The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity by Richard Fletcher

I found this book to be both interesting and informative, but to say I was absorbed throughout would be a lie.  There were times when my mind said “blah, blah, blah.”  The last chapter, for example.

Conversion_FletcherThere is a lot of information imparted in 500 some pages, and I’m not at all sure I would have followed along as well as I did if I hadn’t already had some basic knowledge of post-Roman/medieval European history.

It never ceases to amaze me that however carefully and prudently a historian researches their topic, they always seem to make minor mistakes that have absolutely nothing to do with it.  I suppose that they are so focused on the details of their presentation or argument that they don’t bother to check the minutiae on its periphery.  Three such minor mistakes caught my attention in this book:

  1. Near the beginning of the book, Fletcher talks about the breakdown of order the Roman Empire experiences in the third century.  In this discussion, he mentions that the political and economic upheaval’s of the time were exacerbated by occasional outbreaks of bubonic plague.  But, the plague does not make an appearance in Europe until the mid-sixth century, during the reign of Justinian.  Hence the name by which it is known to history:  the Plague of Justinian or the Justinianic Plague.  It ravaged Europe from 541 until well into the eighth century with several outbreaks.  The epidemics of the second and third centuries [the Antonine Plague (165-180) and the Plague of Cyprian (251-270)] were caused by either smallpox and/or measles.
  2. When talking about the Wends, he says (the bolds are mine):

    Gottschalk accordingly attached himself to the great Canute, at that time (c. 1029) King of Denmark, England, and Norway … he remained in the service of Canute and his two sons, which takes us to 1042, when the last of them died (436).

    Canute had three sons:  two by his first consort (I’m unclear on whether or not he actually married her), Ælgifu of Northampton, and one by his second, Emma of Normandy.  They were Svein, Harald Harefoot, and Hordaknut.  Hordaknut is the one who died in 1042.

  3. In the next paragraph, he goes on to say that Gottschalk married a daughter of Sweyn Estrithsson, a grandson of Canute.  Huh?  But, I thought that …  So I pulled out my copy of Gwyn Jones’s A History of the Vikings (I also used this to check on Canute’s progeny).  In fact, this Sweyn, or Svein, was Canute’s nephew.  Estrith/Estrid was Canute’s sister.  Sweyn’s father was a Jarl Ulf.

You see?  Just little, tiny mistakes.  You would think correcting such errors is what an editor is for.

I wish more time had been spent on the paganism of pre-Christian Europe.  Reliable sources for this are sparse, I know, but still ….  However, one way this could have been accomplished would have been to include the battles that early Christianity had to wage against the cult of Isis and Horus.  Or that of Magna Mater.  Or even that of the legionary cult of Mithras to which the majority of Rome’s soldier’s belonged.

I’d also like to read more about the conversion of Europe’s pagan deities and sacred places.  Many of the early saints originated as pagan gods.  St. Brigit in Ireland, for example.  And the site of the famous cathedral at Chartres was once one of the holiest places in pre-Christian Gaul.

For the most part, I enjoyed this book.  I was fascinated by the pagan counter-religions of the Wends and the Lithuanians.  Other parts of the book weren’t nearly as interesting, though.

Rating:  3.75 out of 5 stars.



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