The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity

by Richard A. Fletcher

Paperback, 1999



Call number




University of California Press (1999), Paperback


In a work of splendid scholarship that reflects both a firm mastery of difficult sources and a keen intuition, one of Britain's foremost medievalists tells the story of the Christianization of Europe. It is a very large story, for conversion encompassed much more than religious belief. With it came enormous cultural change: Latin literacy and books, Roman notions of law and property, and the concept of town life, as well as new tastes in food, drink, and dress. Whether from faith or by force, from self-interest or by revelation, conversion had an immense impact that is with us even today. It is Richard Fletcher's achievement in this superb work that he makes that impact both felt and understood.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Fourpawz2
The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity covers about a thousand years of Christian History – a period running from about the third century to the middle of the thirteenth century. By ‘barbarian’ Fletcher, of course, uses the term in the way the Christian religious of this time
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used it – anyone not a Christian was a barbarian.

The book follows, primarily and in minute detail, the progression of the conversion of the barbarians of Europe and the men who spent their lives in pursuit of task of capturing the world for Christ. There is some effort made by these missionaries of Christianity to take on the conversion of the Jews and the Muslims, but they had barely any success. The success which they did have was accomplish mainly at the point of a sword, on the rack or by using the kind of logic that worked with these people – mainly the Northmen, Goths, Celts, Slavs, Huns and their descendants. If their gods were better than Christ why did they live in such cold and/or inhospitable places and why did the Christian peoples seem to have all the material things worth having, things the barbarians fiercely coveted if the Christian god was not the correct and true god? In most cases, this was stunning logic to these people. Barbarians apparently were also highly susceptible to the missionizing of their women – their Christian wives or the female Christian slaves they took to their beds. Many a powerful king, warrior or chieftain was persuaded to give up the gods of his ancestors for the new religion. The marriages were arranged with an eye to conversion and the subsequent political and monetary benefits to the Church. For myself, a non-Christian, I could not but dislike the tactics and the compulsion of the men who made conversion their mission in life. However, I do understand that it all took place a very long time ago, in a world that was certainly a very, very different one from mine.

I was intrigued to learn that there were some cases of Christians converting to Judaism and Islam, but these conversions not being – obviously – the object of this book, Fletcher only mentions them fleetingly.

To me, a non-academic, it seems as though Fletcher covered his subject thoroughly and accurately, but I could, of course be quite wrong. It is really for those better versed in the subject to draw conclusions concerning his success. (And of course, if I’d not taken so very long to finish the book, my review might be a little more coherent and better written.)
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LibraryThing member MelindaLibrary
This author annoyed me with his obvious biases and slant on scant historical information. There is little to no writing about paganism in this book, but the author does not let that stop him from implying in the title that we might actually get some understanding about paganism. Nope. As it does
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not advance the author's Christian bias, it gets no coverage. For example, on page 55, he relates a story about a young man who "had a violent fit of trembling and then fell down in a coma." His people *interpreted* this as "the work of the Devil" according to the *Christian* who is relating this story. Yet his people called in a shaman or witch or healer (read: pagan. The author is intentionally vague about what the person is called) who performed the duties of a modern day *doctor*. The "doctor" could not do much for the boy (Just as modern day doctors cannot sometimes heal someone in a coma, but does the author point that out? No.) and then the young man's family take him to a shrine of a Christian and he is "miraculously" cured. Absolutely no mention is made as to why pagan people would call this epileptic seizure the work of the "Devil", as they don't use that language and further, if they were Christians, why would they go to a shaman/witch in the first place? Additionally, no mention is made of the fact that we know that people come out of comas on their own, and that perhaps, just perhaps, this young man came out of his coma after being jostled everywhere and then people attributed it to a shrine. If his family had stopped by a nearby old tree and the young man had awakened, would the tree then bring about miraculous cures? I think not. This book is filled with example after example of things like that, with no effort on the author's part to be logical or realistic or interpret events in a more feasible and likely manner.

Further, when the author writes about people whom we would call *schizophrenic* today (People who hear voices and then do what they say are locked up *for a reason*) he states, "No one can doubt the authenticity of the experience" (p.85). Um, yeah, we can. And I do. People did not perform miracles. People did not stand on ledges for 37 *years*. People did not dry up a lake by striking it with a stick. People who hear voices need psychiatric help, not encouragement of their mental disease.

Lastly, the author seems to have no comprehension of irony. When a woman is described as "converting" her pagan husband to Christianity, then she is lauded - she is *wonderful*, a paragon of virtue, her name will be written down and remembered. When a nameless pagan woman "converts" her husband to paganism, she "seduces him... and perverts him from the sincerity of his faith." The author makes no comment on how the two women, doing the *same exact thing*, are written about in wholly different manners. Argh! This book is chock full of examples like that, where if it advances the author's Christian worldview, then it is good, if it does not, it is to be degraded.

