Medieval Christianity

A New History

Medieval Christianity: A New History, by Kevin Madigan, is a general overview of the history and development of the Christian religion in the Middle Ages, AD 600 – 1500.

The Late Antiquity period ended with Christianity becoming the dominant religion in Europe, while Islam dominated North Africa and the Middle East. As the Catholic Church became the most dominant force in the realm of Christendom, it became a more political entity, with secularization intertwining with its supposedly religious nature. Politics in France became a major cause of the papacy’s transfer from Rome to Avignon, and even after the end of this so-called Babylonian captivity, the succeeding popes have acquired a taste for politics that will later culminate in the Reformation scandal.

Meanwhile, the laity became more drawn into the religious life. Monastic orders sprang up, and men and women alike took religious vows and devoted their lives to serving God through renouncement of worldly living. The Crusades called for with the purpose, initially, of taking the Holy Land back from Muslim rule also became a way of religious and penitential life for many, who came to view a holy war as a way of offering their lives to God. 

The practice of Christian faith developed further, and took on forms not too far from our present day Catholicism. The Mass became more elaborate, the cult of saints became widespread and more intense for some, relics and images became central to the prayer life, and devotion to the Virgin Mary developed into a major devotion among Christians. Monastic education gave way to development of theology and philosophy; however, disagreements in the finer points of theology and doctrine lead to the creation and spread of schismatic movements. These were condemned by the Catholic Church, and the need to stop their spread brought forth the institution of the Inquisition, which hunted down and tried the leaders and recalcitrant followers of these movements.

Overall, Medieval Christianity is an excellent resource for understanding Christianity during the Middle Ages. The bibliography is divided by chapter, and provides various other references for deeper study of medieval Christianity, which can be very useful for the more curious readers. I recommend this for everyone wanting to learn more about the Middle Ages but don’t know where to start.


The Year that Rocked the World

The year 1968 was one of the most momentous in modern history, if not in the entire history of mankind. For much of the year, many countries, especially the US and in Europe, were gripped by protests. Depending on the government response, these protests, mostly lead by students, devolved into violent riots and brawls. Arrests are made, and sometimes lives are lost. But the people keep going back to the streets. The students keep on marching, sometimes occupying campus buildings.

The ongoing Vietnam War is the primary issue in the United States, and is central to the presidential election of 1968. Antiwar movements sprang up and mobilized all over the country, and despite occasional suppression by the authorities, they just kept on growing and kept on coming back to the streets. The assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy further fueled anger among the people, with civil rights now also a major motivation for protests.

In Czechoslovakia, a more reform-minded leader, Alexander Dubcek, came into power early in the year, and immediately set on to loosen restrictions on freedom of expression. The media, now more free to report on subjects that used to be taboo, started showing the uglier side of the government. Meanwhile, people took to the streets to demand more reforms. The now-uncensored news of widespread protests in the US have also inspired similar antiwar demonstrations in Prague.

All of these caused consternation in Kremlin. With memories of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 still fresh in Soviet leaders’ minds, they at first vacillated in how to deal with the situation in Prague, even as Dubcek himself is starting to lose control of the popular movements. In the end, the Kremlin settled for an invasion. In August tanks rolled through the streets of Czechoslovakia and soldiers used force against the civilian protesters. Forced negotiations between the Soviet and the Czechoslovakian leaders ended up with gradual rollback of the reforms already put in place.

Paris was also swept by unrest, as students opposed the very conservative norms imposed on universities. The demonstrations grew quickly, and soon workers were also organizing strikes – though the workers were doing so for their own interests, and didn’t have much sympathy for the students. Nonetheless, all these proved beyond comprehension for France’s mythical leader, Charles de Gaulle, who tried to ignore the unrest at first. Yet when it seemed the clamor for change can no longer be dealt with by his old tactics, de Gaulle instead announced new elections. Soon the protests died down, but de Gaulle’s appeal no longer held the same sway as before.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s death, the Democratic Party was suddenly left without a strong contender for the elections. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago, meant to be the highlight of the primaries, was marred by widespread protests all over the city. The fierce mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, advocated the use of force against the protesters, which the police willingly did. For many nights, riots broke out in Chicago, and of course, the media was there to cover all these. At the same time, the Democratic Party settled with Vice President Hubert Humphrey as their standard bearer.

