Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300–1300, by Peter Heather (Knopf. 704 pp., $40)

From its inception in Constantine’s Roman Empire to the High Middle Ages of the fourteenth century, Christendom stretched over a massive swath of land, including not only North Africa and Europe but also Scandinavia and the Baltic States. How did the Catholic Church manage to extend its dominion over such a vast territory? Most Catholics would say that it was faith, hope, and charity that made Christianity so attractive to the first-century Mediterranean, mired as it was in despondent hedonism, as well as the other lands to which Christianity came. G. K. Chesterton makes this point memorably in his 1905 book Heretics. “The great psychological discovery of Paganism, which turned it into Christianity, can be expressed with some accuracy in one phrase,” he wrote. “The pagan set out, with admirable sense, to enjoy himself. By the end of his civilization he had discovered that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else.”

Peter Heather, professor of medieval history at King’s College London, sees the triumph of Christianity as much more dubious. “Modern scholarship,” he writes in the introduction of Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion AD 300–1300, “still tends to dismiss as utterly hopeless the anti-Christian efforts of the last pagan Roman emperor, Julian; while alternative non-Nicene Christianities of the late Roman period generally rate no more than a few footnotes.” The idea of Julian the Apostate winning out against Constantine is an amusing counterfactual, rather like Saki’s novel, When William Came (1913), depicting the Hohenzollerns prevailing against George V and the House of Windsor. Yet Heather, whose sense of the ridiculous is rather limited, offers the possibility with an almost wistful gravity. “In fact, when [Julian’s] policies are reconsidered against the processes which actually made the Empire Christian, it quickly becomes clear that they stood a very real chance of success.” For Heather, Julian’s reign “represents a moment when the rising tide of Christianity might really have been turned.”

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88), Edward Gibbon actually blamed Julian for discrediting the paganism of which he was so fond. “The triumph of Christianity, and the calamities of the empire, may, in some measure, be ascribed to Julian himself,” the historian wrote. Why? His untimely death “left the empire without a master, and without an heir, in a state of perplexity and danger which, in the space of four-score years, had never been experienced, since the election of Diocletian.” Then, too, it’s hardly plausible that Julian’s revival of the deities of Olympus might have somehow replaced Christianity after the vindictive emperor had stripped the Christians of everything that made them respectable in the eyes of the world—especially since even Gibbon recognized that Julian became an advocate of paganism only because “in the defense of the weaker cause, his learning and ingenuity might be more advantageously exercised and displayed.”

It is ironic that Heather’s revisionist history should make so much of contingency because there is an inevitability about his relentlessly anti-Catholic chronicle. In this sense, Heather can be seen as something like the Hilary Mantel of church historians. If Mantel made a fortune reassuring her principally English readers that the English were altogether right to have shown Catholicism the door after the English Reformation, Heather should find an equally warm reception reassuring current Europeans of the wisdom of their getting rid of the same Catholicism—though so far, they have not met with much success in coming up with an alternative.

In addition to contingency, Heather follows two other principles in treating his massive subject: he has written the book to contest the claims of continuity in Christian profession and practice and to show that many “alternative choices of religious allegiance” existed to which Europeans might have turned.

The problem with the first claim is that, starting his chronicle as he does in 300 A.D., Heather does not treat the wellsprings of the Christian faith in any depth. There is little here about the early Church, about which Henry Chadwick wrote so brilliantly; little about the life of Christ, the evangelists, the martyrs, the saints, or the early Church Fathers, whose elucidation of the deposit of the faith continues to animate the continuity of Catholicism. Heather dismisses early Christian accounts of the faith as the crowing of “winners.” He gives St. Augustine’s Confessions a nod but adjudges it too rarefied to be representative of Christian conversion. The author’s treatment, later in the book, of the work of Thomas Aquinas is even more superficial: he barely touches on the Scholasticism that gave Europe so much of its creative zest. Aquinas, in Heather’s estimation, did little more than “play a vital role in preparing preachers for the job of selling the theological package to massed parish laity.”

That the historian insists on referring to the Christian religion, which is, after all, a system of faith and worship, as an “ideology” shows his misapprehension of his subject. To claim, as Heather does throughout the book, that churchmen were not always choir boys only reconfirms the need for the Church’s redemptive mission. In choosing to write of Christianity simply as an external, earthly power, and avoiding all consideration of the development of Church doctrine, or of individual Christians’ faith in Christ (which has always lay at the heart of the religion), Heather can hardly claim to have an informed view of the Church’s claims to continuity. Moreover, his unflagging contempt for the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which he sees as merely repressive, disqualifies him from having anything creditable to say on the subject, since it was at this crucial council that the Church defined not only the Incarnation but also the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, the core of all Catholic continuity.

Heather is also wrong to see the history of Christendom as one in which the Church has somehow been merely dismissive of “alternative choices of religious allegiance.” In discussing the Dominican Order of Preachers, for example, founded by Saint Dominic in 1215, he says little of the Manichaean heresy in the south of France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries among the Albigensians, which the friars successfully extirpated. Doubtless, it would not redound to his anti-Catholic narrative to remind his readers that one of the principal tenets of Manichaeanism was that the human body was inherently evil, or that as a result of reconverting the Languedoc, St. Dominic founded the first order of Dominican sisters at Prouilhe. For Heather, “the Cathar Church was little more than a creation of the inquisitors’ paranoid fantasies.” He even goes so far as to claim that the Albigensian heresy might have been a “self-fulfilling prophecy of a Catholic Church that needed [the heresy] as an excuse to implement the measures of the Fourth Lateran Council, and to tighten its spiritual hold over Latin Christendom.” St. Dominic and his Dominicans, in other words, were little more than deluded heresy-hunters in the service of a power-mad pope.

Here, one can see Heather’s fondness for treating the Church—and, indeed, the Order of Preachers, whom he calls Pope Innocent III’s “shock troops”—as dedicated not to the cure of souls but to the acquisition and retention of power. If sympathy is the sine qua non of proper historical criticism, readers will not find it from a church historian who has convinced himself that mediaeval Christendom emerged as the result of “techniques borrowed from Roman law, allied with spectacular legal forgery,” which popes then “weaponized” to exercise “effective religious authority over virtually the whole of Europe.”

The question that anyone taking up such a study of the Church in this period should answer, first and foremost, is why so many men and women—from all walks of life, from the aristocracy to the lowliest poor, the most highly educated to the illiterate—were drawn to the faith over so long a period. That question cannot be answered by claiming, as Heather does, that a tyrannical papacy simply imposed the faith on Europe. Nor can it be answered by asserting that most of those who professed the faith did so unbelievingly and only for worldly advantage. One cannot imagine such admirable church historians as David Knowles, Christopher Dawson, R.W. Southern, or Peter Brown stooping to such crude assertions.

One explanation for Heather’s marked bias against the Church might lie in his upbringing. In the introduction, the author, who describes himself as “a thoroughly lapsed Anglican,” tells readers that when his grandfather joined the British Army in the Great War he was set to clean latrines after declaring that he was an agnostic; it was only after telling the Army, falsely, that he was an Anglican that he was spared such duty. For Heather, such calculated dissembling was emblematic of most Christians throughout this period. “In the end, the fully fledged Christian one-party state of high medieval Europe,” Heather writes in his reductionist way, “has to be seen as a culmination of a long history of more or less directly forced conversion.”

Formerly Christian Europeans keen on repudiating the faith of their ancestors might welcome such a conclusion, but it should put the rest of us in mind of something Lord Macaulay, the great Whig historian, once wrote of Christendom:

There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. . . . Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

Here is the Church’s triumph, the reasons for which Heather never identifies. Claiming that the Church prevailed because most of its conversions were coerced explains only the author’s uncritical prejudices. It also completely ignores the civilizing, indeed, humanizing influences of Christendom. Was Chartres Cathedral, or Dante’s Divine Comedy, made of coerced faith? The Church triumphed because it appealed to the deepest needs of men and women. What was the nature of that appeal? In nearly 700 pages of dense text, Peter Heather never manages to say.

Photo: PaoloGaetano/iStock


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