I do not recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member kristenweg
One of the reviewers below sounds like they've never read any historical scholarship before, at least scholarship on the middle ages and medieval religion. (Believe it or not, a historian generally doesn't go around frantically offering modern medical solutions to miracle stories. You're supposed
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to take the point - and there's generally not enough evidence to say anything other than what comes through in the source.)

Similarly, as Fletcher points out repeatedly, there isn't much to say about what paganism was because hardly any evidence remains. There are other books that try and piece things together and speculate about Germanic paganism, but that isn't this book.

Read the Amazon reviews - this is a great book that is highly readable and reliable. It has scholarly value, except that there aren't really notes or bibliographical information to match the huge amount of material he covers. It is meant to keep it approachable, but even general readers could benefit from more citations.
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LibraryThing member Polymath35
I give very few 5 star ratings to any books that I read. However, I found this to be a rare exception in that the author has done an excellent job in synthesizing a large amount of primary research that others have done into a very readable narrative. This book is a joy to read and brings to light
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a little known part of the spread of Christian religion that few realize. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member KirkLowery
The unique method of this historian is that he narrates events using the worldview of the participants that includes the supernatural! His goal is to understand, and the historian must enter the world of the sources in order to understand motives, etc. In some respects it is a treatise on
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missiology, because they were facing many of the same issues that the modern missionary faces.
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LibraryThing member Ma_Washigeri
Heavyweight read, but oh so brilliant. The subtitle is 'From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386AD' and it really does that - gives you a picture of 1000 years with a framework to interpret it.
LibraryThing member Hae-Yu
This is a fantastic history covering a critical episode shaping Europe and, through that, the world. Although the scholarly writing could have been pedantic, the author writes in an easy style and his love of history clearly shows.

One of the key aspects I enjoyed also demonstrated the sheer depth
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of Mr. Fletcher's knowledge of the subject. He often cites conflicting accounts and views and the problems and benefits with each. Additionally, he isn't afraid to show how much he doesn't know and how much of what is written is based on assumption, perspective, or inference.

Rather than approach the topic as Christian vs pagan or a conflict theory perspective, Fletcher approaches the topic from the unique conditions, motivations, and traditions inherent in the mission fields. He discusses the commonalities as well as specifics to each time, place, and people. Why were missionaries unsuccessful at one time period, but successful in others?

I appreciated his discussions of the evolution of the church. This is easily illustrated in the use of vernacular vs "sacred" languages controversies. The early manuscripts in Hebrew, Koine Greek, and Aramaic were the common languages of their day. Translating them to Latin was a big deal, not because Latin was holy, but because it was the common language. Cyril and Methodius translated the Greek rites and rituals into the local vernacular (Old Slavonic) so that the Christian message could reach more people. This caused controversy at the time because some felt the language of rites should be Latin, Greek or Hebrew - none of which were the vernacular of the mission fields. Part of the Russian Orthodox schism stemmed from the departure of Old Slavonic hundreds of years later (in addition to 2 vs 3 fingered crosses or 2 or 3 allelujahs). Fast forward to the 20th century controversies of the Second Vatican with its allowance of vernacular rites and liturgy or the fringe Protestant insistence that the King James Bible is the only true Bible. These vernacular vs sacred controversies have been ongoing for 1700 years, more or less, and are generally indicative of those with evangelistic Great Commission vs those tied to man's traditions.

Although I understood how monasteries worked at the edges of society to reclaim marginal lands for productive use, how the Orders worked as banking institutions and furthered the Western model of popular education, but I didn't understand their critical role in evangelizing Europe. There is still a considerable amount of uncharitable veneer from Reformers and Protestants toward shaping the conception of monks and monasteries, nuns and abbeys, as dried husks chanting ancient monotones, hoarding their spiritual gifts rather than following the Great Commission. In their time, monasteries were the vehicles of knowledge, missionary activity, and pastoral care.

Although scholarly, The COnversion of Europe is easily approachable and fills in many gaps that other histories of Europe leave out. This is essential reading to understanding European history as well as the evolution of the church.
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LibraryThing member dhmontgomery
Everyone knows Christianity started as a small sect in the Roman Empire and ended up as the religion of all Europe. This book fills in the gaps (or at least gaps for non-Europeans) about how exactly the religion got from point A to point B. It's a look at the spread of Christianity from a
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predominantly urban religion to the Roman peasantry to the barbarian tribes who replaced Roman rule in Europe, then to the periphery where the legions had never marched. I'm glad to have this hole in my history filled in, though the book was rather dense, full of names and places quickly forgotten. Still, I was particularly impressed with how the author handled the miracle stories and hagiographies so dominant in contemporary accounts of early Christianity — neither overly skeptical nor credulous, Fletcher recounts the stories of saints performing miracles with more of a concern for what the people of the time believed than how modern readers would view them.
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LibraryThing member Ma_Washigeri
Heavyweight read, but oh so brilliant. The subtitle is 'From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386AD' and it really does that - gives you a picture of 1000 years with a framework to interpret it.


Original publication date


Physical description

575 p.; 9.9 inches


0520218590 / 9780520218598
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