Earthly powers

Pie in the sky - or lavish parties now? Diarmaid MacCulloch asks why Europeans chose Christianity; The Conversion of Europe: from paganism to Christianity 371-1386 by Richard Fletcher, HarperCollins, pounds 25

Should you expect a reward for converting to Christianity? The question embarrasses many modern Christians, but the answer from past missionaries and converts was an emphatic yes. However, should the reward be left solely to the next world - harps and thrones, etc? Or should the goods start being delivered in this life?

The Bible's many books offer a variety of options. Scripture written in good times suggests that good times begin the reward: corn and wine and oil increase, and they are a down-payment on being faithful to God. Scripture written in bad times argues that bad times make good Christians: in fact they are a necessary entrance pass. "We are God's heirs and Christ's fellow-heirs, if we share his sufferings now in order to share his splendour hereafter," Paul told Christians in Rome. Unpleasant phenomena like being thrown to lions by Nero were included in the deal.

By contrast, during the 1,000 years covered by Richard Fletcher's masterly book, most of those lining up for baptism expected immediate benefits. The trend started with the Roman Emperor Constantine I, who believed that he won the most important battle of his life by direct decisions of the God of the Christians. He does not seem to have had any further instruction in Christian doctrine. He poured out money and favours on the Church. This was a fateful turning-point in its history.

When Fletcher's story opens, Constantine's successors were turning the alliance between Church and State into permanent establishment. Christianity and the Roman Empire were now inseparable. The Church called itself Catholic, which means worldwide, but its world was that of the Roman state - urban, suave, tidy-minded - founded long before Jesus Christ lived in backwoods rural Palestine.

This had a curious effect when the western, Latin half of the Roman Empire fell to pieces in the fifth century. The Latin-speaking Church became a curator of Romanness. That was a paradox, since Jesus had been crucified by a Roman governor, but the alliance stuck. Bishops still dress up on sacred occasions in copes and mitres, a version of late Roman aristocrats' best clothes. Monks who began by opting out of Roman society, as Paul had urged, took to copying classical manuscripts. Without these monks, very little would survive of Greek and Roman literature; it would have crumbled to dust.

By Fletcher's closing date of 1386, Christianity conquered all Europe. In that year even the highly sophisticated pagans of Lithuania, making the best of a bad job, allied with one Christian power to avoid annihilation by another. Why the success? In the previous 1,000 years, a mirage of the Roman Empire haunted the peoples who had helped to demolish it: Goths, Franks, Saxons. They wanted to be Roman, and the Bishop of Rome was happy to oblige. When he sent a mission to the English in 597, he turned Kent into a little Italy, with churches and cathedrals dedicated in the same way as the leading churches in Rome. An Anglo-Saxon king even retired to Italy, thus inventing Chiantishire.

In 800, Christian Europe carried its love affair with dead Rome to the extreme of inventing a new monarch who called himself the Holy Roman Emperor. Like Constantine, many such rulers saw Christianity as a religion which won battles. They were also prepared to send in the troops to save souls. Not all missionaries were happy about this, but they remembered how Augustine of Hippo had wrestled with the ethics of forcible conversion. He pointed out that Jesus had told a parable in which the host of a wedding party filled the room by getting his servants to force people to come along. "Compel them to come in" became a missionary slogan: "benignant asperity", which means clobbering people with the best of intentions. The Crusaders took this to its logical conclusion by gathering armies to fight (and massacre) non-Christians. It was a long way from turning the other cheek.

So there were carrots and sticks in converting medieval Europe. Few seem to have understood conversion as Billy Graham might today. Most people were ordered to become Christians, usually by their lord or lady. But it was not all mindless coercion. The Church could be sensitive to the pride of the people, and one of Fletcher's major themes is the way it married new to old.

In many places, it allowed people to go on expressing their grief by filling the graves of the dead with prized possessions. Even the great Christian holy man Cuthbert of Lindisfarne was given his grave goods to take with him. The Church encouraged royal families to trace their genealogy further beyond the fierce pagan God Woden, all the way back to Biblical Adam. Bishops outshone non-Christian religious leaders with their splendid hospitality. Wilfrid of York threw a three-day party for high society after dedicating what is now Ripon Cathedral. No doubt the occasion was a satisfying mixture of solid Anglo-Saxon cheer and delicate Roman canapes, if anyone was capable of remembering afterwards.

Fletcher writes deliberately for the non- specialist. He avoids false piety, and effectively conveys the sheer strangeness of the Christian faith in past contexts. Even if God exists, She or He needs constantly to be reinvented, and this is a lively panorama of some of the reinventions fuelling a millennium of Christendom.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape