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Monday, December 20, 2010

THE BARBARIAN CONVERSION

BOOK REVIEW

The Barbarian Conversion:
From Paganism to Christianity
by Richard Fletcher
p. 1996
Henry Holt

      We take Europe's status as a repository of Christianity as a given, but it wasn't always the case.   As late as the 14th century, the pagan Duchy Lithuania ruled over a wide swath of central Europe.   Many parts of Germany weren't converted until the 900s.  Scandinavia was largely pagan until after the turn of the first Millennium.  Christianity just seems overwhelming because we know so little about the Pagan religions which proceeded it.  But when you think about it... is there really such a big difference between what happened in the Baltics in the 13th century and what was to happen a little more then 200 years later in Mexico and Peru with the Aztecs and Incas?

   The whole process of conversion of Europe from Paganism to Christianity is ridiculously complicated, particularly when one considers the rather straight forward way that the same religion triumphed within the Roman Empire. (Converting the Emperor helps!)  In Western Europe, Christianity pretty much continued in the footsteps of the Roman Empire.  The conquering Barbarian tribes in places like France, Spain and England emulated the Romans and their leaders saw the adoption of Christianity as a way to carry on the Roman tradition.  This approach met with various degrees of success: In Spain, Muslims stormed in and wrecked the place.  In England, Germanic tribes came in and wrecked the place, and also gradually converted to Christianity.  In France, Charlemagne formed a solid dynasty and went to work on the Germans.  This process of conversion coming from the West through Central Europe and into the East continued for several centuries, until the Lithuanians finally completed the process in the 14th century.

  As Fletcher persuasively argues, the success of Christianity was attributable to a combination of religion as a motivating factor for power hungry warlords to go out and conquer, and a corresponding desire by leaders outside the Christian area to get with the winning team.  Nowhere but nowhere does Christianity come "from below."  At the end of Barbarian Conversion Fletcher brings up the idea that perhaps conversion was not a particularly deep experience for many in Europe.  That seems about right to me.  For the great majority of people in the Middle Ages, converting to Christianity was something they did because their local Duke or whoever made them.  Christianity: big whoop.

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