History of Christianity in the Middle Ages: From the Fall of Rome to the Fall of Constantinople

Written by William Ragsdale Cannon Reviewed By James J. Stamoolis

Theologians are often ‘period’ people who focus on certain epochs of theology which consciously or subconsciously become the norm for theological reflection. Evangelicals frequently focus on the early church then skip 1400 years of history to arrive at the fathers of the Reformation. Yet the ‘grandfathers’ of the Reformation are ignored.

There are several compelling reasons for studying the Mediaeval period. The first is that it is difficult to understand the Reformation without it. Part of the present retreat from Reformation principles derives from ignorance of the need for the reforms of the sixteenth century. Another reason is that the history of the Middle Ages offers valuable lessons about power, both civil and religious, in the social order. One example would be the control and influence exercised by international business companies (see p. 280) which rival the multi-national corporations of today. A third reason is that many doctrinal definitions were fixed in this period. The list of reasons could go on.

While there are valuable monographs of certain figures or institutions, Cannon’s book fills a real gap in an over-all survey of the Middle Ages. Particularly useful is the treatment given to Eastern Christianity, a subject often neglected in general Church histories. The histories which do treat Eastern Christianity do so only as it touches the Western Church. (E.g., R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages(Penguin Books).) The scope and detail of Cannon’s work makes it a good quick reference on a particular man or movement. It is extremely well written so that it reads easily. While it makes an excellent textbook, the student who reads it independently would profit as well. Indeed, the book could be read as one reads a novel, so vividly portrayed are the figures of history.

The lists of emperors, popes and patriarchs are a most welcome appendix. Again, the recognition of the importance of Eastern Christianity by supplying complete lists of the Byzantine emperors and the patriarchs of Constantinople corrects a long-standing imbalance. There are two shortcomings that should be mentioned. The first is the absence of any maps. The work would be immeasurably enhanced by the provision of even simple maps to indicate where the events so well described took place. Unless the reader has an intimate acquaintance with European and Middle Eastern geography, the book should be read with an historical atlas at hand. The second shortcoming results from the present volume being a reprint of the original edition published in 1960. The bibliography, which is not only arranged in chapters but in the subdivisions within the chapters, has not been updated for this reprint edition. The works listed are the standard reference works but some readers who lack access to older established libraries might find it difficult to locate the material mentioned. This is particularly regrettable when newer editions of the works listed are available and should have been cited.

Ignorance of church history makes for bad theology. The lessons of the Middle Ages speak directly to many modern situations. This book deserves wide circulation among those preparing contextual theology in today’s world.

James J. Stamoolis