Top critical review
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Strong discourse and chronological detail; weak analysis and conclusions
on August 26, 2009
With so ambitious a title, one expects Judith Herrin to deliver a serious study - she does in some respects (coverage of the development of the Christian church), but falls short in others (over-arching conlusions about the period and relevance to modern religious and political developments).
Herrin delivers a masterful work in providing, perhaps unprecedented for the limited space of the book (<500 pages), coverage of the developments in the early-to-mediaeval Christian church and doctrines. Very few other books of this length give a through coverage of themes, discussions and outcomes of sever ecumenical councils, or councils, such as the Synod of Frankfurt in 794. Indeed, students of early Christian doctrines would find much of interest in Herrin's book.
Herrin also delivers in having a broad coverage of Mediterranean history between the fourth and ninth centuries, particularly in her inclusion of Byzantium - from her "Conclusion" chapter: " I have presented Byzantium as an essential factor in the development of both the West and Islam, for it was at one and the same time the power that frustrated the Muslim challenge to Christianity, even while it failed to confine Islam to Arabia"....or another notable passage from Herrin's introduction to the eith century section: "...Traditional approaches, which often assume that the distinct character of modern Europe was already present in embryonic form in Charles' realm are distorted by hindsight. A more accurate historical reading will set the "western" development within a Mediterranean context, where it becomes evident that it was one part of a much larger process, whose centre of gravity lay in the East. The "Rise of Islam" and the consolidation of a transformed Byzantine Empire were simultaneous with and related to advances made by the Franks and their papal allies. The correlation of all these forces, Islamic, Byzantine, and Frankish-Papal, ensured that no one military order or religious culture would again unite the world that had been Rome's".
With such strengths of discourse, attention to detail in historical coverage and broad view of the late Antiquity and early Middle Ages, why then give Herrin's book only three stars? Largely because Herrin is not a "big picture" historian - with such an ambitious title, one would expect that if no new analysis and insight are provided, at least broader conclusions will be drawn from the period with implications for the modern world (as the period covered in the book largely sets out dynamics that have political and religious implications for the Mediterranean and the Middle East to this day). Unfortunately, both from a Christian, Islamic or political perspectives, Herrin falls short here. Most of her insights provide nothing new, at best, and are clichés, at worst - consider the following passage from Herrin's concluding chapter: " Despite the fact that this western potential was first developed entirely by clerics, it was certainly related to the existence of separate, independent authorities, civil as well as ecclesiastical".
In conclusion, who is this book of interest to? I believe, first and foremost, to students of early Christian religion and institutions -- this is where the true strength of the book is; coverage of Islam is, unfortunately, weak. Second, the book might be of interest, though to a much lesser degree, to students of early Medieval history. Better coverage of Antiquity or the fall of Rome exists elsewhere (for example, see "The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians" by Peter Heather). Students of Byzantine history will also find better texts (for example, see "A History of the Byzantine State and Society" by Warren Treadgold).