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on August 24, 2000
This is an unbelievably comprehensive history of a little-known topic. For those not well-schooled in Late Antique, Early Christian, and Early Medieval history, Ms. Herrin's book is a tough introduction, assuming knowledge on a wide range of topics. Nonetheless, the overall narrative is fascinating and lack of background should not prevent one from enjoying it. This book's main thesis - that the Late Antique and Early Medieval developments in Christianity explain modern Europe - is carefully and thoughtfully displayed. In addition, the prose is sharp and often elegant. Overall, Ms. Herrin's is an astounding accomplishment to read - both for the specialist and the layman.
Nonetheless, anyone who undertakes this book must be prepared to make a serious commitment to its rigor and density. Ms. Herrin is not patient in her presentation. You either get it or you don't. I spent many hours looking back to passages that I thought I had understood. Still, a delight. Highly, highly recommended.
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on September 28, 2007
There is no book available that I know of that could replace this work in the library of any person more than casually interested in the history of the Church, late antiquity, and the early medieval period. With all due respect to Peter Brown, Averil Cameron and others too numerous to name, the breadth and depth of this massive undertaking are awe inspiring. The author, Judith Herrin, is Professor of Late Antiquity and Byzantine Studies at Kings College of the University of London. Covering the period from 400 Ce until 850 Ce she meticulously and methodically explains the interactions of the East and the West both temporal and religious. With the advent of Islam, the author detects an irrevocable fracturing of the Mediterranean world into three distinct but interactive sectors. Herrin clearly states in her conclusion, "I have presented Byzantium as an essential factor in the development of both the West and Islam." After careful consideration of this work, this reader fully accepts her conclusion that Byzantium was a defining factor in the development of the feudal and modern Western world.

The interaction of the Eastern Roman Empire after the fall of the West with the polities that replaced it are carefully developed. With equal adeptness, Roman papal relations with the East are detailed. With much of the West and North Africa becoming Arian Christian including most of Italy, Rome was reduced by continuous warfare to a theological center fighting for its life and influence. It is from that beginning that the author starts her analysis and synthesis of events that culminate with the crowning of a new emperor in the West, Charles the Great, on December 25th in 800 Ce by Pope Leo III. The Mediterranean was still precariously a "Roman Lake" during the rule of Theodosius the Great. However, slowly but inexorably the Mediterranean world assumed a tripartite division with the Byzantine Empire looking to the northeast, an aggressive Islamic Caliphate controlling most of the near east and the southern rim into Spain, and a West dominated by emerging secular states and a Roman ecclesiastical authority. Herrin provides a coherent narrative history of all the significant events, trends, and movements of the period leading to this result. Among the many subtopics covered is a remarkable chapter on Visigothic Spain that is extremely illuminating.

A reasonable working knowledge of the eras under consideration in both the East and West is a prerequisite for getting the most out of this work. If you are a serious student of this area of history, I suggest you read this book every ten years or so. Each time I read it, I learn more based on the advanced state of knowledge I bring to the task. And, oh yes, reading this book is a task. This is a no nonsense academic tome covering vast areas of time and space both literally and intellectually. There is no filler here, and the author's prose are dense and dry as burnt toast but exceedingly clear and understandable. While no bibliography is supplied, the text is extensively footnoted. Furthermore, unless you are trilingual in French, German and English a bibliography might be of limited use. I estimate that nearly one half of the footnotes are from French language sources and maybe another twenty percent in German with the rest in English or the classical languages. If you are non francophone as I am, and you have wondered if the French actually write history, this book will answer that question for you in the affirmative. I can not imagine anyone coming away from reading this book without a radically deepened knowledge of the material considered.
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on January 7, 2004
'The Formation of Christendom' by Judith Herrin is an excellent resource for those interested in the crucial, much-maligned period when the Roman Empire fell apart, Byzantium and Islam arose, and the Roman Church gained institutional and intellectual primacy in western Europe. It should be essential reading for those allegedly educated many who think the Renaissance somehow erupted full blown in the 15th century without the important previous groundwork outlined here. True, it's not easy reading, but then again, this is not a beach novel. Particularly fascinating to me is the clear presentation of the relationships between political power and what now seem like obscure, even laughable, theological controversies. They were more serious and far-reaching than I would have imagined. Terrific book!
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VINE VOICEon August 2, 2005
You have to admire Ms. Herrin's careful and resourceful scholarship about an era that is shrouded in mystery. Herrin focuses on the transistion from "late antiquity" to the early middle ages, aka from about 550 AD to 850 AD. She is specifically concerned with answering the question of "what makes western europe different?" Her answer is that western is europe is unique in its division of power between temporal and spiritual authority (i.e. church and state). Does her answer sound familiar?

Herrin delves into the gradual seperation of Rome from Constantinople both in terms of theology and military force. On the former subject, you had better be prepared for a ton of information on the debate over iconclasm v. iconophilism. The later topic is a bit easier to grasp: Byzantium was pressed by Islam, which led to an abandonment of military responsibility in the area surrounding Rome, which led to the Popes soliciting assistance from the Franks, which led to the Holy Roman Empire, more or less.

