38 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2001
Fletcher's _The Barbarian Conversion_ is the best book on this subject I have read. As a longtime student of the early medieval era, I enjoyed Fletcher's perceptive and astute elucidation of this well-buried era. In some sections of the book, I had read (often repeatedly) every primary source mentioned, and I was continually astonished at the way he drew new insights out of familiar material. Although the middle section does drag a bit (particularly the chapter about the conversion of Scandinavia and Viking settlements), on the whole I love the author's style, his penchant for witty comments, and his eye for humor in his material. Seldom has a book on the early Middle Ages made me laugh out loud as much as this one. It's the details--a woman's garment that shows the adoption of Byzantine necklace fashions, the Greenlander who purchases a bishop for his fledgling settlement with a live polar bear--that bring history to life, and this book is full of them. Never forgetting the complexities of his material, and often showing that the line between Christians and pagans was never firm, Fletcher illuminates an often obscure story.
I also want to add that this book provides the best overview of the situation of the Jews in Europe during the early Middle Ages that I have ever seen (and I have been looking). Most authors begin with the persecutions of 1096 and only toss off a line about the tolerance that marked the first 500 years of the Middle Ages; Fletcher actually examines the tensions and accomodations during those centuries, and his account has thoroughly persuaded me that looking at the fluidity between Judaism and Christianity casts a needed light on the larger characters of both religions at that moment in history. Likewise, his extensive treatment of the conversions of the Slavic and Baltic regions alongside the more familiar terrain of Western Europe is a welcome reminder that the history of the Middle Ages must include Eastern Europe. Although only a devotee of the subject matter would want to read a 500-odd page book on the barbarian conversions, a medievalist who does will be richly rewarded.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2002
I bought this book hoping that I would be able to find out what it was the Barbarians were being converted *from*. But as the author states over and over again : we simply do not know what they believed in. The author gives a few hints as to what Pagan beliefs might have been, but can't do much else. There is no pagan philosophy to be had.
So, it took me a while took get over that little disappointment.
But when I stopped waiting for some non-existant explanation of pre-Christian beliefs, I found that this is actually quite a good book. Many other people have already described the main themes, so I won't bother. But one thing I will say, is that the book covers a huge amount of ground and is a very good overview of a little-know period in Church history.
I would recommend reading this right after "Who wrote the New Testament" That book leaves off in about 400 after the solid foundation of the Christian Church proper had been established and Fletcher's book begins just as Christianity has taken a firm hold in Rome. The two back to back give a thorough history of the early church as a political, military, and diplomatic institution, rather than some mystical brotherhood.
Yeah, it's a little dense in places, but it's still worth it.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2002
An authoritative account of how Christianity made the leap from the disintegrating Roman Empire to the "barbarian" tribes that toppled it -- largely by selling itself as part of the package deal of Roman civilization. Fletcher gives accounts, sometimes amusing, sometimes harrowing, of how Christian missionaries won over the kings and warlords and worried about the common folk later. Amid the stories of sacred groves hacked down and idols burned are many more ambivalent cases where a pagan custom or shrine was simply given a Christian paint job. Fletcher also knows how to find the little details that open up big pictures. Such as the Northumbrian Priests' Law, a code of conduct attributed to Archbishop Wulfstan of York (1000-1023) that laid down four rules for the Anglo-Saxon men of God: Clergy must shave regularly, must not bring their weapons to church, must try to keep out of fights, and must not perform as "ale minstrels."
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2001
Richard Fletcher has written an exceptional work here. From the moment you open it several things are clear. Firstly, Mr. Fletcher speaks with obvious authority and knows the subject extremely well. He speaks about the most obscure characters and texts with striking familiarity. It is also apparent that he is a well read, high brow European and his writing is sometimes awkward to the American ear. Perhaps Fletcher's greatest acheivement is piecing together a comprehensive history from a time in which very little was recorded and preserved. He never gives too much weight to a particular source document, always weighing an author's account against any biases or hidden agendas.
