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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 367-370

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Book Review

The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity

The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. By RICHARD FLETCHER. New York: Holt, 1998. Pp. xiii + 562. $35.00 (cloth).

The author's objective was to write a book for the general public rather than for his specialized colleagues in medieval studies. In keeping with this goal, the author's thesis is very clearly stated in the first sentence of his Preface--"This book is an investigation of the process by which large parts of Europe accepted the Christian faith between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries and some of the cultural consequences that flowed therefrom." In short, this volume is a descriptive survey of a very broad and complex topic. Since the last attempt at such an undertaking was by the Reverend C. H. Robinson (The Conversion of Europe) in 1917, it is time for a new study and the synthesis of this topic.

Richard Fletcher wisely points out that religious conversion is not only limited to an abstract change in dogma and doctrine, but it also entails significant cultural consequences that flow from such major shifts in belief. In the case of most of Western, Northern, and Central Europe, this meant a rejection of Celtic, German, Slavic, and other peoples' paganism and culture, and a general acceptance of most elements of Mediterranean culture as embodied in the late Roman Empire--of Greco-Roman books and literature, of food and dress, of urban life and commerce, of Roman law and property rights, of the written Latin language, and so on. The conversion of barbarian [End Page 367] Europe to Christianity represented the acceptance of most aspects of the advanced civilizations of the Mediterranean Basin as well.

In most cases, this conversion did not represent a sudden and abrupt shift in belief and daily life styles, but rather more of a slow and gradual transformation spread over generations and centuries. Early Western Christianity found it necessary to be flexible and adaptable to successfully attract converts. Pope Gregory I (590-604) pushed this type of syncretism--this type of fusion of different beliefs and practices that grew out of compromise, adaptation, dilution, and transference. Pagan idols and shrines were replaced by Christian statues and relics, sometimes in a Christian church on the site of a former pagan holy place. Rituals for the sick and dying were also Christianized, as were funeral practices and marriages. While Latin was the official language of the Western Christian Church and the educated clergy, the gospel was preached in the vernacular languages to the people. In this way, over the medieval centuries, Europe slowly and gradually became truly Christian by internal and individual conviction rather than the earlier surface Christians who participated in external church rituals but were basically ignorant of Christian doctrine and dogma.

In his survey of the spread of Western Christianity or Roman Catholicism into Western, Northern, and Central Europe, Fletcher jumps around in his geographical and chronological coverage. However, his primary focus is on the British Isles and those parts of Europe that were once part of the Carolingian Empire, as most of his frequent quotations come from sources written in these areas. Fletcher correctly states that the conversion of Europe to Western Christianity was not inevitable (Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, and Judaism were other viable alternatives and/or rival belief systems). Rather, he stresses how and why the Europeans, especially the Celts, Germans, and Slavs, accepted Roman Catholicism. The "how" was sometimes implemented through predatory warfare in which a conquered society was forced into accepting Christianity--most students remember Charlemagne giving the defeated Saxons the choice of baptism or the sword. However, the goal of most Christian missionaries was to convert the leader and his powerful nobles; once this was achieved, the rest of society would become Christians via the "trickle down" theory.

Fletcher characterizes the medieval church in Germanic Europe as an "adelskirche"--as a church of the nobility. The early church was funded and supported by rich gifts from the king...