The Republican Party ended up selecting former Vice President Richard Nixon as the presidential candidate. Nixon pandered to the Southern voters, under the promise of promoting law and order, and states’ rights. Even with all the massive antiwar demonstrations, and the police violence towards protesters shown on TV, many Americans in 1968 still supported the war, and felt the “rioters” deserved their harsh treatment. Nixon’s eventual victory only highlighted this sentiment, and from that point on, the gap between the two political parties only kept on growing bigger. Civil rights and antiwar advocates leaned more towards the Democrats, while the white South became more closely identified with the Republicans.

Many more events happened all over the world: Mexican civil unrest ended in the grisly Tlatelolco massacre, and months later Mexico was able to host the Olympics with little unrest; Cuba under Fidel Castro further restricted “capitalist” activities, while also starting to lean more towards China, and away from the Soviet Union; the West continued massive relief aid towards the breakaway Biafran regime in Nigeria; among many others.

The story of 1968 ends with NASA’s successful Apollo 8 mission, where a spacecraft carrying three astronauts orbited in close proximity around the moon. The mission was, as with the protests of 1968, heavily broadcasted on TV. It was a precursor to the historic Apollo 11 mission the following year. And with it, the turbulent year that was 1968 came to a close, as mankind faced the new year with some sense of optimism and hope for the future.

The book 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, by Mark Kurlansky, was able to vividly narrate the history of 1968, with great focus on the US antiwar protests and election season, and on the Prague Spring and the eventual Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. There’s a lot to learn from the numerous events of that fateful year, and even today much of the issues of the 60’s continue to hound our world. And it is for these reasons that it’s all the more important to look back to those times, as foreign as it may seem to this generation, for upon closer inspection, one sees that the world, as it was, is in many ways still the same today.

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.


The First World War as Political Tragedy

The First World War is most remembered for being a war of attrition, a stalemate conflict fought along hundreds of miles of trenches. It was the pioneer of aerial battles and reconnaissance, tanks, and chemical warfare. Yet while this is how the Great War is commonly viewed, much of how and why it became the attrition war that it was is best explained not through the lens of military history, but through its political conduct.

David Stevenson’s book, Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, examines the Great War as fought at the top, by the belligerent governments and political leaders. Even as the war settled into a stalemate, behind the scenes the leaders actually ramped up their war efforts, further widening the war by pulling in other nations into the conflict, while constantly developing new war technologies in hopes of breaking the deadlock. The political leaderships of the main belligerents – Britain, France, and Germany – also maintained surprising unity among their countries, as their respective political parties set their differences aside and continued to support the war regardless of its human and economic costs.

The 1917 revolutions in Russia, and America’s entrance to the war that same year, gave Germany an opportunity to conduct a war of movement, and in 1918 unleashed their final salvo, in desperate attempt to win the conflict before the Americans can tip the balance to the Allies’ favor. Unfortunately for the Central Powers, the offensives failed, as exhaustion finally set in among the servicemen. Once the Allies regained the offensive, desertion among the Germans and Austro-Hungarian troops broke the ranks, and their retreat rapidly continued until the final days of the war.

When leaders of the German High Seas Fleet attempted to put up one final act of resistance against the incoming Allied forces, the sailors refused to participate, and the ensuing riots among the ranks spread quickly across the empire. Meanwhile, Austria-Hungary’s many nationalities have also began revolting, with independence as primary reason for taking up arms against the Dual Monarchy system. While the German leadership under Ludendorff initially tried to negotiate lighter terms while acquiescing to President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the widespread revolutions, combined with fears of possible Communist takeover, forced them to accept unconditionally whatever terms were presented to them, no matter how harsh.

