Surprises in History

The Barbarian Conversion:
From Paganism to Christianity

by Richard Fletcher.
Henry Holt, 1997, 524 pp., 36 b&w plate

Here is a very readable and fascinating account of the Christianization of Europe, from the late Roman Empire to the conversion of Lithuania in the person of its king Jogaila in 1385; that is, from the time of Origen to that of Chaucer, a vast span of time. It is a feat of huge erudition to have described it as Richard Fletcher does, with extraordinary nuance, and with reflections on modern perceptions of his subject matter.

Three questions frame Fletcher’s narrative: (1) what were the barbarians of Europe converted from? (2) how did the process work? and ultimately, (3) what were they converted to? None of these questions is easily answerable, given the state of the evidence. In the first place, the peoples of Europe outside the Empire and outside the Church did not record their history and thought. Even inside the boundaries of Christian Europe, which were constantly shifting, records are scarce and full of interpretive problems. Given this state of things, we have to wonder, what did Christianity mean to the converts? In what particulars was it more than a re-christening of old habits? To what extent and how did it transform European society?

Continue reading “Surprises in History”