In the first century A.D., Christians were renowned for their sacrificial love, generosity, and their willingness to be martyred while singing the praises of God. In the second millenium A.D., Christians were renowned for their ferocity, including a series of bloodthirsty crusades. For centuries after the Crusades, armies continued to be raised, battles continued to be fought, and people continued to be killed in the name of a faith that a thousand years before had been known for being willing, glad martyrs.
How did Christianity change so much?
That is the topic of a brilliant podcast by Dan Carlin called Thor’s Angels. Four and a half hours long, this podcast is really more of a short audio book, but in it amateur historian Carlin takes us through this transition from martyr to crusader. Carlin actually starts in 400 A.D. and he ends around 800, but he shows very clearly how this was when that transition happened and, more importantly, why it happened.
It started with the world ending.
When the Western Roman Empire began contracting, western European society contracted with it. Technology, security, and stability all declined significantly. Carlin describes the decline in technology in vivid detail, and it’s scary to think about things like aquaducts not working and not knowing how to fix them. Additionally, in the last few centuries of the Western Empire, it became increasingly less Roman. The Germanic tribes and Romans mingled more and more. The Germans became more Roman, while the Romans became more German. The two societies became more and more fused, and, among other things the Germans took from the Romans, they took Roman Christianity.
But they didn’t conform to it, they just adopted it’s beliefs.
Fundamentally, these Germans stayed the same, and they weren’t the Germans of today. They were really more like Vikings- they looked like a biker gang, and they were extremely warlike. That didn’t stop when they adopted Christianity in the years after the fall of Rome. They just kept on being warlike, starting bar fights and wars with equal vigor. But because power vacuum was so enormous, no one minded. They were the best hope for a return to the ‘good old days’ of Rome, when there was a stable central authority and life was good. It was like the “wild west,” and these biker gangs were the best hope for a stable society. It worked. Charlemagne was crowned “Emperor of the Romans” in 800 A.D. and started Western Europe on the road out of the Dark Ages, creating the foundation of modern Europe.
But the price of that restoration was that Western Christianity became a weird blend of monk and biker gang. Bishops would ride off to war, but they would carry only blunt weapons (such as a hammer or mace). Love and charity were to be praised, but the enemies of the faith were to be crushed. This was the price Europe, and Christianity, paid for stability after the Roman Empire fell. It’s a price Christians have continued to pay ever since.
Give the podcast a listen. Carlin goes into a lot more detail than I ever could, and it’s not only interesting and insightful, it helps you understand why this choice was made. At the time, it made sense. Today, it doesn’t look so good, but that’s the way it is with history. We’re all just doing the best we can, Christians in the Dark Ages were no different, and it always falls to later generations to clean up the mess. That’s just how it is. What this podcast also made me wonder is what messes am I leaving for future generations, but that’s a topic for another day. For today, just give this podcast a listen, and see if you end up feeling, as I did, that this transition made a lot of sense at the time, and they were just doing the best they could.