For 1,000 years, European society was “suffused with an actively and consciously Christian view of the way the world works” – although what that Christian view entailed was a matter of vigorous debate for theologians, monarchs and common people. G. R. Evans has attempted to contain this capacious, confusing and captivating history in a book slim enough to slip into a handbag or read on the beach. That I could imagine it being comfortably read on a commute to work or even on holiday is testimony to a book that is both scholarly and accessible, with an engaging narrative voice that whisks the reader through a millennium of Christian thought, politics and culture like the best kind of tour guide: one who gives their audience enough information to be stimulated, but not so much that they start dragging their heels and dreaming of lunch.
Taking us from the dawn of Christianity in the Roman Empire, through the schism between East and West, to the eve of the Reformation, Evans’ slim volume cannot of course offer in-depth insights into any one topic. Despite that, she manages to produce a fresh take on what can be a tired story of the rise and spread of Christianity. In particular, her chapter on the multifaith world of Europe reminds us that “Christendom” was a cultural fiction in a society where Jewish, Christian and Muslim people co-existed with varying degrees of harmony and antipathy.
Perhaps her most successful chapter is the one the casual reader may at first glance find the least interesting: the one on universities and councils. Evans wears lightly her considerable expertise in this area, moving the reader confidently through the origins of scholastic debate, ecumenical dialogue and interfaith engagement. Here, she demonstrates that the maintenance of a “Christian Europe” was a continual process of dialogue, debate and sometimes outright war. The philosophy of the university and council had real-world consequences in the political sphere, for example, justifying the enslavement and forced baptism of Muslim captives: an endeavour with economic and spiritual benefits for Christians.
For the most part, any misgivings I have about what has been left out of this lean volume are swept away by admiration for the clear confidence with which Evans constructs a comprehensible, if not necessarily comprehensive, vision of the medieval Christian world. The book is, however, surprisingly lacking in discussion of the cultural history of medieval Christianity; while there are plenty of engaging anecdotes about individual Christians, there is little sense of what made Christianity so attractive to so many people, or how they practised it in any real day-to-day sense. This may explain the troubling lack of attention given to women; while a couple of pages are devoted to exceptional female writers, there is no sense of the ways in which women were central to the spread and maintenance of the Christian faith.
Despite these caveats, Evans’ work is an excellent choice both for the undergraduate reader new to religious history and to the interested non-specialist who wants to know the origins of so much that still culturally defines life in the West.
Rachel Moss is a lecturer in late medieval history at the University of Oxford.
A Short History of Medieval Christianity
By G. R. Evans
I. B. Tauris, 256pp, £64.00 and £10.99 (paperback)
ISBN 9781784532826 and 2833 (paperback)
Published 29 May 2017