Their First Two Thousand Years
The Christian History Project, 2010
270 pages, $45.50
To order: (888) 234-4478
The eighth volume of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, begins with the uplifting story of the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri. But from that point on, it’s rough going.
“Of all twelve volumes in our series,” writes octogenarian Ted Byfield, the driving force behind The Christians, “this one will be, or ought to be, the most discouraging to any practicing Christian. So much goes wrong in the two centuries it covers.”
First, there was the Black Plague, which struck in seven waves between 1347 and 1405, wiped out at least one-third of the population of Europe, and led many devout Christians to wonder: How could a loving and merciful God let this happen? Then there was the Great Western Schism, in which rival popes, one in Rome, the other in Avignon, ruled Christendom, which led to the sorry spectacle of rival bishops in each diocese and rival priests in each parish competing for the loyalties of the faithful.
While Catholic clergy contended with one another, two of Europe’s greatest Catholic nations, England and France, engaged in a bloody and savage conflict known as the Hundred Years’ War, in which the British nearly destroyed the French. Early on in this horrific conflict, 15,000 English troops routed a French army of 35,000 and then marched through the countryside burning every hamlet, church and hovel in their path and slaughtering every man, woman and child they encountered.
Here is how one such episode is described in Vol. 8 of The Christians: “The archdeacon of Eu in Normandy wrote to Pope Benedict XII, telling him of the destruction by fire of 174 parishes. The pontiff sent six thousand gold florins for the relief of the refugees — though it scarcely helped. At the height of the carnage, the English judge Geoffrey Scrope took a French cardinal to the top of a tower, where he indicated 15 miles of burning towns, villages and countryside. Gloating, Scrope asked the cardinal: ‘Sir, does it not seem to you that the silken thread encompassing France is broken?’ At this, the cardinal is said to have fallen prostrate on the roof in utter despair.”
There is plenty more in this eminently readable history — the fall of Constantinople to the armies of Islam, from the Spanish Inquisition to the discovery of America and the disastrous papacy of Rodrigo Borgia, Alexander VI, which nearly destroyed Christendom. There are chapters devoted to all these epochal developments and shorter sidebars on a series of fascinating individuals — Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci and Nicolo Machiavelli, to name a few.
As with earlier installments of The Christians, this volume is lavishly illustrated, and the stories are told in a lively and engaging style. Each chapter is the work of a different writer and most of them are veteran journalists with a flair for writing popular history. There tend to be more Catholic than Protestant contributors, though this is more a matter of chance than design. In any event, all are working under the close supervision of Byfield, a much lauded conservative journalist who determines the content and perspective. Byfield, whose Christianity was formed by a youthful reading of C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, became Orthodox about 14 years ago with his wife and collaborator, Virginia.
At some points in the narrative, too much history is crammed into too few pages, and uninitiated readers may find themselves a little lost and confused. Many of the events and political struggles of the Middle Ages were simply too arcane and complex to be compressed effectively into a few paragraphs.
But this shortcoming does not detract from the overall value of the current volume or the series itself. These books provide the churchgoing person in the pew with a rich, colorful and captivating account of the faith — and why it has endured through two tumultuous millennia.
D’Arcy Jenish writes
from Ajax, Ontario.