But no matter how climactic the war was, the Second World War was not, as the author argues, caused directly by those supposedly harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty. Rather, disunity among the Allies, the post-war economic hardships, and the growth of paramilitary organizations were the greater seeds with which leaders like Hitler and Mussolini rose. And while the Versailles Treaty indeed imposed the “war guilt” unto Germany, the Allies nonetheless had greater leeway in implementing the terms, and had they cooperated well, they could’ve ensured that Germany didn’t suffer as much while also being able to comply with the terms.

A highly difficult but insightful book, Cataclysm requires sufficient knowledge of the First World War and its aftermath, as the author dissects the political and strategic aspects of the conflict. This is a lot different from the usual focus on military conduct in most overview books, and Stevenson’s rather dry style may take a while to get used to. Another book of his, 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, which was published many years later, explains in-depth a large part of Cataclysm’s main section, and having read 1917 earlier this year, it helped me get through the author’s writing style while also providing essential knowledge for further understanding – and appreciating – this book.

As long as the reader is aware of these considerations, and can confidently wade through the density of this book, Cataclysm is an illuminating read on the political conduct of the war. It also provides for arguments about the war’s history that are not usually tackled in other books related to the First World War. For the more serious readers of the First World War, this is a highly worthy book to engage in.


War, Peace, and Revolution

The book 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson, examines how the leaders of the belligerent countries desperately looked for ways out of a seemingly endless war of attrition. From failed offensives, to peace overtures, to war declarations, and even revolutions, the book goes through the climactic 1917 in detail, offering perspectives on how the leaders struggled with the decisions they had to make to seek an end to the endless slaughter that is the Great War.

A desperate Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, despite the risk of drawing in the United States. The US, in turn, entered the war after the discovery of the Zimmerman telegram. The British adopted convoys to reduce shipping losses, despite arguing about its effectiveness for the first few months of 1917. The French mounted an offensive; it failed, and contributed to morale deterioration and a mutiny.

Meanwhile, Russia had it even worse. The centuries-old tsarist monarchy was overthrown, and socialist revolutionaries took over. They weren’t exactly anti-war, however, and participated in yet another failed offensive. In its aftermath, even greater social unrest followed, and the revolutionary Lenin maneuvered himself and his Bolshevik faction to power in the famous October Revolution. Once in power, he worked to finally end Russian participation in the war, culminating in the Brest-Litovsk treaty the following year.

But the book doesn’t confine itself to the major participants, and also discussed developments outside Europe. Greece entered the war on the Allies’ side; Italy suffered catastrophic defeat at Caporetto, but emerged stronger and more united than ever; Brazil entered the war against Germany, though its efforts are limited in territory; Siam and Japan entered with the intention of having themselves represented in a post-war conference, in order to leverage against unequal treaties forced upon them by the West.

There were also peace initiatives, which, however, failed due to various reasons. It is also worth noting that, even at this point in the war, the belligerents still haven’t fully decided the extent of their war aims. This contributed to the collapse of peace talks, as the participants couldn’t agree on exactly what they want for themselves, and what they want (and don’t want) the opposing sides to get.

The question of what will happen to the Ottoman territories is also discussed in the book. Designs for the Middle East after the expected collapse of the Ottoman Empire figured in discussions among the Allies, specifically France and Britain. The issue of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine is also raised – the book narrates how the Balfour Declaration was shaped, paving the way for a more concrete design for Palestine, which in any case won’t be realized until after the Second World War.

The year 1917, as the author argues, is the major turning point of the war. A lot of things could’ve turned out differently, but how and why they turned out as they actually did is a major theme in 1917. And the events and decisions that happened and were taken in the year 1917 ultimately shaped the course of the war in 1918.