Monday, January 30, 2017

The Rise of Western Christendom

Brown, Peter.  The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd Edition.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

In an extensive revision to his 1996 work, Peter Brown attempts a synthesis of the growth of Christianity in the Mediterranean world, and the radical changes it underwent over the course of almost a century.  Rather than limit his work to a discussion of Western Europe, Brown examines the spread of Christianity from the British Isles to China.  The breadth of the coverage is surprising, as are the reasons and motives Brown attributes as explanations for changes in theology.

The strength of Brown’s work is the presentation of Christianity as an organic, changing, and, sometimes, extremely local religion that served the distinct needs and mindsets of local inhabitants.  He does this by moving the focus of the discussion away from the province of the papal hierarchy in Rome to the dispersed localities of individual practitioners.  These local practices are labeled micro-Christendoms, and included Ireland’s unique practices, the development of a unique Armenian monophysite doctrine, and the theology of the Axumite Church.  In addition to these examples of Christian diversity, Brown pays special attention to the devolution of Christian religious practice from a formal Church supervised doctrine to a kind of folk Christianity brought on by the withdrawal of clergy and “Romanized” elites from beyond the Danube at the retraction of the Roman Empire.

Although Popes play a diminished role on Brown’s estimation, he still argues that the heroes of Christian theology such as Augustine, Bede, Benedict, and Columbanus provided important theological grounds for Christianity’ growth and evolution in late antiquity and early medieval Europe.  The self-conscious diversity thus presented provides a refreshing break from the idea of Christianity dominated by individual great thinkers and a rigid papal bureaucracy.  The depiction of a highly individualized and variegated Christianity also provides a useful counter to the idea of a monolithic Church that ruthlessly stamped out heresy and competing ideologies until the advent of the Reformation.

However, there are some troubling issues to contend with in Brown’s narrative.  Early on, he argues that “barbarian” influences on the Roman Empire were not of a destructive nature because peoples on both sides of the frontier shared common culture with barbarians striving to become Romanized, and Romans adopting some cultural and behavioral aspects of nomadic peoples.  Roman military weakness is blamed on civil wars, with little attention given to Arther Ferrill’s counter-argument that the settling of barbarian peoples in enclaves within the boundaries of the Empire under their own laws and rules led to a lessening of discipline in the Roman legions, and a resulting gradual decline in their martial effectiveness.  Similarly, when discussing the spread of Christianity among Scandinavian peoples, Brown ignores the resistance of Scandinavian noble women to the new religion. In contrast, James Reston, Jr., argued that they believed that they would lose their rights as rulers and independent political figures as soon as they adopted Christianity or it became dominant in their locales.

While Brown makes a persuasive argument that deserves additional attention, his inability or refusal to deal with these important issues weakened its affect.  Rather than ignoring or brushing these counter-arguments aside, they should be addressed head-on to more clearly illustrate why they do not matter to his thesis, or how other evidence contradicts them.  Barbarian peoples did Romanize, and Romans became more like their neighbors, but Brown ignores the potential effects on security and stability presented by contact between Romans and Germans.  His refusal to address this issue calls his thesis that the change in the European economy was a retraction rather than a fall of Empire into question, and with it, much of his understanding of the spread of Christianity in Europe.

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