The conversion of just about every group in western Europe is covered in detail and Fletcher gives us a well rounded chronicle of religious conversion on both the personal and societal level. He also never fails to iterate any or all of the reasons why an individual or people might convert.
Fletcher can be accused of going into too much detail at times. The chapters tend flow in biographies from one obscure monk to another with very little overview in between. This makes for difficult reading in the middle chapters. However, given the lack of published materials on the subject, this error can be overlooked.
Stellar research, recommended reading for any scholar of religious change or of the early middle ages.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2004
This is easily one of the most entertaining, and readable, works on this topic I've encountered. Fletcher's style is witty, chatty, and accessible. I couldn't put this book down, and devoured it in 4 days. Every chapter was as good as the last, and I plan on re-reading it soon. His frequent references to prominent historical people and events help you really connect the material with other information about the area, giving you a more complete picture of the people and their times.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on March 15, 2006
A lot of this book confirms stuff I already suspected; that Christianity had inherited the Greek-Roman civilization and this was an important tool in converting Germanic and Slavic chiefdoms (in which case the chiefdoms became statehoods); how missionaries targeted the kings who, after conversion, enforced the religion on their people; and that the `pagan threat' of the Vikings wasn't really all that `pagan'.
But I learned more after reading this book; the importance of monasticism in the conversion of the aristocracies under the kings; how converted kings waited a generation or two before destroying the indigenous religions; the importance of pilgrimage to the Christianized Irish and how that took them all over western Europe in their missionary efforts (before that, I was guilty of viewing the Irish church as isolated); how some pagan societies in eastern Europe emerged as statehoods (and thus not as attracted to Greek-Roman civilization as much as earlier converts were) and therefore had to be subdued by merciless crusading forces. Some of these crusades in eastern Europe reminded me of how the Americas was lost to the American Indians during Christendom's expansion across the Atlantic; rather than converting the natives, they were simply driven out of the land which was then colonized by western European Christians.
The downside to this book (tortuous writing about all these monks founding monasteries at boonies-shire and sticks-bury have already been addressed by other viewers) is that it doesn't tell us much about how Christianity affected the slave trade or its evolution into serfdom. I was under the impression that slavery dwindled in Europe after its Christianization but there are passages in this book that suggests that it continued for quite some time well into the middle ages, but he doesn't have much to say on the subject. He does mention Frankish monasteries that banned the murder and torture of slaves but that's about it.
I would also have liked to see more of how the monks who founded missionary monasteries affected the lower class populations but the author addresses this as much as the surviving evidence allows him to, so it's not his fault, but that evidence doesn't tell us much. We do learn though, that some people were bitter because the missionaries destroyed their former rites without giving them new ones (suggesting that religious devotion for the lower classes after their baptism was not a big deal to the religious leaders). There is also some slight evidence that the people did not like the strict abstinence preached and practiced by the religious leaders and were quick to notice any hypocrisy in the observance of these dogmas by these priests, monks, and missionaries.
Perhaps it might not be appropriate for this book, but I would like to have read more about heretical groups like the Albigensians in the chapter that discusses rival monotheisms (one of the rival monotheisms, Islam, was considered a heresy anyway). Perhaps there would be room for this if fewer pages were spent detailing the accounts of various monks founding monasteries.
Don't let these criticisms fool you into thinking that this book is not worth the read. It is very worth it. It doesn't completely close the gap between the modern age and antiquity but it does close a large portion of it. After reading this book, the middle ages will help mankind's timeline appear to flow much more smoothly and won't look so blocky.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2007
If you want to know how Europe became Christian (to the extent that it did), I can hardly recommend this book too highly. Fletcher is a judicious historian, a delightful conversationalist, and knows his stuff. I bought this book for background for my research on how Christians in settled civilizations related a new faith to ancient cultures. It was a lucky buy. Fletcher tells the story, and when possible, tells it well. I remember knocking on the door of the art historian two floors up to share some of the illustrations and points that went with them.
