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The Christian World of the Middle Ages

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Christian World of the Middle Ages

Christian World of the Middle Ages

Christianity has a long and complex history, but really understanding the religion requires having a decent understanding of that history. How, then, is someone to develop such an understanding, especially if they don’t want to make an academic career out of it? There are certainly many resources on Christian history, but not all are created equal.

Summary

Title: The Christian World of the Middle Ages
Author: Bernard Hamilton
Publisher: Sutton Publishing
ISBN: 0750924055

Pro:
•  Does not focus exclusively on any one region; rather, all are explained equally
•  Great, engaging reference well-suited for lay readers and academic audiences

Con:
•  None

Description:
•  History of Christianity in Europe, Asia, and Africa
•  Presents Christian history chronologically for each region
•  Includes several maps

 

Book Review

One particular problem with most books on Christian history is their almost total emphasis on European Christianity and the experiences of European Christians. This is somewhat understandable because of the way in which Europe has dominated Christian history; nevertheless, there is no good reason to act as though Christianity never existed anywhere else.

Thus there is a gap in the books available on Christian history — a gap filled quite nicely by the recently published The Christian World of the Middle Ages by Bernard Hamilton. Professor Emeritus of Crusading History at the University of Nottingham, Hamilton’s book deals with the period from 300 CE through 1500 CE — more than half the life of Christianity.

Unlike other works, he deals with European, Asian, and African Christian history on equal levels — none are privileged as being more important or central than any others. Everything begins with the experiences of Constantine the Great. Hamilton picked this as his point of departure because Constantine’s actions created an important break between the pagan past and Christian future of the Roman Empire.

Under Constantine, the Christian church became highly organized and highly political. Religious disagreements were no longer simply about doctrine, but also about politics. Religious dissent became political dissent because anything that threatened to fracture the church would also fracture the empire, and Constantine needed Christianity in order to help preserve the Empire’s unity.

By the end of the Middle Ages, however, that unity had all but ceased to exist. Many still dreamed of a pan-European empire that was united by Christian faith, but this dream was thwarted on a number of levels.

Christian World of the Middle Ages

Christian World of the Middle Ages

First, there was the development of nationalist identities and ideologies, with individual countries breaking away from one another to pursue their own path. Then there was the development of the Renaissance and secular thinking: people were beginning to break away from the assumption that Christianity was necessary for good government and good living. Finally, there was the Protestant Reformation — Christians killing Christians on massive scales over questions of Christian dogma effectively eliminated Christian unity for the foreseeable future.

In between, however, there was remarkable unity in the face of all sorts of changes and political developments. Each region of the world touched by Christianity experienced that religion differently, depending upon local political and cultural conditions. At the same time, though, there were many similarities and many important connections.

This is the story that Hamilton tells, and he tells it amazingly well. The text is highly readable and doesn’t require academic training. If you want to learn more about Christian history and don’t quite know where to start, you should really consider Hamilton’s book.

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