and Constantine V called a council of bishops in Hiereia to condemn the practice.

However, Constantine’s daughter-in-law, Empress Eirene, supported the veneration of icons, and thus called for a more ecumenical council in Nicaea – the second Nicene council – that definitively upheld the iconophile practice. The council also proscribed the earlier council in Hiereia. These kinds of ecumenical councils serve as significant forces in settling debates among independent-minded bishops, and will remain to be so centuries to come.

Meanwhile, monasticism became a central aspect of Christianity. Monasteries became centres of learning, and communities around them considered monasteries as holy places, where the prayers of monks and nuns are the ordinary Christians’ bridge to heaven. The cult of saints grew, and relics and saints’ tombs became important physical manifestations of faith.

Islam’s rise and spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa threatened to check the rapid growth of Christianity. The Umayyad conquest of Iberian peninsula also caused consternation for Rome. Despite this, for centuries Christianity and Islam maintained a mostly peaceful co-existence within the known world. And as the south and east of Rome-controlled Europe remained outside the Pope’s sphere of influence, they looked into the northern regions of Europe for expansion.

The book The Rise of Western Christendom shows how Christianity spread and grew throughout Europe and the East. By 1000, paganism was suppresses within the Christian world, and remained in the outlying regions east of Germania and in most of Scandinavia. This so-called triumph and diversity, as the author asserts, destroys the image of early medieval Christianity as one of “Dark Ages”, which then ushered in a sort of Renaissance. Instead, Christianity within this period was characterized by vibrancy and vitality, as the foundations of what we now see as modern Christianity were laid during these times. After all, a religion that managed to grow this much couldn’t have done so during its ‘darkest’ period.

The Rise of Western Christendom is an excellent book for learning about late antiquity in general, and early medieval Christianity in specific. Peter Brown’s older book, The World of Late Antiquity, is a shorter and more general survey of the period, and also made him the preeminent scholar for Late Antiquity – in fact it was Brown himself who coined the term! I have read both, but I liked The Rise of Western Christendom more, as it’s more comprehensive and more relevant to my preferences: I’m starting to learn about history of Christianity, and I read this book as preparation for going into medieval Christianity. That said, I do suggest reading both, if the reader is interested in learning more about Late Antiquity.