Some parts of the book remain a bit dry, though, when the story became repetitive or good sources seemed unavailable. (As Fletcher wryly puts it, "the historian of the dark ages must be thankful for the smallest mercies.") But covering a thousand years of obscurity is not alway merciful to the reader. It's hard to remember all the names, for one thing, and Fletcher sometimes forgets to remind us who is who.
I'm interested in is "fulfillment theology" -- the idea many Christians have had that the Gospel does not simply abolish, but fulfills, the deepest truths in pre-Christian cultures. The Christians Fletcher talks about seem to have been pretty flexible on culture and faith -- less rigid than many colonial missionaries would become -- but did not think about the issue so deeply as an Augustine, an Origin, a Ricci, or a Chesterton. Sometimes faith and culture come together in a daffy ad-hoc mixture: Anglo-Saxon kings once traced their lineages to the god Woden: after conversion, they traced it through Woden back to Adam!
Conversion seemed to run strongly along aristocratic family lines -- the theme comes up again and again. And while believers often had a very worldly notion of God's blessing, it was interesting to see how the upper classes sacrificed for their faith, as well as gain from it materially or politically. Fletcher shows that conversion was seldom entirely forced, but often was socially motivated. (Princess brides seemed to accomplish almost as much as missionaries.) All in all, a useful resource, and an excellent read.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2000
Although the Roman Empire slowly disintegrated its religion Christianity was able to live on and to be accepted by the states and tribes who conquered it. This book is a description of the process.
The author shows how the process was a complex one and depended on range of factors not just the mechanics of individual conversion. The reality was that Christian missionaries achieved conversions by winning over the kings and leader of the various new groups who conquered Rome. The basis of this varied from case to case. Sometimes conversion was the result of success in battle or a cure. Sometimes the wife of a king may have been the vehicle of conversion. The critical thing was that once a king was converted to Christianity all of the old ideas and beliefs were stamped out. This intolerance led to the success of Christianity as there was no religion that could replace it until the rise of Islam.
The history of conversion is thus replete with early chroniclers telling proud stories of the destruction of sacred groves, the burning of idols and the conversion of temples into churches. The early success of the church was thus based on the power of the state to suppress any dissent.
The write of the book appears to be a Christian who at the end concludes that the conversion of Europe created in the medieval feudal state a well run and compassionate social apparatus. It is thus surprising that some who have read the book found that he was somewhat biased.
The book is based on enormous scholarship and gives a the flavour of the time.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2000
Richard Fletcher's book, the Barbarian Conversion, is a very thorough look at the switch from paganism to Christianity during the Middle Ages, particulary in Northern and Eastern Europe. It is beautifully researched and covers the topic with great exhaustion over a wide area of chronolgical history. The story does have certain repeating themes as Christianity spreads which could, at times, test the interest of the reader. It also seems, at various stages in the book, that force and authority as a means of Christianizing a people is minimized at the expense of presenting the inherent qualities of the religion itself. The sections that show how the people themselves fought against Chritianity and maintained thier own religion help to balance this to a certain extent. The bias of the sources is also at work here as most of the original sources would have been Christain. A good book on topic that needs more work.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2004
This book is a compendium of dates, places, facts, and personages bearing on the penetration of Christianity into pagan Europe from Late Antiquity onwards. In scope, the book is large. The author marshalls overwhelming masses of supporting data to make his clearly stated points. In many regards, the methodology harks back to an earlier era of scholarship which in its extreme is represented by "The Golden Bough." Solidly and in a workman like fashion Flechter makes his case. He never overstates his grasp of the subject nor stretches his sources to reach some desired conclusion. This is a highly instructive and necessary book on this topic. It is neither a "be all" or "end all" with regards to the broad areas investigated, however, overlooking or dismissing its scholarship because it is not in a trendy form would be a mistake. This is a major secondary source on its subject matter.