It's an interesting subject, and this is a well written book, but at a nearly five hundred pages, it takes a great deal of rigor to penetrate.
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on February 5, 2001
This is an excellent book that filled the gaps in my knowlege concerning the history of eastern christendom. Judith Herrin explains how the issues of Monotheletism, Iconoclasm, and the ideological struggle between the Papacy and Constantinople affected relations between both eastern and western "Europe". Her book is a close analysis of this struggle, spanning all of the early Middle Ages until 843. If your knowledge of the issue of iconoclasm is vague, then Judith Herrin's book is the one to buy. Her narrative is engaging, coherent, and thoughtful. It is a good synthesis of the developments of the Oecumenical Councils too. Her explication of the Franco-papal alliance and its influence on eastern christendom is what I found most illuminationg. The Afterword has a nice personal touch as well.
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on December 29, 2008
This was a recommended text for a Medieval Church History course I took, and I can see why: It's scholarship is brilliant and unerring - the fact that the book only really covers 200 years of events (about 600-800 give or take) is incredible - you feel like you have covered a millennium by the end, but that's because this is not an ordinary history book. Herrin is relentless in her focus on the details, the motives, the background, the wider context of all that takes place. The way she approaches iconoclasm from the points of view of the soldiers fighting in the themes, the villagers worshipping at home shrines - it's just breathtaking (and, yes, exhausting) to consider the depth to which she penetrates her subject matter.

Needless to say, this is no mere overview of events. The book is long, and yet she lists all the events covered in a mere 2 pages at the end. She never looks at events in isolation, but rather traces themes, currents and trends. We are made to consider how Justinian's Council (the Fourth Ecumenical) destroyed what unity the church possessed, even as he destroyed Italy in his campaigns. We can then compare this to the way that the iconophile council under Empress Irene was rejected by a 'middle path' council under Pepin.

The richness and complexity of this period of history is highlighted by focusing neither on Rome, nor the western powers, nor the Middle East - but by the great city that was truly the centre of the world at this time: Constantinople. Seeing the rise of the papacy, and the concomitant 'crowning' of Charles, from this perspective is a watershed.

And there can be no doubt: The great highlight of this book is the way it traces the origins, motivations and rise of iconoclasm from the Byzantine perspective, rather than ahistorically beginning with the Roman counter-reaction to it. This, coupled with a focus on how Franks rejected, with alarm, the return to iconophile practice, simply nails it: This is as good as historical analysis gets. It's demanding, you bet, but maybe that's because we're a little too used to things being presented in a neat and tidy, linear fashion where things move inevitably to their outcome. This is just not how things work; Herrin leaves us in no doubt of that.

I must mention a delicious statement that is made in the intro, and followed up on brilliantly throughout the work: Herrin states that she seeks to trace faith not as an abstract cultural norm, but as a "material force" that shapes historical currents. She treats faith as it ought to be treated: A force as powerful, if not more powerful, than all the armies and wealth that a society possesses. By recognising this, we understand medieval history, as well as the world we live in today.

In the end, I wanted more - give me a sequel covering the next few hundred years up to the end of the fifth crusade. In a world of shallow historical understanding, quick sound bites and news headline aggregations, we need Herrin's depth of scholarship and investigation. We need it desperately.
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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).
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on February 17, 2009
Very interesting reading. The author provides a lot of references but somehow is able to keep the narrative uncluttered. If you want to get more details, you can refer to the notes/references. If not you can just read the text.

I was surprised with the author's impartiality/objectivity. In the beginning of the book she states that one doesn't need to be Christian to document the history of Christendom. I was a little skeptical about this argument because I have read other authors and they usually focus on the importance of having a Christian worldview to be able to comprehend/document the history of the church. After reading this book I realized that the author is right. She was able to share her knowledge and her passion is clearly focused on the historical facts, not doctrinal discussions. At points during the narrative I was almost waiting for her to take sides, but she never did.

The only reason why I gave 4 stars and not 5 is because I felt the end of the book was a little abrupt - almost as if she had ran out of time and had to close the book. Her narrative stops just before the turn of the first century. She covers the history of the church from the late antiquity to just before medieval times. I could have kept reading until modern times. I checked if she had another book covering the story of the church during medieval times but could not find it.

Anyway, very good reading. It will help you understand some of the challenges of the early church and the christian empire, and the role key popes, emperors and patriarchs played on the foundation of christendom.
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on March 1, 2011
This is a scholarly work about a fairly obscure subject. It isn't about the spread of religion. Instead, the book deals with the transition of the various political entities of Europe from secular states into Christian ones. It describes the increase of the power of the Church as it fills the vacuum left by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Activities such as looking after the poor, maintaining public buildings and organizing and regulating commence became the domain of religious leaders. By undertaking these actions they gained the popular support of the people. They soon established the right of the Church to advise and even make demands upon secular leaders

This is not a casual beach book, but for those interested in European history it provides an interesting look at the transition from Roman authority to feudal suzerainty.
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on December 12, 2009
I am fascinated by the transformation of the Western Roman Empire into Medieval Europe and the early Christian church. That's why I expected to immensely enjoy this ambitious book. I did not. Ms. Herrin has an impressive, even intimidating grasp of a vast amount of information. Unfortunately, her presentation is dull and leaden. I could only read a few pages at a time before my eyes started involuntarily closing. I have read many authors who were able to present even relatively specialized history in a vivid exciting manner. Unfortunately, Ms. Herrin, although clearly a great scholar, is not one of them. If you read history for pleasure as I do (as opposed to using it as a resource for your own book or article) you will be disappointed and to a certain extent exasperated by this book.
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