No one’s going to blame you for assuming Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom is the sort of book that, once upon a time, perched forbiddingly atop your university syllabi, a growling gargoyle of a text, authoritative, impenetrable, unread, a volume whose mere existence stood in terrible judgment of the Thomas Cahills and Dan Browns of the world.

And it does—stand in judgment, that is. Cahill, with his bestselling baloney about how the Irish saved civilization, would do well to tremble before this 625-page achievement in historical synthesis, a wrapping-up of those oft-misunderstood years 200-1000, which has been significantly updated and released in a second edition.

Luckily, the average reader need not tremble. Rare among historians, Peter Brown is the most amiable of literary companions. He has an exquisite sensitivity to his readers, whom he treats neither as a gap-toothed audience for his cleverness nor as learned colleagues. Instead, he assumes that we’re as intelligent and excited as he is, just a whole lot less well read.

In the introduction to the 2000 edition of his now-standard 1967 biography of St. Augustine, Brown even imagines himself as one of his readers. He writes that rather than rework and revise—as he has done so conscientiously in The Rise of Western Christendom, which first appeared only just in 1996—he would attach an extended epilogue. In part, this would be the older, wiser scholar’s response to his younger self. But Brown also identifies a much less self-aggrandizing opportunity. “I wished, as it were, to come upon that young man—a young man half my age—as if meeting him unexpectedly, on turning a corner,” he writes. “He would, I think, be thrilled to meet me, and to learn of how much more has been discovered.”

Perhaps all the tenured faculty out there poring over Augustine’s lost letters and newly discovered sermons share in Brown’s continuing delight for the early church, but who else can capture it with a novelist’s precision? In the end, this is the man you want throwing the switch on the Dark Ages.

Although, as Brown hastens to point out, they were hardly so dark. True, he writes, the Christianity of this period “stands somewhat awkwardly between the acclaimed Golden Age of the Fathers of the Church, who still wrote within the secure and rich cultural environment of the Roman Empire ... and the burst of creativity and sophistication associated with the renaissance of the twelfth century and the subsequent Gothic age.” In other words, what we have here is the cruelly ignored middle child, whose unfortunate association with barbarian hordes and pushy missionaries has led some historians to resort to epithets like “primitive.”

But like any good parent, Brown realizes that those “awkward” years are also the most formative. It was during this period, after all, that Europe and Christianity began to take on their modern guises: The hordes settled down into nation states; Latin transformed into the Romance languages. Confession and penance were invented (by the Irish, of course); and the conformist bureaucrats under Charlemagne, troubled by a number of flourishing “micro-Christendoms,” imposed a set of continent-wide policies, and then, when they were through, left the pope in charge.

Brown ranges across Scandinavia, the Middle East and Central Asia, offering along the way impromptu lessons in geography and archaeology. He delves into the great theological debates over the humanity of Christ and the worshipping of images, debates whose consequences are fundamental to our own world. And, with real appreciation, he charts the rise of two great classical languages—Old Irish and Arabic—in the service of their respective religions.

Although the action begins with the Emperor Diocletian’s bloody crackdown on Christianity, a dramatic enough event that was closely followed, in 312, by Constantine’s even more dramatic conversion, Brown does not linger unnecessarily on Big Men and Big Events. (There’s no prerequisite reading list for The Rise of Western Christendom, but a Who’s Who of the early Middle Ages wouldn’t hurt, just to keep the names straight.) Instead, he prefers to introduce us to fellows like Bardaisan, a nobleman from Edessa, in what is now Turkey. Bardaisan was an expert archer in the Persian style, given to Platonic musings on free will but who wrote not in Greek but in Syriac. He was a Christian at a time when that could mean being fed to the lions. Above all, he was a man curious about the world around him. His treatise, The Book of the Laws of Countries, was a survey of Christendom—from the north Atlantic all the way to China—as it stood less than two centuries after the crucifixion. It was, in a way, a prototype of Brown’s own book. And while Bardaisan “represented the complex strands of culture which drew on both the East and West,” he did so not as a man of action, but as a writer.

This instantly endears him to Brown, who goes out of his way to emphasize the importance of books and literary culture in an age when, according to Bardaisan, “no one sees sculptors or painters or perfumers or money changers or poets.” Brown acknowledges this last remark to be the fiction of a man whose interests depended on barbarian knuckles reaching all the way to the ground. By way of response, we meet Cassiodorus, a retired PR flak for the Ostrogoths, who, in the sixth century, devoted his monastery in southern Italy to the reproduction of Latin texts. We meet the martyred British missionary St. Boniface, a man of “four-square solidity,” who, in the eighth century, knocked some theological sense into the Germans. For Boniface, sense was to be found only within his extensive and very conservative library, which accompanied him wherever he traveled. When, in 754, his party was set upon by pirates, it was one of those books that he likely raised in an attempt to deflect the falling sword.

In fact, writes Brown, the era of Boniface, especially, was “characterized by a plethora of little books.” Some were books of penance, recounting every conceivable sin at an almost mischievous level of detail. Some were ritual books, others collections of sayings. “These books are all well worn,” Brown tells us. “They had been frequently used. When we see them in modern library collections, they are, in their own way, as moving as the compact, slashed volume associated with the death of Boniface. For we are looking at the humble tools which passed the message of Christianity ...”

Brown is careful not to present figures such as Cassiodorus and Boniface as anomalies. Cassiodorus was hardly running a “salvage operation” amid the wreckage of barbarian invasions, as many historians would have it. After all, he had spent his entire and very learned career in their employ. Rather, he was participating in and, to his mind, updating a rich tradition of Church writings, a tradition that finds its due in Brown’s story. But more to the point than even the content of those books was their form.

“Let me ask the reader to consider for a moment this book which he or she is now reading,” writes Brown in his introduction.

There was nothing like it in the Roman world. Only around A.D. 300 (in chapter 2) did the bound codex, which is the format of this book, replace the unwieldy scroll. Only around 600 (that is, by chapter 10) did the writing in this book become legible as it is here: for the individual words came to be written separately instead of being run together. This change, which is associated with Ireland, marked “the great divide in the history of reading.” By the time of the Carolingian Renaissance, around A.D. 800, (in chapter 19) these texts came to be punctuated and divided up into paragraphs, and were written in a uniform script as they are in this book. Last but not least, the system of “A.D.” dates, which we now take for granted in any European historical narrative, began to appear only around the year A.D. 700 (in chapter 18). Altogether, slowly over the centuries, the format and even the meaning of the book itself had changed. The Roman world still speaks to us. But we must remember that it speaks to us now only through books whose shape came into being through the silent labor of generations of “technicians of the word”—lawyers, bureaucrats, and monks—in the centuries of Dark Age Christian Europe.

The Rise of Western Christendom can be intimidating in its sweep—just when you’ve begun to find sense in that strange and ascetic strain of Irish Christianity, you’re quickly flown east to witness the shocking and sudden rise of the Arab Muslims, only to be lurched back into the confusing tribal politics of the Saxons—but Brown redeems these difficulties with wonderful moments of prose, both poignant and apropos. No historian can equal his ability to patiently draw the reader into the everyday implications of a long-forgotten world.

So complete was the transformation of Europe and Christianity during the Dark Ages that we take it for granted. We chalk it up as inevitable and, in so doing, effectively kill the lights on 800 years of fascinating history. Where once we were lucky to have lawyers, bureaucrats and monks, we are now most fortunate to have Peter Brown, who comes to us flashlight in hand.

The Rise of Western Christendom, Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 by Peter Brown (Blackwell, 625 pages)
January Magazine, February 2004