The Sword is Our Pope

Alexander Murray

  • The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD by Richard Fletcher
    HarperCollins, 562 pp, £25.00, September 1997, ISBN 0 00 255203 5

To the modern eye the European Middle Ages were palpably Christian, with all those cathedrals and crusades. But in the minds of the Renaissance scholars who invented the term, the adjective ‘middle’ meant that the Middle Ages began with the fall of the Roman Empire c.400, and for a substantial fraction of that time ‘medieval Christendom’ was largely not Christian at all. Of the area ruled by the late medieval Popes, more than half was unconverted before AD 1000. Even the peoples most self-consciously Christian by that date, like the Franks and Anglo-Saxons, had not been Christian when they migrated from Germany, or for several generations afterwards. The Christianisation of rural Francia, for instance, probably ended around 750: that is, two and a half centuries after the migration – as long as the period that separates us from Madame de Pompadour.

What were the future medieval Christians doing and thinking all that time? No one knows. Christianity and literacy went together, so the pre-Christian age is dark by definition, apart from a few glimpses offered by archaeology and precarious surmise. The only certainty is that these peoples became Christian. That is certain not just because we can deduce it from the later cathedrals but because, in the Dark Age, conversion to Christianity is usually the first fact recorded about them: recorded in the Lives of the pioneer evangelists and in accounts de conversione. Of the latter, the more elaborate metamorphosed into the great early medieval histories, like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is at core a record of the conversion of the English.

These conversions, taken together, were very numerous and happened along a vast cultural coastline, stretching from Spain to the Steppes by way of Iceland, Norway and everywhere in between where a strong, recognisable Roman Christianity had not survived (as it did in much of Italy and southern Gaul). The conversions also covered a wide chronological range. The Goths, whose fifth-century conquests were to make them ephemerally a Western European people, absorbed their first Christianity in the late fourth century, the Baltic peoples, by contrast, in the 13th century – the Lithuanians as late as the 14th. While the literary remains of these conversions are meagre, especially at the beginning of the period, their ensemble forms a large corpus for one scholar to tackle, not least since each conversion, its memory nursed by national historians, has sprouted its own modern historiography.

It is this ensemble, stretching across a millennium and round thousands of miles of coastline, that Richard Fletcher has taken as his subject in The Conversion of Europe. What concerns him is not the conversion of this or that people but all medieval conversions (including conversions between Christianity and its two rival monotheisms, Judaism and Islam, which for all their different physiognomy have instructive comparisons to offer). Where the book is most useful is in its comparative approach. For Clovis in fifth-century Francia, for instance, as for Khan Boris in ninth-century Bulgaria, Sviatoslav in tenth-century Kiev, and others elsewhere, a ruler’s interest in the new religion could jeopardise his relationship with the nobility. Once the latter were enthused, on the other hand, they could be stupendously lavish in the building and endowing of churches: in the Spanish province of Braga before the millennium (where churches went up at the rate of one and a half per year for three hundred years), and in Normandy, Denmark and Northern England, after it.

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